I Hiked With Julian Sands. I’m Not Writing His Obituary

Actor Julian Sands along the trail near the summit of Mt. Whitney in California. Sands died on Mt. Baldy in January 2023. / Illustration by Yoon Seong Roh

I was cold, tired, and breathing thin air when I met actor Julian Sands. For a minute, I wondered if I was hypoxic, but I’ve got a witness.

The memory of a day 15 years ago stuck in my head when Sands went missing in January. Then the announcement June 24 that his body had been found in a ravine near the Baldy Bowl area of Mt. Baldy, a peak near Los Angeles, turned a tale I might have told a few friends over dinner into something haunting. A puzzle piece about a man I never knew, but now feel strangely connected to.

I couldn’t feel my nose, though my feet were throbbing near the summit of Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 states. My girlfriend and I were on our way down when we first caught sight of a lone figure making better time than we were.

The late afternoon sun was sinking. Dark clouds were rolling in and the threat of a thunder storm was real. The rocky ridge line was icy and treacherous. It was important to watch your feet. He moved like he was on the sidewalk.

His blonde hair and angular features were a dead giveaway. It was a face I’d seen in a dozen movies, yet all the way up here, it was so odd, so out of place and unexpected, I’m not sure even my slightly numbed sense of amusement could be detected.

You meet some celebrities in my line of work. A few who were famously difficult. A few I’d idolized growing up, a few Olympians, and even a female pop star I had a crush on in the ‘80s. You also learn quickly celebrity doesn’t mean much if the person really doesn’t deserve anyone’s attention.

And here we were, on a June day in 2008, 14,000 feet above the central basin of California, and a very long, difficult ways from anything Hollywood. We were all just … hiking.

British actor Julian Sands in Calgary, Alberta, Canada in 2011. His films include “A Room with a View,” “Arachnophobia,” “Gothic,” “Boxing Helena” and the TV series “24,” “Dexter,” and “Smallville.” The actor died on Mt. Baldy, near Los Angeles on Jan. 13. / Photo by Leoboudv.

As he caught up to us, he spoke first. He gave a friendly greeting and asked us how things were going. On this mountain top, it was not empty pleasantries.

The exchange of valuable information about trail conditions, weather, wildlife — it was bear country — and the next stream to get water from were all details to be had in these moments.

We picked up our pace because of him. As the conversation went on and the boulders passed beneath our feet, he told us he’d come up and over from the western face of the peak. In his cultured English accent, hearing him downplay just how steep, difficult and dangerous we knew the western face really was became a charming distraction. As we chatted about the different places we’d hiked and the immense beauty we all treasured, it quickly became obvious Sands was no dandy, no celebrity poser. He was a mountaineer. This was meaningful and personal to him.

I won’t assume much about exactly what it meant to him, or what exactly he got from it. Was it where his art came from? I don’t know. I know what a quiet walk on a trail means to me: Solace, reflection, invigoration, inspiration, brain floss. Despite the pleasant chat, those thoughts he kept to himself.

After nearly 30 minutes of warm conversation, we were beginning to slow him down. We needed to let him keep his pace. He was headed a lot farther down the mountain than our base camp. We wished each other well and he quickly disappeared into the twilight and rocky terrain.

The following morning, the family in the camp next to ours told me the mom had reached Whitney summit alone, ahead of her husband and son. By the time she got there, she was suffering from altitude sickness. She was seriously dehydrated, with headache, nausea and difficulty breathing. She was in danger. Sands found her and spent more than an hour with her, they said, giving her water and trying to make her comfortable until her family arrived. They said he might have saved her life.

The only reason we ran into him was because of his act of kindness and his concern for other people. His sense of responsibility and decency meant everything to a group of strangers.

When Sands was reported missing after hiking alone on a stormy January day, I wasn’t thinking of his celebrity. I wasn’t thinking of A Room with a View. Or Gothic. Or Boxing Helena. Or the TV shows he was on. I was thinking of the man who I’ve since learned was so committed to his time on the trail, he actually did an interview via facetime while hiking on one.

I thought of the man who had a weird job but worked hard to live a normal life. I thought of the fellow hiker we met that day 15 years ago. The man who now seems more like a figure from some dream I had, leaving me to wonder what it meant.

As the days passed after his disappearance, and his survival was increasingly unlikely, my thoughts turned to the family who were missing him, trying to accept the hard reality of a day they might have thought would eventually come.

When his body was found, I figured it was time to mention this unusual mountain top anecdote. Somehow it put it in perspective for me. I think Julian Sands died doing something he loved. It likely came very quickly and unexpectedly. We should all be so lucky.

If you’re reading this, know this is a story about peace and reflection. Happenstance and living. This is not an obituary.


Actor Julian Sands at the 1990 Cannes Film Festival. / Photo by Georges Baird