I whipped around to see my friend and climbing partner sliding towards the abyss. I never saw him again.
It was May 1979. Jeff was 19, a tall, amiable guy with a layer of baby fat that belied his strength. We had known each other since fourth grade.
We had arrived in Yosemite Valley the night before after a high-speed drive from Los Angeles. Jeff negotiated the winding road into the Valley while I curled up in the passenger seat trying not to heave my guts. I had picked up a nasty case of food poisoning at a Denny’s on Highway 99 that looked iffy even by truck stop standards.
After bailing on a fruitless search for a secret climber’s camp we’d heard of, we drove into the crowded Valley to find a place to sleep. I desperately needed to be motionless and horizontal, so when we found a parking place with some promising bushes where we thought we would be able to sleep for a few hours without being rousted I gratefully crawled into my sleeping bag.
The sky grew pale lavender after a few miserable hours of intense discomfort. We sat up in our bags and munched a handful of cookies Jeff had brought from home. It was all I could keep down. After a brief discussion of objectives, the piss-poor state of sanitation in corporate-run diners, and life philosophy, we determined that we might as well get on with it.
We had decided to tackle an easy route on the Royal Arches as a warm-up for our week in Yosemite. At 5.6 or so, the route would not stress our abilities, but it was long, and promised to be a fun outing. We stuffed our packs with water, munchies, and gear and headed for the approach.
Neither of us talked much as we made our way up the broad ledges that lead to the base of the climb. The sun had not yet hit the valley floor. The sweet, dry scent of pine duff, and the otherworldly grandeur of Half Dome filled our senses to overflowing.
Pitch after pitch of easy climbing led us ever higher. At each stance it seemed that another dimension of the universe was revealed. At lunch, Jeff regaled me with stories about his sister’s boyfriend Mark. Jeff was very protective of Cheryl, and took pride in telling anyone who would listen about how he kept Mark in line. Once, while Mark was visiting their family he lost his balance and nearly fell backwards onto Cheryl, who lay on the couch behind him. Instinctively, Mark put out a hand to catch his fall, and planted it squarely on her breast. This prompted a vigorous dope slap and peals of laughter from everyone except Mark. Jeff always added at the end, “If she hadn’t smacked him I would have!” That was Jeff in a nutshell.
About two-thirds of the way up the difficulties, such as they were, ceased, and all that remained was a few hundred feet of scrambling to the “jungle”, which offered a way through the formidable overhangs at the valley rim. By that time we had spent so much time socializing and ogling the crags that we feared we would not make it down by dark. Neither of us had a flashlight, let alone a headlamp. Minimum-wage food service jobs made even a decent rope seem like a luxury.
The climbing was secure. We decided to unrope for speed, and soon reached the traverse that led to the jungle. All that lay between us and the trail back down was a hundred feet or so of low-angle slab glistening here and there with seeps of water over black-stained white granite.
We had often talked about our philosophy regarding the use of protection. In 1979 the current practice of push climbing, extreme soloing, and lightening-fast, minimalist ascents were just barely being established. We had absorbed everything we could about Reinhold Messner, and other star alpinists. Although we both knew we were far from that league, we enjoyed the thought that we too could apply their approach to our own climbing. We felt bold, even daring.
I set out in the lead. The slabs were trickier than they appeared. The holds were covered in powdery dust and pine needles. I spent as much time excavating as I did climbing.
With the tree-covered ledge just a few yards away I encountered the last obstacle; a broad stream of water that was just a bit too wide to step over. I had made the mistake of trying to use a foothold in one of these seeps near the start of the traverse, only to discover that the black discoloration was not some benign chemical reaction of water and mineral, but a skating rink-slick film of algae. For a gut-wrenching instant I felt my center of gravity accelerate towards the valley floor. I yelled back at Jeff to avoid the water, and pressed on, now so intensely focused on my movement that the only thing that existed for me was the placement of hands and feet on rock.
I quickly ruled out a step across, since if I lost my balance even a little bit, there would be nothing between me and eternity except the time it took to hit the valley floor. Fortunately, it was much narrower about ten feet up. I moved up, stepped across, and ran into the trees. I yelled over at Jeff to stay put, that I was going to set up a belay for him. I don’t know if he heard me, or just disregarded my advice. I was uncoiling the rope when I heard him scream.
I don’t know how others who have witnessed death respond to the experience, but I find it hard to imagine that anyone could escape the sense of unreality I felt. I was at once intensely focused, and watching my own actions as though I were a disinterested bystander.
On full autopilot, I tied one end of the rope to a sling around a tree, and the other end to my swami belt. In the interest of speed, I eschewed setting up a mechanical brake for a Dulfersitz rappel, ignoring the burning on my neck as I called out Jeff’s name. It was an act that was as necessary as it was hopeless. I knew that once he went over the edge there was nothing between him and the ground for over a thousand feet. Hanging at the end of the rope I overcame my fear of what I might see and scanned the ground for any sign of my friend. Nothing. I batmanned back up the rope, collected the gear, and ran as fast as I could down the steep climber’s trail.
Just as I reached the outskirts of a campground I stopped dead in my tracks. In front of me were three deer. They stood motionless except for their huge ears, which twitched as flies buzzed around their heads. I fancied for a moment that my friend’s spirit had taken up temporary lodging in their bodies, their big brown eyes were his, looking at me with tenderness, as though they wanted to comfort me. We stared at each other, and then I raced on.
A family of four was kind enough to stop when I ran into the middle of the road outside Yosemite Village, waving my arms and yelling, “My friend has fallen! I need help!” I sat squished in next a young boy and gobs of car-camping paraphernalia until they pulled up in front of the Park Headquarters. I called out a hurried “Thanks!” and bolted for the front door.
When the climbing rangers hauled out a pile of binders filled with glossy black and white aerial photos of every crag in the valley it struck me how utterly commonplace my situation was. Their unhurried, methodical approach to the situation clashed with my sense of urgency. I was frustrated when each statement I made was greeted with a calm, “Are you sure?” Yes, damn it, I’m sure. And I was appalled when they said they would wait until first light to go look for him. What they knew, and what I refused to admit, was that this was not a rescue. It was a recovery.
I was given a camp site and told to wait until I was contacted. Despite my exhaustion, I couldn’t sleep. I kept wondering if they would make me identify the body. On one hand, I would be willing to do almost anything for Jeff, but on the other, I wasn’t sure I could handle seeing his broken corpse.
I finally fell asleep cocooned in the car around dawn. A couple hours later there was a knock at the window. A uniformed ranger informed me that they had found Jeff. They didn’t need me to identify him. The magnificent valley that the day before had filled us with a sense of wonder now seemed oppressive. The towering cliffs were imbued with a sinister, threatening power that made me want to get out of there just as fast as humanly possible.
Before leaving I made a phone call I never want to make again. I called Jeff’s house. I suspected the rangers had already called the family, but I had to call them myself. Mark answered.
“Did you hear about Jeff?” I asked.
“Yeah. He’s dead.”
It was hard not to imagine a tone of accusation in his voice, though if there was he never said so. There wasn’t much else to say except that I would be home in a few hours.
The long drive back seemed empty. Jeff should have been sitting beside me. He should have been driving. We should have been talking about our adventures, close calls, and dreams of the future. We should have been commiserating about our crappy jobs and the price of climbing gear. He should have been telling me for the umpteenth time about how Mark had accidentally groped his sister in front of the whole family.
Back in LA I was asked if I planned to continue climbing, and simultaneously urged not to give it up. Although quitting climbing was the furthest thing from my mind, it was the last thing I wanted to think about. I wanted to understand what it meant for my friend to be dead. I wanted to know how the world would be different, and how it would remain the same.
That evening my buddies Tom and Robert wanted to go to the beach. As we sat on the rocks at Malaga Cove pitching stones into the gently lapping waves of the Pacific Ocean, even tears seemed futile. A jug of wine, and then another disappeared into our grief, and still the grief remained.
Our parents pooled their money and rented a motor home for the three of us to drive up to Yosemite, then over Tioga Pass and down to Bishop, where the funeral was to take place. In retrospect it seems the height of folly to give three grieving teenagers the keys to the car, but that’s what they did.
We drove and drank, drank and drove, imagining that we were somehow “maintaining”. We survived, and eventually arrived in the Valley, bleary-eyed, hung over, staring up at the Royal Arches. Tom and Robert wanted to know all the details, but I had few to offer. The few things I wanted to say they didn’t want to hear. I had done nothing wrong, I was told, but I knew that his death was partly my fault, and I felt horribly sorry. Jeff died doing something he loved, they said, but it seemed to me that what mattered was that he lived doing what he loved, and it was just a damn tragedy that he had to die while doing it. The valley walls pressed in on my mind like those action movie rooms that suddenly begin to shrink on their occupants, threatening to crush them unless the hero finds a way either to escape or stop their progress.
We buried Jeff in 100-degree heat just outside Bishop. Jeff’s family thought he would like it there. During the service I kept gazing off to the west, towards the enormous hulk of Mt. Tom, and the jaunty trapezoidal summit block of Mt. Humphreys. Jeff didn’t want to be in the ground. He wanted to be up there, and I wish he were as well.