Independence Pass “John Doe” ID’d as legendary skier Gardner Smith
A body found in the tundra atop Colorado’s Independence Pass in 1970 has been identified as legendary ski racer Gardner Paul Smith, a Beat-era adventurer who, before he went missing at age 39, was revered as a free-and-easy companion.
“Whatever is right, friend,” he would say.
Now the daughter he abandoned, who since childhood has wrestled with “a frustrating mystery,” is appealing for details from the end of his life “chasing winter” worldwide.
“Obviously it is good to have closure,” said daughter Jeanne Gaida, a 60-year-old Texas real estate agent, in an interview this week. “I feel sad that he seemed to have had a lonely, tragic ending. …..
“I’m still sorting it out. I am just sad – sad that he was alone,” said Gaida, who interpreted his “whatever is right, friend” expression as evidence of a kind and tolerant man who accepted others’ thinking.
Smith’s exhumed remains sat for years in the Leadville office of a former coroner until last month when Colorado Bureau of Investigation forensic genetic analysts finally identified the remains using a DNA sample and genealogical sleuthing.
Smith, who grew up in California at Boreal Mountain in the Sierra Nevada, became one of the nation’s fastest skiers. He went to the University of Nevada in Reno and joined the Army in 1951, serving as a paratrooper before an honorable discharge in 1957. He emerged as a fearless free-thinker inclined toward cutting-edge pursuits, according to friends, family members, and old news stories.
He and fellow ski racer Dick Buek flew in a small crop-duster plane, which had to stop every two hours for refueling, as far south as Chile. They landed during a revolution around 1954 in Guatemala, where authorities seized the plane and temporarily jailed them. On another flight, they’d landed and run out of money near Acapulco, Mexico, when they saw cliff divers with U.S. tourists looking on. They reckoned they could dive from higher up on the cliffs into the ocean, and did so, then collected from the tourists the fuel funds they needed to move on. Buek died in a 1957 plane crash.
But in 1961 Smith had flown south again to Argentina, where he met Jennifer Dawn Andrews, a British woman who grew up in neighboring Uruguay. They married, and he became a father in 1962, before a divorce six years later. He drifted, moving between California and Aspen. A postcard to his mother dated Nov. 12, 1969, marked as the last she heard from him, read: “I am doing all right. Don’t worry. Love, Gardner.”
The CBI breakthrough begins to resolve a long-running Colorado high country mystery: the identity of the body found in June 1970 atop Independence Pass, which closes during winter, and what happened. An arm and parts of ribs were missing from the corpse, which was cloaked in a sweatshirt, khaki trousers, multiple-layered socks with an unworn sock pulled over the left shoe, and $7 with a razor in a pocket. The body likely had been out all winter in the snow, authorities concluded from its location and condition, after a state snowplow driver found it under rocks along switch-backs just east of the 12,095-foot summit.
The remains became known as the “Independence Pass John Doe” and were buried beneath a metal “unidentified male” marker in Leadville’s Evergreen Cemetery, where it ranked as the newest of 41 unidentified bodies.
Cemetery caretaker John Piearson, a Vietnam War veteran, noticed the marker. So did Boulder County-based cold case researcher Silvia Pettem, who contacted CBI and pushed Lake County’s sheriff to exhume the remains around 2013 to enable DNA sampling.
Then Smith’s remains in a casket sat in the office of former Lake County Coroner Shannon Kent. As the result of other, unrelated mishandling of the dead, Kent has been jailed. (He was sentenced last month to 180 days in jail for an unlawful cremation and was found guilty by a jury in 2021 of second-degree official misconduct. He surrendered his license to operate funeral homes in 2020 after a state probe.)
“If this was your father, would you want his skeletal remains sitting around some coroner’s office all these years?” Pettem said. “Part of my desire to identify people is to give them respect.”
No record of an autopsy has surfaced, and CBI officials say there is no evidence of foul play.
Speculation about how he died there in the tundra persists. “Maybe he hiked up there with the intent to hike back down. Maybe he got caught in a sudden storm, and suddenly it got very cold and he got disoriented,” Pettem said. “You wouldn’t think it would happen to a professional skier. You’d think he would have had more sense, would have worn warmer clothes.”
Growing up in California, Smith learned skiing at the Boreal ski area that his father, Paul Smith, had developed. On the Nevada university ski team, he trained fiercely, perfecting his technique, once running giant slalom courses on cross-country skis as an experiment for honing his balance. He had survived a high-speed crash into a pole that broke his back.
Smith was compact and powerful, walking “with the resolve and posture of a marine sergeant,” wrote Dick Dorworth, a ski racer himself, a longtime friend ten years younger who in 1983 wrote a Ski Magazine profile — “the Mystery of Gardner Smith” — wondering where he had gone.
Beyond skiing, Smith was “a humanist,” Dorworth wrote. “He was curious about what it meant to be a human being.”
His racing glories of the 1950s, when he won a Roche Cup and other trophies, faded. And in the 1960s, “Gardner began to drift,” according to Dorworth, who drew from conversations they’d had in Aspen.
“He landed in various parts of the world” and “Gardner acquired a fascination with psychic phenomena and the latent powers of the mind,” Dorworth wrote in the profile.
Dorworth refused to accept Smith was dead, hoping he was out there somewhere “practicing psychic slalom on cross-country mind waves.” He’d last seen him in 1968 when “he was living on the road and needed a place to crash” and stayed for a week.
“The clear intelligence and honest intensity I knew and admired as a boy were still active and evident. Some folks thought Gardner had slipped over the line of sanity. Not me. He looked terrible, but there was nothing wrong with his mind that a healed heart, some rest, and a little attentive encouragement wouldn’t cure.”
His daughter grew up without him, wondering why and where he had gone. Gaida’s mother Jennifer Andrews — the ex-wife Smith met in Argentina — “wouldn’t share anything,” through her death in 1994, she said. “It was a difficult time for us, as mother and daughter. She kept it so private.”
The identification of her father has catapulted Gaida anew into a flurry of searching through old photos, news clippings and letters, trying to make sense.
Smith had invented a ski pole grip and double-glass “Twindow” ski goggles of the sort now widely used, and Gaida last week found correspondence showing how he had tried to market these with major gear companies. “He just couldn’t get to that next step.”
She plans to cremate the remains ahead of a ceremony at Boreal. “It will be good for him to have his ashes scattered and be with his parents where he first fell in love with skiing,” she said.
“I am looking for somebody who can help me fill in the blanks.”
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