Revered Adventure Writer David Roberts Dead at 78

1967 photo of David Roberts on Harvard Mountaineering expedition in Alaska. c. Matt Hale
David Roberts in Alaska, c. 1967 Photo: Matt Hale

With a prolific body of work that spanned almost six decades, David Roberts influenced a generation of adventurers and writers. On Friday, the dean of adventure writing died at 78.

Roberts was undergoing treatment for emphysema at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. He wrote up until the very last few weeks of his life, finishing his last book — a biography of arctic explorer Gino Watkins — in February 2021 and eventually writing on Facebook from his hospital bed.

His creative output remained poignant until his death. In one post, he called out the irony of dying from emphysema after smoking only one cigarette in his life. Among mountaineers, he’s best known for his early books, The Mountain of My Fear and Deborah: a Wilderness Narrative, as well as for several significant first ascents in Alaska.

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David Roberts’ life in adventure

David Roberts started climbing near his childhood home in Boulder, Colorado. By the mid-1960s, he was climbing and studying mathematics at Harvard. Despite a rash of deaths among his early partners, he became president of the Harvard Mountaineering Club.

Early on, he made a string of bold first ascents in Alaska. In 1963, he and six others made the first ascent of the 4,300m Wickersham Wall on Denali. One of his last significant Alaskan climbs, 1974’s The Southeast Face of Mount Dickey (Alaska Grade VI, 5.9 A3), was futuristic. It took 30 years for anyone to repeat the route. When Steve House and Jim Hollenbaugh finally did, House said, “[W]e did little to improve upon their style.

Armed with a degree in Creative Writing from Denver University in 1970, Roberts wrote 32 books on a broad range of subjects. Roberts also mentored Jon Krakauer and Chip Brown, among others. In 2018, he coauthored Alone on the Wall with Alex Honnold.
Though The Mountain of My Fear may be his most famous work, he also extensively studied the history and culture of Indigenous Americans and eventually delved into polar exploration. His work also appeared in Outside magazine, National Geographic, and The Atlantic Monthly.

Cancer diagnosis and living memoir

In 2015, Roberts returned to Alaska with longtime climbing partner Matt Hale to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the FA of The Harvard Route (WI3 M6 C1 Steep Snow) on Mount Huntington. During the visit, he noticed a lump in his throat.

He was diagnosed with Stage 4 throat cancer. Throughout his treatment, he self-published memoirs about the experience on CaringBridge.com.

David Roberts died on August 20, 2021. The dean of adventure writing is survived by his wife, Sharon (Morris) Roberts, and his brother Jonathan Roberts. Memorial services will be private. The family encourages anyone wishing to send sympathy to plant trees in Roberts’ memory through the sympathy store set up in his name.

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About the Author

Sam Anderson

Sam Anderson

Sam Anderson takes any writing assignments he can talk his way into while intermittently traveling the American West and Mexico in search of margaritas — er, adventure. He parlayed a decade of roving trade work into a life of fair-weather rock climbing and truck dwelling before (to his parents' evident relief) finding a way to put his BA in English to use. Sam loves animals, sleeping outdoors, campfire refreshments and a good story.

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Eddy De Wilde
Eddy De Wilde
22 days ago

Thanks Sam for reporting the passing of David Roberts, a highly regarded climber and author.

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