A Story About Not ClimbingThis is a story of loss, introspection, and not doing the things that you love
It's 5:00 pm and dark thunderheads have consumed the Oquirrhs to the west. The wind picks up a bit and blows away some of the stagnant heat as I watch the evening traffic begin to flow south on I-15. A much-needed thunderstorm is finally coming to the Salt Lake valley. The deck chairs on the south side of the building provide a little bit of isolation for my pre-work cigarette. I don't smoke often. The wind intensifies and a few raindrops fall.\par
The afternoon was spent considering what I should do. I looked at the photos from the Pfeifferhorn's North ridge briefly, and I thought about what I would say to your other partners. I'm sure some have already read the newspaper and seen your picture, as I did. I decided to try to contact your parents, but that would have to wait until tomorrow. The University registrar's office wouldn't be open on the Fourth of July.
Today there is a typical afternoon thunderstorm. I haven't been on a real route in ten weeks, since that April afternoon glissading down the North ridge into Maybird Gulch. The wind reminds me of being on a high peak again, and that we had plans to do a couple of local alpine rock routes later this summer.
The day before you left for Peru I finally got around to sending you a couple of the pictures from that climb. Your breathless panting as we gained the ridgeline, the first tentative steps on the still-firm west-facing snow. Your casual glance at the camera as we began to rappel off the ridge three hours later, and the youth showing in your eyes when I said you could go first on the glissade down. You promised that you'd send me the ones from your camera, but you couldn't at the moment. You see, your plane was leaving in the morning, and you hadn't finished packing yet. Three weeks in Peru? Sounded great to me, and I was incredibly jealous. We promised to get together later and I made lists of the routes I wanted to do before summer faded into fall.
Now all I can think about is that Mark Twight essay "A Lifetime before Death," where he lists his fallen partners. I suppose now my own list will start. The picture of you with blood on your face, smiling, is emblazoned in my head. Spring Wasatch mornings don't get much better than that, the sun just beginning to light the deep, powdery snow and the tops of the jagged peaks of the Alpine Ridge where darkness loomed--forbidding--moments before. Fifteen minutes of skinning and your nose was already bleeding, staining the white snow in the darkness under the pines. It had all the makings of a grand day and we soaked it in as we crossed the divide into Maybird. I had made the photo of you wiping blood from your face my desktop background at home, complete with our light-hearted comments from the day: "Alpine climbing is war!" and "It's not fun until you bleed."
I'll go back and finish the route now I guess. I can't remember why we didn't in the first place, but I vaguely recall that it was getting late and we were moving slowly. I wasn't feeling "it." I think my motivation had already started to wane, and I wondered why I caused myself physical pain on such a regular basis. A familiar feeling, one I had dealt with many times before. "It" would eventually return, I was sure, but at the time all I really wanted was to watch movies or lie in bed with the lights off. The trend continued, but each time I spoke with you, the old enthusiasm came back just a bit. Now it is back completely, and your absence makes me long for the mountains.
The harsh overhead lights hurt my head for the first time, a complaint I occasionally hear from coworkers. I had never noticed until now. The computer screen holds my gaze, but not my attention. What little control I once felt I exercised over the world has vanished, and I'm no longer able to resist the personal impact of events around me. My standard defense mechanism gone, the familiar analogy of the reed, buffeted this way and that by the wind, creeps into my mind. It falls short: a reed could never feel this hopeless, or helpless. I walk to the break room with glassy eyes and a blank, distant stare, shuffling slowly. A young man finally aware of the mortality of himself and others.
I'm certain that information will continue to trickle in from Peru. Condolences come from others in the climbing community, and the inevitable second-guessing begins in the news articles that report your death. Questioning your experience seems rash when it comes from Peruvian authorities and others who never knew you and never climbed with you. I know the truth of the situation now, and read with disgust the opinions of armchair mountaineers who judge based on your age. I spoke with your roommate earlier today and we both agreed that you had probably summitted, given the length of time you had been on the mountain. It seems likely to us at least.
I guess it's time to do some work now. I just wanted to say hello and let you know about things here. We'll keep on and I'll be sure to get back to the North Ridge before too long. But hey, remember that I've got those photos waiting for you. I'll put the CD on my desk. It'll be here for you, whenever.