Natalie Brandsma now has climbed 16 of Colorado's 14,000-foot-high peaks - all at her father's side.
It's not easy to imagine how she felt July 20, when she scaled 14,255-foot Longs Peak with him, then began the long walk down alone.
Brandsma, raised in Durango, is a 22-year-old second-year senior at Montana State University. She's been going up mountains with her parents, Maynard and Cheryle Brandsma, since she was old enough to keep her head upright in a baby backpack.
Last week at the Brandsmas' Rock Ridge home, still in cycling clothes after an early-morning ride with her mother, Natalie recalled the July 20 climb. It was a story she'd shared with those gathered July 26 for Maynard Brandsma's memorial at Christ the King Lutheran Church. The large crowd that day consisted of friends, family and firemen; Maynard, 61, an engineer by trade, was a volunteer lieutenant with Durango Fire & Rescue
As Natalie began her saga, Cheryle placed a box of tissues on the table. They were there for Cheryle and possibly for this reporter. Natalie says she's still too numb to cry easily, the trauma of the day stronger than the grief.
Natalie and her father attempted to climb Longs, the gem of Rocky Mountain National Park, in 2008. But a sore knee kept Natalie from getting past the Loft. Starting at 3:30 a.m. three weeks ago, they again attempted the Loft - a less-popular route that offers sections of snow and ice.
Several times, Maynard complained of a stomach ache and nausea. They wondered if he
didn't completely digest the previous night's dinner at a Nepalese restaurant, or if he'd forced down breakfast too early. He noted that, now in his 60s, he obviously was slowing down.
After passing the Loft, on the more-traveled "Homestretch," Maynard coaxed Natalie to scamper up to the summit while he continued slowly upward. She topped out, writing in the register: "Brandsma. Nat & Dad. All the way."
But Maynard didn't quite make it. He reached about 10 vertical feet from the summit and couldn't catch his breath. He told Natalie he had to turn around.
"I could tell it was hard for him," she says.
He struggled down, slowly. He didn't get far. Three other hikers saw what was happening and offered help. As Maynard took his pack off, he said his hands tingled. He sat and put his head between his knees, and soon vocalized the realization that his heart likely was the problem. In a chilly breeze, Natalie took a fleece layer from Maynard's pack and helped him put it on.
Natalie used her father's cell phone to call 911, hoping for help from a helicopter or rescue crew. A ranger lower on the mountain immediately began the trek upward.
Natalie noticed her father's face clenching with pain. She recalls him saying "I'm losing it," and then passing out. From her emergency medical training she remembered it was important to keep the victim conscious. She shook him. "Dad, Dad. Breathe. C'mon and breathe!"
"I think he kind of looked at me one more time," she says. "Then he was out."
Natalie and bystanders, including a nurse, struggled to keep him alive. They applied mouth-to-mouth, forcing him to breathe. Soon Maynard's heart stopped, and they took turns doing cardiopulmonary resuscitation. They continued for about 20 to 25 minutes.
After a while, Natalie left the immediate scene, walking behind a rock to stay calm. Natalie, cold and stressed, noticed the British woman keeping her company was shivering, then realized she was doing the same.
"I realized at one point they'd stopped doing CPR," she says. "I told myself it was because he was breathing on his own.
"It didn't register that my dad was dead until I came around the corner, and I saw they'd covered his face with the fleece he was wearing." At that point she looked at the nurse and said, "He's gone."
"She just nodded and came and gave me a hug."
Natalie cried on her shoulder.
With urging, she realized it was time to leave her father's body and begin the four-hour walk down. In about a half-hour she reached a wind shelter and asked for a phone to call her mother. After advising her mother to sit down, she said, "Mom, I have some bad news."
As Natalie talks, Cheryle is alternately laughing, crying and answering the cell and home phones that ring almost nonstop in the Bransdma household.
"Natalie's just so amazing to me," Cheryle says. "Her presence, her strength of mind."
A few years ago, Cheryle was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. Maynard has been a source of strength, encouraging her to keep hiking and bicycling. It was with heavy hearts that the weekend after the funeral, Cheryle and Natalie bicycled the Copper Triangle, a Parkinson's fundraiser in the central Colorado mountains, with only the memory of Maynard as accompaniment.
For Natalie, scattered images remain from the day: His glasses, one lens popped out, lying on a rock. A raven flying over, and Natalie thinking it might contain her dad's soul, trying to be with her: "Dammit," she thought, "you can fly now, and I can't go with you." And not long after she'd started down, a family with a kid coming toward her. "I wanted to tell them there was a body up there. But I couldn't."
Natalie offers many more details, too much to share in this column. Hearing the story chokes you up, but also sparks admiration for this young woman so willing to share her trauma.
"I know people want to know what happened, and I felt they deserved to hear it from me," she says, explaining why she spoke at length at Christ the King. "Second of all, it's sort of cathartic for me to share the story. ... I've never felt more alone than I've felt (between) when I started down the mountain and when I called Mom. In a way, by telling people, it makes me feel less alone with it. It almost lightens the burden a little bit, I guess."
Well after Natalie started down Longs, a helicopter took Maynard's body off the summit. Perhaps some of his final thoughts were that he, or his body, had let his daughter down. Natalie obviously
doesn't think the former.
His death occurred too early, but it's consolation that it came in an awe-inspiring place with his daughter at his side.
"Our love for each other was intense. Yet it was calm and steady," she says, "just like him.
"He's everywhere I turn."
[email protected] John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column.