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Talented Alpinist Joe Puryear Dies at Age 37

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.

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.

Joe reconsiders he and Mark Westman’s decision to forgo a gear-packing donkey in order to save money on a trip to Aconcagua in February 1997. [Photo] Mark Westman

In the last five years, Joe turned his attention to the giant and unexplored peaks of China, Tibet and Nepal. He made seven expeditions to Asia in this time, most of them with either David Gottlieb or Chad Kellogg, two of our longtime friends. In total Joe tallied seven major first ascents in these expeditions, most notably the first ascents of three 6700-meter Nepalese peaks. Of those seven, he climbed Kang Nachugo, Takargo and Jobo Rinjang with Gottlieb. In China, he and Kellogg completed three significant first ascents, including Mt. Daugou, and “Lara Shan,” named when Chad’s wife Lara, a close friend, died in a climbing accident in Alaska in 2007. Joe and Kellogg also completed a major first ascent on Alaska’s Kichatna Spire. Interspersed with these adventures were his phenomenally motivated and productive trips to the Utah and Arizona deserts, where he made dozens of ascents of classic–and not so classic–desert towers. Usually he was in the company of Michelle–who climbed more than 30 towers with him–and his frequent partners-in-crime, Stoney Richards and Jim Yoder. Wherever Joe went–Peru, the Canadian Rockies, the Alps or at home in the Cascades–Joe was determined to climb absolutely everything. I’ve known few people who could accomplish so much in so little time.

I’ve had to recognize that you can’t climb it all, but Joe’s example has always given me hope. When I first met Joe, he had a large sheet of paper taped to the wall of his basement apartment. It was titled “The List,” and it had names like K2, Nanga Parbat, Everest and many more on it, all marquee objectives. All his objectives were far beyond our abilities at the time. A year later, he still hadn’t done any of them. So he added some climbs he had already done in the Cascades to it and then crossed them out, just for the illusion of progress. Joe eventually tore up The List, disgustedly declaring it pretentious. Many years later, his climbing resume represented a most unpretentious list–a list of action motivated by love, purpose and certainty.

I envied Joe’s trips of more recent years as much for the time I was missing with him as for the climbs he was doing. I regretted that we had drifted apart as climbing partners. But it all began to come back around. A year ago, Michelle decided she wanted to move to Seattle to work towards her CPA. Joe, Michelle, Lisa and I found ourselves sharing a two-bedroom apartment for the winter. It was a humorous coincidence. Long before we had met Lisa and Michelle, Joe and I had joked that this would happen–we would someday be married and yet sharing a place. The four of us flourished in Seattle together, and it further strengthened our friendships.

Joe Puryear and wife Michelle on the summit of Triumph in the North Cascades in June 2010. [Photo] Joseph Puryear

Last July, when I returned from climbing in Alaska, Joe and I spent a weekend at Washington Pass–one of our favorite old alpine crags from the formative days. We hadn’t been on a rope together in four years. At the base of The Hitchhiker on South Early Winter Spire, we laughed at ourselves. Unintentionally, we had worn matching outfits: white t-shirts, tan pants and bright orange wind jackets. We were twins. Some things never change. As Joe reached into his chalk bag to start the first pitch, he paused and turned to me, extending his hand. “It’s great to be out climbing with you again, old buddy.” What followed was two days of climbing that felt like the old days, except that we were much more competent. The years had matured us both, and we reveled in the passage of the last 15 year. We were married homeowners, still climbing almost full time and most of all, committed friends. We laughed and joked our way up the spires, and we both realized how much we missed our old alpine friendship. By the end of the weekend we were laying the groundwork for a future Himalayan climbing trip.

I last saw Joe in late August as Lisa and I prepared to drive south from Seattle to climb in the Sierra. It was an exciting time, as we were embarking on an extended climbing and traveling adventure, while Joe and David were departing in 10 days for Tibet. That sunny morning in the apartment, Lisa and I purposefully lingered over coffee with Joe, despite wanting to hit the road. We were having a great conversation, and I was enjoying Joe’s energy as we talked excitedly about potential adventures to come.

On October 27, I awoke to my cell phone ringing. It was 4:58 a.m., and it was Michelle. I stared at the screen, intuitively afraid to answer the call. I knew.

It will be said of Joe, as it has been said of so many others before him, that he “died doing what he loved.” While I understand what motivates this sentiment, I have come to detest the statement. Joe died falling from a mountain, and he did not love falling. Joe loved Michelle and their life together, and he had many more adventures still to do. He relished the thought of someday being an old, spent-up alpinist, surrounded by his close friends and reflecting on an illustrious life in the mountains. Joe understood and accepted the risks, but in no way did he want to die “doing what he loved.” The tragic and unintended outcome, however, doesn’t change the fact that Joe was very much living in his element. So the words of comfort I prefer–lacking any others–are that Joe lived doing what he loved. I am proud of Joe for steadfastly following his heart, for his doing so is what blossomed his character. It is what made him an inspiration to so many, and it is what made him so deeply loved by those of us who are, as David Gottlieb declared, “honored to have shared in his meteoric life.”

Read more about Joe’s accomplishments in our NewsWire archives:

Takargo: Rolwaling’s Hidden Gem

Long Sichuan Route Established in Tribute to Fowler and Boskoff

First Ascent in the Chang Ping Qionglai

Kichatna Spire

Joe Puryear celebrates on the summit of Mt. Hunter in April 1999. He and Mark Westman climbed in the Alaska Range together for nine consecutive seasons. [Photo] Mark Westman