You could say the Devil made him do it, but that is only true initially.
In 1978 while teaching in Gillette, Wyoming, Steve Gardiner got hooked on climbing Devil’s Tower.
“That’s not an easy place to learn,” he said of the steep intrusion of magma that soars 867 feet above the surrounding pine tree countryside. “There’s not really any beginning routes. The easiest is a 5.6, and that’s an intermediate climb.”
His leader on those early climbs was Frank Sanders, who now owns a lodge near the base of the tower and still guides climbers to the top. Sanders called Gardiner a voracious learner at a time when climbers didn’t even have manufactured harnesses. A fall with only a rope tied around their waist could cut a man in half, he said.
“We climbed and ran together, beyond diligently, in a frenzied manner,” Sanders said. “I don’t know if it was Steve’s ignorance or vision, but in terms of new stuff he didn’t see any limits.”
Gardiner climbed so many routes on Devils Tower that he ended up writing a 1985 guide book. But rock climbing wouldn’t be his sole interest long; by 1979 he was climbing Washington’s 14,410-foot high Mount Rainier.
“That was my first time on a mountain with glaciers that huge and crevasses that deep,” he said. “I was pretty nervous.”
Rightfully so. After reaching the summit in heavy cloud cover, his group of seven was soon trapped in a blizzard. To weather the storm they dug snow caves with their ice axes and huddled, hoping the storm would soon break.
“I was very frightened about spending the night in a snow cave and that it would lead to problems,” he said.
Luckily, the storm broke and the climbers sprinted in their crampons to get back to the climbing hut and their camping gear. For that to happen in his second year of climbing was humbling, Gardiner said.
Gardiner’s addiction to climbing has changed his life in other ways, too, welding him to certain fellow climbers in a way that people who have never teetered cold and exhausted on the edge of a precipice can understand. The sport has also taken him to unusual places of stark and harsh beauty and made him explore the limits of his mental and physical endurance.
Now 63 and retired from 38 years of teaching — most recently at Billings Senior High where he also coached cross country, taught English and journalism and oversaw the yearbook’s publication — Gardiner has self-published a book about 65 trips he took with Colorado geophysicist John Jancik to draw attention and funding to the plight of Tibetans, and also to “celebrate one mountain culture to preserve another.”
“Highpointing for Tibet: A Journey Supporting The Rowell Fund,” is available on Amazon as well as at The Base Camp in Billings and Sylvan Peak Mountain Shop in Red Lodge. The cost is $17.95. A portion of the money raised will go to the Rowell Fund.
The original quest was to climb 50 states’ highpoints in one year. That original quest was later modified to include international highpoints and is now in its 11th year.
Jancik said the book is a good way to tell the story of motivated individuals — the core four climbers — as well as to show how they combined adventure with a cause that is not high profile: the plight of Tibetans and the need to preserve their culture in the wake of a Chinese takeover.
“We also hope to inspire people to combine their passion and hobbies to help mankind,” Jancik said.
Money for Tibet
The Rowell Fund was established in memory of noted outdoor photographer Galen Rowell and his wife Barbara, who died in a 2002 plane crash. The fund was created in 2004 by the International Campaign for Tibet’s board of directors. Jancik sits on the board, which funds a variety of cultural and environmental projects for the Tibetan people. So far, the Rowell Fund has raised more than $300,000.
Jancik and Gardiner met in 1995 as Jancik was preparing a monthlong expedition to northern Greenland in 1996. That trip would include Galen Rowell. Rowell’s photos of the Top of the World Expedition were published in Life magazine. The long journey cemented Jancik’s and Gardiner’s bond.
“He has a good sense of humor, is an excellent climber, excellent writer and a very loyal family man and friend,” Jancik said of Gardiner. “It’s been fun traveling around the world with him to Africa, South America, Asia, Europe and North America. We’ve seen a lot of expeditions together.”
Jancik said trust, loyalty and dependability are key features he looks for in a good climbing partner, since they hold on to the other end of the rope, and with Gardiner he has found all of those characteristics, in addition to a good friend who has helped him weather difficult and good times.
Now vs. then
When he was younger, Gardiner said climbing was about how hard a route he could climb, pushing to challenge himself while also seeking different routes.
“At 63 it’s not what it was at 23,” he said, “but I still get out every summer.
“Now it’s about the sights and being with friends in the mountains,” he said.
Sanders said his climbs with Gardiner were as close as he would ever get to being a 12-year-old again.
“There was no crusade that was too tough,” he said. “There was no climb that was too high, no race too long. We were constantly in search of a new place to conquer.
“Steve was always just guns ahead.”
In a 1991 Christian Science Monitor story Gardiner wrote about a trek that he and three other climbers made to Alaska’s Harding Icefield in Kenai Fjords National Park. On that journey the group made three first ascents of mountains after paddling sea kayaks, but that wasn’t what was most important.
“What I most wanted, I learned, was to comprehend a piece of nature by my own explorations,” he wrote.
Sanders keeps a “precious” copy of the article on a clipboard, along with another that Gardiner wrote about taking a year off from teaching to be a stay-at-home dad.
“Those two articles speak to me of Steve’s width, and depth and breadth,” Sanders said. “Those articles would always inspire me.
“Mr. Gardiner chokes me up every time,” Sanders said, his voice cracking. “He’s more than just a brute of a man.”