Wade Meade was a talented skier and climber, a dancer, a poet. Friends of the 29-year-old climber who died last Wednesday in Big Cottonwood Canyon, Utah, are chock full of stories about his love for the outdoors, his silliness and his kindness. They called him the “Ginger Giraffe” because of his flaming orange hair and large size—he was 6-foot-4.
Tyler Grundstrom, Meade’s roommate, adventure buddy and fellow ski patroller at Park City, says Meade was always up for an adventure, no matter how much “type 2” fun it might entail.
On the Cathedral Traverse in the Tetons last summer, Meade and Grundstrom reached the north side of the Grand in miserable conditions. Meade thrutched up a nasty chimney and verglas-covered rock while Grundstrom shivered at the wind-tunnel-like belay for two hours. Grundstrom followed.
“I get up to the belay ledge and tell Wade I don’t feel good,” Grundstrom says, “and he tells me, ‘Let’s just cuddle and drink ramen.’” Later, sharing a sleeping bag after they reached their checkpoint for the night, Grundstrom turned to Meade and asked if they were having fun yet.
“Yeah, we’re having a lot of fun right now,” Meade said.
“You have those partners where you just pull each other out of shit, right? That was Wade,” Grundstrom says.
Another partner, Josh Ruchty, with whom Meade climbed the Nose, wrote, “With Wade, everything always seemed to go right, even when it wasn’t. The man was a beast, and even in the face of struggle, would never say ‘bail.’ He would march eagerly into the unknown, inspiring the confidence of anyone lucky enough to be around him. And sometimes, that was enough to power through it.”
Brett Carroll, with whom Meade went on an expedition to Peru, told Rock and Ice that he took Meade on his first ever backcountry ski tour, in winter 2016. “He loved it, and became so hooked that over the next few years he became one of my most reliable, competent and enthusiastic ski partners.” They traveled to the Sierra as well as Peru for ski-mountaineering.
Tyler Grundstrom was unable to speak last week in the days after the accident. Yesterday he recounted the story of what was supposed to be just one more adventure, when Meade and Grundstrom decided to explore a series of “breadloaf slabs” for first-ascent potential high up in Big Cottonwood Canyon. A fluke accident ended in tragedy, though Grundstrom had the mountain-medicine competence to give his partner every chance, and Meade kept his composure to the end.
[Note: The following section contains graphic details that may be upsetting to some readers.]
The COVID-19 pandemic shuttered Utah ski resorts early this season, leaving Wade Meade and Tyler Grundstrom out of work. Together they got jobs screening for the virus on a construction site at the Salt Lake City Airport. After work last Tuesday, the day before the accident, Meade and Grundstrom went to scout the slabs up in Big Cottonwood Canyon they had been eyeing for several weeks. To even reach the base requires an hour-plus scramble up the “nastiest talus and bushwhacking you can imagine,” Grundstrom says. “When we got up there, there were tons of gorgeous fins and towers.”
The two scrambled some easy lines, and determined to return with a rope for two appealing cracks. One was a finger crack with some face climbing, and the other was a hand and fist crack.
When they returned on Wednesday, Meade tied in and started leading up the hand and fist crack. He was taking his time, Grundstrom says, “as you would with any first ascent.”
“Wade gets about 50 feet up and he pulls off this flake … I think it was like 3 feet by 1 foot. As he was falling, the flake cut the rope. He fell the entire 50 feet to the ledge I was belaying on. Then he tumbled 25 feet more, tomahawking over rocks, and came to rest at the bottom of this couloir on a patch of snow..”
Grundstrom was unsure of what had happened. Did a piece pull? he wondered. But all the gear was in the wall, and as the limp rope fell through the pieces he realized it had been cut.
Grundstrom immediately climbed down to his friend and was by his side in seconds.
The seriousness of Meade’s condition was clear, and Grundstrom, a patroller who deals with serious accidents every season, clicked into first-responder mode. He completed a full assessment, and within a couple minutes called the police to kickstart the rescue process.
Meade, who was been wearing a helmet, had several major injuries: what looked like an open fracture of his right elbow, to which Grundstrom later applied a tourniquet to control the bleeding; a flail injury to his chest which, along with Meade’s difficulty breathing and paradoxical chest movement, led Grundstrom to believe Meade had a pneumothorax (collapsed lung); and a possible right orbital fracture. Finally, Meade had “deformation of his lower lumbar spine, and had no sensation or motor movement in his legs.”
Meade was conscious, albeit disoriented. While performing baseline cognitive tests, Grundstrom asked Meade to remember a random phrase, “red puppy ball”—the go-to words he, Meade and their fellow ski patrollers use in such scenarios, to make passing patients between them easier. Meade couldn’t remember his friend telling him the phrase, but—keeping his sense of humor to the end—said, “You gave me ‘red puppy ball,’ didn’t you?”
Grundstrom built a platform of backpacks so that Meade wouldn’t be lying on the snow. He piled all the layers he had on top of him, and got him into a position to help him breathe.
While waiting for the rescue, Grundstrom monitored Meade’s vitals and kept him as comfortable as possible. “The entire time I was just holding his hands and keeping him close to keep him warm. You just do what you do with your climbing partner—make jokes—to keep him with you, while also keeping an eye on his vitals and updating the ground crew.”
When the helicopter arrived—about 1.5 to 2 hours after Grundstrom called 911—two rescuers lowered in on a long line.
Ten minutes after the rescuers dropped in, Meade stopped breathing. He was hoisted out swiftly but never recovered.
Wade Meade was a “bard,” Grundstrom says, who would rattle off poems, up to 15 minutes in length, around campfires or on the wall.
He remembers one time in particular, on one of their first overnight climbing trips together, when Meade shared an original composition inspired by a John Long poem, in which Long follows a naked maiden up El Cap.
Standing atop Lone Peak, in Utah, Meade recited from memory his own poem, “The Naked Maiden Soloing”:
The wind and rain and ice conspired
To make a chalice walled and spired
Into which soundless moonlight spilled
In so doing, its divine purpose was fulfilled
In this valley I lay in my tent
The air was cool, the night silent
It wasn’t the rustle of leaves that woke me
Nor the suffused glow that lit me slowly
It was an unheard melody of love and belonging
That feather-brushed my heartstrings then left me longing.
I woke up to see the light receding.
I knew nothing, nothing but to stay would leave me needing.
So the tent disgorged a human, stretching and blinking,
Who set off into the forest, hurriedly slinking.
Though I went as fast as I could go,
I couldn’t see what was making the glow.
Through the trees it wound and weaved
I stumbled after, and panted and heaved.
The trees ended at a vertical sea,
Leaving my quarry visible to me.
I could only stand and stare
When I looked and saw what was there.
The most beautiful woman I could ever have hoped
Set sail up the sea, unshod, unrobed, and unroped!
Not even 3,000 feet of granite could hope to deter
One such as me from following one such as her.
Her nubile curves flowed with unhurried grace
Up the cracks and corners of the unyielding face.
While below I clambered wildly along
Craving her infinite soundless song
Dear Lord, a jug.
They all flowed numbly together
In my artless pursuit of her nethers.
But as the summit loomed I began to tire,
And drips of fear quenched my libido’s fire
The cliff rebuffed and seemed to mock
My best efforts to find purchase on the rock
I scrabbled and bled on a relentless seam
Too pumped, too scared even to scream
I looked above in desperate despair
Not knowing what I might find there
Maybe, maybe as I fell her flawless visage would hold hope?
Indeed, no, but she held instead a rope.
She threw the lifeline down to me
And inexplicably pulled me to safety.
Once on top, she turned me around
And I, slack-jawed, looked down to the ground
I thought I had never seen a sight more lovely
Well, maybe one, and she was next to me.
I turned to see her, my heart all a-flutter,
but it soon sank like lead through butter.
My guide of the night had gone, gone,
And in her place, through the door of my tent, was the rising sun.