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Climbing Guide George Gardner Dies on Grand

Please see the Jackson Hole News and Guide website, where this article was originally published. –Ed.

One of the most prolific Exum mountain guides died Saturday evening while solo climbing a route on the 13,770-foot Grand Teton.

George Gardner–a 58-year-old Ridgeway, Colo., resident, educator, husband and father of two–was found dead by companion guides early Sunday morning beneath the Lower Exum Ridge route he was thought to have been climbing. He was not guiding clients at the time of the fall, said Jack Turner, Exum Mountain Guides president.

Rangers and fellow guides recovered the climber’s body Sunday.

Teton Range, Wyoming. Exum climbing guide George Gardner fell to his death on the evening of July 19, 2008 while soloing the Lower Exum Ridge (5.7). The route ascends the left skyline visible here on the highest peak, the Grand Teton (13,770′). [Photo] Tom Santoro

“Needless to say, we’re all devastated,” Turner said Sunday from Grand Teton National Park. “I don’t know a single human being that didn’t love George.”

The exact circumstances of Gardner’s fall may remain a mystery, Turner said.

“What happened we don’t and will never know,” he said.

Park officials said the death is being investigated. Turner and others gave the following account of the events leading up to the incident.

Gardner left the valley floor Saturday with about four other guides and a group of clients, including youths from Wilderness Ventures. They were bound for the 11,650-foot-high Lower Saddle on the Grand and made that overnight camp relatively early Saturday afternoon. Guides prepared dinner before 5 p.m.

About that time, Gardner announced he was going to solo the Lower Exum Ridge route on the Grand, a somewhat common practice among guides, depending on their ability. Turner said it was a natural thing to do and that Gardner had guided the route and climbed it before, alone and without a rope.

“It was not something that was over and above him in any way,” Turner said.

The route is rated 5.7 on the Yosemite Decimal Scale. Professional climbers would find the moves routine rather than exhausting, albeit without room for error for a solo climber. Most guided climbers reach the summit via the regular Exum Ridge, a route that avoids the 5.7 difficulties of the lower ridge.

“As far as we can see, he was not working for Exum,” Turner said of the excursion. “He went off climbing by himself.”

Fellow guides gave Gardner’s departure little thought, but Christian Santelices heard the sound of falling rocks that evening. The sound came from the direction of the Grand, but Santelices said he could see no rocks coming out of the Stettner Couloir, a source for rockfall.

Darkness came and some of the guides became a little worried. But light from a set of headlamps appeared on the descent route from the peak and those in the camp figured it was Gardner, perhaps aiding a late party down.

“We just didn’t worry about him that much,” Turner said.

Guides and clients went to sleep as the headlamp party descended. One of the guides awoke about 3 a.m. to find Gardner’s sleeping bag empty.

“That signaled to us something was wrong,” Turner said.

Guides organized, made phone calls, and set out for the mountain. Several began to ascend the Lower Exum while others went higher up the peak intending to descend the ridge.

Park rangers on the valley floor also organized for a response, summoning a helicopter. Early in the morning, guides on the Lower Exum called Turner to report seeing a body below. Soon after, they descended into the gully west of the route to find Gardner dead.

“We have no idea why he fell,” Turner said. “It was perfect weather. He had climbed the route many times.”

The guide was beyond competent, Turner said, calling him a “beautiful climber.”

Recovery of Gardner’s body, accomplished with a helicopter, was delayed when a rain shower moved through the Tetons early Sunday morning. Guides and clients descended from the camp on their own power.

Gardner was a veteran of the Himalaya and South America and had climbed across North America. By one account, he made more trips up the Grand for Exum last year than any other guide.

A teacher, he was known for the Himalaya semester he taught for Sterling College in Vermont. He had been guiding with Exum for 28 years.

Santelices, 40, called Gardner a mentor.

“He was someone who was passionate about being the best teacher and guide he could be,” Santelices said, “especially with kids.”

Fellow guide Hans Johnstone said his partner was joyous.

“He was a happy man,” Johnstone said. “He was one of the most smiley guys you ever saw.”

Gardner is survived by his wife, Colleen, son Michael, who was spending the summer with him at Exum’s Guide’s Hill base camp, and daughter Megan.