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

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.