John Richard // Bocce Ball Films

The Iowa Mountaineers Preview Clip (4 min)


Of the fifty states, Iowa has the least amount of wilderness. Its forests and prairies were long ago sacrificed to the plow and its fertile soils instead directed to feed a growing nation. And in a kind of midwestern cliche, this iconic heart of the heartland is indeed largely flat. So it is of particular irony that one of the nation’s most prolific mountaineering organizations grew and thrived here.  One that put up first ascents up and down the spine of North America, and sent expeditions to the Alps, the Andes, Kilimanjaro and the Himalaya. One that sent women into the wilderness on equal footing with men. One whose extensive archive of hand-drawn maps, meticulous journals and 16mm films along with tens of thousands of Kodachrome and hand-tinted glass slides have been until recently lost to the world.  

Perhaps some yearning for the kind of irretrievable wilderness lost in the Midwest led S. John Ebert to found an ambitious mountaineering organization in a land of quiet farm towns and endless acres of corn. Perhaps the draw to the mountains was something more primal.  But for 52 straight years, he led Iowans into the wilderness, people who, in his words “didn't know they wanted to climb” and in so doing became, perhaps, America’s greatest mountaineering educator.

From their founding in 1940, The Iowa Mountaineers helped shape generations of American climbers and provided a venue for storied alpinists like Fred Becky,  Paul Petzoldt, Joe Stetner, Gaston Rébuffat to teach, lecture and lead summit expeditions. Ebert absorbed their teachings and coupled it with a remarkable guiding spirit that led thousands out of their comfort zones and into what must have seemed a dangerous and alien environment. Many on his expedition participants had never slept in the open air, or traveled openly with the opposite sex, or left the state of Iowa. Some of his protegees went on to lives as professional guides or helped dub remote peaks in the Sawtooth Wonderland with names like Mt. Iowa, Mt. Hancher and Mt. Ebert.  More than a hundred couples who met on Iowa Mountaineering expeditions would marry and start lives together. And his own two sons would carry on his work and maximize the reach and impact of his ethic. For Ebert, there was no one who couldn’t benefit from a trip to the hills, and there was an inner journey that accompanied one’s upward climb. Pairing of the values of fellowship and perseverance had the ability to change lives.

When the Iowa Mountaineers were founded, outdoor education as a concept didn't exist.  Journeying to the hills had always had a charged role in human history and even when ancient notions of mountain tops as forbidden or demonic, gave way to a mountain ethos of conquest and masculinity, the practice of mountaineering was an elite pursuit.  Who had time to read dispatches from far away peaks written by effete Britons or the Duke of Abruzzi, let alone climb them? But when America emerged from the second world war as a global power, it also turned its attention inward to its increasingly diminished wilderness, and outdoor sports and recreation were poised to become democratized.