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Jack Durrance passes at age 91


by Editor

December 17, 2003

Camp4 - Climbing News Archive

News courtesy of the Denver Post. A couple of minor errors in the story, climbing-wise, but its as accurate as it really needs to be. Condolences to his family and friends, and all in the climbing community who are affected by knowing him or his legacy. tradkelly, associate editor.

Dr. John R. "Jack" Durrance, an accomplished physician who achieved international notoriety for his mountain-climbing feats as well as his expertise in hybridizing flowers, died Nov. 7 of natural causes. He was 91.

Durrance was a colorful, irreverent man who conformed to the exacting demands of medicine, botany and a large family, yet rejected many aspects of polite society - speed limits in particular.

He could be charming and engaging among the patrician crowds at spring flower shows as well as with scruffy, unwashed expedition climbers high in the Himalayas.

Durrance's lifetime avocation was growing and hybridizing flowers, starting with gladiolus, then tulips and finally irises. He hybridized more than 30 types of irises, achieving one of the very few true red irises and coming close to a true black iris. He gave them such names as Buenos Iris or Gorby, after former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, for the red iris. He was elected chairman of the International Iris Society and chaired three American Iris Society conventions in Denver.

Durrance became one of the nation's premier rock climbers, making legendary ascents, such as the first ascent of the north face of the Grand Teton and a daring, unaided rescue of a parachutist trapped on the top of Devil's Tower in Wyoming.

The greatest controversy of his life came during his 1939 attempt on K2, the mountain in Kashmir that is the second-highest in the world. Four expedition members died on the peak, and team leader Fritz Wiessner blamed Durrance.

"I knew I was not responsible for those men dying. But I never felt I could argue against Wiessner," Durrance said in 1995. So he returned to his medical studies at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and never defended himself. "I never felt anyone would listen to me."

The controversy swirled among climbing circles until 1994, when two former officers of the American Alpine Club investigated the incident and published their findings in a book, "K2: The 1939 Tragedy." Authors William Putnam, the Alpine Club's former president, and Andy Kaufman, a former director, not only exonerated Durrance but blamed Wiessner for the deaths.

During the K2 attempt, Chappel Cranmer, a teammate from Denver, nearly died from pulmonary edema, but Durrance was able to save his life. Cranmer's family thanked Durrance by securing an internship for him with Dr. James J. Waring, an international expert on tuberculosis who founded the Webb-Waring Institute at the University of Colorado Medical School.

Durrance moved to Denver for the internship, then took a job as a pulmonary physician at the local veterans hospital. He became chief of medicine.

He married Stella Coulter; bought the only house he ever owned, east of Leetsdale Drive; and raised five children. With more than an acre of land surrounding the house, Durrance planted his prized irises from fence to fence.

His children recalled Durrance's antics, sometimes finding him in the garden at 3 a.m. with a flashlight.

"He could launch into a dirty joke on just about any subject that came up in conversation," said daughter Dee Dee.

Durrance loved fast cars and owned a stable of them, including a rare Mercedes 300SL Gull Wing, which he eventually crashed.

"He'd drive us to school at Kent in his racing car," said daughter Charis, better known as "Worm." "It had a tiny windshield, so we sat on the gas tank and wore goggles. We'd arrive fairly disheveled."

Daughter Joanna, called "Bird," recalled fishing trips to the Green River in Wyoming. "It was an eight-hour trip, but we always went over 100 mph. It took us only four hours. We loved it," she said, noting that Durrance rarely caught any fish but became an expert bird hunter.

Joanna recalled the five children riding in their father's Cadillac, which he would swerve off the road to chase rabbits across fields near Parker Road and Havana Street. "He also took us mushroom hunting many mornings down where the Safeway is in Cherry Creek shopping center," she said.

In addition to his widow, Durrance is survived by a son, John "Ant" Durrance of Montpelier, Vt.; four daughters, Joanna "Bird" Lacoursiere of Topeka, Kan., Charis "Worm" Durrance of Denver, Dee Dee Durrance-Loughran of Hotchkiss and Margaret "Yum Yum" of Longmont; a brother, Dick of Carbondale; a sister, Ada Greenwood of Boulder; four grandchildren; and a great-grandchild.

Services are pending until iris season in May. Contributions may be made to the Denver Botanic Gardens, 1005 York St., Denver, CO 80206; or to the American Alpine Club, 710 10th St., Golden, CO 80401.

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