VAIL, Colo. — For those who like to paint Vail with broad brushes, Dick Pownall was a detail who didn't quite fit into the picture of a town without a soul.
Pownall, who died last week, lived among the big, fancy McMansions next to the ski slopes. He built the original house with his own hands while working as a junior high-school physical education instructor and coach in a Denver suburb. That was in 1963, the summer after Vail opened and the year of his big climb on Mount Everest.
Later, after he retired, he expanded the house with the help of his wife, Mary. Pownall had grown up in Iowa, but in 1944, when he was in high school, spent a summer at Grand Teton National Park, working on a trail crew. Older men were in short supply then for such work. The experience instilled in Pownall a love for mountains and gave him basic mountaineering skills.
In the late '40s and 1950s, returning to Jackson Hole to work for Exum Guide Service, he pioneered many of the most difficult rock-climbing routes in the Teton Range. Most famous was on the North Face of the Grand where, in 1949, he led a team assault on Pendulum Pitch. With the more rudimentary equipment, the trio completed the 5.8 pitch and summited the peak in the dark.
Later, in 1957, Pownall and companions repeated the climb on the North Face for a photographer commissioned by Life, then a major magazine. Among the climbers employed for that photo shoot was a young Yvon Chouinard, who shagged loads up the mountain for US$5 a day. As students of climbing history will note, Chouinard went on to major exploits of his own in climbing but also established a major business, Patagonia.
In 1963, Pownall was on the American Expedition to Everest. It consisted of top climbers of the day. Pownall might well have been the first American to summit, as he was considered the team's strongest climber. But Everest is always treacherous. While they were climbing in the mountain's Khumbu icefall, a block of ice, called a serac, crashed down on Pownall's partner, Jake Breitenbach, a 27-year-old guide from Jackson Hole. Instead of Pownall, the first American to summit was Jim Whittaker, who was also the first employee of REI.
In my three interviews with Pownall over the span of 15 years, he never spoke with regret about the Everest climb except for the death of his partner. Neither did he express envy that another American became first. He was soft-spoken, self-effacing, and calm.
After Everest and a meeting with President John F. Kennedy, Pownall returned to Colorado to build a house amid the aspen trees in the new development called Vail Village. He fit in well among the town's early assortment of 10th Mountain veterans and other mountain-adventure types. A second-home owner himself, he returned on weekends to ski and, during the summer, teach climbing in the Gore Range and moved to Vail permanently in the 1980s.
"It's an unusual environment — the people, the mountains, and the climate," he said 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 travelled a bunch, and we haven't found anything remotely comparable to what we have here."
In 2002, Pownall returned to Wyoming to climb the Grand Teton one final time. He had climbed it 150 times or so, but then he was 75. Because of scheduling conflicts, Pownall got to Jackson late and then climbed to the saddle, the common launching site for summit climbs, arriving at midnight. Later that morning, his team summited by 10 or 11 a.m.
"To me, it's just like John Glenn going back to space in his elder years," Dan Burgette, then the lead climbing-ranger in Grand Teton National Park, said.
Glenn, a part-time resident of Vail who also kept a low profile, also died this last week. He had orbited the Earth in space in 1962, the first American to do so.
Pownall's final Teton climb was arranged by Bob McLaurin, then the Vail town manager. At the time, I asked McLaurin, who is now the town administrator in Jackson, why this was important to him. "Because Dick Pownall was one of the greatest mountaineers on the planet in his day, and he's my hero."
Ski town reacts to tightened immigration
PARK CITY, Utah — Park City Mayor Jack Thomas said he intends to write a letter to the congressional delegation in Utah in response to the potential tightened immigration policies under a Trump administration.
Thomas told The Park Record he would describe Latino immigrants as important members of the workforce. The newspaper says that Latinos constitute an estimated 25 per cent of the population of the Park City area, and suggests that many, if not most, are immigrants drawn to Park City by the robust economy.
Thomas said more restrictive immigration policies would constitute a "major disruption of our economy."
In Colorado, the town council for Snowmass Village has joined other self-designated sanctuary cities in expressing concerns about changes to federal immigration policies.
"Above all else, let's honour our town's tradition of inclusivity, respect and kindness to all," said the statement that was approved unanimously.
Many Latino immigrants in the Aspen-area economy live in Carbondale, located 48 kilometres downstream from Aspen.
The Aspen Daily News reported that Carbondale Police Chief Gene Schilling issued a statement saying that police are "not actively looking for people to deport" and that people shouldn't be afraid to report a crime because they fear retaliation or deportation.