Back when I started working at Jenny Lake, I would spend mornings in meditation on the west porch of the rescue cache with retired ranger Tom Kimbrough and an old Exum mountain guide, George Gardiner. We sat in silence, the incense burning. Sometimes we’d look over the broad expanse of Lupine Meadows to the east rampart of Teewinot. When the wind was right, we could hear the cascade of Broken Falls on her lower flank. It was common to have pronghorn, elk, or an occasional moose or black bear wander across the meadow. Sandhill cranes would call to one another from the privacy of Cottonwood Creek.
George and I had a quiet, amiable relationship. He was twenty years my senior with a young son who would spend the summers with him, often working as a grom for Jenny Lake Boating. JLB opened their arms wide to all the “orphaned” sons and daughters of the rangers and guides, and George’s son Michael was no different. George and I would often show in the mornings wearing the same striped wool hat with tassel, beanies favored by Nordic skiers. Merlot in color with two horizontal stripes matched with that tassel. George had been reading a book I Am That, by Sri Nasargadatta Majaraj. I learned later that it was the book on interconnectedness, that we are all one. Non-dualism. In essence, as George used to say, “Same, same.”
On a body recovery, one of the mechanisms to shield ourselves from emotional pain was to look away from the face of the deceased and to create some sort of personal separation from her or him. Over time, I moved past this technique and instead slowed down, looking intently at the person, sometimes even talking quietly with them. What I understood is that I could easily be looking at myself and by doing so it felt that this brought about a certain compassion and humility that I hadn’t found until then.
And so when Renny, Marty, Helen, and I were called in to find and extract George’s lifeless body in the Wall Street Gulley, our hearts were broken and we were quiet in a way to bring George back to his family in Lupine Meadows. George had fallen while soloing the Direct Exum route on the Grand, a route he had done so many times, we all knew he could do it in his sleep.
The next day, three of us went up to climb the Direct Exum. On the broad second ledge, I looked over and saw a merlot colored Nordic hat. My first thought was, ‘how did my hat…’. as I was wearing mine then and there.
Two winters later, I am briefly caught and carried in a very large avalanche in Yellowjacket Gulch in the Wasatch Range, a range where I worked as an avalanche forecaster. I was spared, but lost my sunglasses and a Nordic beanie, merlot in color.
I Am That
Epilogue: One of my favorite memories was climbing the Petzoldt Ridge on the Grand with George. I had climbed it a few times before and was surprised that he had never been up the route. Along the way, we talked of how Exum guides often see people at their best while Jenny Lake climbing rangers often see people at their worst. There is a great deal of shared emotion that sometimes doesn’t make its way to the surface for years. I feel grateful that it surfaces within me now.
Originally published in Ascent Backcountry Journal, spring 2020. Photo is George on the Grand Teton, taken by Angela Hawse.