Today is the anniversary of my father’s death in a climbing accident. It’s May 30th. Up here on Denali at the 14,200-foot camp, we’re tented during a normal storm day. We did a little bit of low-light skiing to stay active, but mostly I’m thinking about times past.
It’s been nine years to the day since my Papa and I took the huge fall that ended his life. Seems fitting that I’m on the side of a peak today, on the upper flanks of Denali. Papa would like that; he was a climber. The longer the time passes, the more life begins to feel regretfully normal, not having Papa around, until, something or somewhere jogs the memory loose and tears flow a little.
My first couple years after the accident I was determined to come back to climbing with a fury. I did, perhaps partly as a tribute to my dad and partly for myself — to push myself back into the sport that almost, and probably should have, killed me. Many years after the accident I get asked how or why I still do it. To many, my reasons will never sit right; climbing is simply the place I feel the most at home.
In spring of 2005, My dad Kip and I were making an attempt at climbing the Maroon Bells near Aspen, Colorado via the Bell Cord Couloir. We had climbed through the night and were on the ridge between the top of the couloir and the summit of North Maroon, our thought being that North Maroon had a more straightforward descent than Maroon Peak.
As we leave the top of the Bell Cord the weather changes drastically: wind blowing, snowfall increasing. Progress slows to a crawl. Somewhere less than 300 feet from the summit (I know now, not then) we decide to bail. There is a tributary couloir that meets up with the Bell Cord farther down. We opt for this as our emergency route out. The first rappel goes smoothly and we are mostly out of the biting wind. We head down the next pitch with Papa rope lowering me. I get to the top of a vertical cliff in the rock that looks to be about 40 ft tall. I call up to see how we were doing on rope. It sounds like we have plenty. I ease over the edge. About halfway down this vertical pitch I’m in free-fall. I land on my feet, flip a couple of times, and suddenly my world is black.
I wake up seemingly hours later in a rather different landscape. I’m in the seated position with my legs down hill. I have one hell of a headache and my nose is like a slow leaking faucet of blood. I survey my surroundings and realize that I am back in the Bell Cord. About 6 inches of snow covers me. No one else is around. I’m suddenly greeted by a deep thirst. I try to wriggle out of my pack straps only to find that it’s been torn open and most of its contents are missing, including my water. Slowly coming out of my haze I ask the normal questions. The first being where is Papa? I look up, down and sideways without so much as a hint to his whereabouts. Finally I stand up, the rope still attached, and notice that it is running downhill instead of up where it should be. As I start to pull on the rope and adjust my stance I wince. A severe pain in my lower left leg makes me sit down quickly.
I continue to yank on the rope, it pulls something dark out of the snow 80-100 feet down. I gather my belongings, or what’s left of them, and start a slow butt scoot down using my right leg to brace myself. During the fall I lost everything but my crampons, snow pants and one glove.
When I finally arrive at the dark object I realize it is my father’s leg. It’s clearly facing the wrong direction. Quickly I clear the snow from the area around his head only to confirm the absolute worst. My dad, my Papps, is dead. He lies there lifeless, purple, his head resting in a small red pool of his own blood. I’m concussed, in shock and in disbelief. This is my Papa, a man who had climbed most of the 14ers, many of them in winter, and had been climbing with me since I was four years old. To see him in such a state was the hardest sight I’ve ever witnessed in my life.
If there is something that I could confidently pick out as truly having learned from my Papa, it is the ability to stay calm and levelheaded in extreme situations that life can throw your way.
Fighting back the urge to sit there and cry, I realize nothing is to be done for my dad. I stand back up, untie from the rope and manage to get my loose crampons reattached to my feet. I begin the painful down-climb towards Crater Lake. I spend much of the descent on my ass, plowing haltingly through fresh snow. Sometimes I’m forced to stand up and make my way down or across a traverse — doing so is painful and slow due to my injured leg. My journey began in the vicinity of 13,600 feet which put Crater Lake 3,000 feet below me, and the trailhead parking lot at Maroon Lake 4000 ft and miles away.
Somewhere around dusk, thoroughly soaked, and exhausted, nose still dripping blood, I finally make it to the valley bottom and West Maroon trail. It’s getting dark, but for now I have a trail to follow so I continue towards the car. At one point between the two lakes is a sharp switchback. Being early in the season there is still a lot of snow on the trail, and I miss the switchback. The trail cuts left while I continue straight on the patch of snow. Soon enough I find myself stumbling, face planting over rocks and downed logs. Eventually I realize that to keep going in the dark is useless, so I feel out a somewhat flat spot next to a big boulder and lie down.
To say I went to sleep would be a lie. What really happened was I lay there shivering, staring into the darkness, recapping the events of the day over and over again in my head. What had happened? Every time I arrived at the part of finding my father in the snow, I cried. As I lie there with with my mind on endless repeat, I gradually notice that light is returning to the sky. I sit up and notice my nose is still bleeding. As I gather up the courage to start fighting my way downhill I hear the clanking of hiking poles on the rocks of what must be the trail. For whatever reason, rather than call out for help, I just start walking that direction. I hit the trail and continue my hobble out and down.
As I limp the smooth graded Maroon Lake trail a bit of mental relief comes. No stopping though; I’m still incredibly thirsty and watch my still bleeding nose dripping on my jacket.
The parking lot was deserted. I found my dad’s truck and dug the keys out of the wheel well. As I opened the backdoor four liters of Gatorade cascaded out. It was as though my unspoken prayers had been answered. I hopped in the drivers seat and started on my way down the seven or so miles to the point where my cell phone would work.
When I got service I called 911 and was told a deputy was on the way, and to pull over and wait. While I waited I called my mom and did the second hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. I told my mother that that her husband, my sister Aubrey’s and my father, was dead, that he had died and still remained up on the side of those magnificent mountains. She hung up crying and said she was on her way.
Soon enough the Pitkin County deputy showed up. I hadn’t looked in the mirror but I must have been a sight as he looked shocked and asked what else was hurt (my face was completely covered in blood). I gave him the rundown and he asked me to hop in his car. But since the hospital was in sight, I just followed him and parked out front.
If there was any comic relief to the day (there wasn’t, really) it was watching the nurses trying to kindly meet me with a gurney — a big bloodied guy, still walking, dressed in climbing gear. X-rays and MRI were next, followed by super-glue sutures and a knee brace.
While at the hospital I did what is still today another of the hardest things I hope I ever do. I called my Grandfather, and told him the terrible news. He said, “Jordan, I’m not quite sure I understand what you are telling me.” I told him again that his son, Kip White, was dead after a climbing accident.
Later that day, my mom and sister showed up along with our family friend, Joe. That night my cousins and my grandpa would show up. Throughout the day I had multiple visits from Mountain Rescue Aspen as they tried to locate my father’s body up in the couloir.
Eventually they found Papa and brought him down much the same path I had traveled. Authorities confirmed he had died instantly of severe head trauma. It was some relief to know that Papa wasn’t lying there suffering while I was unconscious.
Still to this day I have no idea what caused the fall, only that we fell between 400 and 600 feet and most of our gear was never recovered. It is in no way lost on me just how lucky I am to still be walking around in the mountains, let alone breathing. To have scraped by with a broken fibula and orbital bone, concussion and a host of cuts and scrapes is remarkable.
So while here on Denali, sitting in a tent at 14,200 feet, I just want to say thank you, Papa, for getting me started in this lifetime journey as a man, and as a mountaineer. I miss you. Here’s to you from “the Father Denali,” where we always talked about going together. Thanks for all of the important life lessons, and thanks for being my Papa for those first 19 years.
(‘Ski The Big 3 is an Alaskan ski mountaineering expedition. Participants are Aaron Diamond, Evan Pletcher, Anton Sponar, Jordan White. The idea is to ski Denali, Mount Foraker, and Mount Hunter all during one expedition. The crew had success on Mounts Hunter and Foraker, now they’re in position at 14,200-feet on Denali. They began the trip with 6 weeks worth of food and enough camera gear to outfit a small army. We wish them safe travels, especially on their last objective, Denali!)
Jordan White is a strong alpinist who finished skiing all 54 Colorado 14,000 foot peaks in 2009. He guides, tends bar, and lives the all-around perfect life in Aspen.