Steve Van Pelt and his wife, Katelyn, at Yosemite National Park. (Photo courtesy of Van Pelt's family)
Steve Van Pelt’s family said there are many lessons to be learned from his apparent death but avoiding risks and staying off mountains aren’t among them.
Last week, Linn County Search and Rescue on July 29 called off the search for 33-year-old Van Pelt, who fell while descending Mount Jefferson on Friday July 23.
Relatives described Van Pelt as an adventurous spirit who thrived in the outdoors.
“In the outdoors, Steve found total peace and delight. He never ceased to be astonished by its beauty or seek out new ways to explore the world. He couldn’t understand why friends and family preferred board games and coffee dates to hiking, climbing, swimming, and more. Whatever the season, no matter the day, he wanted to be outside,” his family said in response to questions from Salem Reporter.
He had a goal of creating more intimate friendships. During the pandemic, he and his wife, Katelyn, met two other young families through their rock-climbing gym.
The families formed a pandemic social bubble and went on climbs, hikes and camping trips together.
On July 23, Van Pelt was with one of his best friends when they summited Mount Jefferson, the second highest mountain in Oregon at 10,495 feet.
The pair has summited Mount Hood, Mount Adams and Three-fingered Jack in recent years before working their way up to Mount Jefferson.
Julie Medina, Van Pelt’s sister, said he was on cloud nine that day on top of Jefferson.
“They were on their way down when his friend saw Steve slip and fall hundreds of feet. From the way he fell, we know that his end was immediate,” she wrote on a GoFundMe page meant to raise money for his wife’s expenses.
Medina told Salem Reporter both men were experienced athletes, but “as those familiar with the mountain know, accidents like this simply happen.”
The Linn County Sheriff’s Office announced on July 29 it had suspended the search for Van Pelt after calling in mountain rescue teams from across the state to help.
Linn County Sheriff Jim Yon said a significant number of resources went into locating Van Pelt and continuing to search for him would have jeopardized additional lives.
“Resources, to include six mountain rescue teams, took great risk searching for Van Pelt over the last several days among the extreme mountainous terrain with glacier drifts, falling rocks and debris,” Yon said in a news release July 29.
Van Pelt’s family said growing up in rural Mendocino County, Van Pelt “delighted in many forms of good-natured mischief that will leave you laughing until your belly aches. He and his beloved friends entertained themselves by jumping off cliffs into the lake with their clothes on fire, e-braking in our church parking lot, creating 50-foot rope swings off the bottom of bridges, ‘experimenting’ with dry ice, making a flamethrower out of hairspray, mud wrestling and go-karting in the pasture after a good rain.”
They said his interests evolved and grew from skateboarding and snowboarding to surfing, kiteboarding, slacklining, highlining, cross-country skiing, rock climbing, hiking, and mountaineering.
As he got older, they said he became more cautious while maintaining his boyish spirit.
“He purchased the appropriate gear and adopted layers of safety measures to put his wife and family’s minds at ease. Despite his playful nature, we didn’t worry. We trusted him, and still do. He was the most capable person we knew,” his family said.
Van Pelt began flipping houses in Salem, remodeling two homes that were in complete disrepair. He and his wife lived off the rental income so they could travel.
Katelyn Van Pelt said her fondest memories of her husband are the times they spent in Yosemite National Park, especially on the top of North Dome, which faces the famed Half Dome.
“The first time Steve and I trekked out on North Dome, we - but Steve especially -were overwhelmed by the beauty. We watched the sunset and sunrise, and Steve couldn’t stop taking pictures and videos of the view. He woke up in the middle of the night eager to hop out of the tent and look at the stars. We came back for a spontaneous trip on his birthday, then again just a couple months ago, then again last month on what would be our last trip together,” she wrote to Salem Reporter.
His family said Van Pelt accomplished something that few people have.
“He completely disregarded social norms and expectations and built around himself the life that he dreamed of, then enjoyed it to the very fullest. His exit was at a point when he was the happiest and healthiest - physically, spiritually, mentally, and emotionally - he had ever been in his whole life. He left this earth in a way that he honestly would think is just awesome, and we know that he rests in the most appropriate place,” his family wrote.
On the GoFundMe page, Medina said her brother has always been part of the mountain.
“He is, and has always been, a part of this rugged landscape. He is, and has always been, a part of this wilderness. Manicured grounds could never hold him. There is no other place where he could be at rest. I don’t understand. I don’t know how I’ll ever be okay again. But I know that he wants me to be. I know that he is okay. He’s just off on his next adventure,” she wrote.
Van Pelt leaves behind his wife, parents, younger brother and sister, extended family and friends worldwide.
There's a private celebration of life on Aug. 14.
Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250, [email protected]
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