Dana Q. Coffield… The courage to live a classic, yet epic life.
19.04.58 – 20.04.19
Dana Q. Coffield climbed mountains and corporate ladders with persistence, patience, and a reverence for the summit. His life was guided by a simple mantra;
“Till my day comes, nothing can harm me.
When my day comes, nothing can save me.”
A profound approach to life as inscribed in his 1972 logbook of mountain summits, at the tender age of 14.
Unfortunately, that day came too soon. On April 20, 2019 Dana was backcountry skiing one of the most classic ski traverses in the Canadian Rockies; the Bow-Yoho traverse. Following the east-west line across the Wapta and Waputik Icefields, he would perish in an avalanche while ascending Mont des Poilus; a 3,166-metre mountain located in Yoho National Park, British Columbia, Canada. The first ascent of Mont des Poilus was in 1901 by Edward Whymper and James Outram.
Dana was born in Huntington, New York on April 19, 1958. His parents, Catherine Coffield and Merritt “Cal” Coffield had returned to New York from living in Guatemala before Cal had to travel for a new assignment abroad. Catherine remained in her native New York surrounded by family with the eminent birth of her first son. Two brothers Eric and Alan would arrive later in Malta, and Rome.
Dana’s birth was proudly yet simply acknowledged as noted in the Western Union telegram sent by his Father from Libya the following day with the message, “Congratulations”. Five weeks later Dana and his Mother boarded a flight to Tripoli reuniting with his Father, where his international life would begin and later continue in Ecuador, Lebanon, and England.
Growing up in Ecuador, he would accompany his Father every weekend into the mountains to go fishing and hunting. It was on these weekend trips Dana would develop his interest in hiking and being in the outdoors. He was fascinated by the natural world as recorded in his journal of lepidoptera. He became so adept in the skill of catching the various specimens that collectors from North America sought out his services to aid in completing their collections.
Travel was to become a defining trait of Dana’s life, as his Father was an international exploration geologist. After being relocated to Beirut, Dana was enrolled in the American Community School which fortunately had a hiking club and a cross-country team; both afforded him the freedom to be in the mountains.
It was during his senior year of high school that the war in Beirut would escalate, causing him to be separated from his family as they were evacuated to London. Dana remained behind, trapped inside the school as bullets whizzed by day and night, and bombs exploded nearby. The United States Marines coordinated a rescue of the students and escorted them to the airport, where a flight was on standby to depart for London. Safely ensconced with his family in a flat on Marylebone Road, he would later recall the fear and adrenalin of the daring rescue.
Entering the American School in London mid-year as a senior student, the course selection was limited. Dana was left with no option other than to join the poetry class. Although shy, he relished in being the sole male.
It was in London while partaking in the local pub scene where Dana would encounter a rough, weathered, old climber, who after one pint too many asked, “Do you know how to belay?” This simple invitation would introduce Dana to rock climbing with many days spent in the Lake District and Wales.
Influenced by his newfound infatuation with rock climbing and his interest in geology, he would return to the United States to attend the Colorado School of Mines. There, he cleverly devised the (minimum) class schedule to graduate, while accommodating his climbing forays in Eldorado Canyon. In 1981 he graduated with a B.Sc. degree in Geological Engineering.
The collapse of oil prices in the 1980’s did not offer a wealth of job opportunities, even for a graduate from Colorado School of Mines. Dana would go on to work a variety of jobs including as a Hydrologic Technician with the US Geological Survey, a Geological Technician with Texas Oil and Gas, and (the early career highlight) as a Mud Logger with Ragsdale Well Logging Corp.
He finally decided in 1982 to return to the cloistered halls of academia, where he would eventually become Dana Q. Coffield Ph.D. He was accepted as a graduate student at the University of South Carolina (USC) and worked as a research assistant at the Earth Sciences and Resources Institute in Columbia, South Carolina (ESRI).
During his time at USC and ESRI he designed and conducted petroleum and geoscience research programs for industrial associates. It was his geologic fieldwork and published papers that provided the basis for his Master of Science in 1984, Geology of the Fanjah Saddle, Oman and later his Doctor of Science in 1988, Structural Styles Associated with Accommodation Zone Terminations in the Gulf of Suez Rift, Egypt.
The years invested as a graduate student not only afforded Dana numerous climbing trips under the guise of fieldwork, but also launched his career with ARCO International Oil and Gas Company, who had generously funded his Ph.D. Dana would go on to have a successful career with over thirty years of international oil and gas exploration and production experience, encompassing North America, South America, Africa, the Middle East, and South East Asia.
In 1998, Dana accepted an offer from Alberta Energy Company/AEC International and relocated to Canada. This was an especially attractive opportunity, as he could pursue his professional passion while bagging peaks in the Rocky Mountains.
After many successful years with AEC and later EnCana Corporation, Dana’s dream opportunity finally materialized in 2005 with the co-founding of Gran Tierra Energy Inc.; an international oil and gas company based in Calgary, Alberta focused on exploration in South America. He would lead the company as President and CEO until 2015. As he frequently said, “The tone is set at the top.” This would ring true as under his guidance, Gran Tierra Energy Inc. would become one of the most successful mid-sized energy companies in South America.
Dana’s accomplishments would not go unrecognized and in 2008, he accepted the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award for oil and gas producers. Many asked what the secret to his success was, to which he simply replied, “I find people who are smarter than me and get out of their way.” At the time of his death, Dana was an Independent Non-Executive Director on the Board of Amerisur Resources, which allowed him time in Wales again (a detail in the job description which was highly motivating).
Dana met Denise in 1988 in the Outdoors Club at the University of South Carolina while she was pursuing a B.A. in International Studies and History. It was following a slide show of Dana’s 1986 US Mount Everest North Face Expedition when he extended a climbing invitation for the following weekend to Denise, an offer she simply couldn’t refuse. They headed out to the beautiful Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina where Denise had grown up and proceeded to rock climb the classic routes in Linville Gorge. They were never apart after that weekend, until Dana was relocated to California for his job with ARCO.
Denise received an airline ticket in the mail for a trip to California to join Dana over the Thanksgiving holiday. It was during the traditional meal that he asked her a simple question, “Hey, you want to get married?” to which Denise with her warm, gentle smile simply replied, “Hey, you mean we will have the same last name and build a life together?” It was sealed with a kiss.
Later in December of that year with a Diploma in hand, Denise landed in California. They were married the next summer in Dorchester, Maryland and celebrated with family and friends in Oxford, Maryland. They began a life filled with love and adventure, which lasted for 29 years.
Their marriage was blessed with two lovely daughters, Sara and Alex who were the pride and joy of Dana’s life. He took such pleasure chronicling their lives in thousands of photographs and spending time with them in his beloved mountains. While he couldn’t always relate to the fine intricacies of Sara’s professional ballet career and tried to understand Alex’s passion for fashion holding Black Diamond on par with Chanel (often referred to as “Channel”), no summit would ever match his satisfaction of being a Father.
Dana was an avid mountain climber since high school, having climbed throughout North America, South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Antarctica. Many of his classic climbs would include: The Nose of El Captain, the NW Face of Half Dome, the Enclosure Couloir on the Grand Teton, Mont Blanc, the Matterhorn, Mount Tasman, and the Kain Face on Mount Robson (the family dog’s namesake). His easygoing personality and first-class technical skills made him an ideal candidate for expeditions to China, Tibet, and Nepal.
In 1982, Dana would join the American Gongga Shan Expedition and attempt to reach the summit of China’s highest mountain, 7556-metres. During the six-week climb, the mountain would be battered with blizzards, raging winds, and avalanches. On October 3, 1982 Dana and Doug Kelley would reach the summit; only the fourth ascent of the mountain. Dana along with Michael Lehner would make a first ascent of Gomba Peak, 5736-metres, as well as Nochma Peak, 5727-metres.
Naturally he was drawn to the highest mountain, Everest, and once again found himself sitting on an airplane:
“Well, here I go again. I can’t remember how many times I’ve gotten onto an airplane to go climb, leaving behind work, school, and friends. It’s never easy and I always imagine myself settling down after each big trip, but I never do. It is never more than a couple weeks after each return that I begin dreaming again of cold air in my lungs, wind slapping my face, and views across black and white mountains beneath deep blue skies. It is simple and compels me to return time and again.”
The 1986 U.S. Everest North Face Expedition would be Dana’s first attempt. Circumstances including bad weather and exhaustion would force him to turn around just 3,000 feet from the summit. Writing a journal entry while in his tent, he made himself a promise, “I would never again attempt to climb Mount Everest.” Only four years later would that journal entry become a fleeting thought.
With a leave of absence from ARCO International and support from family and friends, Dana and Denise boarded a flight to Nepal as he had been invited to join the 1990 American Everest Lhotse Expedition. Under a full moon he would climb for hours, each tedious step illuminated as he placed one foot, then the other, until on May 10, 1990 he was standing on top of the world, “The summit! The dreams, the failures are over.”
In 2003 as a result of his accomplishment, the Government of Nepal invited Dana to attend the 50th Anniversary of the First Ascent of Mount Everest Celebration in Kathmandu. The event was attended by the “who’s who” of mountain climbing, including the first man to reach the summit of Everest, Sir Edmund Hillary and the first woman to summit, Junko Tabei. This time around Dana and Denise brought their own team, Sara and Alex. Dana later commented, “While conquering Everest will always be a proud accomplishment, nothing will compare with the thrill of sharing in the festivities with my daughters, and with seeing Nepal’s nature and culture through their eyes.”
In the tradition of polar exploration, Dana would travel to Antarctica where he would not only summit Mount Vinson, 4892-metres on January 10, 2011 but also achieve the first ascent of Lyskamm Peak, 2010-m on January 17, 2011with his partner Jocelyn Dufour. As noted in Dana’s journal, “Sunrise over the Magellan Straits under clear skies gave everything a dim glow, adding color to another fascinating journey.”
His antique mountaineering library and personal photography collection reflect a life both classic and epic. He was a member of the American Alpine Club, the Canadian Alpine Club, and the Explorers Club.
“Dana was a man of great strength, humility, and grace” as noted by his lifelong climbing partner and friend Andy Evans; necessary attributes which enabled Dana to survive a lightning bolt to the head atop of Mount Birdwood (with none other than Andy himself, see Alpinist Issue 19). A celebration of his life was held in Canmore, Alberta on May 25, 2019. Many tales were told, tears were shed, and as champagne glasses were lifted to the tune of AC/DC’s Thunderstruck, a toast for Dana to, “CLIMB ON!” reverberated off the Rockies.
“Do what thy manhood bids thee do, from none but self expect applause; He noblest lives and noblest dies who makes and keeps his self-made laws.”
- Sir Richard Francis Burton
Dana, may your soul rest on a lofty summit, bathed in the warm alpenglow, and find comfort in the gloaming.