ISSN 1188-603X

No. 350 August 18, 2005 Victoria, B.C.
Dr. A. Ceska, P.O.Box 8546, Victoria, B.C. Canada V8W 3S2

This issue of BEN is a tribute to my friend
who died in Leysin, Switzerland, on May 25, 2005


From: Adolf Ceska []

For me she was a little rascal, full of untamed energy. Give her an idea to do something silly (or great, for that matter) and she would go and do it. Mind you, she had a lot of silly and great ideas of her own. She was known as a top woman mountain climber, but yet, she was the greatest phytosociologist the United States has ever known. She was so far ahead of her time in the field of vegetation science in the United States that she became invisible to the mainstream of vegetation study in the United States. She was an enigmatic figure even after her death. The Times obituary claimed that Vera "emerged from the old Soviet Union" (hey guys, get your geography straight!).

Vera was born on December 25, 1942 in Pisek, a town in South Bohemia (Czech Republic), known for the oldest stone bridge in the Czech Republic and for its strong student tradition. Her father, Jiri Ruzicka, was a world specialist in Desmidiales, fresh-water (I have never heard about any salt-water desmids, but who knows) algae that attracts you with their beautiful shapes (hence the Czech name "krasivky" - beautiful ones). I met Vera's father once when he dropped in to our field course in my second year at the university. I have never seen anyone who could operate his microscope as Dr. Ruzicka did. When he was looking in his microscope, he would not move, but his fingers were jumping from one microscope control knob to another. Vera has edited her late father's work for publication, and before she died she was still working on the third and final volume of her father's Desmidiales monograph (J. Ruzicka: Die Desmidiaceen Mitteleuropas. Band 1, Lieferung 1. 1977; Lief. 2. 1981. E. Schweizerbart'sche Verlagsbuchhandlung, Stuttgart). The third part of this monograph was still unfinished when Vera died.

At 16, Vera entered Charles University, Prague, and graduated six years later with an M.Sc. in biology. In her student years she began climbing in the High Tatra and Carpathian mountains along the Slovak border with Poland.

Dr. Jana Osbornova spent two weeks with Vera when Vera was working on her M.Sc. thesis, and wrote: "In all her outside expressions, including her voice, Vera was definitely like an adolescent girl. At the same time, she was a strong, firm and goal-oriented woman. She performed even the most complicated botanical tasks with ease, playfully, as they come. She did not go "into the field" once a while, as we usually do, she lived in the field and only once in a while she came back to "civilization". Not only plants, but everything alive and their entire environment were the centre of her interests, and she 'talked' to her collections when she sorted them at the end of her day in the field. I spent two September weeks with her during her work on mylonites in Rohace (High Tatra Mountains, Slovakia) at the second season of her M.Sc. project. Vera gave me a valuable lesson: she taught me how to scramble on rocks and not to fall down, she taught me how to see and interpret everything in its natural matrix, and how to get to one's goal in spite of insurmountable hurdles, and take all the obstacles as part of the ordinary life of a geobotanist. Thank you, Vera!"

After Vera finished her M.Sc. at the Charles University in Prague (Komarkova 1964), she and three other girls decided to walk from Prague to Mexico for the 1968 summer Olympics in the Mexico City. Before the group known as Slapoty (= Footprints; each of their steps were followed by the Czech public media) reached the Mexico City (Vera and her companions walked about 25 miles a day for nearly a year), Vera climbed the Popocatepetl and got married for the second time.

Komarkova settled in the USA in 1970 and enrolled in Colorado University in Boulder, CO for her Ph.D. study. Her 1976 Ph.D. Thesis Alpine vegetation of the Indian Peaks area, Front Range, Colorado, Rocky Mountains, later published as a two-volume monograph (Komarkova 1979), is the best example of the application of Braun-Blanquet methods in North America. In this work, Vera recognized seven classes, eight orders, 17 alliances, 2 suballiances and 63 associations (Komarkova 1976, 1979, 1980). In her work, Vera managed to correlate her floristically defined units with soil, meso- and micro-climate, and some complex environmental factors, using both the traditional and numerical techniques, and at the same time she considered the autoecology and phytogeography of about 430 plant species that formed the matrix of her vegetation units. By its holistic approach, this work is unique not only in North America, but in world phytosociological literature.

Not until about 25 years after Vera's pivotal work did North American plant ecologists accept the floristic approach to community classification (Jennings et al. 2004 ) as an essential working technique. However, they chose their own peculiar way to redefine plant "alliances" along the lines that reminds me of Knapp's "Hauptassoziation" (Knapp 1942, 1948), the concept that ended in a blind alley, off the mainstream of the Braun-Blanquet classification in Europe. While the Braun-Blanquet school was officially banned in the Soviet Union (see P. Krestov in Kolbek et al. 2003), this approach has also been virtually ignored in the United States. Who knows what is worse? Vera's frustration was expressed in her e-mail message to a young adept of phytosociology whom she warned to "stay away from the Braun- Blanquet approach in North America" because he might not find any work in North America. It will take time before North American botanists realized that Vera's work is one of the pinnacles of North American vegetation science.

After Vera finished her Ph.D., she worked as a researcher at the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, undertaking applied ecology projects in northern Alaska and Canada with Patrick J. Webber, Professor of Plant Biology at Michigan State University. She took part as a research biologist in expeditions to China, Tibet and twice to the South Pole. Patrick Webber described her to students as "one of the most interesting people I have ever met. She introduced me to European methods of phytosociology and influenced me by her European training in a wide range of disciplines that are needed to do plant ecology." The Niwot Ridge vegetation map Vera published with Patrick Weber (Komarkova & Weber 1978) became a baseline study for several ecological publications to follow (Thorn 1982, Walker et al. 1993).

In 1976 Komarkova climbed the South Buttress of Mount McKinley (6,194 m), the highest mountain in North America, and returned to Alaska the following year to climb Mount Dickey (2,907 m), spending a month establishing a new route up the vertical south- east face. This feat, and her formidable mountaineering record, led to an invitation to join Arlene Blum's all-woman expedition to Annapurna.

In 1978, Arlene Blum led a group of 13 American women on an expedition to climb Annapurna. Their group followed Maurice Herzog's original route into base camp, trekking from Pokhara with 200 porters, 150 boxes of gear and 5,500 pounds of food for a three-month stay on the mountain.

To raise the $80,000 needed for their climb, they sold 15,000 T- shirts with the motto, "A Woman's Place Is on Top." Two months after they arrived, Irene Miller and Vera Komarkova stood on the summit. Days later two of their teammates, Vera Watson and Alison Chadwick-Onyszkiewicz, died in a second summit attempt, slipping 1,000 feet between Camps 4 and 5. The remaining 11 women came back down with a victory - they were the first Americans and the first women ever to summit Annapurna, what many climbers consider the most dangerous 8,000-meter peak in the world. The Annapurna expedition was documented in a video (Ashton & Taylor 1978) and described in Arlene Blum's book (Blum 1980). - Several photographs with Vera (with a yellow toque) from the Annapurna expedition are, thanks to Arlene Blum, at

Six years later Vera and her Czech friend Dina Sterbova became the first women to climb Cho Oyu (8,201 m), also in Nepal, reinforcing Vera's reputation as a fearless and determined climber.

In 1986 Komarkova returned to Europe and was appointed Professor of Science and Information Technology at the American College of Switzerland in Leysin.

Vera died of complications related to her cancer treatment. She is survived by her mother, Tatiana Ruzickova of Pisek, Czech Republic; and two sons, Mipam Moudry of Bossonnens, Switzerland, and Dorje Moudry of Leysin.

Vera was a person each of us would like to be, if we could just find the courage. Unfortunately, we would also have to have the high IQ and the determination that little rascal Vera had. I am sad to say that there will only ever be one Vera Komarkova.


Ashton, M. & D. Taylor. 1978.
Annapurna: A Woman's Place The 1978 American Women's Expedition to Annapurna I - The dramatic story of the first American ascent of one of the world's highest peaks. [video] Available from:
Blum, A. 1980.
Annapurna: A woman's place. Sierra Club Books, San Francisco. xii + 256 p.
Jennings, M. et al. 2004.
Guidelines for describing associations and alliances of the U.S. National Vegetation Classification: Version 4.0. The Ecological Society of America Vegetation Classification Panel.
Knapp, R. 1942.
Zur Systematik der Walder, Zwergstrauchheiden und Trockenrassen der eurosiberischen Vegetationkreises. Beil. 12, Rundbrief Zentralstelle Veget. Kartierung. 183 p.
Knapp, R. 1948.
Einfuhrung in die Pflanzensoziologie, 1: Arbeitsmethoden der Pflanzensoziologie und Eigenschaften der Pflanzengesellschaften. Stuttgart - Ludwigsburg. 100 p.
Kolbek, J., M. Srutek, & E.O. Box. [eds.] 2003.
Forest Vegetation of Northeast Asia. Geobotany 28. Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht, The Netherlands. xii+462 p.
Komarkova V. 1964.
Alpinska vegetace Rohacu [Alpine Vegetation of the Rohace Mts.]. Dipl. prace. [M.Sc. Thesis], Charles University, Praha.
Komarkova, V. 1976.
Alpine vegetation of the Indian Peaks Area, Front Range, Colorado Rocky Mountains: Part 1 + 2. University Microfilms International, Ann Arbor, MI. [1977] 655 p.
Komarkova, V. 1979.
Alpine Vegetation of the Indian Peaks Area, Front Range, Colorado Rocky Mountains. Flora et Vegetatio Mundi 7. Vaduz: Cramer, 591 p.
Komarkova, V. 1980.
Classification and ordination in the Indian Peaks area, Colorado Rocky Mountains. Vegetatio 42: 149- 163.
Komarkova, V. & P.J. Weber. 1978.
An alpine vegetation map of Niwot Ridge, Colorado, USA. Arctic & Alpine Research 10: 1- 30.
Thorn, C.E. 1982.
Gopher disturbance: Its variability by Braun- Blanquet vegetation units in the Niwot Ridge alpine tundra zone, Colorado Front Range, USA. Arctic & Alpine Research 14: 45-51.
Walker, D. A., J. C. Halfpenny, M. D. Walker, & C. A. Wessman, 1993:
Long-term studies of snow-vegetation interactions. BioScience 43(5): 287-301.


Unfortunately there are no obits that mention the 1980 climb of Dhaulagiri. Vera brought me along to help with botanical questions. There were two other student assistants along. The girl's father built a drying apparatus for the plants, but when they got up to base camp they found it didn't function. Probably wouldn't have functioned at sea level either, they never tested it.

It may have been Annie Whitehouse that planned to write up an account of the expedition, but a disaster carried one of the gals down into a crevasse and they abandoned the climb.

I wrote my version of the trip and it is going to be a chapter in my memoirs. Anyone can get a copy of TREK NEPAL by writing me at my e-mail address. It contains, as a postscript, the few-page account that Vera wrote about what happened.

I got to see the Himalayan flora up close and personal, as I walked about 70 miles each way to and from Tukche. I couldn't make it up to base camp because I had a little toe that got involved with the one next to it and had to be longitudinally amputated after a painful hike back to Kathmandu and home to Boulder.

The Dhaulagiri experience was a turning point in my life, because, after two seasons I got infatuated with the Nepal Himalaya, and took my daughter with me on two treks thereafter, to the Lang-Tang, and up toward the base camp on Makalu (we had to turn back because of heavy snow). These trips, and the two summers in the Altai were so important for my phytogeography work.

Vera knew enough to lean on me for her identification of the plants she collected in the Indian Peaks for her Ph.D. thesis, and she did not ignore the cryptogams. She had an extraordinary eye for the exciting things. Oreas martianas, which we had known as such a rarity on Mount Evans (otherwise in America from Lake Peters, Alaska, and a site in north Greenland, she found to be very common in her research area, and the specimens fill three file drawers now!

Her specimens, like good wine, were usually well-aged in small paper bags kept in the pocket for some months. I never could get her to collect standard specimens. I also helped her with her plants when she was working on the Rocky Flats mapping project, and a Gunnison Basin project that was never completed. I worked up her cryptogams (the mosses at least were good enough to identify, the lichens rarely were).

We were in contact by mail right up to a month before she died, and I never knew anything was wrong. We were really buddies, partly because she understood that I was no provincial American style botanist and worked with everything except the true fungi.

I consider my greatest contribution to Vera's work was that, when she came here to Colorado and was intent on doing her work in Alaska, I convinced her to stay because there was no one else in Colorado could do justice to our particular situation.

I do think that if it were not for me and my interest in mountain floras world wide, Vera could have been a very lonely person here in Colorado. I miss her too.


William A. (Bill) Weber, F.L.S. University of Colorado Museum
Campus Box 265
Boulder, CO 80309-0265



(Buddhist poem read at Vera's funeral by her son.)

In silently contemplating the transient nature of human existence, nothing is more fragile and fleeting in this world than the life of a person. Thus we have not heard of a human life lasting for a thousand years. Life swiftly passes and who among people can maintain his form for even a hundred years?

Whether I go before others, or others go before me; whether it be today or it be tomorrow, who is to know? Those who leave before us are countless as drops of dew. Though in the morning we may have radiant health, in the evening we may return to white ashes.

When the winds of impermanence blow, our eyes are closed forever; and when the last breath leaves us, our face loses its colour. Though loved ones gather and lament, everything is to no avail. The body is then sent into an open field and vanishes from this world with the smoke of cremation, leaving only the white ashes.

There is nothing more real than this truth of life. The fragile nature of human existence underlies both the young and the old. By so understanding the meaning of death, we shall come to fully appreciate the meaning of this life which is unrepeatable and thus to be treasured above all else.

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