At about 3 o'clock last Tuesday afternoon, July 20, 70-year-old Spencer Swanger, an experienced mountaineer from Colorado, was guiding a group of climbers on a relatively easy via ferrata or "iron way" up a mountain in the Dolomites in northern Italy. At one point on the ascent, snow buried the cable that climbers normally clip into for safety. Spence helped the other five members of his party across the snow until they were clipped onto the free cable on the other side.
Then, following his wife Karen, Spence came last across the snow but slipped before the cable and fell over a cliff, coming to rest some 300 feet down the mountain. An Italian alpine guide below saw the accident happen and immediately called search and rescue, who arrived by helicopter within a half an hour but it was too late. Spencer had already died of his injuries.
I've been a climber for a lot of years--since I was a kid in 1965 and I've seen a lot of death and destruction in the mountains. I've known many climbers killed in the mountains, including climbing partners and friends. The loss of Spencer Swanger in the Dolomites has hit me pretty hard, because he was both my friend and climbing partner as well as a mentor.
I first met Spence in 1968 when I was in high school and a novice climber. He was a trip leader for the Colorado Mountain Club, so over the next few years I climbed a lot of mountains with him. While I was a skinny teenager, Spence was already a hardened 30-something mountaineer, who by 1970 had climbed all of Colorado's Fourteeners.
Spence's goal after that was to climb the 100 highest peaks in Colorado, which no one had accomplished. During the space of a few years in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I climbed a bunch of those peaks with Spence and had a lot of other great mountain adventures that still thrill me. Together we did the traverse of the Maroon Bells four times; we attempted a winter ascent of the hairy traverse between Little Bear Peak and Blanca Peak but backed off due to avalanche danger; we cruised the pinnacle-studded Ellingwood Ridge on La Plata Peak; and put on crampons and front-pointed up the Holy Cross Couloir on Mount of the Holy Cross. He completed the 100 highest list in 1976, finishing by soloing 13,809-foot Dallas Peak for its third ascent.
My proudest climb with Spence, however, was a first ascent in August, 1970 when we led three other climbers up an unclimbed 13,932-foot peak south of Pyramid Peak near Aspen, Colorado. The previous September, Spence and I had sat atop South Maroon Peak and noticed a jagged mountain across the valley. Spence researched over the winter and found no record of anyone climbing the mountain. We clambered up loose gullies and over tottering cliff bands to its rocky virgin summit, where we sat and watched clouds roil over Snowmass Mountain to the west. We tried to come up with a suitable and creative name for our peak. Nothing worked, until a peal of thunder from the impending clouds rolled up the valley. Spencer smiled and said, "Let's just call it Thunder Mountain and get outta here."
That peak, now called Thunder Pyramid, was the last of the Colorado Centennials or 100 highest peaks to be climbed. This summer is the 40th anniversary of our ascent. Six weeks ago I stopped by Spence's house in west Colorado Springs to catch up and said, "Hey, I want to do a 40th anniversary climb of Thunder Pyramid. You up for going? Did you know that you, Carson Black, and myself are the only climbers still alive that did a first ascent of one the Centennials?" Spencer said he would think about it, then changed the subject to his up-coming trip to the Dolomites in northern Italy, one of the world's most beautiful mountain ranges.
Spencer, since retiring as a postman, spent the last 20 years roaming the globe, climbing mountains, trekking around Nepal and Patagonia, and making spectacular photographs of his adventures. In between trips, he continued ascending Colorado's Fourteeners, climbing them all at least six times, and continuing what he did when I was his young climbing partner--mentoring new climbers and teaching them the mountain way. I know that the lessons I learned from Spence forty years ago still serve me well and keep me safe in the mountains. It's ironic but also a fitting tribute that Spencer was doing the same on his last climbing trip, making sure that the less experienced members of his party were safe and secure before he fell.
Spencer, old friend and climbing buddy, we're all going to miss you. Wait on the other side of the mountain. We'll see you there later.
Photographs: (Top) Spencer Swanger climbing a via ferrata in the Dolomites in July, 2008. (Bottom) Spencer descending Mount Bross in Colorado after a spring ascent in 2006. Photographs courtesy Bob Barrett and Susan Paul.