| Carrying the Torch
In loving and eternal memory of Rob Jansen, Chris Gray and Sean Wylam.
Rob, Greg and I descending Wilson Peak in May.
"There have been joys too great to describe in words, and there have been griefs upon which I cannot dare to dwell…”
After being one of the first on the scene of Sean Wylam’s accident on Snowmass Mountain last summer and spending his final hours by his side, I was obviously shaken. At that point I’d done 20-something 14ers and nothing all that difficult. I questioned what I was doing, why I was doing it and if it was worth my life. I was a newbie (and I still am), but up until that point I was pushing my limits with every new climb. Following Snowmass, I dove into my comfort bubble and stayed there.
It wasn’t until I met Rob that I was able to break free of my chains and find joy in the challenge of climbs I would have previously thought beyond my abilities. I owe that, and much more, to my dear friend.
How good friends got through an emotional week.
I met Rob on an Oct. 22 hike of Tabeguache Peak last year. We’d exchanged many PMs leading up to it, as we both had expressed interest in winter climbing on the forum. Tabeguache felt like a long-anticipated first date. It went well. A week later we joined forces again during the annual Winter Welcomer on Quandary, and from there was launched the best partnership I’ve yet to have in the mountains.
From Oct. 22 until his death Aug. 25 on Hagerman Peak, Rob and I climbed more than 20 mountains together.
Our friendship stretched beyond the peaks. Whole work days were wasted on gchat talking about mountains, dreams, girls, beers, our families, the latest forum posts, TRs good and bad, and a million other topics. We'd already agreed on dates and an itinerary for Orizaba this winter. We met for drinks frequently. He was one of the driving forces behind the monthly Denver Happy Hours, and I think he only missed one because he was out of town. Some of the best memories I have with Rob were created hours away from the mountains. When I first got cell service after Rainier, I had six texts from Rob asking about the climb and if I was OK.
I don’t know why this was my reaction, but hours after learning of Rob’s death on the summit of Capitol Peak my impulse was to get up and climbing again as soon as possible. I already had Monday off and was pretty determined to attempt South Maroon. Many of my friends tried to talk me out of it, questioning my mental state. I rolled my eyes then but looking back, they were probably right. I’m thankful that the weather forecast deteriorated overnight and I didn’t go up. Instead, that Monday I met Rob’s father as a Blackhawk helicopter landed Rob in Aspen, rode with a sheriff’s deputy to Marble to retrieve Rob’s car and attended the Glenwood Springs meetup that began everyone’s healing process. All three of those tasks were far more important than any summit.
One of the things Mr. Jansen said to me in Glenwood Springs was, “Carry the torch.” Like Sean Wylam’s wonderful family, whom I had the pleasure of meeting just a month ago on the anniversary of Sean's passing, he didn’t urge us to quit climbing. He wanted us to continue. I talked to him again on the phone Saturday, and he added that he wanted us to give “each summit a little extra touch” for his son. That’s a tradition I’ll gladly begin.
Speaking of traditions, Rob almost always wore a bathing suit climbing. What better tribute than to do the same?
Tyler, Greg, Rob and I had planned to finish the 14ers together on Mt. Sneffels. I want to continue with that plan. I’ve never felt more strongly about anything. Finishing the 14ers was one of Rob’s main goals in life, and by carrying his torch I hope to make him a finisher. Every summit, a little extra touch.
A week of healing and sad country songs later, I was ready. Blanca Peak was one of my remaining 14ers and I somehow talked Will Davis (WDavis) into a daytrip from the bottom of the road. Returning to Lake Como would be difficult; of my three prior trips up that road, two were with Rob and one was with Chris Gray.
We started hiking from 8,200’ at 4 a.m. With Rob and Chris on my mind, the miles slid by. I passed landmarks one by one in the dark – the parking spot where Rob and I geared up for LB, the cabin camp I shared with Chris – and felt a twinge of pain each time. Sunrise found us above Lake Como, which we reached in 2.25 hours.
Ellingwood Point's SW Ridge, which was one of my favorite climbs with Rob 1/15/12.
A moment of reflection.
Will nearing the summit of Blanca.
It was my first trip to Lake Como in the summer. It’s pretty, but like most areas better suited to a coat of winter white. The good trail saw us to the top of Blanca about 5.5 hours after setting out, including a long stop to filter water.
Will stayed with me for a while and said some kind words, then allowed me to have the summit to myself as he tore off for Ellingwood Point. The next half-hour will remain with me for the rest of my life. I’m not a particularly spiritual or emotional person, and I didn’t have anything planned. I just wanted to sit and reflect. Before I knew it I was talking, having a full-on conversation with my old friend. I sipped my Dales slowly and poured a bit out for Rob. As soon as the tears started flowing, the wind picked up and dried them on my face. It swirled around me, bringing with it a sense of calm and contentment. I heard Rob’s voice in my head saying in that funny tone of his, “Don’t be ridiculous.” Y’all that knew him know what I’m talking about. I laughed and wiped the tears from my eyes. He was there with me. I don’t know how to explain it, but I just know he was. I spent the next few minutes looking at Lindsey, Little Bear and Ellingwood – all mountains we’d climbed together. I recounted each adventure in detail. I was literally surrounded by Rob.
Dales, board shorts and Rob's most hated mountain.
Mt. Lindsey, climbed with Rob and Greg Fischer 4/22/12.
Little Bear Peak, climbed with Rob, Ben Shulman, Ryan Kushner, Dan McCool and Greg Fischer 3/31/12.
Ellingwood Point, climbed with Rob, Andrew Knox, Dillon Sarnelli and Emma McVey 1/15/12.
I think I can see the car from here.
A note on the neon Buff: it was Rob’s. He won it at a Mountaineering Museum happy hour the two of us attended together. He put it on right away. He’d always made fun of my headbands, but he took to it immediately. I don’t think he ever climbed without it. It was my turn to make fun of him; I wear bright colors, but that thing was too loud for even me. It might be silly and just a piece of gear, but I feel like it ties me to Rob and some of the fun moments we shared.
Another hiker arrived to end my vigil, but I stayed on Blanca’s summit for almost two hours. The day couldn’t have been more perfect. I met back up with Will at the trail junction and we high-tailed it for the car. We stopped again to filter water at Lake Como, during which time I stared up at Little Bear and remembered the day Rob and I wasted lounging in camp while the rest of our group was off climbing Blanca and Ellingwood.
Little Bear Peak.
Rob celebrating after Little Bear on 4/1/12.
The long road home.
A logistical nightmare and a day later, I was in my other friend Steve’s car en route to the Cottonwood Creek TH. For some reason we started up the trail at 12:45 p.m. during the hottest part of the day. It cost us a few gallons of sweat, but we reached our camp beneath a waterfall at 11,400’ around 3:15 p.m. The Cottonwood Creek approach is awesome. We only saw two other people, descending, all day. It’s hard to follow at points, especially with all the deadfall, but it’s generally easy to relocate the trail. Cairns are everywhere if you have a careful eye.
Refueling for Crestone Peak with Rob's favorite post-climb beverage that isn't Dale's Pale Ale.
Cottonwood Creek approach.
Waterfall near our camp at 11,400'.
Terry daytripped from the TH and met us at camp around 5:30 a.m. The three of us started at 6 a.m., picked a bad line, and bushwhacked our way to Cottonwood Lake. Don’t do that. Having been up the South Colony Lakes side twice, the view from Cottonwood Lake was unique and welcome. Before we knew it we were entering the Red Gully, which is a pretty easy scramble/walk. The crux, we joked, was keeping our boots dry. A thick stream of water runs down the middle of the gully.
The Red Gully gets worse and worse until you reach the notch between Crestone and East Crestone. Bring a helmet for this one. Loose rock abounds. The final scramble up and left from the notch is relatively easy, and there are several lines to take. We stayed as close to the ridge proper as possible, following a little mantra/inside joke Rob and I used to say to each other: “Stay high.”
Good morning, Crestones, from willow hell.
The Red Gully.
Steve climbing a chimney in the Red Gully.
This summit was another difficult one. I took time to remember not only Rob, but Chris Gray. Chris died trying to reach the point on which I sat, and that wasn’t lost on me. Carrying memorial signs for not only one, but two, fallen friends to the same summit is a fate I don’t wish on anyone.
As the summit was crowded and looked only to be getting moreso, Steve took off for the traverse and Terry and I scampered up to the confines of East Crestone. Again, we sat there for almost two hours. Clouds, cold and wind reigned most of the day, but during this period of reflection the sun graced us with its warmth. Coincidence? I doubt it.
Terry and I, with our impossible-to-read signs for Rob.
One of Rob's (and Dillon's) favorite poses.
Crestone Peak, from East Crestone.
Humboldt, South Colony Lakes and Crestone Needle from East Crestone.
We eventually descended the Red Gully and hiked over to Cottonwood Lake, where Terry and I relaxed while waiting for Steve. The hike out took almost as long as the hike in giving the trail-finding difficulties, and we reached the cars at about 5:30 p.m. It was perhaps the only time in my life I didn’t want the trail to end. In the mountains, I can remember my fallen friends in our element. The real world, and the concept of moving on, doesn’t really exist out there. It’s hard to be sad in the arena we all enjoy.
Descending the Red Gully.
Relaxing at Cottonwood Lake.
To Rob’s father, mother and sister: I’m only just getting to know you, but you raised a heck of a young man. I’m looking forward to y’all coming out here in a few weeks. I have so many stories, and I can’t wait to hear yours. I’ll pale in comparison to Rob, but if you ever want to hike in Colorado again you have a willing partner for a lifetime.
To Taylor Gray: Allow me to be the thousandth person to compliment you on your strength. I hope our real-time discussion on top of Crestone Peak helped you, even just a little. It was a pleasure to honor your husband, and I will continue to do so. As with Rob’s family, I’ll be your hiking partner anytime.
To the Brat Pack: We had a brotherhood before, and it’s only strengthening. I'm eagerly anticipating heading back to the hills with each of you, whenever you’re ready. Thank you for everything this past week. I’m available for a Dale's whenever.
To Will, Steve and Terry: Thanks for helping a wounded heart to heal.
I’m 26 years old. I’ve climbed for not quite three years, and yet I’ve lost two friends and one man I wish had been my friend in the mountains. Why? Why do we do this? That’s a question climbers have struggled with since the dawn of the sport, and I frankly think it’s a bit silly. Why does anyone do anything? Perhaps it’s best to focus not on why we’re drawn to the hills, but instead on the bountiful gifts they give us. Before discovering the mountains I was a lost and incomplete man. Now I am whole.
One thing I do know: the mountains aren’t an escape. I’m not running from anything. Rather, they are a cure. My life outside of the mountains is more healthy and fulfilling because of them. If the tragic, early deaths of three young climbers who were better men than I’ll ever be has taught me anything, it’s that life is not to be wasted. Every second counts. If you’re not happy with something, change it. If you have a dream, pursue it. Don’t sit around and put everything off and say it can wait a day, because it can’t. Live your life to the fullest, with clear eyes and a full heart and no regrets.
"...do nothing in haste; look well to each step; and from the beginning think what may be the end." - Edward Whymper
Touching the summit for fallen friends.
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