Placita man hikes to Capitol Peak site where his brother was killed 56 years earlier
Ryan Summerlin March 19, 2014
In the Roaring Fork Valley we live in the shadows of many of Colorado’s most majestic peaks.
Snowmass, Capitol, Cathedral, Maroon and many others emit a siren song, luring wilderness enthusiasts from throughout the world who seek the opportunity to take in the breathtaking views from one of their legendary summits.
But on July 25, 1957, the shadow of Capitol Peak cast a more ominous pall, placing an imperceptible weight on the shoulders of Placita’s Clark Heckert.
Heckert, then 12 years old, received news that no child should have to endure.
His brother, John Upson Heckert, 22, had died in a mountaineering accident after summiting Capitol Peak.
John Heckert was part of a three-person team that had hiked up toward Capitol Peak from their basecamp at Snowmass Lake. They had already reached the top of Snowmass Peak two days before, and the group’s goal was to summit each Fourteener in the area. The team, consisting of Heckert, who lived in Wilmington, Del., Richard Slusser of Aurora, Colo., and Eileen Ginter of Denver, continued on and, shortly after reaching the top of Capitol, decided to attempt a glissade down a couloir toward Pierre Basin in hopes of saving time and returning to camp before dark.
From their vantage point, it appeared as if the snow followed a straight path down to the basin below. What they didn’t know was that what looked like a clear path to the bottom was actually a line-of-sight illusion that hid a large field of exposed boulders.
“From this point, the view downward gave every impression that the snow was continuous out onto the Pierre Basin below,” Slusser said in a December 1957 audio account of the accident. “Actually, there was a convex [feature] which hid the fact that the snow gave out in a tongue of ice, and below that there was only rock for some 150 feet.”
The three eyed the couloir and prepared themselves for the descent. John Heckert, being a bold and adventurous man, volunteered to go first. He sat down to slide and picked up tremendous speed almost instantly. His attempt to self-arrest proved futile as he plummeted down the chasm, hurtling toward the rocky teeth protruding from the snowcover below. He crashed into the stone at a high speed and was killed instantly.
“John started in a sitting glissade, I believe with the point end of his ice ax in, and he immediately picked up speed very rapidly and as soon as he realized this, he flipped over into a self-arrest position. This, however, didn’t seem to check his speed at all,” Slusser said. “In a matter of seconds he was swept out of sight where he struck the rock. It was one of those few moments during a person’s lifetime when he is nearly unable to comprehend what has actually happened and the comprehension of it is a terrific shock and almost overpowers one. For some moments, and I don’t know how long it was, I stood there with my mouth dry and legs trembling wondering what to do next.”
A misjudgment of the route’s true nature, fatigue, and a steeper than expected angle of the slope caused John Heckert to pay the ultimate price.
“The snowfield here was quite steep, possibly at an angle of 30 degrees or so, and it was actually no more steep than the snowfield below Snowmass Peak at the beginning that we had glissaded only two days before,” Slusser said. “At this point we were all three of us quite tired and anxious to get back and probably the judgment of all of us was somewhat impaired without our knowledge.”
Slusser and Ginter — who each had Colorado Mountain Club Class 3 ratings, but didn’t have much experience with snow or ice — cut steps in the steep snowfield, using their ice axes for balance, and made their way to the bottom, quickly finding John’s body. Each checked for a pulse and determined that there was nothing more they could do for John. With heavy hearts, they began the arduous journey down to inform John’s family of the horrific news.
“I can remember that the thing that weighed my mind down the most was the terrible burden of having to break the news to John’s parents, ’cause after all, all of John’s hopes and aspirations were as if they had never happened,” Slusser said. “He was beyond all pain, but it was the living, his father and his mother and his brothers and sisters, that must suffer and that certainly was the most terrible task I’ve ever been faced with to break the news to them. I think I would have done anything to soften the blow somehow.”
Slusser did retrieve John’s camera before departing, allowing the Heckerts to see their beloved son’s last moments before his untimely end.
Bob Perry, local ranching icon, was an integral member of the team that recovered John’s body. Members of the Rocky Mountain Rescue Group brought gear up on horseback until the path became too rough for the animals, then carried a Stokes litter, which is a rescue basket, up to retrieve John’s body. At points where the route became too steep, they had to use ropes to lower the basket down the cliffside. The recovery effort took three days.
At the time of his death, John Heckert was a second year Ph.D. candidate in atomic physics at MIT.
While he was an intelligent and capable outdoorsman, John Heckert wasn’t a very experienced mountaineer, and a simple mistake cut short the life of a very promising young man.
Living in John’s shadow
The Heckert family was floored by the news. It was extremely difficult to accept that such a bright and capable man had joined the ranks of mountaineers claimed by Capitol Peak.
“Mom and dad were devastated,” Clark Heckert, 68, remembered. “He walked on water as far as they were concerned. It was hard to live up to that image.”
This was a very difficult and confusing time for Heckert as he had a strained relationship with his older brother. On one hand he felt that John, like many older siblings, could be tough with him and was too much of a disciplinarian, but he also respected John’s intelligence.
“He was an older brother to me, and he tried to play parent to me, so I didn’t like him,” Heckert said. “He was trying to discipline me, he would reach around while he was driving and try to pound on me in the backseat. He was the perfect brother.
“These are deficits really as far as my impression of him,” Heckert continued. “I’ve had to go to my cousins that were his age and find out what he was really like, and I don’t have a really good picture of what he was like because there is so much difference in age, but, you know, he did his calculus homework in ink, he was brilliant.”
Heckert now found himself in the unenviable position of feeling that he must live up to the standards set by his older brother, and the pressure became a frustrating burden. This feeling only got worse as time wore on.
“I lived under that cloud … you’re in the room that [John and I] used to share and your mom’s coming up the stairs to help you with your homework, and she looks at your brother’s stuff and starts to cry. Now, why is she crying and what do you think? It’s either because of the loss or because you’re such a freaking failure and no good [compared to] your brother, it always aggravated me. … But I love my mom. … She was a wonderful person, but she couldn’t help herself, it was terrible, absolutely terrible.”
School and the outdoors would become an escape for Heckert, who attended prestigious Blair Academy in Blairstown, N.J., for his junior and senior years of high school.
“Living with [my parents] was by itself more than I could handle, so I loved the idea of going to boarding school, that was like going to college early.”
Education was a very important part of the Heckert household, and Heckert matriculated at the Case Institute of Technology in Cleveland — now known as Case Western Reserve University — to study electrical engineering.
He found himself at a crossroads upon graduation. The war was raging on in Vietnam, and he faced the very real prospect of being drafted. He would instead enlist, becoming a Naval reserve officer.
But before facing the horrors of war, Heckert, who had never skied in the West, took a trip back out to Colorado to get in some turns.
He looked at Aspen and Vail, and found that the $4 price for a dorm room at the Alpine Lodge was more appealing than the $5 rooms offered in Vail.
“I wanted to ski for 30 days, and hell, you’re going to war … it’s a war, you could die, right? And so I said, ‘Well, I’m going to ski first,’ so I started skiing Aspen Mountain and I hit Snowmass once and said, ‘I don’t think I’m going to ski New England anymore.’”
He didn’t know it at the time, but this trip would be the first of 25 years of visiting the Alpine Lodge, eventually leading him down the path to purchasing his dream plot in Placita in 1986 and building a cabin there in 1991.
After his time in the Navy, Heckert returned to Case and finished grad school. He then worked for DuPont, following in his father’s footsteps.
In the mid-’90s, a chance meeting while hiking atop Buckskin Pass would be the catalyst for a journey to the place of John’s death, sending Heckert on the road to understanding and closure.
“Some guy comes up and says hey and that he’s a bartender in Aspen. He says, ‘You know, I was over there hiking that Heckbert Pass or something like that,’ and I say, ‘What!?’” I go, ‘It wasn’t Heckert, was it?’” He said it could have been. ‘It’s really steep there,’ the guy says. Well yeah, that sounds about right. So I went back and had to check it out on a geodetic survey map, and by God it’s there.”
Since that dark day in 1957, Heckert had thought about Pierre Basin, but he’d never had the right set of resources and circumstances to make the grueling hike in. Now, knowing that a pass nearby (across the basin from the site of John’s death) was presumably named after his deceased brother — Slusser said in the audio recording that David Taylor from Colorado Mountain Club was going to do the paperwork to name a pass after John — the trip had to be made.
Being an engineer, Heckert meticulously studied the layout of the area and the history of John’s death, seeking out clues with the help of a few local friends and neighbors.
Bob Ludtke of Glenwood Springs is friends with Heckert and got him together with Bill Mohrman of Woody Creek. Mohrman is a skilled outdoor enthusiast who had wanted to fish in Pierre Basin for some time.
“He had really good equipment, really good experience and he helped me out a lot,” Heckert said of Mohrman. “Bill was huge, probably the best person I’ve run into to accompany me on that, just for his abilities, personality, all of that.”
Heckert had also spoken with Carbondale’s Ruth “Ditty” Perry, wife of Bob Perry, whom he met at the Church of Redstone. Ditty Perry told Heckert about the 1957 recovery effort and walked him through photographs of the operation, effectively showing Heckert what to expect on his hike to the basin.
“She was delightful,” Heckert said. “I spent an afternoon with her and she told me all about the horses and what was going on, who these people were and so a lot of the photographs made sense to me.”
Mike Ferguson, Heckert’s neighbor, who introduced him to Ditty Perry, also planned to join in the effort, but later had to back out.
“Mike was gonna join us, but he didn’t. It would’ve been nice to have someone with EMT training along with us, but I think Mike is declining those opportunities because people tend to depend on him,” Heckert said with a smile. “He doesn’t care to be dragging people out of the wilderness, and I can understand that, too”
Local climber Chuck Downey also supplied Heckert with aerial photographs of Pierre Basin, to broaden his understanding of the terrain.
On July 15, 2013, 10 days shy of the 56th anniversary of John’s death, Heckert and Mohrman began the hike toward Pierre Basin.
They packed camping and fishing gear but no rope, as they were planning on hiking only nontechnical terrain.
“We didn’t rope up or anything, and if we [had to] we were going to leave,” Heckert said with a laugh.
They followed the trail up Snowmass Creek toward Snowmass Lake, and turned up a lesser known and nearly hidden path. Their studies had shown this route to be the safest way into Pierre Basin — one that didn’t require any technical gear. But, that didn’t mean that there weren’t some sketchy spots along the way. Massive boulder fields crisscrossed their path, and at one point they had to freeclimb a section of slippery rock adjacent to a 400-foot waterfall.
“You look at it and go, ‘This is too steep, this is too high’ … and you go up this little notch and there’s water in it,” Heckert said. “And you follow that little creek in there and it gets really notchy, and eventually you get to a spot where there’s a little waterfall and the water drops from about chest high, but there’s some roots that you can hang on to, so you hang on to the roots and you climb your way up this slippery piece of rock and you get to the top and turn around and look down and at that point you’re gonna go, ‘OMG, what did I just do?’”
But a surprise was waiting for Heckert at the top. Unbeknownst to him, Mohrman had packed a few beers for the hike, and few things are as welcome and rewarding as a cold beer after a long day’s hike with a 40-pound pack weighing you down.
“It’s a surprise to me and he goes, ‘You want one?’ and I’m thinking, ‘There’s no way if you carried it up here I’m going to take your beer,’ but he had brought enough for me. He brought four cans up there and they’re, like, 24 ounces, I mean, holy [crap].”
The next morning brought another stretch of boulders to crawl over, each conspiring to roll over, making balance shaky and footing unsure. There are routes nearby for technical climbers, but Heckert had chosen the path that he felt was safer.
“You know, if you lose it up there … the tumble on the way down, oh man, talk about raspberries and concussions. The way I went, it was a no-brainer, all you have to do is hold on and you’re gonna make it … no problem. I wasn’t scared, but with these other [ways up] everything’s fine until you lose it.”
Heckert had brought an ice axe for balance, which he said seemed like the traditional thing to do.
After much perseverance, Heckert and Mohrman finally made it into Pierre Basin.
After experiencing the hike in firsthand, Heckert couldn’t help but marvel over the recovery effort that occurred so many years ago.
“It took [the recovery group] three days to get his body out of there, OK, and it took us three days to get up there and back, they went up there with a Stokes litter and brought somebody back,” Heckert said. “And they came the way we did and they went further because instead of just looking from the edge of the lake they went around the lakes and over because he was at bottom of the face of Capitol.
“I guess I’m just an old man and no damn good at hiking.”
But Heckert is good at hiking and has made many long ascents to some of Colorado’s most beautiful places. But none quite as rewarding as his journey into Pierre Basin. Each step, every mile traversed, he pondered the question: Why did John die on Capitol all those years ago? Over the years the answer eluded him, until now.
“I wanted to know why somebody that was so perfect and so brilliant could be influenced in such a way to make this kind of a mistake, and it [now] seems very human to me exactly what happened. And then knowing his aggressive tendencies and his age, I go, ‘Piece of cake, real easy to see how it happens,’ but a real shame. A brilliant mind lost, who knows what he would have done? … Just so easy and you just can’t see where the trap is, and you’re dead the moment you start.”
John’s intelligence had lulled him into a firm confidence that he could accomplish anything. It made him bold, it made him great … until he took it one step too far.
“When you get to that situation when they’re together, which one of the three is gonna go first?” Heckert said of the fated 1957 trip. “And he’s not going to think about it. It looks like it can be done, and it’s set up perfectly, so you can’t tell you’re gonna die.”
When asked if he would’ve attempted a glissade down the couloir, his mood lifted, an impish smile forming.
“I know it wouldn’t have happened to me because I couldn’t get across the knife’s edge,” he said. “I guess God made me safe. I just laugh about all that. So you have no fear? Well, that’s not an advantage.”
Heckert had an answer for the sorrow, frustration and confusion that had hung over him for so many decades. He finally knew his brother, and understood the choices he made so many years ago.
Clarity sprung forth like a ray of sunshine passing through the gray, stubborn clouds above, as Clark Heckert descended from Pierre Basin and out of view of Heckert Pass.