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Our Volunteers: Marina Valenzuela Catalogs Catherine Freer’s Notes

Posted on: May 15th, 2012 by Luke Bauer

Catherine Freer Yosemite Topo

The American Alpine Club has over 9,000 members worldwide and each of those members approaches climbing and time in the outdoors differently. For some it’s a career, for some a diversion, for others, an obsession. The Club’s membership spans boulderers, sport-climbers, hikers, skiers, trad-rats, scientists, big-wall aficionados, adventurers, ice-climbers, peak-baggers, explorers, and alpinists. It’s a big tent, but there are a lot of people in love with the mountains excited to fill that tent. 

Telling the stories of our members is important to us because it helps the community understand who makes up that community. Member and Library volunteer Marina Valenzuela has spent hours in the library helping us catalog the thousands upon thousands of cool things that people donate to our archives. She thought that this series of notes, in particular, were really cool!

A month ago I had the rare honor of going through and cataloging the personal climbing notes of none other than Catherine Freer, generously contributed to the American Alpine Club Library by her friend Alison Osius [Also a Past President of the American Alpine Club].

While going through the small box of faded climbing guide photocopies, hand-drawn route maps, and list after list of routes that had been checked-off, I slowly learned to move through the particular geography she inhabited.  I learned which were the hardest routes in the Yosemite Valley, what climbing in Joshua Tree was like, viewed pictures of the Canadian Rockies, and looked with awe at the picture of her summiting Cholatse, her dark shape dwarfed by the shimmering ice peak.

For those who have not heard of her, Freer was truly a legend in her own time.  While maybe not as well-known as Messner, Breshears, or Hill; Freer stood her ground as a respected rock climber and mountaineer. 

Freer started climbing in her teens, and quickly moved up the ranks.  She tackled the hardest routes with an intensity noted by her peers, and constantly challenged her own abilities.  Yet there was an emotional openness to her that drew people in.  Fellow climbers can recall her taking the time during difficult ascents to invite fellow mountaineers to share their thoughts and feelings, laying bare her own fears of failure, even as she encouraged the team to keep going. 

Scattered through her climbing logs, I found traces of this introspection, as she mused on relationships, left route sketches on the back of a poem, and added exhilarated notes on particular climbs.

It is the greatness of heart as much as the deeds that continue to inspire, as Freer died young, another adventurer lost to the mountains. At the age of 37, she and Dave Cheesmond were victims of a collapsed cornice while attempting the second ascent of the Hummingbird Range of Mount Logan. Their bodies have not been found.

In recognition of her lasting contributions to the mountaineering community, the American Alpine Club posthumously awarded her the Underhill Award in 1987.

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