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Robert Hicks Bates
Robert Hicks Bates

January 14, 1911 - September 13, 2007
Born in Philadelphia, PA.
Resided in Exeter, NH



Robert H. Bates, teacher, author, mountaineer and
first Peace Corps Director in Nepal, died on Thursday,
September 13, in Exeter, New Hampshire. He was 96.

As an instructor in English at Phillips Exeter Academy
in Exeter, NH, from 1939 to 1976, Bates encouraged and
inspired countless students with his warmth, energy
and optimism. In addition to teaching in the
classroom, he introduced many students to
rock-climbing and winter survival in the White
Mountains of New Hampshire, sharing his great
enthusiasm for the outdoors.

Well-known among mountain climbers as climbing partner
with Charles Houston on two early expeditions in 1938
and 1953 on K2, the second highest mountain in the
world, Bates climbed during the “golden age of
mountaineering,” a time when few of the world’s
highest peaks had been reached. The 1938 team trekked
more than 350 miles to the base of the mountain,
ferried supplies to eight high camps, and
reconnoitered several possible summit routes. They
reached a height of 26, 000 feet before limited
supplies forced the team to turn back. In 1953, a
massive storm forced the expedition team of eight
climbers to descend, attempting to save the life of a
seriously ill team member. A fall by one climber at
25, 000 feet resulted in a tangle of ropes and bodies
as each pair of roped climbers fell in turn, all
miraculously held by one climber in what has come to
be described as the most famous belay in
mountaineering history. Accounts of these climbs were
published as Five Miles High (1939), edited by Bates,
and K2: The Savage Mountain (1954), co-authored by
Bates and Houston.

Robert Hicks Bates was born on January 14, 1911, in
Philadelphia, PA. He absorbed from his parents an
early fascination for exploration, an interest in
other cultures and a love of reading that lasted
throughout his life. His father, William N. Bates, was
a distinguished classical scholar at the University of
Pennsylvania. Both he and Bates’s mother, Edith N.
Richardson, were descendants of Minutemen from
Cambridge, Massachusetts, who were killed on the first
day of the Revolution. Bates attended the William Penn
Charter School in Philadelphia before graduating from
Phillips Exeter Academy in 1929. He earned both an
undergraduate degree, magna cum laude, in 1933 and a
master’s degree in 1935 from Harvard University.
Interrupted by World War II, Bates earned his Ph.D.
degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1947
under the GI Bill. His thesis on the literature of the
mountains was published under the title Mystery,
Beauty, and Danger (2000).

Early in his career at Harvard, Bates made friends in
the Harvard Mountaineering Club who became known as
the “Harvard Five” – Bradford Washburn, Adams Carter,
Charles Houston, Terris Moore and Bates – climbers who
dominated American climbing for many years. With
Washburn, who became a renowned cartographer and
director of the Museum of Science in Boston, Bates
explored some of the largest unmapped areas of North
America in Alaska and the Yukon territory, making
several first ascents between 1932 and 1942. The story
of their incredible survival, after walking close to
100 miles across remote crevasse-filled glaciers in
the Yukon and summiting both Mt. Lucania, then the
highest unclimbed peak in North America, and Mt.
Steele, is told by David Roberts in Escape from
Lucania (2002).

By the time the United States entered World War II,
Bates had had considerable experience with the
limitations of the cold-weather clothing, boots and
equipment available at the time. He entered the U.S.
Army in 1941 and was assigned to the Office of the
Quartermaster General as a captain in charge of
testing clothing and equipment for use by the army’s
mountain troops. He coordinated the successful third
ascent of Mt. McKinley in 1942 as part of the Army’s
Alaska Test Expedition, a test of army clothing and
equipment conducted jointly with the American Alpine
Club. For further testing in combat and for training
mountain troops in effective protection in cold
weather, Bates was sent to Anzio, Italy, in 1944. His
work there resulted in significant decreases in
casualties from frostbite and trench foot. He was
discharged in 1946 as a lieutenant colonel, having
been awarded a Legion of Merit and a Bronze Star.

After the war, Bates returned to teaching at Phillips
Exeter, continuing to travel and climb. In 1954, he
married Gail Oberlin, a former staff member of the
American Alpine Club and avid traveler, who survives
him. Together, during the 1962-1963 academic year,
they lived in Kathmandu, Nepal, where Bates had been
recruited by Sargent Shriver to be director of the
first group of Peace Corps volunteers. One outcome of
this experience was for Bates and his wife to bring a
Tibetan refugee from Lhasa to study at the University
of New Hampshire, a young woman who became a member of
his extended family. After returning to their home in
Exeter, Bates continued to welcome countless students,
climbers, Peace Corps volunteers and friends from
around the world, always imbuing them with a sense of
excitement about the possibilities in life and the
belief that they could accomplish whatever they set
out to do.

Remaining active after his retirement from teaching,
Bates, in 1985 at age 74, led with Nicholas Clinch the
first joint Chinese-American climbing expedition to
Ulugh Muztagh, the so-called “great ice mountain,” a
previously unclimbed peak in remote south-central
China. Bates recounted the experience in his
autobiography The Love of Mountains Is Best (1994).

Besides his mountaineering interests, as a past
president of the American Alpine Club and an honorary
member of the 10th Mountain Division, Bates was also
very involved in civic affairs in the town of Exeter.
The preservation of the Dudley House in its present
location in the center of town and the adjacent “Town
Common” owe a great deal to his efforts as does the
historical integrity of Water Street. He was an active
member of the Exeter Historical Society, chairman of
the Historic District Commission, and, as a committed
outdoorsman, worked with conservation organizations to
save the open land surrounding Exeter. Always engaged
with other people, Bates was modest about his own
accomplishments. He often dismissed admiring comments
such as “You’ve had such an amazing life!” with a
smile and the simple reply, “I’ve had an interesting

In addition to his wife, survivors also include two
nieces, Edith B. Buchanan of Denver, Colorado, and
Elizabeth T. Bates of Philadelphia, PA, three
great-nieces, two great-nephews, two
great-great-nephews and Tsering Yangdon and her son
Nima Taylor. His brother, William N. Bates, Jr.,
predeceased him. Contributions in his memory may be
made to the Nature Conservancy and the Southeast Land
Trust of New Hampshire.
A memorial service will be held on Saturday, October 27, 2007 at 2:00 PM at Phillips Church, Exeter, NH.
held at a future date.
Burial will be held at Mt. Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge,
Brewitt Funeral Home, Exeter, NH is handling
arrangements. To sign an on-line guest book, please

Brewitt FH-603-772-3554


Born: January 14, 1911

Parents: William Nickerson Bates and Edith Newell

Married: June 18, 1954, to Gail Oberlin in Cleveland,

Phillips Exeter Academy, Exeter, NH, 1929
Harvard University, magna cum laude, A.B., 1933
Harvard University, M.A., 1935
University of Pennsylvania, Ph.D., 1947

Instructor in English, Phillips Exeter Academy,
Exeter, NH, 1939-1976
First Peace Corps Director, Nepal, 1962-1963
Instructor in English, University of Pennsylvania,
Philadelphia, PA, 1935-1939

Military Service:
U.S. Army, 1941-1946, discharged as Lieutenant
Quartermaster Corps, in charge of testing
cold-weather clothing, boots, and equip-
ment for mountain warfare
Decorations and Citations:
Legion of Merit
Bronze Star
American Campaign Medal
European, African, Middle Eastern Campaign Medals
with three bronze
battle stars
Asiatic Pacific Campaign Medal
World War II Victory Medal

Climbs and Expeditions:
1932, 1933: Mt. Crillon, Fairweather Range, Alaska
1935: National Geographic Society Expedition
exploring and mapping southwest
corner of Yukon territory
1937: First ascent Mt. Lucania, Yukon territory,
crossing St. Elias Range to
Kluane Lake
1938: First American Karakoram Expedition to K2,
Pakistan, second highest
mountain in world, trekked 720 miles from Srinagar to
K2 to Srinagar,
reached high camp at 24, 500 feet
1941: American Geological Society Wood Yukon
Expedition, first ascents in
St. Elias Range
1942: Executive Officer of U.S. Army Alaska Test
Expedition, third ascent Mt.

1946: Operation Muskox, northwest territories
1951: Artic Institute of North America Yukon
Expedition, first ascents of Mt.
Hubbard and Mt. Alverston
1953: American Alpine Club Third American Karakoram
Expedition to K2,
1956: Ojos del Salado Expedition, Chile
1965: Mt. Russell, Alaska
1970: Mt. Ararat, Turkey
1985: Joint China-United States Ulugh Muztagh
Expedition, Sinkiang-Tibet

Other Travels:
1938: Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Turkey
1954: Nepal, Thailand, Australia, New Zealand, Panama
1962-1963: Nepal, Cambodia, Burma, Vietnam, Japan
1967: Sikkim, Nepal, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania,
1969: Yugoslavia, Romania, Bulgaria
1970: Turkey
1971: Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary
1973: Yucatan, Mexico
1974: Pakistan
1975: Greece, Iran, Nepal
1977: India, Pakistan
1978: Afghanistan
1979: Pakistan, China
1980: China
1983: China, Japan
1984: Egypt
1985: India, Bhutan

Five Miles High: The Story of an Attack on the Second
Highest Mountain in
the World by the Members of the First American
Karakoram Expedition,
with Charles Houston (1939)
K2: The Savage Mountain, with Charles Houston (1954)
Mountain Man: The Story of Belmore Browne, Hunter,
Explorer, Artist,
Naturalist (1988)
The Love of Mountains Is Best: Climbs and Travels
from K2 to Kathmandu
Mystery, Beauty, and Danger: The Literature of the
Mountains and Mountain
Climbing Published in English Before 1946 (2000)

Related publications:
David Roberts, Escape from Lucania: An Epic Story of
Survival (2002)

Honors and Affiliations:
Past president of the American Alpine Club
Honorary member of the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain
Past president, Exeter Historic District Commission
Lecturer, Merrill Lecture Series
Consultant, Outward Bound
Member, Harvard Travelers Club
Member, Harvard Club of Boston

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Memorial service
Phillips Church
corner of Front St. and Tan Ln.
Exeter, NH US 03833
Saturday, October 27, 2007
2:00 PM

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