Talented Alpinist Joe Puryear Dies at Age 37

Posted on: April 27, 2011


Joe Puryear at high camp on Jobo Rinjang in 2009. Puryear fell through a cornice and died while climbing an unclimbed peak in Tibet with David Gottlieb on October 27, 2010. [Photo] David Gottlieb

On October 27, 2010, Joe Puryear was attempting an unclimbed peak named Labuche Kang in Tibet with his close friend and regular climbing partner, David Gottlieb. While unroped and climbing along a ridgecrest low on the route, Joe broke through a deceptive cornice and fell 700 feet to the glacier below. In that instant, we lost a great friend and companion, a husband, a brother, a son and a truly brilliant mind. Joe was one of the authentic talents of the American climbing community, an inspiration to friends and strangers alike, and he lived an extraordinary life of pure devotion to all that he loved. He was only 37 years old.

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Joe grew up in Washington's Yakima Valley. His parents, Gail and Shirley, are a remarkable and fun-loving couple who opened the Bonair Winery in 1985, when Joe was 12 years old. Through the years at the winery, Joe became an expert carpenter, an all around farm hand, and a vintner in training. He maintained an enduringly close relationship with his parents and with his sister, Tash, her husband Ben Summit, and his niece and nephews.

Throughout his life, Joe had a devious and eccentric sense of humor and loved puzzles, games and most of all, pushing people's buttons, but it was always good natured. Unsurprisingly, he earned a math degree from the University of Washington, though he knew he would never work in that field. Joe had a natural talent for anything he set his mind to. This talent—combined with a supportive upbringing—gave Joe unlimited potential to be anything he wanted. When his parents took him up Mt. Adams as a teenager, Joe had found what he truly loved. He was a problem solver by heart and endlessly curious—traits that would drive him in a natural course towards mountain climbing as a full-time pursuit.

Joe and I met in 1994 when we were just starting into the world of alpinism, and we formed a fast friendship that would prove to be enduring and immovable. We were young and highly motivated, with similar goals, abilities and attitudes. Above all we were like brothers, and we became nearly inseparable, spending the next decade climbing together almost exclusively—and with productive results. We worked together for four seasons at Mt. Rainier as climbing rangers, spending all of our days off climbing the classic routes in the North Cascades. We climbed in Patagonia, learned to climb big walls in Yosemite and climbed Aconcagua to gain altitude experience. But our signature climbing venue was always the Alaska Range, where we climbed together for nine consecutive seasons. We spent a month alone making a rare ascent of Denali's full south buttress—an experience that cemented our partnership. We made progressively harder ascents in Alaska that culminated in an ascent of Denali's Cassin Ridge in 2000, and a year later, the Infinite Spur on Mt. Foraker, which would prove to be our finest achievements together. Six years earlier, we had sat, wide-eyed, at a Jim Nelson's slide show of the Infinite Spur's second ascent. It was so far from our ability at the time, and in retrospect, it made sense that this route would become the zenith of our partnership. In the ensuing years, as our climbing goals diversified, they also began to diverge. Regrettably, we climbed together less often, but we remained everlasting friends.

Joe Puryear and Mark Westman on the summit of Denali after climbing the Cassin Ridge in June 2000. The duo had been in the mountains for 49 days, and summited Foraker, Huntington and Dickey, and attempted Hunter. This was the biggest climb they had ever completed at the time. [Photo] Mark Westman

During the 2001 Alaska season, Joe met Michelle O'Neil at Kahiltna base camp. Michelle was working for the NPS, and was also best friends with my girlfriend/future wife, Lisa. In Michelle, Joe had met the love of his life, and three years later they married in a beautiful, casual ceremony on the Pika Glacier in Alaska's Little Switzerland. Although they maintained a small cabin in Talkeetna, they settled in Leavenworth, Wash., where their home became a social hub for climbers and friends. A weekend at the Puryear house involved some combination of climbing, floating the river in tubes, bouldering on mid-river outcrops and jumping from atop them into the water, organic dinners from Michelle's garden and of course, lots of Bonair wine. Often the evening was capped with a drytooling and bouldering session—to strobe lights and heavy metal—in the "Hellbox," Joe's basement man-cave.

In 2005, Joe combined his beautiful photography and vast knowledge of Alaska into Alaska Climbing, a selected climbs guidebook to the Central Alaska Range that has become the standard literature for visiting climbers. True to his personality, Joe also taught himself how to proficiently use Photoshop, InDesign and other graphic design tools. His natural skill earned him a job with Sherpa Gear as their chief photographer and catalog editor. Joe single-handedly produced numerous beautiful catalogs for Sherpa that display these creative talents. Recently, Joe launched a new website to sell his images to the public, and he also shared his many adventures with the public through a series of exciting blogs.

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Comments
Henrey

I have never climbed anything. But have always wanted to.

Before reading this beautiful tribute to Joe Puryear, I had never heard of him.

But i nearly cried reading it.

Rarely do people come along and shine so bright words can not describe how truly amazing they are.

I did not know Joe but I will remember his tale

2012-09-18 04:06:46
JulieClimbs2

I didn't know Joe, though it appears we may have shared the Kahiltna glacier for a time in 2001. Mark, you've written an absolutely beautiful tribute to your friend. You brought him to life for those of us who never knew him, and I have to believe you brought him briefly back to life for those who did. Would that we all had such eloquent and loving friends who could eulogize us so movingly when the time comes. I'm sorry for your loss. And I thank you for overcoming your grief long enough to give us this story.

2011-05-03 09:27:16
AlpineEssence

Awesome Mark. The longer we do this, the more friends and acquanitances pass away. This piece is a good reminder of both the impermanence of human existence, and the importance of human relationships in our lives. You are a similar inspiration to many of us.

2011-05-03 01:50:05
Roger Strong

Thank you Mark...simply incredible and hits right at the heart

2011-05-02 15:23:11
Roger Strong

Thank you Mark...simply incredible and hits right at the heart

2011-05-02 15:18:40
Schooner

Immensely missed.

2011-05-02 00:58:51
Julie O

I just returned from Moab where I spent some time looking at some of the climbs Joe did with Michelle and others. I was down there mountain biking and as we drove out to the trail head all I could think of was Joe and Stoney "ghost riding the whip" out in the desert. It put a smile on my face.

Thanks for writing an awesome tribute to Joe!!

2011-05-01 12:08:10
chewtoy

love ya Mark,

I too, I'm saddened by our losses,

but happy for sharing their experiences.

Your words and photos remind of that million-mile-smile and makes me smile through the pain and tears.

-Thank you

2011-04-27 01:57:17
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