Passing Over: Robert ‘Sully’ Sullivan

August 12, 1936 – November 11, 2016

By Rocky Stone

For The Cordova Times

A PASSING OVER STORY

“All the birds have flown up and gone; 

a lonely cloud floats leisurely by.

We never tire of looking at each other

only the mountain and I.”

— Li Po

701-762 Tang Dynasty

MOUNTAINS

Robert “Sully” Sullivan at the Cordova airport.
Photo courtesy Mae Vansant

If one believes we claim the places that brought our souls to life, it is entirely appropriate that Robert “Sully” Sullivan of Bartlett, NH and Cordova AK, 80 years in age, would pass over on Nov. 11, 2016 here in the White Mountains, site of his first love.

Born in Boston, MA Aug. 12, 1936, the son of a postal truck mechanic and a nurse, the third of four sons, he came to the mountains as a tot with his mother to his grandparents’ farm up Carter Notch, and in his heart, never left. Every summer – the haying, riding the big horse, soaring from the barn to the farmhouse, heart happy over the grassy field.

MOUNTAINS AND SNOW

In winter he would learn to ski Intervale and Black Mountain where his uncle ran the J-bar and let every kid in Jackson ride free. This was a good start.

And so it follows that this love for the mountains would take him to the great one, Washington, where under the excellent tutelage of Johnny MacDonald, Nelson Gildersleeve, John and Betsy Jacobs, Bill Blanchard, Dick Hale, a ski bum named Al and a handful of Canadians hovered over a bonfire drinking Labatt’s, getting it all solved, he would begin to develop a philosophy of life, one of testing one’s capabilities to their limits and living in the Universe to the fullest.

A Tuckerman wind blowing around the tent in a ravine.

Two years of tank driving in the Army, stationed in Germany, interrupted this life but upon discharge fire fighting at Mt. Hood, Ore., followed by a return to the Ravine, opened another world of adventure. Ridge running for the Forest Service, trail crew and packing for the AMC, building the Mizpah Hut with Tony Bukovich and running the Hermit Lake shelter he found happiness in the White Mountains, where everything came alive.

With snow ever upon him, he followed the skis to Aspen, CO, and the packing crew, Taos NM as Assistant Patrol Chief, and on to Telluride, CO, working as the explosives man for the ski patrol blasting away those slopes, getting in the first untouched ski of the day.

He’s been known to give some special advice to anyone seeking out the black diamonds. You ski to the lip, size it up, scream out a profanity, and let it go. Anyone about to attempt Sully’s Gully in Telluride would do well to have a very large repertoire of profanities, a real loud scream, and a pair of crampons glued to the seat of their pants.

SNOW AND ROCK

His technical rock climbing life began in 1970 on White Horse Ledge and Cathedral in the Mt. Washington Valley followed in the early ‘70s with a first successful attempt of the Titan in the Fisher Towers of Utah with Harvey Carter and Tom Merrill. He also set a route, Springwater, in Zion, with climbing partner Tom Merrill.

Two winter attempts, one on Mt. Robson in British Columbia and the Moose’s Tooth on Denali had to be aborted due to avalanching.

On to big walls and his first climb of the nose on El Capitain in Yosemite with Jim Beyer in ’73, the Prow and Direct with Tom Merrill. Yosemite and Camp 4, the hangout for several years. The Shield with Mugs Stump.

In 1977 he and his climbing partner Mugs Stump established a first ascent in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison – the Merlin (V5.10A3).

Then in 1981 again with Mugs Stump climbed the Pacific Ocean Wall on El Cap. At this point in climbing history this wall had been successfully climbed by a total of four other parties and was considered to be the most difficult technical aid climb in the world (VI5.10A5).

They descended to an earthquake. Cracks opened. Cracks closed. Perhaps never to be climbed the same way again?

ROCK AND WATER

So begins a fishing life, beginning with a rock story. One winter he and a friend were awkwardly rolling a gravestone to an Aspen cemetery when they suddenly decided to hit the Australian beaches in search of opals. John Miller went ahead to do a little research, but when Sully met up with him in San Francisco, a better idea was brewing. Up in Alaska there was a quaint isolated fishing village filled with beautiful women, and men who went out fishing all summer, leaving the women to fend for themselves. Ideal situation. Why not give it a try

So they took a hard left and hitched up the Alaska Highway, arriving in Cordova in the spring of 1963, finding a home in Shelter Bay, Fleming Spit. Summers, he’d return to fishing jobs until 1980 and steady fishing with some of the greats, E.J. Cheshier, Ross Mullins, Moose Henrichs, Bob and Kenny Honkola, Hughie Hosick, Dennis Nolan, then purchasing in 1988 his own gill net permit and a 27’ wooden stern picker, The Star Thrower, the last of the Henry Stewart built boats to ply the waters of Prince William Sound and the Gulf of Alaska. On retirement, it was gifted to the city of Cordova for the creation of a maritime museum.

He didn’t ‘think like a fish’ but he was a good fisherman and provider, tenacious and enduring. Most of all he loved it. After a big day on the fishing grounds with the wind howling, coming home in a following sea, he’d burst through the door, saying, “Rock, returning home was like that final run of the best day skiing.”

WATER AND WIND

He could be seen in Cordova riding his bike in all kinds of weather, in cloud, sun, rain, wind and had just completed a 20-miler when a flu set in.

He was taken by pneumonia. In the hospital parking lot the afternoon of his passing, an enormous wind came up, it lifted the leaves from the ground, high up above the trees, and then they fell as if falling for the first time.

If one believes we inhabit the space that brought our souls to light, then he is the wind.

“When you were born, you cried and the world rejoiced.

Live your life so that when you die

the world cries and you rejoice.”

— Black Elk,

Oglala Sioux, 20th century Tribal leader and visionary

No services are planned.

He is survived by three brothers, their wives, their children, and their children’s children.