My friend Majka has a beautiful article in the current issue of Climbing. Like alot of us, Majka has lost many friends to our sport, several of them also friends of mine. Their stories are always the same, “they went before their time, they had so much potential, they were too young.”
Majka’s article includes a poignant passage about the pregnant widows some of these men have left behind, and it got me thinking about choices. The choice to continue pursuing something dangerous, even though it’s not just about you anymore, versus the choice to give up something that makes you who you are, even if it contains an element of danger.
And that’s where the offhanded, go-to statement, “at least he died doing what he loved,” fails me. I absolutely hate that statement. I hear it way too often, and every time I do, I want to respond with, “well, actually, if he’d have known that he would die climbing today, I’m pretty sure he’d have opted for a trail run instead.”
But…maybe not. Many years ago I met a man who told me that his happiest times are when he’s completely alone in the mountains, running around and soloing and lost in his thoughts. I probably told him I felt similarly, because I wanted him to think of me as a kindred spirit, but in truth, I never understood that side of him. I never understood what it was about the mountains that were alluring to the point of courting death, just like I think a lot of those pregnant widows never expected to be single moms.
And that’s what breaks my heart. We fall in love with these men who push their limits in the mountains, but at the same time, we make plans to share a life with them.
It took a long time for me to be able to admit that I don’t enjoy being alone in the mountains, that I don’t enjoy suffering and that no route – no matter how incredible the climbing – is worth dying in its pursuit.
Then Marit wrote a post about her friend, Christine, who she misses dearly.
And it got me thinking.
I miss my dead friends every day. I think of their faces – so young and happy. I think of where I last saw them, of our final conversations. They haunt and comfort me. Their deaths fill me with fear and motivate me into action.
Sometimes I look at our friends, especially the young ones who are still restless and wild, and fear that I’ll be attending their memorial services – the ones where their parents fly out, from the East Coast or the Mid-West, trying to understand what it was about the West that so captivated their children, that lured them deeper into the mountains, what it was that, ultimately, killed them.
I know it’s fatalistic and unhealthy, thinking this way. And Brad’s typically logical response to my brooding is, “then live as much as you can while you’re here.”
And he’s right, I know. It’s important to die with no regrets. There are country songs, fortune cookies, Hallmark Cards and Lifetime Television For Women movies suggesting as much. There are probably bible verses, too, but I wouldn’t know about those.
But I can’t help it; I do have regrets. I regret that I didn’t tell Zack how much I appreciated his friendship, how much I respected him. I remember the first time I met him, at the Hungry Toad in Boulder, the night before he and Joe Vallone left for a climbing trip to Peru, I think. I was with Leah; there were other people there – Dan Gambino, maybe? I knew very quickly that Zack and I would be friends; he was easy to talk to, he was nice to me.
We did become great friends. Over the span of a few years, Zack and I climbed together, took roadtrips together, sang Greatful Dead songs through the boring stretches of Western Colorado and Eastern Utah, drank bottomless cups of coffee, spent hours in Trident – him with his schoolbooks, me with my journal. A couple times we even slept in the same bed, though there was never a question that we were just friends, that we both just needed a place to crash, and for that I loved him all the more. I miss him. I would have liked to introduce him to Brad; they would have gotten along well.
And I regret that I didn’t spend more time with Chris. I remember the last conversation we had. It was at the OR Show, and he was dressed all snappy. As a housemate, I’d seen Chris in sweats and chalked-up climbing clothes and old t-shirts, but never really dressed like the urban hipster that I secretly always thought he was. I thought then, in the line for free coffee at the Royal Robbins booth, that my housemate and friend had lots of facets I hadn't yet seen, that I should make it a priority to get to know him. He died ice climbing the next day.
I was skinning up Flagstaff around mid-day when I got the call from Brad. It was strange; he was busy with OR and shouldn’t have been calling then.
“What’s up, honey?” I kept skinning while I talked, slightly out of breath.
He sounded strained. “I’m on my way home. I left the show early. Where are you?”
“I’m skinning up Flag. Come meet me!”
“No,” he sounded really odd. “Just come home as soon as you can. I have to talk to you.”
Something wasn’t right. I knew it then. Brad would never leave a work obligation early. He’s not that kind of guy. Plus he sounded super tense. As I ripped my skins and skied to the truck, I decided that Brad was going to divorce me. That was the reason for the tension, the weirdness. (I’m such a fucking idiot sometimes.)
Turns out, he drove home to tell me the news of Chris’s death in person. I sank to the floor, staring at the carpet and trying to let the words sink in. “Chris Hunnicutt died today.”
Brad used his full name, I still remember that. So there would be no confusion, no doubt. So I couldn’t say, “Not our housemate Chris. Not him, right?”
I still feel Chris’s presence in our house sometimes. His family told us that Chris was happier in Utah than he’d ever been in his life, and it breaks my heart to think that I never told him how much we appreciated him. How kind we thought he was, what a good friend. How much we respected him.
And then, all of a sudden, a moment of absolute presence, of clarity. One came a few nights ago, leaving Mazza with Nicole and walking down the sidewalk toward our cars. Our paths diverged, and after we said goodbye and promised to see each other again soon, I walked on, my truck half a block ahead.
And in that moment: awareness. It had just rained, and the sidewalk was dotted with little puddles where the concrete dipped or cracked. Just after dusk, the sky was peacock blue, the shade J. Crew calls “Regal Purple” and Pantone calls 2685C. The restored bungalows along 15th Street were lit from within, creating warmth and comfort. “This is my home,” I thought. “I live here.”
And I breathed in the dusty air, the scent of spring and grass, of opportunity and atonement, and got into the truck and drove toward the canyons, toward home.