Vail’s Dick Pownall was a quiet king of the mountains
Celebrate Dick Pownall
A celebration Dick Pownall’s amazing life is scheduled for 11 a.m. Feb. 1, in Vail’s Donovan Pavilion.
America was losing in 1963. We weren’t used to it, and we didn’t like it.
The glow of victory in World War II was beginning to fade. The Soviets had built the Berlin Wall and were winning the Space Race. Sputnik was orbiting the earth, and it wasn’t ours. Nuclear missiles were in Cuba and President Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs invasion to oust Fidel Castro was a fiasco. Americans were building backyard bomb shelters.
But on May 15, 1963, we bounced back in a big way. As a team of Americans, including Vail’s Dick Pownall, ascended Mount Everest’s western ridge, U.S. astronaut Gordon Cooper flew over the mountain during the last Mercury space mission.
Twenty-one Americans made that Everest climb. They returned to a hero’s welcome, including a trip to the White House to be honored by President Kennedy.
It helped put America back on top, metaphorically and literally. It put some swagger back in our stride. However, Pownall was unassuming about that and everything else.
“It was a long life, so he got a lot of things into it,” said Mary Pownall, Dick’s wife of more than three decades.
Pownall was headed into his 90th year when he died a week ago, ironically the same week as astronaut John Glenn, a friend and part-time Vail resident who became the first American to orbit the earth in 1962.
Dick called his son David on David’s birthday, the week Dick died.
Dick Pownall was many good things, but all his summits were topped by this …
“He was a great dad,” said Betsy, his daughter.
Big mountains, big man
Dick Pownall was a huge celebrity in the mountaineering world. He did a good job toning it down with his kids, Betsy said. Sure he built jungle gyms in the backyard with bars to do pull-ups and chin-ups. Still, he didn’t push mountaineering on her or her brother David, Betsy said.
If you asked him, he’d tell you about some of the adventures, like the time he was in Turkey helping look for Noah’s Ark on Mount Ararat.
He’d take off with friends and go climbing.
“It was like growing up with an astronaut. As for the climbing, it’s a passion and he loved it, and he did a great job keeping that life separate,” Betsy said.
When they were kids he took Betsy and David to his lectures. That’s where they learned exactly who their dad is.
“He never looked for attention. He got it, but he never looked for it,” Betsy said.
David is a real estate appraiser who, like his dad, likes to keep a low profile. Dick would talk about his many adventures when he was prompted.
People who knew Dick treated their father like a big deal, especially in school.
“Hey, your dad’s Dick Pownall!” they’d say.
“Yes. That’s my dad,” David would reply proudly, with a clear fix on what a big deal his dad is.
There’s a film of that Everest expedition. Dick would pull it out and show it every chance he had. Sometimes David does, too.
“It’s still amazing,” David said.
David was born in 1959, too young to travel to the White House to meet President Kennedy following his dad’s 1963 American Everest adventure.
On that 1963 American Everest Expedition, Pownall and his climbing partner Jake Breitenbach were selected to the be the first Americans on the summit. While climbing through the Khumbu Ice Fall, a serac collapsed partially burying him and completely covering Breitenbach, his rope partner. Breitenbach’s body was not recovered until several years later when the glacier coughed it up, recalls friend, local legend and Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Roger Brown.
After that tragedy, Jim Whittaker had the honor.
When Pownall talked about it all, he never spoke with regret or envy, friends said.
In Vail before Vail
Dick Pownall came to Vail before there was a Vail, 1961-62, the same time as Roger Brown and a handful of other pioneers. Dick was a principal in Metro Denver back then.
They landed in Vail because Dick met Bob Parker while they were both in Austria in the 1950s, following World War II. Parker was working a civilian job and Dick was in the CIA or some equivalent, said Mary.
“Dick didn’t talk much about it, except that he was stationed in Austria the whole time and had the best time ever,” Mary said. “Dick always said when he came back to the States he was going to have a place under a ski lift. That’s what he had in Austria.”
When they returned to the U.S., Parker and Pownall both landed in Lakewood, about two doors from each other.
Parker was Vail’s original marketing magician and sold Pownall on the Vail dream, as he did so many others. Actually, it was not sales as much as Parker giving Pownall directions to get here.
Pownall found a lot on Rockledge Road, right under Vail’s Chair 1, and Pownall started building his dream house. Pownall had different dreams than lots of people and built a cabin mostly from recycled building material recovered from buildings destroyed when the South Platte River flooded in Denver.
Look closely along the cabin walls and you can still see flood water marks.
Look closer and you can see tiny marks where the kids worked knocking old mortar off the bricks.
The downstairs, “The Museum” as the family calls it, is filled with photographs that chronicle life in early Vail. Everyone is smiling.
In 1962-63, Pownall had his own mountains to climb. He had been selected as part of the first American expedition to ascend Mount Everest.
On weekdays, Pownall would work his job in Lakewood as a school counselor, track coach, math and phys ed teacher, and they’d load up the car and kids to return to Vail on the weekends.
While he was teaching, he made his students run around Denver’s Federal Center. He was training for Everest, so he ran too.
For 23 years he and Mary directed race volunteers at Vail and Beaver Creek World Cup events.
Mary still volunteers and sees people who’ve been with her and Dick for decades. It feels like a class reunion, like Old Home week, Mary said.
“As one of our lead volunteers Dick was essentially an extension of our VVF staff, and he has been of immeasurable value to Vail Valley Foundation events,” said Mike Imhof, president and CEO of the Vail Valley Foundation. “He cared deeply about our mission, worked countless hours, provided us with great insights and was an exceptional leader. We owe Dick a debt of gratitude for his contributions to this valley and our organization. We are better because of him.”
An Educator’s heart
Dick was an educator to his very marrow. Along with his education career, he was a Vail ski instructor for years and opened a climbing school in the late 1960s in East Vail, near the top of Pitkin Creek.
It was enormously successful.
It’s one thing for an accomplished climber to have a climbing school. It’s quite another for an accomplished teacher to have those same climbing students.
“We still hear from people who went to that climbing school. They go on and on about how wonderful it was,” Mary said.
Dick and Mary did not attempt Everest but led treks in Nepal to Everest to Base Camp. Jack Eck, Sheika Gramshammer and several other locals went along.
“He was a gentle soul. He loved Vail, he loved the mountains, he loved a lot of things in this country,” Mary said.
Noah’s Ark, Russian spies
Brown filmed Pownall, Dick Emerson and Pete Seibert climbing a pinnacle in the Gore Range while Pownall and Emerson were training for Everest. Later, Pownall took Bob Kendall and Brown on a climb up Crestone Peak in Southwestern Colorado.
“One thing led to another and Dick got me on board as a cameraman on an expedition to search for Noah’s Ark on Mount Ararat in Eastern Turkey,” Brown said.
Brown said the story is too long to condense into a newspaper article, except to say that the Seventh Day Adventists and the U. S. military were also involved.
“Interesting bed fellows. No, we didn’t find the Ark, but we did get photographed by the Russian version of a U2 spy plane,” Brown said.
Brown said Pownall was a true alpinist in the classic sense: polite, unassuming, but with the quiet confidence of an experienced mountain climber who has seen both the wonder and the beauty of the mountains, and unfortunately the tragedy that is often a part of the life in the high peaks.
150th Grand Teton
In 2002, Dick was 75 for his final Grand Teton climb near Jackson Hole — somewhere around his 150th climb, give or take a few — beginning in 1947. That made him one of the oldest to ever do it.
“He said that last time the mountain got bigger,” Mary said smiling.
It is lost on no one that astronaut Glenn, Pownall’s Vail friend and fellow adventurer, returned to space at age 77.
“To me, it’s just like John Glenn going back to space in his elder years,” said Dan Burgette, then the lead climbing-ranger in Grand Teton National Park.
Former Vail town manager Bob McLaurin was along for Pownall’s last Grand Teton climb.
“Why was this important to me? Because Dick Pownall was one of the greatest mountaineers on the planet in his day, and he’s my hero,” McLaurin told the Jackson Hole Guide. “The opportunity to share a rope with him on the Grand Teton was too much to pass up.”
At the summit, Pownall called Mary and Glen Exum’s widow Beth. Exum ran the Wyoming guide service where Pownall learned to climb in the 1940s and 50s.
Word spread quickly that Pownall was on the mountain, and more than 20 climbers asked to be photographed with him at the summit of Grand Teton.
Vail’s Bob Kendall was one of them. Kendall had first climbed Grand Teton in 1955, when he was 15 years old.
Iowa to Wyoming
Pownall grew up in Iowa. In 1944, the war was winding down and he was still in high school. He spent a summer at Grand Teton National Park, working on a trail crew. Older men were part of the war effort and in short supply.
In the 1940s and 1950s, Pownall pioneered many of the Teton’s most difficult climbing routes.
When he was a teenager, he worked summers as a guide for Exum Guide Service. He guided with Exum for 15 years, while in college and afterward when he started teaching.
“You can make it as hard or as easy as you want,” Pownall said at the time.
Pownall and two climbing companions pioneered The Grand Teton’s North Face in 1949. They finished the final pitch in the dark and spent the night on the summit.
“We were in extremely good shape in those days,” Pownall told the Guide. “It was difficult, but I don’t think we appreciated the degree of difficulty.”
Life magazine asked them to repeat that North Face climb in 1957 for a cover photo. However, the spread was bumped by the Soviets’ Sputnik satellite.
By the way, of that first American Everest expedition, about half were with Exum.
Here’s one you might not know: Team member Dave Dingman told the story of how, a few years later, some of those same team members put a spy camera on a Himalayan peak to spy into China.
That camera captured footage of the Chinese nuclear tests.
Vail first and best
Longtime local journalist Allen Best interviewed Pownall multiple times. Pownall loved Vail.
“It’s an unusual environment — the people, the mountains and the climate,” Pownall told Best in a 2004 interview. “Having lived some place else, you become more aware and appreciative of what we have here, what you just don’t find elsewhere. It’s the geography, it’s the cross-section of people and it’s the ability to be able to walk to the library, the hospital or the town offices. It’s the close physical proximity of all these things, as well as the backpacking, the fishing and all the other stuff. We have traveled a bunch, and we haven’t found anything remotely comparable to what we have here.”
They remodeled that Rockledge Road cabin twice. It’s still unassuming and modest. It’s Dick Pownall’s place. What else would it be?
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and firstname.lastname@example.org.