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Tuesday, December 4, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Inventor, mountaineer Larry Penberthy dies

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Larry Penberthy, an inventor and businessman known as a high-altitude Ralph Nader for his crusading interest in safer climbing equipment, died Nov. 24 at his West Seattle home.

He died peacefully of natural causes, sitting in his favorite chair, family members said. He was 85.

Born March 11, 1916, in Tacoma, he moved at age 5 to Randle, Lewis County, where his parents ran a general store. He eventually outgrew his small-town roots to travel the world, selling and installing electric glass furnaces.

Mr. Penberthy graduated at age 16 from high school, and he earned a degree in physics from the College of Puget Sound, now the University of Puget Sound, in 1936. He spent World War II in Rochester, N.Y., making glass lenses for gunsights at Eastman Kodak.

Over the course of his life, Mr. Penberthy delved deeply into causes that included development of a better ice ax and camp stove, treatments for acute mountain sickness, disposal of hazardous and nuclear waste, and restrictions on backcountry use in Olympic and Mount Rainier national parks.

He held dozens of patents and invented all manner of things, from a cockpit for a deep-water diving bell made of polished glass to lead-infused glass to protect nuclear workers from radioactivity.

Mr. Penberthy climbed Mount Rainier so many times he lost count, and he still found time to run for the U.S. Senate twice, the U.S. House of Representatives and lieutenant governor.

Mr. Penberthy undertook his political campaigns to gain a platform for his most passionate cause: development of an economical and effective method of containing hazardous and nuclear waste, said his wife, Alma.

An advocate of nuclear power, Mr. Penberthy believed that if the waste-disposal problems were solved, a broader acceptance and use of nuclear energy would follow.

With typical resourcefulness and aplomb, Mr. Penberthy plunged into the problem on his own and developed a method through his company Penberthy Electromelt, to convert hazardous waste into a glasslike substance.

"He would generate an idea, and he would just go ahead with it," Alma Penberthy said. "He didn't look for backing or permission, or for the rest of the world to come in and give a big stamp of approval. He'd charge ahead anyhow."

Mr. Penberthy began treating hazardous waste — in a South Seattle furnace — in 1986 but was shut down by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1991.

He also dedicated himself to the development of safer mountaineering equipment through another of his businesses, Mountain Safety Research (MSR).

He became a devoted thorn in the side of REI beginning in 1968, taking the company to task after climbing equipment such as carabiners and rope broke in tests. REI paid Mountain Safety Research the ultimate compliment by buying the company in 1981.

An avid mountaineer, Mr. Penberthy developed the MSR Model 9 camp stove, a breakthrough design because it would perform in cold temperatures. He also invented an ice-ax design that allows the ax to dig into the ice better and stop a slide. His metal-shafted ice axes also were stronger and safer than earlier, wooden-shaft designs.

Clay Madden, a lifelong friend and former employee of Mr. Penberthy's, remembers a hike two years ago on Mount Rainier. Fellow hikers, seeing Mr. Penberthy's name on his jacket, asked to shake his hand and thanked him for all the inventions that had made their life in the outdoors safer and more comfortable.

"He had no idea how many people appreciated what he did," said Madden, of Kennewick.

Besides his wife, Mr. Penberthy is survived by daughters Doris Penberthy Loughner of California and Louise Penberthy and Laura Penberthy Grove, both of Seattle; and two granddaughters.

The family will hold a private celebration of his life Saturday. Remembrances may be sent to Tacoma Mountain Rescue; P.O. Box 696, Tacoma, WA 98401.

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