Brother, Instructor, Fiancé, Friend: Remembering Dillon Blanksma
Katie Joy Blanksma remembers her late brother Dillon Blanksma, who died at the end of July on the Diamond in Rocky Mountain National Park.
On July 30, 2020, Dillon Grant Blanksma fell over 600 feet from Broadway Ledge while traversing to the start of Pervertical Sanctuary (5.11a) on the east face of Longs Peak, a bulletproof behemoth known as the Diamond that sits well above 13,000 feet.
A magnetic test piece for alpinists, Broadway often echoes with chatter and rock fall long before dawn crowns the Diamond. That morning, at least two other parties reached the ledge ahead of him, four more free-soloed or simul-climbed the North Chimney while he and his partner Brittany Christians pitched it out, a fifth waited at the base to begin their ascent, and a stream of headlamps bobbed in the distance—all before sunrise. Most climbers choose to traverse the 4th class ledge unroped, as Dillon and his partner did that morning. One moment, he was ten feet ahead of her. The next, he fell backward and bounced out of view.
By all accounts, despite the crowds and low temps, my brother’s psych that day was high and his smile contagious. Although we ache from the loss of a brother, partner, fiancé and friend, it is Dillon’s genuine spirit, unconditional love and alpine stoke that guide us in how we remember him now.
Born in March 1994 to Joyce and Ken Blanksma in Bozeman, Montana, Dillon grew up camping, hiking and backpacking in the Rocky Mountains with his five siblings—Heidi Mae Burger, Derrick Jay Blanksma, Katie Joy Blanksma, Trenton Wayne Blanksma, and Kevin Michael Blanksma.
Under Trenton’s tutelage, Dillon’s outdoor interests narrowed in on climbing. At 17 he encountered his first boulder problem in Yankee Jim Canyon on the Yellowstone River and dispatched his first sport leads in the Bear Canyon minutes from Bozeman. For the next several summers spanning Dillon’s high school and college years, the brothers would climb all across the Madison, Beartooth and Absaroka ranges of Southwestern Montana and Wyoming, from deep-water soloing above crystal blue alpine lakes to bagging their first serious summits, Granite Peak (12,807 ft) in 2013 and Gannett Peak (13,810 ft) in 2014.
“That connection we had with climbing is what made him so much more than a brother. He became my best friend,” says Trenton. But he saw a new spark ignite in Dillon when he moved to Colorado in May 2016 after completing his degree in computer science from Azusa Pacific University. “Something switched. He took his passion to the next level.”
His climbing community grew not only because he was a reliable and competent partner with insatiable psych, but because of his patience and easy way of making anyone feel welcome. The somewhat shy and searching teenager his siblings knew in Montana found his footing and a new lease on life in Golden, Colorado, where he was such a sought-after partner that, rumor has it, if you wanted to climb with Dillon you needed to schedule three months in advance.
“Alex was a huge part of that shift,” notes Trenton.
In August 2016, Alexandra Griffen walked into Earth Treks for a group try-out with Nathan Sandidge, David Henningsen and Dillon. Hired together, the four became fast friends and remain so still. Dillon was cute, sure, but it was his uninhibited goofiness that really got her attention. One after-hours night at the gym “[we] created a game where we were bouncing [a ball] all over the walls, running around like children and creating a ridiculous points system that made zero sense,” she recalls. “He had the stupidest sense of humor that made me roll my eyes, but also laugh my butt off.”
Dillon and Griffen were well on their way to couple status and the happiest years of their lives. With every adventure (and misadventure), from bailing on Pingora in the Cirque of the Towers, in the Wind River Range, to standing on Mount Olympus, his megawatt smile beamed brighter.
As much as my brother was a by-the-book rule follower and obsessive planner, Griffen is the walking definition of spur-of-the-moment spontaneity. They were the yin to each other’s yang in a lot of ways—she taught him to embrace what was outside of his control, he showed her the value of being intentional with one’s love, time and the people one shares them with—but on the things that mattered most they were on the same page: the best things in life aren’t things at all, love is loftier than mountains and dad jokes are always punny.
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In April of this year, they promised to love each other’s wildness and weirdness forever with a loop of cordelette in place of an engagement ring. They planned to move to New York at the end of August where a dream job waited for her and the Gunks for him.
In many ways, without knowing it, Dillon was on a goodbye tour this summer, meeting his newest nephews and niece in Minnesota and spending as many last-hoorah weekends outside with his Colorado community.
On one such weekend in late June, Dillon and Nathan Sandidge headed to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison for a nautical-themed weekend: first up, Maiden Voyage (5.9) to test out the grades, then Scenic Cruise (5.10d). Dillon convinced Nathan (not that he needed much convincing) that such an aquatic undertaking required a particular climbing style—a snorkel, scuba goggles and Hawain-print attire. For two days, the two goofballs swung leads, exchanged route-finding frustrations and laughed and laughed and laughed at each fish-faced, goggle-eyed belay.
“We’re just kinda yelling at each other, Oh, no! There are giant sharks out there the size of school buses, and we called the rope his ‘oxygen line’ and just being ridiculous,” says Sandidge. “That was Dillon’s MO: Only serious enough to be safe. But he never crossed the safety line.”
Dillon always climbed happy. He kept calm, even in scary situations. He smiled, even when nothing went quite right. For Nathan, who acknowledges he sometimes takes his projects too seriously, the weekend served as a reset of priorities. “Who you climb with matters more than anything,” he says. “Dillon reminded me of that. You can have the shittiest climbing day and the best day ever.”
While Dillon spent most of his free days in the Rockies between Eldorado Canyon and Rocky Mountain National Park, his climbing aspirations also took him to Joshua Tree and Tahquitz in California, Red Rocks in Nevada, Indian Creek and Moab in Utah, Mexico and Greece.
More weekend warrior than dirtbag, Dillon planned his sends around his 9-to-5 at the American Alpine Club. While most headed to the gym after work to train, he went to teach others how to climb safer, believe in themselves, and let joy and judgement be their guide. While at Earth Treks he not only taught Intro to Sport Leading, Self Rescue and Intro to Movement, but also played a critical role in developing their adult curriculum.
The mountains weren’t Dillon’s career so much as his coach. He didn’t rack up impressive first ascents or speed records. He won’t be recalled among the climbing giants in the canons of sponsored adventurism. He had no use for brag-fests or one-up-manship. Instead, Dillon will be remembered by those who loved him and climbed with him for his positivity, kindness, humor, and genuine interest in others’ success as much as his own.
“I miss my brother more than words can describe,” says Derrick. “During this darkest time of my life small flickers of light have emerged: When I meet a climbing buddy of Dillon’s or reflect on [our] many memories as brothers or see his ray-of-sunshine fiancé make everyone laugh with a great Dillon joke. These memories, friends and loved ones all have a piece of Dillon.”
After his last trip to Cody, Wyoming, for a weekend of absolutely no climbing, just good beer and quality brother time, Dillon wrote on Instagram, “It’s always the day after we depart that I miss you guys a little extra.”
We miss you a little extra, too, Dill.
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