Gone Climbing

I feel a little weird saying this, but the question “Who died?” is a common one late at night in my home. After Wunderkind goes to bed, Edelweiss and I like to read in the evenings. I usually have a climbing book or magazine. Then it comes.

I’ve started lying that no one in my current chapter or article died. Mostly it’s true. But there are a lot of stories of being stranded with HAPE, HACE, worsening frostbite, falling, avalanche, rock fall and snow bridges or cornices collapsing into voids, or alpinists learning of friends that go missing on a climb. I’m not morbid. I’ve never read these stories to contemplate death. I’m interested in the climb and the life of the climber. So my wife’s question, has bordered between becoming tiresome and comical.

Before I started writing this blog I read past the headlines of deaths of climbers, including the famous ones. Dying on a climb was something I avoided both in practice and in… I guess you’d call it concept or theory. I kept thoughts of dying climbing in the distance. But much of the news about climbing, except in the sources I typically refer to (see Mountain Links) are only talking of accidents and death; I just wanted news of attempts on jagged peaks.

Reading of climbing deaths in histories of Alaska or the Himalayas is somewhat detached. I notice deaths as if it were the death of Lou Gehrig — an important man in baseball from before my time, but I never had a reason to mourn.

In the process of obtaining best “inside track” for news on current climbing news through  the American Alpine Club, climbing magazines in print and online and connections through social media, I’ve developed some relationships — a term I used in the broadest possible sense. Some I’ve conversed with once or twice, others I just follow like they are celebrities.

Along the way, my interest in them has developed a familiarity. When news came of Bjørn-Eivind Årtun’s death with his partner Stein-Ivar Gravdal on attempting a route in Norway, I did not react the way I have before. I couldn’t dismiss it. I felt I knew him. He climbed with Colin Haley on Mount Foraker. He was strong and progressive.

Then there was Michael Ybarra. I didn’t follow him, but I knew about him from his writing in the Wall Street Journal. Then Yan Dongdong — a pioneer of Chinese alpinism — and just recently, Roger Payne. Roger left his wife, Julie Ann Clyma.

I wanted to hear more from them. I wanted to hear about their next ascent or plans to tackle something in Sichuan. I wanted them one day to say, I’m too old for this, go on into old age and die comfortably in their easy chair with family or their life partner nearby.

These climbers are heroes and people that inspire us and some of us live vicariously through. Hearing of their demise in their pursuit for their next objective — their quest for happiness, arguably — makes their conclusion harder to take. They’re end is not like that of hearing about your favorite actor or baseball player; actors don’t die from the risks of their performance and ball players don’t pass away from the conditions in the outfield.

My climbing heroes die doing what I want to do. It doesn’t make me appreciate climbing less — at least I don’t think so. At the moment, it adds a more complex, personal element about my acquaintance’s humanity and my own.

So to Bjørn-Eivind, Michael, Dongdong and Roger… Thanks for sharing your stories.

And thank you for dropping by yet again. If you got something out of this post, you might want to consider following me on Facebook or Twitter because I believe climbing matters, even though we work nine to five.


One thought on “Gone Climbing

  1. When the danger of climbing is so up in your face like that, how do you continue to climb?

    Earlier this season, a young woman died climbing at the Gunks. It was her first day climbing ever and her top-rope anchor failed resulting in a ground fall from near the top of the climb. I didn’t know her. The closest I was to the whole thing is that a friend of my husband’s was guiding nearby when it happened. Still, every time I walk the carriage road into the Uberfall, I have to pass by the very spot where she died. For a few weeks after the event, I was shaky in everything I did- checking knots & anchors 5 or 6 times before committing to them. Not fully trusting my partners. I know to a certain extent, this type of paranoia in climbing is what keeps us alive while playing at this dangerous game, but trust me when I say I’ve taken paranoia to a whole new level.

    When I hear of an accident at the cliffs, I often won’t go near those climbs for months or sometimes years. It took years after a death on the route for me to climb Three Pines. When someone flung themselves off the the climb and cratered near the base of Frog’s Head, I wouldn’t climb it for the rest of the season. How we continue to climb when death is so close sometimes it almost seems to be tapping us on the shoulder is a mystery to me. I suppose we manage to do it in the same way we manage to love again after having our hearts broken over and over again.

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