Updated on February 12, 2012
Opening a page to adventure.
Sometimes the seeds of life’s greatest adventures start with a single book.
“When I was a young lad in Centerville, Iowa, in junior high, I accidentally checked out a book from the library, “Banner in the Sky” by James Ramsey Ullman. That was my first introduction, so to speak, to what was out there.”–Dick Pownall, 1963 Everest Expedition.
The book is about a 16-year-old Swiss boy who wants to climb a mountain called the Citadel. His mother and the rest of the family are against it because the boy’s father died in a climbing accident, but that doesn’t stop the boy.
For Dick Pownall, the seed planted by that book grew when he heard about a job in Grand Teton National Park. It was only a trail crew position, basically maintenance. World War Two meant there was a shortage of young men to do the jobs, so the park lowered the work age limit and Pownall and two friends jumped at the chance.
“Every week they would dump us at the top of a different valley and we had to hike the trails and clear out windfall and obviously, one thing led to another. We started looking up, watching the mountains.”
He learned the ropes of climbing from a man named Paul Kenworthy. He ended up spending 15 seasons guiding at the park. That’s where he met Willi Unsoeld, who would summit Everest via the West Ridge with Tom Hornbein. He also became friends with Barry Corbett, Dave Dingman and Jake Breitenbach–all would end up on the 1963 expedition.
He was on a rope with Jake Breitenbach at the Khumbu Icefall on Everest when a cascade of seracs, (large blocks of ice about the size of two railroad cars), swept the area where they were climbing. Dick was pinned by a huge block estimated at about a half ton. Jake is believed to have died instantly, buried by ice in a crevasse. A sherpa named Ang Pema was also injured. Pownall was badly shaken up and bruised, but otherwise not hurt.
“Of course, we’ve lost some climbers since Everest. We spend time thinking about them and wishing they were with us at this time.”
Pownall held what I maintain was the most important job of the entire expedition. He was in charge of the food. They had 54,000 pounds of cargo. It took 900 porters to carry supplies to base camp. It wasn’t all food, of course. There was scientific equipment and climbing gear, but a LOT of it was food he’d selected and shipped to Nepal.
“I got picked, I think by default. I volunteered, I said I’ll do that not knowing what was involved.”
It was an absolutely critical job. Altitude affects appetite. He had to figure out what would keep the climbers going even when the last thing they wanted was food. He also helped haul it to the high altitude camps, broke trail and endured the cold ritual of waiting on the weather.
Pownall was not among those who made it to the top of Everest. Delays because of storms depleted their bottled oxygen supply. There wasn’t enough left for everyone who could summit to attempt it. He says he regrets that, but came to accept it after they counted the cannisters needed and came up short.
“It was a good feeling, I mean at that point, for me anyway, I was just able to relax. It was the end of the worries; the end of the high altitude. Let’s get out of here. Let’s go home.”
Home for Pownall, who spent 35 years as a teacher and principal in Denver, is now Vail, Colorado. The day I met him in a house he built, there were stacks of mountain climbing books on the hearth. Now 84 years old, he told me he recently donated some to the Vail library because they had no section on mountain climbing. I feel confident he did not give away “Americans on Everest” by James Ramsey Ullman. That’s right, the same author who planted the seed when Pownall was a boy, wrote the official account of the 1963 expedition.
Small world, unless you try to climb it.