Saturday, December 6, 2008


Sam on Castleabra Peak in September 2006I found out last week that a good friend of mine had died suddenly. Sam was just 33 years old. The shock of it is still reverberating in my mind. I can't stop thinking about him and wondering what happened.

Sam started working in the IT Department at Aspen Valley Hospital almost three years ago, at about the same time that I was rehired after a two-year hiatus. Despite our seventeen-year age difference, we had much in common--skiing, mountaineering and a love of movies--so we quickly became friends.

In September 2006, the two of us backpacked up into the Conundrum Valley south of Aspen and set up camp at the hot springs there. The next day we summited Castleabra, a 13,803-foot peak that is one of the hundred highest in Colorado. After climbing all fifty-four of Colorado's "14ers," which is another thing we had in common, Sam was on a mission to climb the rest of what are oddly referred to as the "Century Peaks." That's Sam sitting on top of Castleabra, with Castle Peak (14,265 feet) behind him. (Click the image for a 1280 x 960 version.) The original plan called for us to also try to knock off Conundrum Peak, which is out of view to the left of Castle Peak, but high winds and clouds forced us back down to camp, where we soaked our tired bodies in the hot springs while drinking cold beers. It was a memorable trip, but it was the only one we ever took together.

We did ski together quite a bit though, and Sam always wanted to ski the most difficult terrain he could find. Whenever we skied at Aspen Highlands, he had to "hike the Bowl" and leap the cornices at the top, slicing down the incredibly steep gut at speeds that were just "ridonculous"--one of Sam's favorite expressions. He entered the annual extreme skiing competition at Snowmass the past two years and just missed making the final day's cutoff last year.

So how could a young man possessed of such abundant energy and fearlessness be struck down in his prime? Nobody seems to know. Most of his friends didn't find out that he had died until more than a week after it happened, me included.

Nan and I had loose plans to meet Sam and a girlfriend at the Coldplay concert in Denver or at the hotel where we were all staying, but we didn't see them. Nan checked at the front desk on our last morning and found out that he had canceled his reservation. I could have called Sam but I didn't. The two of us had had an unresolved argument the Friday before and I was letting him stew. I figured, if we run into him, fine. Otherwise, no big deal. But then we returned home and there was still no word. Then it was Thanksgiving and we were up in Aspen to spend it with friends. When we got home the next day, I checked my work email and read the notice of Sam's death from my boss. That explained the absence and the silence.

Later reports estimated that Sam had died on the Wednesday before the Friday, November 21, Coldplay concert. His roommate found him that weekend when he returned from being out of town. There was no sign of violence or evidence of suicide, just Sam dead in his bed. I understand that an autopsy was performed but the results have not been made public.

In his own way, Sam was a troubled individual. His parents divorced when he was young and he claimed that it completely screwed up his life. He could be difficult to deal with at times, swinging quickly from great exuberance to deep depression. "Hot and cold running Sam," I sometimes said. He had recently been seeing a psychiatrist and taking an anti-depressant to help control his emotions, but his spirits took a decidedly negative turn when he was fired in mid-October after the final straw in a series of blow-ups with fellow employees. Failing to find suitable employment right away only deepened his depression.

But Sam was in high spirits the last time I saw him, when he invited me over to his place for pizza and beer, and to watch the Election returns on his huge TV. Barack Obama's campaign had energized Sam's interest in politics and with too much time on his hands, he had become a serious news junkie. When Ohio went to Obama and we knew he was going to win, we cheered and high-fived like our team had just scored a touchdown. He was in a great mood then, like the future was still as bright as ever, and that is the way I will remember him.

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