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Remembering Aaron Livingston

On Monday, September 4th, 2023, the Alpenglow family lost one of our own. Aaron Livingston was a key member of our California guide team and an incredible friend, mentor, and human. He passed away in a non-work related climbing incident in the Tahoe area Monday evening.

Aaron lived an impassioned life. He sought beauty and meaningful experiences in the vertical world and loved sharing his passion with others. From the Via Ferrata to a big wall climb in Yosemite, anyone who went on an adventure with Aaron could feel his spirit running high while in the mountains. His love of climbing and stoke for the mountains was infectious.

He loved his friends and family deeply, was always the first person to crack a joke in the office, and was a teacher and mentor to all of us at Alpenglow. We are grateful for the times and adventures we shared with him, and are heartbroken by his passing.

“It’s been over a year since I first met my friend, Aaron Livingston. A little less since we first climbed together. Nine months since I watched as he soared through the air, skis hovering at eye-level and completely perpendicular to the ground in an impressively (however unintentionally) wide spread eagle. Six weeks since he shoved relentlessly until all the buy-ins at the poker table were his. Three weeks since I took them back from him, and I was lucky that night—despite a trademark smirk familiar to everyone who knew him, his poker face was sufficiently stony so that none of us could ever really guess what cards he was hiding.

In the final minutes of darkness just before dawn on September 5th, I learned that Aaron had fallen to his death the day prior, free soloing on Donner Summit’s Black Wall. It’s been 30 hours since I watched first light pour over the east shore of Lake Tahoe that morning, and I wondered how the sun could still rise without him. 12 since four of his friends gathered on my porch and burned through hand rolled spliffs and cigarettes, flooding our lungs between breaths spent on story swapping, remembrance, laughs, tears, and sighs amid moments of silent reflection.

It’s been six hours since I woke up this morning, and had to again face the fact that Aaron isn’t with us anymore. It’s been just a few minutes since tears last flooded my eyes, and I wept for my friend.

Aaron was one of the first people I connected with since moving to Tahoe. I was following a job offer without knowing a soul in the area, and we clicked during our first few days together working for Alpenglow Expeditions. He’d just wrapped a season guiding ice in Ouray, and though I quickly learned that he was a far stronger and more experienced climber than I, this knowledge only came to me over time through others who knew him. Months of friendship passed before he casually admitted to me that he’d climbed the Salathé Wall (35 pitches, 5.9 C2), an El Cap classic, alone, in a day. The only time he ever directed me to look him up online was to search for a video of him climbing a hard gear route in the desert. He wanted me to hear the high-pitched yelp he’d let out as he fell, blowing two pieces of protection before the third finally caught him. Self-deprecation was one of Aaron’s ways of reminding the rest of us that he was human.

Though Aaron wasn’t famous within the general public, you’d be hard pressed to find a well-known climber he hadn’t shared a rope with, or a beer at the very least. He’d often refer to them in conversation by their first names, not because he was averse to name-dropping (though he was), but because, to him, they were just his friends. At times, it would become something of a game trying to silently determine which of the incredibly accomplished mountain athletes in his broader community he was referring to. I believe that Aaron could have been much more famous if he’d wanted to be, but that wasn’t what he was in it for. Aaron was a climber because he loved climbing, and he was a guide because he loved opening the door and sharing his passion and wealth of knowledge with others. He was the first person I looked toward to help me prepare for my Single Pitch Instructor exam. He’d offered before I was even scheduled to take it.

Aside from this and an array of other smaller adventures, Aaron and I shared only one big day in the mountains together. Located just a few hours north of the Lake Tahoe Basin, Mt. Shasta tops out at 14,179’ above sea level and boasts 7,000 vertical feet of climbing from base to summit. On just a few days’ notice, we agreed to take a shot at climbing and skiing it in a day. At the time, I was battling high fever and a respiratory infection, and so I made sure he knew that my fitness was shot. Still, he was stoked. And while even now it pains me somewhat to admit it, I wanted to impress him.

As he cruised the 6000-odd vertical feet from Bunny Flat to the top of Avalanche Gulch, I struggled every step of the way. Having forgotten ski crampons, I was sliding and falling all over the place on the hardpack snow, miserably out of shape from my illness, running on an hour or two of sleep in the back of my car, and fueled by a few sips of water and maybe half an apple. I began to feel the altitude as low as 10,000’, and his misinformed assumption that I was crampon-savvy led him to sit and wait for thirty minutes as I spat out green-brown chunks of phlegm, clawing my way up the gulch.

“Dude, did you just frontpoint the entire way up here?” Aaron asked incredulously, when I finally reached his rest spot and found him sitting cross legged on a rock, casual as ever.

“Yeah, I did,” I replied between ragged breaths. “This is like the third time I’ve worn crampons. What was I supposed to do?”

“You haven’t heard of the French step?,” he said, before the realization hit him. “Wait…did you frontpoint the whole time on Cotopaxi? And Orizaba?”

I nodded. His look of surprise quickly turned to a grin, and he laughed at my massive, albeit needless efforts while I lay on the ground next to him, sucking at lungfuls of thin air.

The next few hundred feet passed much more quickly thanks to Aaron’s guidance, but my slow pace ultimately cost us our summit bid. Nonetheless, there was no more skiing to be gained by continuing up. A thousand vertical feet of dirt and scree lay between us and the summit, and so we decided to start our descent from the top of the West Face. We commenced with a spicy entry chute and an unnecessary additional jump-turn I added solely for the sake of one-upping my friend. The pain and suffering of the ascent faded away as we carved and slid 6,000’ back to the base in near-perfect conditions.

If he was disappointed about our failed summit attempt, it never showed. We both agreed, and discussed often in the time since, how it was one of the most fun days of skiing we’d ever had. By the simple act of being himself, Aaron took one of my most challenging days in the mountains and placed it firmly amongst my fondest memories. And while I used my last shred of energy to drive the nearly five hours back to my home in Tahoe, Aaron began prepping for another summit bid with clients slated for the next day.

In his absence, I suspect that Aaron will rarely be far from my mind each time I go to the mountains. The experience of losing a friend and mentor such as Aaron is much like driving toward a plate glass window: I didn’t know it was there, and then suddenly, it shattered. All those who knew and loved him are left now to pick up the pieces, seeing him each time we gaze at our reflection.

A hard man on the outside with a sharp wit and cowboy persona, Aaron was kind-hearted, gentle, sweet, sincere, loyal, and as powerful in both body and spirit as anyone I have ever known. He loved hard, and in return was loved with equal intensity.

It’s been over a year since I first met my friend, Aaron Livingston. In that time, I witnessed him attract a circle of partners and friends held together by a shared love of showing up and trying hard. Though I will forever carry the weight of Aaron’s death and questions of what more I could have done to prevent it, I will continue to look to him as a beacon in times when I wonder why I’ve pursued this life. Aaron served as an indisputable example of how the unique combination of passion and presence of mind can fuel a life worth living.

Today, though the sun shines dimmer without him, the warm glow of Aaron’s memory leaves the world a brighter place. I will miss him.”