1. Jack Roberts guiding in the Alaska Range. Photo courtesy of Cindy Foley. 2. Roberts in his element: leading mixed terrain during the second ascent of Brain Freeze in Rocky Mountain National Park. Photo by Dougald MacDonald. 3. Taking the tools for a walk in Rocky Mountain National Park. Photo by Dougald MacDonald.
If you don't know where to begin, an editor once told me, start with the facts. So these are the facts: Jack Roberts, 59, died in the early afternoon of Sunday, January 15, after a long fall off the Bridal Veil Falls ice climb, outside Telluride, Colorado. He was leading the second pitch, which was steeper than usual. I don't know much more about the accident, and I don't care to learn more. A great friend and climbing partner is gone. That's enough.
I'd known Jack for what seems like forever, and had edited his last guidebook, but we only started climbing frequently about four years ago. Something clicked. We loved the same adventures, laughed at each other's jokes, and he was easy to fish for obscure climbs, especially big mixed routes in Colorado's mountains. We got out a lot.
Many times, we did no more than take our ice tools for long walks, as our chosen climbs were not often in condition. Fittingly, my first photos of Jack are from a failed attempt on an obscure mixed route in Rocky Mountain National Park. We skied uphill several miles early one morning in April, only to turn right around and ski back out, after spotting the unformed climb. But not before Jack proposed half a dozen alternatives: Ski up another drainage to see if a different climb might be in shape? Climb granite cracks at Lumpy Ridge in our mountain boots? Go home, grab our rock gear, and get in a few pitches in Boulder Canyon? At the least, we should head for the Southern Sun for a beer. I had woken up at 2 a.m., and all I wanted was some couch time. Jack wanted more.
A Californian, Jack cut his teeth in Yosemite Valley in the '70s, doing the second ascents of many famous walls, including The Shield, Zodiac, Tangerine Trip, Tis-sa-ack and Mescalito. In the alpine world, he did some amazing first ascents during his 40-year climbing career, including hard new routes on Denali and Mt. Huntington in Alaska, and Mt. Kennedy in the Yukon. After he moved to Colorado, he helped popularize modern mixed climbing. He chose a career as a guide, showing hundreds of clients and clinic participants what might be possible for them.
Jack trained every day—-he often hiked into the mountains when he wasn't guiding, just to see what might be in condition. Although he was nearly a decade older than me, I couldn't come close to his strength or tenacity, especially on ice. I remember a mid-June day on the rarely formed Vanquished ice climb in Rocky Mountain National Park. The usual first pitch wasn't in, so I started up an obscure, harder variation that proved too thin and poorly protected for my nerves. Jack took over the lead, and for the next hour he carefully moved up the pitch, finding pro where I hadn't imagined any would exist, and committing to unprotected moves when he had to.
Jack's feet were beaten-up, frostnipped, and notoriously misshapen—his toes were by far the ugliest in an old magazine spoof called, "Match the Climber with his Feet." Last fall, as he was anticipating surgery to correct a painful bone condition, I talked him into trying a new route on Devils Thumb, a granite spire along the Continental Divide in Colorado. Unfortunately, I had misread the map. Unable to wear hiking shoes, Jack started the approach in Chaco sandals, expecting a stroll of a mile or so. The hike stretched over three miles—each way, entirely above treeline—but Jack did it cheerfully in his sandals. He had cut a big hole in some old, baggy rock shoes to make room for his swollen toes, and in these crappy shoes he led the 5.10 R crux pitch of our five-pitch route. A forgotten harness; a flat tire at 13,000 feet on the Pikes Peak auto road in winter; a nasty sleet storm—little fazed him.
Work as an independent guide was never easy, but especially in the last couple of years, Jack radiated happiness. He had new sponsors, and a long-term client had put a bit of money in the bank. He was married to and in love with a beautiful woman, who loved him in return. He would gladly spend vacations on the beach with Pam instead of returning to the mountains. He was funny and kind to friends. The last time we talked, he called from Ouray, just to wish me a happy new year. He was enthusiastic about the ice season; his feet weren't giving him much trouble, and he was guiding nearly every day. I don't take much solace in the old line about a person dying "doing what he loved," but Jack loved ice climbing and, much more important, he loved life. I am certain he died a happy man.