Mountain Town News: Pownall didn’t jibe with the stereotypes of Vail
December 18, 2016
Pownall didn't jibe with
the stereotypes of Vail
VAIL, Colo. – For those who like to paint Vail with broad brushes, Dick Pownall was a detail who didn't quite fit into the picture of a town without a soul.
Pownall, who died last week, lived among the big, fancy McMansions next to the ski slopes. He built the original house with his own hands while working as a junior high school physical education instructor and coach in a Denver suburb. That was in 1963, the summer after Vail opened and the year of his big climb on Mount Everest.
Later, after he retired, he expanded the house with the help of his wife, Mary. It was like a Swiss chalet, with white plaster walls and pine trim. In summer, their garden amid the aspen trees was profuse with lavender columbines.
Pownall had grown up in Iowa, but in 1944, when he was in high school, spent a summer at Grand Teton National Park, working on a trail crew. Older men were in short supply then for such work. The experience instilled in Pownall a love for mountains and gave him basic mountaineering skills.
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In the late '40s and 1950s, returning to Jackson Hole to work for Exum Guide Service, he pioneered many of the most difficult rock-climbing routes in the Teton Range. Most famous was on the North Face of the Grand where, in 1949, he led a team assault on the final pitch, called Pendulum Pitch. With the more rudimentary equipment then available, the trio completed the 5.8 pitch and summited the 13,776-foot-peak in the dark.
Later, in 1957, Pownall and companions repeated the climb on the North Face for a photographer commissioned by Life, then a major magazine. Among the climbers employed for that photo shoot was a young Yvon Chouinard, who shagged loads up the mountain for $5 a day. As students of climbing history will note, Chouinard went on to major exploits of his own in climbing but also established a major business, Patagonia.
In 1963, Pownall was on the American Expedition to Everest. It consisted of top climbers of the day. Pownall might well have been the first American to summit, as he was considered the team's strongest climber. But Everest is always treacherous. While they were climbing in the mountain's Khumbu icefall, a block of ice, called a serac, crashed down on Pownall's partner, Jake Breitenbach, a 27-year-old guide from Jackson Hole. Instead of Pownall, the first American to summit was Jim Whittaker, who was also the first employee of REI.
In my three interviews with Pownall over the span of 15 years, he never spoke with regret about the Everest climb except for the death of his partner. Neither did he express envy that another American became first. Acquaintances said he was always as I had found him: soft-spoken, self-effacing and calm.
After Everest and a meeting with President John Kennedy, Pownall returned to Colorado to build a house amid the aspen trees in the new development called Vail Village. He fit in well among the town's early assortment of 10th Mountain veterans and other mountain-adventure types. A second-home owner himself, he returned on weekends to ski and, during the summer, teach climbing in the Gore Range. In the early 1980s, he moved to Vail permanently.
"It's an unusual environment — the people, the mountains, and the climate," he said in a 2004 interview. "Having lived someplace else, you become more aware and appreciative of what we have here, what you just don't find elsewhere. It's the geography, it's the cross-section of people and it's the ability to be able to walk to the library, the hospital or the town offices. It's the close physical proximity of all these things, as well as the backpacking, the fishing and all the other stuff. We have traveled a bunch, and we haven't found anything remotely comparable to what we have here."
In 2002, Pownall returned to Wyoming to climb the Grand Teton one final time. He had climbed it 150 times or so, but then he was 75. Because of scheduling conflicts, Pownall got to Jackson late and then climbed to the saddle, the common launching site for summit climbs, arriving at midnight. Later that morning, his team summited by 10 or 11 a.m. Already, word was spreading among other climbers on the mountain.
"To me, it's just like John Glenn going back to space in his elder years," Dan Burgette, then the lead climbing-ranger in Grand Teton National Park, said.
Glenn, a part-time resident of Vail who also kept a low profile there, also died this last week. He had orbited the Earth in space in 1962, the first American to do so.
Pownall's final Teton climb was arranged by Bob McLaurin, then the Vail town manager. At the time, I asked McLaurin, who is now the town administrator in Jackson, why this was important to him. "Because Dick Pownall was one of the greatest mountaineers on the planet in his day, and he's my hero."
Will Aspen limit chain
retailers in downtown?
ASPEN, Colo. – Aspen continues to agonize over whether high-end multinational chain retailers are crowding out home-grown businesses from prime downtown locations.
The Aspen Daily News reports that two former mayors were among those who approached the city council to propose zoning that would curb opportunities for chain retailers to rent downtown locations. The proposal would make new retail outlets subject to conditional approval based on criteria that includes how many other locations they have stores. The proposal is based on regulations instituted in Sonoma, California.
"All the landlords are demolishing the locals, but they don't care because a corporate store can deal with just breaking even or even losing money because they want Aspen on their bags and on their website," writes Anthony Rizzuto in the Aspen Daily News. He identifies himself as owner of a store called The Sports Center.
Jerry Murdock, a local resident and high-tech investor, is leader of the chain-regulation movement. "The major international brands are leveraging the Aspen brand," he said. " … Our brand is so good, people are willing to come here and not make any money, just to associate with us."
Former Mayor John Bennett frets that chain stores constitute 60 to 65 percent of existing stores in downtown Aspen. "It's really a question of do we want Aspen to become 100 percent chains."
Yet another former mayor has also weighed in, but from the sidelines of a newspaper column. Mick Ireland blames "the beauty and the scourge of capitalism … that recognizes neither moral or ethical values in making decisions. … If there is a market for a product, good or evil, capital will flow as inexorably as a river running down a hill."
Ireland points to broader national and global economic forces, including income inequality and more tax cuts at the top, yielding money willing to "buy absurdly expensive versions of everything." It is all a familiar Aspen battle over symbols and surrogate issues "while the dollars continue to reshape the town to meet the needs of the elite."
The city council isn't ready to act, though. Councilman Adam Frisch tells the News that he believes the issue may be "a lot more complicated than everyone realizes." He doubts whether the proposed regulation would bring down rents for home-grown retailers.
Mayor Steve Skadron said there is a developing sense of angst in Aspen that the town has been co-opted by wealth, with little regard for local character or mountain town ethos. On the flip side, he said, when the experience of a sacred mountain subculture can be shared, it cuts through economic stratification.
Where will this all end? If past is precedent, there will be a move soon to take this directly to voters instead of letting the council sort out the pros and cons. Two other comparable issues involving downtown Aspen have been similarly resolved.
"That seems to be the trendy way" to make policy now in Aspen, Skadron said.
Ski town reactions to
PARK CITY, Utah – Park City Mayor Jack Thomas says he intends to write a letter to the congressional delegation in Utah in response to the potential tightened immigration policies under a Trump administration.
Thomas told The Park Record he will describe Latino immigrants as important members of the workforce. The newspaper says that Latinos constitute an estimated 25 percent of the population of the Park City area, and suggests that many, if not most, are immigrants drawn to Park City by the robust economy.
Thomas said more restrictive immigration policies would constitute a "major disruption of our economy."
In Colorado, the town council for Snowmass Village has joined other self-designated sanctuary cities in expressing concerns about changes to federal immigration policies.
"Above all else, let's honor our town's tradition of inclusivity, respect and kindness to all," says the statement that was approved unanimously.
Many Latino immigrants in the Aspen-area economy live in Carbondale, located 30 miles downstream from Aspen.
The Aspen Daily News reports that Carbondale Police Chief Gene Schilling issued a statement saying that police are "not actively looking for people to deport" and that people shouldn't be afraid to report a crime because they fear retaliation or deportation.
Colorado towns fiddling
with cannabis regulation
DURANGO, Colo. – With recreational marijuana sales soon to be legal in California, mountain towns there are looking to Colorado for ideas about how to make things work. Colorado towns, though, are still fiddling with their regulations.
Steamboat Springs, for example, is considering letting pot shops stay open three hours later, until 10 p.m. The city allows only three medical dispensaries and three recreational marijuana stores. Steamboat Today reports there's some support for letting the market decide how many stores there should be. Currently, though, there are sharp restrictions about where the stores can be located.
Durango had no restriction on the number of marijuana stores, but it has decided to take a two-minute breather before approving any new stores while it evaluates how well current regulations are functioning.
But how well do older people function with marijuana use? Most focus has been on how marijuana affects younger people.
A 2013 survey in Colorado showed that about 19 percent of people aged 18 to 25 reported using marijuana in the previous month, notes The Associated Press. That same survey found 4.8 percent of people ages 50 and older use pot.
But researchers at New York University say cannabis consumption could pose health challenges to older users ranging from memory loss to risk of falling.
"Historically, older people haven't had high rates of substance use, but this is changing," said Dr. Benjamin Han, a geriatrician at the university.
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