Have you ever driven up Clear Creek Canyon or Boulder Canyon or along the Big Thompson River or through Rifle Falls State Park and seen the glint of sunlight from a cliff face? As you crane your neck, you see it’s the reflection from a tiny silver plate bolted to the rock. When you stop, you see it’s one in a connect-the-dots line of bolts stretching from the ground impossibly high. How did those bolts get there, you wonder.
The answer is that Richard Wright, PhD, put them there, or at least many of them. The University of Colorado Cancer Center member and talented cancer researcher was also one of the most prolific rock climbing route developers in the Front Range.
As a microbiologist, Wright was one of the world’s leading experts on the enzyme xanthine oxidoreductase, which his lab nicknamed XOXO after the song by the Black Eyed Peas. Though it sounds like a Harry Potter spell, the enzyme is one of the body’s essential housekeeping tools, regulating inflammation and implicated in diseases including acute respiratory distress syndrome, lung fibrosis and cancer.
“When you would talk to Richard about it, he would light up,” says Jenifer Monks, PhD, a frequent collaborator and former lab member.
Exploring exactly how this enzyme works requires a mouse model that lacks XOXO. A decade ago, this particular kind of “knockout” mouse did not exist and so Richard Wright set out to make one.
“He designed and tested new models. He failed the first time and he never gave up on it. He knew these things take time,” Monks says. During the last three years while Wright was fighting cancer, he was also working hard with colleague Mehdi Fini, MD, to finish this experimental model.
Two Saturdays ago, Fini met with Wright to let him know that he had finished the data for a paper they had worked on together. Richard was in hospice care. He was dying of mantel cell lymphoma, a rare form of the disease that is seldom cured. Fini was told that Richard wasn’t likely to respond.
“Then he lifted his right arm for a high five. He said, ‘That’s genius,’” says Fini.
“The relationship we had made us good colleagues, good collaborators, good friends. He was special, one-of-a-kind; we never went a day without brainstorming new ideas. He was passionate, precise, fascinated, with contagious enthusiasm. Being together was productive for both of us,” Fini says.
Being together with Richard Wright was also productive for Mark Tarrant.
“I’ve climbed with a lot of guys over the years, but Richard was my main partner, no doubt about it. Over the years I’ve had a lot of guys ask why I climb with Richard – he was a bit older than me and maybe I could have gotten better with a younger, stronger group of climbers. But that didn’t matter to me – he was so good to be around. Whatever formula we had just worked. He always had an answer to whatever we had to solve. Never any negativity,” says Tarrant, who collaborated with Wright on dozens of first ascents starting in the 1980s.
About a year ago, Tarrant says he lost his passion for climbing. Off the rock, he didn’t see Wright much.
“I kind of dropped out,” Tarrant says. “I was with Richard during his first go-round with lymphoma. He was like bam, bam, bam we’re going to figure this out. For a while, it looked like he had beat it. This time when it came back, his wife Anna told me it was the same. He thought he was going to beat it. Maybe that’s why I never called and why he never reached out.”
When Tarrant gave the interview for this article, he said that he still had an undelivered Christmas present for Wright in the back seat of his car.
“I told a friend yesterday, even if I’m climbing with my brother or anybody, after a couple days you don’t want to talk to the guy. With Richard, it was never that way,” says Tarrant. “There’s a bit of a competitive element in climbing. When one partner gets a little better than the other, there’s a little bit of jealousy that goes on. Even though they’re cheering for you there’s an unheard tug pulling you down. With Richard, there wasn’t even a micro-percent of that. With Richard it was always up, up, up we go.”
Wright’s colleague Mehdi Fini says, “I was talking with my wife the other day about what it must be like for a scientist who knows he’s dying. They’re not going to think they’ve done everything they wanted to do. There will always be a next question. Richard always had a new idea. It was too soon…”
There was always another climbing route, another new, undeveloped cliff. There was always a new question in the science of the enzyme XOXO.
Next time you drive Boulder Canyon or Clear Creek or Big Thompson, notice not only sunlight reflecting from lonely bolts, but the many climbers on these cliffs enjoying the routes that Richard Wright equipped. And in Wright’s field of research, a paper he published in 2012 was the most downloaded study of the year at the journal Clinical and Translational Medicine. This seems like little more than a pride point, but Mehdi points out that what it means is that researchers around the country and around the world are incorporating our ideas into their own studies. The end of Richard Wright’s life is not the end of his influence, nor of the influence of his ideas.
Recently, Wright’s rock climbing passion had turned to developing new routes along the long-neglected I-70 corridor, many near the town of Empire. In a comment posted to the website Mountain Project dated June 22, 2015, Wright described a moment, alone at a new cliff: “I was up here on a cleaning day when the rain closed in with a long, slow drizzle. I was hanging off a fixed line in my raingear and doing my best ‘Fuller Brush Man’ impression when the crag was descended upon by flock of 10 or so Hermit Thrushes. The whole forest burst into their song, which is one of the most magical and mesmerizing sounds imaginable. It was an utterly cool moment.”
In science and in climbing, we will picture Richard Wright alone on a thread of rope making something new from the unknown.