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TNB: Mystery Solved!

By Alison Osius

Al Lowrie on Moses in 1988. Photo by Jamey Meier.Dr. Tom Willis had been up all night at the Northern Navajo Medical Center, even participating in emergency surgery, but after returning 50 miles home to Cortez he drove over to Road M. At 8:20 a.m. on Saturday, he knocked on a door. A guy in shorts, a cup of coffee in hand, answered.

“My name is Tom Willis,” Tom began. “I don’t know if you remember me …”

“Sure, I know you,” the mustached resident said pleasantly. “From a long time ago!”

Tom asked swiftly, “Did you ever climb Moses?”

“Yes, I climbed Moses.”

“Did you leave a pack on top?”

“Yes!” Jamey Meier said in wonderment.

Last week’s TNB described an old pack that three friends and I found 25 years ago on top of Moses Tower, in the Utah desert. Among the contents, aside from a full rack, was a camera. A few weeks ago, Tim Mutrie, a former Aspen Times reporter here in Western Colorado, had the film developed.

Last week's article asked if any readers recognized the face, wearing a muted smile, in one of the faded old photos. Various suggestions came in. A few people thought the climber looked like Mike O’Donnell, a Ouray guide. Since some carabiners in the pack contained the initials “J.M.,” one lead suggested a John Meier, whose name I found in a Los Alamos climbing club. Yet I reached one of his friends, Jan Studebaker, only to learn that it was not he.

On Thursday, Tom Willis, an anesthesiologist, went online to pass some time between two surgeries. By “sheer coincidence,” he says, he saw two links to articles on, and clicked on the one about Moses. Tom thought he recognized the man shown in the faded photo, though he later would begin to wonder if it was someone else, another friend. At the time he phoned and told me it looked like the “spitting image” of a “Jamie” Meier, an excellent climber with whom Tom had climbed Shiprock in the mid-1980s. Jamie could have climbed Moses, Tom said.

He knew that James Meier once lived in Cortez, Colorado. Googling around, I found a physical address from some old housing records. The location was about five miles from Tom’s home, and he drove by there that evening, but was one road off target, and found nothing. Two days later Tom came back, and located the correct street, then the house.


* * *

The mystery pack and gear. Photo by Tim Mutrie.Jamey, as he spells it, invited Tom into his home and showed him a framed 5-by-7 photo of Al Lowrie, his partner on Moses, jumaring with the Karrimor pack visible above him. The photo in our e-blast was also of Al. Both men had mustaches, and look a little alike. In both images, Al wears a blue bandanna.

Back in the early 1980s, Tom and Jamey and Al, both EMTs, all met at Southwest Memorial Hospital in Cortez, and climbed together. Jamey eventually moved to Florida, but he returned and now works at Community Connections, a center for the developmentally disabled.

“I was just amazed,” Jamey said of his recent meeting with Tom. “I am still walking around saying wow. It’s just crazy. It brought all kinds of things to mind. It’s fantastic.” Of Tom, he said, obviously deeply touched, “He went so far out of his way.”

Jamey and I also spoke that morning, and he said he had returned to Moses (three and a half hours away) two weeks after leaving the pack behind, hoping to retrieve his gear, but was weathered off. He came back a year later, but the pack was gone.

His consolation, he said, was to tell himself, “‘Well, at least another climber got my gear, so that’s OK.’”


Moses tower. Canyonlands, Utah. Photo by Darin Berdinka.The next question, of course, was how the pack came to be left behind.

Jamey answered quietly.

“I lost a partner, Gary Black,” he told me. “We were at a local cliff, Battle Rock,” a sandstone dome in McElmo Canyon southwest of Cortez.

“I led a pitch,” Jamey recounted. As Gary followed, Jamie continued, "He fell and the rope dislodged a rock. It hit him on the head and he died.”

That had happened a year before Jamey and Al climbed Pale Fire on Moses, in 1988. On the same day two German climbers climbed Primrose Dihedralson the other side, and they are visible in one of the recovered photos.

Al rappelled first, and ended up stalled. Through several pendulums, he barely reached a set of anchors. Jamey pulled up the rope, repositioned it, and threw it down.

“It knocked off a rock that hit Al on the head,” Jamey recalled. Al yelled, and fell silent. “I was looking down, and hollering,” Jamey said, “and he wasn’t answering.”

In a rush, and the gathering darkness, Jamey rappelled to his friend.

“That’s how I left the pack,” he said. “I just freaked out and spaced it. I was about 15 feet down, and thought, ‘Oh shit, the pack.’” Bent on checking on his friend, though, he continued without it.

The next day Jamey would follow up with an e-mail, telling me: “Gary Black was a local friend of a friend that would get out also. We crag climbed at Ophir a few times, and when I needed a partner at Battle Rock, I called and we went.” The two climbed a new route, on which the rock was worse than it looked. “I got up the first pitch and belayed Gary up. About halfway, he fell, and I felt the rope twang. Heard the rock hit him. He never woke up.”

Months later Jamey returned, climbed the route, and left a plaque for his friend. His recent e-mail continued: “Gary was just starting to lead and was an inexperienced climber. I've always felt I was stretching limits and we shouldn't have gone up that route. I don't really know how to express how it is to lose a partner who placed his life in your hands.”


* * *

Jamey Meier on left with Dr. Tom Willis. Photo courtesy of Meier. Jamey told me on the phone Saturday, “This is bringing a lot of memories back. It’s pretty awesome. The pack’s not worth much, but it’s got a lot of memories. It’s been to Alaska, to the top of the Grand, on Moses.”

His further thoughts emerged in the e-mail. “When [on Moses] I tossed the rope, heard a yell, then nothing, I was on rap and coming down so quick I didn't think. I just had that same feeling I had on Battle Rock.”

He called this past weekend’s finale “surreal.”

“It’s not so much getting the stuff back as things coming full circle. Thank you to all who helped.”

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