News Columns & Blogs

Retired WWU professor still climbing mountain peaks well into his 70s

Howard Evans has climbed Mount Baker, oh, about 20 times, including a solo ascent.

He has scaled Mount Rainier a half-dozen times, and enjoyed the view from the top of a slew of other mountains in the western U.S. and Canada.

Last summer, he came up just short of reaching the top of Mount Adams, at 12,280 feet the second tallest mountain in Washington.

Not reaching a summit is to be expected in the world of mountaineering. That’s especially true when you’re 79 years old and your knees, one of which is artificial, are giving you trouble.

“He was talking about climbing Baker when he was 80, but now he can’t train enough,” said Everson attorney Joe Abbott, a longtime climbing buddy.

Evans lives in Bellingham a short distance from Western Washington University, where he retired in 1997 after 25 years as an education professor. He turns 80 later this month.

Evans acknowledges that he’s not the most technically skilled climber, and other people a few years older have reached the tops of some of the mountains he has climbed. But he’s living testament to the benefit of regular physical activity, as well as to strong legs and a determined spirit.

“I would like to think everybody has a passion about something physical in nature,” he said. “It gives you every reason for staying healthy.”

Evans grew up in La Grande, a small town in northeast Oregon. His father, a short man with massive biceps, worked in a lumber mill and lived into his 90s. Evans was a teacher in Oregon and Illinois. Then, after earning a doctorate in education, he taught at universities in Illinois and Boston before taking a job at Western in 1972.

While not an athlete, Evans stayed fit through running and other exercise. Once he moved to Bellingham, he took up hiking, then enrolled in a beginners’ mountaineering class so he would feel safer on snow and ice.

That class, 35 years ago, was where Evans and Abbott met, two middle-age guys in a classroom full of strapping, young would-be climbers. Evans and Abbott quickly became friends and regular climbing partners, usually with Abbott suggesting a route and Evans responding, “Why not?”

Over the decades of his middle years and beyond, Evans has climbed more than a score of mountains, some in the glare of summer, some in the grip of winter.

His summits include Mount Assinboine, an 11,870-foot peak in southwest Alberta, Canada; Grand Teton, rising 13,776 feet in northwest Wyoming; and Mount Jefferson, at 10,495 feet the second tallest in Oregon.

Sometimes, after hours of strenuous effort during an ascent, Evans would be the person in his climbing party to slog through deep snow during the closing push toward the summit.

“The physical challenge was the big part for me,” he said. “You haven’t lived until you’ve stood on top of Mount Rainier.”

Abbott, who is seven years younger, marvels at Evans’ tenacity and durability.

“Howard can still hike uphill faster than I can,” he said. “He takes off, and I tell him to slow down.”

Evans has experienced his share of near-panic moments edging around a smooth boulder, and bone-chilling bivouacs after high-altitude rainstorms.

“He would always say, ‘I’m retired, I’m going back to sailing,’” Abbott recalled, but Evans would always return for the next climb.

His most harrowing moment came while hiking along a snowy trail below the treeline on the way to Whitehorse Mountain, a 6,841-foot peak in Snohomish County. Evans lost his footing and suddenly disappeared down a long, steep slope, the snow ripping away his hat and gloves and scraping him raw.

He turned onto his belly, tumbled, and flew some 20 feet down over an edge, landing on his rear in the snow while, missing some boulders nearby. Below him, the slope continued, covered with what appeared to be avalanche debris.

“I could have been ground up pretty good,” Evans said.

Abbott followed, peered over the edge, and saw Evans, bloodied but standing up. He used a rope to haul Evans up to safe terrain, where Evans kneeled to catch his breath.

“Howard said, ‘Give me a few minutes and we’ll go on up,’” Abbott recalled.

Abbott said he uttered a profanity and insisted that they walk back and call it a day.

A few days later, Evans learned he had two cracked ribs.

Related stories from Bellingham Herald