‘A beautiful soul’: Pioneer rock climber Dave Altman dies at 68

Photo of Dave Altman
David P. Anderson/Courtesy
According to a memorial post on the Touchstone Climbing website, Dave Altman, along with climbing partner Ray Jardine, became known for being the first to complete several difficult climbs at Yosemite National Park in the 1970s.

Dave Altman, pioneer rock climber and Berkeley Ironworks climbing trainer, died Tuesday at the age of 68 after his van caught fire.

Altman attended UC Berkeley for undergraduate and graduate school and, along with climbing partner Ray Jardine, became known for being the first to complete several difficult climbs at Yosemite National Park in the 1970s, according to a memorial post on the Touchstone Climbing website.

In 2000, Altman became a trainer at Berkeley Ironworks and spent the next two decades teaching classes and helping “countless climbers” get stronger, improve their climbing technique and rehabilitate injuries, the memorial post said.

“Dave was a beautiful soul, a kind and ever-positive individual,” said his friend Bob Palais. “He touched the lives of probably hundreds of people, just by being himself and being incredibly friendly.”

Altman’s climbing career began after friends took him to climb for the first time at Indian Rock Park in Berkeley as a college student, according to Palais. He became known as the “mayor of Indian Rock” — a title that came from his expertise in climbing at the site and his “constant effort” to welcome anyone that visited it, Palais added.

Nathan Smale, a math professor at the University of Utah and friend of Altman, said Altman was “the strongest climber” he had ever known and one of the first to emphasize the importance of strength training in climbing. Despite Altman’s strength and accomplishments, Smale said he remembers Altman most for his modesty.

“Dave climbed a particular route in Yosemite called Red Zinger, which is an extremely difficult one,” Smale said. “I didn’t even know that until a few days ago because big accomplishments — or any accomplishments, for that matter — were not something he would tell people about. He was incredibly humble.”

In memory of Altman, Touchstone Climbing said a garden will be placed in the Berkeley Ironworks parking spot that he lived on. Touchstone Climbing invites those who knew him to plant succulents there in his honor.

Outside of climbing, Altman was “multitalented” in speaking Japanese and cooking, according to his friend Joel Ager, an adjunct professor of materials science and engineering at UC Berkeley.

Altman’s second passion after climbing, according to Ager, was math. While Altman did not finish graduate school, he remained “extremely enthusiastic” about engaging in conversations related to math, Ager added.

“Just the look on his face and that glow that came from him when he talked about mathematics would be my favorite memory of him,” Ager said. “I could ask him about anything from Maslow’s theorem or Hilbert spaces or anything, and he would have an insightful thing to say about it. He loved it.”

Contact Annika Kim Constantino at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @AnnikaKimC.