When Pete Absolon, the Rocky Mountain director of NOLS, set out for a climb in Wyoming's Wind River Range last summer, life couldn't have been better. A deadly mistake by another man ended it all in an instant—and started a nightmare that's never going to stop.
Hanging 800 feet above Leg Lake, ten hours into a long summer's day of climbing in Wyoming's Wind River Range, Steve Herlihy was just starting to get comfortable. Getting into the bubble, he called it. He was tired but focused, feeling good about this latest adventure with his friend and mentor, Pete Absolon.
They were at the southern end of the Winds, three-quarters of the way up an enormous cirque that flanks the lake like a half-mile-wide backstop. Close to 12,000 feet above sea level, the cliff could be glimpsed from Absolon's house on the outskirts of Lander, 15 miles away, a stumpy tooth among more sensuously contoured peaks. In 17 years of climbing the area, Absolon had never tried the cirque before; there was better rock not much farther away. But late in July he'd gone camping at Leg Lake with his wife, Molly, and their six-year-old daughter, Avery. He'd studied the cirque, particularly a long shadow where the wall turned a corner as it wrapped around the lake. Two weeks later he was back with Herlihy to try a line he'd found.
Herlihy felt honored to be included; Absolon was choosy about the climbers he took into the Winds. Despite their age difference—Pete was 47, Steve 30—Absolon had drawn Herlihy into his circle as if he were a younger brother. They'd met on a National Outdoor Leadership School instructor seminar in 2001 and had worked together on and off since. Absolon, a sturdy blond athlete with a constant smile, had recently become director of the NOLS Rocky Mountain branch, while Herlihy had started law school in Laramie, at the University of Wyoming.
Absolon was amped for the climb—planning meticulously, leaving Herlihy a flurry of phone messages in the final hours before their departure. They got a late start from Lander Friday afternoon and camped by the lake. On Saturday, August 11, they rose early, left Herlihy's two dogs at the cliff base, made their way across a talus field, and then climbed up 300 feet of steep slabs to a small ledge, where the line Absolon had spotted began in earnest.
The climb was slow and tough. They found a couple of old bolts below the ledge, then nothing farther up. The route was steeper than it looked, and there was a quarry's worth of loose rock along the way. They cleared what they could, heaving the debris onto the glacier below, watching it land with hardly a sound. Herlihy started worrying about the amount of rock they were tossing and rappelled down to move his dogs back, then returned to the ledge.
Absolon led the crux pitch above the ledge, then two more pitches. Herlihy did his part, belaying and hauling and drilling in an occasional bolt. By late afternoon, they were 150 feet from what they'd agreed would be their goal for the day, a grassy ledge below the rim. Absolon set up an intricate belay; Herlihy was just below him and to the right. They lingered a few minutes, discussing how to handle the final pitch, a widening crack that curved right.
Herlihy was tired and ready to head down to camp. But Absolon wanted to nail the last pitch, and Herlihy agreed that it didn't look like much trouble, particularly with Pete in the lead. But right in the middle of their conversation, something came hurtling down from above. There was no warning, Herlihy recalls. Just a sudden crack!—and then a kind of white noise buzzing inside his head.
As soon as he heard the sound, Herlihy instinctively curled up next to the wall. But whatever had ripped through was already gone, leaving silence in its wake. When Herlihy looked up, he saw Pete hanging from the ropes, staring straight ahead. His eyes and mouth were open, but he was absolutely still.
Herlihy reached up. His hand went to the back of Absolon's neck and felt a warm dampness. He turned his friend around and saw the shards of his white helmet, the blood, the crushed skull. "His face was perfect," Herlihy says, "but I just knew he was dead."
To the Rodolph brothers of Casper, the Leg Lake Cirque was known as the China Wall. They'd visited the rim several times before, coming up the back way, a steep but tolerable hike through neighboring Upper Silas Canyon. Aaron, 28, had backpacked in the area for a week at a time, and Luke, 23, had hiked the entire canyon rim by himself.
A large party of Rodolphs had made a three-hour drive from Casper to the canyon trailhead on Thursday, the night before Absolon and Herlihy left Lander. The group included Aaron, Luke, and their older brother, Isaiah; Eli Rodolph, a cousin from South Dakota; Eric McDonald, a family friend; and wives and girlfriends—eight adults in all, plus Isaiah's four children. They set up camp at a no-name lake and spent Friday fishing and hiking. On Saturday, Luke and Aaron decided to take Eli and Eric to the China Wall.
Although the trail up the canyon ends at Island Lake, the four kept going, to the towering headwall of the cirque. They all walked to the rim, which offered a panoramic view of the basin, the surrounding peaks, and Lander in the distance. It was a favorite spot that neither Aaron nor Luke had seen for a while. Aaron had been building a landscaping business in Casper, while Luke had spent four years in the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division, including two tours in Iraq, before coming home to work with his brother.
They saw no one after leaving the trail. They spent half an hour on the rim, soaking up the scenery and tossing rocks down toward Leg Lake. Later, Aaron would estimate that the group had pushed four or five small boulders over the cliff. "It was really awesome to watch the rocks fall," he recalled. "You could see every bounce, every hit, all the way to the glacier."
Around five, the Rodolph party decided to make their way to a new spot a quarter-mile away, where the rim becomes a series of jagged overhangs above the basin—a good place to watch rocks fall, they figured. Luke led the way to a 15-foot promontory jutting into space. He went out a few feet, peered over the right edge, picked up a bowling-ball-size hunk of granite, and launched it into the void. Then he crouched down and leaned farther over the edge to watch its descent.
His new position gave him an unimpeded view of the area below. He saw, to his surprise, two men in white helmets 200 feet beneath him. And at the same moment he registered their presence, the plummeting rock struck one of the men directly on the head.
Herlihy couldn't see where the rock had come from, and he assumed it had broken loose naturally. In the suspended silence that followed Absolon's death, he fought a surge of panic over the possibility that more was on the way. "I was a hundred percent sure the next rock to come down was going to hit me," he says. "I tried to think like Pete."
Herlihy wrestled with Absolon's body to retrieve the gear he'd need to get down. Blood spilled all over him, on the rope, and on the haul bag. He considered bringing the body along but decided the effort would slow him down and might get him killed. Even without the extra weight, it took him an hour to rappel to the ledge. Once there, he tied the ropes together and fixed them for the final rap to the base. Then he ran—and stumbled—down the scree field in his climbing shoes.
Herlihy retrieved his dogs and dunked his head in the lake, trying to wash off the blood and spitting to get rid of the pungent, metallic taste in his mouth. He looked around in the twilight, not sure what to do. He was startled to see four young men running toward him. The first one was crying.
"I'm so sorry for your loss," Aaron Rodolph said. He was panting after the long run down from the rim.
"What happened?" Herlihy asked.
A pale, lean young man, more subdued than the first, approached him. "I threw a rock," he said.
Herlihy stared at him. "Did it hit another rock or something?"
"No," Luke Rodolph said. "That was the rock."
Herlihy took a moment to digest this. It wasn't a loose rock that had killed his friend. This kid had thrown the rock. Herlihy didn't know what to say. What came out of his mouth next amazed the Rodolph brothers, who were half expecting him to attack them. He looked at Luke and said, "I forgive you."
Wordlessly, the four men gathered around Herlihy. Aaron put his arm around him and asked if it would be all right if they prayed. Herlihy nodded, and Aaron began murmuring softly in the dusk.
Ultimately, it would be up to Steve Herlihy to tell people what had happened to his friend, to describe how one of Lander's most respected, confident, and skilled climbers had died because a stranger threw a rock for fun. It was an awful story to tell, bound to trigger outrage and bewilderment, but Herlihy ended up recounting the details, Ishmael-like, again and again—to sheriff's deputies, to colleagues, and to Absolon's family and close acquaintances. It was important to him that people understand how alive Pete was, how suddenly he'd been snatched away.
But nearly 15 hours would pass before he had a chance to tell anybody anything. First he had to spend a long, surreal night with Luke Rodolph. Aaron told Herlihy he had called 911 on his cell phone from the rim and that help was on the way. Right after the impromptu prayer session, the others decided to return to the family campsite, while Luke volunteered to stay behind; he and Steve would hike out in the morning.
As the sun went down, Herlihy wandered out to the lake to be alone, but dropping temperatures soon lured him to the fire Luke had built. Over the next few hours, the two men talked, shared some whiskey, and waited for dawn. Herlihy spoke about Molly and Avery and what a great husband and father Pete was. Absolon had been his boss at NOLS, he explained, generous with his advice and hard-earned experience but never taking himself too seriously. He was, in short, Herlihy's hero. Rodolph listened quietly.
"I know it probably doesn't seem like it, but I am really sorry about what happened to your friend," he said. "I want to cry, but I just can't do it. I've seen a lot of death."
In a flat voice, Rodolph described his time in Iraq—seven months in Fallujah, five in the northern Kurdish provinces. He'd lost a close friend two weeks into his first deployment, after they changed seats one morning in a Humvee. His buddy was sitting in Rodolph's place when an IED went off. Luke said he lost five friends in all. The only comfort he could find, he added, was his Christian belief that the deaths had been God's will. Everything happened for a reason.
The remark grated on Herlihy. He could see no reason why Pete was dead. But he didn't want to argue; right now he just needed to keep talking. He asked Rodolph why he hadn't run away—after all, nobody outside his family had to know he'd thrown the rock. Rodolph said he couldn't run from God. He was willing to do whatever was needed "to make things right."
"We had a long conversation about what that meant," Herlihy says. "He thought he was going to jail."
The talk, like the fire, died down after a while. At one point in the night, a helicopter circled above them, raking a searchlight across the face of the cirque. The next afternoon, a copter-borne rescue team from Grand Teton National Park arrived and got Absolon down. By that time, Herlihy and Rodolph had hiked to Herlihy's truck and driven to his home in Lander. They spoke little on the way.
Herlihy expected the whole world to be changed, but when he reached his house he realized that almost no one in town had heard about Pete's death yet; the coroner was waiting for the body to be retrieved before contacting the family. Once inside his front door, Herlihy started sobbing as he told his girlfriend, Wendy, what had happened. Then, leaving Rodolph standing alone in the front yard, he headed over to the Absolon place to do what he'd dreaded doing since he came off the wall: tell Molly that Pete was gone.
When he returned hours later, emotionally exhausted, Rodolph was still in the yard. He'd tried to clean the blood off the rope and haul bag and waited for Steve's return so they could go together to give their statements to the police.
News of Absolon's death spread across town like a stain, then all over the country. A week later, under lowering skies, more than 300 people streamed into a meadow near Sinks Canyon—a popular sport-climbing hub near Lander—for a memorial service. They all had Pete Absolon stories to tell, gleaned from what had been a full and remarkable life.
There were rock-climbing buddies from his early days as a guide at Seneca Rocks, West Virginia; tales of Mount McKinley's West Rib and big ice in Alberta; former NOLS students and staff who'd had life-changing encounters with Pete; people who'd met him climbing, biking, or elk hunting; and local parents who simply knew him as an enthusiastic dad, deeply involved in his daughter's school activities. Nobody could figure out how he made it all look so easy.
Lander-based NOLS instructor Gary Wilmot was once saved from serious injury by Absolon, who snatched him by the boot after he stumbled and slid headfirst down an icy gully outside of Cody, headed for a cliff. But he considers such heroics the least of his friend's accomplishments. "Pete was a very good rock climber, an exceptional ice climber and mountaineer," he says. "Maybe not world-class at any of these things, but there are very few climbers who put them all together as well as Pete did. He could always keep the rope moving up, and he got his students to believe they could make certain ascents and achieve goals far beyond what they thought they could do."
Born in Minnesota, raised in Texas and Maryland, as a teenager Absolon went from Boy Scout hikes to hanging out at the Gendarme, the legendary climbing shop at Seneca Rocks. He persuaded proprietor John Markwell to hire him as a guide and began putting up bold new solo routes. "Many of Pete's routes are thinly protected and just scary," says Topper Wilson, another Gendarme alum, now living in Colorado. "But his legs never shook. When he got nervous, he'd start muttering and talk his way through."
In 1986, while soloing at Seneca Rocks, Absolon came across 25-year-old Molly Armbrecht, a Yale graduate and climber who worked for the nearby Woodlands Mountain Institute. Absolon informed Armbrecht that she and a companion weren't on the route they thought they were on. Armbrecht insisted she knew what she was doing. Molly and her friend pressed on, got lost, found their way down around midnight, and slinked past the Gendarme, where Absolon sat with his pals, watching with amusement.
The wedding came two years later, on top of the highest mountain in West Virginia. The couple moved to Berkeley, then Lander, where Pete took a NOLS instructor course and began working for the school. He called the place Blander at first but soon fell in love with it. At NOLS, Absolon emerged as a quiet but vital presence whose high spirits and people skills made him a valuable field instructor and administrator. Fatherhood compelled him to give up major expeditions, but he set up a swing for Avery at the base of Killer Cave, one of his favorite routes in Sinks Canyon, and continued to seek new adventures. He was always methodical and safety conscious—which made his sudden death an even greater shock.
The Lander community was still reeling from other fatalities, including the 2006 death of Todd Skinner, one of the area's most celebrated free climbers, who died after his harness failed in Yosemite. But Absolon's death was fundamentally different—not an equipment failure but a rock, thrown by a clueless hiker—and it sparked anger as well as grief.
"Pete was an extremely conservative and accomplished climber who was doing everything right," says Phil Powers, executive director of the American Alpine Club and a NOLS staffer in Lander for nearly 20 years. "Climbers sign up for a certain amount of risk. But Pete didn't sign up for this kind of risk."
In the days before and after the service, reminiscences about Absolon piled up in a long-running thread on SuperTopo.com, a popular climbers' Web site. "He had serenity in his life," wrote Pete's oldest sister, Mary, "and we are all the better for this because it is a whole lot more fun being with someone who is living out their passions!" But the tragedy also prompted a more vitriolic thread, in which people described their own near-death encounters with rock throwers. Some pointed out that climbers cast plenty of stones themselves—not just to clean a route but for the gravitational fun of it. "Everyone who's never thrown a rock off a cliff, raise your hand," wrote one poster. "Gee, there are no hands up." Climbers even have a word for the pastime: trundling.
"Pete enjoyed trundling rocks," says Wilson, "but he always looked first."
Experienced climbers know to look carefully before they roll any rock, and the type of accident that killed Absolon is exceedingly rare. Falling objects are the third-most-common cause of climbing injuries, according to data compiled by the American Alpine Club for its annual publication Accidents in North American Mountaineering. But Jed Williamson, the series's managing editor, says that most accidents occur as a result of naturally falling rock and that, of some 625 reported deaths and injuries involving falling objects since 1951, only a handful resulted from rocks being thrown.
The worst case on record was a 1994 trundling incident that set off a 50-ton rockslide down the north face of 12,799-foot Granite Peak, Montana's tallest mountain. The three young climbers who did it apparently thought there wouldn't be a problem, because the north face was a difficult, less-used approach to the summit. Unfortunately, climber Tony Rich, 33, happened to be in the path of their barrage and was killed. The three were charged with negligent endangerment and received a combination of fines, community service, and jail time.
A few days after Absolon's memorial service, Fremont County district attorney Ed Newell announced that he would not file charges against Rodolph. As he saw it, this case was better suited to possible civil litigation than criminal charges. Yet he was careful not to describe Absolon's death as an accident.
"It was criminally negligent or reckless to throw the rock without first checking if anyone was below," he said. But there was no evidence that Rodolph intended harm; he simply didn't know Absolon was there. In addition, Newell noted, Rodolph had taken responsibility immediately, had been cooperative with authorities, had no prior record, and was a military veteran.
The decision distressed many of Absolon's friends. Powers believes that trundling injuries are often dealt with lightly because they happen in remote areas, but in his view that's precisely what makes them so dangerous. "If the argument is that this kind of thing happens because Pete was involved in a risk-taker's sport in a less civilized place, then I push back on both fronts," he says. "Yes, the rules are different in the backcountry: One's personal responsibility is heightened, not diminished. The frivolous tossing of a rock is even more irresponsible in the wilderness because the repercussions can be so much greater."
Not long after they came to Lander, the Absolons moved into an 1,100-square-foot log home east of town. The garage is now almost as big as the house; Pete added a climbing gym, financing the effort with $250 "membership fees" wrangled from friends. Mostly, though, it was a place where he could go to work out by himself.
"There are a lot of people who are members of that gym who have never climbed in it," Molly Absolon explains. "Almost everybody got suckered into joining."
These days, the phone rings frequently in the Absolon kitchen. Since Pete's death, Molly has been inside a tight network of family and supporters. Seeing the Leg Lake Cirque from her yard every morning triggers a wave of emotions. It's where Pete died, but it also reminds her of their last family camping trip, during which Pete and Avery sang and played games and Pete made fish chowder from the brookies that were practically jumping out of the lake.
"I remember thinking how great it was that she was comfortable in the mountains, that Pete was teaching her all this cool stuff," Molly says, sitting at the breakfast table as she talks publicly about her husband's death for the first time. "There are a lot of us who got to places we never would have gotten because he was willing to take us."
Molly had worked at NOLS herself, and she climbed mountains and skied down couloirs next to Pete. They never had "a huge conversation" about risk, but they both scaled back considerably when Avery was born. "It's the classic dilemma," she says. "This is who this person is, this is what you love about him, that's what our relationship is about. We thought we were being safe. It never, ever occurred to us that we had to worry about this—"
She breaks off. Molly shudders when she reads accounts that refer to Pete's death as a "climbing accident." Pete and Steve could have been at equal or greater risk from a thrown rock if they were hiking at the base of the cliff, she says. Such loose terminology is part of what troubles her about how the case has been handled by the authorities. "My anger at this point," she says, "is directed as much toward Ed Newell as Luke Rodolph."
Newell's statement that he wouldn't press charges mentioned that he'd consulted with Molly before reaching his decision—giving many people the impression that the victim's family didn't want to see Rodolph prosecuted. But Molly says she never took a position on the matter, that she told Newell it was his call to make. "I was still in shock," she says. "It's not like I could have any kind of perspective on the act or whether Luke did it intentionally. Newell showed me some law books, how this could be construed as a criminal case. Then he went into his reasons for thinking it wasn't a good idea to pursue charges. He threw in Rodolph's military service. But the fact that he's an Iraq veteran shouldn't be any part of the decision as to whether or not this is a criminal act.
"I agree that Luke Rodolph did the right thing after he did the wrong thing," she says. "But I just lost my husband and the father of my child, and I'm mad and sad. I'm struggling with this feeling that Rodolph has gotten off really lightly."
Newell declines to go into detail about his meeting with Molly but says he never intended to imply that she didn't want to prosecute—or that her wishes, either way, would have dictated the outcome. "We always try to get with victims and get their input, but we never let them make the call," he says.
His decision was based on a combination of factors, he adds, including the sheer freakishness of the accident. Locals say the Leg Lake Cirque attracts maybe one climbing party a year. Upper Silas Canyon is a popular hiking area, but few hikers go as far as the rim. For Absolon, Herlihy, and the Rodolphs to be in the same location at the same time; for Luke Rodolph's throw to line up perfectly with Pete's route—it all seemed to defy astronomical odds. "You could give somebody a pile of a thousand rocks and tell them to try and hit a dummy on the cliff, and he just couldn't do it," Newell told me. "It's like getting hit by a meteor or something."
Molly has made no decision yet about whether to pursue a civil suit. There's some life insurance, but the family lived largely on Pete's salary, and the prospect of going forward without her husband at her side, having to redefine herself and figure out how to live, seems overwhelming. "Money is not necessarily a determining factor in pursuing a civil case," she says. "It's not the point for me. I'm mainly looking for some accountability."
Recently, Molly had a dream about Pete. He said he was "98 percent OK" but missed her and Avery. He also assured her that his death had been swift and painless. But the dream was scant comfort. "I feel like my rudder is gone," says Molly. "More than anything, I'm just so sad for Avery. Pete was so involved in her life, and I was so grateful for that."
She smiles grimly. "You should go look at the gym," she tells me. "It's hard for me to go in there."
Since Pete Absolon's death, Luke Rodolph has lived quietly in Casper. He works for his brother's landscaping service and spends a lot of time praying and trying to "stay focused on my walk with Christ." The news that he wouldn't be prosecuted was no cause for celebration.
"I don't know if it was a relief or not," he says, sitting at the kitchen table in Aaron's house, occasionally wiping away tears with his sleeve. "Sometimes you feel like you should have to pay for what you have done. At this point, I've accepted that this is what God wants. But I take full responsibility for what I did. Pete's death was my fault. I can't ever justify it."
Aaron nods solemnly. "I'll never throw another rock off a cliff," he says. "My dad told me, ‘That was an ignorant thing to do.' Whether everybody else does it or not, whether you looked or you didn't, it doesn't matter. Maybe our experience up there just makes us more guilty."
Before the memorial service near Sinks Canyon, the Rodolph brothers inquired discreetly whether they could attend and pay their respects. They were told to stay away. They haven't tried to contact Molly directly, but they did issue a public apology during an interview published in the Casper Star-Tribune. One comment Aaron made to the reporter—"You know in your heart there is nothing you can do"—didn't go over well in Lander, where a memorial fund has been set up for Avery. Aaron says he meant only that he couldn't bring Pete Absolon back to life.
"There's no way to repay Molly," Luke says, "but if she asked us to do something, I'd do my best. I'd like to tell her to her face how sorry I am and be able to offer something. But I don't want it to be seen as an attempt to cover up what I've done."
The Rodolph brothers have left several phone messages for Steve Herlihy, who hasn't spoken to either of them since the accident. Herlihy says he isn't ready to talk to the brothers yet. He's still haunted by his own relentless memories of Leg Lake, including the three words of absolution he offered Luke.
"I regret that, actually," Herlihy says, "but that's how I felt at that point. I feel some responsibility toward Luke. I don't think he did it on purpose... but I feel guilty for not hating him. I feel guilty because of Molly. I lost a guy I knew, my hero. She lost everything.
"Maybe you don't get forgiveness that easily," he adds. "Maybe I need more time. In light of everything, why couldn't he have just looked?"