Changing Nature

For more than three decades photographer John Fielder has focused his lens on the outdoors. Now, the Colorado icon is beginning to recognize the value of getting people into the frame.

September 2009

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.