"I could be wrong, but I'm pretty sure you only get one good climbing partner in life."
I climbed with Keith Spencer over the course of several years in Wyoming, Colorado, and the North Cascades. We weren't full-on Dirt Bag climbers like those guys in Yosemite, but we were whatever you call climbers one-half step above Dirt Bag climbers. We were geologists and, being from that culture, we made enough money to buy beer and pay rent on time. We were responsible not-quite Dirt Bag climbers.
Looking back, I realize that Keith was the best friend I ever had.
On Thursdays, old Clockwork Keith would blast into my graduate student office at UWYo and spill a tall stack of guidebooks and topo maps onto my desk.
"How about Lone Eagle Peak tomorrow? Its a five hour drive down there and nine miles in, so we'll have to be back by midnite tomorrow."
"How about the CMC? We can leave tonight, but we'll have to steal the neighbor's canoe and he doesn't leave for work til 9pm. Take tennis shoes. We'll need donuts, of course."
"Welcome back from the hospital! Let's ski Richthofen tomorrow. You can hang your IV bag from the rearview mirror on the drive down. You can still drive, right?"
"Glacier lassitude can be a real killer on a long route like this. We'll have to forgo the comforts this time. Bring the pee bottles, leave the ropes."
"There are 4 maniacs in a pit of fire right outside that door. Your job is jump down in there and control them. I'll wait here."
If you ever spent much time with Spence, you know he did big things and said little about them. Wyoming tends to attract such personalities. Hell, Laramie was full of world class adventurers that never made the magazines. Keith rode his bike across the whole of Australia, a fact that I learned about three years after meeting him.
As far as looks go, Keith was a cross between Clint Eastwood, Rowan Atkinson, and a 1974 big block V8. Smooth, easy, and a little goofy. His speech had a cadence similar to Krakauer's, just a tad bit slower. Laramie chicks did not dig him, but expedition chicks did.
Wyoming residents consider Colorado to be warm, trafficky, and hip. In trendy Colorado, Keith stood out like a sore thumb - the lanky bachelor-farmer type that somehow grew up in Reno, NV (not Choteau, MT). He would start up friendly Wyoming conversations (that is, awkward) with Colorado strangers with a quote from Don Whillans. Or something from a Coyle & Sharpe bit. Or a maxxim from Dr. Peter Huntoon, the Canyonlands hermit-philosopher. The vocal-frying, uber-cool Coloradans recognized Keith for what he was, a Wyoming climber.
Keith would leave town with some regularity. Once in a while, he would leave the continent altogether. I would watch him fly off to Asia, South America, or the big Alaska ranges. I knew I was missing out on trips of a lifetime, but as a graduate student, I simply could not afford to join the expedition parties, even the cheap ones. Instead of getting pissed, I would just wait for June, when the local climbs would come back into shape and we'd hit the road together.
He came to visit me one summer several years after I had left Laramie. I lived at the Pogue Flat airstrip in the Okanogan Valley then. The wildfires were burning, but I'd already served my 14 days on, so we were free to escape to the mountains for a week. We summitted five classic Washington Pass peaks in five days, every night returning to the back deck of the scuzzy little brewpub in Winthrop for a huge platter of nachos. We parked and slept in someone's yard we didn't know, waking at dawn to sprinklers and mule deer. Chorizo for breakfast and the road to Mazama, for coffee.
A super enjoyable climb of Forbidden Peak's North Ridge. El Dorado is in the distance. On the way up, the snow finger was 12" wide and completely undercut, but passable. We simul-climbed the entire ridge in short order, up and down. The rappel went smoothly. Keith Spencer photo.
Nearing Whistler Peak's summit. Keith Spencer photo.
I recall coming up onto the slanting block high on Cutthroat Peak's South Buttress to find Keith looking haggard and chewed up. It had taken him forever to lead this final low-5th class pitch and I was starting to get angry at the belay station. No communicating given the wind that day. I kept watching the rope sitting there lifeless, thinking, "You can solo this entire route. What is he doing up there? Whatever the excuse, it better be a good one".
After joining him on the summit block, Keith told me he took "the back way to the top". Having climbed this route four times previously, I knew there was no "back way" to the summit of Cutthroat. There's only air and rotten, vertical rock. So when he pointed out the horror show he'd just lead, I was dumbfounded. I flat out couldn't believe the line the rope was slithering up. "Uh, not a climbing route, Keith." But there he was, all smiles, a little less skin, but on top nevertheless, faithfully taking up slack.
At the end of that week, we took a rest day back at my place. It was 90 degrees and 15% humidity. We made a pitcher of margaritas and lobbed water balloons from a surgical tubing funnel gun at FedEx delivery trucks as they exited the warehouse next door. We went though an entire bag of balloons over the course of about 8 hours. That's 250 balloons and a lot of drivers muttering to themselves, "What the hell?"
Keith had some monster feet. I recall many, many days sitting on my Laramie front porch drinking PBR ($4.88 for a case!) and watching The Spence circle past my house sporting those oh-so-fabulous '80s-style New Balances (the gray and white ones, size 14). He'd bound along, making his usual, lonesome loop around Laramie. He'd guilt trip me with that Forest Gump wave and cruise on by, only to be seen again in 27-31 minutes, depending on traffic. I was an avid runner then, too. I never saw Keith on my runs.
Always a beer for the summit. Keith at the top, somewhere near Washington Pass.
Keith in flannel high in the North Cascades.
Keith and I did several winter ski climbs together in central Colorado. After a night in a snow cave we made the summit of this peak near Leadville (I forget the name). I had a rapidly-developing case of strep on this trip and missed all my finals the following week. The summit was awesome. And the C+ I received in 'Geochemistry of Natural Waters' was both my worst grade in grad school and the only one the Exxon recruiters brought up in the interview. They hired me the following year.
Keith was the last person able to drive a Toyota pickup 120,000 miles up and down countless mountain passes yet maintain >50% of the original brake pads. In life as on the road, he was Dr. Downshift, indeed.
He's the only guy I've known to routinely build igloos in the yard. He'd send me postcards from far off corners of nowhere year after year. He ran marathons. He was a military-trained sniper. This is a guy who, at 45 years old, managed to avoid the trappings of a real job, but live a great life all the while. Always up for a long drive and a cold bivy, good chocolate and dark beer, the perfect snow cave and the hermit lifestyle. He called me Sven.
Waterballooning FedEx trucks. The fortuitous location of my junipers facilitated hours of undetected launching. Omak.
Grand Prize Winner - 2005 Okanogan Funnelator Championships.
Kieth Spencer was not a great climber. He was terrible leading anything above 5.6. He was, however, a great trudger, a consummate planner, an adventurer, and always in training. You would find him doing push ups while others drank beer around the fire pit.
But Keith would sandbag you. One time, we drove to Indian Peaks, hiked way back into this lonely, aesthetic spire, climbed it, descended, and found ourselves completely out of energy and daylight. It was a clear night and freezing cold. We would bivy in our daypacks if a flat spot could be found. We had a bag of M&Ms between us. Just before laying down, I shined my headlamp over to catch Keith pulling from his little pack an 8000m down parka. "What the...? Where was that thing all day?" Sandbagging Spence slept soundly that night. Me? I was hypothermic - but hypothermic with M&Ms!.
Nearing summit of Lone Eagle Peak
Keith taught me to see that it's the big climbs with tedious approaches that matter. They make the mountaineer - someone who seeks the calm rhythm that the mountains themselves demand we find.
Perhaps the most memorable aspect of climbing with Keith was his speed over ground. I like to say "Keith was deceptively slow". I'm talking suh-low. Here's a guy who easily goes 6' 5" and who consciously takes extra-long strides. This is a guy who soloed Denali, soloed Aconcagua (no teammates, no oxygen), got weathered out of a solo, unsupported, no-oxygen attempt on Everest at 27,000+ ft (and brought me back a 2-pound chunk of the Yellow Band), and someone who successfully summited Cho Oyu. All fine and good. But let me tell you, climbing with Keith meant that YOU WOULD WAIT AND YOU WOULD LIKE IT. You would wait and wait and wait some more for Keith to catch up - and that's just on the approach. I don't know how many boulder fields I've fallen asleep in while waiting for Billy Guidebook to show up. Even at Vedauwoo, where the parking lot is no more than a 20 minute walk from the base of any climb, I'd be waiting.
But slow never mattered. His alpine starts were crisp and professional. He always let me lead as much and as often as I wanted. He was always a great travel mate. Eventually he would catch up and we'd summit together. Matter of fact, in those years climbing with Keith, I don't remember a time when we failed to reach the top in good style and on time.
Keith died in an avalanche on January 2nd, 2009 while climbing ice near Cody, WY with author Mark Jenkins. Keith fell 200 feet. Jenkins' ice screws somehow held.
I never knew the world traveler that many did, but I knew Keith well enough from 1996 to 2005. He was my climbing partner. I miss him dearly.