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Rhea Dodd, 1959-2020: Climber, Veterinarian and Survivor of Rainier Tragedy

Rhea Dodd "always wanted to keep it going. You couldn’t rein her in."

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When Rhea Dodd and Teri Savelli sat down with their old friend Chris Blatter and his friend John Seebohm at an American Alpine Club dinner six years ago, they were, Teri said, on “high alert. On fire.” In great spirits.

“She was so funny, like Robin Williams,” says Savelli, who had met her friend of many decades while standing in line for an outdoor-ed course at Evergreen State College. “That kind of genius.”

Rhea Dodd climbing at Sunnyside, near Bedrock, Colorado, circa 2008. Photo: Teri Savelli
Rhea Dodd climbing at Sunnyside, near Bedrock, Colorado, circa 2008. Photo: Teri Savelli.

Seebohm turned to Blatter and said, “I think we just won the lottery.”

Says Savelli, “Rhea always wanted to keep it going. You couldn’t rein her in, even when she was dying. She never wanted to leave the party. She wanted to be where the fun was. Every birthday I had, she got here.” Savelli says her friend once said she “felt like that song ‘Happy’ … ‘like a room without a roof.’”

Dodd and Savelli climbed much in the early years of their friendship, in Colorado, Yosemite and France. After Dodd’s cancer diagnosis five years ago, Savelli drove the six or seven hours from Ophir, Colorado, to her friend’s house in Golden, countless times in support.

Rhea Dodd, 60, climber, triathlete, Tae Kwon Do champion, skier and veterinarian, died in hospice in Denver on September 3, with her twin daughters Alexa and Annalise—two being the visitor limit during the pandemic—beside her. In her illness she received devoted care from her life partner, Gary Kofinas, of Wilson, Wyoming, where she had moved and helped him design and build a new house. They climbed, camped and skied the backcountry, often with a dog along.

“Much of our time together was spent dealing with the challenges of cancer,” Kofinas says, “but in spite of this we had an amazing amount of good times, because of who she was, her warmth and spirit.”

Rhea Dodd as a young student, on the way up during the attempt by an Evergreen State College group on a winter ascent of Mount Rainier. The 1979 tragedy, she said, composed her adulthood. Photo: Eric A. Kessler
Rhea Dodd as a young student, on the way up with an Evergreen State College group attempting a winter ascent of Mount Rainier. The 1979 tragedy, she said, composed her adulthood. Photo: Eric A. Kessler

Kofinas lists many diverse moments that illustrate his time with Dodd: “The energy of first meeting and the exciting discovery that our paths had many similarities—a youthful love of mountains, climbing, snow and wilderness that led us to work as outdoor educators, to work in research science, to apply science to address real-world problems .… The time we hiked to a high Alaskan mountain pass in a day of record heat, and Rhea found a snowfield and rolled around and around on the ground to cool off. The times we were in serious discussions, and just at the right time she would add a dash of humor. Or hosting an open house for 40 at our brand-new home on the afternoon of the total eclipse, and how my friends instantly fell in love with her. ….. Mostly there were the common daily rituals, morning coffee and tea and together enjoying the silence of sunrise.”

I met Rhea in 1982 on a month-long women’s climbing exchange to France, with funding from the American Women’s Himalayan Association through the AAC. She, Sue Giller, Pat Haythorn, Sandra Seeley and I were hosted by Isabel and Henri Agresti and others for a month in Chamonix, Corsica, Buoux and the Verdon.

Rhea’s humor was consistent, ongoing, not so much a single line as a persona. I remember one night when a small amount of Nutella, new to all of us, and seeming like the best thing we’d ever had, went around, each of us getting but a swipe.

[Climbing Gear Reviews by Rock and Ice]

“That just makes me want more,” said Rhea Dodd, in mock longing, a voice as if she were 6 years old, that cracked me up—and has ever since. She could make two words funny with an inflection. She was fun to be with, the kind of person you can pick right back up with every time and enjoy a day out or dinner or gathering.

Rhea Dodd with her twin daughters, Alexa (left) and Annalise (right) in 2018. "I'm a lucky mama," she wrote in posting. Photo: Dodd Collection.
Rhea Dodd with her twin daughters, Alexa (left) and Annalise (right) in 2018. “I’m a lucky mama,” she wrote in posting. Photo: Dodd Collection.

Raised primarily in Minnesota, Rhea was a teenage volunteer with Student Conservation Corp in New Hampshire, and gained her first outdoor-ed job as an instructor at Project USE, New Jersey, which provides wilderness experiences. She later became a Colorado Outward Bound instructor.

She studied outdoor education with the famed Everest ascentionist and philosopher Willi Unsoeld at Evergreen State College, where she was a student participant on the tragic Rainier expedition of February-March 1979. During the climbing exchange in France, she told the story—of how Unsoeld and 21 students were beset by storm in their camp at 11,800 feet on the Ingraham Glacier. I was impressed by her candid, clear and measured recounting of how three feet of snow fell, and the group spent a terrible night, then descended slowly. She described waiting in her rope team as the group began down Cadaver Gap; then in the howling whiteout she stumbled off a three-foot fracture line. An avalanche had killed Unsoeld and Janie Diepenbrock, age 21, Rhea’s friend and housemate. Student leaders took over calmly and admirably—indeed, heroically—yet as the group struggled on, some people in exhaustion began dumping their packs, which contained essential gear. The students barely made it to Camp Muir, by spotting an avalanche cord they had previously strung from the hut to the outhouse to dry their wool clothing.

“If not for that glimmer of red in the storm,” she would later write in Climbing magazine, where I was by then working and for which I urged her to record the experience, “we would have wandered into oblivion.” She did a beautiful, fair-minded, insightful job recounting what was a central experience in all the students’ lives, affecting them variously.

For her own part, she wrote: “Surviving Rainier gave me the fortitude to pursue my ambitions. I was also severely humbled, and now understand that experience and judgment are better built in smaller steps. I’ve stopped looking for heroes, though I’ve had many mentors along the way and began to take responsibility for my own actions.” The experience, she said, became the foundation of her adult life.

Rhea Dodd and her life and mountain-adventure partner, Gary Kofinas of Jackson, Wyoming, who cared for her in her long illness. Photo: Emilie Kelly.
Rhea Dodd and her life and mountain-adventure partner, Gary Kofinas of Wilson, Wyoming, who cared for her in her long illness. Photo: Emilie Kelly.

Ever independent, during our climbing exchange, she did the Tuckett (AD-, or exposed scramble), on Monte Cinto, the highest mountain on Corsica, perfectly happy to go solo.

Months after the climbing exchange, Rhea and I drove cross-country together, and I dropped her off in Boulder, where she was to complete her undergrad degree in Evolutionary Biology from the University of Colorado in 1984. In 1989 she married Mark Sonnenfeld, also a climber, and the two lived in Morrison. Their daughters were born in 1995, and the family moved to the Pyrenees, Southern France, for two years while the girls were aged 1 to 3. During that time Rhea learned to speak French, and she would often have conversations with Savelli’s husband, Antoine, a native speaker, on the phone. “She loved to speak French,” Teri says. “She was so smart. She could learn anything.” Dodd and Sonnenfeld later divorced but remained amicable co-parents.

Dodd earned a Master’s in Inter-Species Relationships from the University of Colorado at Boulder in 1988 and a Doctorate in Veterinary Medicine from Colorado State University in 1992. In 2001 she became certified in veterinary acupuncture, and in 2001 she founded her practice, the Gentle Vet, specializing in acupuncture treatments and behavioral therapy. She was an Africa Network for Animal Welfare board member for two years, leading teams of veterinarians to Kenya to administer rabies vaccinations and hold spay-neuter clinics in rural communities.

Ace Kvale, of Boulder, Utah, considered her “bad ass” from the moment he knew she had a black belt in Tae Kwon Do. He muses, “How many times did I call her with a dog emergency? With me living far from veterinary care, Rhea was my remote emergency care unit. ‘Send me a pic, keep it wrapped up, meds in the mail Monday.’ Such calming words. I’ll miss you, Rhea—cheers to people with a dorky sense of humor.”

Dodd spent her last months in her cozy and comfortable house in Golden, in the company of Kofinas and her daughters, Alexa, a digital analyst at the Los Angeles Times, and Annalise, a nursing student at the University of Colorado Anschutz campus. A stream of dedicated friends visited, and family flew out to see her.

Rhea had fought hard, using her scientific background and her instincts, against anal cancer (largely preventable now through an HPV vaccine). Early this year she was the first patient given an experimental cancer vaccine in a pioneering study at Vanderbilt University, and many of us had high hopes.

“I trust my own immune system more than I trust chemotherapy,” Rhea said in an article on the Vanderbilt University Medical center website. While the clinical trial, in which she received an infusion of her own reprogrammed immune cells, ultimately did not save her, she said in the article, “I have outlived my prognosis. Maybe it’s because I got good care or maybe I got good care because I just kept looking and looking. Maybe it’s because I don’t accept this illness is going to kill me. Cancer patients should not be afraid to search for treatment options. You have to be your own advocate because it’s your life that is on the line. I don’t take no for an answer. I’ve relied on persistence and turning over every stone.”

Says Kofinas, “She remained hopeful until the end.”

She must have been a favorite patient. I remember seeing her when her hair fell out, in a video dancing to music, stripping off her little hat and swinging it around. At the end of her life she took up watercolor painting, and taught online classes to Savelli’s young nieces and nephew. “She loved it, would spend hours doing the syllabus,” Savelli says. Painting became a passion for Dodd. “It was her escape from pain, and she was really good at it.”

Karin Budding, a climber friend of 40 years, says: “Rhea lived a full life in her 60 years. She was fun-loving, full of energy, smart and caring. She was proud of her early climbing feats, triathlons and private vet practice. But by far her proudest accomplishment was her two daughters, Anni and Lexi. She was a wonderful, loving mother.

“Rhea faced her illness with determination and fight, not self-pity. She was proactive about researching current applicable clinical drug trials—in case she needed to change course. Even in our last visit she asked about me and my family—never complaining about her pain and what she was facing.”

When I visited Rhea for the last time, a wise and thoughtful doctor entered the room, and talked about the convergence of people—family, friends, and of course Anni, Lexi and Gary—at the hospice, an airy and welcoming facility. Lexi had to leave when I entered, because of the two-person limit, though we sneaked a few extra minutes. I was also to get a contraband extra half an hour before making way for a niece and nephew, Lauren and Connor. Lauren had become a veterinarian as well, and credited the influence of her beloved aunt.

“It’s about love,” Rhea told the doctor. She said to me moments later that she would have thought even three weeks ago that was a silly (the word she actually used was stupid) thing to say. But it was true.

The boards of The Africa Network for Animal Welfare–USA and its sister organization, the Africa Network for Animal Welfare, have made a formal resolution: “We dedicate 2020 as Dr. Rhea Dodd appreciation year, the year of ANAW-USA’s champion veterinarian.” The next Africa Animal Welfare Conference “is dedicated to the spirit, diligence, and energies characterized in the life and career of Dr. Rhea Dodd.”

The Vet Treks Foundation has created the Rhea Dodd Fund for annual support of someone in Africa supporting animal welfare.

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