A Local Life: Michael Forbes Robinson

Called to the Wild, He Wanted And Had an Adventurous Life

Michael Forbes Robinson was drawn to the mountainous terrain of the Himalayas, making four treks to the region. His wife said he was
Michael Forbes Robinson was drawn to the mountainous terrain of the Himalayas, making four treks to the region. His wife said he was "religious" about his daily exercise. (Family Photo)
By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 4, 2007

One of the places Michael Forbes Robinson loved most deeply was the high, spare landscape of the Himalayas.

He first saw it in 1976, then again in 1979 and 1983. His long-awaited return in late August took him to the far north of the Indian subcontinent, to the eastern Jammu and Kashmir area.

A specialist in flood-plain management with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Robinson saw land with the eye of a professional.

"I only saw one irrigated valley in 3,000 miles plus a few villages in Russia," he wrote in an Aug. 30 e-mail to his family after arriving on a flight that passed over Russia and Afghanistan. Apologizing for misspellings because he was using an aged Sanskrit-English keyboard, he continued: "The trip up to Leh was cloudy, but spectacular. Looked down on some humongous glaciers through holes in the clouds. Coming into Leh we came over a low spot in the mountains and turned up the Indus River Valley. Really bleak mountains towering over head as the plane snaked its way up the valley and a short runway."

At 61, he was still fit despite a recent anomaly in his heart's electrical impulses. Almost every year, he climbed a 14,000-foot peak in Colorado. His wife of 28 years, Kathi Robinson, said he was "religious" about his daily exercise, biking year-round, usually culminating in a 60-mile ride each fall. He worked out on his Nordic Track and hiked eight to 15 miles on Appalachian trails any time he could get a full day off in nice weather.

He had climbed to Mount Everest's base camp in 1976 and been over Throng La Pass in 1983. Both are at elevations of almost 18,000 feet.

Robinson died of high-altitude pulmonary edema Sept. 4 at his hotel in Leh, Ladakh, India. He had planned to spend four weeks in the area. He started an eight-day trek, but when a slight headache and shortness of breath slowed him down, he cut the trek short and returned to his hotel at 11,500 feet.

"The trip is a lot harder than anyone my age should try," he wrote in an e-mail to his family the night before his death. "Trail was shadeless across a barren alluvial fan above the Indus River gorge then up a valley to Jingeen, a place where the valley widens to a few hundred feet and there was a small village and campsite. I was having lots of trouble on any climbs with loss of breath."

Doctors warn that high-altitude pulmonary edema generally occurs a few days after a rapid ascent to places higher than 8,000 feet, an elevation that is usually not considered extreme by mountaineers.

"These mountains are much ruggeder than Nepal -- no walks up the Kali Gandaki Valley -- and once you're in them you're really isolated," Robinson wrote. "I decided the better part of valor was to get out while I could. Everyone else trekking was at least 30 years younger than me -- most in their late twenties and without my health problems. I'm getting reconciled to the fact that I'm too old to just tough it out like I used to."

He was a man who loved a challenge. Born in Gallipolis, Ohio, he told his mother when he was 4 that he "wanted to go up and shine the stars," said his younger sister, Elin Booth Karch. Raised in New Jersey, he was an Eagle Scout who at 16 planned his family's camping vacation out West. He graduated from Oberlin College in Ohio and was in the Navy from 1967 to 1971 as an operations and communications officer, serving two years in Vietnam.

Robinson went back to school and earned a master's degree in water resources management at the University of Wisconsin in 1973. He worked for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources for the next seven years, helping communities in the Land of 10,000 Lakes evaluate the risk of flooding and figure out how to mitigate those risks.

In 1976, he took a month-long trip to Nepal and came back "in love with the place," said his wife, who met him then. They married in 1979 and traveled around the world in 288 days, spending most of their time in central Asia. Robinson did a separate 30-day trek into the Jomsom and Muktinath area near Kathmandu. The couple returned four years later for a 17-week visit.

At FEMA, Robinson worked in multiple management and senior policy jobs. He retired from the agency in 2005 and was a senior consultant with a federal contractor, Michael Baker Jr. Inc.

His life in Reston revolved around his family, including children Brian Forbes Robinson and Gayle Elin Robinson. He was a member of a bridge club and gourmet club.

But the mountains always drew him back, and the Himalayas had the strongest pull of all.

His last e-mail reflected on having tea with his landlady, the latest book he'd read and the difficulty of shipping unneeded gear home.

Just before he signed off, "with love to everyone," Robinson wrote: "Anyway the trip has been a real mix of ups and downs. Some disappointments, but some great moments. It's certainly an adventure and that's what I wanted."

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