A Photographer Remembers Galen and Barbara Rowell

Gordon Wiltsie
for National Geographic News
August 14, 2002

I probably wouldn't be a freelance photographer for National Geographic magazine if it weren't for the master of adventure imagery, Galen Rowell. Without his inspiration, chances are that I would never have traveled the world, climbed distant mountains or explored vast wilderness tracts in the Himalaya, the Arctic, and Antarctica.

As a consequence, it came as a thunderous blow when I learned this Sunday that he and his wife Barbara were killed in a tragic small plane crash just shy of an airstrip near my birthplace of Bishop, California. After surviving countless mountain epics and exploits—all of which he immortalized on film—my mentor, and a hero to legions of people who loved his photography, was suddenly gone.

I first met Galen in 1969 when I was still a senior in high school, just learning to rock climb. A friend, a mountaineer who knew Galen, had taken me out to a small crag just next to U.S. Highway 395, north of Bishop.

I was pretty scared, not just of the climb, but also of the landowner, a former assistant scoutmaster of mine who had developed a reputation as a gun-toting maniac when it came to chasing climbers off his land. But instead of the landowner, some other crazy guy showed up, squealing to a stop in his venerable white Chevy station wagon.

I didn't know it at the time, but the driver—Galen, a hot-rodding car mechanic—was already famous for scaring his passengers half to death by whizzing 80 miles per hour down country roads with one eye on the pavement (hopefully!) and the other constantly roving for wildlife, magical light, or anything else photogenic.

Whenever he saw something interesting, he'd slam to a panicked, pre-seat-belt-era stop. This time he leaped out waving a Nikon and, before I knew it, I had a new friend.

I'd already read about Galen's famous climbs and seen dozens of pictures he had taken for the most popular mountaineering journals. I couldn't believe that someone of his fame and wizened old age (he was 29) would even stoop to talk to a kid as lowly as me—a mere high school yearbook shutterbug.

I was even more astonished in later years as he invited me to climb with him, taught me photography tricks, hired me to change his film, and helped me to get my work published. But that was just who Galen was.

Even as his fame grew over the next three decades, he never tired of sharing his knowledge and electrifying people with the wonders not just of photography, but more importantly the magnificent landscapes and cultures he captured on celluloid.

Career at National Geographic

I heard that Galen shot his first pictures with a Kodak "Instamatic." What made his work unique was the he was also one of the best rock climbers and mountaineers in North America. He pointed, clicked, and came back with images that were so stunning that in 1972, National Geographic's legendary Director of Photography, Robert Gilka, hired him to photograph a groundbreaking ascent up the huge, dead-vertical north face of Yosemite's famous Half Dome monolith.

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