CARMEL, Maine — When looking at photographs solo mountaineer Rich Gebert took of the towering peaks in the Canadian Rockies he climbed, the narrow summit ridges he walked, and the smile on his face while conquering them, it’s easy to see he loved it.
“This is the good life,” Gebert posted on Facebook with a picture of him bivouacked on the side of a snowcovered mountain.
He bested hundreds of peaks in his 60 years, but in August Gebert lost his life on Mount Redoubt — a seldom-climbed 10,200-foot monstrosity that lies in the Canadian Rockies near the border of British Columbia and Alberta.
Gebert, who started technical climbing with ropes in 1970 and was on his tenth trip to the Rockies in Canada, was rappelling on the mountain he had first crested two years before when local national park rangers believe his anchor failed.
“It was the very last day of his vacation,” his wife, Carmel resident Mary Gebert, recalled recently. “Every two years Rich would go out to the Canadian Rockies to mountaineer and solo climb.
“The mountaineer rescuer who was on the rescue said he’s pretty sure Rich had a rope around a rock for an anchor,” she said. “He said he believes he probably pulled to get it unhooked, and he pendulumed and was knocked out. It was a 1,000-foot fall.”
Rich Gebert used a satellite phone to call home every night, his widow said. When he didn’t call on Aug. 14, Mary Gebert said she started to get concerned but thought maybe his phone battery died. When he didn’t call the next day, she called Jasper National Park rangers, who started ground and air searches for him.
They found his vehicle at the Astoria trail head, near Mount Edith Cavell, and inside were maps and detailed route descriptions for mountains all over North America, according to an article in the Fitzhugh newspaper in Jasper.
Later on Aug. 15, Rupert Wedgwood, visitor safety specialist for Jasper National Park, was in a helicopter and spotted Gebert’s rope on the west side of the mountain, the Canadian newspaper reported. Rescue teams soon found Gebert’s body still hanging from his safety rope.
“They’ve all said he had every business being there,” Mary Gebert said. “It really was just one of those accidents.“
“Redoubt Mountain is a fortress-like mountain rising to the south of Boulder Pass and Ptarmigan Lake,” fellow Bivouac.com writer, Mitch Sulkers of Whistler, British Columbia, said about the mountain that lies along the Rampart Range. “Although surrounded by impregnable cliffs and buttresses, the mountain can be scaled by a scrambling route on its northwestern aspect.”
In 1927 the mountain claimed the lives of the first two people recorded to have reached its summit, according to the Bivouac website, for which Gebert was a contributing writer. The bodies of photographer Frank H. Slark and his guide F. Rutishauser were never found, but their summit record was found on top of Mount Redoubt the next summer.
“I am driven to climb the biggest and best routes within my ability,” Gebert wrote in 2005 when he created his climbing resume page for Bivouac. It ends with him saying, “I have a high success level and much unfinished business … in the Canadian Rockies.”
He met fellow outdoor enthusiast and technical climber Chip Getchell, who now lives in China, Maine, during 1981 while playing keyboard with the band Crybaby. Gebert also met his wife of 27 years playing with the band. After they met, “We started climbing together every weekend, mostly rock and ice climbing,” Getchell said recently. He estimates they did at least 500 technical climbs together.
Getchell, who did lights and sound for Crybaby, was working at the Maine Department of Transportation, a post he still holds, and encouraged his friend to apply for a job there.
“We got married, had a baby and had another one on the way” when he got the DOT job, Mary Gebert recalled. “He said it was time to have a real paying job with some insurance. That was his grown-up job. [The] one thing he loved about his job with DOT is he was outside all the time. He would have hated a desk job.”
Hiking was a family affair for the Geberts and their pets, and Mary Gebert said whenever her husband said, “it’s just around the corner” she knew there still was a lot of hiking left to be done. He is survived by their three children, Richard, 28, Sarah, 26, and Cody, 19.
Gebert worked for the Maine DOT for 27 years, working up from maintenance, to project development to bridge construction inspector, according to Ted Talbot, DOT spokesman. He was a key player in the identification of rust problems with the Waldo-Hancock Bridge and was the chief inspector on its replacement, the Penobscot Narrows Bridge and Observatory.
“Richard was a hardworking, soft-spoken person who was dedicated to his important work here at MaineDOT,” Commissioner David Bernhardt said in an email. “It is easy for me to say how he was greatly appreciated and is sorely missed. Richard simply defined MaineDOT’s core values of integrity, competence and service.”
His longtime friend loved everything outdoors — climbing, hiking, biking, skiing, snowshoeing — but his true love was mountaineering, Getchell said.
“The craft of mountaineering is not just technical climbing, it’s everything from planning the trip, wilderness survival, navigation, route finding, it’s backcountry medicine when someone gets hurt,” Getchell said. “You’re up there on your own and you run into bears. It’s not just climbing.”
The two friends drove 60 hours straight across the continent in 1991 to tackle the 11,874-foot tall Mount Alberta, located in the northern part of Jasper National Park.
At that time, “it had only been climbed perhaps 10 times, maybe a dozen. A lot of teams attempted it and got turned back,” Getchell said. “Originally, [park officials] were not going to let us go because we were only a party of two. That’s because if somebody gets hurt [it would be a difficult descent]. We had to really push. Rich had a great climbing resume and they let us go.”
The two made it to the summit ridge, but it was “hairy getting up there,” Getchell said. “There were places I didn’t think we were going to make it.”
The thrill of the climb, the uncertainty, the adrenaline, the spectacular scenery, the interior strength needed are all part of the heart-pumping adventure of mountaineering, he said.
“Also being alone in the mountains with nature and your own thoughts — it’s relaxing. It’s a lot of fun,” Getchell said. “Along with that, it has additional dangers and you’re on your own.”
There is nothing else like it, he said.
When Gebert got to Alberta, Canada, on July 21, he did what many visitors do — he stopped and took a photo by the roadside welcome sign. He was holding a beer, just like in the photo he took on his 2011 trip.
“Cheers … So many mountains, so little time. Lock and Load!” is what he posted on his Facebook page so his wife, his DOT friends and his “followers” could keep track of his progress.
He spent about a month on solo mountain climbing expeditions all around Jasper National Park, including one to a narrow marbled ridge that made him turn around near the summit, according to a July 25 Facebook post.
“The summit was a little farther with a death traverse that I passed on,” Gebert posted. “Doesn’t look too bad but that is down-sloping, wet, loose, classic Canadian Rockies Limestone Shit Rock. A slip and I would launch into space below. Hey, how about that knife edge?”
“I tip toed half way across then prayed to the levitation gods and came back,” he also posted about the 11,000-foot peak.
Mary Gebert said she’ll never know why he decided to return to Redoubt, but she does know why her husband was so drawn to the mountain range. His parents and siblings would vacation in the Canadian Rockies when he was young and that is where he fell in love with bouldering, which is rock climbing without safety gear, and then climbing.
“That particular place was his most favorite place to go,” she said.
At a memorial service for Rich Gebert on Aug. 25 at the Bangor Elks Club, about 100 friends and family members gathered to recall his remarkable life.
“It was a very simple service,” Mary Gebert said. “We put out his climbing gear, his safety helmet from work, his ice axe, and pictures from his life. Everyone was fascinated.”