Varied interests and terrific ability defined Art Higbee |

Varied interests and terrific ability defined Art Higbee

Art Higbee climbs up a rock wall at Butcher Knife Canyon in Steamboat Springs about 20 years ago while leading a pack of skiers from the Colorado Mountain College ski team he coached. Whether as a world-renowned climber, a ski coach, a hockey coach or just the guy in the coffee shop eager to debate the day's news, many knew the lifelong Steamboat Springs local. Higbee died last week of a heart attack.

— A dozen different people tell of a dozen different aspects of Art Higbee's life.

Higbee died Jan. 17 from a heart attack in Honolulu, where he had moved temporarily for a job.

His friends can't stop talking about him.

Art Higbee was a movie star and a rock-climbing prodigy, some said. He was clean-cut with a sharp chin and quick eyes that usually featured a sparkle, or he was scruffy with a scraggly beard, shabby clothes and eyes that still usually featured a sparkle.

He was a bulldog of a wrestler and a big-hearted football player. He was a dedicated father and a loyal customer, a longtime Steamboat Springs local and a Boulder legend, a mathematician, a philosopher, a coach and a mentor.

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They all remember and breathe deep. They all chuckle, and they all sign off with deep sighs. They all say they'll miss Art Higbee.

Man of accomplishments

Higbee was 56 years old and working in Honolulu as a surveyor, planning to eventually move back to Steamboat Springs, the town where he was born and raised.

In his 56 years, Higbee managed to be a stunning number of things to a shocking number of people.

Higbee was a man forged in Steamboat Springs, one of a third generation of Higbees to inhabit the Yampa Valley. He was an expert skier, but after high school, his love became rock climbing, and it was in that world Higbee realized his most Google-able accomplishments.

He picked up the sport in Boulder in the mid-1970s. A strong all-around athlete who had twice qualified for the state high school wrestling tournament — he was second in the 115-pound class as a junior — he was strong and tough enough to rank among the country's best climbers.

He traveled far and wide climbing, taking many a random trip with like-minded buddies to the Tetons of Wyoming or the Canadian Rockies.

In 1976, he partnered with close friend Jim Erickson to free climb almost the entire Northwest face of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. That effort was documented in a film, "Free Climb," that was narrated by Robert Redford.

Back in Colorado, he managed dozens of first ascents, and many still are popular lines that bear his name.

After his climbing days passed, he became dedicated to other pursuits.

He coached the ski team at Colorado Mountain College's Alpine Campus in Steamboat, helping guide the program to some of its most successful years and to several national championships.

Then, when his son Tim fell in love with hockey, so did Art. Though he never really played the game, he became an expert and was intent on helping his son realize a dream of making it big as a goalie.

"He would come by the shop every day to sharpen his kid's skates," said friend Peter Van De Carr, who owns Backdoor Sports in Steamboat. "He was hugely dedicated to his son."

Even after Tim had passed through high school, Higbee kept coaching and continued to work with the high school staff.

All the while, he was a presence in Steamboat. He was a fixture in the morning debates at Mocha Molly's (now Steaming Bean) coffeehouse. He never abandoned climbing, either, and was a regular at local rock climbing hot spots including Butcher Knife Canyon.

"I was down there at (Butcher Knife), and this guy just walks up and solos this tough little crack," Everything Outdoor Steamboat founder Matt Tredway said about his first encounter with Higbee. "It was a greasy little crack. He just walked up, fired up it and down climbed it and did it a couple times. Then he got on his bike and left. It was awesome. I figured out later that was Art."

Renaissance man

As varied as the aspects of Higbee's life were, underlying threads held everything together, fibers of his life that ran through everything he touched and wove it all tight, ensuring that no matter the activity, once he showed up, it always was altered in the same ways.

Tod Allen said the boy who grew up across the alley from him wasn't the greatest athlete he ever met, only the most determined.

That determination was as evident hanging from a ledge 1,000 feet off the ground as it was on the Sailors football field.

"He was really mentally tough and really physically tough," Allen said. "He was almost one-dimensional when it came to sports. Whatever sport it was, he went into it full bore."

The thrill of rock climbing surely was part of what captured him, friends said, but so was the puzzle factor.

Higbee attended the Univer­sity of Colorado to major in philosophy but just for one year. To many, he always was a full-fledged philosopher, however, as well as a dedicated mathematician.

That love of numbers, of understanding, eventually led to his career as a surveyor, but it infected nearly everything he did beforehand.

"Art would dissect a problem, think about how to do a big climb," said David Breashears, who climbed with Higbee in Boulder 40 years ago in the golden era of the sport. "He would take apart the challenges, figure out how to solve them and put them back in."

That approach is visible in everything Higbee tackled.

"He used to bring out a tape measure onto the ice and get down to the inches of the game," said goalie Matt Dawes, a high school senior who transferred to a Front Range school to pursue a collegiate hockey scholarship. "He would measure all the angles, mark up the ice with a dry erase marker, then say if you come out of the net four extra inches, you can cut down this or that angle."

Higbee took calculated risks in his climbing, but those who surmounted the rocks with him say he never was reckless.

Breashears went on to become a filmmaker, climb Mount Everest five times and shoot, help direct and produce "Everest," an acclaimed IMAX film shot in 1996 on the mountain.

He played a role in Higbee's film, "Free Climb," as well — dangling from a rope holding film cartridges to give to the cinematographers.

"When he was in the mountains, he was optimistic," Breashears recalled. "He had a tremendous spirit. With Art, whenever you saw that twinkle in his eye, you knew something was about to happen that would be very, very adventurous.

"If you didn't know him, you might mistake his driven, gregarious personality for recklessness, but he wasn't."

Like everyone else who talked about Higbee, Breashears remembered their encounters for the spirited — polite but intense — debates that would crop up out of nothing.

He would debate anything from calculus to the Yampa River to hot girls.

"There were a lot of late-night discussions," said Luke Studer, another climber from the Boulder days. "He could do it without seeming really intense. You couldn't dislike the guy, but he had a lot of opinions and thoughts about things, and he had a great way of expressing those and dragging you into the discussion in a friendly way."

That wasn't lost on the coffeehouse crowd, either.

"It was always a good mental exercise. He had a great intellect," Mocha Molly's regular Scott Berry said. "We spent hours down there — way too long."

Man to be missed

There was no great announcement when Art Higbee died. The news trickled slowly through Higbee's vast network of friends. Word of his death was whispered by low-tech means, between friends as they saw one another around Steamboat Springs or during out-of-the-blue phone calls. And it spread via high-tech ways, posted on Facebook status updates and climbing message boards.

It sent friends and fellow adventurers everywhere scrambling back in their memories, businessmen in New York and shop owners in the mountains, moviemakers in Boston and pretzel retailers in Steamboat, and what they found was a sandy-haired, determined boy and man with a twinkle that rarely left his eye — a teacher and a coach, a student and a teammate, a childhood friend and an adult curmudgeon, a philosopher and a mathematician and an athlete with an insatiable drive.

They were all Art Higbee.

If you go

What: Memorial service for Art Higbee

When: 4 to 7 p.m. Saturday

Where: Steamboat Springs Community Center