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The following was adapted with permission from The Desert Companion.
Las Vegas lost a legend when Wendell Broussard, 81, passed away in mid-October. He was a lifelong adventurer, masterful storyteller, and mentor. Wendell was rugged at 6’4, yet elegant. For nearly 50 years, he worked nights as a dealer at Caesars Palace. By day, he was an architect of routes in Red Rock Canyon, with about 100 first ascents to his credit. But Wendell’s legacy is much more than that. He left a blueprint for a fulfilling life, demonstrating that the goal isn’t just to survive, but to thrive.
The third youngest of 10 kids, Wendell grew up in rural Louisiana with limited means. His parents handed over caregiving to his siblings. At the age of five, he started exploring the swamps. At 13, he began planning his escape by hitchhiking to Chicago. A few years later, he fudged paperwork to join the Marines. In 1961, he landed in Las Vegas for a short trip and never left. Maybe that’s because his grandeur could only fit in a city that, like him, was created from wild optimism.
As one story goes, a 30-something Wendell gazed in a window and noticed a man’s reflection. The guy’s belly was hanging over his pants. He thought, “Who’s the out-of-shape guy?” Stunned by his own reflection, Wendell went home and ran two miles. “Pretty soon, he was running marathons,” says Randall Broussard, his oldest son. “My dad was all or nothing.”
Soon after, Wendell learned to ski and took up heli-skiing. A climbing course in Colorado led to pioneering routes in Red Rock Canyon. His family was in on the action, too. As Wendell trained for marathons, his sons, Randall, Shane, and Eric trained for 10ks. They ski-raced, and even BMX-raced together. “I’m the luckiest guy in the world,” Randall says. “My parents wanted to create memories.”
Knowing how to make people feel like they mattered, Wendell took a band of renegade climbers and fostered a community. He was a father figure, delivering life lessons in the oddest of places, including El Capitan. Wendell once paired up with local climbing icon, the late Richard Harrison, then a 20-something vagabond climber. Setting off on a multi-day ascent, Richard noticed their haul bag was too heavy. Wendell had stuffed it full of gourmet coffee, meats, and snacks, rather than following Richard’s “keep-it-light-and-suffer” method of stretching a can of Vienna sausages. Wendell explained that suffering didn’t make their effort more heroic; even on a grueling wall, life was meant to be savored.
“He was the father you wished you had,” says Paul Van Betten, who met Wendell in 1980 as a 17-year-old who’d cut school to go to Red Rock with friends. Wendell agreed to teach Paul to climb, and soon he was making landmark ascents, too. On Paul’s 21st birthday, his father thanked Wendell. “My dad recognized he didn’t have that [outdoor] skill set,” Paul says. “But he saw I changed for the better.”
Wendell shared the wealth, always picking up the tab and tipping up to 100 percent. After landing a lucrative television commercial contract that included being helicoptered to the top of a peak, he insisted his climbing friends be hired as riggers. When the ad agency said no, he declined the job. The client, however, wanted Wendell, so his friends cashed in. His impeccable memory meant his stories were colored with vivid detail. But also, in the age of cell phones, panicked climbers lost on a descent would call Wendell. He was a protector who relished keeping people safe.
As another story goes, it was 1981, an 18-year-old Paul Van Betten was hypothermic on top of Red Rock’s Mt. Wilson. He, Wendell, and three others had just completed the second ascent of Harrison and John Long’s Woodrow (5.10a; 1,800 feet). They were unroped, hiking off the route on exposed terrain when a block dislodged and landed on Paul’s chest. “It was ready to kick me off,” Paul said. He heard Wendell yell, hold on, buddy, as he tossed down a rope that landed perfectly on Paul’s face so he could secure it with his teeth. Paul dropped the block, grabbed the rope, and Wendell, hand over hand, pulled him from danger.
“There are famous people, and there are heroes,” Paul said, “But there are few like Wendell.”
You can read the full tribute to Climbers We Lost in 2021 here.