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Jordan White reaches new heights

Jon Maletz
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado

BASALT ” Snowmass Mountain, littered with ski tracks and narrow patches of brown ” the last remnants of a few innocuous slides and an historic descent ” towered above Jordan White as he and a group of friends kicked and glided back to camp on May 3.

Soon, with tired legs and stuffed packs, they headed across flat, remote Elk Mountain snowfields before swapping ski boots for shoes. White was the first to reach the trailhead a few miles later.

A familiar face was waiting. Luann White had driven all the way from Denver to greet her son, who arrived at about 6:30 p.m.

“Oh, surely you didn’t think I would miss THIS one, did you?,” she later wrote on Jordan’s blog, elksandbeyond.com.

This was no ordinary ski mountaineering excursion.

On May 4, 2006, White climbed and skied his first fourteener ” Quandary Peak. In subsequent years, the Denver native, who now resides in Basalt and works as a project engineer for Fenton Construction, criss-crossed the state in search of high-country thrills on Colorado’s highest peaks. Nearly three years later to the day, White quietly skied into history.

With his successful ascent and ski descent of Snowmass, White became the fifth person to accomplish the feat on all 54 of the state’s 14,000-foot peaks. He joins 2005 Colorado Ski Hall of Fame inductee Lou Dawson of Carbondale, Aspen’s Ted Mahon, professional skier Chris Davenport of Old Snowmass and Crested Butte’s Frank Konsella.

The 23-year-old White is the youngest to complete the list. Only Davenport (362 days) did it quicker.

“I got there about 2 p.m. ” I knew it would be a while, but I didn’t realize he’d be surprised to see me. That was cool,” Luann White said May 12. “It’s amazing. At 23, I had been married two years and accomplished nothing like that.”

Mother and son exchanged a long embrace. Then, Luann White captured a picture of her son sporting a youthful, elated grin.

That same smile lights up a 1990 portrait of then 5-year-old Jordan around the time he climbed his first fourteener, San Luis Peak. He is donning his mother’s college backpack ” the straps had to be modified with foam padding to fit his tiny frame, Luann White jokes.

Jordan White’s ardor for mountaineering, one nurtured by his late father Kip, has endured ever since, through both triumphs and deep personal grief.

“I could never quit,” Jordan White says. “This is what I love to do. … Now, I’m just psyched to be up there.”

Weary and disoriented, White regained consciousness.

“How long have I been out?” he wondered as he tried to piece events together. The few inches of fresh snow blanketing his body led him to believe it had been hours, not minutes.

White’s helmet was cracked and fresh blood spilled from his nose and saturated the surrounding snow as he feverishly searched for water. All food and water had fallen out of his pack ” he tossed an empty Nalgene bottle in disgust.

White’s head lamp was missing. His ice axes and his right glove were nowhere to be found.

Neither was Kip White.

Hours earlier on Memorial Day in 2005, under the cover of darkness and with soft snow shining in their headlamps, the two departed from the parking lot at Maroon Lake, bound for the Maroon Bells. “It was 1 or 2 in the morning, I’ve never been able to remember,” Jordan White says. “I didn’t sleep a whole lot that night.”

The duo hiked past Crater Lake and ascended the Bell Cord Couloir, between the two peaks. They reached the top of the couloir without incident and started traversing to the south to connect with the summer route.

Plans changed in an instant. Winds and precipitation picked up and all visibility vanished. Rather than continue, the two opted to abandon the summit push ” the first attempt for each ” and down-climb via an adjacent couloir.

Kip White set up belay and began lowering Jordan, who was then 19. As he swung precariously over a 20-foot cliff, Jordan called up to his father to make sure Kip White had enough rope.

Seconds later, the rope went slack.

Jordan White remembers the freefall, landing on his feet and tumbling twice. Then everything went black.

When he woke, White was back in the Bell Cord Couloir. His entire body ached. He would later estimate that he fell nearly 400 feet. That was of little consequence then, however, because his father was missing.

“I figured maybe he went out to go get help,” White says. “Or maybe he was still up there.”

White gathered what remained of his belongings ” a pair of crampons and some spare snow pants ” and stood up. The rope still tethered to his body was now leading downhill.

He pulled at it. Fifty feet below, an indiscernible object shifted in the snow.

He untied himself, slipped on his crampons and slowly descended.

White knelt, dusted off a pile of powder and found his father, facing downhill. A pool of blood surrounded Kip White’s head.

The father of two, husband, musician, engineer, pilot and outdoorsman was gone.

“There wasn’t even a question,” Jordan White says solemnly. “That part was shocking.

“When you grow up with him as a father, you end up being a pretty level-headed person. He let you figure stuff out on your own. But that was a big one.”

With 2,000 vertical feet left to descend, the ordeal was far from over. Daylight was fast disappearing and there was an agonizing distance separating him from his father’s truck.

Jordan White made it back to flat ground, at times sliding on his backside on the fresh snow. As darkness fell, he attempted to follow the Crater Lake trail but found the task arduous and frustrating. He couldn’t see the trail and repeatedly tripped over logs and boulders.

“I gave up and laid next to a boulder,” White remembers. “I’ve been back, and that boulder is not that far from the trail.”

Alpenglow and what he believed was the clicking of poles stirred White sometime later. He stood up, steadied himself, found the trail and started walking.

The parking lot was vacant when White arrived. He reached into the wheel well and fumbled around until he found the key. Before heading for Aspen, about 11 miles away, he downed a few liters of Gatorade.

White’s cell phone regained service near Aspen Highlands; he had to wait for nearly 15 messages to pop up before being able to dial.

He called 911 and was instructed to park at the roundabout and wait for a deputy.

Then, he called his mother and grandfather.

“When my husband was climbing, we always had the 24-hour rule. We wait 24 hours to call someone because it could be anything, which is reasonable,” Luann White says. “I left 11 messages. In one, I said the 24-hour rule was out, and if I didn’t hear from them by 6 [a.m.], I was going to [contact authorities].

“Jordan called at 10 of 6.”

Deputies arrived soon after, and White recalls a few moments of stunned silence. In his haste to find help, White hadn’t looked in the mirror at his face, which was caked with dried blood.

He followed authorities to Aspen Valley Hospital ” “The comic relief of the day was when they met me at the car with a gurney,” White remembers.

He sustained a serious concussion, broke his left fibula and separated his left shoulder. Multiple cuts and scrapes on his face had to be glued shut.

Members of Mountain Rescue Aspen reached Kip White that afternoon. His brother and two cousins from Amarillo, Texas, arrived later.

On June 4, Jordan White addressed a crowd of nearly 1,000 packed into Littleton’s St. James Presbyterian Church at his father’s memorial service.

“I told everyone I was going to tell them the story so I wouldn’t have to tell it 1,000 times,” White remembers. “I actually had a back-up speaker in case I couldn’t finish, but I didn’t have a problem.”

Friends and colleagues described Kip White as a man who lived to life to the fullest with great energy and enthusiasm, according to an article on MileHighNews.com.

Jordan White echoed such sentiments.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that he would have wanted to die the way he did,” he told the crowd. “Climbing a mountain, the magnificence of the Colorado mountains he fell in love with.”

It would have been easy and understandable for Jordan White to stay on flat ground, to swear off the mountains that had given him so much yet taken so much away. But that thought never crossed the young climber’s mind, he says.

He wasn’t about to abandon a sport he had loved for nearly two decades. He still remembers his first climb up San Luis, and thumbing through Dawson’s guide books when he first learned to read. The family trips spent at his dad’s family’s cabin in the San Juans, and slogging through waist-deep powder during his first winter ascent on Mount of the Holy Cross at age 12.

White wasn’t about to let the fall that claimed his father strip him of two things he loved.

After eight weeks in a walking boot, he tackled mounts Oxford and Belford.

“I think mentally, I really wanted to be back up there,” he says. “There wasn’t any hesitation. Granted, I did nothing more than hike to the top.”

Luann White, whom Jordan White refers to as his biggest supporter and worrier, did not try to stop her son.

“That doesn’t do any good. … I told him I would never tell him not to go, but I don’t expect it always to turn out well,” she said. “Whatever he does, he knows the inherent risks. … I’m pretty aware and trust him implicitly to be smart about what he’s doing.”

A new navigation device that allows her to chart her son’s whereabouts through Google Earth has given Luann White some semblance of comfort, she says.

“I asked him if he would put it on all the time so I know where he is ” he didn’t agree,” she jokes.

Jordan White has soldiered on. He climbed all 54 fourteeners by the age of 21 and completed ascents on peaks across the globe, from Russia’s 18,510-foot Mount Elbrus to 22,841-foot Aconcagua in the Andes.

In May 2006, he pulled off his first fourteener ski descent on Quandary Peak. Bringing skis was prompted by curiosity more than necessity.

Either way, White was hooked.

“It sure is easier to ski down than climb,” he says.

White continued to pile up ski descents while a student at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. As the list grew to 20, then 30, he openly thought about finishing them all.

“When there’s something he wants to do or find, he has a singular focus,” Luann White says. “Sometimes it drives him nuts he’s so focused. He can be pretty dogged. … If he wanted to sail around the world by 23, he probably would’ve done that too.”

“You have to be fairly aggressive to be able to do it in that short of time,” adds Dawson, who accomplished the feat in 13 years. “A list of mountaineering goals is like having one summit extended over this long period. There’s a pretty high level of motivation.”

That motivation escalated of late. Since September alone, White has logged 17,500 miles in his new pickup. During one stretch at the end of April, he skied Crestone Peak and Crestone Needle in one day, Humboldt the next then El Diente, Mount Wilson and Wilson Peak in one 24-hour period.

“My friend Joe Brannan made a good comment after we skied Capitol. He said this is like major surgery: You fret and worry for weeks and weeks, then the IV goes in and it takes care of itself,” White says. “Then you get down to business and do it.

“It’s been a fun journey.”

That journey has produced scores of noteworthy moments. The 18-hour days. Sixteen inches of fresh powder in the Snake Couloir on Mount Sneffels. The avalanche on Pyramid Peak and the harrowing ski descent on Capitol.

There were also three summits with Dawson, a man with whom White has formed a strong bond.

“He’s worried like a father the last couple of years,” White says. “He’s also willing to give me a little criticism if I’m doing something stupid.”

“He’s a good kid … and quite an accomplished mountaineer,” Dawson said. “It’s nice to see him develop those skills and honor him in that way.”

When others ponder White’s feat, one question typically surfaces. They inquire about his motivation and his father’s death, a subject that even garners brief mention in Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Mark Obmascik’s new book “Halfway to Heaven: My White-knuckled ” and Knuckleheaded ” Quest for the Rocky Mountain High”, released May 12.

They wonder if Jordan White is driven by past calamity.

“I honestly think that the whole ‘honor my father’ thing quit with Aconcagua in ’07,” he says. “So as much as others seem to think that this is the reason that I climb, I don’t think it is as applicable anymore.”

White is driven by the purest of intentions. He has no desire for notoriety and has no plans to quit his day job. “I’m not a good enough skier to do it for the money,” he jokes.

“I think it really is just a challenging way for me to enjoy myself in the outdoors,” he continues. “I’ll keep skiing because I have fun doing it.

“Honestly, I think my friends are more excited about this than I am.”

It’s an accomplishment Luann White says would make Kip White beam.

“Kip wanted his kids to get out and experience it, even if they didn’t love it as much,” she adds. “He would’ve liked to have that freedom when he was 23. … He would be very proud of Jordan setting this goal and finishing it.”

jmaletz@aspentimes.com


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