“Perhaps it was the wine of the cool autumn breeze. Or perhaps as climbers sometimes we meet, we met. Rob Kiesel was an aggressive downhill racer. Perhaps it was his single-minded drive, which induced success. Nevertheless he was somewhat new to climbing and this would be no leisurely climb.”
— Excerpt from Gregory Lowe’s “Half Dome in the Winter” as it appeared in The American Alpine Journal (Vol. 15, Issue 1) by the American Alpine Club.
Note: This story has been updated to include additional photos and comments from Harald Bjerke, as well as a quote from Ruff Patterson.
One of Kiesel’s longtime friends, Bob Rosso, laughed as he remembered a photo of the climb — one of the first winter ascents of Yosemite’s 4,737-foot granite dome. A rope jutted straight out from the rock to support Kiesel and his companions as they hovered in a cloud 3,000 feet above ground.
That year in 1972, Kiesel was a mountaineer as well as a skier. He started as a competitive alpine racer, making the U.S. ski team and breaking his leg in Sun Valley, Idaho. Upon leaving the hospital there, he decided that was the area he wanted to live in. That was the story he told Marty Hall, his predecessor as head of the U.S. national cross-country ski team. It was Hall who more or less discovered Kiesel through their interactions in Sun Valley, where Kiesel helped found the first nordic team around the time he summited Half Dome.
Kiesel always had questions — good, pointed ones — and great ideas, Hall said. His extensive knowledge of alpine wax gave made Kiesel a nordic pioneer in the glide-waxing revolution, and he went on to a 28-year career with Swix Sport.
On Monday, Kiesel died suddenly near his small ranch in Joseph, Ore., after apparently having flu-like symptoms. Private and unassuming by nature, he did not worry too much, delayed a doctor’s visit and may have passed away while outside exercising. Friends estimated he was 65 or 66 — a testament to the fact that he never drew attention to himself and preferred seclusion.
That’s why he chose Joseph as his home upon retiring from Swix a few years ago.
“He just loved being there, removed from everybody and everything,” said Rosso, who owned an outdoors shop in Ketchum, Idaho. “He’s just one of those people with enormous accomplishments, but just shy.”
Born in Ventura, Calif., in 1945, Kiesel was the son of an Olympian — Bob Kiesel — who won gold and set a world record in the 4×100-meter relay at the 1932 Los Angeles Games.
The younger, more snowbound Kiesel moved to Ketchum in 1971. There in the same building that Rosso now owns, Kiesel started a climbing and backpacking store called Snug Mountaineering with Bob Gorton, who went on to a lengthy career at North Face. Rosso helped them develop a climbing school, and it wasn’t long before Kiesel delved into nordic.
Recognizing a rising interest in backcountry ski touring, Kiesel decided to sell cross-country items. He also kept an eye on what was going on in Sun Valley, where he first started working with children in alpine. In 1971, Leif Odmark initiated the area’s first nordic team, attracting a small group of high-school athletes to the sport and coaching them for one race of the season — the Sun Valley Club race — with about 30 competitors.
The following winter, Kiesel took over the program after convincing the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation to incorporate nordic. At the time, it was an alpine-only operation in an area that had just recently discovered cross-country skiing.
The organization agreed to let Kiesel head a nordic team, and he chose Rosso — who said he only knew how to coach swimming — as his assistant. Over the next few years, Kiesel developed the program and attracted skiers to Sun Valley for its racing culture and innovative grooming.
According to Rosso, Kiesel liked to tinker and experiment. He spent time finding new ways to set cross-country track, perhaps most notably along the 32-kilometer Harriman Trail. There in the Wood River Valley, Kiesel helped develop one of the country’s first distance races for cross-country skiers — the Boulder Mountain Tour — in 1973.
“There were these epic stories of Rob grooming a point-to-point trail with archaic 1970s snowmobile stuff,” said SVSEF Nordic Program Director Rick Kapala.
One of the first to dream up a year-round trail from Galena Lodge to the Sawtooth recreation area near Sun Valley, Kiesel had to route the trail. Kapala recalled stories of him driving into the river on his snowmobile.
In recent years, the annual race closed out at about 1,000 participants. Since Kiesel did not want a memorial service, Rosso said the race organizers intended to quietly dedicate the 2012 Boulder Mountain Tour to him.
“It’s so hard for the rest of us to have closure,” Rosso said. “You want to celebrate his life and his accomplishments.”
Not long after Kiesel began working with young skiers and creating programs to certify adult instructors, he made an impression on the USST. Regular rendezvous in Sun Valley gave Hall — the U.S. head coach at the time — an opportunity to meet Kiesel, and he noticed Kiesel’s direct contributions there.
Meanwhile, the U.S. team was eager to get on snow as early as possible. Around 1974, Hall and his staffers discovered a small patch of snow at the northeast entrance of West Yellowstone in Cooke City, Mont. The team began a season-opening ritual there, beginning as early as October and staying in a nearby hotel for almost month. While the racers skied in circles, the coaching staff experimented — most notably with the wax pocket.
Kiesel came onto the national ski scene in 1975, when Hall hired him as assistant coach. His extensive knowledge of the alpine glide wax, which was leaps and bounds ahead of nordic technology, gave the U.S. team an edge and helped them gain recognition internationally.
“We had a wax combination that I’m sure the Europeans knew about,” Hall said of their trip to the 1976 Innsbruck Olympics. “But they didn’t pay much attention to us.”
That February in Austria, Bill Koch put the Americans on center stage, winning a silver medal in the 30 k. He finished an impressive sixth in the 15 k, and his relay team missed the podium by about 30 seconds in the 4×10 k relay.
“We had some guys on radios, and they said these (coaches) out here don’t have a clue what we’re doing,” Hall said. “But the athletes were screaming at their coaches saying their splits are screwed up. … Not only had we hit the wax, but out skis were way faster than their skis.”
It wasn’t long before their competitors realized what the Americans were doing in their wax room. Soon, the brown universal blob of wax was out, and Kiesel’s use of alpine wax, with different temperature and humidity ranges, was the norm.
“He was the perfect guy at the perfect time,” Hall said. “The kids loved him. He and I got along real well. … He was really instrumental at that time.”
In 1978, Hall left the USST and put Kiesel in charge. He filled the head coach role through the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y.
One of his athletes, Tim Caldwell, remembered him as an innovator in the mid ’70s, when the world was switching from wood to fiberglass skis.
“He knew a lot of stuff about this part of the sport that we knew nothing about,” Caldwell said. “He helped us a lot certainly with that transition … and trying to lead us, but without being too overly controlling with what we were doing. I think we all enjoyed working with him.”
Known for his steady attitude, Kiesel reacted similarly to good and poor performances, which Caldwell liked. Kiesel wasn’t one for excessive attention and seemed puzzled when he received any.
“He wasn’t interested in talking to the press; he was just a quiet guy,” Hall said. “Great worker, great thinker. It just popped into my own brain, ‘Marty, you did a good thing (hiring him).’ I liked him.”
Keep on Giving
After leaving the team in 1980, Kiesel moved back to Idaho and landed a research and development position with Swix Sport. Through the company, he worked closely with his college roommate from Denver University, Harald Bjerke, now the chief hardgoods product manager at Swix.
The two met regularly in Norway during Kiesel’s annual trips to the mountains to brainstorm waxing methods with the gurus. Roger Knight, the director of team and eastern operations at Boulder Nordic Sport, said Kiesel might have been the only American invited to the exclusive meetings with the Europeans.
“He was sort of a mythical figure, so to speak,” said Knight, who was personally mentored by Kiesel.
When Knight began working for Swix in the late ’90s, he said it was Kiesel who helped him earn a full-time position as the Swix USA nordic product manager. Later on, Kiesel regularly came to help at big racing events, such as nationals, Knight said. He wasn’t paid, but wanted to work.
“He’d never tell you what to do, but he’d always offer wisdom if you needed it,” Knight said. “People would say, ‘Who is this old guy in the way room?’ and he would leave, and I would say, ‘That’s the guy who invented fiberlene and fibertex.’ ”
Another one of his disciples, Chris Hall started as an assistant ski coach at Sun Valley. Kiesel knew he was interested in ski service and recommended him to Swix Norway. From there, Chris began working with the Swix Racing Service on a special project before the 2002 Olympics, and went on to become the head service tech for the USST.
Now the nordic race director for Fischer Skis US and also the Swix US nordic racing service director, Chris said Kiesel gave him the opportunities and confidence to move forward.
He remembered thanking him at an SVSEF team banquet about eight years ago.
“One of my speaking points was to thank Rob for the opportunity to take the ball and run with it, so to speak,” Chris wrote in an email. “Rob was a little taken back, as I believe he saw it as just doing the right thing.”
Last January, Kiesel was inducted into the first annual Sun Valley Ski Hall of Fame. Kapala and Rosso were among those who helped select the nominees, and both were nervous Kiesel wouldn’t show.
“When we talked to him about it, he couldn’t have been happier,” Kapala said. “He was just so gracious.”
For many, it was the last time they caught a glimpse of the man, whom a few described as reclusive. Rosso said he occasionally drove 5 ½ hours from his ranch to visit him at the shop in Ketchum, but the visits dwindled once he retired.
Kiesel was survived by his two children: his 28-year-old son, Jess, and younger daughter, Kaelin, 26, who had her first child a few months ago. Kapala said he coached Kiesel’s two children at Sun Valley, and both won junior national championships. Back then, Kiesel kept a respectful distance while supporting Kapala was in the coaching role he founded some 30 years earlier.
“It’s just sort of a very abrupt ending,” Kapala said.
“There’s just a lot of people out there that knew him well,” Rosso said. “He was just larger than life.”
An excerpt from an email written by Harald Bjerke, Kiesel’s longtime friend and college roommate:
Rob never talked loud about his achievements. He did not want to be in focus. Rob had a lot of interests from gardening, reading, mountain climbing, cycling and food to motorcycles. It was always interesting to discuss with Rob because he had such a broad perspective of life.
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.