Climbing has its share of lost souls. This should not be surprising. It takes some degree of alienation to drive people to exposed, barren places. I guess it’s easy to write the whole lot off as misguided and maladjusted. But in our civilization, suicide is justifiable too. Our purpose is to produce more so we can consume more, so we can produce more. Wait, that’s not fair. We can also serve others so that they may prosper to consume more, so they can produce more so they can consume more. Or most nobly, we can work to advance the society so future generations may produce ever grander things to consume. Suicide is justifiable.
So there should be no room to question a climber’s motivation, but I can’t count the times or ways I have heard that question. I’ve heard it after every accident and every rescue. I’ve heard it every time a solid citizen has said, “Those guys are crazy!” And I’ve heard it every time a fellow outdoor recreationalist has accused climbers of being elitists, glory hounds or insecure adolescents. Sometimes they are right, but most times they are just rationalizing something they can’t understand and which makes them uncomfortable. They aren’t to blame. Most of them don’t have the context to understand that motivation, and our culture doesn’t value the passive acceptance of unknowns. So I know there’s nothing I can do to stop the questioning and this is probably just another stupid story.
Several years ago I made a trip to Cody with a new partner. I’d met up with him through a mutual friend, and since we had never climbed together, we decided to go to High on Boulder. The pitches on that climb are close together in the lower sections. If things aren’t going smoothly, you can back off without too much trouble. If things are going well, several pitches above will give you a full day of climbing. It’s a good place to be with a new partner or uncertain conditions. We had both that day.
The weather was cold, and though it was intermittently sunny, snow from the last few days had stuck around and made the drive out the South Fork road treacherous. The approach was particularly difficult too. The South Fork valley is a desert. Snow on the ground, except in drifts, is a rarity. That morning, though, there were a few inches of slippery powder over the scree and stream bed boulders on the way to the climb. Between the bad footing and the cold, we had lost much of our enthusiasm for the day even before we roped up. I lead the first pitch slowly and in poor style. A long, sloping ramp leads up to the base of the second pitch and a pair of bolts in the rock to the left of the ice. I spent about 10 minutes digging in the snow for those bolts before I gave up and placed a couple of screws in the ice for the belay.
The next pitch was wet enough to have mist coming off the surface of the ice. My partner led it as quickly as possible, but we were both soggy by the time we got to the top. Privately, we had each decided that enough was enough, but we stood at the base of the third pitch and debated about continuing, neither wanting to spoil the day for the other. Voices interrupted our discussion. We were quite surprised. Never mind the current conference, I had wasted enough time on the first pitch alone that we should have seen a party coming up behind us.
Moments later, a head and shoulders popped over the edge of the second pitch. These guys were climbing really fast. The leader stopped just below us, placed a screw and began bringing up the second. The usual chit-chat ensued: it is cold, that pitch was a soaker, we are from (insert hometown here). Then he remarked on my ice tools. They were the same make as his and remarkable because they were DMM Predators. Not many people used Predators, and for good reason. They were one of the heaviest tools made and difficult to swing properly. I never did quite figure those tools out, but this guy had. Watching him swing those bludgeons was like watching a cabinet maker swing a hammer; every placement was economical and right on target.
Having another party on the route made it easy for us to admit that we were done. We rappelled back to the base of the second pitch and I began setting up an Abalakov anchor in the ice. I had just finished the knot in the anchor cord when we heard a ‘whump’ above us. I had heard a sound like that a couple of times before and it provoked instant fear,because each time before it had preceded an avalanche. I looked up and resigned myself to die since I was standing there unanchored while I worked on the Abalakov.
When I didn’t see a wave of snow pouring down the face, I threw my arm through the loop of anchor cord and pulled in close to the ice. At that point, a couple of rocks and some snow did come over the edge, followed by a backpack. At least, that’s what my mind saw at the moment. The real image would come back later and much clearer than what I thought I saw just then. The snow and debris slid quickly over the top of the first pitch. Slack rope spilled off after everything else and briefly coiled next to us, confirming what my partner was telling me: that wasn’t a backpack, that was a body. Then the rope snapped taut and a few seconds later, another form cleared the top of the pitch above us and fell without touching anything until it left our sight.
My partner got to the base first. By the time I arrived, he had already checked for pulses, though there was really no need. We stumbled down the approach and across the frozen river. It seems silly in retrospect, but we were still acting like we were in an emergency. We knocked at the door of the first ranch we encountered, hoping to call for help. The couple at the ranch house helped us contact the Sheriff and were nothing but gracious. At the Sheriff’s office, we wrote statements and spoke to the SAR team. Most of them had known the men who fell. We pleaded with them not to try to recover the bodies that night, given the conditions, but they went anyway and nobody else got hurt. It probably wasn’t that dangerous for them, there was just a sense of doom over us. I drove home the next day expecting to slide into a ditch or hit a deer.
I had seen a lot of people die in a lot of different ways, but no other deaths affected me like those. When I went back to High on Boulder with my regular partner, I couldn’t climb. As we turned the last corner on the approach, I started to smell blood, and the smell got stronger and stronger until we turned around and left. Our next climb was an easy grade 3, but I couldn’t finish it. I flinched harder and harder with each ‘whump’ of dislodged ice hitting the snow at the base. I kept climbing, but I didn’t like it. I couldn’t bear to quit though. My regular partner stuck with me and climbed well below his level for a couple of seasons while I struggled. Eventually, I got back to where I’d been and then went past.
Early after the accident, I got a call from the wife of one of the men who died. She wanted to know what had caused the fall. I didn’t know. She also seemed to want to know what it meant, if it meant anything. I didn’t know what to tell her at the time, I was asking myself the same question.
I never had a moment of enlightenment on that account. Maybe it’s me, but maybe it’s because our concept of enlightenment is bullshit anyway. The master doesn’t slap you in the back of the head and you’re transformed. But I did eventually come to understand why I couldn’t quit. Climbing is the rawest form of expression, full engagement. I think that’s why climbers devote so much, sometimes everything, to this avocation. When we step out into the unknown on the edges of our ability, whether it’s on a 5.7 or a 5.14, totally focused, committed – that’s the important thing.
And we must devote ourselves to something; if we don’t, our civilization has an opening in the mechanism for us. So forget success, failure, accolades, polity, society, humanity; it’s all to the death from that point of view. I’m going to climb.
Such a fine piece, so elegantly expressed. You would never get me climbing, but I can see why people do climb. I can see why the notion of climbing disturbs others too – it challenges all kinds of received belief systems, the false perception that man-made reality is ‘safe’, or perhaps that to climb mountains is to try to (arrogantly) outface ‘the almighty’, or that it is deemed ‘self-indulgent’ to wilfully take up pursuits with such life and death risks. Somehow the acquisition of skills, honing discretion, the forging of intentions, the challenge of self are not seen as worthwhile, or that someone who has worked to acquire these attributes might be a useful member of the community. Nice to have met you at Mak’s place.