Measuring a mountaineer
Friends, family remember life of avalanche victim.
By Kelsey Dayton, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
February 24, 2010
Zahan Billimoria remembers the day he first met Wray Landon. It was at a race in Idaho’s Big Hole Mountains about six years ago.
“This Goliath of a fellow, a Clydesdale, came bolting out of the start,” Billimoria said. “I just remember thinking, ‘Who the hell is this guy?’ He was just way too big to be moving that fast.”
That guy, measuring about 6 feet 6 inches and weighing more than 200 pounds, beat the lithe Billimoria by nine seconds.
“Wray was a running force to be reckoned with,” Billimoria said.
The two would go on to become training partners, sometimes competitors and friends in a world that involved mountaineering, skiing and wilderness.
On Sunday, Landon, 30, died in an avalanche on the south face of the 12,514-foot South Teton in Grand Teton National Park. Landon was skiing when the slide carried him more than 2,000 vertical feet, including over a 1,500-foot cliff.
Some people come to the Tetons and conquer the peaks. Others, like Landon, become a part of the landscape. Friends and family said he sought to protect his high-altitude world as much as live in it.
Landon was a man of almost unparalleled passion for being in the mountains, Billimoria said, “kind of this quiet legend of the Tetons.” He didn’t boast about his latest climb; sometimes people had to drag the story out of him.
He was out every day – sometimes more than once and no matter the weather. His dedication earned him the nicknames “Everyday Wray” and “Twice-A-Day Wray.”
“We never talked about what the conditions were going to be like because it really didn’t matter,” Billimoria said. “It was about being out in the mountains.”
The duo often claimed the last ski runs of the season at Grand Targhee, when only patches of snow remained high on the hills and the area had long been abandoned by other winter enthusiasts.
“Good conditions were a bonus,” Billimoria said.
The mountains were a priority. He passed up career opportunities to roam the hills. For years he didn’t hold a job in the winter, living simply and frugally, reserving the cold days for himself and mountaineering. Even when he worked he embodied a simple ethos for living, spending little, even on the things he loved like skiing, Billimoria said.
What he spent was his own energy. He couldn’t seem to rest. An evening run meant climbing the 13,770-foot Grand Teton after work and making the summit for sunset.
“Wray did not believe in days off,” Billimoria said.
Days off meant just one climb and ski of Mount Glory, not two or several.
Landon saw only possibility, and that attitude shaped many of his friends’, including Billimoria’s, relationships with the mountains.
About six years ago, Landon told Billimoria they should ski Taylor Mountain every day before work. Billimoria was skeptical.
From then on every day the two drove to the peak in their ski boots, eating in the car, the skins already on their skis, finishing the run in time for Billimoria to join his family for breakfast. Landon arrived at work by 8:30 a.m. with a huge grin on his face and often pictures in hand of his adventure from the morning, said Matt Lucia, stewardship director at the Teton Regional Land Trust.
“Wray had a depth beyond climbing peaks and mountains,” Lucia said. “There was a passion ... equally weighted, in his conservation work for eastern Idaho.”
Landon started at the land trust as intern in 2007 and quickly worked his way up to a full-time resource specialist, Lucia said.
“That same zest he carried in the mountains, he carried for learning,” Lucia said.
When learning about protocol or bird identification, Landon took his work home, studying it until he became an expert. Landon was the office’s jack of all trades, Lucia said. He led research projects and ecological programs and helped write grants.
His physical prowess helped on restoration projects.
“He provided a lot of the horsepower,” Lucia said.
And his calm demeanor brought balance to the office.
His work with the land trust fostered a new way to love the area, said his mom, Winifred “Lani” Lanier Landon. Her son talked about going back to school and getting a master’s degree in ornithology.
Wray Landon’s love of the outdoors began when he was a child.
He was born in Rhode Island and his cycling parents adapted a tandem for their young son to ride. Later, the bike was taken over by Landon’s younger sister Dana Lanier Landon, now of Seattle.
The family moved to Idaho Falls, Idaho, in 1983, where Wray Landon Sr. took a job. Young Wray didn’t want to move until his father brought him a cowboy belt, hat and boots.
After four years they moved back east to Connecticut, where Landon took up swimming at the YMCA. In junior high the family was back in Idaho Falls, Landon competing for the Kelly Canyon Ski team.
It changed his life even though it would be years before he turned that interest into athletic achievements.
For his first venture into the backcountry, Landon and his father hiked up Mary’s Nipple at Grand Targhee. Halfway up, Landon had to hand over his skis to his father, too tired to continue carrying them.
Landon kept with skiing, captained the swim team and interned with the Idaho Falls Post Register for two summers.
“He wasn’t traditional,” his mother said. “He didn’t follow the crowd. He did what he thought was right.”
He was rewarded by being known as the kid who was everybody’s friend, his mother said.
Landon continued racing when he went to college at the University of Montana in Missoula. There he found more outlets in the outdoors, including telemark skiing. He worked summers fighting fires for the Bureau of Land Management. He graduated in 2001 with a degree in liberal studies.
Throughout it all, his family was a priority. Landon made it a point to return home for Mother’s Day to do something outdoors.
Last September he took his parents on one of their favorite hikes, up Mount Glory and then down to Ski Lake.
“He even went at our pace,” his mother said.
That was what Landon was about – sharing the mountains with those he cared about, said friend and mountaineer Steve Romeo.
“I think he’ll be missed on the top of many peaks,” Romeo said.
Romeo mentioned once to Landon he wanted to climb remote 13,804-foot Gannett Peak in one day. Landon reminded Romeo and repeatedly asked about the trip to Wyoming’s highest point, in the Wind River Range, until last summer they did it.
They met early and began a mammoth day of pain. It seemed as the day went on, Landon just got stronger, Romeo said.
It was Landon’s appreciation and admiration for the mountains that drew people to him, Romeo said. It is a love that those who knew him will continue even though Landon is now gone.
“He couldn’t stop,” his mother said of her son’s push in the mountains. “It was just something he had in him. He loved what he did.”