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

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.