Chilkat Valley News - Serving Haines and Klukwan, Alaska since 1966

Bruce Gilbert: pioneering climber, community leader


September 7, 2017 | View PDF

Bruce Gilbert, a local mountaineering pioneer, was 34 when he and his wife, Gail, moved to Haines to teach. He died at 86. Photo Courtesy of Glenda Gilbert.

When 34 year-old Bruce Gilbert arrived in Haines in 1965 with his bride Gail to teach school and settle down, he had already climbed and skied many of the most prominent peaks in Pacific Northwest, made a name for himself as an Alaska pioneering mountaineer, rode a Harley from Washington to Panama, hopped a freighter to Europe, climbed Kilimanjaro, Mount Fuji, and the Matterhorn, earned two college degrees, served in the Army in Korea, and in 1962 became Alaska's first Peace Corps volunteer, teaching English in Sierra Leone.

In 1968 he opened Haines Home Building Supply, which his daughter runs today. Gilbert was 86 when he died at home Aug. 29, following a decline in health.

"Bruce didn't talk about himself a lot," business and climbing partner Paul Swift said. He was "steadfast" in his approach to life, from business- "Some days we'd have three customers all day, but he was never discouraged"- to summiting Alaska's most challenging peaks- "He took measured steps. Bruce didn't do anything in a hurry, and he was safe." When Gilbert, Swift, and local attorney Dick Folta climbed Mount Logan, Gilbert's last-minute decision to move a campsite saved them from being buried by a nighttime avalanche.

Denali guide John Svenson said, "Every time we crept around Washburn Boulder high on (Denali's) West Buttress, I would think of Bruce making the second ascent in the late 50s, basically alone and out of contact. The climbing world has lost a golden age adventurer, another 'last link' to the days when you had to be more than a climber, you had to be a tough survivor able to deal with pain and extreme isolation."

On the street, Gilbert was not so fierce. He regularly exclaimed, "By golly!", held doors open, picked up trash, and distributed home-baked brownies. (Nuts and no nuts.)

Gilbert didn't know his 1958 climb of 16, 391' Mount Blackburn was a first ascent until he attended a 2010 lecture at the Sheldon Museum by mountaineering author Gerry Roach, who explained that new surveys had determined that the west summit of Blackburn, which Gilbert's party had conquered, was higher than the east summit. "I was sitting in the front row and (Roach) started talking about Blackburn, and I said, 'I was there.'" Gilbert told the CVN. "Then he started talking about our expedition, and I said, 'I was on that one!'"

Bruce Renwick Gilbert was born March 9, 1931, the fifth child of Yakima apple farmers Curtiss and Anne Seely Gilbert. His mother had taught school in Alaska, and his father was a Boy Scout leader and avid hiker.

Gilbert Peak, in Washington, was named for him after he died suddenly when Bruce was 16. Glenda Gilbert said that early loss motivated her father to "enjoy each day with passion."

Gilbert came to Alaska for summer work beginning in 1951, washing dishes, climbing, and fighting wild fires. He graduated from Washington State in 1953 with a degree in horticulture, and later earned a teaching degree from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He completed military and Peace Corps service, and returned to Alaska in 1964, teaching in a one-room school in Talkeetna. In a recent interview, he told KTNA radio that he left after a year because "with four bars and no churches" it wasn't the place to find a wife. Six months after meeting teacher Priscilla Gail Mitchell on a flight to Kodiak, they wed on Aug. 16, 1965 in Loudonville, New York, and set off for Haines where they had teaching jobs. Building their home prompted Gilbert to go into the building supply business.

In addition to running the family hardware store, Gilbert operated an organic grocery, Panhandle Produce, which became the forerunner of Mountain Market. He also fished commercially and built and operated the Silver Eagle landing craft.

"Bruce's gift was in taking every day as a new experience to be appreciated, naively perhaps, but he was very open and curious," friend Tim June said.

In 1972 Gilbert helped found Lynn Canal Conservation, and later was instrumental in the creation of the Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, which at the time was controversial. "He took a lot of heat from that in his business with boycotts and other threats," June said.

Gilbert was a member of the Haines Presbyterian Church and the Chilkat Valley Historical Society, and a longtime Hospice of Haines and Friends of Recycling volunteer.

Dick Folta said one of Gilbert's few regrets was not turning Haines into Alaska's tennis town. "Bruce loved to play tennis," Folta said.

Gilbert leaves his wife, Gail, and daughter Glenda, of Haines, and son Scott (Deborah Read) and granddaughter Anna of Seattle. A service was held Sunday at the Haines Presbyterian Church. His ashes will be scattered over Mount Riley and Gilbert Peak.


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