Richard McGowan – Founder – July 12, 1933 – February 27, 2007

Richard in Kenya 2002

Richard in Kenya 2002
Photo by his youngest daughter, Kili

Richard grew up in Seattle attending Lincoln High School and graduating from the University of Washington with a degree in geography. He held a teaching certificate and for three years taught in Seattle. He had a distinguished career in mountaineering with eleven major expeditions to his credit, including Mount Everest in 1955. For ten years he was the Chief Guide at Mount Rainier (1956-1965) and made 84 ascents of the mountain. As an entrepreneur, he created the Alpine Hut chain of outdoor stores in Seattle/Portland and Mountain Products Corporation in Wenatchee. From 1977-1992 he was managing partner in Mountain Travel of Albany, California, a premier adventure travel company. Between 1953 and 2007, Richard traveled on every continent and visited over 60 countries. In 1996 he launched Next Adventure, specializing in African travel.

In 1950, Richard began climbing under the tutelage of Fred Beckey and Peter Schoening, two of the great climbers to come out of the Pacific Northwest in the mid-20th century. He distinguished himself in 1952 and 1953 on two expeditions in the St. Elias Range of Alaska and the Yukon by making first ascents of Mount Cook (13,780′), Mount Augusta (14,070′), and King Peak (17,030). Although not successful in reaching the summit, they also pioneered a new route on the East Ridge of Mount Logan (19,850′), the highest peak in Canada, on the 1953 expedition.

King Peak-Summit-1953

King Peak-Summit-1953

From 1950 into the 1970s Richard climbed extensively in Washington’s Cascades, achieving many first ascents and new routes. His name is sprinkled throughout Fred Beckey’s guidebooks on the Cascades of Washington State.

In 1955 he was selected, along with Beckey and George Bell, as one of three American members of the International Himalayan Expedition. (Read his full report as published in the 1956 edition of The Mountaineers.) In doing so, he became the first American to actually set foot on Mount Everest with an ascent of the Khumbu Icefall to 20,300′ in mid-September, 1955. Ultimately the expedition was not successful in reaching the summit (earlier achieved by Tenzing and Hillary in 1953) but the expedition pioneered the route on Lhotse (the south peak of Everest). The expedition also completed the first map of Everest under the direction of cartographer Erwin Schneider. Richard climbed a number of peaks in the Everest region, including first ascents of the West Peak of Lobuje (20,161′) and Langcha.

Upon his return to Seattle from Everest he took over the Mount Rainier Guide Service and during the next 10 years developed it into the first modern mountain climbing school and a highly successful guiding business. He made some 84 ascents of Rainier by various routes, including the first full ascent of the 3,000-foot Nisqually Icefall rising above Paradise, an ascent made possible at the time only by the recent introduction of the ice screw. On July 30, 1959 along with Gil Blinn, he achieved the speed record of six hours and forty minutes round trip from Paradise to the summit of Rainier and back, a record which stood until 1981.

After graduating from university, Richard taught geography for three years at Jane Addams Junior High School in Seattle. In 1960 he was a member of the American Karakoram Expedition, which made the first ascent of Masherbrum (K-1, 26,660′) in Pakistan. In 1961 he led the first guided climb of Mount McKinley (Denali 20,320′) the highest peak in North America. All seven expedition members reached the summit by the West Ridge.

In the early 1960s, along with Peter Schoening and Willie Unsoeld, Richard spearheaded an extensive mountaineering class program at the University of Washington in the Physical Education Department. As many as 300 students were enrolled in basic, intermediate, and advanced mountaineering classes, with field trips and climbs throughout the Pacific Northwest.

In 1963 he opened the Alpine Hut chain of mountaineering/ski shops in the Seattle and Portland areas. Then in 1964, he started his own outdoor equipment manufacturing plant nearby and was a pioneer in designing outdoor wear, tents, backpacks, and sleeping bags. The manufacturing firm, Mountain Products Corporation, moved to Wenatchee, Washington in 1967, and grew to over 130 employees. Richard retained ownership of the company until 1974, when it was sold to Fuqua Industries and Sportscaster. Richard’s career in outdoor equipment also included an early two-year stint at Recreational Equipment, Inc. (he was their first employee), managing their first store in Seattle until he went to Everest in 1955.

Kili and Richard in Botswana

Kili and Richard in Botswana

In 1977 he became one of two owners of Mountain Travel in Albany, California, and helped develop the adventure travel company into the largest and most significant of the early adventure travel companies. Later he was CEO of the company, which relocated to El Cerrito in 1988, and is now based in Emeryville.

In 1994 he retired from Mountain Travel but maintained an interest in the travel business, founding Next Adventure in 1996. Based in Berkeley, the company creates customized safaris in Africa and special journeys to remote areas of the world. His youngest daughter, Kili McGowan, is now Managing Director of the firm.

Richard enjoyed a 35-year marriage to Louise (nee Summer), whom he met in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory of Canada, following a climb of Mount Logan in 1971. Together with Louise, and often their daughter Kili, Richard traveled all over the world, trekking, climbing, and exploring on every continent. During this time they ascended numerous mountains, including Mount Ararat, the Ruwenzoris (the fabled Mountains of the Moon), Fuji, Mount Cameroon, and Belukha in the Siberian Altai.

Richard had two children from a prior marriage to Elizabeth Whisnant: Richard Jr. and Devi. Both live and work in the Bay Area. His first-born daughter, Laura Michaele, died in 1995 in Berkeley, California.

Richard was a member of the American Alpine Club for over fifty years. He spent many years as a Director of The American Himalayan Foundation, which has raised million of dollars for schools, medical facilities, and bringing a better life to inhabitants throughout the Himalayan region. He was also a longtime member of the Board of Directors of Ecole Bilingue (East Bay French American School).

Early Climbs & Old Friends

From the 1956 edition of The Mountaineers

A 7-part series in the 1960s from KCTS public television in Seattle