Peter Shelton

Into the Mystic

Posted in Road Trips West, Watch columns, Weather & Climate by pshelton on July 11, 2013

Ironically, or prophetically, Randy Udall wrote a column a couple of years ago for the Aspen Times in which he described the disappearance of a much-loved local carpenter. This man had a wife, an 18-year-old daughter and many friends in the Roaring Fork Valley, Udall wrote. “He parked his truck at a trailhead and vanished. Nobody knows whether he had an accident, suffered a heart attack, was attacked by a cougar or took his own life.”

Udall, 61, was on a solo hike of his own, off-trail in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming a few weeks ago, and didn’t return. Days later searchers spotted his body from the air, lying on its side, with his backpack still on and hiking poles in his hands.

Udall left a wife and three children in their twenties. A native of Tucson, he was about as competent in the backcountry as a man could be, having led summer and winter courses for Outward Bound in the 1970s. And he continued to ski and wander through his years as a writer, climate activist and energy-efficiency expert. His brother is U.S. Senator Mark Udall (D-Colo.). Their father, Arizona Congressman Morris Udall, ran for president in 1976 (Randy wrote a book about that race called Too Funny to be President), and their uncle, Stewart, was Interior Secretary under JFK. They have been called Kennedys of the Rocky Mountain West. The Winds were Udall’s favorite mountain range. On June 20 he told the family he was going in for six days, headed for a place called Titcomb Basin.

A couple of other instances of men disappearing in their prime come to mind. In 2012, Micah True, the ultra-marathoner and friend of the barefoot-running Tarahumara Indians of Mexico, didn’t come back from an easy jog in the Gila Wilderness of southern New Mexico.

He was staying at a favorite lodge at the edge of the Wilderness, on his way home to Boulder, Colo. He filled a water dish for his dog and told the innkeepers he was planning to be out for about two hours; he’d be back before lunch.

Tall and lanky, and completely uninterested in his own fame, this man was so respected by the Tarahumara they called him Caballo Blanco, the White Horse, and protected his privacy when others interested in his running legend came looking for him in the folds of Copper Canyon. He is largely credited with starting the barefoot funning craze, and influenced countless runners with his mantra of “easy, light and smooth.” Get those three, he said, and the fast will come.

Searchers found True’s body stretched out beside a stream, looking as if he’d stopped for a nap. Presumably about as fit as a human male of 58 could be, he had suffered a heart attack.

An even more recent example is Doug Abromeit, who at 65 was “always fit and healthy,” according to his friend and fellow avalanche forecaster Bruce Tremper. Abromeit had recently retired from his job as founding director of the U.S. Forest Service National Avalanche Center. He was out for a mountain bike ride this spring, with friends near his home in Hailey, Idaho. Abromeit got out ahead of the posse at one point, and when they caught up to him, he was tipped over on his side, dead, still clipped into his pedals.

All three were eulogized by those who loved them with the expectable homily: He died doing what he loved. The Udall family, when Randy’s body was found last week, said in a statement: “Randy left this earth doing what he loved most: hiking in his most favorite mountain range in the world.”

Adding importantly to that sentiment, Udall friend and Aspen Skiing Company Vice President of Sustainability, Auden Schendler, wrote that Randy “lived the Ed Abby rule”: “Do not burn yourselves out. Be as I am . . . a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure.”

Schendler, in a remembrance published by the website ClimateProgress, quoted a poem by Stanley Kunitz, one of Udall’s favorite poets, and a man, incidentally, who lived to be 100. It ends with this: “ . . . Peace! Peace! / To be rocked by the Infinite! / As if it didn’t matter which way was home; / as if he didn’t know / he loved the earth so much / he wanted to stay forever.”

Udall himself seemed to be saying something similar in his Aspen Times essay about the carpenter. “We’re lucky to live in these mountain, I thought, and some of us to die here, too.”

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