Eric Brand: Big-Wall Pioneer

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Eric Brand left us on September 30. He went into the home he shared with his wife Carol in Silver City, New Mexico, lay down on the couch, and never woke up. Throughout the 50 years of his life, Eric followed his own path with intensity and determination, and it is difficult to grasp that someone with such a passion for living life on the sharp edge could leave it in such a peaceful and quiet way.

For much of his life Eric lived in bucolic Marin County, California, and at an early age he was interested in things that most others found unusual. As a youngster wandering the foothills of the coastal range, he developed a love for the outdoors, and began a lifelong interest in two very different things. Reptiles first captured his attention, and then many years later, climbing. During his high school years he struggled with the rigid curriculum, but throughout his life he never stopped learning. Largely self-taught, he developed a comprehensive knowledge of herpetology, and in particular venomous snakes and lizards. Whenever visiting Eric, close friends were often rewarded with a tour of his latest acquisitions, usually poisonous, and if you were really “lucky” you might witness a feeding. His knowledge of all things related to herpetology, including safety, was impressive.

Eric’s passion for climbing developed in his early 20s, mostly on the local crags that can be found around Marin and the East Bay. From humble beginnings he became talented at all aspects of climbing, but it was his particular determination that saw him putting up first ascents both in the United States and abroad. Some of the longer and more difficult routes involved climbing measured in weeks, not days, without touching terra firma. He had an innate sense of the edges of his capability, and could confidently push difficult and poorly protected leads at his upper levels, both free and aid. At a time when many felt that new routes in places like Yosemite had mostly been done, Eric with various partners discovered and climbed new routes such as Disco Strangler on the Leaning Tower, Heartland and Genesis on El Capitan, and Ten Days After and Saddam Hussein on Washington Column. Difficult and technical for their time, all took many days of nervy aid placements and sometimes difficult free climbing, with Heartland taking 18 days for completion.

Not content with just climbing locally, Eric began joining and organizing expeditions to other parts of the world. In 1985, he traveled to Baffin Island with John Bagley, Tom Bepler, and Earl Redfern to attempt the huge west face of Mount Thor, a climb that had already rebuffed several international teams. Climbing difficult and crumbly rock and hauling hundreds of pounds of gear, including a two-story portaledge they had designed and built themselves, the four climbers spent 33 days on the route. In later years, other expeditions followed to Nepal and Pakistan. Of particular note was the first ascent of the North Face of the Trango Nameless Tower - Book of Shadows ‑ in 20 days with Willie Benegas, Jared Ogden, and Kevin Starr in 1995.

All the climbs only tell part of the story. For Eric, the history of the sport he loved was equally as important as the part he was playing in that story. Recognizing that many of the pioneers of the sport had either died or grown old, Eric set out to record the stories of those still surviving with video interviews. These tapes and videos, along with historic still and motion pictures, were collected with the intention of producing a comprehensive documentary on the history of the sport. Although he was not able to complete the project, because of his work, much of this valuable history has been preserved. He also involved himself in local conservation issues, and served as the chairman of the Sierra Nevada Section of the American Alpine Club. Later, when he moved to New Mexico with Carol, he not only continued climbing and the development of new routes, but also became an active member of the Grant County Search and Rescue.

For those of us who knew and loved Eric, he was a larger than life person. He approached all things with passion and honesty, and it’s hard to believe he isn’t still here. The world is a poorer place without him, and he will be missed. Donations to continue work on the preservation and creation of films celebrating the history of climbing in America and abroad can be made in Eric’s name to: The American Alpine Club Library, c/o Bridget Burke, 710 Tenth Street, Suite 100, Golden, CO 80401.

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