Georgetown alum dies in climbing accident

November 3, 2019

Photo: Georgetown Voice

Georgetown alum, Michelle Xue (MSB ’19) and her climbing partner Jennifer Shedden died from injuries sustained climbing an icy canyon on Red Slate Mountain in California on the weekend of October 26. Mono County Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue (SAR) began their search after friends of the pair alerted authorities when they did not return at the end of the weekend. SAR stated it appeared Xue and Shedden, who were well-equipped for the expedition, had been struck by falling rocks at an unknown point during their climb.

Xue grew up in Northern California and recently moved to Los Angeles to start as an acquisitions analyst with RealTerm. She graduated this past spring with a major in Operations Information Management and a minor in Economics. Outside the classroom, she was a dedicated and active member of the Georgetown community as a leader on the rock climbing team, president of the Buddhist Student Association, member of the Public Real Estate Fund’s board, and a Global Business Fellow.

Dennis Quinn, vice dean of the McDonough School of Business, said Xue was a fun and vibrant student in his Business Government Relations course. “She was always laughing, always had the skill of making others laugh in class. She was a very engaging, very warm person.”

He said Xue had a remarkable ability to stay in touch. They would have lunch or coffee at least once, if not twice, a semester, her best friend since freshman year Vanessa Phillips (MSB ’19) often joining them. They quickly assumed an easy familiarity. 

“We were on a first name basis immediately, but that didn’t come from me. She just immediately assumed we were on a first name basis and that was fine,” Quinn said. “She was always very interested in seeing how I was. It wasn’t one sided.”

James Olsen, assistant director for programs for graduate students and faculty and professor in the philosophy department, remembered Xue’s work ethic and passion for environmental issues when she was a student in his Environmental Ethics course. “She was a second semester first-year student, and the course was an upper division, research-based class,” Olsen wrote in an email to the Voice. “In trying to discourage her, however, she ended up convincing me to let her try and try she did.” 

He recounted her eagerness to contribute to class discussions and countless drafts and visits to his office hours to produce her final term paper. “It was really her energy and joie de vivre [joy of living] that stood out.”

Olsen also fondly remembers running into Xue at the Sierra Club’s annual One Day Hike, a 100 kilometer hike from Georgetown to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia along the C&O Canal. He wrote about the experience on Xue’s memorial page.  “I remember standing around with a group of strangers at 2 am on the banks of the Potomac, getting ready to begin the Sierra Club’s 100k hike, when she came up and greeted me. I was very surprised and delighted and then very not surprised to see her there— it was clearly the sort of thing Michelle would do.”

Xue loved the outdoors and was an avid climber in and out of the climbing gym. After graduating in December, she spent this past spring and summer traveling to Argentina, Spain, Canada, Nepal, and Thailand for climbing expeditions. She had friends everywhere, including throughout the D.C. climbing community, according to Jacob Maiman-Stadtmauer (COL ’20), a friend of Xue and fellow climber. He remembers calling her one weekend to see if she wanted to climb, and being told it wouldn’t work because she was on her way to New Hampshire to go ice climbing with a few other D.C. climbers. 

Throughout her time at Georgetown, Xue served as university chapter chairwoman of the D.C. section of American Alpine Club (AAC). David Giacomin, the chairman of the section remembered and thanked her on the section’s Facebook page. “Sometimes you meet someone who is just special. Special in all aspects of their life and they are on a mission to share those gifts with the world,” he wrote. “We will miss Michelle and always be grateful to her service to the AAC.” 

Xue joined the university’s rock climbing team her freshman year and left a lasting impact. During her senior year, she served as safety captain.

Ben Falley (COL ’21), a treasurer for the climbing team this year and friend of Xue, described her as someone who served as a mentor for the team and hoped to get others to love climbing as much as she did. “When I first joined the team, we used to have 6am climbing sessions and she would always make us take falls to get over our fear of falling,” he wrote in a message to the Voice. “Her passion for climbing and in everything she did was indescribable and she always motivated you to try harder and get out there even when you would much rather have done nothing.”

Michelle also served as co-president of the Buddhist Student Association last fall, and was instrumental in growing its presence on campus, Anthony Saya (MSB ’18), former president of the club, wrote in a message to the Voice. “Michelle grew the Buddhist club on the strength of her relationships with others; she had a brightness and positive energy that made people want to be around her. I can honestly say, the club would not be what it is today without her.”

Saya stated that Xue lived according to the principles of the community she led. “Michelle was a powerful example of the Zen principle of ‘living the teachings exactly as you are.’ She was utterly uncompromising when it came to doing the things she loved: rock climbing, real estate, and really good food,” he wrote in a message to the Voice. “Whether it meant waking up at 4am to go to the gym, or laying up for a month with a broken back, she always kept going; and even when things got tough, she never stopped smiling.”

And Xue helped others squeeze the most out of life, too, Maiman-Stadtmauer said. “Everything was an adventure, she’d never let you get away with just living your life at halfway.”

He remembers telling her he wanted to make a training schedule, which Xue took as her cue to make happen. “She made us sit down in the HSFC and go through an Excel spreadsheet cataloging what exercises we were going to do, our goals.” 

While most people talk about doing things, Xue did them, Maiman-Stadtmauer said. He recalls making a passing comment about how it would be fun to get a group together to go climbing in California, thinking nothing would come of it. “Everyone makes throwaway comments like that, no one actually plans for the trip to happen. Michelle would not let me get away with it,” he said. “She made an Excel sheet, and she had everyone’s flight details listed there.” 

Xue embraced life fully and lived each moment with intentionality, according to her best friend Phillips. She remembered meeting up with her in Tokyo for 24 hours, where they roamed around the city, visited museums, and ate delicious food. “I had been in Asia studying abroad and Michelle was just always traveling. She was so full of life and determined to see the world,” Phillips wrote. 

“Whenever we were together, I felt better because of her. She was like a ray of sunshine walking.”

A Buddhist memorial service will be held for Michelle Xue on November 4th at 7 pm in Makom, Leavey Center.

Julia Pinney
Host of Fresh Voices. Former Voices Editor. AMST major. Mediocre yet enthusiastic dancer. Will beat you at Scrabble. Ask me what I'm reading.

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