The End of the Rainbow: A Tribute to Jennifer Shedden
On Sunday, March 31, 2019, I followed my friend, Dani Reyes-Acosta, as we drove down Benton Crossing Road towards the hot springs. Jade Woo, a Mammoth Lakes native photographer, came down the dirt road like a champ in her Ford Astrovan, to meet Dani at what I've been told is called Saline Hot Spring. A ski bum was already in the hot spring and we were friendly with him, but eventually scared him off. As the sun was setting and the light was growing dim, we saw a car shine its headlights and park off the road. We groaned about people encroaching on this hot spring. It was muddy with rocks mixed in and the slight hint of sulfur in the air. We continued to drink our beer and talked about how to scare off the intruding couple coming our way.
"Wait, is that Sam and Jenny?" Jade recognized them. It was. Jade knew the couple as she had dog sat for them in the past. Sam stood back from the hot spring with a tripod as he began to shoot astral photography. Jenny quickly became friends with Dani and I. Jenny mentioned something about backcountry skiing and Dani asked with excitement, "You backcountry ski?!" Jenny replied, "Oh, yeah. I'm a mountain girl." Those words have stuck with me for months. She told us how she just skied Wine Glass Couloir with a girl friend and invited us to join on her next backcountry outing. I was quick to admit that I'm a rookie backcountry skier, but she should go touring with Dani unless she wants a slower pace day. She talked about ice climbing as her passion and I told her that I 100% want to learn how to ice climb with her. It was immediately apparent that Jenny was filled to the brim with enthusiasm and stoke for life and the Eastern Sierra. We exchanged numbers with Jenny and I was excited to have another girl friend in Mammoth that got after it hard in the mountains.
Jenny had just moved from Santa Cruz the previous October, which was a month before I moved to Mammoth. Jenny invited me to go climbing and also to a local Women in Business meeting, which was the next time I saw her. We barely recognized each other because it had been so dark out at the hot springs. I saw Jenny a couple more times and we talked about skiing in-bounds together, but plans got shifted.
On Sunday, June 2, 2019, Jenny and I went for a ski tour on the backside of Mount Dana in Yosemite National Park. It was the first weekend that the 120 had opened and we were lucky enough to experience the slush backcountry for all that it was worth. While driving out of Mammoth, she broke down to me about her recent breakup and I felt crushed for her. Having been through heartbreak before, I tried to tell her how she will find someone better for her and it will all work out. We talked briefly about our families, especially how much we both love our moms. She had just returned from her college friend's wedding in Colorado and told me about how much fun she had skiing and celebrating her friends.
We parked near the Yosemite entrance. Jenny said she never did well with listening to authority, so we illegally brought along her dog, Lana, and her ex's dog, Niege. We adventured around the snow covered meadow and spotted a line we wanted to ski on the backside of Mount Dana. We toured around in the slush, Jenny moving much quicker than me. She was way more advanced at backcountry touring than me, but patient enough to wait. Towards the top, I ended up falling in a slushy tree hole and never made it to our planned summit. Jenny reached the summit of the line with the dogs and she skied down to me with Lana trailing not far behind. I joined her down the rest of the line and back to the car.
Jenny wanted to get back to Mammoth in time for the Warriors game. This really wasn't Jenny's year as the Warriors ended up losing the NBA Finals. When we were almost back to Lee Vining, we saw a rainbow over the 120. Jenny stopped her Prius so we could take pictures of it. That night, Jenny made a Google album for us to exchange photos of our adventure and she titled it, "Found the end of the rainbow! 🌈"
A few days later, I got a message from James Thornburg asking if I knew Jenny Shedden. He had met her at Alex Stelzer's wedding out in Colorado and went skiing with her. This was a huge coincidence, because I went to high school with James and Alex. I didn't know that the wedding Jenny had talked about was Alex Stelzer's. Jenny and I bonded over this later. I felt even more that it was kismet that I met Jenny out at the hot springs that one night.
Over the next month, Jenny and I kept in touch quite a bit. She called me to ask where she should take her mom for dinner in town and I felt honored that she was asking for my opinion, because she had actually lived in Mammoth longer.
I remember we were making plans to boulder after work out at the geothermal area. The Sunday before we had plans to climb that week, I was in a ski accident and I blew my knee out. As bummed as I was to cancel plans, I honestly felt lucky that was the only thing wrong with my body. Jenny was so reassuring that this accident is just a minor setback and it's going to make me stronger overall. Her confidence in that really helped me get through it.
She sent me encouraging thoughts leading up to my surgery and during my PT recovery. She kept me up to date on most of her climbing adventures and it helped me through the worst of the knee pain days. Although I really wanted to be in the mountains with her, I felt really stoked that at least my friend was getting after it. She was getting after it harder than I ever would and her stoke was contagious.
In September, we were both looking for roommates, but having bad luck. We were on the phone and it just clicked. I went over to her house one evening and we talked about what it would be like to live together over a pot of tea. Shortly after, I was invited to interview for a dream job that I'd have to move out of town for. I told Jenny that I couldn't sign a year lease right now. I felt really bad, but her response was so positive and it worked out because she found other roommates to be stoked on.
Our last texts were late Sunday night on October 13 when she told me she just got back into service after climbing in Whitney Portal. I told her that we should grab a drink soon. She said, "Sounds good 🍶." It was perfect because although Jenny didn't know this, I had recently told a few friends that we should split hot sake when we go to Ramenya and they all told me they didn't like sake. Looking back, there had been a few things Jenny had said and did that I found very serendipitous in our friendship. I don't usually believe in fate, but it was definitely serendipity that brought Jenny into my life out at the hot springs.
The following week, my roommate, Gina Montecallo, started a new job at the Town of Mammoth Lakes. I kept telling her how awesome Jenny is and that she should meet her because she would be a good ski touring/climbing partner. Gina briefly met her and overheard her talking about going up some couloir over the weekend very casually. She asked me if there was skiing right now and I said, "Maybe, but it would have to be very high up. Over 13,000 feet and Jenny is that intense." But Jenny wasn't going skiing.
On Monday, October 28, I saw a post that a young woman named Michelle Xue was missing. I clicked on her profile and saw she was friends with Jenny. The thought crossed my mind that Jenny could have been with her, but it was a brief thought and I had no proof to connect the dots.
On the morning of Tuesday, October 29, I got the news via text from Gina that Jenny had passed away while attempting to ice climb the North Couloir on Red Slate Mountain. I was stunned. There was another unread message from Blair at Big Willi Mountaineering Company in Lone Pine asking me to call Jenny because she was missing. I was having trouble processing and I called a couple friends to talk through it. My friend/mentor in the mountains was gone and all I could think about was, "What happened?"
I opened my backcountry ski guide to get a good look at the North Couloir. I was immediately stunned - 2,500 feet of exposure and 50 degrees. She was attempting one of the most difficult alpine ice climbs in the Sierra. I refused to think it was human error. Jenny was well-educated and had good mountain sense. She was an advanced alpine climber and wouldn't attempt a route with a partner that wasn't well-prepared. It had to be rockfall.
The morning after, I woke up in shock and panic. There is a period after a death where the subconscious in sleep doesn't recognize that person is gone and you wake up with your conscious knowing, which causes this overwhelming feeling of grief. It continued for days. I can't believe that she is gone. This is horrible. I took off for a road trip south that I had previously planned. When I passed Convict Lake, tears streamed down my face. Little did I know that Search & Rescue was extracting Jenny and Michelle's bodies from the route at that time. The overwhelming sense of grief hit me so hard along the 395. My face was soaked in salt water when I finally flipped off the mountains in Olancha. It made me feel better. The mountains broke my heart and it was painful to look at the beautiful giants on my right. I got a text from my roommate that it was rockfall. I was almost to Mojave and I cried some more with the thought of what happened to Jenny and Michelle.
About 1,100 feet up the route, Jenny and Michelle were hit by a large amount of quickly moving rockfall. I later found out that the rocks were roughly the size of a microwave and potentially fell from over 1,000 feet above. Jenny was so well-prepared and damn good at mountaineering that they were both still anchored into the ice three days later. It made the recovery very difficult for Search and Rescue. I'm so grateful for the teams that worked to recover them and I overwhelmingly love the Mono County's Sheriff's Office for hosting briefings for Jenny's family and friends. You can read about what happened here.
In the short amount of time I knew Jenny, I saw her as both a friend and mentor. She taught me about the mountains in a new way. We talked about completing alpine ascents in the future. She told me she wanted to ski the Dana Couloir and I told her I'd wait for her at the top of Ellery Bowl to ski that with her when she was done. She was one of the first to tell me she would be there to backcountry ski whatever line I wanted to do once my knee is cleared. She offered to teach me how to ice climb and pointed out the climbing area down in Lee Vining Canyon while we were driving on the 120. Jenny radiated with enthusiasm and stoke for life and the outdoors. I've lost a handful of friends in untimely deaths this year, but I'm crushed at this loss. This is my first true friend to pass in the mountains and I am heartbroken. I have so much pain for Jenny and her family rather than my loss. It really hurts. I send my best to Michelle's friends and family as well.
Jenny, thank you for opening up so quickly in our friendship and for being a solid mountain partner to me and so many others. You were one of the people I admired most in the Eastern Sierra and I looked forward to every time I heard from or saw you. I know you've found the end of the rainbow and I'll meet you there someday. You’re like a diamond in the Milky Way and I am already getting little reminders of you in the sky. I love you to the mountains and back.