Vail Daily obituary: Dick Pownall |

Vail Daily obituary: Dick Pownall

Dick Pownall passed away on Dec. 6, 2016. His passing was peaceful, fitting for the man he was; humble and gentle.

Dick had a lifelong affair with gravity. As a child in Iowa, he climbed trees and windmills, which evolved into mountains when Dick got older. In 1947, he was one of the original climbing guides at the Exum Guide Service in Teton National Park, pioneering many difficult routes on his days off. It was through this experience he befriended lifelong friends and climbing partners, met his first wife, Nancy Flint, and was invited to join the 1963 American Mount Everest Expedition.

In May 1963, the expedition made the first American ascent up Mount Everest. Jack Breitenbach, close friend and fellow Teton guide, and Dick were climbing together in the Khumbu Icefall when a serac collapsed. Jake was deeply buried, while Dick was left with minor injuries and trying to make sense of the loss. Even so, he went on to help push the route up the southeast ridge that enabled the ascent on May 1.

Dick loved the mountains. He taught his children about nature and pointed out things that were “beautiful! Kids, look at that!” The sunset over the mountains, a deer hiding behind a tree, snow dropping from a tree. When he took his family camping, he enjoyed veering off the trail in search of the “perfect campsite.” His children remember bushwhacking through many forests and never getting lost.

Dick was one of the early Vail Valley pioneers, skiing the “Vail slopes” before there were ski lifts. He served as one of the original Vail ski instructors, then on the volunteer ski patrol for years. He built his first cabin in Vail in 1963, along with his wife, children, students and friends. In the late 1960s, he started Dick Pownall’s School of Mountaineering in the Gore Mountain Range. Many of his students were from the East Coast and had never before been in the mountains.

Throughout Dick’s professional life he was an educator and administrator in Jefferson County Public Schools. He went from being a P.E. teacher, academic counselor, math teacher and assistant principal at Lakewood Junior and Senior High Schools to retire as principal of Campbell Elementary School. Many of his students and colleagues were inspired by Dick with his desire to learn and ability to teach what he knew.

In 1979, Dick married Mary Rheinberger, his soulmate and life companion. Together they built two houses and made Vail their permanent residence in 1987. For 23 years they headed the race volunteers for the World Cup and World Alpine Championships in Vail. They traveled widely, cultivating a large community of friends throughout the world. In the end, though, Dick was at home in Vail; he loved and appreciated the tight knit Vail community.

Anyone who knows Dick Pownall knew his passion for living and his desire to share it with others. While he worked to defy gravity, he was one of the more grounded individuals one could meet. One of his favorite mottos from his time working with Outward Bound: “to serve, to stride, and not to yield,” guided him to his last day. He served with passion, he climbed with determination and he did not give up. As his relationship with gravity was lifelong, he is now released. We, the living, say goodbye to this kind, gentle man.

Dick is preceded in death by his stepson, Mark. He is survived by his children Betsy (Billy), OR, and David (Rita), of AZ; and grandchildren Sara Marie, FRA, and Ashley Flynt, MT; his cousin Herbert Pownall (Quita); nephew and niece Paul and Coney, WY; his stepchildren: Darcy (Mike), Cinda and Steve (OH), Kevin (Barb) CO; step grandchildren; and step great grandchildren.

A celebration of life will be held at 11 a.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 1, at Donovan Pavilion in Vail. In lieu of flowers, please make donations to the Nepal dZi Foundation or the Vail Valley Medical Center.

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