Desert Pioneer Eric Bjornstad Has Died

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Fred Beckey (left) and Eric Bjornstad celebrating a first ascent in Monument Valley in the 1960s. Eric Bjornstad Collection.

Fred Beckey (left) and Eric Bjornstad celebrate a first ascent in Monument Valley in the 1960s. Eric Bjornstad Collection.

12/17/14 - Eric Bjornstad has passed away after a long illness. The longtime resident of Moab, Utah, wrote the first comprehensive guidebook to rock climbing on the Colorado Plateau, Desert Rock, originally published in 1988 and later expanded to four volumes. His climbing partners ranged from Fred Beckey to Yvon Chouinard, and from Harvey Carter to Galen Rowell.

Bjornstad, who worked as a Jeep guide and maker of hand crafts in his later days, was born in California and lived an extraordinary life. The two-page biographical note in his guidebooks (written by Jeff Widen) states: “Eric’s first job was as a gandy dancer [a worker who laid ties] on the narrow gauge railroad near Lone Pine, California…. Over the years he worked as a draftsman, piano salesman, photo processor, gardener, bartender, dump truck driver, tree topper, and handyman at a sorority, traded for a place to live, to name only a sampling…. He married three times (to a Hungarian beauty queeen, an art student, and the daughter of a major American business mogul), divorced three times, and fathered four children (David, Heather, Mara, and Eigerwand). He practiced Theravada Buddhism in Berkely in the ’50s, partied with the likes of Alan Watts, Jack Kerouac, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and took up spelunking.”

As a climber, Bjornstad’s life was no less diverse and impressive. While living in Seattle, he gained notoriety as a mountaineer, doing the first ascent of the northeast buttress of Mt. Slesse in Canada, among other important climbs. He did the first Grade VI big-wall route on Stawamus Chief in Squamish. Later he focused on desert climbs, making the first ascents of many well-known towers, including Echo in the Fisher Towers, Zeus and Moses in Canyonlands, and Chinle Spire on the Navajo Reservation.

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Many desert climbers of the 1990s and ’00s fondly remember visiting Bjornstad's book-lined trailer on the outskirts of Moab to pass along the details of a new route or first free ascent, and to listen to his stories. Years later they might receive a call or email from the man, asking for a topo or more details. He was a living link to Moab's early days, when boom-and-bust uranium mining, not mountain biking, was the biggest business in town, when the shops on the main drag were boarded up every winter for lack of business, and when climbers and other desert rats seemed to be the only people around. The man is gone, but an unforgettable legacy remains.

Sources: Stewart Green, Desert Rock, Alpinist.com