Bryce’s brother Tyler died in a climbing accident but because of his death, Bryce became more intrigued with the sport that took his brother’s life. He says he has a unique relationship with climbing, and he doesn’t believe that the grieving process is this big scary monster we all think it is.
This episode is brought to you by Deuter, Evo Hemp, and Dirtbag Climbers. Music by: “Jazzy Frenchy” and “Funny Song” by bensound.com, “Ichill” by Kakurenbo, “Brave”, “One Moment”, “We Are Saved”, and “Warm Feeling” by Borrtex, “End of Winter” by Rest You Sleeping Giants, and “Heart Ache” by Broke For Free.
(KATHY KARLO): This podcast is sponsored by Deuter, one of the leading backpack brands that will help you hit the trails with confidence and comfort, but most importantly–your snacks. Deuter is known for fit, comfort, and ventilation. Stay tuned for a new line of women’s climbing packs, coming out any day. I can’t tell you which one, but stay tuned for more about Gravity SL line–made by women, for women.
Deuter has a history of first ascents and alpine roots. Their head of product development even climbed Everest once, in jeans (hashtag not fake news.) Founded in 1898, Deuter believes in good fitting backpacks, so you can focus on way cooler things like puppies, pocket bacon, and gettin’ sendy, whether at the crag or in the alpine.
(BRYCE GORDON): Myself and climbing have kind of a unique polar relationship where after it took my brother, I became very intrigued with it because of the community it held and the connection back to him. But, at the same time, sometimes I’ll either be at the base of a climb or on a climb or, really, at any point associated with climbing and the switch will flip. And I’ll just be disgusted and tired and really turned away by it. And it’s interesting…coming up to those moments or realizing that I’m approaching them. It’s just kinda the way it is, but it’s still a really insightful opportunity for me every time I tie in or head up the crag.
(KK): You’re listening to For the Love of Climbing Podcast. This is not a climbing podcast. Well, sorta. This is a funny, sad, and somewhat uncomfortable podcast about choosing vulnerability and talking openly about our pain. This podcast is sponsored by Dirtbag Climbers. Here’s the show.
(BG): Sometimes people are like, “Do you have any siblings?” and you’re like, “No.” and you go on with the conversation and you’re sitting there sweating like, (quick breath) “I just lied about my brother dying!” I didn’t lie but, you know, you get really–I get really stressed out sometimes. I can’t believe I just swept that under the rug! And then I’m like, “Fuck it, they don’t need to know. Like, I don’t have to put that on them or me at this given time–we’re enjoying an ice cream sundae. There’s no reason to fucking slap them in the face with that.” So, you can either say no and continue on with the conversation or you can say, “I did.” and continue on with that conversation.
(KK): Bryce Gordon used to have a brother. For the rest of his life, there will always be a before and an after. The before, when his family was intact and his brother, Tyler, was still alive and with them. And after, when Bryce would somehow learn to live without Tyler. And losing a brother or sister is a little bit different than losing, say, a parent. Relationships can come and go and parents age, but a brother or a sister is different. A sibling is sort of a co-keeper of your childhood, someone you’re supposed to get to spend a whole lifetime with.
(BG): So, it’s totally an in-the-moment judgment call. And my mom and I actually talk about that quite often: “What do you say?” like, “What do you do?” Because my father passed away and a lot of people–like, “Oh, what do your parents do?” and I say my mom’s an architect and that’s normally enough to satisfy them. They never ask about the second parent. So, it’s this interesting, yeah, it’s an interesting way that you get to choose how you interact with society and how much other people know. It’s a valuable tool–to recognize that you have that choice.
(KK): Is choosing to talk about Tyler about finding the right people to talk with?
(BG): I think sometimes, if it’s the right person and I feel like they are up for the challenge. It’s a really traumatic event and like, you’ll tell somebody this traumatic event and they get a sense of trauma themselves. So, I feel like if they’re up for the challenge and they want that struggle, then I’ll definitely engage with them. But, there are a lot of people–and this could just be ‘cause I’m a twenty-year-old and all the students I go to school with, thankfully, have never experienced anything like this—and so, there’s a lot of, they just don’t know how to respond and then you just kinda get this award silence of “I don’t really want your pity or your sympathy. I want your thoughts. I want your ideas.”
(KK): Tyler and Bryce spent most of their childhood adventuring and climbing together. Having grown up with an older brother myself, I just sort of picture most brother relationships to be filled with your typical antics—you know, name-calling, stealing Halloween candy from each other and, sometimes, you pretend that you’re The Rock and practice your Ultimate Fighting Championship moves on the weaker person…you know. Fun stuff like that.
But Tyler and Bryce had a different kind of childhood.
(BG): Yeah, I think some of my fondest memories as kids are climbing up Elephant Rock. Mom was off on a run and Tyler was just dragging me up this thing. And he was like, “Come on, come on! You gotta get up this!” And I was like, “Ahh, what’s the big hurry?” and got up and ran up to the top of the dome and watched this amazing sunset. And then he was like, “Alright, cool. You wanna toss the rope on the rappel?” He always just led by like a very simple and subtle hand, so.
There was never an option to not clean a route for him. No matter what, he was gonna be like, “Alright. I don’t care if takes you an hour–you gotta top rope this thing and get me my draws.” And so, there’s like, clipping chains, there’s always that moment of like, “Thanks Tyler. Thanks for fucking kicking my ass as a kid.”
And I’ve been back to Penitente Canyon down in the San Luis Valley. It was a big place we used to climb as kids. A very unique style of climbing on really beautiful rock and that was where Tyler really started to kind of first push his leads. And going back there with some of his friends and being able to repeat the first 11 he ever did, and then repeat some of the other 11s that were kind of bigger goals for me, and being able to just do those clean in a place right next to that piece of scrub oak where I used to be tied in as a little kid belaying him as he tried things as a twelve-year-old is like, “Wow. This kid was fucking rad and he’s made me a pretty rad little brother.” And so, you get these moments of kind of emotional ecstasy and complete gratitude for him. A lot of people could also get really mad at him for the position he’s put us in. So yeah, climbing is just this kind of double—this really amazing—double-edged sword.
(KK): That’s pretty much the elephant in the room with all of the lights turned on, isn’t it? Going in deep and asking whether or not climbing is fundamentally selfish means that we have to look at our lives and our loved ones within it. How do climbers justify the risks that we take to the people that we love? And can we?
A question that we all ask ourselves honestly, at least once in our lives. It was a question that, after May 27th in 2015, Bryce has had to ask himself, too.
(BG): I guess I like to start kind of where it entered our reality, which was Wednesday night at 1:30 in the morning. And I just remember, kinda in that pseudo dream state where you’re aware of these things going on outside of—you know, like, you should maybe be waking up but you’re not really sure. And I remember our dog was up and about and sirens outside, and I was like, “Well, there’s no reason the police officer would ever be at our house.” And then, there was a lot of banging on the door. Mom wasn’t going to get up, so I got up and answered the door and was staring at an officer in my boxers. And the first thing he said is, “Is your dog friendly and safe?” and I was like, “Yes. She’s fine, you can enter the premises.” And then the chaplain, I believe is the title of the person, was also there and was like, “You should go get your mom.” So, I went and woke her up and she came out. They came in and the officer and chaplain pretty much just said, “All we know is Tyler had a fall and Tyler’s dead.”
And I just remember my mom just turned around, and my mom’s like 4’11”, so, turned around and looked up at me was just like, “Bryce, you should go put some clothes on.”
(KK): It’s 1:30 in the morning and the police have just shown up at your door. And you’re standing there in your pajamas, thinking, “This has got to be a dream.” Except you don’t wake up because it isn’t a dream at all, and you start to quickly realize that everything has changed—and nothing will ever be the same again.
(BG): And I remember that was kinda the last moment, I think the last bit of maternal confidence she had. And then, after that it was just kind of, you know, let the world fall apart. And we were in the middle of remodeling our kitchen so, all of our cabinets were in the middle of our living room and our house was just a shit show. And the officer couldn’t leave until somebody else could show up. So, we called a really good family friend of ours whose sons have grown up with me and my brother and just kinda sat there in a puddle of drool and tears and snot.
Cletis, he had done a bunch of climbing with. Ryan, he hadn’t climbed with until that trip, but they had done some routes in Zion before heading to The Valley. They’d gotten to know each other, and both Ryan and Cletis are like, “Those first three days we spent on the wall were absolutely fantastic.”
(KK): Tyler had been on a twelve-month long road trip through Europe and the US. He studied applied mathematics at CU, where he finished a difficult undergraduate degree with a 4.0 GPA in three years. Trying to get in as much climbing as he could before attending grad school at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, he and two other friends found themselves in Yosemite National Park.
The Valley, where climbers go every year to cut their teeth on big wall style ascents. It’s where Ryan, Cletis, and Tyler had plans to ascend The Nose, a thirty-one pitch big wall route that follows the massive prow.
(BG): Tyler and his two partners left, I wanna say, they were camped at pitch twenty-six on The Nose and had climbed two pitches. And one of his partners was leading, one of them was belaying him, and he was jugging up the pitch they had just done. And the lead partner dropped a nut, which fell past the belay ledge and landed on a ledge below. And Tyler got to the belay ledge, and there was another party of three there. They were all kinda jamming out. They knew they were going to make the summit that day, so it was like, very casual, happy atmosphere. And got to the ledge and the belay partner, I think, said, “You know, I can go get the nut once we finish this pitch.” And Tyler, of course, kind of being on top of things, voiced up and said, “I got it. I’ll go get it.”
And then, got up, tethered in with his PA and then, the next thing his partner Ryan remembers, he heard Tyler say, “Whoa.” and he turned to his left and Tyler was just leaning back and there was nothing to catch him. He just took a three hundred foot whipper and hit the ledge they had camped on the night before and died immediately.
(KK): Had something in those split seconds gone horribly wrong? Bryce would go over this in his head, again and again.
(BG): That’s–I mean, that’s the strangest thing about the event. There shouldn’t have been any mistake and there really was no causality or reason for it. But, when they found him, his Grigri was on—he was still tied into the fixed line he had been jugging and his Grigri was on his belay loop but wasn’t threaded at all, so, he somehow just was one step away from his full transition into rappel and just, for some reason, hit a moment of complacency.
(KK): Tyler had fallen twenty feet to the next ledge beneath them, and then further down to the Camp 5 ledge. He was never connected to his Grigri, which is a rope braking device that assists in belaying. This caused him to free fall the length of the rope. Ryan and Cletis were unsuccessful in reviving Tyler…he was gone.
(BG): A few months later, around beginning of July—it was my birthday. My birthday’s July eighth, Tyler’s birthday is July tenth. So, I was up in Boulder with his friends for that occasion. I went over to their house—Ryan and Cletis both live together. And they made me breakfast. We went into the backyard and I just kinda let them talk, and it was super cathartic for them. And yeah, just talked for like an hour and a half.
(KK): Grieving friends did what anybody in that situation would do—they tried to piece together what had happened on El Cap. Not only was Tyler a good friend, a mentor, and a strong climber, but he was smart. He was a safe, smart climber.
(BG): In the days following, there was a lot of like, Tyler’s old climbing partners, who were older men in the community who had kind of taken him out and showed him the ropes, were like, “It must have been some other mistake, ‘cause Tyler was really smart and a really good climber and really thorough.” That’s definitely one of the hardest notions to dwell on, is that it was just a moment of complacency. There’s really no other causality for it.
(KK): Bryce took me through what the next few months looked like. Nobody is ever really prepared to lose somebody. I mean, you never see: “Happy and fulfilled person dies in their sleep at the exact right age without any discomfort, surrounded by all of their friends and family, all of whom are able to accept the fact and let go of that person and go on with their lives.” And when you lose somebody, nobody prepares you on how to mourn.
(BG): I mean the feelings–yeah, it’s not like a feeling, it’s a lot of feelings–definitely comes in waves of—like the first month, every other day was an up and a down. Like, down my brother just died. Up, I pretty quickly got embedded in his Boulder community and just got to experience second-hand the life he had formed in college, which was kind of his blossoming. So just, like constant ups and downs and then, you know, eventually, those ups and downs stretch over the course of a month, and now, kind of more constant and less aggressive fluctuations. But yeah, it’s a constant feeling, for sure. There’s very few moments where you’re completely oblivious to the fact.
The sadness and depression kind of go away and those you can kind of remediate, but yeah, you kinda gotta accept the fact that even when you’re eighty, you’re still going to be in this process of just interacting with that event and the consequential emotions of it. Yeah, the grieving process.
(KK): The thing about grief is that it’s not just a matter of coping with loss; it’s also about coping with change. We’re talking about all of the big changes, like having to go to funerals and receiving sympathy cards (and casseroles, probably). And just not having that person around anymore to celebrate things like Christmas and their birthdays with—and then, all of the little ones, too. The more subtle ones, like wanting to send a text message to someone and then, suddenly remembering that they aren’t there anymore.
Grief…sucks. Life is impermanent, everybody dies, and everything over time will change—I think it’s Buddhism that tells us that (not the grief sucking part; that was me). It also tries to tell us “that life is characterized by suffering”. Seriously, Buddhism? I guess what they’re probably trying to say is that it’s ok to work through pain in your own way, and at your own pace. It makes us who we are.
Because grief is a process and not a task. Even if you’ve never taken a psych 101 class in your life, you probably know the five stages of grief. Or maybe you don’t! Here they are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. These stages are meant to be used as a framework for going through loss and, while you might identify with some, if not all, it’s never really a linear progression. Grief just isn’t like a staircase; you don’t just get to the top and be finished. It’s more like a janky-ass rollercoaster ride with all of its peaks and dips. And it’s natural to have an uneven journey.
(BG): There’s so many beautiful moments I’ve had within this process in the past three years. It was three years, three days ago. So many beautiful moments and cathartic moments and moments of interaction, not only with the emotion but with Tyler. It’s got a whole lifetime. It fucking sucks. But, at the same time, it’s like, my life is going to go on and the seventeen years that he added to my life, you know, that I had him, is still priceless.
(KK): Most people in Bryce’s position might walk away from climbing forever. Bryce did the opposite. He formed this really unique relationship with climbing after losing Tyler—which definitely might seem a little strange. But, Bryce didn’t stop climbing and instead, he continued to tie in and let it mold his life.
(BG): Yeah, I think that climbing is probably one of the biggest triggers, but I pretty immediately was like, alright. I have to go climbing—mainly as a way to interact with his community, but also, as a way to interact with him. Our father passed away when he was four and I was fifteen months old and so, he was always a really quiet kid and climbing was always this way for this really brilliant young kid to use his mind and his physical skill and engage with an activity. And so, climbing is a trigger, both in the present but also, in the past, thinking about being tethered to a piece of scrub oak so I could catch him on lead when I was eight and he was twelve and weighed forty pounds more than me. And those sort of memories of going back to crags that we were both at, you know, when we were young, are definitely triggers.
I never really pushed myself climbing until after Tyler passed, because then I ended up doing it lot more of it to engage with his community. Some days, climbing is a really fun experience and somedays, I’m like, “Alright, this is what Tyler—this is what he felt! Problem-solving and making your body work and making your mind work to accomplish whatever objective.” Somedays, I engage with that at a really high level and other days (pause) I can’t get the sensation of uncontrolled free fall out of my head and I’m just like, I’ll be a top rope hero today.
My buddy Sam and I just went down to the White Rim and climbed Primrose Dihedrals on the Moses Tower. It was kind of the last hurrah before finals week. And I kind of knew, coming in the spring, climbing gets a lot harder and becomes more of a sensitive trigger to trauma. And I was leading the second pitch–and I love the desert. Tyler and I grew up in Durango really close to the desert and sandstone—it’s my healing environment.
So, I was really excited that Sam was like, “You’re going to lead this next pitch. It’s going to be awesome.” And it was just uncomfortable, and I was really exhausted. I had multiple moments where I was like, “I might fall here.” and instead of being like, “Alright cool, you might fall.” I just got really panicked and eventually just got to a point where I was like, “Sam, you have to finish this.” and came down and we just had a quick chat on the ledge. I was like, “I don’t think I want to lead anything until May 27th comes around. Until I’m past that date.”
And I’ve never been hard on myself because I think any other person in my position would just walk away from climbing and never want to interact with it. So, there are definitely moments where it’s just paralyzing and awful. It was an amazing climb, but it was still kinda, the whole time, I was like, “I kinda wanna just be back on the ground.”
Our father passed away at an early age and my mom was just an absolute trooper in raising us. And you know, if she doesn’t do fourteen miles a week trail running, she kinda goes stir crazy. And so, it’s definitely kinda something in our family where, yeah, we like to suffer through things–engage with hardship. And even though there are moments of emotional paralysis and utter, just total—not devastation, but kind of a form of depression that hits you on the wall very subtly.
I mean, since that last trip to the tower, I haven’t put my shoes on. I don’t really feel the need to, and it could be all summer, it could be not until school starts again and I want to go burn off energy at the bouldering gym. It’s just—I don’t force myself to interact with it in any sort of way. I just kind of allow whatever opportunities come and if I feel good, I’ll get on something and if I don’t, I’ll just be a top rope hero all day.
(KK): Or just not even climb.
(BG): Or just not even climb. It’s like, climbing I love you and I’m grateful for you but at the same time, I can tell you to just go fuck off whenever I want. (laughs).
It’s pretty rare that I just go from point A to point B through the event. But, it’s good to do sometimes. I will pull up things that have been dog-eared in my journal that are these crazy cathartic passages I’ve written and I’ll share them with Tyler’s friends at the correct moment, you know? Yeah, when you allow somebody else to interact with your thoughts, it just adds a whole different level of complexity and purpose to the whole discourse.
When you’re feeling these really heavy things, it’s hard to conceptualize them and there’s a lot of little boxes in our society, but you can’t draw little boxes around events this unique. So close your eye and, you know, look into your mind’s eye, which some people get that and some people don’t get that, but just think about what that looks like and what that is, and to me, it’s always kind of been this really heavy weight. The way I kind of visualize it and think about it is like you’re tossing somebody this anecdote, and you’re tossing them this weight, and you get to see them fumble with it and try to catch it and figure out what it is. And sometimes, they get a really firm, solid grasp. And you’re like, “Awesome. We did it. Like, we made that connection. You got something out of it, and I got something out of it.”
(KK): Grief affects our whole self, and yet we tend to treat people who are coping with a loss like treating somebody with an injury. But, eventually, a broken limb will heal and even though we physically look fine on the outside, internally, we aren’t always. But—also, don’t treat us like we’re helpless. Right? Grief is…really complicated.
We shouldn’t treat it with over sympathy but we also need to share real thoughts and feelings with those who are dealing with it. Engaging with the actual event and trauma that someone is experiencing, and not just assuming that they’re helpless and sad. Because most people aren’t helpless. They’re still walking, breathing people.
I think that society views people going through loss as very broken. Like, it’s almost easier to view someone that way because when you have a benchmark for what it’s supposed to look like, then you can compare it to what getting over it looks like.
(BG): I mean, when it happened, I didn’t give a shit what people were saying to me. I was kind of in this (quick breath) paralyzed kind of–not paralyzed, just kind of…as my mom puts it, this state of surreality. Like everything is surreal to the point where your whole reality is surreal and you still enter those moments. But I think, I mean, like you said people tend to say, “I’m so sorry.” and that is a really good thing to say.
My buddy, just the other day, texted me and I haven’t seen him in a long time and we were going to make dinner together and catch up. And he was like, “I’ll probably be really late. I’m just getting back—I’m driving back from the hospital in Billings” (which is a few hours away from Bozeman) “‘cause my brother had a paragliding accident.” And he really didn’t give me anything other than that and I just said, “Ah. That’s fucking shit. I won’t ask any questions over text. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
So, I think, yeah, you should always offer something. Like “I’m sorry” is great, but it doesn’t have to be “I’m so sorry!” If you don’t have any concept of the emotion they’re going through, you don’t need to try to. You can just say, “I’m sorry. If you want to continue, continue. But you don’t have to tell me anything else and I’m not going to pry.” If I want to explore the emotions that come along with it with you, then I’d be happy to do that, but ya can’t fix me. And you can’t fix anything, so, you know, I appreciate the effort.
(KK): Because Bryce had lost his father at a young age, the Gordon family could easily be compared to a three-legged table: constantly wobbling and teetering, but still standing. Still functional. And then, the third leg was suddenly torn off.
(BG): Mom kinda took a–I mean, for me, in my concept of her, my visualization of her, kinda took a pretty big shift after Tyler passed away. But, Mama Gordon, as I like to call her, Connie, she’s always been really strong and after our father passed, she goes, “I’ve got these two young boys and I’m just going to raise them to be fantastic”—and I think she did a pretty damn good job. But she definitely—it definitely took her a while to kinda come to a resolve regarding the causality. And I think we’re kind of both in the same place now where we won’t know why Tyler forgot to thread his Grigri and we never will, so we can’t torture ourselves with always asking that.
It also took about over two years before she got to have the conversation with his partners that I got to have only a month or two months after his passing. And so I think for a while there, I was kind of more content because I had a deeper understanding of the day and the event. She just didn’t quite have that grasp of why and what and how—how it all went down. But she already has amazing coping mechanisms for grief: trail running and pushing herself, and now is enjoying time with me. And I think it’s been a little bit harder ‘cause now she doesn’t have an objective to turn her mind to. I’m raised. I’m out of the house. And for me, it’s been kind of easy ‘cause, you know, I went to college and I had to pick a college and pick a house and pick a major. And I was kind of forced to move on with decisions in my life, where she’s at a point where she could retire, she could not retire, and so she’s kind of been a little bit paralyzed in this indecisiveness. But she’s moving out of that. She knows she needs to do something. She’s trying to figure out her next steps, and she definitely has figured out quite a few of them.
And then our relationship, I mean, we’ve always been really close and I get all off my happiness and energy directly from her and my desire to suffer directly from her as well. I think she dragged us up probably ten 14ers by the time I was fourteen-years-old. It was from age seven onward, it was like a 14er a year pretty much, or more. So, definitely has that put your head down and go mindset and that’s definitely brought us closer–just the fact that we could share that grieving mechanism. Like, endurance activities are just so valuable to both of us. And when I come up with these crazy far-fetched ideas, like go bike twenty-six miles to a tower to go climb it and then bike out the next day, all within a thirty hour period. She’s kind of like, “Alright cool! Pack enough food.” (laughs)
I’m the only child. I’m kinda the last heir to our little family. And so, you know, of course, she’s gotten a little bit more protective, but I think she understands and trusts me to make good decisions and I think she understands that as much as she’s probably worried about having only one kid left, I’m equally as worried about being the only kid. Like, I am not allowed to die before–my mom’s not allowed to outlive me. That’s not an option. Like, “What are your goals in life?” “Live to be older than my mom. And then career, whatever, all that other stuff.”
Definitely kind of creates some tension sometimes, and I think on my end, I need to be better at being expressive of my decision making. I’m a really big backcountry skier, so I need to be expressive of, you know, here’s what we’re doing today and here’s kinda the situation and how we’re going to approach the safety level that we set. I mean, one, I put a lot of weight on myself to be really good at that stuff. And two, I think I’m starting to learn and starting to realize the value of, not necessarily reassurance, but just her understanding of my approach to all the activities that I’m not going to stop doing.
(KK): That can be a HUGE responsibility to bear. How do you not live in a bubble?!
(BG): I started wearing my bike helmet when I go make grocery store runs now, you know? You don’t see any other twenty-year-olds cruising around with their bike helmet when they go to the bars at night or when they go grocery shopping or to campus. I’m like, “Well. Fuck. That would really suck if I got creamed by a car.” Just little things like that have definitely shifted within our relationship.
(KK): Two people can mourn the loss of the same person but in very different ways. Bryce and Mama Gordon both lost Tyler, but their grief didn’t necessarily run parallel with one another.
(BG): I don’t always go to her, and I don’t always go to people. Normally, I write the struggle down and normally I sit with things. I revisit them for a while, and then there’s a moment where sharing seems right. It’s nice to be able to just say, “Oh fuck.” with somebody else and have them just completely reciprocate that. But, I don’t think they’re parallel paths. I think there’s more of a sense of maybe failure on her part, or even greater loss, ‘cause the whole point of having children is to see them grow and blossom. And then for me, I more value the past seventeen years of experience I had with Tyler than I grieve over the future seventy years that I don’t have with him. And I think for her, it’s the opposite.
(KK): Which makes sense as a parent.
(BG): Which makes sense as a parent, for sure.
(KK): They say that lightning never strikes twice, but try telling that to Bryce. He and two of Tyler’s good friends, Cat and Laine, had planned a trip to the Grand Tetons the summer following Bryce’s high school graduation.
(BG): Laine was in Jackson, Wyoming for work and Cat and I both decided to visit her. And we did just some fun climbing and some fun hiking and then all three of us had a day that we could go out and do things together, so we were going to go climb the Grand. Walked all the way up there and got to the upper saddle, which is where the route actually starts. And the route traverses left (right from the beginning) to this thing called the belly crawl, which is this big flake that you kind of saddle and scooch across. And the rappels for the route come down directly to the apex of the saddle, just to the right and we were putting on our harnesses. One member of their party had done the rappel and they were sending back up an ATC because they were short one, for some reason. And Gary Falk, an Exum guide, was pulling up the ATC and it got stuck and so, he was kind of finagling with it and weighting his personal anchor. And, apparently, from my understanding of the final accident report, is that the type of knot he had is a knot that slowly walks. So, it had walked to the end of, you know, the extra tail he had originally tied it with and came undone.
And so, what I remember is hearing a yell and assuming, you know, we’re on a very popular route, assuming it was rock. And then Cat saying, “Oh shit.” and turning around and seeing his body hit the ground at the base of the rappel and bounce, probably forty to sixty feet, and hitting again at the ledge and then, below the belly crawl and—below the route is Valhalla Couloir, which is a thousand vertical foot relief—and he just disappeared.
(KK): Everything wanted to shut off, especially having experienced his own trauma. But Bryce knew that he had to shut it down, shut down all thoughts like that and just go help. So, he immediately buckled his helmet and ran back over to the apex of the saddle where the first member of their party was waiting.
(BG): There’s really no (pause) we were the first responders, but there really was nothing to respond to. It was going to be a body recovery. And we got to him and he didn’t know if it was Gary at the time or if it was somebody else, and I very vividly remember khaki Black Diamond pants with black knee patches. So, I told him that, and he was like, “Oh shit. It was Gary.” and he started breaking down. And then, Cat and Laine caught up to me, you know, a hand full of seconds later. And it was not lost on either of us that we had just witnessed essentially what Tyler did. Like, a simple mistake with no real causality except for complacency. Like, an uncanny similarity. And they both kind of looked at me, and were like, “Are you ok?” and started to bring up the fact that it was an uncanny similarity. And I just cut them off and was like, “We’re in the middle of a rescue. We got to shut that thought down.”
(KK): And for the next twenty minutes, they did. A ranger came up and the rescue ensued. Bryce, Cat, and Laine sat there, just waiting. They waited until they felt like it was appropriate to leave and Bryce sat by himself.
(BG): As soon as I could allow myself to think again, the first thought I had was: “Are you fucking kidding me? Again? Fuck you, mountains.” I remember distinctly thinking, if I was Thor, I would just smash them to little pieces. And then I remember thinking, “Well, that’s not possible. Maybe we should just put a fence around them so no humans could get in them anymore. We gotta block off the vertical world.” And these are just like, ping balling through my head really quickly. Yeah so, I sat with that for a little bit and we started making our way down. And walking down, I started kind of shifting my frame of thought to one of—kind of what started as more analytical, like what are the chances that I see that first hand and am the first responder? There’s some greater forces, you know, who knows.
(KK): The more that Bryce found out about Gary, the more his thoughts started to shift towards the possibility that there was a purpose to him being there that day.
(BG): Up until that point, there’s definitely a lot of sleepless nights where the first, you know, thirty minutes to two hours were trying to fall asleep would be like, what does falling three hundred feet look like? And so, my thought kind of shifted to this, “That’s what that accident and that event looks like.” And shifted towards this really uncanny closeness to Gary, even though I’d never met him or even heard of him before, and this sense of gratitude—which seems really weird to say about somebody’s passing, but the sense of, thank you, for kind of giving me that resolve on that big “what” question that I had. And I think that is something that I got and my mom didn’t get.
A lot of people would be like, “Well, why would ever you want your mom to see that?” Like, well I wouldn’t, but because I did, I got this sense of gratitude and resolve for the whole event. Aspects of it are really, really crappy, but sometimes I will just sit down and hash out that memory and replay it. ‘Cause knowing sucks, but knowing is, in the long run, better.
I wasn’t going to go back to my therapist anymore that summer, and after that, I was like, “Alright! I owe you one more visit.” And I told him that and he was like, “Wow. Even as a therapist, I have associative PTSD just from hearing that story.” And I don’t tell people that one that often because I don’t want—you have two events like that happen in your life and people are going to start thinking, “This kid’s really something special. He can really handle anything that people throw at him.” and maybe that’s true, but that doesn’t matter because that’s not who I am.
It doesn’t matter that these events happened to you. All that matters is that you understand that they happen in this world. So, the fact that I was lined up with them twice doesn’t matter. Both of those events happened, and that’s what matters. I just, for some reason, have this weird keystone connection, but that’s not consequential to the way I carry myself, or even the way that the rest of this whole world, like—I saw a butterfly flap its wings twice but the butterfly still flaps its wings. You know? That metaphor. So. Yeah, I don’t share as often but it is really crucial to my developmental grieving and how I’ve applied it and sat with it and processed it.
It’s a much less fun story to tell because it’s so impersonal in a way. I didn’t know him. I don’t know if I deserve to carry his story, you know? No one deserves to be a first responder, but it’s just like, it’s kind of weird to say that I’m grateful for seeing that. I think at this point, I’d like to go connect with his wife and his remaining family. It’ll be a one of a kind grieving engagement between two people.
(KK): Grief happens. And, in our hearts, we all know that death is a part of life. But sometimes, death is so senseless and we try to make some sense of it, give it some sort of meaning. Bryce found meaning in Tyler’s passing, and some people could call him unlucky. Others could see the experience as a gift. It definitely isn’t the kind that you can wrap in pretty paper. And it doesn’t come with bells and whistles or have monetary value. But it can give us all a better appreciation for the brevity of human life and, ultimately, how we treat the people we love.
(BG): I think that was the moment where I pulled the meaning of the event itself. The actual “How does this happen?” And it doesn’t matter who you are or what you’re doing, and it really doesn’t matter why trauma hits you—we live in a universe built off chaos. And if trauma hits you, you just have to understand that that happens to people, and I think that’s kind of the biggest umbrella meaning I’ve pulled away from it. I’ve been dealt card after card of trauma and the why and the how are nice to know, but it’s going to happen to someone, to something in our world. And if you’re one of those–if you’re on the receiving end, I don’t want to say the victim end, but you know, if you’re on the receiving end of it, that’s what you’ve been dealt and that’s just what you’re going to deal with and that’s fine. Kinda add it to yourself and let it mold you and mold it and just realize that it’s what happens in this world.
(KK): Death is a loss that echoes and echoes and the loss of one person is felt by so many people—not just the ones closest to them. I wanted to surprise Bryce with something special. So, I asked some of Tyler’s friends to share who he was to them, and I also wanted to say thank you to everybody, and to Bryce, for sharing Tyler with us.
(MALE VOICE): One of my favorite things about Tyler was how simple everything was to him. He always really loved rock climbing and so, he went rock climbing. He really liked mathematics, so he did a lot of mathematics. One thing that was really beautiful to see over the last year was how important Tyler’s friends were to him. I’ll always cherish the memories I have with Tyler—growing up, in college, in the Alpine club with him. He was one of the first people that I looked up to as a climber in the climbing community in Colorado. He was able to show everyone how to climb for just the right reasons, just for the pure love of it.
(FEMALE VOICE): Whenever I think back on Tyler, I always think about his ease with determination for things that the rest of us find quite hard. And yeah, he had a simplicity about him that I think most of us found pretty inspiring. But he was one of the most determined people I’ve ever met and he did it with an incredible amount of compassion and ability to listen, so I always felt safe around him. And I think that’s one of the most inspiring qualities a person can have.
(MALE VOICE): So, when I first moved out to Colorado, I had only a handful of consistent climbing partners and Tyler was one of them. He was definitely the shortest of the four of us that climbed regularly together, and he would have to do these crazy sequences—dyno-ing between holds to climb the same routes that the rest of us would. But, at the same time, he’d always be the first one to try something intimidating or a grade that was too hard for most of us. Yeah, he just kind of had this mentality: you should just go and try to do what you love—and that’s it. He kind of had this “Nothing’s a big deal” attitude, which I definitely always admired. Any time we were out climbing, he’d kind of have this mischievous smirk on his face, like he knew a secret that none of the rest of us did (which, he probably did because he was super smart). I remember he was trying to explain a bit about cryptography, which is what he was going to study in grad school. And I was completely lost, but totally pretended to keep up, and I wasn’t used to that feeling of being so intellectually outmatched.
In early spring of 2015, I was out filming for work and I had a break, and Tyler was on his way through. He was taking a break between school, after graduating undergrad. And he was kind of hitting up the classic trad climbing areas in the US, making his way to Yosemite on a big break before he went to grad school in BC and I just happened to catch him at the right time. And so, we went out and did Lightning Bolt Cracks on the North Six Shooter in Indian Creek.
You know, any time you climb in the desert, it’s always a little bit sandy and a little bit unnerving. So, of course, Tyler was kind of nonplussed and we got to the route and the weather’s great, you know, we got to the last pitch and it was Tyler’s lead and he just seemed to float on up, and I thought, “Oh great. We must have gotten past the hard part.” And proceeded to follow an overhanging offwidth and just, the whole experience just kind of seemed really casual, and it totally makes sense if you knew him.
I remember getting to the summit of North Six Shooter and it was just super windy and our ropes were blowing everywhere, but just being really satisfied and just enjoying the whole experience without too much concern or—I really just remember being pretty content in that moment.
(MALE VOICE): One of my favorite memories that I have with Tyler is back from the summer that he and our friend Jordan and I spent traveling around Wyoming and South Dakota. And the audio that you’re about to hear is from a video that we took just near the summit of, I think, Spire Four in the Cathedral Spires in the Black Hills. And the last pitch—it’s like a 5.4, but you have to crawl through this tiny little hole. And in the video, you’ll hear Tyler cheering me on trying to get me through the hole. So, enjoy.
(TYLER GORDON’S VOICE): (cheering and laughter) Come on Eddie! You can do it. Yeah! Come on, dude. Cruxing! There’s no way you’re going to fall there…if you did, you’re really screwed! (gear clanking and laughter) Whooo!
(KK): You’re listening to For the Love of Climbing Podcast. A huge thank you to Deuter, one of the leading backpack brands that will help you hit the trails with confidence and comfort, and to Evo Hemp, who is on a mission to bring you quality hemp products that are both affordable and accessible. What the heck is hemp, anyway? We’ll have to tell you next time. Support companies who support this podcast—we couldn’t do it without them.
If you liked what you heard, you can leave a review on iTunes or give us a like—like all good things, you can find us on the internet. Until next time.