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What happened to Kim Crumbo?

The Utah conservationist disappeared in Yellowstone National Park in September.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Becky Crumbo, with her dogs Samwise and Bodhi, Nov. 4, 2021, grimaces as she talks about her husband, Kim Crumbo, pictured in Asolo, Italy, in 2010, during a trip to their beloved vacation destination. Crumbo, 74, and his brother Mark Crumbo O'Neill, 67, were reported overdue from a four-night canoe excursion in Yellowstone National Park on Sept. 19. Search and rescue crews found O'Neill's body Sept. 20, 2021, along the east shore of Shoshone Lake. Kim Crumbo remains missing.

When Becky Crumbo first saw Shoshone Lake, she couldn’t fathom how a storm strong enough to endanger the lives of two experienced outdoorsmen could have blown in so suddenly.

The cold water was “like glass,” she said.

But in a boat on that remote lake in Yellowstone National Park, with members of her family and the National Park Service, she understood.

In what felt like only minutes, the tranquil water was “starting to get scary,” she said. In that moment, she knew what must have happened to her missing husband, Kim Crumbo, and his brother Mark Crumbo O’Neill, who was found dead on the shore.

It was “a perfect storm,” she said.

When Crumbo first went missing, the 74-year-old Ogden man’s friends and colleagues took to social media to express their disbelief that such a “legend,” as many described him, could have disappeared in the wilderness. As a Vietnam War veteran, former Navy SEAL, experienced river runner and retired park ranger, he knew how to handle himself in wild places. Like his friend Edward Abbey, the author and environmentalist, Crumbo knew the land, they said.

“Dad was the SEAL and everything that came with that — cranking out horizontal push-ups off a yield sign after a six-pack of beer, and the like,” Daniel Crumbo, one of Kim Crumbo’s two sons, said.

“If I was in a pinch in a wild place ... and I had one person to call upon, it would be Kim Crumbo,” said John Davis, head of the conservation organization that Crumbo had been working for when he went missing.

Since her husband’s disappearance, Becky Crumbo has gotten several messages and phone calls from people who knew him well, convinced that “something sinister” happened to him, she said. But his wife of 48 years doesn’t believe that. “It was a fluke thing, and it was an act of nature,” she said.

“And yeah, they both survived a whole lot of things in their life,” she continued. “But they didn’t survive this one.”

Crumbo, the legend

After becoming a public figure in the conservation world and appearing in some of Abbey’s writings, Kim Crumbo would eventually achieve “minor celebrity” status, his son said.

But both Kim Crumbo and Mark Crumbo O’Neill were “extraordinary” and “equally remarkable” men, Daniel Crumbo said.

An undated newspaper clipping from The San Diego Union (now The San Diego Union-Tribune) features a photo of Kim Crumbo taken just after he and the rest of SEAL Team One were awarded the Presidential Unit Citation from President Richard Nixon for “extraordinary heroism” in Vietnam.

(Archival article from The San Diego Union) In this undated clipping and photo, Kim Crumbo receives the Presidential Unit Citation and a Bronze Star for his military service in Vietnam.

In addition to the presidential award, Crumbo also received the Bronze Star that day for “personal acts of heroism.” He was photographed standing with his mother, Patricia Elliott.

Daniel Crumbo described his uncle O’Neill as a “second father,” who was “the tall, lean, incredibly good-looking and charming younger brother that always had to outdo whoever did anything before him did — and did.”

Kim Crumbo and O’Neill had both worked as professional river guides. Crumbo was the first full-time employee of Dee Holladay, founder of Holiday River Expeditions, and he also worked for Ken Sleight, the famous river runner, wilderness guide and activist.

The two brothers were such familiar sights on the Colorado River that they were immortalized in a poem by Vaughn Short called “Seldom Seen and His Macho Crew.” (Seldom Seen Smith is a character inspired by Sleight in Abbey’s 1975 classic novel “The Monkey Wrench Gang,” about using sabotage to protest the destruction of the environment.)

According to Will Putman, who put Short’s words to music, the poem tells the story of a Grand Canyon raft trip in the 1970s, “when the Bureau of Reclamation was using most of the Colorado’s water to fill in behind the newly built Glen Canyon Dam.”

“They say the river can’t be run/ The water’s down – It can’t be done. But if anyone can shoot it through/ It’s old Seldom Seen and his macho crew.” ...

“There were Kim and Mark — the Crumbo two/ A couple of Bobs and a guy named Stu/ Making up that macho team/ That rowed the boats for Seldom Seen.”

Crumbo’s disappearance

Relatives first reported the brothers overdue from a backcountry trip on Sept. 19, when they didn’t return from their expected four-night excursion. That day, searchers found a vacant campsite on the south side of the lake, which can be reached only on foot.

The next day, O’Neill, 67, of Chimacum, Washington, was found dead on the east shore of the lake, along with a canoe, paddle, personal flotation device and other items. An autopsy later revealed that O’Neill had died of exposure — specifically hypothermia, park officials announced.

Crews kept looking for Crumbo, who was still missing. With assistance from search dogs, they swept each trail in the area and searched the shoreline of Shoshone Lake by boat, gridding the water by helicopter, park officials said.

But the dayslong search transitioned from a rescue to a recovery effort later that week. The park service’s Submerged Resources Center then began using sonar equipment to search for clues in the lake’s depths, to no avail.

On Oct. 8, Yellowstone officials announced that the recovery effort was being scaled back because of snow and freezing temperatures. It marked the last formal update from the park.

“All of us at Yellowstone extend our deepest sympathies to the families, friends and colleagues of both Mark and Kim,” Superintendent Cam Sholly said in a news release that day. “I want to personally thank the teams from Yellowstone, other parks and agencies, and partner organizations who worked to help us locate Mark, and who continue search efforts to bring Kim home.”

Authorities continue to investigate what happened to the two brothers. Unofficial searches also are ongoing, Crumbo’s wife said, as volunteers continue to walk the perimeter of Shoshone Lake.

“The timing of this accident is unspeakably sad, but I take some comfort in knowing that they left us doing what they loved,” Daniel Crumbo said, “and that they had each other in what would be their last of many shared struggles. Both are dearly loved and missed, and deservedly so.”

“I cannot imagine how he didn’t make it out of this one,” said Ken Sanders, proprietor of Ken Sanders Rare Books in Salt Lake City. He said he got to know Kim Crumbo when they both appeared in the film “Wrenched,” a documentary about Abbey’s eco-activism legacy.

“Fare thee well, Crumbo, wherever you are,” Sanders said.

Crumbo’s legacy

Over the course of two decades, Kim Crumbo worked as a National Park Service river ranger, resource management specialist and wilderness coordinator in Grand Canyon National Park, as well as a park ranger. He retired from the park service in 1999. O’Neill also worked as a park ranger at Washington’s Olympic National Park and the Grand Canyon before retiring from the park service.

Kelly Burke, a geologist and the executive director of Wild Arizona, met Crumbo about three decades ago on the Colorado River. Describing him as “one of my dearest, most important friends and mentor and collaborator and warrior hero,” Burke said he protected her from the very beginning.

(Courtesy Kelly Burke) Kim Crumbo works to remove tamarisk at Hidden Slough in Glen Canyon in 2008.

While facing rough rapids and harsh elements, Crumbo and Burke worked together on numerous projects along the river, repairing trails, collaborating with members of the Zuni tribe to control erosion of cultural and archaeological sites, and removing nonnative and invasive plant species.

One such effort involved removing tamarisk shrubs from a location in Glen Canyon called Hidden Slough, and replacing them with native cottonwood and willow trees. Today, those trees tower above the water.

Crumbo was well-read and intelligent, she said, and could speak at length about history, philosophy and the river. He wrote “A River Runner’s Guide to the History of the Grand Canyon,” in which he went into meticulous detail of nearly every mile of the 277-mile run, from its start at Lee’s Ferry to its end at the Grand Wash Cliffs.

Crumbo overlapped with many different groups and organizations over the years in his work to conserve and protect wild places, wildlife habitat connections and large predators — especially wolves.

At the time of his trip to Yellowstone, he was working long hours as a board member and the wildlands coordinator for conservation nonprofit The Rewilding Institute. He also was serving as a board member for the Western Wildlife Conservancy and Wild Arizona (the merging of Arizona Wilderness Coalition with the Grand Canyon Wildlands Council, which he co-founded). And he was contributing to the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, a land conservation group, as well as the wildlife conservation groups Lobos of the Southwest and Project Coyote.

Crumbo was a “highly skilled, highly dedicated volunteer,” said John Davis, The Rewilding Institute’s executive director, who had trekked through miles of wilderness with his friend and colleague. Crumbo was “just doing the right thing for wild nature.”

Burke agreed, saying Crumbo had been “on fire” lately.

Part of those efforts involved working with The Rewilding Institute to revise several of his papers in draft form. On Oct. 26, The Rewilding Institute posted a draft proposal that Crumbo had written in April to garner support for a Grand Staircase Wildlife Corridor.

“Kim’s tragic disappearance left us all wondering how to carry on his heroic work for wild places and creatures,” read an editor’s note accompanying the post. “We quickly decided one of the many ways we need to help solidify Kim’s great legacy is by publishing his wild visions, even if they are in rough form. The world should know what Kim aimed to achieve.”

The proposal describes Crumbo’s vision for a protected wild area that would go from Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona through Bryce Canyon National Park in southern Utah, linking habitat for migrating mule deer and mountain lions.

“With Kim’s words echoing in our minds and hearts,” the editor’s note continues, “we call upon our fellow wilderness and wildlife advocates to push for protection of this whole area” — a potential major contribution to “30 by 30,” a conservation plan endorsed by President Joe Biden that aims to conserve at least 30% of U.S. lands and waters by 2030.

(Courtesy Teri Cleeland) Kim Crumbo, wearing a black hat and shirt, is photographed in the 1980s with a group he took down the Grand Canyon.

Crumbo, the man

Kim Crumbo and Mark Crumbo O’Neill were both “larger-than-life characters,” Daniel Crumbo said.

“But what people know less of,” he continued, “is how giving, loving, caring, and thoughtful these two men were.”

Kim Crumbo completed two combat deployments to Vietnam, but “he really hated war,” his wife noted. Her husband wouldn’t like her analyzing, she said, but she thought the desert landscape of the Grand Canyon gave him a “good contrast” to Vietnam.

He was gracious and refined, Burke said, but he also had a mischievous side and a wry sense of humor. He was a fan of director Mel Brooks’ movies, especially “Blazing Saddles” and “Young Frankenstein,” she said.

Teri Cleeland, who took two river trips with Crumbo in the 1980s, said Crumbo was charismatic but also humble. She recalls him hiking 10 miles out of the Grand Canyon like it was nothing, just to meet up with someone.

“It’s hard to believe that nature caught up with him finally, because he seemed indestructible,” Cleeland said. “That legend continues.”

In his many “heavy-duty” adventures, Crumbo did have a lot of close scrapes that he never should have survived, his wife said. He’d been in a helicopter crash in Vietnam, and the aircraft had burst into flames. He’d been attacked by an elk. He’d faced innumerable, monstrous river rapids.

Four years ago, he’d also had both of his shoulders replaced, one after the other. And it had all been taking a toll on him, his wife said.

Ironically, when Crumbo and his brother chose to go to Yellowstone, they had been wanting a low-key getaway, she said — a few days in a beautiful place that would recharge them mentally and spiritually.

Perhaps they found it after seeing their reflections in Shoshone Lake’s still waters. She thinks Crumbo and O’Neill may have been deceived by that tranquility, and mistakenly thought they didn’t need to wear life jackets.

She believes a microburst hit the lake that September day, creating treacherous weather conditions that would’ve tested the limits of any legends, let alone two men with aging bodies.

When asked if she held any hope that Crumbo might still be alive, she said, “No,” flatly. Her family is planning to hold a memorial service for Crumbo in Tucson, Arizona, later this month.

Even if Crumbo’s body is found someday, it may never be known what exactly happened to him and his brother.

But according to his longtime friend and fellow Sierra Club volunteer Jim Catlin, Crumbo died the way that made most sense for him: He went into the wild itself.

(Jacob W. Frank | National Park Service) The body of Mark Crumbo O'Neill was found on the east shore of Shoshone Lake in Yellowstone National Park on Sept. 20. His brother Kim Crumbo disappeared in the same area.

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