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Much more to Gerry Roach than his essential Colorado mountain guidebooks

February 3, 2018 Updated: February 4, 2018 at 7:14 am
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World-class mountaineer and author Gerry Roach show pictures of some of the summits he's climbed around the world, Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018, at his Montrose home. Roach, 74, has summited the major mountains of the world include Mt. Everest and has written many books including the book that sits on a shelve of most climbers in Colorado - "Colorado's Fourteeners: From hikes to Climbs." (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

MONTROSE - The house is what you'd expect from the man whose real home is the mountains.

The walls are blank except for pictures of each continent's seven highest summits, along with one of New Guinea's Puncak Jaya, because that 16,024-foot peak is the highest on any island, and that too is worth displaying as another notch in Gerry Roach's belt.

The living room is empty but for some dumbbells and a sofa that Roach plops into now, setting aside his crutches. He looks nothing like the bearded, muscled man who once climbed 63 mountains in 11 countries over the span of 11 months. Wearing a hoodie, sweats and a brace around his left leg, he announces: "Here I am, the great mountaineer!"

World-class mountaineer and author Gerry Roach cheers after reaching the highest point of the Flat Top north of Montrose, Colo., Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018, while recovering from surgery to repair his left quadricep tendon. Roach, 74, has summited the major mountains of the world include Mt. Everest and has written many books including the book that sits on a shelve of most climbers in Colorado - "Colorado's Fourteeners: From hikes to Climbs." (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)  

He tallied 300 summits in 2017 - then a sidewalk spill tore the tendon.

"He's still got the drive, and you hope he never loses it," says longtime climbing friend Charlie Winger. "If he couldn't get out and climb, I don't know. That wouldn't be good."

Roach, 74, is defiant. "By summer, I'll be back out," he says. Also this summer, he expects his out-of-print guidebook to Colorado's 13,000-foot mountains to be available again.

Gerry Roach, atop 26,361-foot Gasherbrum II in 1997. At 74, the renowned author of Colorado mountain guidebooks remains active.  

So the luminary's work continues. "Colorado's Fourteeners" first hit shelves 22 years ago and is still a hot item, still inspiring the next generation of climbers, and "Colorado's Thirteeners" is sure to do the same.

The books solidify Roach's status as guru of Colorado mountains, says Jack Dais, one of the early baggers of the state's peaks above 12,000 and 13,000 feet. "He's the wise man," Dais says.

Roach's legacy - not something he feels the need to address now - will be inextricably tied to those books. But they're not his proudest achievements.

"Guidebooks for me were not the end-all," he says. "I wanted to write my stories. I got sidetracked doing guidebooks, but it was easy to do. That was all just practice for writing my stories."

He likes to think his mother would be proud of the autobiographical "Transcendent Summits" and "Ride the Breath." She was the athlete who swam the length of Wisconsin's Lake Geneva, passing on the physical prowess Roach needed to conquer the fabled peaks chronicled in the books. But also, she was a poet who encouraged her boy to write creatively.

Gerry Roach, far right, about to leave with climbing companions to Mexico in 1960. Growing up in Boulder, he made friends who compiled enough money for a traveling milk truck.  

Roach attempted that in those memoirs, which hardly sold.

"She once told me to write something really dramatic, so I did something about these guys flying through space, problems, problems, problems, then, whoops, crash landing on a planet. They're all dead. End of story."

He chuckles. "Then came the big speech about happy endings."

An obsessive pursuit

"It's in the books," Roach says as to why he climbs. That's his response to a lot of personal questions, and sometimes it comes with a hint of frustration.

Gerry Roach atop Tasmania's Acropolis in 1973. The summit came during "an odyssey" that saw him climb 63 peaks in 11 countries over the span of 11 months.  

In "Ride the Breath," he cites E.M. Forster's belief that works of art "are the only objects in the material universe to possess internal order." The mountains had that, too, Roach writes.

He grew up in Boulder, earning his climbing chops on the Flatirons after having his eyes widened by the 1953 Life magazine that celebrated Edmund Hillary's Everest ascent. He vowed at the dinner table to reach the top of the world, and he made good on that 30 years later, en route to becoming the second person to scale the Seven Summits. In 2000, he claimed to be the first to climb North America's 10 highest peaks.

Along the way, obsession drove him.

Failure taunted him. Everest, for one, hung over him like a dark cloud after a failed try in '76, and Peru's 22,205-foot Huascarán was a similar foe, another mountain that for years inspired revenge. But real-life complications were in the way: getting out of work, renting out the house, paying bills.

At times he was consumed by competition. Denali became priority No. 1 upon learning that a friend was planning an expedition. Roach had to beat him to the summit, and he did so at age 19, the youngest known at the time to accomplish the feat.

The allure of glory similarly pushed him to become second to the legendary Bradford Washington to climb Canada's Mount Lucania. It was all thanks to skills he gained as a teenager who rode in a milk truck with fellow dirtbags, bound first for Mexico's beastly volcanoes.

Fueling him further was an indescribable mania. It once sent him onto all fours, barking like a dog with his face pressed to a picture of 20,039-foot Chacraraju's savage south face.

Many other times, Roach was determined to overcome heartbreak.

Journey amid struggle

By the time he held a pen over Navy enlistment papers for Vietnam, he'd been familiar with death.

He was in high school when a climbing partner died on Longs Peak, the second he knew to be taken by the mountains, someone who "had lost his opportunity for personal joy," Roach writes in "Transcendent Summits," "but perhaps if I lived long enough, I could somehow create more than my share and give it to others."

Over the years, he had several "memorial climbs" to honor others lost, including a man who died in his arms, dangling from Chacraraju during the climb that was Roach's crazy idea. In an attempt to free his guilt, he ascended Chimborazo, Ecuador's tallest mountain at 20,564 feet.

Complicating Roach's moment to enlist was his long-felt uneasiness with war. His father was a scientist who helped develop the H-bomb's trigger - a realization that turned Roach's boyhood suspicion into resentment.

Late in his father's life, Roach sat alone with him in a hospital room, the silence broken by the man who said of "the Japs": "We rolled up our sleeves to get 'em, and I'd do the same thing today." The two had been at odds.

Roach's feelings also remain unsettled over his first wife. They married out of college, as noted at the end of "Transcendent Summits," which he dedicated to Shirley, writing: "I prefer to believe that she transcended."

Roach's book does not describe the depth of her depression, which years after their divorce led to her suicide. "That's a whole book that I've not written," he says.

He never did sign those enlistment papers. He left them in a stack. And to his surprise, he never heard from an officer. He never was drafted, learning years later that he was deferred by some human error.

"I'm not a big believer of cosmic goings-on, but that was one," says Roach, who believes he dodged death in Vietnam. "My climb for peace has come instead."

More to do

Roach can't sit any longer. Near his house is a flat-top mountain that he can easily manage by hobbling.

He places his foot on a mound. "Ah hah!" he exclaims, shaking his crutches like a soldier rattling his saber. "My first summit! Arghhh!"

While he no longer embarks on international expeditions, his wife, avid mountaineer Jennifer Roach, has observed "a refreshing approach" as of late. "He relishes everything," she says. "Whether it's a little bump or something with a view of Longs Peak or whatever. He treats it all with the same love as a great big mountain."

On the flat top, the San Juans loom. Roach says there isn't a point in sight he hasn't been to, including every ridge of the jagged badlands in the other direction.

Is there anything left for him to do?

He squints, looking to the setting sun, as if in deep thought.

"Yeah," he says, starting his hobble charge. "That bump over there!"

­­-

Contact Seth Boster: 636-0332

Twitter: @SethBoster­­

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