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Did A Friend Die Night Buildering—Or Was It Something Darker?

As climbers, we can—perhaps all too easily—make sense of a comrade falling to their death. It’s a grim reality, but we understand that these things happen. If you climb long enough, you will lose people.


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Editor’s note: This article includes reference to suicide and suicidal ideation.

I found out about Randall’s death the way we learn about most of these things these days: the web. It was 2010, and his brother had posted a Facebook page soliciting memories of Randall from friends. Someone either tagged me or sent me the link, and that’s how I found out Randall Jett had died.

I’d known Randall since my high-school years. He worked part-time at the Wilderness Center, an outdoor shop in Albuquerque, New Mexico, that was about halfway between my school, Highland High, and my home. On weeks when I saved up my lunch money, I’d stop in to buy chalk or the latest climbing magazine. It was the late 1980s, and one Rock & Ice cover featured a lizard climbing an overhang—like a terrarium rock—while wearing a miniature chalkbag. No shit: a lizard with a tiny chalkbag!

The famous, or infamous, “lizard” cover of Rock and ice, issue No. 27.

Gear shops were the original “partner finder,” and Randall and I were soon climbing together. He was older by a few years, more experienced on multi-pitch and traditional climbing, and with a better lead head. Randall had been based in Austin, Texas, before moving to Albuquerque to finish college. He was whip-smart, multi-faceted, a complex guy who’d go on to be an author (we co-authored two rock-climbing guidebooks together), shoe resoler, and eventually an engineer at Intel. He was a jazz trombonist and an outdoor polymath, equally as talented at mountain biking and telemark skiing as he was on the stone, where he routinely onsighted 5.12, both sport and trad.

One day out at Cochiti Mesa, as we became closer, Randall told me he’d been hit by lightning only a year earlier in Eldorado Canyon, Colorado. He pulled up his shirt to reveal a surrealist’s roadmap of pink flesh and scars along his torso. “That’s where the rack burned my body,” he said matter-of-factly. He’d had to have a graft, the skin harvested from his leg to repair the damage.

In June 1988, Randall and his friend Adam Hurst had driven out from Texas to Colorado to climb the Naked Edge. On their first attempt, they freed all but the last ropelength; the next morning they returned for that pitch, scrambling up the East Slabs to rap in to a hanging belay and climb back out. Rain was in the forecast, but, as Randall recounted, when they reached the top of Tower Two the sky was bluebird above the canyon. There were dark clouds brewing over the high peaks to the west but that’s common in summer, and you usually have an hour or so before the storms ripple east through the canyon. They set up to rappel, Randall going first, taking the rack and rounding the lip while Adam waited at the anchor.

“A bolt of lightning traveled five or six miles sideways,” Randall told me. “We had no idea that could happen.”

The lightning struck Adam, killing him instantly, and then the current traveled down the rock and the rope to Randall, searing the rack to his body and knocking him unconscious. He slumped against the slab, the weight of his body keeping the rope from slipping through his rappel device. As I recall him saying, he didn’t have a backup and the rope ends weren’t knotted. It was only happenstance that he didn’t fall to his death. When Randall came to he smelled burning flesh and heard screaming before realizing the flesh was his own and the screams were issuing from his throat.

It was here, just below the summit of Tower Two, that the Rocky Mountain Rescue Group found Randall, and there has not been a day I climb in Eldorado, especially during the rainy season, that I don’t think of his story and of how life can change in an instant.

………………….

Randall could be competitive; he demanded a lot of his partners, probably because he was so hard on himself. When I sent my first 5.12+, Immaculate Deception at Cochiti Mesa, as soon as I hit the ground Randall asked, “Are you going to redpoint it now?” I’d left the draws hanging, as is commonplace now but was still somehow “controversial” back in the 1980s, when people used “pinkpointing” to describe a route with pre-hung gear. I rested then went back up, dutifully clipping the draws to the bolts, doing the climb again.

“There,” Randall ribbed as he lowered me. “Don’t you feel better?”

Once, at the Duke City Rock Gym, notable for its massive, leadable horizontal ceiling (again, these were the Dark Ages of sport climbing), Randall fired some heinous, thin 5.12 vertical toprope while I belayed him. I got on it after and struggled, hanging at a grievous move six feet off the ground, cursing and sputtering as my feet, in a delaminating pair of La Sportiva Taos, skated off the holds. “Ooh, hardman takes the whipper,” Randall teased, and something inside me snapped. I yanked off one shoe, peeled back the sole, and flung both shoe and sole earthward in a fit of rage.

Randall chuckled at my teenage antics. Now there was no way I was getting up this climb, which he’d so handily flashed.

……………………

One night, we went buildering together in and around the University of New Mexico’s sprawling campus in central Albuquerque. Every state college has a seedy student quarter, and UNM’s is on the southern boundary along Central Avenue—old Route 66. The storefronts on Central are a hodgepodge of pizzerias and sandwich joints, movie theaters, head shops, bookstores, and random, low-slung office buildings, flanked by warrens of cheap student housing. By night, drunk students, homeless people, druggies, dealers, stickup artists, and gangbangers roam the strip; it’s a hotbed of crime, nowhere to be caught climbing a building.

Randall had a circuit worked out, one that began on an office building just off Central. “We have to be careful here,” he said as we ducked behind a row of bushes to pull on our rock shoes. “We don’t want anyone calling the cops.”

The building had interesting cement flutings—sort of mini-tufas—that you could pinch in opposition, stemming to distribute your weight. We shinnied up and down, hunting amidst the dim glow of halogen orange for irregularities in the flutings, leaving faint smudges of chalk. Once we were warmed up, we crossed Central into campus, sticking to the shadows.

There was one specific wall we were headed to, but I couldn’t tell you where it was all these years later. Where this vertical panel of cement met another wall, we flung ourselves at a perfect 90-degree corner, stemming off crumbling sills and plugging our toes into bore holes—essentially monodoigts—drilled in regular intervals. Without crashpads, the 15-foot corner was scary. We wore slippers, both of us in the pointy Asolo models—some of the earliest slippers on the market—to maximize purchase in the pockets.

The main event was a face climb up these sloping boreholes, one Randall had shown to New Mexico’s then leading climber, John Duran. John dispatched it quickly, and his chalk marks were still on the pockets. He’d graded it 5.13b, since John Gill’s B-Scale didn’t really apply here and the V-Scale had yet to be invented. The problem would be V8 or V9 by today’s standards, and it was fucking heinous: mono-stab after mono-stab, with your feet pasted on the smooth wall, toeing desperately into the pockets, or scrabbling for purchase in the cement joints.

I didn’t send that night—the monos were too tweaky for my sausage fingers—but I cannot recall whether Randall did. Likely so: He was a solid climber, as comfortable on textureless cement as he was on runout granite high in the Sandia Mountains. Which is why I was surprised to learn that he’d died in a fall from a water tower.

………………….

Randall told me he lived with survivor’s guilt and depression after the accident in Eldorado, and there would sometimes be weeks when he just kind of vanished. I know the noonday demon all too well myself, so I was never one to judge. I trusted that Randall had to process things in his own time and his own way, and would soon resurface.

After I left for Colorado in 1991, we stayed in touch but rarely climbed together again. I last saw Randall during a visit home in the early Aughties, stopping by his house on the West Mesa above town. As I drove home, the city laid out in an orange grid below in the bowl of the Rio Grande Valley, I had a pang of anxiety, a quick twisting in the gut. Everything is bad! I thought. Bad, bad, bad, bad, bad. I would have this same feeling the last time I saw Michael Reardon at my home in Boulder, Colorado, in spring 2007, months before a rogue wave swept him into the frigid waters of the Atlantic off Ireland, never to be seen again.

In spring 2010, another friend from New Mexico, Paul Davidson, posted a note on the Supertopo forum, letting the community know about Randall’s passing earlier that year. A few people responded, but nobody seemed to know what had happened. Two years later, in October 2012, a friend of Randall’s chimed in on the forum:

A quick note,

I was a good friend of Randall’s, in fact he stayed with me over Christmas before he returned home to his family. I had the pleasure of introducing him to the Cochise Stronghold in S. AZ. We were a lot alike and shared interests – we were both jazz players, avid rock climbers, mt. bikers, and he got me hooked on soaring.

Randall struggled with depression as a result of a lightning strike he received while descending from the Naked Edge in Eldorado Canyon many years before. He had been treated for this but could not find any help. I lost touch with him for a couple of years; then came across his obituary, and a police report describing the accident. It was obvious he took his own life. He left his house late at night, his family was concerned for his safety, and the police found him.

Years later it still bothers me. I feel guilty for asking him to leave after 3 weeks at my house in Tucson. He had lost his job at Intel, his fiancée and friends in Albuquerque had abandoned him. He felt his only recourse was to return to his family in S. Illinois. I don’t think it was the best environment for him, but perhaps he could not be helped. He belonged in the mountains. He was an amazing person and a great friend, and I miss him still. Somewhere I have video from a trip to Yosemite, I haven’t had the heart to review it yet.

I hope this helps clear the air a little.

Greg Armstrong

Of course, Armstrong’s post was just a theory, but he seemed as close to Randall—and the truth—as anyone. (I’d lost touch with Randall over the years so didn’t know about these developments in his life, though I wish it had been otherwise and I’d been able to help him.) I hadn’t pressed Randall’s brother for details when I emailed him my remembrance, and until I saw the Supertopo post I could only surmise that Randall had been night buildering and somehow fallen. Or, at least, this is how I wanted to picture it: A final climb under crystalline winter skies. A momentary lapse of judgment, or perhaps just a random foot slip, too committed to some sequence to recover. A gasp. A fall.

As climbers, we can—perhaps all too easily—make sense of a comrade falling to their death. It’s a grim reality, but we understand that these things happen. A piece pulls or the rope breaks over an edge or you slip while unroped on some third-class ledge: If you climb long enough, you will lose people. But to lose a friend and fellow climber too soon, in some other way, almost feels like a cheat. We do this dangerous thing multiple days a week for years and nothing goes wrong, but then something else gets us: a car crash, a heart attack, cancer, our demons.

I’m 50 now, close enough to shuffling off this mortal coil that I rarely consider suicide anymore, even on the darkest days. And Randall, were he still alive, would be in his mid-50s—still plenty young to be out doing the things he loved. I so deeply wish he were still here.

One of the final times Randall and I climbed together, four of us went down to the Box Canyon, west of Socorro, New Mexico, a volcanic defile split by a dry creekbed rough with river cobbles and dotted with piñon trees along its wider banks. That day Randall brought his didgeridoo, curious about how it would sound within the unique acoustics of the canyon. It was cumbersome to fit the long, hollow tube plus four climbers and four climbing packs into my car, but I’m glad we did. I can still hear the instrument’s low, lamenting reverberations echoing off the canyon walls as Randall breathed music into it, as he exhaled his pain and his truth into the warm desert air.

Matt Samet is a freelance writer and editor based in Boulder, Colorado, where he lives with his family.