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A Climber We Lost: Rick Reese

Each January we post a farewell tribute to those members of our community lost in the year just past. Some of the people you may have heard of, some not. All are part of our community and contributed to climbing.

You can read the full tribute to Climbers We Lost in 2022 here.

Rick Reese, 79, January 9

Rick Reese lived a long life defined by a love of wild spaces. He grew up in Utah and began climbing as a teenager, becoming one of the most prevalent and visionary first ascensionist in the golden age of the Wasatch Range during the 1960s. Reese dedicated his professional life to wilderness protection, becoming a key figure in the early conservationist movement. He passed away on January 9, 2022 at the age of 79.

Reese’s climbing journey began in 1954 when he saw the film The Conquest of Everest about the first ascent of Everest two years prior. The then-11-year-old was so inspired by the film that he vowed to become a mountain climber. Within the next few years, Reese and a few other courageous teenagers started venturing out into the Wasatch Range, climbing Mt. Olympus, Thunder Mountain, Lone Peak, and other high points. The band of young climbers put up dozens of first ascents throughout the 1950s and 1960s.

In 1962, Reese and one of his closest climbing partners, Ted Wilson, made the first ascent of The Great White Icicle (WI3 4 pitches) in Little Cottonwood Canyon. It is the earliest known ascent of waterfall ice in Utah. Reese and Wilson had read about cutting steps and decided to give it a go, but they soon realized that that technique is much different on vertical ice than glacial ice. They had straight, wooden handled mountaineering axes, and used an adze to chop steps. For protection they pounded pitons into the granite adjacent to the waterfall. Eleven hours after leaving the ground they topped out the 600-foot route, which to this day is one of the most classic and repeated ice climbs in Utah.

Also in 1962, Reese put up another all-time classic with legendary alpinist Fred Becky and Bob Irvine: Triple Overhangs (5.10a, 550 feet) in the Lone Peak Cirque, which is widely considered the finest alpine rock route in the Wasatch.

While Reese was obtaining his undergraduate and graduate degrees, he worked as a Jenny Lake Climbing Ranger in Grand Teton National Park. He climbed prolifically in the Tetons, and participated in many rescues, including the legendary 1967 rescue off the North Face of the Grand Teton. During this incident, rockfall severed the rope connecting a pair of climbers on the North Face.The leader took a long fall onto a ledge and suffered a compound fracture on his leg. Stranded on the mountain that night, the climbers flashed an SOS signal with their flashlight, hoping that someone in the valley would see.The Jenny Lake Climbing Rangers embarked on a harrowing three-day rescue, lowering the injured climber on a litter over unknown terrain with an ongoing barrage of rockfall raining down from above. The daring rescue is among the most famous in the climbing world, and is documented in the film The Grand Rescue. “Reese was known as the team’s strongest climber,” reads Reese’s bio for the film. “It was not only his ability to move quickly over mountain terrain that distinguished him, but also his unflappability when things got serious.”

During his undergraduate studies, Reese met his future wife, Mary Lee. After he obtained his degrees, the couple moved to Helena, Montana, where Reese worked as a political science professor at Carroll College. Reese and Mary Lee had two children while living in Helena, Paige and Seth. 

As an educator and activist, Reese fought  for the preservation of wild spaces, wildlife habitat, and clean air and water. In 1980, the Reeses were recruited to run the Yellowstone Institute, an organization that teaches visitors about the park. Three years later, Reese co-founded the Greater Yellowstone Coalition to help protect the park’s surrounding areas, since, as Reese noted, wildlife doesn’t stop grazing at the park boundary. It was this sort of visionary thinking that helped inspire others to work to protect millions of acres of wilderness across the American West.

Rick Reese, climber, conservationist
(Photo: Rikki Smith)

Reese also co-founded the Mountain Journal, a publication that reports on the relationship between humans and the Greater Yellowstone area. He also founded the Bonneville Shoreline Trail Committee, an organization set on preserving a wilderness area adjacent to Salt Lake City.

In an essay he wrote for A Granite Guide, the Wasatch climbing guidebook, Reese writes: 

Looking back now, more than a half-century later, I realize how significant some of the lessons I learned through climbing have been for my life outside of climbing.

 Climbing taught me about the direct relationship between careful preparation and success.

 I learned that some things I must do on my own.

 That there are no guarantees in life.

 That luck sometimes plays a role, but you can’t count on it.

 That there is indeed a right and a wrong way to do certain things.

 That the mountains, and life, can be unforgiving and no one is exempt.

 That we have responsibilities to others.

 That for most of us, most of the time, our lives are too easy.

 That no one owes me anything.

 And, notably, that there is more to life than climbing mountains.

Thank you climbing! Thank you Wasatch Range!”

You can read the full tribute to Climbers We Lost in 2022 here.

—Bennett Slavsky