“If you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too damn much room.”
— T-shirt worn by John Galvin, Mountain Rescue Aspen
Back when I was a member of Mountain Rescue Aspen, it was months before I realized that “Galvin” was not his first name. Everyone called him that because I suppose “John” was just too prosaic for his personality.
Galvin was one of the strongest and most skilled members of the team. And in grit, he was the undisputed king of the mountain. He had the true kind of grit, the kind that made you wipe your feet and pick your teeth after spending time with him.
The kind that made you want to tie into his rope when you’re on the sketchy stuff. He took risks, but he calculated them.
Years ago, I was with Galvin on a body recovery mission in the Bell Cord Couloir, which separates North and South Maroon Peaks. The couloir is a steep, loose, ice-paved death trap that channels falling rocks and boulders and accelerates them to ballistic velocities. It has claimed novices and experts alike. You can do everything right, and still die in the couloir.
That was the case with the victim whose body we recovered that day. He had been knocked into the top of the Couloir by a falling boulder the size of an oven. He slid and tumbled 600 vertical feet before being caught by the bergschrund separating the ice face from the rock wall.
A Blackhawk dropped off our rescue team at the base of the couloir. And I mean “dropped.” In full rescue gear, we jumped 5 feet out of the hovering heli onto a steep boulder field.
Three of us were chosen to ascend to the victim about 1,000 vertical feet up the Couloir. The leader of that three-man team was an excellent, local mountaineering guide. Galvin and I were the other two.
A debate ensued as to whether we should climb unroped or, alternatively, rope into a three-man team and drive pickets and ice screws for protection.
The couloir is over 45 degrees and was hard ice that day. We wore crampons and carried ice axes of course, but a slip onto the ice would be perilous. If we were unable to self-arrest our fall using our ice axes within a few feet, we would be goners. Imagine a hockey puck on a frozen waterfall. The leader insisted on roping up.
Galvin disagreed. Roping up would cost us a lot of time and it was already mid-afternoon. Moreover, if one of us fell in a three-man rope team, the yank on the rope — a dynamic force that could amount to hundreds of pounds — could easily pull the others off their feet. The three of us rocketing down the mountain could then rip out the pickets and ice screws, and all three would be goners.
Because I was unsure myself of the best approach and was the newbie on the team, I kept quiet. Ultimately the leader exercised his authority to decide, as leaders should.
Galvin cursed and complained about that decision for the next five hours as we climbed. I remember thinking, “Man, this climb is close to my limit, and your bitchin’ makes it no easier.”
We finally reached the victim in the evening, and with a lot of effort hauled the body out of the bergschrund.
But how to get the body down the couloir?
There was no way to get the Blackhawk into the narrow couloir. And a long line from a Blackhawk hovering hundreds of feet above the couloir would be dicey.
Galvin then did something amazing. He wrapped the body in a tent (we had no body bag on hand but did have an emergency tent) and then tied up the packaged body with a spare rope. He tied the other end of the rope to himself.
We also still had our separate team rope. On that rope, Galvin would be the low man in charge of managing the body package. The leader would be the high man managing the team rope and the belays — a feat in itself. I was in the middle and didn’t do much.
The body package was nearly 200 pounds of dead weight. Galvin positioned it downhill from himself, edged into the couloir and began a side-stepping descent. The idea was that the package below him would slide down the slope. Gravity was our friend.
And our enemy. The descending package exerted a huge and jerky downhill force as it bounced over the steep and rough ice. Stowing his ice axe, Galvin held the package rope firmly in both hands and dug his crampons into the ice.
A single slip could have been catastrophic.
But Galvin didn’t slip. He descended in the dark for hours — over 1000 vertical feet. It was a stunning exhibition of problem-solving, brute strength, phenomenal endurance, balletic balance and true grit.
It was pure Galvin. The man lived on the edge — till the edge gave way.
As for what happened April 8, some may say he miscalculated the risk out on the edge that day. I can imagine him replying in his salty way that it is they who miscalculate by missing the view out there.
(Published April 15, 2018 in the Aspen Times at https://www.aspentimes.com/opinion/glenn-k-beaton-galvin-rip/)