Pioneering climber of desert towers, guide book author, tea and coffeehouse proprietor, poet and overall renaissance man Eric Bjornstad passed away at the Canyonlands Care Center on Dec. 17, at the age of 80.
Bjornstad began climbing in canyon country in the 1960s, logging over two dozen first ascents on remote and obscure desert towers, including Echo Tower in the Fisher Towers and the Middle Sister in Monument Valley.
Castle Valley resident, rock climber, mountaineer and author Greg Child, who knew him for the last 15 years, said that Bjornstad “was active in an age of desert climbing that really amounted to exploring, or mountain climbing in the desert.”
“It was more in the tradition of the mountaineer,” Child said. “It was truly a wilderness out there.”
Raised in California, Bjornstad moved to the San Francisco Bay area during the height of the Beat Generation era, where his early interests included writing poetry, playing chess and playing classical music on both the oboe and piano.
He developed a love for mountains and climbing in the High Sierra, and in 1959, he moved to the American mountaineering capital of Seattle, Washington.
“There, my passion drove me to extremes,” Bjornstad said in a 2005 interview in Alpinist magazine. “I spent all my free money on climbing books and averaged four days a week in the mountains.”
It was in Seattle that he met the now renowned climbing legend Fred Beckey, and the two formed a long partnership garnering first ascents in Canada, Alaska and the desert Southwest.
He began calling Moab home in 1969, when he befriended longtime resident, rock shop owner and original area tour guide, Lin Ottinger.
“I used to give a slideshow every night,” Ottinger said. “I had a picture of a tower over on the Green River, and Eric came up to me after and said he wanted to climb that and wanted to know how to get there.”
Bjornstad and Beckey made the first ascent of that tower, now known as “Moses” in Taylor Canyon, in 1972. Ottinger said that his mother named the famous tower.
Bjornstad and Ottinger became fast friends traveling together on climbing trips, collecting antiques and seeing the country. In their travels, Ottinger recalled visiting a coffee shop owned by Bjornstad in Cincinnati, Ohio.
“He would start a little coffee shop or tea house, and then get someone to run it,” Ottinger said. “That’s how he would finance his climbing trips.”
In 1973, Bjornstad opened the Tamarisk Tea House in Moab, across from present day Eddie McStiff’s. Stewart M. Green, a climber, photographer and author who met Bjornstad back then, said the place “had a 24 page menu, over a hundred varieties of herbal teas, and a big brass espresso machine with an eagle on top.”
According to Green, Bjornstad later worked as a field researcher on a long-ranging Harvard University study that examined the effects of air pollution on human health. The work took him from Missouri to Kentucky and beyond over a 10-year period.
“They paid me so much money, I couldn’t quit,” Bjornstad told Green. “It was a perfect job because we only worked eight months out of the year.”
During those lengthy breaks, Bjornstad would often hit the road and head off to climbing spots around the Western U.S. and Canada.
In his Alpinist interview, Bjornstad said that his passion for climbing came from myriad reasons including, “the justification to travel to new places; the ability to step into another world with complex problems and close friends…the sense of living close to the edge where I feel most alive…and the lifelong memories of adventures. Without this passion, how impoverished my life would have been!”
By the late 1980s, when an injury hindered his ability to climb, Bjornstad began compiling his vast wealth of climbing knowledge and desert history into what would become the first definitive climbing guide of the region. “Desert Rock” was published in 1988; the guide would later grow into four volumes.
After he wrote “Desert Rock,” Bjornstad guided jeep tours in the area, and maintained a presence in the climbing community by holding court in his trailer on Powerhouse Lane.
In 2006 and 2007, he and Green also collaborated on a climbing guide to the towers of the Colorado Plateau. At the time, the publisher they lined up felt that the book’s focus was too narrow, so it was never published. Today, however, Green is hopeful that someone else might be interested in taking another look at it.
“I have the book on my computer,” Green said. “Maybe there’s a market for it now.”
Bjornstad also figures heavily into another book that Green is working on: This one has to do with Green’s climbing adventures over the years, and some of the remarkable people he met along the way. Green devotes a full chapter to his friend.
“He was just an amazing person,” Green said. “He was always generous with information about climbing and hiking.”
Their eclectic interests ranged far beyond climbing, though, and Green said their conversations often turned to other subjects.
“A lot of times, Eric and I never talked about climbing, even though it was an interest that we both had,” he said.
Over the years, Green was just one of many well-known faces who stopped by Bjornstad’s trailer on Powerhouse Lane.
“Eric was quite famous for having everyone over to his trailer,” Child said. “He would be drinking wine and watching sports or the Playboy Channel with the volume down, and writing poetry with classical music playing. But he was always enthusiastic to talk about climbing.”
According to Child, Bjornstad typified the climber ethos of “living on as little as possible to climb as much as possible.”
“What do climbers want to do?” Child said. “They want to climb all the time. They don’t want to work, so low-budget living becomes essential.”
According to Child, Bjornstad maintained the low-budget lifestyle even after he could no longer climb, often bartering for services, giving gifts, or leaving his signature, handmade glass ornaments as tips in restaurants.
“He lived in an alternative economy,” Child said.
Child said that ultimately climbing was what defined Bjornstad, and that he remained enthusiastic about it even when injury and illness prevented him from doing it anymore.
“Eric was pretty self contained, he didn’t ask for much in life,” he said. “He was part of the landscape of desert climbing.”
Friends pay tribute to climbing legend Eric Bjornstad