Keith Spencer Rare Climbing Avalanche in Yellowstone Kills Wyoming Ice Climber on the Main Vein
Keith Spencer Rare Climbing Avalanche in Yellowstone Kills Wyoming Ice Climber on the Main Vein
Keith in the high camp on Cho Oyu in autumn 2008 (Keith Spencer collection)
We are very sorry to hear about the shocking death of Keith Spencer in the snow avalanche at 2:00 p.m. on 2 January, 2009 while climbing ice on the Shoshone River near Yellowstone Park.
We had the honour of climbing with Keith on Everest in Tibet in 2004 and Cho Oyu in 2008.
SummitClimb's thoughts and prayers go out to Mr. Spencer's family, friends and colleagues during these troubling times. We hope this tribute to Keith helps us honour his memory and share in the loss of such a great man.
Below is an article about the tragic death of Keith (courtesy of www.climbing.com), some comments from his former teammates , and information about his Cheyenne memorial service and upcoming Laramie memorial service .
Keith having lunch in the famous 'Rum Doodle' restaurant, back in Kathmandu after summiting Cho Oyu in autumn 2008 (Erik Petersen).
Dear Friends, Family and Acquaintances-
The Air National Guard in Cheyenne is planning a memorial service for Keith on Saturday, February 7th. It will be held at the Guard complex at the Cheyenne Airport at 8:00 a.m. Because another Unit of the Air Guard will be conducting a monthly training drill that day at the same time, and in an effort to avoid congestion at the gate, they ask that we try to arrive at 7:00 a.m. To also expedite your entry through the gate, I have been asked to supply them with a list of visitors who will be attending the service. They are very pleased to have Keith's civilian friends attend but need some method to monitor entry. If you are planning to attend or think that you might, would you please rsvp to me so that I can compile a list of names for them. Many of Keith's Guard friends will be unable to attend the service in Laramie since they will be deployed to Afghanistan later in February.
In talking with some of Keith's family members, it is looking more like mid to late March for a memorial service for Keith here in Laramie. An exact date has not yet been decided upon. I will notify you of the date, time and location when plans are confirmed. Hopefully, I'll be able to do so in the next week.
If you have photos or slides that you would like to have included in the slide show for the memorial service in Laramie, please email them to Tim Banks at: firstname.lastname@example.org or mail them to me at the address below.
-Sue back to top
TO: All the Wyoming Air National Guard Members and Alpine Club colleagues of Keith Spencer
FROM: Bob Krone, Keith's Uncle Bob, On behalf of Keith's Family throuh out the United States
Thank You!! The tribute you gave to Keith Spencer at his Memorial Services yesterday at the Wyoming ANG was the finest tribute he could have received. You did a marvelous job while under the stress of impending deployment. Your pride in Keith's services to the United States and in his remarkable athletic achievements around the world were a great comfort to all his grieving Family.
Our appreciation for what you did on 7 February 2009, and for what you do everyday to preserve America's freedom is profound and permanent.
With Our Sincerest Thanks to You All,
The Family of Keith Spencer back to top
TO: Keith's Family and his Friends in Wyoming
Mark Jenkin's story last Saturday at Keith's Memorial Services, about his trip to China in 1993 with Keith, is great. It runs about 5-minutes. You can get it at: http://blip.tv/file/1759188
Mark's lesson about "The Virtue of Silence" is one that Keith's Family will all very much recognize and appreciate. - Bob Krone back to top
Keith and the rest of the Cho Oyu in the basecamp dining tent in autumn 2008 (John Pando).
Dear Family, Friends, and Acquaintances-
This is just a reminder that the memorial celebration for Keith is next Saturday, March 14th from 11:00 to 2:00 at the Alice Hardie Stevens Center, located on the grounds of the Ivinson Museum here in Laramie. Please remember to bring a potluck dish to share with others. Desserts and drinks have been arranged and tableware will be provided. The celebration will include sharing of memories and experiences with Keith, a slide show, and of course lunch. If you have not RSVP 'd, please do so to me so we have an idea of how many will be attending. Should you need directions to the center, please do not hesitate to contact me. Looking forward to sharing stories.
Dear Friends, Family, and Acquaintances-
We have set a date for Keith's memorial service here in Laramie. It will be held on Saturday, March 14th from 11:00 am to 2:00 pm at the Alice Hardy Stevens Center located at 603 Ivinson Ave. The memorial celebration will consist of a potluck lunch, slide show, and story sharing. Please bring a main dish to share with others. Desserts have been arranged. Dinnerware will be provided as well as beverages.
If you have slides of Keith you would like to share, please contact Tim Banks at: email@example.com . He is arranging the slide show and will let you know in what format he needs your pictures.
Should you need directions to the Alice Hardy Stevens Center, please don't hesitate to contact me. I ask that you rsvp to me so that we have an idea of how many people will be attending.
Thank you and hope to see you all there.
-Sue back to top
Ice climber Keith Spencer died January 2 when a rare and powerful avalanche swept the Main Vein ice climb in the South Fork Valley, near Cody, Wyoming.
Spencer, 45, was following partner Mark Jenkins on the fourth ice pitch of the five-pitch WI4, and was about 15 feet below Jenkins’ belay stance when the avalanche began. Jenkins, who was belaying directly from two long, equalized ice screws in a small alcove, described a “horrific roar” that continued for at least 30 seconds. Yanked off the climb by the mass of snow, Spencer ripped the full length of the icy lead rope through Jenkins’ belay device. When Jenkins reached his partner, Spencer was dead from a broken neck.
The red arrow marks the Main Vein drainage on the north side of the South Fork Valley, near Cody, Wyoming. The fatal avalanche started at least 1,500 feet above the five-pitch climb, likely after a cornice collapsed. Photo courtesy of Greg Sievers. The final two pitches of the Main Vein. The two climbers were about halfway up the ice flow when the avalanche struck. The slide, which left a crown face a quarter-mile wide and five to 10 feet high, funneled into this narrow drainage and over the ice. Photo courtesy of Greg Sievers.
As rescuers recovered Spencer’s body the next day, a search and rescue plane flew along South Fork Canyon to photograph the drainage above the Main Vein. The avalanche was determined to have started at least 1,500 feet above the climbers, leaving a crown face five to 10 feet high and a quarter-mile wide. The slide likely was triggered by a cornice collapse.
Although the South Fork Valley holds dozens of ice climbs, snowfall in the area is relatively light and avalanches are unusual. Local ice climber Aaron Mulkey told the Cody Enterprise this was “the first avalanche I’ve seen here in 10 years,” and no previous avalanche death is known to have occurred in the valley.
Around the holidays, however, extremely high winds and cold temperatures had helped create an unstable snowpack above the climb. The weather was stormy on the day of the accident, and Jenkins and Spencer experienced a spindrift avalanche on the second pitch and found avalanche debris at the base of the third pitch. Still, nothing in their extensive experience in the valley suggested excessive danger (Jenkins had done Main Vein three times before), and they speculated the debris might mean that any dangerous snow above the climb had already slid.
Both Jenkins, 50, and Spencer have climbed difficult mountain routes around the world. Spencer had recently completed an ascent of 8,201-meter Cho Oyu and was planning an expedition to Lhotse.
Date of Accident: January 2, 2008 back to top
Sources: Mark Jenkins, Cody Enterprise
Former Teammates, Letters and Thoughts -
Mark Jenkins - Climbing Partner
Dear Friends, Family and Colleagues-
Given the opacity of the news reports, I thought it best for me to send all of you a personal report on the situation that killed Keith (photo right by Mark Jenkins: the last clear picture of Keith before the accident. He's standing at the base of the final headwall of the Main Vein, in the South Fork, near Cody, WY).
To begin, Keith and I drove up to Cody on Thursday, New Year's Day. Having recently soloed Cho Oyu, the world's sixth highest peak, Keith was practically voluble. He talked more in that seven-hour drive than I'd heard him say in the last decade. He was proud and pleased with his approach and performance on Cho Oyu. He'd made close friends on the climb and they were already planning an expedition to Lhotse in two years time.
We spent the night in Kenny Gasch's Spike Camp in downtown Cody, rose at five, were scouting falls in the South Fork by seven. After glassing a half dozen falls on both north and south slopes, we decided on the Main Vein, a WI-IV, 5-pitch route on the north side near the end of the valley. It was snowing and blustery, usual Wyoming winter conditions. We could see the top headwall double-pitch (220 feet), but little above that because of the inclement weather. We chose this route for several reasons: 1) it looked fat and thus safe, 2) the first pitch, which rarely forms, was in, 3) Keith had never climbed this route before, this would be my fourth ascent, 4) the grade was moderate.
I led the ice pitches, Keith led the snow pitches. Partway up the second ice pitch we were hit by a spindrift avalanche, and both blasted with snow dust. This is common in the South Fork. As far as I know, no one has ever died or even been hurt from an avalanche in the South Fork. It is a dry region and avalanches were not previously consider a threat.
At the base of the 3rd ice pitch, we found avalanche debris, which surprised us. I suggested that this was a good sign, because it meant that anything loose above us had now slid. Keith didn't respond, but this was typical Keith, as most of you know. Focused on the climbing, he probably hadn't spoken five sentences that day.
At the base of the headwall---the 4th and 5th pitches---although it was still snowing and blowing, the icefall and the rock walls around us were clear of snow and there was no evidence of a fresh avalanche, which we took as a good sign. I set off on the 4th pitch at 1pm, climbed 115' and put in a belay, deeply placing two long screws and stomping out a small platform for my feet. I placed the belay in a tiny alcove of ice, below a vertical bulge, so that Keith might be protected from any falling ice when I led the last pitch.
Keith seconded methodically, as was Keith's way. He was in high spirits. Cresting the last vertical bulge, he was 15' below me, when he shouted "avalanche" in a nonchalant voice. I'm sure he expected it to simply be another slough. A millisecond later a horrific roar began. It was such a hideous, unimaginable thunder, I can only compare it to placing your head against a railroad track as a freight train blasts by.
I instinctively squeezed flat against the ice. The bombardment went on and on and I fully expected to be torn from the ice. I was screaming from terror. I cannot say how long the avalanche lasted---30 seconds, a minute, two minutes. When it finally ended, I was still there and Keith was gone. The power of the avalanche had pulled the entire icy rope through the belay device. Keith had fallen 200 feet. I found him hanging at the end of the rope. He was not breathing and had no pulse and it was clear his neck had been broken.
The next day Keith's body was recovered and a search and rescue plane flew by to take photographs of the Main Vein drainage. The avalanche had started when a cornice at the crest of the mountain, 1500 feet above Keith and I, broke. The crown face of the avalanche was 5-10 feet deep and extended a quarter mile along the mountain top. Thousands of tons of snow funneled through a 30-wide passage.
There is no reason this massive avalanche slid at this moment. It could have slid that night, or two days earlier or two days later. Keith and I had no knowledge of this cornice, but I later learned that high winds and very cold temperatures had created a dramatically unstable snowpack.
I don't know why the ice screws held. There is no reason I am alive and Keith is dead.
Keith was a man of extraordinary honor, humility and discipline. I will miss him terribly, as will we all. back to top
Dan Mazur - Everest Tibet 2004 and Cho Oyu autumn 2008
I am very sorry to hear about the shocking death of Keith Spencer in the snow avalanche at 2:00pm on 2 January, 2009 while climbing ice on the Shoshone River near Yellowstone Park. I am stunned and saddened, but glad to know you are ok. What a terrible accident and tragedy. It sounds like you could have easily been killed as well. We all thought Keith was a stellar person and he will be missed. Please let me know what I can do to help.
I know there is not much I could offer to help you recover from this. I hope you have good people nearby to speak to and support you in your grief.
However, I do share in your loss as I just spent more than a month with Keith in September and October. His mild and dry sense of humour, his quiet determination, his amazing physical strength, open eyes, shy smile, appreciation for solitude, and gentle humour will be fondly remembered by all of us.
Here is my own token of condolence to you and all Keith's friends and family. Perhaps you will wish to share this with those people who are memorializing Keith:
It is a poem written by Mike Thexton for his brother Pete, a British climber killed while attempting Broad Peak in Pakistan.
"I can see you still, in my dreams and strangers faces, In some expression of my morning mirror, But I cannot reach you in your solitude, Nor breathe the same thin air that laid you down. You grow not old, as I am left to grow old, I age, wane weary, condemned by years, While you remain eternal, frozen in the beauty of your youth.
I will never again hold back on love, Loves object may not stay to share tomorrow, Life, like a welcome guest too soon departing. I would give all my world to bring you back, To remember you not in a photograph, but in your smiling eyes and wild ideal, But I would not pay a price too high, I would not think of asking you to change.
And although your rope is cut and worlds have fallen, And pain will grip me through the years, If you were with me now, I would still help, Encourage you to reach for mountain tops, Would watch you strive for places you should not go, And you would go again, and die again, And I would cry. But cry how much more, Should you ever cease to be yourself."
I sadly send my sincere condolences to you and everyone who knew Keith, and his family.
I will always remember Keith forever with fondness and admiration, Dan. 360.570.0715 back to top
Keith sleeping in Tingri on the Everest Tibet 2004 expedition (Tim Spear). Keith on his way out of Tibet on the road back to Kathmandu after his successful summit of Cho Oyuin 2008 (Ron Cloud).
Ps. I note that your postal address is:
- Mark Jenkins
- 1102 Grand Ave.
- Laramie, WY
- 82070 USA
And that Keith's brother's postal address is:
- Peter Spencer
- 217 219th Place SE
- Bothell, WA
- 98021 USA
Pps. Sometimes people who are grieving for the loss of a loved one want to put a few bucks towards a memorial charity and if that comes up, I could mention that there are some young sherpas, some of whom Keith met, who were working as kitchen assistants, and now wish to study to become climbing sherpas. They are taking classes now so they could improve their english and get admitted to the climbng school in nepal this summer and take an exam to get certified as climb leaders, known as sirdars.
We also sponsor some young nursing students, med-students, and teachers as well if that is of any interest.
If you like, we could start a special memorial fund called "The Keith Spencer Memorial Fund" and educate some kids and provide health care in his name (photo right by Erik Petersen: Keith back safely in Kathmandu after summiting Cho Oyu in autumn 2008, right before going to the barber for a shave).
If anyone wants to make such a donation they could go to the website:
and donate online.
Or they could post a check to:
Mount Everest Foundation
Lakebay, WA, 98349
Here is the main website of the foundation where you can read about the people we sponsor: www.MountEverestFoundation.org
I am very sad that Keith is gone. He was a very strong and nice man, but man is mortal. Climbing and mountain climbing are dangerous and Keith knew it. I will remember Keith with very big warmth. -Mikko
Vikram Sahney - Cho Oyu autumn 2008
Keith was a great teammate on Cho-Oyu and was a very strong climber. I believe on Cho-Oyu he summited from Camp 1 without supplemental oxygen and returned to Camp 2 that night. I'm sad to know that I'll never hear Squash shout, "Alright Keith's here!". -Vik
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Squash Falconer - Cho Oyu autumn 2008
I'd like to send you my deepest sympathy and caring thoughts at this difficult time. I got to know Keith on the Cho Oyu expedition and feel lucky that I got spend time with such a lovely man. We had a really good laugh and I enjoyed being on the mountain with him (photo right by Squash Falconer: Keith and Squash in Cho Oyu basecamp).
My first conversation with Keith was very funny. I was laughing at him because he had the biggest sleeping bag I'd ever seen in my life, which wouldn't fit in his duffle bag and so was taking up a whole seat on the bus!
And because while everyone else got started on their novels Keith read his instruction guide for his new camera from cover to cover....
On the mountain he would join us for a night cap in the main tent most evenings... and higher up he often came to visit our tent, always paying an entry fee of Dairy Milk chocolate! He always had chocolate in his top pocket.
I can not begin to imagine how you must be feeling, or his other close friends and family. The only thing I can say is that Keith died doing something he loved and was passionate about. So many people don't follow their hearts or passions but I feel that Keith was a man who did... and he died while living, living a life he loved.
When I first laid eyes on Keith he was standing against a pillar in the reception of the hotel, it was 4am and we were about to depart on a long bus journey. Keith's smile and size gave him the presence of a gentle giant.
It wasn't until we were on the bus that I struck up a conversation with Keith, which was mostly about the huge sleeping bag he was carrying (it had it's own seat on the bus) and that I was so amused by his choice of reading - his camera instruction booklet. He read it cover to cover, twice.
Keith was very quiet but listened intently and usually had some input into one of the many ridiculous conversations we had.
Being the only member on a 'basic' trip meant that he wasn't sharing tents or food with the rest of the group. He did come and visit the food tent from time to time and this became quite a thing. I loved it when Keith came to see us and would shout 'alright, Keith's here!', it wasn't long before everybody was doing the same and Keith became somewhat of a celebrity in the camp.
We all looked forward to seeing him and were all very intrigued by him. He was quiet and gave little away. This, combined with his incredible strength and ability lead us to conclude that he was some kind of undercover secret agent and Suzy declared him 'Covert Keith'.
Keith was generous with everything. He shared and gave his equipment, food (especially chocolate), time and knowledge willingly and was a quiet but huge strength within the team. I always felt safe when he was around.
On one particular day we were waiting at Camp 1 in a storm, there was quite a gathering of people in the tent and to our delight Keith appeared and this was when the 'enter the tent by paying a fee of chocolate began'. After sharing out the goods, from nowhere Keith began telling an old tale. Being shy, I don't think any of us were expecting it. It was something he knew word perfect and it took several minutes. it was brilliant.
Back down in base camp, we enjoyed the luxury of a shower tent. It was a nine-litre shower bag and that was good for two people, well two boys. We girls, however, managed to secure the full nine litres for a shower! Keith hadn't been taking advantage of this luxury; he'd been toughing it out with bowls of ice-cold glacier water. Once we'd summated though I convinced him a shower was the way forward and he really did deserve it (after his amazing summit from Camp two). so we decided I would ask the kitchen for a shower so that the bag would be filled with nine-litres of lovely warm water! Keith was delighted but not so impressed when I alerted the camp to the fact that he was stripping off outside the shower tent and I was shouting 'Alright, look at Keith's body'. By now though he'd got used to the constant attention and loudness, he just smiled and told me to shut up!
I'll always remember Keith with his polartec purple and green fleece on, his round sun glasses and his 'WESMAR' blue cap. He was a genuine, unassuming, modest lovely guy and I feel lucky to have met him and shared the trip to Cho Oyu with him.
Thinking of you at this sad time, -Squash XX
I hope you don't mind me writing to you. I met Keith on Cho Oyu in the Autumn and Dan Mazur has just told me about his untimely death. I gather you had a lucky escape too.
Keith, my friend Squash and I spent some wonderful moments together on the mountain. Squash and I were in constant wonderment at his strength, humility and humour. Our little joke was that he was a secret agent/spy and we used to call him 'covert Keith'. Squash put little messages all over his tent. A couple of nights Keith let me kip in his tent at camp one, but I can't remember why now. When we returned from Cho he sent me a hilarious story about a dog who climbed some high peak here in the alps. Squash and i were hoping to entertain him over here in Chamonix as he had friends who live close by.
I totally understand if you do not want to, but would it be possible for you to send me some details of what happened to you both on Jan 2nd?
I am so, so sorry about this awful event (photo right by Keith Spencer: Keith near interim camp, heading towards the base of Cho Oyu in 2008).
I write you today with very sad news. Keith Spencer from your fall 2008 Cho Oyu trip was killed ice climbing.
Because I am part of the Colorado/Wyoming ice climbing community, I received this email today. When I learned on-line through your postings that Keith was on your Cho Oyu trip, I thought you would want to know.
Although I did not know Keith, as a fellow climber, I share in the sadness.
My condolences. -Jim Davidson
Keith relaxing next to Squash and Suzy on the way to Cho Oyu basecamp (Kurt Blair).
Tim Horvath - Mt. Foraker 2003
I took a three week trip with Keith in 2003 to Mt Foraker and have some photos of him in the mountains. I will look for them and get them to you in the next few days. -Tim Horvath
Max Kausch - Cho Oyu 2008
I was really sad to hear about Keith's death. Thanks for letting us all know about it. - Max
... back to top
Tim Spear - Everest Tibet 2004
Sends his condolences (photo right by Keith Spencer: Keith on the summit of Cho Oyu in autumn 2008).
Brian Rolfson -
Wrote in to notify us and sends condolences.
Michiel Zuidweg - Cho Oyu 2008
Thank you for putting up a tribute. I have been thinking about him all day.
Samuli Mansikka - Leader Cho Oyu 2008
I am so sad to hear about Keith. I think it's a good idea to put in on Summitclimb website. Thank You for doing that!
Kurt Blair - Cho Oyu 2008
News of Keith's passing was very surprising and sobering. I was in a similar situation last year but I was at the base of a climb preparing to start when an avalanche exploded overhead out of the gully we were about to attempt. We were fine but shaken up.
... back to top
Kurt Blair and Keith Spencer on the road to Cho Oyu in autumn 2008 (Keith Spencer).
Ron Cloud - Cho Oyu 2008
Terrible to be having to deal with this tragedy. Wanted to wish you a happy new year, but it kind of feels hollow now.
Erik Petersen - Cho Oyu 2008
I am deeply saddened by news of Keith's death. He and I shared photos from Cho Oyu and I just gave a slide show last weekend. I believe you already have his collection but I remind you of this shot, which I took using his camera just before we left ABC the last time. He was very happy with the climb and suddenly realized he did not have a good shot of himself in front of the mountain.
Keith was emblematic of the family atmosphere on our Cho Oyu team. Accustomed to self-reliance, he was coerced into the dining tent which I think made him quite uncomfortable at first. By the end of the trip though, I think he genuinely cherished his place among the group. He and I engaged in many end of the day discussions, which I enjoyed immensely. We hung out a lot after the climb as well, enjoying lunch at the Rum Doodle (photo forthcoming), and making a stop at the barber, where Keith got a proper shave. I shot (too) many photos of the event which gave us both a good laugh. He seemed to me a character out of an old western movie (the stoic good guy) and the vibe of the old fashioned barber only added to this aura.
I will send a few of these snaps as well.
I am stunned by Keith's passing but will try to conduct myself as I think he would have, with strength and dignity. I look forward to the tribute and thank you for honoring our friend. -Erik back to top
Keith getting a clean shave after the 2008 Cho Oyu expedition in Kathmandu (Erik Petersen).
Arnold Coster - Everest Tibet 2004
That is sad news about Keith. He was a very good climber, what a tragic accident.
Gavin Turner - Cho Oyu 2008
It was shocking to hear of Keith's death. Very saddening. Why do we climb? The perennial question. back to top
Keith in Cho Oyu ABC standing near his tent (Gavin Turner).
Skye Cooley - Climbing Partner
I learned about the death of Keith Spencer, a good friend and climbing partner, today, 6 days after the avalanche took his life in Cody.
Keith and I climbed quite a few routes together in the Colorado Rockies during my 4+ years in Laramie and later on road trips to the North Cascades and Tetons. I'll miss him dearly. I could never afford to join him on his expeditions back then, so we climbed locally. The many pictures posted by others are terrific. They capture him in his element. I never knew the world traveler that many of you knew, but I knew him well, especially in the years between 1996 and 2005, during some meager, dirtbag-living days in Laramie, Wyoming. Here are a few stories and memories of that time.
On Thursdays, Keith would, like clockwork, blast into my UWyo graduate student office hauling with him a stack of guidebooks and topo maps.
"How about Lone Eagle Peak tomorrow - its a five hour drive, so we'll have to be back by midnite."
"So, how about the CMC - we can leave tonight, but we'll have to steal the neighbor's canoe and he doesn't leave for work til 9pm. We'll need donuts."
"Welcome back from the hospital - let's ski Richthofen tomorrow. You can hang your IV from the rearview mirror. You can drive, right?"
"Glacier lassitude can be a real killer. We'll have to forgo the comforts this time. Bring the pee bottles, leave the ropes."
"There are 4 maniacs in a pit of fire right outside the door. Your job is to control them."
If you ever spent time with Keith, you know that Keith had his way of doing big things and saying little about them. Living in Wyoming tends to mute such personalities - the sober, long-sided blokes of few words are pretty much run of the mill out there. In Colorado, he stood out like a sore thumb. Keith was a real life bachelor-farmer type that was mistakenly raised in Reno. Keith's words typically began with a wry grin and a quote from a Python sketch, from Don Whillans, from a Coyle & Sharpe bit, or from the great Canyonlands hermit/philosopher, Dr.
Peter Huntoon. He reminded me of a cross between Clint Eastwood, Rowan Atkinson, a 1974 big block V8, and George W. Hayduke. Smooth and easy.
He owned every single climbing, mountaineering, mountain history book ever written and had read each multiple times, but Keith had three lifetimes of his own adventure stories to share and million witty quotes to boot. Someone should probably write a book about him someday.
He came to visit me one July in Omak, WA. The fires were burning, but I'd served my 14 days on, so we escaped to the mountains. We summited five classic Washington Pass peaks in five days, every night returning to Winthrop's scuzzy little brewpub for the nachos. We parked and slept in someone's yard we didn't know, waking to sprinklers and overly-curious mule deer. Chorizo for breakfast. I recall on the last pitch of the South Buttress of Cutthroat Peak, a moderate but long alpine route, Keith took "the back way" to the top. There is no back way on Cutthroat. So when he pointed out to me the vertical horror up which he'd just lead, I flat couldn't believe it. Way beyond anything called a climbing route. But there he was, all smiles and on top, faithfully taking up slack.
Keith had some big feet, too. I recall many, many days sitting on my Laramie front porch drinking PBR and watching The Spence circle past my house in those fab '80s-style New Balances (the gray and white ones, at least size 14). He'd bound along, making his usual, lonesome loop around Laramie. He'd taunt me with that Forest Gump wave and keep cruising on by, only to be seen again in 27-31 minutes, depending on traffic.
Keith is the only person able to drive a Toyota truck 120,000 miles up and down countless mountain passes on the original set of brakes - with 50% of the pads remaining. Dr. Downshift, indeed. He's the only guy I've known to routinely build igloos. He consistently sent me photos postmarked from far off corners of nowhere year after year.
He's the person who taught me to see that it's the big climbs with long, tedious approaches that matter. It's those multi-day, traditional alpine routes that the climber needs to complete in order to mature properly in his sport. In order to settle into the calm rhythm that the mountains themselves want us to seek and find. Big Keith was by far the most calm, patient, and generous climbing partner I'll ever know.
Perhaps the most memorable aspect of climbing with Keith was his speed over ground. Keith was deceptively slow. I'm talking suh-low. Here's a guy who's, what, 6'5" with a comfortable six-foot-long stride on flat ground. A guy who soloed Denali (wrote me a postcard on the summit, as he found himself alone on top at 4 am), soloed Aconcagua (no teammates, no O's), got weathered out of an unsupported, solo, no-oxygen attempt on Everest at 27,000+ ft (brought me back a 2-pound chunk of the Yellow Band), summited Cho Oyu, etc, etc. This is the same guy who at 45 managed to never need a real job, had a great life, and generally succeeded at everything he attempted. But let me tell you, climbing with Keith meant that YOU WOULD WAIT AND YOU WOULD LIKE IT. You would wait and wait and wait some more for Keith to catch up on the approach. I don't know how many trail signs and boulder fields I've fallen asleep beneath waiting for the guidebook to show up. Even at Vedauwoo, where the parking lot is no more than 20 minutes from the base of any climb, you could expect to wait. But that was Keith.
And it never mattered. His alpine starts were crisp and early. He always let me lead as much and as often as I wanted. He was always a great travel mate. He always caught up, eventually, and we'd summit together. Matter of fact, in those 4 years climbing with Keith, I don't remember a time when we failed to reach the top in good style, on time. Always up for a long drive and a cold bivy, good chocolate and dark beer, the perfect snow cave and the hermit lifestyle. He was a great friend. I guess you'll be the one waiting for us to catch up this time. I'll miss you, Keith.
Skye Cooley - Logan UT back to top
Ken Stalter - Everest 2004
I am very sorry to hear this. I remember Keith from 2004. He was amazingly strong! Very sad. Makes one think.
Gavin Turner - Cho Oyu 2008
That is a tragedy and I am deeply shocked and saddened. I am lost for words and cannot believe Keith has died. But then I remember what we love doing and the inherent risks involved. Keith will be sadly missed. He was a gentle and authentic person. Very sad news (photo right by Keith Spencer: Keith just outside of Tingri on the 2008 Cho Oyu expedition).
Deha Shrestha - Cho Oyu 2008 (Kathmandu trip organizer)
Sorry to hear about recent loss of Keith Spencer. I hope all is well with his family.
Michiel Zuidweg - Cho Oyu 2008
Thank you for the e-mail about Keith Spencer, what a terrible tragedy. I truly loved Keith a lot, a genuine man, great to talk to and easy to get along. I am truly saddened to hear this news. It was wonderful to have Keith by my side when I went a little blind and he hiked down from Camp 2- Camp 1 and when we took care of John and the Jason (the Brit with the frost bitten feet) from B.C. and Tingri. What a strong climber too. Spent a lot of meals with him in Kathmandu after the trip.
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Gary Kellund - Cho Oyu 2008
Thanks very much for the information about Keith. It's so tragic and sad. I really got to like him while we were on Cho Oyu this fall and we had some excellent conversations. There was a lot there behind the outward impression of such a strong climber. He was a mighty interesting guy and I certainly enjoyed the time I spent with him. He will certainly be missed. I'd like to make a donation in his name so I'll check out the website you listed below - thanks for the suggestion.
Duane Morrison - Everest Tibet 2004
Dan, it's very sad when this happens. As we have so often talked about, the risk and the danger is part of the reason that people will forever be drawn to the high and airy places in the world.
Heikki Kallio - Cho Oyu 2008
My deepest condolences to friends and family of Keith for the passing of an intensive man.
Jim Parker - Wyoming Air National Guard coworker
As Keith Spencer’s immediate supervisor in the Wyoming Air National Guard Avionics’ section my last contact with him was on the morning of 31 December 2008. Prior to this date Keith had recently started working for me as a full time civilian technician on the 22nd of December 2008. Keith was a hard working individual who was always taking the extra effort to understand the workings of all the Avionics systems on the C-130H-3 aircraft and I could always count on Keith giving me his best in the performance of his duties. Keith was a very unique person to me and he will be deeply missed by his Wyoming Air National Guard Family. It gives me great pride to have known Keith Spencer and I will always remember him for type of caring person he was.
After reading all of the Keith Spencer Tributes on the SummitClimb.com I find myself not knowing Keith very well. I’m hoping that I will read more adventure stories from his friends and climbing companions.
To the friends of Keith Spencer, you have lost a truly remarkable friend; always keep him in your memories as I will. Celebrate what he has given you all.
In closing I send deepest and sincere condolences to Keith’s Family and Friends.
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Felix Berg - Everest Tibet 2004
I could not find any pictures of Keith, but remember him being an incredibly strong member of our 2004 Everest expedition. He was the only client carrying his gear, food and tent him-self to advanced base camp (ABC at 6300m) and attempted the mountain without supplemented oxygen.
On his acclimatization he reached camp 3 at 8300 meters from ABC and got back in one long day. He was an exceptionally strong climber. Only due to bad luck with the timing and possibly the strenuous trip to camp 3 did not reach the summit, missing it by a few hundred meters, instead brought down a pack full of garbage left behind by others. Due to his style he would have deserved the summit more then anybody else.
He was a mellow and fair guy. Please send my deepest condolence to those knowing him better, his friends and family. -Felix
Raimo Koponen - Cho Oyu 2008
The misfortune for Keith was really unpleasant news, but we all climbers understand what might be waiting for us behind the next cliff.
Murari Sharma - Cho Oyu logisitcs operator 2008
I am really shocked with this news.When I heard about Keith I wasn't able to sleep that day. Every time I closed my eyes his face came to me. I hope his soul will find peace and quiet.
John Pando - Cho Oyu 2008
So sorry to hear of this tragedy. I climbed with Keith on our Cho Oyu expedition...we roomed together at hotels and he was the one who took my picture at the summit of Cho Oyu. Keith was a true adventure...doing things the way he wanted with no one stopping him. He has a strong spirit and it was a pleasure knowing Keith. Again, my deepest condolences....
Eric Meyer - Everest Tibet 2004
I have been deeply saddened and affected by Keith's death. I've climbed a bunch in that area, and after the deaths on K2 this past summer, it has definitely caused me to do some real soul searching.
Tom Clarke - Cho Oyu 2008
Here is a photo of Keith Spencer. This is how I remember him with a full pack and still looking as fresh as when he started after climbing the horrible hill (Tom Clarke).
...back to topLaramie Memorial Service for Keith Spencer -
Dear Friends, Family, and Acquaintances-
I apologize for the impersonal email but it would take me far too long to call each one of you. I know that you are all concerned, interested, eager to hear about a memorial service for Keith.
I have been in contact with one of Keith's brothers, Peter, who has informed me that the family will be having a private family service for Keith in Reno. He was happy to hear that we would be planning a service here in Laramie for Keith as well. I told him that it would probably be more of a celebration of Keith's life with a slide show and stories being shared. He was very delighted to hear so. In an attempt to accommodate members of Keith's family who might wish to attend and any friends who might need to make arrangements to get to Laramie, it is likely that our memorial celebration will not occur for some weeks. Peter and I are working on a date. We realize that this date may not work for everyone. I will be sending out an invitation (probably e-mail) to all of you when a date, location, and time have been arranged. Please assist me in getting this message out to those that you feel need to know and to whom I have no contact information.
I ask you all to be respectful of the family's privacy and need for time to deal with the recent news of Keith's death. It would be appreciated if Peter and the rest of the family were not inundated with calls. If you would like to send a card or some other correspondence to the family, it can be sent to either:
217 219th Place SE
Bothell, WA 98021
John and Faith Spencer
1640 The Strand
Reno, NV 89503
Thank you for your concern and understanding. I will be contacting some of you for assistance with the arrangements for our memorial service. I know that each one of you are hurting for the loss of Keith. Hug someone near and hug life. Keith would have wanted this from us.
1102 Grand Ave.
Laramie, WY 82070
(307)760-4387 back to top