The Triumph and Tragedy of Ryan Jennings


It’s a story I wish I’d never had to write, or not this one, because Ryan Jennings was a great story, but here it is, “Life Interrupted,” in the new issue of Rock & Ice magazine (October 2016, No. 237) about hardman, family man, and all around great guy Ryan Jennings, with whom I once spent a long weekend at Devils Tower in 2002. Sadly, this past December, Ryan was killed by the collapse of an ice pillar outside of Redstone, Colorado, leaving behind a wife, Robin, two children, Beck and Brooke, a mother and father, two sisters, a host of friends and climbing partners, and one of the best alpine-style first ascents ever accomplished in North America.

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Few people have ever known how to get so much love, friendship, and outrageous enjoyment out of life as Ryan Jennings. By the time we lost him, Ryan had probably forgotten more about having fun than most of us will ever learn.

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My profound thanks and sympathies go out to Robin Jennings, Alex Jennings, Kevin Cooper, and Robbie Williams, all of whom gave generously of their time and emotional honesty. Without their help, I couldn’t have written this story. Alison Osius and Duane Raleigh of Rock & Ice also deserve thanks for their editorial contributions and guidance.

Filmmaker Tyler Young brought Ryan and I together that weekend we spent  at Devils Tower to make a short film for National Geographic about George Hopkins, a record-setting parachutist who, in October 1941, landed on top of Devils Tower to win a $50 bet–and then couldn’t get down. In a classic piece of all-American weirdness, the ten day effort to rescue Hopkins shared headlines all over the country with stories about the searing heatwave baking the East Coast, the Dodgers battling the Yankees in the World Series, and Operation Typhoon, the German Army’s assault on Moscow. (Nearly twenty years ago, I wrote a story about the rescue, “The Sensational Hopkins Affair,” that appeared in Rock & Ice in June 1997, No. 79.)

Click on the photo below to check out the video Tyler made about the rescue that weekend:

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There are a few nice shots of Ryan in Tyler’s video, some of me huffing and puffing up the classic Durrance Route, and some fantastic newsreel footage of the rescue, including a clip of Hopkins actually landing on the summit. (Just after 2:30.)

One episode in “Life Interrupted” deals with Ryan and Kevin Cooper climbing Shaken, Not Stirred above the Ruth Gorge of the Alaska Range–and nearly getting killed on the way down. There’s probably a bit of a connection between that climb and our Devils Tower weekend. Jim Donini and I had made Shaken, Not Stirred’s first ascent a few years before and I remember talking to Ryan about it while we were lounging around on the column tops at the Tower waiting for Tyler to set up his next shot. I posted photos and stories from the first ascent of Shaken, Not Stirred in 2013. Great route.

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(On the left, that’s Kevin Cooper’s 2003 photo of Ryan a few feet below Englishman’s Col at the end of the route; on the right, Jim Donini in 1997. Photos taken from close to the same spot.)

And since a few climbers will probably read this post, here’s one about the first ascent of another classic alpine route Jim and I did together, this one in Patagonia: A Fine Piece, pictures and stories from the first ascent.

I tried to talk Ryan into climbing that one, too. ;-)

This didn’t make it into the Rock & Ice story, but this is BY FAR my best Ryan Jennings story, one I’ve been threatening to write for 12 years…

Gregory Crouch - Right Mate, Let's Get On With It

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