Colorado icon John Fielder had a wealth of great stories to go with his photos
To become the most well-known nature photographer in Colorado, John Fielder had to visit locations that are anything but.
Fielder built his reputation by photographing the state’s hard-to-reach places, the nooks and crannies that are, quite literally, off the beaten path. And those trips, in addition to photos, also produced many memorable stories.
As noted by Fielder’s biographer, Steve Walsh, in his 2019 book “John Fielder in Focus,” Fielder would have never felt comfortable taking pictures in everyday locations, with other photographers nearby.
“He has always avoided photographing iconic, that is, well-known places, in favor of less visited, more remote locations,” writes Walsh.
Fielder died Aug. 11 after a prolonged struggle with pancreatic cancer, leaving all of his Colorado photography to History Colorado. Fielder’s countless trips into rugged terrain resulted in a collection of more than 7,000 photos donated, a collection which was distilled from the 200,000 photos Fielder had made since 1973.
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In creating this extensive collection, all those incursions into the unknown — the off-trail wanderings, the detours down drainages, the amount of bushwhacking and scrambling that had to occur — resulted in a lot of close calls, near misses and life-threatening situations for Fielder.
I had the pleasure of discussing this topic with him a couple of times in the years before his passing; he managed to survive all of his adventures without any injuries by always maintaining safety as paramount, and he told me sharing that side of his craft is why he was so pleased with Walsh’s book and its easy reading style, which is good for kids who are starting to explore nature.
He sent me a copy of the book and wrote in the inscription that he thought I would enjoy his story of the flying llama, which Walsh included.
In the book, Walsh says Fielder “had to solve considerable problems or self-rescue himself over 100 times in his life,” and shares a few of those stories.
“In 2018 alone, he endured two difficult situations,” Walsh writes. “John had to get himself, a sick llama, and 200 pounds of gear out of a remote part of Colorado’s Umcompagne Wilderness near Lake City … a week later, he flipped his raft upside down in a dangerous whitewater rapid in the Colorado River.”
John and Jon
I was also fortunate enough to have Fielder share with me some stories that aren’t in Walsh’s book. Two of the stories involve Dr. Jon Kedrowski, the Colorado mountaineer best known for summiting and camping overnight on the summit of all of Colorado’s 14ers.
Fielder, in the winter, preferred to travel into the backcountry with friends due to the often dangerous condition of the snowpack in Colorado. In an avalanche burial, your partner can be your only chance of survival, and Fielder said he had found an amazing partner in Kedrowski.
More than a burial situation, however, it was Kedrowski’s ability to predict where an avalanche might happen, and avoid it, from which Fielder benefitted. In January 2019, during a trip to the Green-Wilson hut in the Elk Mountains above Aspen, Fielder had to outski an avalanche that ran down a path Kedrowski had pointed out minutes earlier.
Fielder skied the area first and stayed clear of the avalanche path Kedrowski had pointed out for almost all of his turns, but Fielder did, on one turn, cross into the area slightly.
“He dropped down, kind of out of the way into a gully,” Kedrowski said. “His tracks probably loosened it some and then I went out just to locate where he is, and as soon as I stepped out near where the crown was, but in a safe spot, my vibration triggers this slide, and it starts going down towards him.”
Kedrowski yelled down to Fielder, who started skiing out of the way.
“It was one of those remote releases, where sonic waves through the ground trigger the release,” Fielder said. “And I had to out-ski the damn thing.”
Kedrowski said Fielder knew right where to go to get out of the way of the slide.
“He skis to the right, 50 yards into this rock that’s above a gully, and the snow goes left into the gully and he gets away right in the nick of time,” Kedrowski said.
Among the photos in Fielder’s collection: A shot of Kedrowski pointing out exactly where the avalanche would slide, moments before it did.
‘The things I learned’
In the winter, Fielder traveled by ski to get his photos, and in the summer he often used rafts. During the summer of 2016, Kedrowski joined Fielder for a 165-mile float of the Dolores River.
Kedrowski described it as the experience of a lifetime, proven by the fact that his life did flash in front of him on one occasion.
“The things I learned,” Kedrowski said. “Just being on that river, watching him do his photography.”
Fielder did the paddling and also gave Kedrowski a paddle for the spicy sections. It was an eight-day trip, with a mostly mild river, but for a few notable exceptions.
“We’d get out of the boat to scout, and he’d say OK when we get here, you gotta paddle here and you gotta paddle there,” Kedrowski said.
But on Stateline Rapid, which was running like a Class V due to the high water level, their route didn’t quite go to plan.
“He loses an oar, I get hit because of a rock, fall over, drop my paddle, then he’s got one other paddle that’s in his oar rigger, it falls out, and all of a sudden we’re going down Stateline Rapid backwards with no paddle,” Kedrowski said. “There’s this rock that we’re gonna hit, and if you hit that rock, you’re toast, you’d flip the raft and be in there … we’re going backwards toward this rock, and he’s like ‘grab the oar,’ and I look to my right as we’re going backwards and somehow one of his oars is next to me in the river, and I grab it out quick, hand the handle over to him and he clicks it into his oar rigger just enough to get one pull on the oar, enough to pull us back into the current and avoid this rock.
“After that we just rode it out, and then I see the other oar about a minute later, and I grab the other oar out of the river, give him that, and all of a sudden we’re good,” Kedrowski continued. “Afterward we pulled off the river and just looked at each other like ‘we’re still alive!'”
The Flying Llama
Fielder told me that incidents in rivers, vehicles getting stuck in remote locations, and llama issues caused most of his self-rescue situations. One of the not-so-secret secrets to Fielder’s success was his use of llamas to transport heavy camera gear.
“For 38 years I’ve been renting llamas, mostly from Buckhorn Llamas which is in Masonville,” he told me from his home in Summit County in 2020. “I typically lease them for the whole summer, and keep them up here in the Lower Blue Valley in between trips.”
The story of the flying llama, detailed in Walsh’s book, happened in 2002 on Storm Pass in the West Elk Wilderness, after Fielder and a group of hikers led one of their llamas, named Whitey, to a steep part of the mountain to see how Whitey would react to the hikers glissading down a snow face.
“His front legs soon ‘post holed’ (sunk) in the soft snow all the way up to his chest,” Walsh writes, quoting Fielder. “He lost his balance, began plunging downhill, and then did three complete full-frontal body flips in mid-air before landing on his back. He continued to slide down the mountain on the snow backward and upside-down at 40 miles per hour.
“I looked over at the other people, and they all had their mouths wide open in disbelief,” Fielder continued. “Then I looked over at the other two llamas, and they had their mouths wide open, too! I had never seen llamas look like this. Whitey came to a complete stop 800 vertical feet below us, just before the snow ended and the big rocks began. From far away I could see him stand up. Apparently, he was OK. I asked the guys to take the llamas down the mountain a different way where the snow had melted, and I glissaded down to Whitey. He was shaking, but unharmed. Whitey completed the trip six days later with the rest of us.”
More llama drama
A final story Fielder shared is also about llamas; it happened in the Vail area during the summer of 2020. It’s a story that Fielder said was, in relation to all his other incidents, a 9 out of 10 in terms of stress.
In nearly four decades of llama use, Fielder had never lost a llama and have it not return, so when that finally happened in July 2020, he was devastated.
The trip was in the Gore Creek drainage, a somewhat routine adventure for Fielder being in the Gore Range near his home in Summit County. But, as famously described by Fielder himself, the Gore Range is one of the two most rugged mountain ranges in Colorado, (with the other being the Needles Range in the San Juan Mountains).
While Fielder often used the same llamas summer after summer, in 2020, he was working with two new llamas, Earl and Soledad, and had only taken them on one other trip before embarking into the Gore Range in early July. Fielder and the animals were carrying 200 pounds of camping gear, camera gear, food, beer and other luxuries, and Fielder was feeling good about himself for being able to get the animals into a remote area of the Eagle’s Nest Wilderness.
“This is a place that’s totally off trail, just a really extraordinary alpine cirque,” he said. “Somehow I was able, on game trails, to drag the llamas in there.”
While Fielder slept, Earl and Soledad were hitched to the ground via an 18-foot rope attached to a picket stake.
“The picket stakes — which are metal corkscrews — even though they’ll keep a llama on a picket rope pretty secure, under dire circumstances if the llamas are going ballistic, they can pull them out of the ground,” Fielder said.
Fielder awoke early the morning of July 9, 2020, to find his llamas had pulled their stakes out of the ground and fled his camp. He said it looked like a bear got into the camp overnight and spooked the animals. He found Soledad nearby.
“This is an area that you can only exit through downed timber and talus boulders, and Soledad immediately got hooked up on downed timber,” Fielder said. “And he only had 8 inches of free travel, so he would have starved to death.”
Earl was nowhere to be found, and Fielder worried that he was in a similar circumstance to Soledad, trapped in a place where survival would be unlikely. Fielder and Soledad spent two days looking for Earl before Fielder decided he had better notify others. He had to haul out the gear that Earl had hauled in — another one of those “considerable problems or self-rescue” situations Walsh had described, but not a major one in terms of what Fielder had seen over the years. He was, however, immensely distraught over the possibility of losing a llama.
Fielder posted signs at trailheads in East Vail, placed an ad in the Vail Daily, and let all his friends know via social media and word of mouth. Kedrowski was among Fielder’s friends who went looking for the llama, scouring the area but not finding the animal.
Fielder knew that the Eagle Summit Wilderness Alliance’s Volunteer Wilderness Rangers regularly patrolled the Eagles Nest Wilderness, so he asked the alliance to notify those rangers to be on the lookout for Earl.
One ranger made dedicated attempts to find Earl on July 16 and July 18, departing from both the Gore Creek trailhead in Vail and the Buffalo Mountain trailhead in Silverthorne.
After 10 days and all that effort, Fielder had given up hope.
“I was pessimistic, at that point in time, that he would be found,” Fielder said.
But the wilderness ranger who made the trips on July 16 and 18, Brad, was determined to find some trace of the animal, dead or alive, and kept looking. Brad described his effort to the Eagle-Summit Wilderness Alliance for the group’s September 2020 newsletter, saying he made a third attempt on July 20, again using the Buffalo Mountain trailhead to access the high point in the basin where Fielder camped.
“After spending 15 minutes looking for any movement in the basin, I descended through the rock glacier that separates the ridgeline from the ponds,” Brad wrote. “I crested the glacier edge, and looked down toward the creek. To my surprise Earl was bedded down between the rock glacier’s edge and the creek, with his picket rope and corkscrew stuck in the rocks. … Based on the amount of free rope, it appeared Earl had access to water, alpine willow leaves, and some grass along the creek. He was found about 400 yards from his campsite with John. Earl had bolted down the steep grass south of the ponds and instead of turning down the game trail like Soledad, John’s other llama that he found the next morning, Earl had crossed the creek and become trapped between the rock glacier and creek. In the end, a safe location to be trapped.”
Brad called Fielder, who was ecstatic to receive the news.
“In terms of the emotional distress,” Fielder said, “of what would have been the first llama that I had ever lost, completely, and never found, and how sad that would be, that was a 9 on a 10 scale.”