They were too late; he could feel it. Three hours into the frantic search for his missing friend, 30-year-old Chris Klingelheber and a specialist from the Alpine Rescue Team were huffing up a mountain some 3,000 feet above the flickering lights in the town of Empire. As their headlamp beams darted about in the winter storm on that March night in 2006, Klingelheber’s stomach grew queasier with every passing moment, as he became more and more convinced of what they would find.
Klingelheber shouldn’t have been there. Although he had survival training, he wasn’t an EMT or rescue specialist, meaning he was a legal liability for Alpine. But down in the parking lot near the trailhead, he’d successfully lobbied the apprehensive authorities. He’s obviously up there, Klingelheber argued, pointing to the abandoned car of his friend, J.T. I know the trail, I know how he thinks, and I know what I’m doing. As the snow blew in and the hour grew late, there was talk, undeniably sensible, of suspending the search until morning. But Klingelheber and J.T.’s famous father, who had rushed to the scene, insisted that the search continue, and the Alpine officials acquiesced.
The Alpine snowmobiles had sunk into the unpacked powder and were rendered useless, so Klingelheber and two Alpine professionals had set off on foot. One dropped out from fatigue, leaving Klingelheber and the remaining specialist as the “team” that forged into the stinging snow and numbing wind. They were wheezing more than breathing, trying to ignore the pounding in their chests. Klingelheber’s intimate familiarity with the terrain made the trek slightly less arduous. Ironically, it was J.T. who’d shown him the way. Countless times, Klingelheber had followed his charismatic friend up this mountain. At the top they’d pause and grab a bite while drinking in the view, before buckling into their planks and shredding the slopes back to their cars. This place was their escape from parents and girlfriends and droning, post-college jobs, a refuge where they could ignore all that tedium and self-doubt. For J.T.—who’d skied and hiked all corners of Colorado along with many spectacular spots around the world—this was his favorite place of all.
Suddenly, Klingelheber stumbled over J.T.’s splayed-out skis. His backcountry experience told him they’d been haphazardly discarded, and his heart sank. He and the other rescuer scrambled the last 600 vertical feet to the spot—a runway of snow-blanketed rock that, during those joyful past excursions, seemed to shoot off into infinity and possibility. The spot, J.T.’s spot, was a picture of Colorado magnificence, as beautiful, perhaps, as any photograph ever shot by his father.
Klingelheber peered over the crest and saw his friend. Lying there in his ski gear, J.T. looked not so different than many times before, back when they were housemates, crashed out after a long day of skiing or a long night of drinking. Back then he could be nudged awake with a simple, “Dude, let’s go.” This time, though, Klingelheber could see that J.T. wouldn’t be rubbing the night from his eyes. His friend’s mouth and nose were rimed over with frost; a halo of blood soaked the snow around 26-year-old J.T. Fielder’s corpse.
On an otherwise empty, beige wall of a corporate building, a dozen photographs, all about four feet by five feet, uniformly hang in queue. In one of the pictures is a mountaintop; in the foreground a serene lake bathes in a soft orange glow as pink clouds float overhead. Greenery sprouts along the edge of the water, and the lake’s surface reflects a rust-colored, rocky expanse stretching to a snow-dusted peak. John Fielder waited for hours in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado to get that shot, his patience finally rewarded with Fielder’s favorite moment of light: a magical orange-pink alpenglow that was a small miracle of convergence he hadn’t seen before and hasn’t seen since.
It’s February 2009, and John Fielder, Colorado’s best-known photographer and one of the state’s most recognized name brands, is showing off his work inside the closest thing there is to a John Fielder museum: the 12-story, football-shaped headquarters of RE/MAX International Inc. at I-25 and Belleview, across a suburban parking lot from a Paradise Bakery. To those who think they know Fielder, a mega-Realtor’s headquarters is an odd place for this collection. After all, for more than 30 years Fielder has photographed Colorado’s outdoors, particularly the pure, undeveloped outdoors, forever preserving—at least on film—the rugged, natural Colorado and thereby a Colorado spirit that it would be a crime to subdivide and sell.
To those who really know Fielder, the RE/MAX display makes absolute sense. For as much as Fielder is a photographer and an environmentalist, he’s equal parts showman and capitalist, a modern-day Thoreau meets Warhol, with a camera. He scours business pages for news of firms relocating to the state or building new space. He writes to executives, pitching his photos to hang around the office. No deal is too big or too small—he recently bartered his photos in exchange for $30,000 worth of knee surgery. And, despite his progressive leanings, among his clients is San Diego-based General Atomics, run by Coloradan Neal Blue, maker of the Predator UAS series, pilotless warplanes that, in Fielder’s words, “spy on and kill human beings.”
While most of Fielder’s corporate clients may buy 10 or 15 prints, RE/MAX purchased more than 500 of them, and on this February morning Fielder has agreed to give me a tour. The self-promoter is self-conscious, apologizing for blotchy skin, the byproduct of a preventive skin cancer treatment. The cosmetic setback doesn’t get in the way of his flirting with the three receptionists. “RE/MAX always puts the best-looking women up front,” he says to them with a swagger. “Don’t forget to keep buying my books, ladies.” Although Fielder claims to be most comfortable alone, above the treetops, you’d never know it from his deft public persona.
The merger of art and commerce has served Fielder well. He published the best-selling book in state history, Colorado 1870-2000, and he’s sold more than two million books overall, plus countless calendars and picture collections. Among his fans are Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim Helu—once the world’s richest man—and the late publishing magnate Malcolm Forbes. Political power brokers have used Fielder’s work to promote environmental issues. His book Colorado: Our Wilderness Future launched his activist career and helped promote the Colorado Wilderness Act of 1993. When former U.S. Senator and now Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar wants to remind himself what he’s protecting, he can turn to the Fielder book he keeps in his office.
The photographer has become as famous as his photographs. In 2007, the Colorado Film Commission inducted Fielder into its hall of fame, one of innumerable awards and recognitions. Governor Bill Ritter presented the accolade, saying, “God made what we see in this beautiful state, but it takes artists like John Fielder to capture the magical images.” Fielder’s forthcoming book, Ranches of Colorado, due out in October, features photos of the state’s working ranches and essays on their importance to our ecosystem. In his methodical way, Fielder spent almost three years on the project and will spend months more promoting it and the environmental concerns that course through the words and images. His books, once filled with platitudes about Colorado’s beauty, have evolved into something more urgent: Here’s the crisis, and here’s how we can fix it.
“The more habitats we protect, the more biodiversity we nurture, the greater the chance we have to preserve them,” he says with a nod toward the tidy row of scenes on the RE/MAX wall. Fielder stands 6 feet 3 inches; a bird’s nest of fleecy white hair circles his balding crown. His bold, peaked brows hover over olive-colored eyes flecked with gold, eyes that have seen as much tragedy as they have natural wonder—humbling experiences that have not only changed Fielder’s photographs but also profoundly altered the man himself.
Viewed individually, each of the RE/MAX photos is spectacular. The scenes of rushing streams, electrically contrasting autumnal colors, and stark, subtle winter hues; reflection shots, employing his savvy use of water—all harness an arresting power that once lured a young Fielder from North Carolina to Colorado. Yet taking in the photos one after another, as they hang on the wall, the pictures start to blur numbly together. Here’s a photograph of the autumn sun glinting through a thicket of aspen trees. Next comes a shot of a regally purple columbine blooming from a crevice between lichen-covered rocks. And here’s an army of leafy trees set against the backdrop of distant snowy peaks. Ansel Adams, one of Fielder’s role models, famously said, “A photograph is usually looked at; seldom looked into.” When one looks into Fielder’s collection and sees so much remote nature and hollow isolation, it’s hard not to wonder how he feels about people. “People?” he says with mock indignation. “I hate people.”
In the winter of 2005, Fielder and three companions, including a childhood friend, his budding activist protégé Aron Ralston, and his son J.T., skied to the Goodwin-Greene Hut near Aspen Mountain, one of the more remote in Colorado, for a photo shoot. Fielder meticulously designs his trips, studying topographic maps to gauge how and when light might hit and triangulating where he must be. He avoids most overshot spots, preferring to schlep his 65-pound camera and packs of gear into areas less traveled, if ever traveled. With his young “Sherpas”—his homage to the hearty Nepalese people who assist Himalayan ascents—and a few llamas, he navigates trails, creeks, ponds, and peaks. He prefers his assistants young because, as he puts it, “they can carry a lot of weight, don’t complain much, and are fun to be with.” Though he’s nearing 60, these youthful Sherpas likely have a tough time keeping up with him, not the other way around. Three months after having that partially bartered knee-replacement surgery, Fielder was back on the slopes, defying his doctor’s orders.
He can describe most of his shots—some almost 30 years old—in striking detail. After hundreds of speeches and media appearances, pressing flesh and selling his work, Fielder says, he rarely remembers people but never forgets a place. “Once you’re there, it’s very sensuous, not just views but smells, tastes, touch, sounds,” he says. “All that makes an impression, so when I pull out a photo from 30 years ago, I can remember how it affected all my senses in that moment.”
His teams hike for miles, usually over unbroken trails, as his name gets him access to swaths of land not open to the public. While his assistants set up camp, he looks for distinctive bouquets of flowers or lichen on rocks, mentally planning for the following morning, when he’ll be groping around in the darkness, waiting for the first light. Rising with one or two assistants to get into position, he sets up and waits patiently for the moment to be just right. If that moment never comes, he packs up and moves to another site. He shoots until midmorning, hikes with the group to the next camp, and shoots again around dusk.
Colorado 1870-2000 required Fielder’s most grueling physical investment, and it brought him the greatest renown. He conceived it around 1997, when his promotional instincts suggested that “a ‘millennium book’ might attract a good deal of attention.” He’d discovered William Henry Jackson, who’d photographed Colorado’s landscape in the late 19th century. Fielder searched historical archives, weeding through Jackson’s more than 20,000 shots to find 300 scenes for the book. Fielder had dived into environmental activism after the 1993 Colorado wilderness book—overcoming his reticence about public speaking and embracing the limelight—and he sought to replicate Jackson’s shots exactly, a century later, to “reveal the gross transformation of the landscape for which we humans are responsible.”
The book was the apotheosis of his growth as a naturalist, an evolution Fielder describes with poetic flourish in one of his frequent soliloquies about the Colorado wilderness. “As I touched more spots around the state, visited more remote, beautiful places, witnessed more unbelievable moments of light, smelled the sensuousness of decaying aspen leaves in the fall, drank pure water from snowmelt at 12,000 feet, like everybody else that gets invited into nature, I began to appreciate the miracle of creation and evolution,” he says. “I realized that this place is special, unique, and may be the only one like it in the universe.”
On that winter morning in 2005, however, as he and his group holed up at the Goodwin-Greene Hut, nature wasn’t so inviting. The area is notorious avalanche territory, and Fielder had awakened before dawn planning to climb on skis two miles up a 35-degree grade to a 12,000-foot ridge to take sunrise pictures. But now he and his team confronted a thick blanket of fresh snow and whiteout conditions. Visibility was reduced to about a foot. Fielder concluded the shot wasn’t worth it and led the group out, a treacherous task. He’d take 10 steps on his skis, stop, reorient himself with his compass, and take 10 more steps. He heard the distant cracking snow shelves, cannon-blast hints of an incipient avalanche. “I had to call upon a lifetime’s worth of skiing and backcountry skills,” Fielder says. “It was a deliberate process, but justifiably so. I had three people with me, including my only son.”
It was 1975, the golden age of polyester, wide collars, and bell bottoms, and a young and awkward twentysomething named John Fielder joined the May-Daniels & Fisher department store chain in Denver. He came to Colorado with an accounting degree from Duke University to fulfill a childhood dream. In 1964, he’d taken a middle school class trip to the West from his North Carolina home; one look at the Rockies convinced him that this was where he wanted to spend his life. For a year, he’d tried his hand at real estate, as a broker for farms and ranches, but opted for a career in the department store business, like his father.
Fielder had the retail pedigree and went to work as a buyer. Back home, Fielder’s dad had been an executive who oversaw the growth of one department store into a chain of 30, but old man Fielder played no role in getting his son the job with Denver’s May-D&F. “I didn’t want to work for him, and I had the business and aesthetic skills to break into it on my own,” Fielder says. On his first day at May-D&F, Fielder peeked around a cubicle wall and saw Virginia Yonkers. “Gigi” was blonde and stunning, and he was a gangly guy sporting plastic glasses. She had a boyfriend, but Fielder waited out that fling.
Gigi liked to ski, so Fielder taught himself the basics at Winter Park. A week later he returned to the resort with her, smugly saying this skiing thing was no big deal. She suggested they try a mogul run. About 45 minutes later he reached the bottom, where Gigi was waiting and laughing hysterically. When she dared him to take a second mogul run, he ignored the sharp pain in his shin. After another balky 45-minute descent, Fielder confessed: Maybe this skiing thing wasn’t so easy after all. Gigi was charmed by his determination to impress her—even more so when they found that he’d suffered a boot-top fracture during that first run. The courtship was under way.
Fielder also was becoming more serious about his other love. While he was earning $7,500 annually at the department store, he began dedicating time to his budding hobby. He read just two books about the technical aspects of photography, studied the work of Ansel Adams and Eliot Porter, and otherwise learned by doing. He discovered that nature photography is more about painstaking preparation than patience. He picked up little tricks and discovered that photography is like fishing—it’s most productive early and late.
John and Gigi married in 1978. The couple had three children, Ashley, Katy, and their firstborn, J.T. Even with the pressures of supporting a family, Fielder decided to pursue his hobby as a full-time job. The need for a “backup plan” became a staple of the career advice he later gave his children, and Fielder’s idea of this was to simultaneously found Westcliffe Publishers, to make it easier to print his own work and others’ if the opportunity arose. “But there’s still something to be said for being a little bit crazy and jumping off the deep end,” he says.
The new career often sent Fielder on the road, and Gigi ran the household supportively and in stark contrast to her husband’s type-A intensity. Fielder was the archetypical father who pushed his kids, while Gigi was the one who’d lovingly give them a boost. Their parental yin and yang shone through on Fielder family camping trips: hikes of five miles or more to a campsite, sometimes in subzero temperatures or before dawn, with Fielder always leading. He carried Katy in a Snugli during her toddler years. Fielder would beseech them to plod forward while Gigi gently urged along her frustrated ducklings. “We were hiking to these extremely remote places at six years old,” Ashley says. “Now I think we were lucky to do it, but [Dad] definitely pushed us while Mom was always the sweetest woman in the world about it.” Fielder knows these trips were tough; to this city-slicker kid who’d willed himself to become an accomplished outdoorsman, that was the point. “I’d push them pretty hard,” he says, “but Gigi would let me know when it was time to have a picnic or build a snowman on the trail.”
Gigi especially connected with her son. Although J.T. inherited his father’s rugged charisma and love for the outdoors, he routinely sought out Gigi’s tenderness while his dad would make him hike just a little farther, in so many ways. “His dad was more macho, testosterone-driven, all business, a man’s man who let his son do his own thing,” J.T.’s friend Klingelheber recalls. “There was a sense that because the father had to do it on his own, so did the son.”
Byron Jones, J.T.’s best friend from childhood, remembers the father-son interaction as a sort of “abrasive love,” a tension Jones experienced firsthand when he was 14. J.T. took his first Sherpa trip at 10 years old, ultimately assisting on about 20 projects, but this time Jones and another friend were helping Fielder on a photo trip without the buffer zone normally provided by J.T., who was home recovering from a broken leg. The group ultimately hiked about 85 miles over nine days, and halfway through, Jones and his friend realized that they were lagging when a stern Fielder took them aside. “He pointed into the distance,” Jones recalls, “and said, ‘There’s a road up that way; if you can’t keep up you should go up there and hitchhike home.’?”
By his mid-teens, J.T. Fielder was the kid everyone wanted to be. Strapping, tall, and charismatic, he was a superb skier and skilled hiker, the personification of the Rocky Mountain high life. He and his friends, including Jones and Klingelheber, called themselves the Front Range Powder Factory, a group of high-altitude thrill-seekers who skied year-round—except in September, when there’s little snow anywhere in Colorado and they had to make do skiing sand dunes.
In the late ’90s, J.T. geared up for college and his sisters blossomed into their teens, while Fielder consistently churned out books—his fame growing as his perfectionism intensified—but something wasn’t right with Gigi. She had grown oddly forgetful and apathetic. Her detachment became a full-on crisis in August 1998, when Fielder and she were visiting her family outside Chicago. Because he was flying home a few days early, she took him to O’Hare airport—a mere 25 minutes from her parents’ house. Four hours later his plane landed and he called her cell phone to check in. Gigi was driving in circles around Chicago, frustrated and bewildered, unable to find her way home.
Colorado 1870-2000 was the signature volume for proud residents to display or give as a gift. In 2002, a young outdoorsman and envelope-pusher named Aron Ralston got the book from his parents, with the inscription: “To Aron, who shares my passion for all things natural and Colorado. John Fielder.” Ralston’s mother had gotten to know Fielder in the Cherry Creek PTA. After receiving the book, Ralston e-mailed Fielder for career advice, and the following summer Ralston accompanied Fielder on a photo trip.
Like Fielder, Ralston had a corporate background, as a mechanical engineer, yet couldn’t abide a life of cubicles; he yearned to make a living outside. Seeing himself in the young man, Fielder began to paternally evangelize to Ralston about transforming his love of the wilderness into something more philanthropic. “Being out in a storm, or in avalanche terrain, or in the craziest shit-hitting-the-fan experience you could put together, I understand those places and rarely feel threatened,” Ralston says. “We’re alike in that way, and he showed me how to use these trips to be more selfless.”
In spring 2003, Ralston took a solo bike trip to the remotest part of Canyonlands National Park in Utah, a trip that would alter him in ways he couldn’t imagine. He wore only a T-shirt and shorts and carried a small backpack with water and climbing gear, and a video camera. As he lowered himself into a narrow rock crevasse, a boulder gave way, crushing his right hand and wrist and pinning him in a three-foot-wide passage dozens of feet below ground level. For days he waited, he chipped away at the rock with his knife, he rigged a pulley system to try to lift himself out of the canyon, and he prayed.
Initially, he rejected self-amputation because cutting his wrist so deeply could be suicidal. Later, he contemplated killing himself. If he was going to die anyway, he figured, why suffer? Instead, he persevered. On day six, the tissue in his right hand dead from lack of circulation, exhausted yet unwilling to let the wild devour him, Ralston realized amputation was his only way out. He recorded a farewell message to his family, twisted his arm to break his forearm bones, and then he took his blade and he freed himself.
Ralston’s harrowing story made him a celebrity. He was besieged by requests for interviews and speaking engagements, and his mentor’s media experience and friendship brought them even closer. “I vetted all these opportunities through John, and it gave me a much deeper appreciation of all the media work he’s done,” Ralston says. One highlight came in 2005, when Fielder accompanied the Ralston family and several others on a hut trip with Tom Brokaw and his daughter. They skied all day, and the two families and Fielder—there alone, there for Ralston—spent a raucous evening sharing stories and wine.
Barely two months after escaping the canyon, Ralston was rock climbing again, scuffing up his new $15,000 prosthetic arm. Soon he was scaling fourteeners and training for ultramarathons. He continued to Sherpa for Fielder. J.T. and some friends, several years younger than Ralston, occasionally joined. Among them was Chris Klingelheber, who noted to himself how close Ralston and Fielder had become, and wondered if J.T. noticed it, too. Whatever emotion it might have triggered in J.T., he kept it to himself. “He could socialize and hang out with guys,” Klingelheber says, “but on a deeper level he was much closer to girls.” He was particularly close to a mother who, with every passing day, could no longer give her son what he needed.
The O’Hare incident prompted visits to multiple specialists, who discovered that Gigi had early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. The pragmatic businessman in Fielder took over. He already had the publishing company; he’d make Gigi’s caretaking his other enterprise. To the kids, he cast the challenge of caring for Gigi as a blunt but reassuring to-do list. “He has this way of disconnecting from emotional situations so he can do what needs to be done,” Ashley says. “It would’ve been horrible for him to get emotional. We were already losing one parent, so it was good to still see him as a solid force that was taking care of everything.”
Gigi’s illness hit the family just when Fielder had never been busier. The then-ongoing Colorado 1870-2000 project required several years of full-time attention. He took over Gigi’s care-taking whenever possible and added Alzheimer’s to his list of crusades, taking on speaking engagements and headlining fund-raisers. He felt he had been forced into Sophie’s choice: He could either work less and not afford to give Gigi the best care, or he could work more and leave it to others, including his increasingly stressed daughters. J.T. was at school—first Colorado State, later CU-Boulder—and returned home when he could, which made witnessing Gigi’s deteriorating condition that much more difficult. While the rest of the family was on site, seeing Gigi’s condition change gradually, to J.T.’s eye she was markedly worse almost every time he saw her.
Gigi’s seven-year spiral followed the prescribed downward track for Alzheimer’s patients in all but one way. The saddest phase of the disease is when the patient knows she’s sick but can’t do anything about it, nor can she quite grasp why. She might ask anguished questions about what will happen to her or her kids, and she might lash out, even violently. The Fielder family prepared mentally for this but rarely saw it. Gigi remained tender even as she wasted away, dying at home in her own bed on September 11, 2005.
A few months after Gigi’s death, the mother of one of J.T.’s friends read her obituary and called her son about it. Until recently, J.T. had been living in Washington Park with some of his Powder Factory friends, now out of college and navigating their 20s. Neither Klingelheber, who shared the basement apartment with J.T., nor most of their longtime friends, had any idea that Gigi had died. “It was like pulling teeth to get him to talk about it,” Jones says. “He always carried himself like the alpha male, with no emotions on the outside. His dad was the same way, but it didn’t seem to bother J.T. when he was younger, because he had the balance with his mom.”
J.T. drifted between jobs and girlfriends like recent grads do. He occasionally talked about it with his friends, but no one thought much of his struggles because they all were going through the same thing. J.T. often shot videos of the Powder Factory’s extreme sporting exploits and considered building a career out of his hobby. He knew better than to ask Dad for a job lead. For years Fielder bored into J.T. the need for a backup plan, urging his son to get the business experience that had helped him chart, finance, and execute his own successful career. “Dad [wanted J.T. to] go into the corporate world and learn about marketing and how to work with people before he pursued other things,” Ashley says. “But J.T. was just so not like that. He didn’t take well to the corporate environment.”
In Fielder’s eyes, his son hadn’t quite accomplished enough to earn a nepotistic boost. “We had not gotten to the point where I would help him find a way in some particular industry related to the outdoors,” he says. “I didn’t really want it to be photography. The combination of skills is so unique, I couldn’t imagine anyone else having that—even my own son—so I wasn’t aggressively steering him toward taking over my own job. Maybe someday I’d hand over the reins to him, but my attitude has always been that I’d do this until the day I die.”
The fatherly tough love and J.T.’s own twentysomething angst bubbled up when he drank. J.T. might go into an angry rant about his dad, or get into a bar fight, or try to break a bottle over someone’s head. Once, the Wash Park housemates awakened to find one of their bathrooms destroyed. “J.T. didn’t really talk about his dad, but sometimes when he’d have a few too many drinks, he could get pretty upset about him,” Klingelheber says.
J.T. muddled along, getting promoted from a low-level desk job at AIG before moving on to Izze, the Boulder-based soft drink company. He moved to Boulder and soon stopped returning calls and wanting to hang out as much with his old friends. Not long after Gigi died, he got laid off from Izze with about 20 others and quickly landed another job at an information technology company. The big news was that J.T. met a woman he liked. He started telling friends she was “the One.”
Still, the setbacks kept coming. In late 2005 J.T. felt numbness in his chest and his left arm turned purple, symptoms of thoracic outlet syndrome, in which an overly muscled torso cuts off blood flow to the limbs. He had a rib surgically removed to restore circulation yet still had numbness weeks later. He was also on a prolonged dosage of blood thinners, which meant he’d miss most of ski season: Doing something as innocuous as cutting his arm while backcountry skiing could be fatal. J.T.’s rugged, muscular physique—he appeared outwardly to be the sort of outdoorsman who might be worthy of respect by, say, an Aron Ralston or John Fielder—was paradoxically hurting his heart and cutting him off from the outdoors.
His frustration was evident. On a Friday in March 2006, J.T. drank too much at a company party and got into a fight—with his boss. That Sunday he skied A-Basin with friends, and no one noticed anything out of the ordinary. The next day, however, he sent his company a resignation e-mail, and he spent most of that evening on the phone with his sisters and other female friends, agonizing over the girl, the One. He wanted her to go somewhere with him, to leave Colorado, to escape for a while. She couldn’t, or wouldn’t.
On Tuesday, March 21, J.T. awakened in Boulder and went to a female friend’s house. He picked up skis he’d left there and lied as he said good-bye, telling her he was going to Butler Gulch with a friend. He drove up alone, parked, and, knowing his phone wouldn’t work until he got to the top, began the three-hour climb up the familiar trail to his favorite place on Earth. He sat atop the mountain, knowing that this time there would be no downhill bliss, perhaps believing he’d find a more enduring contentment, an escape. J.T. drank in the view, precisely the kind of view his father had spent so much time with and had devoted his life to trying to nurture and protect. And precisely as his father had done tens of thousands of times, J.T. waited until the moment was just right. He sent a text message to his beloved sisters—I love you both, and I’ll always be with you in spirit. Tell Dad I love him. J.T.—and he took a blade to his wrists.
The girls went numb when they got the text. Katy was leaving a store near DU and called her father. “J.T. wouldn’t send such a thing just to get people stirred up,” she says. “It sounds bad, but I felt like I’d already lost him the second I got the text.”
Klingelheber had been skiing A-Basin with a friend and turned on his cell phone during the drive back. There was a voice mail from Fielder. He’d gotten Klingelheber’s number from a preservation organization with which Fielder had helped set up a job interview for Klingelheber. Fielder’s message said J.T.’s sisters had received a suicidal text message, and they didn’t know where J.T. was. Klingelheber figured the family was overreacting, but he called one of J.T.’s female friends. She told him J.T. had been by for his skis that morning and said he was going to Butler Gulch with a friend—the very same friend that was sitting next to Klingelheber in the car. “I got chills, because it was a real lie,” Klingelheber says.
Fielder, in a wool sportcoat, slacks, and a tie, had just left a luncheon with mayor John Hickenlooper in Denver when he got Katy’s call. He went to a police station and had them call the Clear Creek County sheriff. He then drove to Butler Gulch and met the sheriff around 3:30 p.m. near J.T.’s car. While Klingelheber and the rescue specialist ascended the mountain, every so often Fielder wandered away from the officials and the handful of J.T.’s friends who’d arrived for support. Fielder wanted to be alone, but one of the Alpine specialists was afraid he might do something rash and asked Fielder to stay near the group.
It was after 10 p.m. when the Alpine rescuer radioed the grim discovery down the hill. The rescue officials made Klingelheber leave so they could begin the work of pronouncing J.T. dead and removing his body. When Klingelheber got back to the parking area, he, Fielder, and J.T.’s friends shared a devastated embrace before Fielder left the group and made the long drive home alone.
At J.T.’s funeral, Fielder delivered a 10-minute eulogy that included slides and video of his son, all while revealing little emotion. Ralston and Klingelheber were among those in attendance who were amazed at Fielder’s composure. “I think a lot of people were surprised, because most parents in that situation wouldn’t be able to talk,” Klingelheber says. “It was almost like he was giving a normal slide show up there.”
A month after J.T.’s death, Fielder still seemed removed from the tragedy as he led a three-week rafting trip through the Grand Canyon—a trip that J.T. and his best friend, Byron Jones, had planned to attend. Even though such trips have years-long waiting lists, Jones couldn’t bring himself to go. Citing the five boats full of expectant rafters, including Ralston, Fielder followed through.
Toward the end of the trip, Ralston and Fielder drifted downriver in the lead boat, rapt in conversation. Ralston was angry with J.T. He couldn’t reconcile why he, Ralston, had chosen life while J.T. didn’t. To Ralston, it felt like a slap in the face, though he came to see it as a gift, a revelation he shared with Fielder on the water. Ralston was of the mind that “wanting life to be easy is the wrong goal to have, because just trying to eliminate difficulties won’t help you succeed or grow.” And Fielder agreed. They had become so engrossed that they drifted far beyond the planned campsite and were forced to spend the night on a sandbar. In time, Ralston interpreted J.T.’s suicide differently: “We both had come to remote settings with the same tools, yet made polar opposite decisions. But it really was the same thing; it was to free himself. And that was how I came to peace with it.”
Fielder is still sorting through what meaning there is in J.T.’s loss, and in so doing, he’s sorting through the meaning of everything. He sought counseling for the first time, a humbling step for any self-made man. “One of the great things in life is figuring out solutions to your own problems, but this one was more than I could handle,” he says. “Gigi’s death was predictable, and you could emotionally plan for it, but J.T.’s was a shocker.”
It’s an only-in-Colorado summer day, with cloudless skies, and the 80-degree temperatures are melting the last remnants of snow atop the Gore Range. Fielder glances around the living room of his home, a gorgeously rustic and cozy retreat just outside Silverthorne, as he reflects on J.T.’s eulogy. Everything that’s ever mattered to Fielder is right before his eyes: the distant mountains he’s worked so hard to nurture and protect; the awards he’s won for those labors, along with mementos of past trips, all papering the walls of his dream house. On one side of his living room, there is a sideboard cluttered with a few dozen personal photos of friends and family. The freeze-and-squeeze pictures are posed, stilted, and trite, unworthy of publication in a fancy coffee-table book. And yet the way they’re arranged, so carefully placed in disjointed, almost messy, rows—a stark contrast to the spotless order of the rest of the house—leaves the impression that they’re now among Fielder’s most treasured possessions.
Fielder can discuss both nature and work with striking fluency. “Even when it’s a regular conversation I sometimes get the feeling he’s rehearsing his marketing speak for how he’ll pitch things,” Ralston says. “He’s genuine and real, but he’s working all the time.” But sitting here now, Fielder’s words are halting. “It wasn’t eloquent,” he says, referring to the eulogy, his throat growing hoarse. “I wanted to celebrate J.T.’s life, so I gave a brief history and showed some photos of family trips, father-son trips, whatever. I tried to be as stoic as I could. I don’t get emotional. My dad was that way, too; we’ve never been big fans of burdening people with our problems.”
His visits with the psychologist came just in time. “I got very close to the place J.T. probably was. I didn’t consider taking my life because I couldn’t leave two daughters alone in the world after everything they’d already lost. But maybe there was a reason for me getting to that place,” he says with a glance toward the sideboard. Displayed prominently toward the front is a Fielder family portrait, taken in front of their Greenwood Village home. Gigi and the girls stand arm in arm, and J.T. cradles the family cat, all smiling broadly; in the photo, John has placed himself stiffly to one side, on the outer edge of his family. As his gaze meets the picture, he lowers his head and begins to cry. “Maybe somebody wanted me to know where J.T. was.”
Fielder doesn’t believe in the stereotypical white-bearded God. Redemption, however, is another story. To his environmental and Alzheimer’s crusades, he’s now added suicide prevention. He’s more engaging and less preoccupied with himself. Everyone around him claims to see the difference. Ralston’s once stoic and guarded mentor now possesses an empathetic softness. Klingelheber now sees J.T.’s father, once so coolly detached, hugging people hello and good-bye. “Our relationship with him has changed completely,” daughter Katy says. “He’s become more emotional and sensitive to us, which has brought us closer together.” Fielder ends conversations with “I love you,” and is keenly interested in his daughters’ emotional health.
Fielder’s friends and colleagues have watched him vigorously dive back into his work and suspect Ranches of Colorado might be his best project ever. As always, it has the striking vistas and earnest text, but it finally includes pictures of homes, animals, and people—ranchers and cowboys riding, roping, and working, surviving and thriving with dignity and diligence, as crucial to their landscape as any snowcapped peak or bursting columbine. “I have a lot more compassion now for people and their problems,” Fielder says. “I think a lot more about how I’m coming across to friends or acquaintances—knowing how deeply distressing life can be and that they may be experiencing something like I did. I think about how can I make their life a little bit better by mitigating that.”
He’s made his own life a little better with a new relationship. After Gigi died, Fielder dated, but he never got serious until he met a woman named Alena. She’s blonde and stunning, and she captured Fielder much like Gigi did: with a love-at-first-sight thunderbolt. She also handles Fielder’s public relations and lives with him in his hideaway. Alena is about the same age J.T. would have been, but Fielder deflects whatever tension that causes within the family by reminding his girls, as their mother once might have, that “there’s no limit on love.”
On each anniversary of J.T.’s suicide, the Fielder family visits the peak above Butler Gulch. (The Powder Factory also prints an annual ski calendar as a tribute to J.T., with the proceeds going to suicide prevention.) A new world view—spurred on by intense reading about cosmology and the origins of the universe—helps Fielder get beyond what he might have done differently. It’s taught him, or rather is teaching him, to recognize the beauty, energy, and light Gigi and J.T. brought to every day of their tragically abbreviated lives. The memories are more small miracles of convergence—much like the pink-orange alpenglow from his favorite moment of light so many years ago—only now Fielder doesn’t have to wait for them; they arrive every hour of every day.
The relentless, gritty adventurer gazes out his picture window toward the Gore Range. His reflection stares back at him, putting him into the frame, where he’s finally comfortable inviting people to join him. “My life was always focused less on humanity and more on the natural world, and there really has to be a bit of both in everyone’s life,” he says. “I would hope that my children and their descendants figure out the value of humanitarianism more quickly than I did.”
Luc Hatlestad is a senior editor of 5280. E-mail him at [email protected].