Climbing Guide George Gardner Dies on Grand

Posted on: July 21, 2008

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.

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Phoenix P

Phoenix P

George Gardner was my sixth grade out door ed. teacher and best friend! I would spend hours with him at skateparks and just hagin out at the health food store eating kale soups and stews talking endless hours about everyday life. he was my mentor and friend. I lived and currently live in Ridgway and know the gardner family very well. Colleen is one of the most helpful people in the world and michel and megan are good friends. I miss him so much but know to not cry or get upset cause thats not what he would want. i love him and the whole family and the only thing i can say is any one out there who knew him and hearts were touched just keep smiling

2009-03-20 11:05:30

I have known George since running into him as a teacher in Boulder in the early '90's. We lost contact until I started to teach in Ridgway. It was great to have him and his family as friends and neighbors. We were office mates at Ridgway school district. What a great pleasure it was to work with George and what fun I and the students had that he worked with. We were always doing something different and challenging with the students. I will always cherish the time that we shared and my heart goes out to Colleen, Megan and Michael. George is a true inspiration to me and I will never forget.


2008-07-30 17:54:10
Rick Sylvester

Last year Charlie Fowler and Chris Boskoff. Last Christmas Day, Chuck Kroger. Now George Gardner becomes the latest casualty and deletion from my friends and climbing partners short list. It's been a few years since I last saw, and climbed with, George. We initially, if memory serves me correct —occasionally it does these days — climbed in Yosemite Valley. And we also enjoyed some sandstone , not ice, near Ouray (not the somewhat recently developed sports climbing area opposite the commercial hot pool. This was before that was developed). I can't improve on the above comments. George was a unique and wonderful guy. Damn the near cliches, like Charlie, Chris and Chuck, he was one in a billion. It's becoming a bit much, these irreplaceable losses. My heart goes out to Colleen and their children and everyone affected. I think we all need a little time out from these sad occurrences. Rick Sylvester

2008-07-30 01:54:14
drew w

One of my closest friends is an Exum guide, and I remember him mentioning George as a friend and mentor. My thoughts go out to George's family, both at Exum and at home. Those guides are extraordinary people, and I know they will be missing someone who served as a guide to not only their clients but to them as well.

2008-07-25 14:36:34
David Burger

I am always amazed at how fast our lives can change. Also amazed at how we argue with reality, with temporality. Knowing that the light in George's eyes will live on in everyone he ever touched, which is many, I can't help but know that he is irreplaceable. If only we could have one more meal with him, one more climb with him, one more 'save the world' chat . . . Indeed, we have all lost something central to the heart and soul of life itself in this one being. My heart goes out to Colleen, Michael, and Megan - and to all of us fortunate enough to have our lives graced and uplifted by this sweet man who proved that being strong is about being tender and clear . . . and he was a hell of a climber and educator!

2008-07-24 16:34:33

George is a guiding light. I met him at the base of Bridal Veil falls in his dachstein woolen gloves he always wore and we were fast friends 20 years now. He was always interested in what you were doing and always quick to help you and the kids skateboard or climb. Truly, This is the last thing I thought would happen to George. I never thought of him as a mystic mountain man that flies off a mountain leaving his corporeal shell behind but always as a kind teacher that used the mountains as a classroom. We will miss him here teaching our kids the meaning of fun and knowing how wonderful this life is by knowing yourself as happy and capable. Also, he made another perfect exit and left an enduring legacy that will linger forever with me. I was lucky enough to boat the Dolores river with him in April. He celebrated my birthday with me. I have a you tube video of him in snaggletooth rapid:

Dave his boat partner gets flipped out of the boat and George mans the oars. Max Kendall

2008-07-24 15:51:07

George was my friend. Although I hadn't seen him in 20 years, this news broke my heart. I loved him like a brother and will miss him for the rest of my life. George and I taught school together in the early 80s, worked Outward Bound courses together, climbed together. He was the happiest person you would ever hope to meet and you couldn't help but be touched positively when you were around him. This world is a darker place without him in it (although that would probably make him sad to hear me say that). I'm sorry for his family's loss, for my loss, for the world's loss.

David Pyatt

2008-07-24 01:12:52
Caroline George

I last saw George this winter in Ouray. He was on his way to solo some ice in the park, wearing his big gray woolen mittens, his big hat only letting his happy eyes and bright smiles shine through. Although my husband, Adam and I had only met him last summer working for Exum in Jackson, he always greeted us (or anyone else it seems) like we had known each other for ever and were the best of friends. He made everyone around him feel special, feel unique. I will remember him as the most genuinely happy and inspiringly positive person I have ever met. George was a warm ray of sun in the life of the people who were lucky to spend some time with him. My thoughts go out to his family and the Exum Community.


2008-07-23 19:40:09
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