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John Clinton Fonda, 1932-1960


On February 9, 1960, while on ski patrol in the northern part of Grand Teton National Park, John Fonda lost his life when his skis broke through the ice of the Snake River. Going to his aid, the two rangers with him also broke through into the water. Assistant Chief Ranger Stanley Spurgeon was able to pull Ranger Gail Wilcox from the water, but Wilcox died from exposure shortly after.

John Fonda was bom in Boulder, Colorado, 28 years ago. Following his graduation from Estes Park High School he served three years in the Army, 15 months of it in Korea. He attended the University of Colorado and was graduated from the University of Montana in the field of English Literature.

During his youth and later as a Seasonal Park Ranger at Rocky Mountain National Park, he climbed extensively in the Colorado Rockies and made numerous ascents of Longs Peak.

He served six years as a Seasonal Ranger at Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, where he was permanent Park Ranger for two years prior to his death. During this time he climbed all of the major peaks and routes (as well as many lesser ones) in the Teton Range. He served for eight years as a key member of the Grand Teton Mountain Rescue Group.

He is survived by his parents, his wife Jean and infant daughter Marta Leigh.

None of us was able to accompany John on this "routine patrol” into the wilderness of a Teton winter. How, then, can we presume to know his thoughts during the events which led to his death? We can presume to understand because we knew John Fonda, we know his mountains and we knew him in those mountains. If you were ever on the same trail or on the same rope with John, then you knew him in the sense I mean. Our mountain memories of him may vary greatly in minor detail; I was with him here and you were with him there; the weather on one occasion fair and on another foul. But any memory of John contains the same picture: a man in enviable harmony with his surroundings. Imagine any mountain episode and John Fonda belonged in it. His character contained as many aspects as the mountain world itself, and they were always perfectly matched.

One episode was formed by sun and leisure time in an alp near Lake of the Crags. John was a subtle blend of philosophic sobriety and barely containable joy. Another episode was shaped by intensifying storm, fingers threatening frostbite, and the urgency of rescuing two men from the Petzoldt Ridge on the Grand Teton. John became an amazing combination of selfless courage and meticulous caution. It was "only natural” to find John on a lead rope during the ascent, establishing fixed lines for others to use and follow in the storm; and when he brought up the rear on descent, retrieving those same lines, no one took particular notice, because John was always where he was needed. In any mountain episode, John was exactly the person his companions needed, be it leader, philosopher or clown.

Where does the mountain stop and the valley begin? With John there seemed no clear distinction. If he had a way with mountains, he had a way with people as well, regardless of terrain. By virtue of his natural compassion, his sincere concern, his native understanding, people brought their problems to John and he received them.

Knowing John and knowing his mountains, I believe we can appreciate his emotions as he and two other Teton rangers headed for Berry Creek on skis. We might appreciate his expectant state as he went about his preparations; his eager anticipation of the departure. Few features of nature’s beauty would escape John’s eye on this trip. Throughout the morning a sprinkling of fluffy flakes fell slowly about him, and John would let his mind wander to examine their texture, to note the smooth line traced by their descent. His well-trained skis would find their own way across the gentle slopes, leaving John free to enjoy the long-awaited trip into winter.

As well as we knew John, we cannot follow him beyond this point. We can say very little. When nature’s perversity ordained the ice to break, when snow and ice and John were drawn so suddenly into the moving water of the Snake River, John was completely helpless in his own mountains.

When the ice cracked John might have been startled, but I am sure he was not surprised, for John was fully aware of the fickle side of nature. He was fully aware that a man who chooses to live with nature must accept the possibility of encountering her perversity. But this knowledge in no way lightens the shock we all feel in his tragic death. We can attempt to be philosophic, but in the end those of us who were his friends have lost immeasurably by his death, and when we return to the mountains, we will find a cherished part of them missing.

Richard M. Emerson