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Top Seattle climber dies on a remote mountain in Tibet

Even before Joe Puryear left the University of Washington with a degree in math, it was clear he would never spend enough time indoors to use it.

The climbing bug gripped him so fiercely even then, in the early 1990s, that scaling mountains or rock spires couldn’t be just a hobby. Somehow he’d have to make it a career. And he did, becoming a mountaineer of such renown that companies sponsored him to crisscross western China and Nepal seeking out summits no human had ever touched.

Earlier this week, the former Mount Rainier climbing ranger and guidebook author, who had become one of the country’s most elite alpinists, died after a cornice apparently collapsed while he attempted to climb an obscure mountain in Tibet.

Puryear fell 1,500 feet to his death while ascending 24,170-foot Labuche Kang, a Himalayan mountain so remote that he and his climbing partner, Mount Rainier’s current lead climbing ranger, David Gottlieb, struggled to find decent maps of its valleys. Puryear was 37.

“He was an explorer,” said Mike Gauthier, former lead climbing ranger at Rainier who climbed with Puryear on Alaska’s Mount McKinley in 1995. “His idea of the dream was to be out in the most remote areas climbing new things.”

Gauthier’s girlfriend has been sharing a Seattle apartment with Puryear and his wife, Michelle. The Puryears also own a home in Leavenworth.

There was something about Puryear’s quiet competence — he was powerful and his nerves never seemed to fray — that often made fellow mountaineers want to climb with him exclusively after spending just a few days or weeks with him on a peak.

During their climb together on McKinley, Gauthier recalled, the climbing team spent 35 days in the mountains, often with temperatures below zero, sometimes with snow blowing so hard and piling so high that they had to work around the clock just to keep their tent from being buried.

“Once it snowed eight to 10 feet, and every two hours we took turns digging out the tent,” Gauthier said. Puryear was never bothered by the work and didn’t lack for courage.

Climber Mark Westman, known for his many first ascents in the Alaska Range, remembers their first outing together, a winter ascent of Mount Rainier in 1994 when both men were in their early 20s.

“We got to about 1,000 feet below the summit, and the winds brought us to our knees,” Westman said. The men backed off, but after seeing Puryear’s calm under pressure, Westman made plans to return to Rainier with Puryear.

In 1996, Gauthier hired both men to work as rangers at Mount Rainier, part of a new crew of superbly skilled climbers who would professionalize Rainier’s rescue operations.

“After our experience on McKinley the year before, I knew I could trust Joe not to ever get in trouble himself while he’s trying to rescue someone else,” Gauthier said. “I knew I could throw him into any situation.”

It became such a tightknit crew that Puryear and Westman would climb together in Alaska for nine consecutive seasons. Puryear met his future wife at McKinley, and they later married on the Pika Glacier in Little Switzerland in the Alaska Range.

“Back in our 20s we used to load up on cases of Little Debbie snack cakes on our way to the crags and joke about how neither of us would ever get to own a home, and that was OK,” Westman said.

Instead both somehow managed to swing the best of both worlds — getting married and buying homes and still climbing nearly full time.

After he left the National Park Service, Puryear scrambled to make a living that allowed him time for mountains. He wrote guidebooks and taught himself computer programs to design catalogs and marketing material for outdoor-gear companies. He recently won a prestigious climbing grant and learned how to network and get sponsors for big expeditions, such as the one he and Gottlieb were undertaking in Tibet.

Details about the accident are still few, but Gauthier said Puryear and Gottlieb had just emerged after several days seeking shelter from a storm. The men weren’t yet roped together. Puryear had put on his crampons and moved toward a ridgeline. When Gottlieb arrived, his tracks led to a broken ledge. Gottlieb descended and found Puryear 1,500 feet below.

“He was an adventurer,” Westman said. “His thing wasn’t about doing the hardest things in the world, but exploring new terrain.”