One of climbing’s great Renaissance figures, Ed Webster, 66, died of natural causes at his Maine home on November 22. He is survived by his daughter Joyelle and his wife Lisa.
Born March 21, 1956, in Boston, Edward Russell Webster was one of American climbing’s great seekers. He completed first ascents of now-classic climbs on rock and ice, from single-pitch climbs to big walls and high peaks, and published inspiring writings. His comradeship commanded devotion, and he demonstrated a broad philosophical sense of the mountains of the world.
I met Ed only three times, but each time has become a gemstone in the calendar of my days. To be honest, like most desert climbers, I got to know Ed through his routes that often reflect his courageous wild spirit and love for adventure.
“Ed was one of the most important rock climbers of his era, on par, in his unique way, with John Bachar, Henry Barber and Jimmy Dunn,” Jeff Achey, a longtime friend and climbing partner of Webster, and a former editor of Climbing magazine and the author of Climb! The History of Rock Climbing in Colorado (2002), told Alpinist. “He was not nearly as talented of a free climber as many others in his generation–he focused more on exploring new terrain than on being the first to succeed on some well-known prize. But he was certainly no slouch–climbs like the FFA of Pendulum (5.11+) and Women in Love (5.12a) on Cathedral Ledge, for example, were among the hardest of their type there at the time. [A video of Webster telling the story of the first free ascents of Women in Love can be found here.–Ed.] He was a very bold rock explorer and traveled widely. He also wrote a ton of articles back in the days when Climbing magazine was a tiny black-and-white thing, and he typically climbed with a full-sized SLR camera, no matter how hard the route!”
Indeed, Webster would lose eight fingertips to frostbite after handling his heavy metal camera with thin liner gloves on Chomolungma (Everest) to capture a sunrise during the first ascent of the risky Kangshung Face with Stephen Venables, Paul Teare and Robert Anderson, which they climbed in self-supported style above base camp and without bottled oxygen in 1988. “It’s a very expensive photo,” Webster said of the famous “Frostbite Sunrise” image at a 2020 slide show. “The good news is, it turned out really, really well.”
On the Kangshung expedition, only Venables summited. Cerebral edema forced Teare to descend from the South Col. Webster and Anderson reached the South Summit but turned around while Venables pressed on, reaching the top at 3:40 p.m. He bivouacked on the descent near 8600 meters before rejoining the group at an abandoned tent around 8400 meters the next morning. The three men were lucky to return to base camp alive: they ran out of food, lost their climbing rope and dropped two ice axes during falls on the descent. With the only remaining ice tool and no rope, Webster led the way down in a whiteout. Sir Chris Bonington described the epic as “one of the greatest survival stories in the history of Himalayan mountaineering.”
Though Webster also lost three toes on the Kangshung expedition, that didn’t stop him from climbing. He went on to author the acclaimed book, Snow in the Kingdom: My Storm Years on Everest (2000) and wrote a two-part Mountain Profile for Alpinist Issues 26 and 27 (2009).
Reinhold Messner ultimately endorsed the Kangshung climb as “the best ascent of Everest in terms and [sic] style of pure adventure,” as Webster recounted in a four-part series that he wrote for Alpinist.com in 2015, titled “Big Reinhold, Little Reinhold.”
An example of Webster’s typical self-effacing humor can be found in the first chapter of the series; he writes:
My 1970s Colorado rock-climbing partners, especially, Bryan Becker and Peter Gallagher, were the first to notice, I recall, my “family resemblance” to Messner–and to rib me ceaselessly about it…. According to my jocular climbing partners, Messner was “Big Reinhold,” and I was “Little Reinhold”–or even on some days, “Tiny Reinie.”
In the second chapter, Ed writes of a social encounter with the legend:
As our party broke up, I turned to Reinhold, and with my bravery obviously boosted by alcohol, I blurted: “All of my girlfriends have actually told me that I am much more handsome than you are.”
Like Messner, Webster focused his climbing talents on the rocks before he found his way to the supremely high, snowy peaks. Webster’s desert routes in the late 1970s and early 1980s sat between two generations: the 1960s first-wave tower baggers and the 1990s and 2000s-era “Every-Line” climbers (those who scratch out every available line on the more prominent formations in the desert).
The routes he established are classic, a tick list for aspiring desert adventurers. Webster’s name is affiliated with first ascents and first free ascents that include Primrose Dihedrals (5.11+) on Moses, the first free ascent of the North Face (5.11-) of Castleton Tower, Lightning Bolt Cracks (5.11-) on North Six-Shooter Peak, and, of course, Luxury Liner (aka Super Crack of the Desert, 5.10); the stuff of Wingate-fed dreams.
At a young age, Webster started climbing trees in his native Lexington, Massachusetts. His mother, Dorothea, noticed his affinity for the vertical realm and went to the library. She borrowed a book for her son about Mt. Everest, Lute Jerstad’s Everest Diary.
“I think she had a feeling,” Webster told the Harpswell, Maine, Press-Herald in 2018. “Maybe she was slightly clairvoyant.”
In 1974 he moved to Colorado Springs to study anthropology at Colorado College (with minors in geology and photography). From there he began exploring Colorado’s Front Range climbing areas as well as the vast red rock country to the west.
His first trip to the desert, in November 1976, was a doozy. He and partners Earl Wiggins and Bryan Becker made the first ascent of Luxury Liner. Webster’s longtime friend Stewart Green, who was filming that day, noted that the route “redefined the possibilities of sandstone crack climbing.” While they mostly relied on widely spaced Hex nuts, Green told Alpinist that they carried a few prototype “Lowe cams”–predecessors to the spring-loaded devices we know today.
“Looking at the photos I shot of the first ascent,” Green said, “Earl is carrying at least one of the Lowe cams on the first pitch. And Ed used the two that they carried on the second pitch…. It was the first time that camming devices were used at Indian Creek as far as I know. Earl did not place any on the first pitch, only Hexes.” [A short video with original footage can be found here.–Ed.]
During his time out West, Webster also started visiting the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. He explored the deep recesses of the gorge and established gems like Scenic Cruise (5.10+), Journey Home (5.10), Escape Artist (5.10-) and Checkerboard Wall (5.10+). Of the latter, guidebook author Vic Zeilman cautions climbers to “expect some vintage spice factor” (especially if the bolt added after Webster’s first ascent is no longer in place). Of course, this abbreviated list wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Webster’s famous first ascent of the Hallucinogen Wall (originally rated A5 and completed in two pushes over 17 days) in 1980 with Becker, Bruce Lella and Jimmy Newberry. In Alpinist 65 (2019), Webster wrote of an impactful moment on the climb: “As I hand-drilled a bolt on the smooth headwall, a tiny, hot fleck of metal flew into the pupil of my right eye. Although a doctor removed the metal days later, the resulting scar tissue impaired my ability to focus with that eye for the rest of my life. (Recommendation: Always wear sunglasses!)”
In an article in the 1981 American Alpine Journal titled “The Atmosphere of Discovery,” Ed wrote: “The climbing in the Canyonlands and the Black Canyon may not be convenient, accessible or safe, but that’s where all the excitement and depth of the experience come.”
Ed Webster: Tenor of the Towers
One of Webster’s desert tower lines that stands out is Brer Rabbit on Cottontail Tower in the Fisher Towers north of Moab, Utah. He had heard about the unclimbed western edge of Cottontail from his Colorado Springs friend Jimmie Dunn. In the spring of 1978, Webster climbed the first two pitches while Green belayed and took photos.
One night, Dunn recalled, while Webster was on the route, it rained particularly hard and Webster “jumped up and down and sang loudly all night to stay warm. Next morning, after rapping back down, two tourists walked up to him and asked what he was doing. He told them. Then they asked if he’d heard the wild screeching animals all night.”
Sure, he had. It was him.
The tourists drove him to Crescent Junction, and he hitchhiked home. A weekend later, Colorado Springs climber Don Doucette drove him back to the Fisher Towers and waited while Webster finished the route. Webster later suggested in Mountain magazine that Brer Rabbit was the first grade VI in Utah, which I researched and confirmed in the early 1990s.
In 1984, Ed soloed a notable new aid route on the Diamond of Longs Peak in Colorado. Nearby routes have names like Black Dagger and Black Death–Webster gave his route an upbeat, positive name: Bright Star (V 5.9 A3). It was a tribute to his beloved partner Lauren Husted who died while scrambling with him in the Black Canyon a few months earlier. Today it’s considered a classic free climb. Why? If the goal of a first ascensionist is a route that’s true to its grade–that is, maintains the same level of difficulty throughout the climb–Bright Star is one of the greatest. Since its first free ascent by Roger Briggs and Topher Donahue in 2001, the pitches are rated: 5.11+, 5.11, 5.11+, 5.11+, 5.11+, 5.10. 5.11+, and 5.11.
Mightier than the camming unit
Webster started writing early, and he was prolific, writing for numerous publications on both sides of the Atlantic. He also published climbing guidebooks to the White Mountains of New Hampshire and the Lofoten Islands of Norway, and his photography was featured in numerous magazines.
“Ed’s first article in Climbing–and I believe the first article he had published–was in the July-August 1974 issue of the magazine,” noted Michael Kennedy, longtime owner and editor of Climbing magazine. “He would have been 18! That was the third issue of Climbing for me. I don’t remember if he sent it in or if I solicited it, most probably he sent it in…. I was psyched, as was he, and his second article was in the September-October 1974 issue: ‘Wallface in the Adirondacks, climbing with Ken Nichols.'”
“He was one of the kindest and most genuine people I’ve ever known,” said Kennedy. “Super easy to be around. And fun! Lots of laughs, never took things too seriously, very open and always interested in what you were thinking. He was obviously driven but wasn’t prickly about it. I’m sure he had a competitive side, but in my experience, he was always super supportive of his partners and really wanted them to do well.”
Green wrote on Facebook, “Since Ed’s passing to the other side of the mountain, I’ve thought a lot about my longtime friend, our shared adventures on cliffs and in the backcountry, and the rich and varied conversations that we had. For me and lots of other folks, the world just isn’t going to be as good a place as it was when Ed was part of our merry-go-round.”
[Derek Franz contributed additional reporting to this article.–Ed.]