Ed Webster rock climbing in Colorado in 2018. (Stewart Green photo)
Legendary mountaineer Ed Webster died suddenly on Nov. 22 of natural causes at his home on Harpswell Neck. He was 66. Webster helped pioneer a new route up Mount Everest and established new rock climbing routes across New England, Colorado, and western North America. He was an author and lecturer, speaking to audiences as far away as Antarctica and as close as Woodside Elementary School in Topsham. He and his wife, Lisa Webster, raised their daughter, Joyelle, in Harpswell, where he also nurtured a prolific vegetable garden.
Webster’s climbing career began in the trees in his backyard in Lexington, Massachusetts, and soon expanded to the cliffs of Massachusetts and the White Mountains. At 11, his stepmother gave him a book describing a 1963 American expedition up Mount Everest, which kindled a lifelong obsession with the world’s tallest peak.
He was a member of three expeditions to Mount Everest in the 1980s, culminating with a 1988 ascent up an unclimbed route on Mount Everest’s remote and technically challenging east face. The four-person team climbed without oxygen bottles, radios, or Sherpa climbing guides.
Webster lost eight fingertips to frostbite when he took a series of photographs of the rising sun’s light against the mountains, and three toes as well. He did not reach the summit, stopping a few hundred feet short after bouts of hallucination and losing consciousness.
But decades later, he would tell Woodside students that success means having a goal and trying to reach it, regardless of whether or not you do. “Ed helped me define what success really is,” says Helene McGlauflin, a retired Woodside counselor.
With Webster she created a program for fifth graders called Mount Everest Base Camp. Each winter the classes would set up tents in the snowy field behind the school. Over hot cocoa and Pop-Tarts — the most popular breakfast on Mount Everest, according to Webster — he would talk about success, survival, and the beauty of the Earth. McGlauflin says students looked forward to it all the way through elementary school.
His longtime friend and climbing partner Jimmie Dunn tells a story from another elementary school, in Boulder, Colorado. A boy in the audience raised his hand after Webster’s Everest lecture to say that he had gotten frostbite on his toe, and asked if he would be OK. Dunn remembers Webster crossing the room and getting down on eye level with the child to assure him that yes, he would be OK.
Friends and climbing partners in Colorado remember Webster as a person who lived for climbing. He first moved to the state as a student at Colorado College in 1974 and lived there intermittently until the early 2000s. He made numerous first ascents of climbing routes across Colorado, in the Moab Desert, and beyond, helping to push the sport of rock climbing forward in its early years.
When you climbed with Ed, “you reckoned you’d get up something,” says another old climbing buddy, Stewart Green. “He didn’t like backing down.”
Webster was always a great storyteller, friends say. From the beginning he wrote magazine articles about his adventures, which, along with his photography, helped him make a living and climb prolifically at the same time.
They also remember him having a romantic view of climbing and mountaineering and the explorers who he read about in books from an early age. Webster was acutely aware of his own place in that history, obsessively taking notes on his own outings, even during the ascent of Mount Everest.
He wrote guidebooks to climbing spots and an account of his expeditions to the Himalayas, “Snow in the Kingdom.” At the time of his death, he was working on a book about the climber Fritz Wiessner and other projects.
Webster received awards for his writing and his mountaineering, and one for saving the life of a climbing partner who was trapped by a falling boulder.
Kurt Winkler, a friend and partner of Webster’s in New England, says that Webster’s own hardships — losing fingertips and toes to frostbite, and the 1984 death of a girlfriend in a climbing accident — helped shape Webster’s character and gave him a powerful ability to relate to people.
Winkler recalls his own experience of recovering from frostbite, during which time Webster drove from Colorado to New Hampshire to take Winkler out climbing. The two made it up a new route, even with Winkler’s fingers in bandages, and helped restore Winkler’s confidence. “I think he kind of knew that’s what I needed,” he says.
That talent for connecting with people didn’t stop when he moved to Harpswell, whether it was telling his stories at Woodside Elementary or dropping off bags of his vegetables to his neighbors. And Winkler says that even after a long day climbing in New Hampshire’s White Mountains and getting back to their cars after dark, Webster always wanted to drive home to be with his family.
“We tend to often think about people in terms of the achievements, the things they did,” says Green. “At the end of the day, the person Ed was was more important than all that stuff was.”
Sam Lemonick is a freelance reporter. He lives in Cundy’s Harbor.