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Original Issue


The reasons mountain climbers give as explanations for their drive to scale incomprehensibly high or impossibly difficult peaks are often esthetic and philosophical, sometimes even poetic. This week Galen Rowell, who has written on mountain climbing for us before (SI, May 2, 1977), explores the subject further in his gripping account, beginning on page 88, of an American team's effort to reach the top of Mount Everest without using oxygen (another U.S. party, some members of which were using breathing gear, was also on the mountain).

In Rowell's story it becomes clear that such basic human drives as competitiveness and aggressiveness can be fully as important to climbers as more esthetic qualities, and Rowell himself is a case in point. He's in no sense a dilettante, a person of independent means who climbs for recreation and who can afford to take a year or so off from other pursuits to satisfy a need to "conquer Everest." Rowell doesn't just dabble in mountain climbing. It's an integral part of his profession, the highly competitive field of photojournalism. His professional specialty: the outdoors, the wilderness, the environment.

All but one of the photographs accompanying our Everest article were taken by Rowell. He also took most of the remarkable photos that illustrated his 1977 story and that later appeared in his book In the Throne Room of the Mountain Gods, published that year by the Sierra Club. In all, Rowell has turned out six books dealing with his travels and adventures, among them Many People Come, Looking, Looking, on the effect that tourism has had on the Himalaya, and Alaska: Images of the Country, a photographic edition of writer John McPhee's memorable Coming into the Country. Rowell's latest book, an impressive volume called Mountains of the Middle Kingdom: Exploring the High Peaks of China and Tibet, was published last month by the Sierra Club.

Rowell says his intense involvement with the outdoors began "when I was introduced to the wilderness by my parents as a child. My feeling for mountain climbing and for the environment dovetailed naturally with my later interest in writing and photography."

While Rowell continues to write—his articles also appear in National Geographic. Audubon and other magazines—his photography has excited such interest that exhibitions of his work are being held on both coasts this fall and winter. A one-man show of 99 Rowell pictures opened last week at the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, where it will remain until next March. And next week, when the International Center of Photography in New York opens an exhibit called "High Light: The Mountain in Photography, 1840 to the Present," 30 of the 250 photos on display will be Rowell's.

Rowell, 43, lives near San Francisco with his wife, Barbara, who arranged his exhibitions and whose interest in her husband's work is so great that she joined him in Tibet and climbed to 19,000 feet herself.