When Jennifer Shedden and Michelle Xue failed to return from a weekend of alpinism in the High Sierra, California, on the evening of Sunday, October 27, friends knew something was wrong. The next morning, with the pair still overdue, the friends alerted authorities.
The two women, experienced climbers on rock, snow and ice, had left on Saturday for the approach to the North Couloir, a moderate snow and ice route on Red Slate Mountain ( 13,156 feet). Though a ski line in the winter months, in the autumn, the couloir, lined by cliffs of limestone and volcanic rock, is a prized moderate route with 1,500 feet of alpine ice. Both careful climbers, Xue and Shedden had prepared extensively before leaving, consulting topos, researching the hour-by-hour weather, and discussing beta and conditions with a friend who had recently climbed the route. Two open guidebooks were later found in Jennifer’s apartment.
According to Jennifer’s brother Brian, Jennifer and Xue had planned to climb the couloir in the safer pre-dawn hours and to summit by 9:00 am, to avoid the warmer daytime temperatures when rock and ice fall are more common. Jennifer was nervously excited about the climb, Brian says, as she would be with any big objective, “but it was well within both her and Michelle’s capabilities. They were going to summit. They had it.”
Tuesday, October 28, brought the news that friends and family had begun to suspect, but hoped wouldn’t come: Search and Rescue had identified two inert bodies partway up the couloir. Unable to reach the site that day due to impending darkness, SAR retrieved Shedden and Xue’s remains at 12,400 feet the next day, Wednesday, October 29.
In a press release from Mono County Sheriff’s Office on October 30, Sheriff Ingrid Braun wrote, “After an approximate 1100’ ascent on the ice, the SAR climbing team reached the women and confirmed they were deceased.”
In a text message to Rock and Ice, Deputy John Pelichowski, Search and rescue Coordinator, Mono County Sheriff’s Office, says, “Upon SAR teams reaching the women it was apparent that they were well equipped and well prepared for their ascent. No equipment failure(s) were observed. Based on the investigation of the incident, it appeared the women did nothing technically wrong, they were directly in the debris path of a large rock fall event. The only way to have prevented the incident would have been not to been there.”
Brian Shedden tells Rock and Ice that he talked with another of the member of the SAR team and got more info. Both wearing their puffies, Michelle and Jennifer were at a perfectly built anchor, with their backpacks hanging off it, at the time, suggesting they had been taking a break. The extent of their injuries also suggests that they were killed instantly, the SAR team member told Brian.
Michelle Xue was 22 years old and lived in Los Angeles. Jennifer Shedden, 34, lived in Mammoth Lakes.
Shedden and Xue were recent acquaintances, having met in Joshua Tree and only climbed once or twice prior before Red Slate Mountain, but friends and family paint both as motivated and driven climbers who shared similar aspirations and goals.
One of Xue’s good friends and climbing partners, Artem Vasilyev, used the analogy of a border collie chasing down sheep to describe Michelle, saying,“She generated her happiness through constant exertion and motion.”
While getting her bachelor’s degree in information systems and economics from Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, Xue was the safety captain of the school’s rock-climbing team. She was also a board member of the university’s Public Real-Estate Fund and president of the school’s Buddhist Meditation Sangha. She was chair of the American Alpine Club’s DC University Chapter.
While Xue had interests and talents to spare, she loved the mountains best. After graduating from college, despite lucrative offers in the finance sector in New York, she decided to return home to California to be near the ocean and mountains. Xue lined up a job as an acquisitions analyst for RealTerm, but before settling into a nine-to-five, embarked on the adventure of a lifetime: setting off on an eight-month, round-the-world climbing and surfing trip. She climbed in Argentina, Chile, Spain, Portugal, Morocco, France, Nepal, Thailand, China and Australia. In prior years she had already climbed in Bolivia, Japan and Canada, and all across the U.S.
During Xue’s climbing career, she received the AAC’s Live Your Dream Grant at least twice, according to her close friend Emily Evans. She interned at Alpenglow Expeditions.
Xue had an up-for-anything mentality toward climbing. Her friend Sean Post recalls a day they got up early to do a big link up of Traitor Horn and Coffin Nail in Tahquitz. At the top of the penultimate pitch, Michelle had what Post calls “a minor epic,” trying to climb up with a stuck rope above her, arriving at the belay out of breath and somewhat frightened.
“Maybe 15 minutes later she asked me if I wanted to do a car-to-car ascent of the east face of Mt. Whitney the following weekend,” Post says. “We both also agreed that we had enough daylight left to surf, so we drove back to the coast, got our boards and wetsuits out, and went to the beach.”
Before either of them had caught a wave, Michelle was stung by a stingray, and barely made it back to the car from the pain. “Within an hour she was in sufficiently good spirits to convince me to go out for sushi,” Post says. “We did, despite her limping every step in and out of the restaurant. We ended up doing the east face of Whitney that same week.”
On her blog, “Xue Way,” Xue kept a journal of her travels and climbs. When she came back from her global adventure, she was looking forward to a slightly ratcheted-down life in California. In the last post on her blog, on August 11, 2019, Xue wrote:
Honestly, all this climbing has made me appreciate not climbing sometimes. I hate to say it but it’s kind of nice to do nothing. So thankful for friends I have made who can deal with this polarity.
I think life is all about finding that balance and I think I’m either on one end or the other end of that spectrum. Either sleeping on my crashpad in a parking lot, or sleeping in a 5 star hotel. Either climbing and scaring myself shitless or not climbing at all. Either eating ramen noodles or charcuterie. I think when you know the spectrum, you begin to appreciate every little part of life more. Things are never that bad/great, but when they are; at least you know.
I think after the past 8 months of traveling, I am ready to start ‘real’ life; work actually sounds exciting. Living in one place for more than a week or two sounds like a dream. So incredibly happy to be soon living near some of my best friends, my favorite climbing areas, and the ocean.
She had recently hatched the idea of an expedition to remote big walls in Siberia with her friend Artem Vasilyev. Vasilyev tells Rock and Ice in an email, “I wouldn’t take anybody else seriously with a proposition like that, but with Michelle, anything is possible.” The partners intended to train in Yosemite, apply for grants, plan everything to a T. (Xue’s friend Emily Evans notes that she planned to spend Thanksgiving this year on Thanksgiving ledge on El Capitan.) “We would update each other with our training objectives and would talk about our goals,” says Vasilyev. “Then there was radio silence. Michelle had boundless energy and was destined for great things. Her optimism propelled herself and others forever onwards.”
Xue is survived by her parents, Anna and Tony Xue, and her brother Stephen Xue.
Jennifer Shedden’s brother, Brian, introduced her to climbing in 2011 at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, where they were both students. After they had climbed at a local crag, and toproped at Courtright Reservoir in the Sierra, Brian took her up Cathedral Peak, Tuolumne Meadows.
“I’m sure Jenny would say that was her favorite place in the world,” Brian says. On Cathedral, he says, “Something switched in her. She really fell hard for climbing.”
Jennifer was an avid dancer, and that transferred to her climbing. “Jazz, tap, everything,” Jennifer’s mother, Martha Shedden says, “She just loved to perform. Lean and long-legged. And that flexibility she developed from ballet—I see pictures of her up on the mountain, her legs all over the place, and it’s like her dancing.”
Shedden attended Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, for both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in civil engineering. After graduating, she worked for several engineering firms in San Jose and Santa Cruz. She had an “analytical mind,” her mother says, and enjoyed her work, but come the weekend, almost without fail, she would head up into the Sierra to rock climb, ice climb or ski with friends.
Like her friend Xue, Shedden traveled extensively to fulfill her climbing dreams. She climbed in Washington, Montana, and elsewhere across the West, and took courses in avalanche and self-rescue. She had summited many peaks in the Sierra—among them Mt. Tom, Mt. Sill, Mt. Langley, and Mt. Whitney several times; climbed Rainier, Shasta and Baker multiple times each; and bagged coveted peaks farther away: Mt. Blanc, in France, and, last winter, Pico de Orizaba, in Mexico, to name a couple.
Shedden loved not just climbing but all things adventure. In the first week of this past June, she and a friend biked into Tuolumne with all of their skiing and climbing gear, skied out to Cathedral Peak, climbed it in winter conditions, camped, and skied down.
“She came down from that and she was high as a kite, over the moon,” her mother says.
Brian added, laughing, “She was just doing stuff like that all the time. She was diabolically motivated.”
One of Shedden’s close friends, Porter Flattery, says, “My husband would joke that after I came back from a trip with Jenny I would have to sleep for three days straight. She was the type of friend who would drop everything, get on a ridiculously expensive last-minute flight and come see me, if either of us felt like we needed it. Jenny was always that way, she definitely had her priorities straight. She knew exactly what she wanted and what she cared about. The people and the animals she loved came first in her life.”
Shedden “would do anything” for her dogs Flattery says. “She was a mom to her pups. They were the most spoiled and entitled dogs you’ve ever seen.” She’d take them out mountaineering and ski-touring.
While a beloved dog Mom to Lana and Stella, Shedden’s biggest dream was to become a mother. Says Porter, “She wanted that so badly and she would have made such a good mom … The thought of having an infant along never daunted Jenny, she only thought of it as another exciting new adventure.”
Like Xue, Shedden was actively planning big adventures up until the end. She had lists of all the specific mountains she wanted to climb, and bigger, less-clearly defined goals in the Himalaya. On the docket for the coming year was a month climbing in Ecuador.
A year ago, Shedden moved up to Mammoth Lakes to be closer to the mountains. She worked for the town as a civil engineer and quickly had a big, loving community of friends. Even being closer to the Sierra, she still squeezed everything she could out of her days.
“She loved early mornings,” her mother says. “She was always convincing her friends to get up at 1 or 2 in the morning and go climb a mountain. And catch the sunrise.”
Shedden is survived by her brother Brian Shedden, her mother Martha Shedden and John Buchanan, her father Rick Shedden and Brenda Morris, and her dogs, Lana and Stella.
There will be a Celebration of Life for Jennifer Shedden from 1:00 to 4:30pm, Sunday, November 24, at the Chaminade Resort in Santa Cruz.
A memorial scholarship has been created at Cabrillo College in
Jennifer’s name. Donations to the “Jennifer Shedden Engineering Scholarship” can be made at foundation.cabrillo.edu/donate. Please write the name of her Scholarship under special instructions.