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David Roberts, mountaineer and dean of adventure writing, dies at 78

Known as the dean of adventure reporting, Mr. Roberts was the author or cowriter of 32 books, including four that he finished after his diagnosis with stage IV throat cancer.Matt Hale

Atop the summit of Alaska’s Mount Huntington, after co-leading a 1965 four-man ascent on a course steeper than the standard approaches of Denali or Everest, “we were too tired to exult,” David Roberts recalled in “The Mountain of My Fear,” his first book.

“All the world we could see lay motionless in the muted splendor of sunrise,” he wrote of the vista that greeted them upon completing 32 days of climbing, capped by 16 straight hours of near vertical assault. “Nothing stirred, only we lived; even the wind had forgotten us.”

Such passages helped inspire the modern-day era of adventure writing, of which Mr. Roberts was considered the dean.


One of America’s premier mountaineers, he was 78 when he died Friday in Brigham and Women’s Hospital of emphysema brought on by treatment for the stage IV throat cancer he had been diagnosed with in 2015.

A photo of Mr. Roberts taken about three years agoMatt Hale

The author or cowriter of 32 books, including four that he finished after his diagnosis, Mr. Roberts ranged as widely with his subjects as he did in his expeditions.

He had lived by his pen for some four decades, and along with chronicling his own daring adventures and the legendary expeditions of others, Mr. Roberts wrote books about the Indigenous peoples of the Southwest and a biography of writer Jean Stafford.

And he mentored a generation of adventure authors such as Jon Krakauer, his former Hampshire student, who was pounding nails for a living when Mr. Roberts told him to set down the hammer and pick up the pen.

Mr. Roberts wrote “beautifully, in a distinctive, flawless voice that leaves the rest of us who write about the sport feeling an uncomfortable mix of admiration and bald envy,” Krakauer, a mountaineer and best-selling author of “Into Thin Air,” said in a foreword for two of Mr. Roberts’s books that were re-released in one volume.


Living most recently in Watertown after many years in Cambridge, Mr. Roberts drew from decades of adventures in which death was only a missed handhold away — a lesson he learned more than once.

A few weeks before arriving in Cambridge as a Harvard College freshman, Mr. Roberts was climbing near his childhood home in Boulder, Colo., with a high school friend, Gabe Lee, when he heard the wrenching sound of clothes and skin against rock. He turned to see Lee slide, tumble, and bounce 350 feet to his death.

In March 1965, Mr. Roberts was teaching ice climbing to a Harvard Mountaineering Club group in Huntington Ravine, on Mount Washington, when he was called off the lesson to assist two fallen climbers. He spent a futile hour giving mouth-to-mouth to the one who still had a faint pulse. Mr. Roberts knew both — Dan Doody and Craig Merrihue, accomplished climbers. The night before, at Harvard’s high cabin on the mountain, the three had swapped tales.

And on Alaska’s Mount Huntington, 20 hours after that muted celebration at the summit, Mr. Roberts and Ed Bernd descended a steep pitch together.

“Ed and I stood on a ledge in the penumbral midnight and he got on rappel,” Mr. Roberts told Alpinist magazine in 2007. “Suddenly the anchor failed — to this day I do not know why. Without a word, Ed flew backward into space. He fell 4,500 feet.”


Mr. Roberts climbing in Alaska's Revelation Mountains in 1967.Matt Hale

Mr. Roberts later told Wisconsin Public Radio that those experiences probably left him with post-traumatic stress disorder, though the term was not then in use.

Matt Hale, who was among the four on the Mount Huntington expedition, called Mr. Roberts “a real mentor. He was always full of enthusiasm.”

Climbing Huntington’s face, a few hours before the summit, Hale slipped and tumbled onto Mr. Roberts, breaking the snow ledge he was on.

“Under the strain, our one bad anchor piton popped out. We fell, roped together and helpless, some 70 feet down a steep slope of ice above a 4,500-foot drop,” Mr. Roberts wrote in “Moments of Doubt,” a 1980 Outside magazine essay. “Then a miracle intervened; the rope snagged on a nubbin of rock, the size of one’s knuckle, and held us both.”

Born in Denver on May 29, 1943, David Stuart Roberts spent his early years in Climax, Colo., then the nation’s highest settlement, at 11,360 feet, and today a ghost town.

His family moved to Boulder for his father’s work. Massachusetts-born Walter Orr Roberts, an astronomer and atmospheric physicist, was in charge of the Harvard College Observatory in Boulder.

David’s mother, Janet Smock Roberts, was long involved in Boulder civic affairs and served on the city council.

Mr. Roberts graduated from Boulder High School. At Harvard, from which he received a bachelor’s degree in 1965, he studied mathematics and considered becoming a composer of music.


He graduated from the University of Denver in 1970 with a doctorate in English, focusing on creative writing.

Mr. Roberts in a tent during the Mount Huntington expedition in Alaska, in 1965.Matt Hale

In the 1970s, Mr. Roberts taught at Hampshire College, where the student newspaper reported in 1978 that he had resigned when the president said he faced “dismissal for cause” proceedings. This week, a Hampshire College spokeswoman said that “David Roberts was confronted with student allegations of sexual misconduct prior to resigning.”

As a young man, Mr. Roberts established himself with a string of prodigious feats. He was a 20-year-old Harvard sophomore when he and a small group of classmates dodged cascading boulders and avalanches to scale 14,000-foot Wickersham Wall, one of the largest sheer mountain faces in the world, on their way to the summit of Denali, North America’s tallest peak. No one had tried the perilous route before, no one has duplicated it since.

A few days before they reemerged in a nearby Alaskan town, in their makeshift VW van, they had been declared “missing and feared dead” by Chet Huntley on national news.

In books and essays, Mr. Roberts often explored how the single-minded nature of climbers could descend into abject selfishness.

“In mountaineering, the narcissism all too often goes hand in hand with a disturbing coldness, an absence of compassion,” he wrote in 2006′s “On the Ridge Between Life and Death: A Climbing Life Reexamined.”

Along with his work for Outside magazine, Mr. Roberts wrote essays for National Geographic, National Geographic Adventure, and The Atlantic Monthly.


“He wrote beautiful, flawless prose,” said his editor, Starling Lawrence, who is editor at large at W.W. Norton & Co. “I didn’t have anything to do with these books. He didn’t need my help.”

The last of the books he finished is “Into the Great Emptiness: Peril and Survival on the Greenland Ice Cap,” which Lawrence said is tentatively scheduled for publication in late summer 2022.

Krakauer once told Outside magazine that his friend and mentor “likes to call the shots and run the show. To spend a day in his company is both intellectually stimulating and utterly exhausting. To share a tent with him for three weeks on an expedition can permanently fry your brain and leave you gibbering for mercy.”

While at the University of Denver, Mr. Roberts met Sharon Morris, who was in a master’s writing program. They married in 1967, and she later retired after working as a clinical social worker at McLean Hospital and as a psychoanalyst.

“For me, meeting David was the most fortunate event of my life,” she wrote in an e-mail, adding that “he presented a whole new world of adventure, literature, and classical music.”

A memorial gathering will be announced for Mr. Roberts, who in addition to his wife leaves his brother Jon of Boulder, Colo., the last surviving of his three siblings.

In 2015, Mr. Roberts and Hale returned to Alaska to commemorate the 50-year anniversary of the Huntington ascent. While there, Mr. Roberts noticed a lump on his neck, and upon returning home learned he had stage IV throat cancer.

As Mr. Roberts was treated for cancer, he took to another writing venue, a CaringBridge website, chronicling his challenges with sharp reporting and occasional whimsy.

A “gauntlet” of pills and infusions was part of “the daylong effort to catch my breath” — an unusual experience at sea level for an adventurer who had inhaled the clean, thin air of mountain peaks.

“What a strange, venerable phrase: ‘to catch my breath,’” he wrote in his final entry, four days before he died. ‘Why should breath be a hard thing to catch, like a 40-yard pass to the end zone? Why shouldn’t it sit in our lungs and mouth like a privileged guest? Most important of all — how the hell do you catch it, once it’s gotten loose?’ ”

During his illness, “his expansive brilliance and curiosity persevered. Our life together in those years was sublime in a way that is hard to describe,” Sharon wrote, adding that “we allowed our relationship to deepen while accepting our mortality and the ultimate end of our being together.”

As Mr. Roberts contemplated death, his thoughts didn’t stray to past expeditions.

“I have only hope and wish,” he wrote in the final words of “Limits of the Known,” his 2018 book.

“What I wish for, then, in that last conscious moment before the darkness closes in forever, is not the shining memory of some summit underfoot that I was the first to reach, not the gleam of yet another undiscovered land on the horizon, but the touch of Sharon’s fingers as she clasps my hand in hers, unwilling to let go.”

Michael Bailey can be reached at Bryan Marquard can be reached at