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The American Who Did Not Return from the Pamirs

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I am looking out of my tent at the Glade of the Edelweiss,” wrote mountain climber Gary Ullin to his girlfriend back in Seattle, “at 12,000 feet, a beautiful broad, flat valley. To the left you can see the immense mass of Lenin Peak and 19th Party Congress Peak.”

Gary Ullin’s letter from the base camp in the Soviet Union’s Pamir Mountains was the last word she would ever receive from him. Several days later the handsome, 31-year-old veteran climber was buried by an avalanche on 19th Party Congress Peak, the one he had gazed at while writing the letter.

Ullin, along with 18 other experienced American climbers and 150 mountain men from nine other countries, came at the invitation of the Soviet Union. All were attempting to conquer difficult—in some cases never before climbed—peaks in the rugged Pamirs. Eventually, 15 men and women would die on these icy crags, including eight Soviet women lost in a single terrible snowstorm.

Ullin was the only American who perished. He and three other experienced climbers were approaching the summit when they camped for the night. While they slept, tons of snow, triggered by an earthquake, swept over their tents. Ullin’s tentmate, team leader Bob Craig, escaped only by raising his hand over his head to create an air pocket, allowing him to breathe until his teammates could free him. They dug for Ullin’s body, found it and were trying to resuscitate him when a second avalanche struck.

Ullin, a well-known climber from Mercer Island, Wash., had scaled peaks in Africa and South America, as well as in his native Pacific Northwest. He was a pilot, skier and photographer for whom climbing had become the yardstick of his development as a man. Blond, blue-eyed, low-keyed, he had a reputation for being dependable in tight spots and was constantly competing against himself and the mountains he loved. “Climbing,” he wrote to a friend before scaling the 18,000-ft. Alaskan face of Mount St. Elias, “is the difference between existing and living. One must always take advantage of the opportunity for adventure and growth so that should he die at some too, too premature moment he could carry to that moment the satisfaction of having lived to his death.”

Before leaving for Russia, Ullin entrusted his beloved Siberian Husky to his 26-year-old girlfriend, Gretchen Daiber. “If Gary had to go,” says a grieving but philosophical Gretchen, “it was beautiful that it happened the way it did. He was doing what he wanted to do most throughout his life.”

Ullin’s father, Chet, hopes eventually to have his son’s body—which is still lost in the snow on the mountain—brought down for burial in the Glade of the Edelweiss. At almost precisely the spot where he wrote his final letter to Gretchen, the Russians have put up a cross on a giant boulder to mark the American’s death. Chiseled into the stone is his epitaph: “Jon Gary Ullin, a graceful man.”