Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Jack Roberts (1952-2012)

I have been fortunate throughout most of my life to avoid losing immediate family members, the more so as my immediate family is not particularly large, with three sets of aunts and uncles and just two first cousins. So I'm somewhat numb and in shock right now, and perhaps my words won't really have any kind of flow, particularly as this was not something I was in any way prepared for (unlike my aunt Susan, who had outlived medical expectations by fifteen years). Here goes...

My first memories of Jack date back to his wedding to my aunt Pam twenty-something years ago, at which I was the ring bearer,* and to a camping trip that my parents and I took with Pam and Jack (along with Scout, their golden retriever, and Kona, our chocolate lab) to Joshua Tree National Park within a year-ish of their wedding. I remember that we were living in California at the time, and that we almost certainly did not go camping in central California during the height of summer (although my parents would have to confirm that). All I knew back then was that Jack was a climber.

*Two points I remember about the wedding; 1) There is photographic evidence that I was once actually a cute kid, and 2) the only part of the reception I can remember is being very upset that another kid there destroyed my finger crayons.

It was after we moved to Alaska during the winter of 1991 that I began to appreciate just how good of a climber Jack was. On a clear day in south-central Alaska, if you're driving north on the Seward Highway through Anchorage, you can clearly see Denali, which is a good 200 miles or so away as the crow flies. Denali, of course, at 20,320 feet, is the tallest mountain in North America and the third-most topographically prominent mountain in the world, trailing only Everest and Aconcagua. Jack climbed it, and not only that, but he discovered a new route up its southwest face. Beyond Denali, he conquered first ascents of several mountains in Alaska and Canada, and climbed internationally as well. He had been climbing since the 1970s, starting in places like Yosemite National Park. He wrote the book on Colorado ice climbing (no, actually, he did; it's titled Colorado Ice), and when I was 11 or 12 he went with a group that attempted a summit of K2 on the Pakistan-China border, the second-tallest mountain in the world, and according to many in the climbing community, the most dangerous.** Like Ron Burgundy, he was kind of a big deal. People knew him.

**An opinion that was validated on that particular trip. Jack was in base camp dealing with altitude sickness when some climbers on his expedition were killed near the summit.

I knew him as a fun and mellow uncle. Once we moved to Alaska, our paths crossed most often either when he ventured north on a climbing trek, or when the Ranger clan gathered at my grandparents' place in southern California for holidays and vacations. Trips to Dana Point generally meant time at the beach (particularly for Pam, a devoted surfer at San Onofre), swimming, and lots of excellent seafood, including trips to Gen Kai for sushi. Jack, who was particularly fond of Hawaiian shirts, was a very interesting conversationalist, as anyone would be who had traveled to Peru, Pakistan, Mexico, Alaska, and a few dozen other places besides.

I myself only climbed with Jack once, and to be honest, I basically wussed out. It was in late August or early September of 1998, and my parents and I were making our way east to take me to my first year of boarding school. Along the way, we stopped in Boulder for a few days. We went rock climbing somewhere, but owing to the heat, the difficulty of finding shoes for my size-15 boats, and being a total n00b at climbing, I was uncomfortable enough to throw in the towel early in the afternoon (although we did more climbing, in more comfortable footwear, in a gym).***

***Perhaps if I had stuck with those first shoes and worn them constantly, my feet may have turned out as gross as Jack's rather famously ugly feet; they were uglier than how Tolkien describes hobbits' feet.

As I got older, Jack became even more fun as an uncle. Nowhere was this more evident than when I once again made my way in stages from Alaska to the east coast, this time permanently, in October of 2006. As before, I was in Colorado for a few days to visit, and they happened to fall during the week. Since I had done study abroad programs in both the Dominican Republic and Argentina, Pam brought me in to her Spanish classes for one of the days, but for the others Jack was the one tasked with entertaining me. We went hiking in the nearby Front Range, and while Pam was stuck at parent-teacher conferences, we went out for sushi, single malt (Jack enjoyed a good single malt), and good rum at various places in downtown Boulder. I know that I had a blast before going down to Denver for another couple of nights to stay with my senior year (college) roommate.

I have decided to try and make a career of athletics, but I have a long way to go before I hope to measure up to the achievements of my famous uncle. Not only was he a universally respected and knowledgeable climber, he was a universally respected and well-liked person who was admired by many. He was a serious badass who never seemed to age a day throughout much of the twenty-three or so years that I knew him, and was easily in better shape than me, not just relative to our respective ages (59 and 28), but period. He was always a fun companion and a fascinating person to talk to, and the world, in particular the climbing world, is the worse for his loss. Rest in peace, Jack; we'll have a glass of the best single malt in your honor. You are greatly missed.