Spending time at the peak
EAGLE COUNTY – It took Jean McGuey forever to haul herself up a mountain. She had several good reasons to be slower, only one being accumulating years. But more impressive than her slogging pace was her indomitable will. Always, she got her summit. McGuey, who died Sunday at the age of 69, had grit.Mountains were a large part of her life for several decades. She moved to Colorado in about 1980, and soon began ski instructing, first at Keystone and then in Vail. She relished the fraternity of the Vail-Beaver Creek Ski School, working out of Lionshead, but even more, she was a devoted explorer of the high peaks and remote valleys.She climbed all Colorado’s 54 peaks higher than 14,000 feet, of course, but that was just one achievement among many. She ascended three dozen of the Gore Range peaks, not one of them a fourteener. She may well have climbed hundreds of peaks across Colorado, many of them unnamed and many of them multiple times. Every day outside was a good one.Little excuse was needed to get Jean on a trail or up talus. Once, in October 1997, she and I ascended Eagle Peak. The U.S. Forest Service map listed its elevation as surpassing 13,600 feet, which would have made it Eagle County’s third-highest peak. We thought the map was wrong, and vowed to field check it.The map – since corrected to 13,067 feet – was wrong, but the view into the inner recesses of the Holy Cross Wilderness Area was just right. Equally wonderful was that evening’s hike back to the car under a crescent moon amid crinkly aspen leaves. She and her wide circle of friends had many such outings.McGuey also completed the state’s highest 100 peaks in 2000. Although she later reported that Jagged, a peak in the San Juan Mountains, to be more difficult than any other, the story of her four attempts to get up Dallas Peak, between Telluride and Ridgway, illustrates her perseverance and even a certain fearlessness.The first time up, the guides took a wrong route and the group spent the night anchored by ropes in a gully near the 13,800-foot summit looking down on the twinkle-twinkle lights of Telluride some 5,000 feet below.
Twice later she hired a guide from Telluride who inexplicably failed to arrive at the camp on the mountain’s shoulder. Finally, the fourth time, it all came together. With the proper rope work, her group got atop the peak and from the summit rappelled 100 feet over an overhang. She was 64 at the time.Extreme has no age limits. Lightning bolts, airy perches, or the mere grunt of physical exertion – she would allow none to cloud her mountain adventures. She was unrelenting.More than peak baggingWhere did she get this drive? Maybe from her upbringing. She was born Oct. 7, 1935, in Charlottetown, on Canada’s Prince Edward Island, a place of long, hostile winters and summers that are short but glorious. Her family’s life was sparse and mostly self-sufficient.Both her parents, Reginald E. and Evelyn Mallet Parkman, were sturdy well into old age, remaining on the farm until nearly their 90s. Far into her 80s, her mother was known to chase livestock at a near run. As well, her mother loved a good pun.That was Jean, too. She loved jokes and told them well. She was goofy and giggly, and when something amused her, could chortle and snort. Jean was also punctilious about words. She avidly read the local papers, but could be a nag to editors, writers and advertisers. No substitution of it’s for its was tolerated, nor role for roll. Owing to her vigilant, hounding attention, the geographically confused “New York Range” is less often seen in local real estate and advertisements and news columns.
She knew the mountains as few do. Confronting the Gore Range from atop Vail Mountain or the Tenmile Range while crossing Vail Pass, she could put coherence into the jumble of peaks, naming them one by one. Walking a trail, she could name the wildflowers left and right, the trees high and low. Climbing mountains was more than peak bagging.The mountains were also a social occasion. She, along with Hemmie Westby, was the driving force behind creation of the Gore Range Group of the Colorado Mountain Club in 1988, an organization that now has more than 100 members. From potlucks to the trip calendar to the group newsletter, she glued the local chapter together.From library lectures to Bravo and Vilar concerts, to which she gained entry as a volunteer, McGuey also immersed herself in the culture of the Vail area at every opportunity. She lived the good life on a shoestring with only an occasional grumble. She took to heart conservation issues and was reliably drafted to aid in such efforts. Her life was one of engagement.’Scratch your eyeballs out’McGuey had attended Prince of Wales College in Charlottestown where, according to her brother-in-law, Lloyd Seaman, “she attracted boys like flies to honey.” Moving to Toronto at age 18, she studied interior design at Humber College, learned to ski, and met David McGuey, the love of her life. They were married in 1956.During the next 16 years they moved around with his job: to Ottawa, Washington, San Francisco, and back to Toronto, where they separated. Heartbroken, with a pain that lingered to the end of her life, she returned to California in the early 1970s, living in Los Angeles.Moving to Denver, she thrived as an interior designer during the hopped-up years of the early ’80s energy boom while also becoming steadily more engaged with skiing and mountains.
Finally, in the later 1980s, she attempted to merge work and play in Vail. None of the design jobs ever panned out, for reasons opaque to her friends. The flip side of perseverance is stubbornness, and she could be fiercely independent. Was she unwilling to forego mountaineering weekends in order to get ahead in the design world?During the last decade, she worked primarily two jobs, as an executive secretary at first the Vail Valley Tourism and Convention Bureau and then at the Vail Recreation District. She threw herself into those jobs.In early December 2002 she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, a doorway with only the most remote prospect of return passage. Delaying the surgeon’s knife until just before Christmas, she chose instead to help stage several Vail rec district events.That surgery and chemotherapy probably gave her an extra 18 months. She used it well. She retired from the rec district in December 2003, moving then to Ottawa, Canada, to be near family members and take advantage of Canadian socialized medicine. But she twice returned for month-long trips to Colorado last year. She skied and hiked a bit, but most important connected with friends.During her illness, she softened her streak of privacy and independence only a little, but embraced the life that remained with gusto and mostly good humor.I last saw her at a dinner in September. The host had a battery-powered pepper grinder, and the novelty amused us all. We turned to other subjects, but some minutes later I glanced up from my steak to see Jean giggling again. She just couldn’t get over the silliness of a battery-powered pepper grinder.And in mid-December, Jean gave her Colorado friends a report on her status fromt the hospice.This is the way she ended her final letter:”Hope the powder doesn’t scratch your eyeballs out.”Vail, Colorado