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Memories of George Gardner

George on the Grand Teton. Summer 2007. [Photo] Angela Hawse

This summer the climbing community lost a great friend, George Gardner. George guided for Exum here in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and many in this community and elsewhere experienced a great loss with his passing. Some of their memories are below; more can be found here.

At Sterling College, George Gardner was like a father to many of us. He taught us things we never thought of before, he brought us to new places around the world, and he reminded everyone on a daily basis to tell one another, “You’re great!”

George was the faculty member who, along with Ned Houston, then Dean of the College, started the Mountain Cultures Semester at Sterling. His enthusiasm for not just mountains and climbing but for other cultures around the world was so contagious. He taught us all to be mindful of each other and showed us different ways of being mindful.

At the Ouray Ice Park [Photo] Michael Seamans

I can remember one account during my second year at Sterling: George was driving me to my internship in southern Vermont using this old, blue, beat-up, fifteen-passenger van. We were talking casually about Buddhism and meditation when he realized that he had a meditation tape with him. “Ah, hey…” he said, “Wanna try something cool?” He popped in the tape and said, “Let’s practice.”

Ok, I thought.

After about twenty minutes of steady breathing, resting our hands on our bellies in order to focus on the up and down motion of our breath and not our passing thoughts, everything became incredibly bright, clear and vibrant. The season was autumn in Vermont, and all the trees were very colorful. When we stopped meditating we both smiled and agreed that we were more awake and alert. I then came to the realization that we were still on the highway and quickly glanced over at the speedometer…

“Holy shit George! You’re going 25 in a 65mph zone!”

“I guess that’s why they say don’t meditate and drive.”

We both burst out into uncontrollable laughter. I will never forget the day George Gardner taught me to meditate, on the highway, without getting pulled over.

I love you George. Thank you for all you have done for me and the thousands of people you touched around the world.


–Jay Merrill, Craftsbury Common, Vermont

The first Mountain Cultures Semester that George taught for Sterling College. George is seated front and center next to his wife Colleen (left) and student Maria Gaffney (right). [Photo] Jay Merrill collection

I first met George Gardner in the summer of 1992, my first summer working as a guide for Exum Mountain Guides. It was George’s second summer working for Exum. We both shared so much that summer, as well as many summers to come… laughs, smiles, teaching styles and discussions about the Zen of climbing.

George and I shared a little area in the east corner of “the Rudd,” an old building used long ago by the Rudd family to store equipment and serve meals to clients and employees for the horse-riding operation they operated in Grand Teton National Park, near Jenny Lake. Later, as Glenn Exum operated the Exum School of American Mountaineering, the Rudd building became the storage area for guiding equipment.

George in Garnet Canyon, Grand Teton National Park. August 2006. [Photo] Amy Bullard

Deep in the eastern corner is a back room, or–more appropriately–a dusty, dirty, manure smelling, old wooden closet. George had made it his own by moving boxes around. Though he was basically living in a tent on Guides’ Hill in the woods and needed to store his climbing equipment in the Rudd, he was more than willing to offer me, the new guy, some “availability.” We had a wall, and a shelf, that we hung our climbing hardware on, very meticulously organized (he had his side, and I had mine, of course). The room was small enough that we would occasionally slam the old, creaky, wooden door into each other while entering–George always would burst into laughter. No one really knew that we were using the room, and one day Peter Lev, one of the senior guides/owners, poked his head in to see what was going on. He was amazed, and fascinated, by our little “scene” of organized gear on the wall.

Building an Outhouse for a Sikkimese Village. [Photo] Sarah Kelley-Spearing collection

Most climbing guides have a second job during the off-season. George would guide in the Telluride area and teach school during the winter. I ski patrolled at Jackson Hole Ski Resort, taught for National Outdoor Leadership School and, strangely enough, grew alfalfa sprouts for local businesses. George was always very concerned about his diet, and how to get the maximum amount of energy out of the things he ate. During our second summer at Exum, George brought a crazy contraption called The Ionizer. It was used to purify water by charging ions… or so he said. Anyway, he was ecstatic when he discovered I had a sprout business, and even more stoked when I told him I also grew trays of wheat grass for a local health food store that juiced them. At that time he recently had heard about the nutritional and health benefits from drinking wheat grass juice, and he couldn’t believe he had met someone who actually grew it. Not only did he want me to grow a tray a week for him, he wanted me to use the purified, ionized water to grow it! I shook my head and laughed. But I did. He was in heaven.

So that second summer we not only had our assortment of climbing gear in the little back room, but George also had the Ionizer, a tray of wheat grass, and a hand-crank juicer! Every day the room got smaller and smaller. It was a fun time. Every morning when we organized our gear in the small room, he acted like a mad scientist purifying water, watering his wheat grass, and making juice. We toasted many little cups of juice together, laughing and getting “energized,” as he would say. I can tell you, he didn’t need the juice–George was born energized.

The 2003 Mountain Cultures Semester. George and students in his hometown of Ridgway CO. [Photo] Sarah Kelley-Spearing collection

He was also a thinker, always dissecting thoughts and feelings, resorting them and putting them back together. Whether he was playing mind games with students, memory name games on the trail up to the lower saddle of the Grand Teton with large groups, or left brain/right brain games in the parking lot when we guided together, he always made life exciting and interesting. I’ll always treasure the ways he taught me to interact with my clients and students, and the ways that it had nothing to do with climbing.

I saw George in the Exum office a few days before July 19th, 2008. He had this huge smile on his face. We shared a big hug and laughed about the wheat-grass days. It was the last time I saw him. I’m so glad we caught up, and shared that hug.

Thanks George. I miss you.

–Kevin Pusey, Jackson Hole, Wyoming

[Photo] Dyana Marlett