'It's my fault': Rock thrower voices remorse for climber's death
Courtesy, National Outdoor Leadership School Peter Absolon, 47, poses for a photo in the Wind River Mountains above Lander, where he worked for the National Outdoor Leadership School and enjoyed spending time. He was killed there Aug. 11 by a rock thrown by a 23-year-old Iraq war veteran from Casper.

Luke Rodolph stood on the rim of Upper Silas Canyon, enjoying the magnificent view that stretches all the way to Lander.

About 300 feet below him, Peter Absolon was climbing a new route up the cliff face of Leg Lake Cirque.

The two would never meet, but in a matter of moments, they would be forever linked. One would be dead, the other torn by regret.

It was late afternoon, and Rodolph and three others had been on the rim of the canyon for about an hour. They hadn't see anyone else around.

Now looking over the edge, Rodolph didn't see anyone below him, either.

"I picked up a rock and threw it off," he said. "Looked over just a little further to watch it fall, see where it was going to hit, you know, kinda leaned out further than what I was comfortable with normally, and watched it hit Pete Absolon."

There was no time for a warning. Rodolph said he didn't see Absolon until the rock struck the 47-year-old Lander resident and renowned climber in the head, killing him instantly.

About 800 feet above the Leg Lake Basin, Molly Absolon lost a husband. Her daughter, Avery, lost a father, and the National Outdoor Leadership School lost its Rocky Mountain director.

Rodolph, a 23-year-old Iraq war veteran from Casper, won't face criminal charges for the incident. But he's wracked with guilt and remorse over Absolon's death.

"I never wanted to cause a loss like that, so big for Molly and Avery," Rodolph said Tuesday, in his first public comments since the incident. "It's unbearable for them to have to go through this. It's my fault.

"I hope someday she'll know that's how I feel," he said with tears in his eyes. "I'd do anything to change it."

On Aug. 9, Rodolph and about eight friends and family members went camping in Upper Silas Canyon, in the Wind River Mountains near Lander. They spent the next two days fishing and hiking in the area.

Late in the afternoon of Aug. 11, Rodolph, his brother Aaron, their cousin and a friend hiked to the rim of Upper Silas Canyon. They spent an hour walking the rim, enjoying the view. About a quarter mile away from where Absolon was hit, the group pushed four or five rocks off the edge.

"We had sat up there and looked off, and there wasn't a soul anywhere," Aaron Rodolph said.

They hiked a little farther, and Luke Rodolph looked over the edge again. Believing there was no one below, he picked up a 15- to 20-pound rock and threw it over the edge.

"As I traced it down, I happened to lean out further and further. Right when I saw Pete, it hit him," he said.

The group called 911 on a cell phone and explained what happened, then ran four miles to the Leg Lake Basin to see what could be done to help Steve Hirlihy, a NOLS instructor who was climbing with Absolon at the time he was killed.

When they found him, Hirlihy asked what had happened and whether the group had seen the rock that hit Absolon.

"Luke looked him dead in the eye and said, 'I threw it,' " Aaron Rodolph said. "And I'll never forget, as long as I live, that Steve looked Luke dead back in the eyes and said, 'I forgive you for that.' "

Luke Rodolph stayed with Hirlihy in the basin overnight while the rest of the group went back to their campsite.

"Steve and I just talked for a while, sat around the campfire," Rodolph said. "I told him I'd go into town with him and talk with the sheriff and give him a statement, and whatever happens, happens."

Hirlihy did not respond to a message left for him Tuesday at the National Outdoor Leadership School.

The morning after Absolon's death, Rodolph and Hirlihy hiked out of the area and went to Lander. Later that day, Rodolph spoke with Fremont County Attorney Ed Newell and an investigator before returning to Casper.

That same day, Absolon's body was recovered.

Eleven days later, Newell announced that Rodolph would not be charged in connection with Absolon's death. Newell cited several factors in his decision, including the fact that Rodolph immediately took responsibility for his actions, was extremely remorseful, didn't intend to cause harm, had no criminal history and served in Iraq.

Rodolph, a Casper native, served two tours in Iraq as an infantry soldier with the 82nd Airborne Division.

In an e-mail to the Star-Tribune, Absolon's widow, Molly, said she didn't have a comment on Newell's decision not to charge Rodolph. But in a message board posting on the climbing Web site Supertopo.com, she indicated that the young man's remorsefulness and military service don't absolve him from throwing the rock.

"I appreciate that he did the right thing, but I think he should be held accountable for his actions nonetheless," she wrote.

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Rodolph said he was willing to accept whatever decision Newell made.

"Whatever is done to me is fine," he said. "I don't want Molly and Avery to feel any more pain."

Gary Wilmot is an instructor at the National Outdoor Leadership School and knew Absolon since 1990. While he feels compassion for Rodolph, he also said throwing a rock from a cliff is irresponsible.

"We recognize that he is hurting, but we are also working on filling a big void in our community and a family here in Lander," Wilmot said.

Two weeks after the incident, the climbing community is still coming to grips with Absolon's death.

"We lost a very close friend, somebody who is a community builder among climbers and everyone in the Lander community," Wilmot said. "We are all still grappling with losing Pete, and at the same time, being there to support Molly."

In the wake of her husband's death, Molly Absolon and her daughter went to her sister's home in Finland. She did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment following the release of Rodolph's name. She did describe her emotions on the Supertopo.com message board.

"I have these moments where I feel like I've been punched in the stomach and I cannot breath when I realize Pete is gone forever," she wrote.

Back in Wyoming, Rodolph is struggling to deal with Absolon's death and his responsibility for it. He wanted to go to Absolon's funeral and tell Molly how sorry he was, but was told through an intermediary not to attend.

Rodolph said he has spent a lot of time praying and reading the Bible. He accepts responsibility for what happened and won't try to justify his actions.

"There's no way to repay Pete's family or Molly or Avery for their loss," he said.

That sense of helplessness is especially painful for both of the Rodolph brothers.

"You just wish there was something you could do to help them," said Aaron Rodolph, his eyes red and his voice cracking. "And you know in your heart there is nothing you can do."

Reach Joshua Wolfson at (307) 266-0582 or at josh.wolfson@casperstartribune.net.

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