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.

Mountain Explorers Lost

It seems most of the world has been mapped — including most of the world’s mountain ranges — tread upon by man and shared through issues of National Geographic, Patagonia catalogs and Youtube videos. While only pockets of un-tread mountains exist, and that’s a fairly recent development. One of the explorers of these final pockets recently died in an untimely death.

I never met him, but I was introduced to him a little over a year ago subsequent to attending a Section Meeting of the American Alpine Club in Washington, DC. Among several other presentations, Paul Swienton of Maryland, and a Blue Ridge Section Member, spoke about the climbing he and some Scottish mountaineering friends did in one of those rare places with virgin rock and ice: the Sikkim region of India. The international team intended to make only the second ascent on Jopuno (5,936 m.) by a new route. It didn’t work out as planned but they managed a consolation first ascent of a neighboring peak.

When I worked with Paul on a post about their climbing in Sikkim I soon learned that the trailblazer in that region was Roger Payne with his wife and fellow professional mountain guide, Julie Ann Clyma. In fact, Roger wrote the article in the American Alpine Journal that inspired the international expedition to Sikkim and Jopuno in 2010. It’s also worth taking the time to read, especially to learn about one of those areas rarely visited by Westerners.

Roger died in an avalanche in the French Alps just a few days ago alongside two fellow British climbers and six others.

Getting to know Roger’s work in Sikkim and later through references to him in other climbing projects and ascents has been one of the pleasures of making armchair mountaineering a serious hobby. Roger became a character, even if rarely seen, that became reliable. I’m sorry that his story is over.

Separately, if you’ve read “Little Sister Dream: Qionglai Range, China” under On Belay in Alpinist 39 about the attempts on Little Sister Peak (20,505 ft./6,250 m.), there is more sad news. The author, Yan Dongdong of Beijing, died in a crevasse fall while attempting Quelebosi Peak, in China’s Tianshan Mountains.

I don’t like reporting any of this, but I no longer feel like I can conveniently ignore the deaths of climbers, as I once did. I feel closer to these climbers now more than a few years ago. I don’t know if this diminishes the value of mountaineering and climbing to me, but it certainly complicates it.

Through social media, including this blog, I feel as though I have been introduced to many great people like Roger, Dongdong at a party. We weren’t friends but we’d connect through Facebook and share our lives. They were heroes and I was a fan. I didn’t want them to go. I wish I could have gotten to know them better and been a distant witness to more of their accomplishments.

Thanks for dropping by again, as always. If you enjoyed this post, please consider following the Suburban Mountaineer on Facebook or Twitter. Climbing matters, even though we work nine to five.