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Rock Star: Meet the 87-year-old Legend of the Appalachian Mountain Club

You've likely never heard of Ed Daniels. His photo hasn't graced the cover of Climbing magazine, and he doesn't have a long list of first ascents. But, for more than 4 decades Ed has been a steadfast advocate for the sport he loves, and he has shared his passion with hundreds of beginner climbers.

Ed, who recently celebrated his 87th birthday, has been rock climbing for 45 years. During that time he has instructed scores of beginner climbers through classes put on by the Berkshire Chapter of the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC). In a few weeks, Ed will welcome a new group to the Introduction to Rock Climbing course just as he did for the first time in the early 1970s.

Ed enjoys a cold beverage after a day of climbing at the GunksEd has done nearly all of his rock climbing with the AMC, beginning in 1967 when he first scaled a cliff face in a class offered by the Berkshire Chapter.

 "After that one session, man, I was hooked, so that's why I've been doing it ever since," Ed said.

Ed's not kidding when he says he's been climbing ever since. The night before I spoke with him on the phone, he paid a visit to the local climbing gym, which he typically does every couple of weeks throughout the winter. During the summer, Ed will climb outdoors once or twice a week at crags located a short drive from his Easthampton, Mass., home. And, to this day, Ed still instructs the intro AMC climbing course, something he began doing just a few years after his first climb in 1967.

"It's always fun to see a person fall in love with the same thing that you're doing and enjoying," he said. "I guess that's probably why I like to [instruct]."

Fellow AMC instructor, Bill Kopell, first met Ed in the early 1980s.

"He is very good and very patient with people learning to climb," Bill said about Ed. "I think that the honesty about his passion for [climbing] and his appreciation for it, I think that's a large part of what makes him a good instructor. His ability to go through and explain the basic concepts and make sure that he's reaching people helps."

One area in particular that Ed has been known to emphasize with beginners is that you shouldn't use your knees while climbing. It's very tempting to put a knee down on the rock when you reach a ledge, but this can often put you in an awkward position that's difficult to get out of, or worse, leave you with an injured knee. Ed's frequent reminders about not using knees resonated with the climbers and he soon found himself with a nickname: Ed "No Knees."

To really drive the point home, Ed "No Knees" came up with a fine to be handed out to offenders.

"I devised a little penalty for it," he said. "I said, 'If I catch you using your knees, you owe me a beer.'"

Well, sure enough, one day a package from an AMC climber showed up on Ed's doorstep. Inside there was a can of beer with a note that read, "You know that hard climb down at Ragged Mountain that I always have trouble with? Well I was doing it the other day and I used my knee and I figured I owed you a beer." Ed got a real kick out of that.

Ed teaches proper rappelling technique

Ed has long been a lover of the outdoors and he credits his parents with instilling that in him as a child in the 1930s. His parents were busy raising a family in Brooklyn, N.Y., but they always made time to pack up the kids and head upstate to go camping in the Adirondack Mountains. Warm summer days spent exploring the forested peaks and pristine lakes of northern New York set Ed on a path that would lead to a passion for all things outdoors, most notably rock climbing.

But before Ed ever learned to place a hex or mantle onto a ledge, he enjoyed exploring the hiking trails of western Massachusetts. Sometimes while hiking he would come across a rock cliff and gaze up wondering what it would be like to climb up it. Without the proper equipment or training, Ed wisely stayed on the ground. That is, until 1967 when the AMC offered a climbing course and Ed signed up.

Learning to climb in the 1960s was a bit different than it is today. Back then, harnesses were hard to come by and people typically wore ordinary hiking boots to scale a rock wall. And, you know those fancy cams that help you keep a cool head when your knees are shaking and your forearms are pumped? Well it would be another decade until Ray Jardine invented the first spring-loaded cams.

"The only things you had were carabiners," Ed said. "There were no belay devices. We did body belays. There were very few harnesses so you tied in with a bowline on a coil around your waist and you rappelled with a Dulfersitz, or the 'hot seat' as they call it, and that was it."

Dulfersitz illustrationThe Dulfersitz is a good thing to know in case you ever find yourself at the top of a climb without a rappel device. But nowadays, with padded harnesses and modern rappel devices, it is not commonly used at the crag, and it's easy to understand why. There is nothing comfortable about descending a rope that runs between your legs, around your hip, up over a shoulder and across the back of your neck.

"If you do a 'hot seat' rappel over an overhang and are hanging in thin air for any length of time, it gets very painful," Ed said. "We had to do that in our beginner's class … It wasn't any fun."

Ed started lead climbing in 1974, right around the time that pitons were falling out of favor in the climbing community because of the damage they cause to rock. With spring-loaded cams not yet having been invented, his protection options were limited.

"At that time, the only lead protecting equipment were nuts and hexes," Ed said. "So that's what I started to lead with. You've got to be creative to protect yourself with those."

Although Ed recently stopped lead climbing, he does have half a dozen cams on his rack and he would use them in desperate situations. But, as an old-school traditional climber, he's sure to emphasize his preference for passive protection.

"I've always been a fan of Tri-Cams, mainly because they're a hell of a lot cheaper than [cams]," he said.

As a longtime resident of western Massachusetts, Ed has done the majority of his climbing at crags located around the northeastern United States. The AMC conducts many of its training sessions at Chapel Ledge in Ashfield, Mass., and there is a weekly night of climbing throughout the summer that is often held at the Farley Ledges in Erving, Mass. Ed has explored other areas, including Whitehorse Ledge in North Conway, N.H., Rogers Rock that rises out of Lake George in upstate New York, and Acadia National Park in Maine, to name a few.

Ed on the rockWith many climbing areas located a short drive from his Easthampton, Mass., home, Ed doesn't need to travel far to get his climbing fix. However, in 1977 he made a journey across the country to the climbing mecca of Yosemite National Park in California. Ed was primarily there for sightseeing, but as he gazed up at the massive rock walls he thought to himself, "By golly, I wasn't going to be in Yosemite and not do a climb."

Ed wandered up to Camp 4, the famed hangout for Yosemite climbers, and started asking around if anybody wanted to join him on a climb. He soon found a willing partner and they ascended a moderate route near Yosemite Falls. Ed climbed just that one route, but noting the legendary reputation of Yosemite and all the historic feats that have taken place there, he said, "At least I can say I climbed in Yosemite."

Of all the places he has climbed in the past 45 years, Ed's favorite is the famed Shawangunk Mountains (the Gunks), located outside New Paltz, N.Y.

"The climbs are so nice," he said. "They're so good that you can climb them time after time after time and not get tired of them."

Ed first visited the Gunks in the early 1970s and has been back many times. The AMC Berkshire Chapter schedules weekend trips there throughout the summer to introduce climbers to seconding and leading.

Bill Kopell fondly recalls doing a climb with Ed at the Gunks called Three Pines.

"I was leading the climb and there were several very committing moves where you're doing a traverse across open air," he said. "That was quite memorable for me in terms of my climbing. Committing to doing that move with Ed belaying me, I didn't worry about the belay at all."

When Ed thinks back on his climbing career, there are a few routes that really stand out in his mind. Limelight, Madam Grunnebaum's Wulst and High Exposure, 3 of the mega-classic climbs at the Gunks, are at the top of his list. As Ed described the routes in detail, it occurred to me that despite there being more than 5 decades separating us in age, the conversation was just like one I could have been having with my climbing partner. We were 2 climbers sharing memories and exchanging beta, united by a sport we love.

Ed climbs City Lights at the GunksDescribing the spooky crux move on High Exposure, Ed said, "… you're coming out from underneath, sort of like a cave, and you've got to put your foot on a little tiny nubbin and stand on it and it's like a half inch so you can stand on it. But you have to step out onto that hanging on behind you with an undercling and reach up above you and there's a bucket. But when you're doing that you're looking straight down at 200 feet of air which makes it very scary. But once you get that bucket then your hand holds and foot holds are good … It's such a nice move."

Ed's excitement for climbing has not dwindled since that day he first tied into a rope 45 years ago. When I asked Ed what it is that keeps him drawn to rock climbing after all these years, he put it into terms that only a genuine climber could.

"It's still fun. That's all," Ed said. "I tell the guys in the beginner's class, 'Look, if you find out that you're not having fun then quit. Go find something else that you're having fun at …You do it because you like it, not because you're trying to prove something.'"

Now those are good words to live by.

Photos top to bottom: Ed enjoys a cold beverage after a day of climbing at the Gunks, photo by Jim Van Natta;  Ed teaches proper rappelling technique at Chapel Ledge, photo by Cindy Rzonca; Ed climbs at Chapel Ledge, photo by Cindy Rzonca; Ed climbs City Lights at the Gunks, photo by Jim Van Natta. Illustration of the Dulfersitz technique is from Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills - 8th Edition, courtesy of The Mountaineers Books. 

Posted on at 2:36 PM

Tagged: AMC, Appalachian Mountain Club, Ed Daniels, Rock Climbing and The Gunks

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atom413

Cheers! To many many more years of climbing and teaching with Ed. Climb with just half of Ed's passion and you will live a very fulfilling life. Thanks Joe for posting this for everyone. Very well done.

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Nancy726

Thank you, Joe Pasteris, for your wonderful article about my Dad, Ed Daniels. And thank you, Steve Tischler, senior editor of this Blog, for facilitating this. Joe, you got it right and you captured Ed's spirit and attitude in your well chosen words - a very fine job. Having his story published in the REI Blog is really special and I'm very proud of my Dad – because he's earned this recognition by simply living it all his life.

Growing up under his guidance, I saw him "walk the walk" in terms of being an active outdoors person. And whether us kids liked it or not, we walked the walk too! We "hiked" to church; we "hiked" to the YMCA and to the library. We didn't take the car! Good heavens no! On weekends, Dad said, "We're going on a hike!" It wasn't up for debate. Since he was a member of the Appalachian Mountain Club, our family of six would pile into the station wagon and head up to "Noble View" - in the Berkshire Chapter of the AMC – about a 30 - 40 minute drive from where we lived - and spend the day hiking. While we were walking through the woods, he would also teach us to identify plants and trees (he had studied Forestry in College), and to generally take notice of and really appreciate the beautiful nature all around us. He has a true love of the great outdoors and he has passed that on to all of us. For that I'm especially grateful.

And even then, while hiking, whenever we came upon any rock of any kind, we would all try our hand at scampering up the rock, and Dad encouraged us and led the way. Our activities didn't stop when winter came – he put us on skis when we were all very young and taught us how to downhill ski. We did that every weekend we could, all winter long. And we still "hiked" to church, etc., even in the cold and the snow! In later years he took up cross country skiing and still does it to this day – even on moonlit nights!

I learned rock climbing from him when I was a teenager. I climbed at Chapel Ledge as well as Ragged Mountain (I think that was in Connecticut). I progressed up to a 5.9 climb – the "Spread Eagle" at Ragged. And that's where I first learned how to rappel. I had forgotten until I read your article - that the method I learned and used was the one you described in your article that was illustrated in the drawing. Wow – that was challenging! But fun once you got the hang of it!

Of course it was quite scary the first time I had to step backwards off a cliff and lean outward and "sit down" into the rope so my feet could be firmly planted on the rock, but Dad coached me through it. He was a very good teacher. And the "No knees!" admonitions really stuck – to the point where I had to hold my tongue and keep myself from yelling out to a stranger - just a few months ago - at an indoor rock climbing gym (Upper Limits in West County St. Louis) – "No knees!" I'm sure the unsuspecting climber would've thought I was nuts, but I can't help it - I was trained well !

Thanks again Joe – it means a lot to me and our whole family.

Nancy Daniels Warwick
St. Charles, Missouri
red55leo@gmail.com

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old 85 climber

Megake:
I would like to talk with you,via e-mail, so that we can share some more recollections about the Gunks. My e-mail address is old85climber@gmail.com. Hope to get an answer.
Ed Daniels

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Megake

Ed is my hero! I was fortunate enough to learn multi-pitch climbing from Ed back in 2003. It has been a few years since we have roped-up together, but I had such great times climbing with him at the Gunks. He was the perfect teacher for a beginner with such patience and his joy for climbing is contagious. I still cross paths with him occassionally at the Gunks and it is great to see that he still gets out - he was still leading 5.7s in his late 70's - very impressive and still getting out on a regular basis in his late 80's is even more impressive. I remember when I was learning to lead with his rack, he knew the routes so well that he told me which gear to put in at which point, even when I was out of his sight. Ed is a great asset and inspiration to the climbing community.

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pecarew

We met back in the spring of 2004, a time in my life I was desperately looking for someone or something to help me refocus and channel my frustrations into something physically and mentally constructive. Not sure what that was, a neighbor suggested rock climbing…not a clue, "sure, why not". We ended up at the Northampton climbing gym, where I immediately scanned the room and approached the infamous Bill Kopell and asked…where does one learn to climb on real rock? Bill gladly replied "meet us at Chapel Ledges in Ashfield in April.
I showed up that spring and needless to say, found not only the physical and mental challenges I was looking for, but also a great group of folks with Ed Daniels at the helm who became a mentor and the group, my surrogate family you might say. The AMC not only taught me the skills I needed to peruse challenges and climbing areas unimagined, but passed onto me the privilege of training new comers to the sport. I found training others very rewarding, a great way to give back some of the passion and patience that the group had afforded me.
One of the biggest thrills during the time I spent learning the art of rock climbing was the day Ed said, "you're ready to start leading". Wow, I wasn't sure I was really ready yet, I enjoyed being a good second and hadn't thought a lot about the next step. Nevertheless, Ed and I spent the next club trip at the Gunks climbing together where he allowed me to lead climbs I had seconded and felt comfortable on, long story short, best day ever… even though I did over-cam and lose your #1 friend! Thank you Ed.

Planning to get out your way this fall…so save me a dance!

be in touch,
Paul Carew

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