THE BUZZ: Gaining Elevation

By on July 26, 2016

Remembering Gary Falk, the Exum guide who perished while leading a group down from the Grand Teton.

Left: Gary Falk to his local barber, ‘Give me a trim, but don’t make it look like I have a job.’ Right: May 20, 2010, Gary was part of a blizzard rescue mission of Mt. Rainer climbers. All climbers were safe and sound after a painstaking six-hour ordeal, resulting in frostbite on six of Gary’s fingers. He and the other guide were lifeflighted to the SLC hospital burn unit.

Gary Falk to his local barber, ‘Give me a trim, but don’t make it look like I have a job.’

[This online version has been amended to reflect that there is no information available indicating Gary Falk had “broken protocol.” Falk also did not free fall for 17 seconds, as the original narrative inferred. He likely died after the first 100 feet of his fall. The Planet regrets the errors and offers its condolences to Falk’s family, friends and the entire climbing community. – Ed.]

JACKSON HOLE, WY – On the morning of July 23, while leading a group on a descent of the Grand Teton, Gary Falk fell an estimated 2,400 feet to his death. After the first of his four clients made a safe 150-foot rappel, the rappelling gear was shuttled by rope back up to Falk. It became stuck, wedged on a rock overhang. Witnesses say Falk unclipped briefly, either to reposition himself to another anchor or to peek down at where the apparatus might be jammed. It is unclear if he clipped into something else.

Another Exum guide finished leading the tourists—all of who summited the Grand earlier that morning—safely down the 13,776-foot mountain. Park rangers recovered Falk’s body later that day. It was the first fatality of an on-the-job professional climber in Grand Teton National Park in decades.

Falk made a living in thin air. As a climber, he was a member of a tight community that forms easy bonds over shared crags, cracks, and an adopted lifestyle of pushing peril aside long enough to make the ascent, swallowing hazard to reach that next jam.

As a husband and father he was “intentional and dedicated,” according to the grieving wife he leaves behind. Kate Falk called Gary a giver and a lover.

“Gary had the ability to see and bring out the best in each individual,” Kate said. “He made us feel so loved and accepted. He made us feel protected and safe, so that we could shine in our own way, be vulnerable and grow.”

Climber Gary

Clients got a glimpse of that same protector Gary. He was all about risk management. Mountaineering was a passion with Falk, but his purpose, his mission, was to get up, get down, and bring everyone home. And he was tenacious about it. He brought a level of professionalism to his employer, Exum, that came to surprise close friend Jeff Witt.

“He was always a guy you trusted enough to follow. He would take lead on all the hard pitches if you weren’t sure about them,” Witt said. “The interesting thing about climbing is there are no laws to tell you how to do it, other than nature’s. There are no rules, no one way to do something. So you develop your own rules and you stick by them. Gary was so good about doing things right and not taking shortcuts. He kept me honest as a climber whether it was checking each other’s knots or whatever. And when he became a guide (with Exum in 2005) he changed. He stepped up and he owned it. He became really professional about it and set the bar so high I’m still working to catch up to it.”

Right: May 20, 2010, Gary was part of a blizzard rescue mission of Mt. Rainer climbers. All climbers were safe and sound after a painstaking six-hour ordeal, resulting in frostbite on six of Gary’s fingers. He and the other guide were lifeflighted to the SLC hospital burn unit.

May 20, 2010: Gary was part of a blizzard rescue mission of Mt. Rainer climbers. All climbers were safe and sound after a painstaking six-hour ordeal, resulting in frostbite on six of Gary’s fingers. He and the other guide were lifeflighted to the SLC hospital burn unit.

Mike Abbey has been guiding with Exum since 1999. He met Falk at Joshua Tree around 2000. The two formed an immediate bond.

“When I first met Gary he’d been climbing for a couple of years. I had been climbing for about 15,” Abbey remembered. “I knew right away he was a guy I wanted to do things with. All the hardest climbs I’ve ever done, I’ve done with Gary. There is nobody that I’ve trusted more and felt more solid about. I’ve asked him to take my kids out. That’s something, because it’s more than just liking a guy. It’s recognizing his seriousness about the job, about keeping clients safe.”

Falk may have been all business on the rope, but it was his ability to connect with others that made him perfectly suited to be a guide and personal trainer.

“Gary was the most sincere person I know. He was genuinely interested in people. That made him one of the best guides because he would always ask about you, and where you were from, and how was your family,” Abbey said. “I’m just realizing now how impactful he was to so many. People from all over the country are phoning and emailing, offering their support. It’s unbelievable how many lives he’s touched.”

DeNesha Anderson also saw Falk’s charisma. “[My husband and I] met Gary when he was a trainer for One to One Wellness. He was a great trainer but more importantly, he was a great guy. He had an easy way about him that could connect with whomever he came in contact with,” she said.

Growing up

Falk was Wyoming state Rep. Marti Halverson’s only child. He was born and raised in Chicago. He moved to Jackson in 1997. He recently began splitting time between here and Ouray, Colo.

Halverson remembers Gary lacing up his hockey skates at the age of 3. He played briefly for the Jackson Hole Moose and was a fixture at the ice rink during his time in Jackson. She said she’s received dozens of calls from people who played hockey with and against him.

Halverson realizes most people who met Gary saw the adventurous spirit in him. But few, she bets, know how thirsty his mind was. “He was a voracious reader,” she said. “When he was eight years old, he snagged my copy of Stephen King’s The Shining and would read it late into the night, under the covers with a flashlight. He was also a serious fan of music—from Duke Ellington to the Grateful Dead.”

Falk was also particularly close to his grandmother.

“Gary reserved a large space in his heart for his grandmother who has sadly outlived her only grandson and her prince for the last 42 years,” Halverson said. “Their relationship was special. They went to the park in Evanston on Lake Michigan, playing many sets of tennis, and taking breaks to drink cokes and walk the beach looking for sea glass.”

Carrying on

Sunday was a day of rest and reflection for Falk’s comrades at Exum. No one had the energy to climb, or the will. On Monday, Witt felt he had to get away from the phone calls, the emails, and the reminders of how quickly one slip can change everything. He needed to get back on some solid rock.

“I actually went up the Grand today, by myself, to remember him,” Witt said on Monday. “I wanted to spend time visiting with Gary, in a way, by thinking about him. I built a little stack of stones and hung up some prayer flags right at the spot where I think he fell. I don’t know if the Park Service would care for that but it won’t last long up there.”

Abbey was anticipating a day in the office on Monday but was called out in the field, unexpectedly.

“I ended up guiding today. I wasn’t planning on it. I didn’t even have my gear with me so I used Gary’s,” Abbey said on Monday. “I found myself trying to take his approach to the job: Working, guiding, not because I need the money but because I have this unique perspective on life that I can share with people. I’m trying to be more genuine and truly care about that personal connection because nobody did it better than Gary.”

A few Exum guides got together over the weekend to share stories and occasionally found themselves on delicate ground: How? Why?

As to how Falk lost hold of the mountain and plummeted to his death, it’s something every climber knows is there in a faulty carabiner or loose anchor, some chossy rock or mental error. It’s what makes the heart pound hard enough for a body to know it’s alive.

“Climbing is like one of these extreme sports. It’s extreme but it’s not extreme, you know? It’s managed risk, and we’ve all chosen to accept those risks for what it offers us,” Abbey said. “And with Gary, the consensus we’ve all come up with is it was just an accident. There is nothing he did we all haven’t done a hundred times. It’s sometimes an inherently dangerous profession.”

In his own words, Falk was probably thinking of Kate and the kids when he went to work last Saturday, and when he knew he wasn’t coming home. Gary’s Mountain Trip bio reads: “Whether on a hard technical rock or ice route, an expedition on a high-altitude peak or a big ski descent, I find myself always thinking about my wife and son—making it my number one priority for me and my guests to return home in one piece.”

In their eight years together, Kate saw a balanced man: “the love of my life and the apple of my children’s eyes.”

There was also Gary the personal trainer and Gary the hockey player.

Kate knew Gary the strong husband and father, and Gary the mountaineer, an adventurous soul who made his office in the sky. 

“Together, we felt like we could do anything and that we had all the time in the world,” she said. PJH

A memorial fund for Gary’s family has been set up at GoFundMe.com. (Gary Falk Memorial Fund). A celebration of life is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Friday at 1000 E. Middle Meadow Rd. in Jackson.


About Jake Nichols

Jake is a work in progress.

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