November 12, 2012 • 09:08:58 a.m.

Father follows son's final route through the mountains he loved

By JAMI KUNZER - jkunzer@shawmedia.com

David Rigby in his equipment room discusses his recent trip to Glacier National Park to retrace his son Jacob's hike. Jacob died in a fall while climbing mountain 8888. (H. Rick Bamman - hbamman@shawmedia.com)

Dave Rigby sat in a valley in Montana’s Glacier National Park and felt his son’s spirit.

The wind whipped around him. The mountains peaked above him. Fighting his emotions, he quietly recited the 23rd Psalm.

“... Even though I walk through the darkest valley ...”

Towering in front him was the rugged mountain his 27-year-old son, Jacob, had climbed a year before, the mountain known as “Peak 8888.”

Jacob had reached his fourth peak in a goal to climb five in a day, a roughly 30-mile venture and a route others had not taken.

Somehow, on his way down that treacherous peak that only a few have climbed, Jacob fell more than 800 feet to his death.

It was Aug. 28, 2011, a day forever etched in the memories of those who knew Jacob.

Months later, on New Year’s Eve, something awoke his father.

“I felt almost like Jacob was talking to me: ‘Dad, I want you to see what I saw,’ ” Dave remembered.

So Dave, a 61-year-old retired Johnsburg science teacher with two artificial knees and a replacement hip, vowed to return to the mountain on the one-year anniversary of his son’s death.

Known as “Jake” to the many who loved him, the experienced hiker had lived and died doing what he loved.

He never sought attention, often taking off alone to casually conquer mountains on the weekends.

But the things he did, his free will, his spirit need to be recognized, said his father.

Just maybe, his story will inspire others to dream, to live.

“Jacob was unique. It’s kind of like you’ve got this candle, and you don’t want to cover it up,” Dave said as he spoke recently from his Johnsburg home filled with photographs and memories of Jacob.

He pulls a picture of Jacob out from between the pages of a nearby Bible.

Underneath the wind-blown brown hair and easy smile is a label no parent would want to write: “1984-2011.”

Another photo shows Jacob in the mountains, his back to the camera, his arms outstretched to the beauty in front of him.

Search and rescue crews had found Jacob’s 6-foot, 2-inch body five days after he fell.

“We don’t know how or why he fell,” Dave said.

His back was lying against the mountain’s steep side, as if he, for one last time, was overlooking the grandness in front of him.

Traveling to Glacier National Park by car and plane when Jacob was reported missing, his family was there to hear the final news.

“The sun was shining. We could hear the birds,” Dave remembered, tears welling his eyes.

“Even though it was a horrible thing, there was such beauty.”

Jacob used a form of climbing called “scrambling.” No harnesses, ropes or technical equipment. Just hands, strength, courage and faith.

His father would look at some of the places he climbed, ask him how he did it.

“I stood at the bottom and figured it out,” Jacob would say.

Memories like these, or as Dave calls them, “Jake moments,” happen frequently. “All of a sudden, we might start crying or we might start laughing,” he said.

A Johnsburg native, Jacob spent his life tackling one adventure after another, beginning with the wilderness and “river odyssey” trips his father took him and his siblings on from the age of 6 or 7.

A 2006 graduate of the University of Illinois, Jacob traveled the United States after college, working at various national parks.

He spent his summers chopping nonnative plants at Glacier National Park in Montana.

On his lunch breaks, he climbed mountains.

“Wow,” he would tell his father, “I can’t believe they’re paying me to work in this place.”

An avid kayaker who has led his children, students and others on annual wilderness trips, Dave was never a hiker.

But he trained as best he could for the trek back to those mountains, the trip he felt compelled to take.

His other son, David, joined him, along with a couple of Jacob’s close friends and Gary Ludwig, Jacob’s former supervisor. At least 50 more wanted to go, but Dave sought to keep the group small.

The group had already hiked for nine hours when they reached “8888.” They’d have to hike another 10 or so to reach the summit and return.

Roughly 70 mile per hour winds and steep terrains became too much for Dave to make it to the top.

“I wasn’t fast enough,” he said.

“I couldn’t have hiked it, but I gave it my best.”

So Dave stayed behind, while the others climbed.

To him, it was enough.

“I could feel Jake’s spirit. I could see what the mountain looked like,” he said. “I saw what he saw. I could understand why he loved it so much.”

The others made it to the top, leaving behind a steel box engraved with a wolf – the animal Jacob felt a kindred spirit with – and writing materials for future hikers to leave behind messages, as they often do upon reaching summits.

Jacob, himself, left plenty of messages on mountaintops throughout the country. He’d never sign his name though.

For Jacob, a joker who’d often have his mother Kathie in stitches, it was always, “Lando Calrissian,” the name of a Star Wars character played by Billy Dee Williams.

His last message left on a nearby peak: “Cool beans. What’s with all the darn flies? Lando.”

Because of this, his former colleagues have asked that “8888” be renamed “Lando.” But they’ve been told a mountain can’t be named for a person until he or she has been dead at least five years.

Along with the wolf, “Lando” is engraved on that box now atop “8888.”

Inside, Dave wrote a note in Swahili, a language he picked up while teaching briefly in Africa.

“You are in my prayers,” he wrote. “Love you Jake. Dad.”

“He was living just a great, great life,” Dave said of his beloved son. “He was doing what he wanted to do.”

He now plans to include photos of Jacob in PowerPoint presentations and to tell his story as he visits area schools for Friends of the Fox River. As a volunteer for the group, he talks about the need to preserve and take care of water.

“To do that, I want to show people why I have a passion and how to follow your passion,” he said.

Proud that his other son, David, had made it to the top of “8888,” he asked him why he hadn’t taken a picture of the memorial box left behind in its forever home.

“Dad,” David told him. “If somebody wants to see that box on the mountain, they’ve got to climb the mountain.”


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