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

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.