Climbing Legend, Himalayan Mountaineer and Ocean Adventurer
By Chris Van Leuven
He left his mark on Yosemite during the Golden Age, and was a member of the only American party to climb the first ascent of an 8,000-meter peak, Gasherbrum I. Then he took that experience to the sea.
“I was born at an early age,” Bob Swift said through a muffled phone from his friend’s house at Moss Beach located halfway between Santa Cruz and San Francisco. With Jan Tiura and her husband Joe Brennan by his bedside, the 89 year old climbing legend told me his story for the last time. Instead of fighting lymphoma or leukemia, he was giving in, he said, choosing to end the final chapter of life on his terms. He died by choice two days after we spoke. A legend of American climbing and the world’s highest peaks, his tales weaved from first ascents in Yosemite in the 1950s, to visits to the Himalaya, to multi-month ocean outings.
Swift was born in 1930 in Tsingtao, China, where his father worked for Standard Oil and his mother was a grade-school teacher. When he was one year old and to avoid the coming war in Asia, he and his family uprooted from Tsingtao and moved to Alameda, California.
At age nine, Swift discovered climbing through books at his local library. The great adventure stories within those pages sparked his lifelong interest in world travel and climbing to the highest points on earth. In 1945 he joined the Boy Scouts, and with them, he began his wanderings in the Sierra Nevada. “I’m not sure if they turned me on to hike in the Sierra, or I learned to hike in the Sierra to spite them,” he said with a snicker. “Most of their hiking was with awkward weight and large groups of kids with stuff tied onto the outside of their packs. I went out with the older boys and we traveled fast and light. With them, I could see what the Sierra was really like by not following on the heels of a ninny.”
Swift’s visits to Yosemite began at the tail end of the 1940s when, as a teen, he joined the Sierra Club and took up climbing. Back then few climbs existed in Yosemite, where teams used a twisted rope called Goldline and soft iron pitons to ascend the rock. This period was the start of Yosemite’s Golden Age, a time where pioneers forged their own equipment. On one Yosemite trip, young and enthusiastic, he jumped at the chance to help Oscar Cook finish off a new scrappy route on Middle Cathedral called Harris’s Hangover. “It was a very simple dirt-filled chimney with overhanging chockstones and mud,” Swift said. “It was very nice of him to include me in that.”
During that climb, they spied another first ascent, Phantom Pinnacle, which he and Cook and partner Bill Dunmire did next. Cook and Dunmire became his frequent climbing partners, as did Frank Tarver, and through them, Swift met Warren Harding (who made the first ascent of El Capitan in 1958). “He was easy going at first,” he says of Harding. “A party animal who liked drinking and had a Jaguar that was very popular with the women.”
Swift also climbed in the Bay Area, where the local scene revolved around Berkeley’s Cragmont and Indian Rock. In college, Swift studied geology at UC Berkeley. For work, he drove the campus mail truck with author Allen Steck riding shotgun, whom he called his all-time favorite climbing partner. He also climbed with environmentalist David Brower and environmentalist/lawyer Dick Leonard. Both of them were 10th Mountain Division veterans who had done some of Yosemite’s first roped ascents in the 1930s. Swift often went to Brower’s house after climbing for spaghetti and cheap wine.
In 1952 Swift and Allen Steck made the first ascent of Yosemite Point Buttress (YPB), a 2,000- foot route rated 5.9+. It became Swift’s favorite route in the park. Swift, who always had his camera on hand, captured photos on YPB and many others in the Yosemite High Country. In 1954, over four days, Harding, Tarver and Swift made the second ascent of the Lost Arrow Chimney, then one of the most challenging routes in Yosemite. Today many of his images are archived with the Yosemite Climbing Association.
“I liked doing the standard routes like Washington Column to Lunch Ledge, the Brothers, Royal Arches,” Swift said. “Routes that are mainly fourth class but not too technical. That became my favorite way of climbing in the Valley.” He also did the first ascent of El Cap Tree, a five-pitch route that was the first foray by climbers onto the enormous wall. Mostly though, he liked roaming the High Sierra. “The Sierra was my first love and the greatest range I ever climbed in.”
After college Swift became a high school teacher in Half Moon Bay, where he taught his lifelong friend of 55 years, Jan Tiura, whom he met when she was a freshman in high school.
In the late 1960s, he also owned and operated Mountaineering Guide Service, the first commercial climbing school in California, later renamed Palisade School of Mountaineering. Climbing legends Chuck Pratt and Doug Robinson worked there. Robinson had begun guiding under Swift at 21. “Bob was a real mentor to me when I started guiding,” he recalls. “I could try my wings by leading a second rope behind Swift on Mt. Sill and North Pal. His quiet confidence and offhanded advice set a perfect tone that encouraged me as much as the clients. Afterward, Bob’s droll sense of humor sparkled around the campfire.” Tiura credits Swift with inspiring her to pursue a career in photography. He also introduced her to climbing and she became a guide at the Palisades School.
Though he loved the Sierra, he dreamed of climbing much bigger mountains. Swift’s first expedition, in 1956, was to 25,551-foot Rakaposhi in Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan but he failed to summit. “We got higher than any other team, but we ran out of time and weather at 23,000 feet. At that point that monsoon came in. The snow was melting. There was a lot of lightning too.”
Undeterred, Swift returned to the Himalaya and in 1958, he partnered with a team of eight Americans to make the first ascent of 26,509-foot Gasherbrum 1. “We got two people on top and we all came down alive,” he said. “We made the climbing journals and all that. It was the only 8,000-meter peak first climbed by Americans. It made a big splash.” Once back in the States, Swift continued to climb in the Sierra.
In 1972 Swift applied his mountaineering skills to adventures on the ocean. That year he set sail under the Golden Gate Bridge in a 34’ yawl made of fiberglass over plywood named Tyche (the Greek goddess of luck). His travels took him from Sausalito to the Galapagos Islands which straddle the Equator west of Ecuador on a voyage which took four months. His crew was Tiura and Joe Brennan, to whom Swift also taught physics in high school. Swift said about the voyage, “It stretched the capabilities of the boat and crew. We got back to Sausalito over a 51-day return trip.” He wrote about the trip in Sail Magazine.
From Sausalito, he moved to San Diego and took up running. “Of course, I overdid everything as always,” Swift said. “I ran some 20 something marathons and blew out my left knee. I’m fortunate I still have a left knee at this stage in life.” While running, in 1973, he met and married Karen Van Winkle-Swift, a middle school science teacher and later a professor who earned her Ph.D. in Zoology at Duke University. The couple kept a Nordic Tug boat in Anacortes and explored the Pacific Northwest for more than 20 years.
From San Diego, the two moved to Flagstaff, Arizona, and lived there for 25 years. She taught at Northern Arizona University (NAU), and Swift worked as an adjunct professor at NAU and on several Native American reservations with support from the National Science Foundation. He had a trailer full of computer stations and telescopes that he’d take to the reservations and rural schools. At night he’d have star parties. He also enjoyed mountain biking, which he did into his early 80s. In his mid-80s, because of balance concerns, he bought a three-wheeled recumbent bike, clocking over 3,800 miles the last four years of his life. Accompanied by friends and family, he took his last ride three days before his death.
At this time, he discovered that the thin mountain air in Flagstaff at 6,900 feet became too much for him, so he moved back to California while Van Winkle-Swift stayed behind. Tiura picked up Swift and moved him into her home in Moss Beach. He would go on to live out his last years there on the central coast with Tiura and Brennan.
He let out a cough and told me why climbing grabbed him. “It is all-encompassing. I think that the kinesthetic feeling of climbing on rock fills that depth for me, the muscular part of it. It can be social too,” he said. “Rock climbing ratified different social needs and there’s a joy of moving smoothly over steep rock. Those were real incentives.”
He borrowed the old climbers’ adage, “There are old climbers and there are bold climbers, but there are no old, bold climbers.”
“But you’re one,” I returned.
“I was,” he said, as he released a small laugh, before adding his conclusion, “That’s the story of Bob Swift. I’m ready. It’s been a long-time philosophy of mine to live as I have. I want to skip that part of chemo and radiation. I’m gonna have a green burial right here on the coast.”
Swift passed the receiver to Tiura. She said, “he’s tired and needs to rest.” I inquired with her about a follow-up call for the story and she sprang the news that Swift was scheduled to die later that week. We’re sorry to put you in this,” she said, before adding with lightness, “Bob knew of a historic graveyard that was taking volunteers.”
She continued, “Tomorrow, we’re cleaning up and getting our act together, and then we’re having a party.” She said singer/songwriter Joan Baez came by and dropped off a painting for Swift and sang for him. Tiura knew Baez from the time they shared a jail cell in 1967 from doing a sit-in at the Oakland Army Induction Center. She signed the artwork, “To Bob, much love on your journey home. Joan Baez.”
On the morning of October 25, the life-ending drugs kicked in, and Swift took his last breath. Tiura wrapped him in her white linen tablecloth and buried him next to two rocks that he picked up while returning from Gasherbrum I. In his final resting place sat an old Raffi Bedayn carabiner and some Goldline. “The end was perfect,” she said.