Colorado’s Independence Pass ‘John Doe,’ found in 1970, identified as lost legendary skier Gardner Smith

He flew in small planes 'chasing winter' and had an expression: 'Whatever is right, friend'

Bruce Finley
The Denver Post
Gardner Smith is pictured in 1952.
Jeanne Gaida/Courtesy photo

A body found in the tundra atop Colorado’s Independence Pass in 1970 has been identified as legendary ski racer Gardner Paul Smith, a Beat-era adventurer who, before he went missing at age 39, was revered as a free-and-easy companion.

Smith’s exhumed remains sat for years in the Leadville office of a former coroner until last month when Colorado Bureau of Investigation forensic genetic analysts finally identified the remains using a DNA sample and genealogical sleuthing.

Smith, who grew up in California at Boreal Mountain in the Sierra Nevada, became one of the nation’s fastest skiers. He went to the University of Nevada in Reno and joined the Army in 1951, serving as a paratrooper before an honorable discharge in 1957. He emerged as a fearless free-thinker inclined toward cutting-edge pursuits, according to friends, family members and old news stories.

He and fellow ski racer Dick Buek flew in a small crop-duster plane, which had to stop every two hours for refueling, as far south as Chile. They landed during a revolution around 1954 in Guatemala, where authorities seized the plane and temporarily jailed them. On another flight, they’d landed and run out of money near Acapulco, Mexico, when they saw cliff divers with U.S. tourists looking on. They reckoned they could dive from higher up on the cliffs into the ocean, and did so, then collected from the tourists the fuel funds they needed to move on. Buek died in a 1957 plane crash.

The CBI breakthrough begins to resolve a long-running Colorado high country mystery: the identity of the body found in June 1970 atop Independence Pass, which closes during winter, and what happened. An arm and parts of ribs were missing from the corpse, which was cloaked in a sweatshirt, khaki trousers, multiple-layered socks with an unworn sock pulled over the left shoe, and $7 with a razor in a pocket. The body likely had been out all winter in the snow, authorities concluded from its location and condition, after a state snowplow driver found it under rocks along switch-backs just east of the 12,095-foot summit.


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