a colorado life

Pair defined 'upwardly mobile'

Friends' passion for rock climbing was unquenchable

Tom's Personal HomePage

A fellow climber reminisces about Tom.

Tom's report and pictures on climbing Long's Peak Diamond for estes.on-line.com.

By Jim Sheeler
Special to The Denver Post

Sunday, August 12, 2001 - When rangers from Yosemite National Park found the rolls of film in the car, they hoped to learn something about the bodies at the bottom of Middle Cathedral Rock.


When the film was developed, the snapshots dripped with adrenaline.

In the pictures, the two climbers hug walls of granite throughout the park, alternately serious and smiling, hundreds of feet above the ground. Many climbers would take weeks to climb all the places in those photos, yet the film from the car spanned only five days.

It wasn't that Tom Dunwiddie and Monika Eldridge were in a hurry, they told their friends. This activity was just their natural pace.

When he pressed his cheek to the warm face of a rock, Dunwiddie understood what he felt, he understood it down to his nerves. A world-renowned neuroscientist, he found relaxation while dangling from cliffs, his synapses firing in complete concentration.

In a different way, Eldridge also found knowledge in the alternating stress and peace of the sheer rock faces. A nuclear and solar engineer, she held millions of megawatts at her fingertips, then gave it up, spending the last part of her life searching for renewable power, hoping to protect the places she loved.

Away from the climbs, Dunwiddie, 49, and Eldridge, 40, led separate lives. Their friendship was linked by their knowledge of the ropes and anchors, by the understanding of each other's strengths, and the desire to make another ascent.

About a year before their trip to Yosemite, Dunwiddie had thought about giving up climbing after a friend's close call in Utah. He should have known he would return to the rocks. Inside his lab at the University of Colorado, his specialty was addiction.

About 1 p.m. July 12, a fisherman on Yosemite's Merced Lake heard the sound of rocks breaking loose, and looked up to see the two climbers falling, still tied together. Dunwiddie's and Eldridge's bodies collided with rocks as they fell more than 800 feet, and they died as the air rushed past.

Tom's early start

On Tom Dunwiddie's kindergarten report card, he received one poor mark:

"Doesn't nap well," the teacher wrote.

The family took outdoor trips in their native Wisconsin from the time Tom was a baby. When he was only 20 months old, the family took a canoe trip together, and by the time he was walking, he was hiking. When they weren't outside, he and his siblings, Alice, Jean and Peter, played chamber music as a quartet, with Tom on violin. The music took a backseat when Tom left for college, however - the group met on the same evening as the climbing club.

Though he attended college at the University of Wisconsin and University of California, he spent much of his spare time in the mountains of Colorado. At school he concentrated on research involving how nerves send information to the brain. He put the theories into practice while backcountry skiing, mountain biking and climbing. When a chance arrived in 1978 to take a postdoctoral position at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, there was never a question.

It wasn't long before he made an impression on the professors - and not only with his depth of intelligence and research. Instead of spending every waking moment in the lab, he taught the scientists to telemark ski and took them on hikes on mountains they had previously viewed only through windows. During a brain research conference in Keystone, he passed up the condo where his colleagues stayed, choosing instead to camp in his own snow cave.

In 1981, Dunwiddie was given his own lab at the Health Sciences Center, where his name would find its way onto hundreds of research papers - many of them concerning the brain's reaction to drugs and reasons for drug abuse.

Inside Dunwiddie's lab, the researchers are still trying to get used to turning on the lights every morning. Usually, he was the first one there. On his office walls, climbing posters hang above scientific journals. When he thought nobody was looking, he would use the door frames to pull himself up by his fingertips.

After the announcement of his death, e-mail condolences poured in from around the world. At his funeral at City Park on July 27, colleagues flew in from as far as Sweden to remember his legacy to the field - and to the mountains.

"I respect his science," said Barry Hoffer, Dunwiddie's postdoctoral mentor. "But more importantly, I respect his approach to science."

No holding her back

When Monika Eldridge was 3, her parents put up a chain-link fence around their new home in Tennessee. The day the fence was completed, Monika climbed over it.

"I could not build a treehouse that was safe from her," said her older brother, Owen. "Whether it was one in the yard or one hidden in the woods, she would find it and climb it."

She had always dreamed of becoming an astronaut but was told she was too short (just over 5 feet tall) and had less-than-perfect vision. That didn't stop her from graduating from the University of Delaware in 1982 with a degree in mechanical and aerospace engineering. Soon after graduation, she found a job with Consumers Power Co. in Michigan, and was the first woman in the state certified to run a nuclear power plant.

Despite her success, she told friends she was bored staring at control panels all day, that she found the real challenges outdoors. In 1990, she left her literal seat of power and headed for Boulder.

For Eldridge, the Flatirons were dull-pink magnets, drawing her to their base for sunrise runs every day. After a few hours at work with an energy consulting firm, she would take off on her mountain bike and ride up Flagstaff Mountain during her lunch break.

In 1999, she left the company and formed her own consulting firm, Competitive Utility Strategies, looking to find ways to better use energy, concentrating on renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power. She worked from home, where she built a climbing wall in the basement.

"She pushed me and drove me more than anyone to kind of put out the best I could do," said Charles Janecek, who worked with Eldridge for several years. "I'll never have another boss like her."

Not a difficult climb

The granite of Middle Cathedral Rock stretches more than 1,000 feet from the bottom of the Yosemite Valley. The climb up the Direct North Buttress is considered an advanced intermediate climb - not an extremely difficult one but long and involved. By all accounts, Middle Cathedral Rock was well within the range of the pair's climbing expertise.

According to a report on the accident by park investigators, "it appears that the man was leading the climb and the female was belaying at the time" of the fall. "He took a leader fall and the force of arresting the fall pulled the belay anchors from their attachment point."

"The one thing that everyone agrees on is that more than one thing went wrong," said Dunwiddie's wife, Nancy, who also works as a researcher and professor at the Health Sciences Center.

After police told her the news, she thought about going out to Yosemite to see the rock, but then decided against it. She may go one day, she says, but not yet.

Though she spent most of the past 20 years near Tom, she didn't share her husband's passion for technical climbing. She hiked with him, she skied with him and worked near him, but rarely strapped on the gear.

"I don't have to be challenged the way he did," she said. "To relax, Tom had to have all his faculties engaged in that sport."

In their house, Tom built a climbing wall stretching from the basement to the attic. Another climbing wall in the garage occasionally snagged the car's right-hand mirror. At the couple's cabin in the mountains, he would practice climbing on the beams that held the house. In winter he would stand outside on the railing of the porch and do back flips into the snow.

"Someone asked me once if I'd ever tried to get Tom to stop climbing," Nancy said. "I said I don't think he would have been the same person."

Plans to help others

During her life, Eldridge occasionally scribbled down her thoughts, along with life lessons. On one page her family found, she had written "My Philosophy," then attempted to figure out what it was.

"Why am I here on earth? I don't know, but I can make the most of it," she wrote. "I feel as if there is a special reason for me being here, but I can't seem to figure out what it is."As he walked in her backyard, her friend Leland Keller said he has an idea of the answer.

"Her philosophy was largely based on balance, acceptance and doing what you can do for others," Keller said. "She lived it. She didn't fake it. High integrity. Very authentic. Genuine, loving person."

In the backyard, shining blue, sun-catching tiles ring a dry fountain. She was in the process of converting the fountain to solar power. Inside, her home is sparsely appointed, with only the possessions she knew she could use.

In the past year, she had signed on to work with the Hopi Indian Nation to expand solar power on the Arizona reservation through a company (majority owned by the Hopis) called Native Sun.

"We're going to move forward with the project, but I figure I'm going to have to bring in at least two, and possibly as many as four people to replace the expertise she had," said Rick Gilliam, her partner in the project. "She was certainly talented. But the energy and enthusiasm she had was infectious."

As it turned out, her family says, she never needed to question her place in the world. Among her things, they found another guide to life in her handwriting:

Live each day to the fullest

Get the most from each hour, each day

And each age of your life

Be yourself, but be your best self

Dare to be different/ And follow your own star

Don't be afraid to be happy

Enjoy what is beautiful

Love with all your heart and soul

Believe that those you love

Love you.

When you are faced with decision

Make that decision as wisely as possible then forget it

The moment of absolute certainty never arrives.

And above all, remember that

God helps those who help themselves

Act as if everything depended upon it

And pray as if everything depended upon God.

Final images to cherish

In late 1999, Nancy started saving her husband's answering machine messages. He had called after a friend was injured by a falling rock in Utah. It was the first time in two decades she heard Tom call to say there had been an accident. He said he would stop climbing, but was back on the rocks within months.

His last message from Yosemite was typically upbeat.

"At the end (of the message) he said, "Have fun with all your buddies,'" she said. "He wasn't one to say "I love you' or "I'm missing you' on the phone. You could read between the lines. It was just the fact that he called."

In the scientific community, they were known as a model couple, two people who could work so hard, yet could leave it at the lab, escaping together on the slopes and trails.

Sometimes he would joke about the pictures she took. While his were often extreme shots of skiers or climbers, or long views of mountain ranges, she would often take multiple close-ups of wildflowers.

"More of Nancy's flower pictures," he would say with a smile when showing off the slides.

In those last photos her husband ever took, Nancy saw something the rangers couldn't have understood. "In that last roll, he had taken about a dozen pictures of flowers," she remembered.

"I was looking at the pictures with his sister and she pointed to the flowers. She said, "See. He was thinking of you.'"

To leave questions or comments for A Colorado Life, call 303-516-1959 or e-mail jsheeler@earthnet.net