Bridges: A classy guy and one heck of a climber
Aspenite Dave Bridges’ friends remember him as a phenomenal, well-rounded athlete, whose physical attributes complemented an equally diverse and curious intellect, and a selfless demeanor.
“If the world was full of people like Dave Bridges, the world would be an amazing place,” said Chris Davenport, a friend and climbing partner. Bridges died last week while filming a climbing expedition on 26,291-foot Shishapangma in the Himalayan mountains.
“He was a rare breed. The guy totally excelled at everything he did – and not necessarily in mountain sports; at anything he set his mind to. He was incredibly intelligent and motivated, he just happened to have a passion for mountain sports. He could have done anything he wanted and done it well. He was gifted.
“What’s rare about somebody with a gift like that,” Davenport added, “is that he was humble, about everything. I think if Dave were to write his own obituary, he’d say something very simple. Everyone who knew him was impressed by his personality. He touched everybody in a deep way.” Expect the unexpected Bridges, 29, died a week ago in an avalanche on Shishapangma, in Chinese Tibet. The avalanche also claimed the life of Alex Lowe, 40, who was widely regarded as one of the world’s finest climbers.
Both men were part of the nine-man “Shishapangma 1999 American Ski Expedition,” which aimed to scale the planet’s 14th tallest mountain and then descend on skis. Bridges was one of three filmmakers there to document the expedition.
Technically and physically, the climb was nothing new for Bridges or Lowe, both of whom had already summited several Himalayan peaks. But anyone familiar with high-altitude climbing knows that all the experience in the world can’t train someone for the unexpected.
Bridges, Lowe and world-renowned climber Conrad Anker were climbing together on a pitch above the 18,000-foot Advanced Base Camp, when an enormous slab avalanche broke off about 6,000 feet above the climbers. Anker narrowly escaped the path of the slide, while Bridges and Lowe were consumed by it and buried.
“In this particular accident, there was no rhyme or reason to who the victims were,” said Dick Jackson, Bridges’ partner in Aspen Paragliding and Expeditions and a veteran high-altitude climber. Anker, as well as several other members of the expedition, barely avoided being carried away in the slide, he said.
“People in the climbing community would agree with their judgment on that day, it being safe to travel,” agreed Bob “Sloman” Sloezen, another veteran Aspen climber who has been with Bridges and Lowe on several Himalayan climbs.
“Alex had escaped several decades on these hard routes; this was just poor timing. There was enough experience there that they wouldn’t have pursued it in poor weather or in hazardous conditions … they didn’t do anything stupid, is what I’m saying.”
Members of the Shishapangma Expedition searched for the men in the avalanche debris for two days before giving up. Their bodies remain on the mountain.
The day after the accident, Bridges’ girlfriend, Heidi Kloos, also a climber, left for Tibet.
“They were meant to be together, you could tell,” Sloezen said of the couple. “What’s really distressing, is that you lose a lot of good people when you climb this kind of stuff.” A marriage of passions The Shishapangma Expedition was a grand opportunity for Bridges, whose careers as a high-altitude climber and a filmmaker were beginning to merge.
“Very often climbers look for ways to marry their passion for climbing with an occupation, and this was one way he was doing it,” said John Wilcox, president and executive producer of the Aspen-based American Adventure Productions (AAP). Bridges was filming for AAP on Shishapangma when the accident occurred.
Bridges first worked as a high-altitude filmmaker for AAP last spring on the Makalu Expedition, with the likes of Sloezen, Davenport and others.
“He anticipated the Shishapangma Expedition so much because he would have the opportunity to work with two legends: Alex and Conrad,” Wilcox said. “And when Dave got there, they saw immediately what a qualified mountaineer he was, and that’s ultimately why the three were in the situation they were in.”
Dick Jackson recalled a conversation he and Bridges had months ago, about whether it was feasible for Bridges to go on the expedition. Bridges, a California native, moved to Aspen in late 1996 and soon began working with Jackson at Aspen Paragliding. He became a formal partner in the business about a year ago.
“I feel some reluctance now, but I don’t truly feel that way because I understand life and death in the mountains,” Jackson said. “I was 100 percent in support of him going on this trip because that’s what he deserved to be able to do with his career. It was part of his life, and you can’t downplay what someone was living for by the results, because ultimately, we’re all going to go some way.
“Dave is – and I use the present tense because I think in those terms – one of the most well-rounded mountain athletes that we’d ever met,” Jackson added. “His high-altitude specialty was something that he was just becoming aware of more and more, because when he summited Makalu this spring, there are very few people who have performed as well as he did on that. … Even though he was only 29, the amount of things that he crammed into a relatively short life was amazing.” An adventurous life Bridges was a two-time U.S. Nationals paragliding champion, and served as the “meet head” for this past summer’s U.S. Nationals in Aspen, according to Jackson. Bridges left for Shishapangma two days after the meet.
“You couldn’t meet Dave Bridges and feel anything other than he was a great guy,” Jackson said. “Dave was soft-spoken, he spoke with confidence, he simply let his actions speak an awful lot, but he didn’t mind talking about anything. Dave was always very direct if something was on his mind. You knew what was on his mind – the kind of character that you immediately admire and respect because he was a real straight shooter.”
“Dave truly was a class act,” said Kurt Lageschulte, a longtime friend of Bridges’ and co-worker at Aspen Paragliding. “The guy just had an amazing spirit – tons of energy that he lavished on his friends and he was always moving. And at the same time, people like that tend not to be very introspective, or they don’t take a lot of time to think. But he was really an incredibly intelligent and thoughtful and sweet person. It was impressive to me to see just how many levels he could relate to people on.”
Last October, Bridges, Davenport, Jackson and others left on an expedition to Baruntse, a 23,826-foot peak in Nepal. Bridges and Davenport summited, though the trip was marred by the death of Aspenite Raoul Wille, who succumbed to altitude sickness.
“We were the only two on our team to summit,” Davenport recalled, “and I’ll definitely remember he and I standing on the summit. It’s one of my fondest memories of Dave. We had an intense but rewarding climb – it was a great bonding experience.
“It was also ironic because we were celebrating the life of our friend Raoul Wille, who had just passed away. We climbed it for Raoul, and the next big mountain that I personally climb, I’ll be thinking about Dave the whole time.” World-class climber Immediately after Baruntse, Sloezen, who at the time was in Nepal guiding another expedition, met up with Bridges in Katmandu. The two would go on to summit Kusum Kanguru, a 23,000-foot- plus peak, via a seldom-climbed north-face route.
“We were both acclimated already so we met up on a big mountain and the two of us did it together,” Sloezen said. “It was an alpine ascent. That’s not done much in the Himalayas.”
An alpine ascent involves climbing on one rope without the benefit of help or support from an expedition party.
“I actually found out about this route from Alex [Lowe]. He said, `There’s this ridge that’s really cool looking,’ and with that, we started making plans,” Sloezen said. “You go through some trial and error with little-known routes like that one, and you’ve got to have a lot of faith in your partner.”
At 46, the well-traveled Sloezen saw promise in Bridges.
“I’ve climbed with a lot of people over 25 or 30 years,” he said, “and Dave had an up-and-coming career in climbing. He was real aggressive and real smart, and he had developed a real passion for it. Being around the sport, and knowing Alex Lowe for a decade or so – we climbed Everest awhile back – I know that it’s hard to break into that world-class level. But Dave was creating opportunities to be that class of a climber.”
“He could keep up with Alex Lowe – by far the best American climber, and maybe climber, period, in the world – and not many people could,” he said.
A memorial service for Bridges is planned for Oct. 30, though a location for the service has not yet been selected.
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