A Tribute to Nick Clinch

Clinch_InsetNick Clinch (b. 1930), leader of the 1966 first ascent of Mount Vinson, passed away on June 15, 2016 in Palo Alto, California.

Clinch is regarded as one of America’s most successful expedition leaders. He is the only American to have led the first ascent of an 8,000 meter peak: Hidden Peak (Gasherbrum I, 26,470 feet) in 1958. He also led the first ascent of the notorious and beautiful Masherbrum (25,660 feet) in 1960 and Antarctica’s highest peak, Mount Vinson (16,050 feet), in 1966.

Clinch was known among mountaineers as a consummate team player and a leader and organizer of infinite patience, diligence and humor. This made him the ideal candidate to lead the American Antarctic Mountaineering Expedition (AAME), the first expedition to attempt major peaks in the Sentinel Range. Past AAC President Bob Bates recalls,

‘My greatest challenge in AAC leadership was helping to solve a problem that threatened to split the club between East and West. Groups of fine climbers from both areas had been raising money to become the AAC expedition to climb the highest peak in Antarctica….Obviously, the climbers from the East and from the West would need to be fused into a single party—if that could be done. Fortunately, I knew the man who could do it. He was an experienced climbing leader whose parties had included climbers from across the country. He was well liked by all for his judgment and sense of humor. The man was Nick Clinch.’

The expedition was a remarkable success. Between December 8, 1966 and January 11, 1967 the ten-man team climbed Antarctica’s four highest peaks, plus two other high mountains, for a total of six first ascents:

  • The entire team summitted Vinson (16,050 ft) and Shinn (15,289 ft).
  • Two members, John Evans and Barry Corbet, climbed the three highest mountains (Vinson, Tyree, Shinn), a feat not equalled for more than 20 years.
  • The fourth highest, Mount Gardner (15,003 ft), was climbed on the approach to Tyree (15,919 ft).
  • Other first ascents included Mount Ostenso (13,402 ft) and Mount Long Gables (13,317 ft)

Clinch received many awards and recognition for his extraordinary services to mountaineering. He was made a Fellow of the prestigious Explorers Club in 1969 and later elected to Honorary Membership in The Alpine Club [London]. In 2013 he was inducted into the Hall of Mountaineering Excellence for both his achievements on and off the mountain by the American Mountaineering Museum. He is an honorary member of the American Alpine Club and has received the Heilprin Award for service to the Club and the rarely granted President’s Gold Medal—twice. In 2006 the USGS named Clinch Peak (15,883 ft) on Vinson Massif in his honor.

A lawyer by profession, Clinch was a former executive director of the Sierra Club Foundation, a past president (from 1968 to 1970) of the American Alpine Club and an early board member of REI. During his AAC presidency, he expanded community outreach and service by establishing the Grand Teton Climbers’ Ranch, in Jackson, Wyoming.

Clinch was a student of climbing history and a prolific book collector with, as he often said, “the discrimination of a vacuum cleaner.” He also wrote two books of his own. In 1982 he published, A Walk in the Sky, his account of the 1958 Hidden Peak expedition. In 2011 he published Through a Land of Extremes: The Littledales of Central Asia, co-authored with his wife Elizabeth Clinch.

Phil Powers, executive director of the American Alpine Club, summed up Clinch’s legacy, “We all know him as a great and wise man, a collector, and the most effective and diplomatic expedition leader of his era. He was tough to the end and left many of us with a final: ‘You’re doing a great job.’ He never failed to bring out our best.”

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