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Glacier Park

The Last Mountain

Two of the most experienced mountaineers in Glacier National Park's history of alpinism died in a climbing accident last month, devastating a close-knit community of family, friends and fellow adventure-seekers who are still trying to unravel what happened

By Tristan Scott

Among the ranks of local mountaineers whose climbing statures betray a lifelong dedication to exploring the intricate contours of Glacier National Park’s peaks and ridges, few were more familiar or more accomplished than Brian Kennedy and Jack Beard, who died last month in a climbing accident. In the Flathead Valley, that familiarity compounds the tragedy of their deaths with widespread grief and bewilderment while the depths of their experience as alpinists demands a complex narrative that is still taking shape.

Even now, nearly two weeks after the men perished in an apparent fall, the answers to the persistent question of what happened still lie somewhere on an indifferent mountain above the St. Mary Valley called Dusty Star, which, like all mountains, shows no quarter to human emotions like grief, even if reservoirs of it are now flooding the surrounding valleys where friends and family mourn their loss.

The sorrow over the loss of Kennedy, of Columbia Falls, and Beard, of Kalispell, both 67, is amplified by the paths they charted not as mountaineers, but as fathers and husbands, partners and brothers, environmental stewards, community leaders, and volunteers. The relationships that developed out of those pursuits existed apart from the mountains they scaled in search of personal fulfillment and adventure, igniting passions fueled by deep personal connections that counterbalanced the persistent tug of curiosity looming on the horizon.

For climbers, however, including many who forged lifelong friendships with Beard and Kennedy in the foundry of Glacier’s rugged interior, that unslakable curiosity was part of the genetic makeup that animated both men; it fed not only a compulsion to unlock the region’s geomorphic mysteries, but to share the wonder with others. To all climbers in their orbit, then, the deaths serve as a reckoning with the inherent risk mountaineers accept as they make their biddings in inhospitable, unforgiving terrain, sometimes putting their lives at stake.

Those stakes were never higher than on July 22 when Kennedy and Beard were killed in a fall along the east-facing route leading to Dusty Star’s 8,084-foot named prominence, an important distinction from its 8,573-foot high-point, which Kennedy had climbed using a different approach in 2004. And while it’s still not certain whether the men died while ascending the route or during a roped rappel from a fixed anchor point, which might have failed in the sedimentary rock and caused both men to fall simultaneously, or even if some other factor like weather or lightning interfered with their climb, a small cadre of friends and climbers are coordinating with search and rescue crews from Two Bear Air, Minuteman Aviation and the National Park Service to reconstruct a narrative. 

“We all want to know what happened, but we don’t have the complete story yet,” said Don Scharfe, who has known both men for decades, having embarked on countless climbing and skiing trips in Glacier Park and throughout the northern Rockies. On July 29, Scharfe, and Orrin Webber, another longtime climber who counted Kennedy and Beard among his close friends, struck out in hopes of assembling the missing pieces of that complete picture. On their hike through an impenetrable maze of slide alder to the base of the climb, Scharfe and Weber were joined by another experienced local climber, John Gangemi, and together the men laid out several objectives: to retrieve the men’s belongings, investigate the route and see what else they could puzzle out about the circumstances surrounding their fall.

After trudging through thick bush for hours, it occurred to the men that Kennedy and Beard would have executed the approach and the climb on separate days.

“The only thing that was really clear is the accident happened Friday (July 22),” Scharfe said, deducing the timeline based on the discovery of a bivouac site, the size of the men’s approach packs as well as the strain of the hike in. “We went in with really light packs and it took us three-and-a-half hours to get back there, including an hour-and-a-half of really tough bushwhacking. They went in with heavy packs and lots of gear, so they for sure would have spent Thursday (July 21) night at the bivy site and climbed the route on Friday.”

Both Kennedy and Beard were wearing harnesses with locking carabiners and belay devices clipped to their belay loops, which suggests they were descending, according to Scharfe and Webber. Without a careful assessment of the ropes and the configuration of affixed gear like slings, carabiners and cams, however, and lacking the benefit of an aerial view of the route, which could reveal where the fixed anchor point blew out, the investigation remains inconclusive.

“The rope is the key to what happened,” Webber said, explaining that ground crews who located the bodies on July 25 were forced to cut through an entanglement of ropes to extract the men. Until a thorough review can be conducted of photographs taken of the accident scene before the bodies were extracted, a question remains as to whether the men summited Dusty Star.

“Until I see some evidence to suggest otherwise, I’ll always believe that they went to the top,” Webber said.

Dusty Star Mountain above St. Mary Lake in Glacier National Park. Courtesy photo

Although the objectives and aspirations of mountaineers are rendered moot in the wake of tragedy, whether or not they went to the top mattered to a man like Kennedy, who kept meticulous records of his climbing resume, including every peak he’d summited in nearly 40 years of mountaineering. A detailed spreadsheet of his accomplishments reveals that he’d climbed 229 of Glacier’s 234 named peaks, a list established in 2003 by the Glacier Mountaineering Society, with a rare blank space beside Dusty Star’s named point.

That blank space would have been at the top of Kennedy’s mind as he approached the mountain on his final climb, but it would not have obliterated his judgment, according to Stephen Smith, of Columbia Falls, who led the GMS committee to establish all of the peak names in Glacier, along with other highly experienced GMS members like Gordon Edwards, the famed author of “The Climber’s Guide to Glacier National Park.”

Even though Kennedy had been climbing for two decades before the peaks were officially indexed by the club, it was only then that he became single-minded in his determination to summit them all.

“What I did not anticipate was that someone the likes of Brian Kennedy would take that list and chase it incessantly, almost obsessively, for decades. In the end, he had nearly completed all of the peaks on that list prior to his death — at least 230 of the 234 on the list, perhaps more,” according to an email from Smith, who in 2015 accompanied Kennedy on a successful self-guided expedition to Denali, climbing the highest peak in North America via the West Buttress route. “Brian kept an extensive database of the peaks he had climbed over the years including dates and partners, and if there were ever a question of which precise summit is the correct one on the list or if an unknown summit may be added to the list in the future, he would simply climb them all to be sure. Unfortunately, this was the case on Dusty Star where he perished, as he was attempting to climb a lower summit than the actual highpoint, based on the location of the summit on the map. Because of my involvement with preparing the original list, I feel partially responsible for his death, yet I can relate to his passion for climbing in Glacier as it is so infectious for those of us who do it. But back in 2003, I definitely did not foresee his rabid enthusiasm in completing the entire list — at the time, most of us didn’t think it was humanly possible anyhow. Brian showed us that it is indeed possible with enough toughness and determination — inspiring the entire Glacier climbing community along the way.”

Adam Clark grew up in Whitefish and earned his mountaineering chops scrambling the peaks of Glacier National Park as a teenager, including joining the Glacier Mountaineering Society on a memorable climb to Iceberg Peak.

“I must have been 16 and Brian was on the trip. I remember really connecting with him,” said Clark, who spends his summer months working as a mountain guide and his winters both as an avalanche forecaster for BNSF Railway and as a researcher for the U.S. Geological Survey’s glaciology program. “I was wearing this bright red shirt and Brian took a photo of me at the notch and it ended up running in the newspaper. We got home super late and my mom and dad were worried, so Brian called them back and told them I’d been in good hands. It was a really nice gesture.”

Prior to Kennedy’s Denali expedition, he reached out to Clark for beta, knowing the younger climber had climbed and guided on the 20,310-foot mountain. Clark also has attempted and been repulsed by the route up Dusty Star’s 8,084-foot high northeast arete, a variation of the route on which Kennedy and Beard died.

“If you look at that mountain from lower St. Mary, it has a very striking northeast arete, and I have always looked at that thing and wanted to climb it. So I tried it with Stefan Beattie,” Clark said, referring to another longtime local climber. “If you follow that arete it will eventually take you to 8084, but that arete just gets so narrow and that rock gets so rotten, you get these teetering rock towers. I did two more pitches and then bailed. But it sounds like Brian and Jack were not on that arete, they were climbing more of a gully or a face climb that is up the Virginia Creek drainage. I really want to know what happened. There has to be an explanation of what went wrong.”

“If you know anything about Glacier National Park routes, they are not black and white,” Scharfe said, explaining the challenge in divining Beard’s and Kennedy’s precise route. “They are very vague and there’s usually not a single defined line. But Adam went in to do that climb and was denied. He turned around. If Adam turned around, that tells me a lot.”

In the absence of clearer answers about their deaths, the climbing community gathered in the week following the accident, converging on Glacier Park for Glacier Mountaineering Society’s annual celebration, which was overshadowed by the tragic news. It also drew together a rarefied breed of climber who possesses an understanding of both the why and the how of climbing in Glacier National Park, and the self-exploration that can come of it, however somber the recent consequences. 

“The culture and climbing tradition of trying to talk about and gain a better understanding of what occurs in the mountains is important because it helps us interpret risk, and for non-climbers trying to interpret that risk outside of their fields of expertise, it doesn’t always make sense,” said David Steele, a climber who grew up in Kalispell and who, in 2015, helped save Beard’s life after a 500-foot fall on a steep technical route in Glacier Park, requiring a complicated helicopter rescue. “We’re all human, and we don’t leave that behind when we go into the mountains, but we can use our experience to interpret risk.”

Brian Kennedy, Al Hofmeister and Jack Beard atop the Great Gendarme, a pinnacle near Little Chief Mountain, in August 2019. Brian Kennedy photo.

As the climbing community weighs the tension between acceptable risks and irreversible loss, Beard’s and Kennedy’s closest family members are moving through shock waves of grief, reeling from an anguish that transcends the cold calculus employed to assess the hazards in the mountains.

“For me, hearing everything about my dad from the climbing and mountaineering communities, it’s a space I always knew he was a leader in, but I think of him first and foremost as a wonderful father. He was a horse-show dad,” Jane Kadish, one of Jack’s two daughters, who together kept him occupied for years by roping him into their passion for equestrian eventing. “We were not budding rock climbers, but our dad became our personal assistant at horse shows. We bossed him around. He was always doing the wrong thing and had no natural ability but he was completely dedicated to us.”

A carpenter and cabinet-maker by trade, Beard’s craftsmanship adorns homes throughout the Flathead Valley, as do stories about his endearing personality quirks and mannerisms.

“He was hilarious,” said Jack’s other daughter, Lucy Beard. “Everyone knows Wacky Jack and it really was his leading characteristic. He was witty and silly and quick with a pun. He was a great father.”

And a great grandfather, too, according to Kadish, whose young family includes two girls, a 5- and a 2-year-old named Kira and Nadia, as well as a baby on the way.

“We called him grumps,” Kadish said. “He didn’t have the role of grandfather very long, but if we were at a gathering with children, he would end up on the floor playing. He was more comfortable playing with children than adults. Kids just gravitated to him.”

Jack “Grumps” Beard with his granddaughter. Courtesy photo

Beard was married for 32 years to Leslie Dillon, and while the couple divorced several years ago, Kadish and Lucy Beard describe their parents as loving and devoted, having established a special bond that endured beyond their separation. A few weeks ago, for example, Beard accompanied Dillon on a road trip to Denver to help move Dillon’s mother into a new home.

“That’s just another example of his deep kindness and ability to form meaningful connections,” Lucy said.

In remembering Kennedy, who has three adult children from a previous marriage, friends and family recall his dedication to community journalism, a trade and tradition in which his entire family was steeped. 

“Our parents were both journalists, so all of us grew up learning journalism around the kitchen table,” said Kennedy’s sister, Ann Turner. “I believe at one point our parents owned 15 newspapers in Wyoming and Montana. We loved it. For us, community journalism was a way of life.”

In 1977, Kennedy graduated with a degree in journalism from the University of Wyoming, where he edited the Branding Iron student newspaper, serving as his sister’s editor. The following year, after a stint at the Sheridan Press in Sheridan, Wyo., Kennedy moved to Columbia Falls to own and edit the Hungry Horse News and, later, the Whitefish Pilot.

“He won numerous state and national awards during his newspaper career, which satisfied his desire to write, photograph and produce,” Turner wrote in his obituary. “But it was the beautiful Flathead Valley and Glacier Park that fulfilled his desire to be in the mountains, which began with his childhood in the Big Horn Mountains in Wyoming. He was always happiest in the mountains.”

Members of the Glacier Mountaineering Society including Brian Kennedy, Jack Beard and Don Scharfe. Courtesy photo

As longtime members of the Glacier Mountaineering Society, both Kennedy and Beard developed lasting relationships with legions of climbers. Kennedy put his editing and publishing skills to good use when he took over the club’s annual journal, which he produced for 14 years, growing it from a black-and-white newsletter to a full-color magazine. Beard’s influence and inclusivity will be remembered by the dozens of budding climbing enthusiasts he mentored in the Flathead Valley, organizing groups every Wednesday night to rock climb at Kila Crag west of Kalispell, while furnishing young mountaineers with subtle but poignant instruction on treks to Glacier’s highest peaks.

“Jack was one of the first people I met when I moved to Montana. We’d go climbing out at Kila, and here was this really quirky, really funny dude who had incredible style,” Sara Boilen, a clinical psychologist and avid climber and backcountry skier, said. “He was so humble and yet it was so obvious he had so much to teach. I don’t know how you balance that. After I got involved with GMS, I went on this amazing trip to climb Mount Cleveland with Brian and Jack and some other legends. It was unreal. It was Jack’s birthday and him and all his climbing buddies just let me come along. We were climbing this snowfield and retracing the steps of the Cleveland 5, but with the utmost humility. There was no preaching, and not even an overt effort to educate me, like, ‘Hey, Sara, let me show you how to hold your ice ax.’ But you just knew to watch them.”

Brian Kennedy and Denise Davies on the summit of Stob (Gaelic for point) Coire Raineach in the Glen Coe area of the Scottish Highlands in September 2018. Stob Coire Raineach is one of 282 mountains in Scotland over 3,000 feet, the highest being Ben Nevis at 4,413 feet. The rugged country and equally rugged residents have a rich mountaineering history. Courtesy photo

To help facilitate the Glacier Mountaineering Society members’ penchant for ping-pong parties, Denise Davies, Kennedy’s partner of 13 years, bought him a table last year so he could host gatherings. Together, Davies and Kennedy shared a passion for mountaineering as well as travel, having made plans to travel to the Dolomites next year to scale Italy’s iconic via ferrata routes.

After stumbling upon Kennedy’s meticulous list of Glacier summits, sorted alphabetically and bearing the dates of each summit, as well as dozens outside the park’s boundaries, including the highest in North America, Davies decided to calculate the number of peaks she had summited with Kennedy.

“I came up with 105, but only 42 of them were in Glacier,” she said. “He was so fixated on Glacier when I first met him. I was like, ‘you know, there are some nice peaks in the Bob, too.’ I think he loved the history of the park, and as a photographer and journalist he was always trying to capture better images.”

Despite her shared passion for mountaineering, Davies said she hasn’t taken much comfort knowing that Kennedy and Beard — with whom she cultivated a close friendship, frequently embarking on backcountry ski trips in the Jewel Basin and Middle Fork — died pursuing an objective that imbued both their lives with such meaning.

“Several people have said, ‘Well, they died doing what they loved,’ but even for me who loves climbing and grew up climbing, that hasn’t been a helpful statement,” she said. “It’s just too huge of a loss.”

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