In 2003, six months after we graduated together from the University of New Hampshire, one of my best friends died in a climbing fall at Temple Crag in the Sierra. Linnea was climbing by herself, soloing a route called Venetian Blind when she fell. According to the report in that year’s Accidents North in American Mountaineering the fall was more than 400 feet. Her body was spotted from a helicopter during a search a few days later.
I know some people think Linnea died doing something reckless. I’ve heard people say that before, and sometimes I agree with them. But that was Linny. That was the life she led. She was constantly pushing herself, constantly defying what other people told her she could and could not do. Linnea was herself a force of nature.
Linny was the kind of girl every guy who owned a pair of hiking boots fell in love with the moment he laid eyes on her. She was beautiful, self-assured, a fantastic athlete, and incredibly independent. She was an outdoorswoman in worn-through Carhartts and stinky old Tevas, spending more time outside in a few months than most people do in a lifetime. A world traveler, by age 21 she’d spent a semester on a NOLS course in Patagonia, months canoeing in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters, and the better part of a year living and climbing in New Zealand’s Southern Alps. Always tanned, always with hair bleached by the sun, it’s more than fair to say I had a crush on Linnea when we met the first day of our freshman year at UNH, where she’d come to study outdoor education.
But she was out of my league. I was a skinny, mop-haired kid from New Jersey, and while I spent a fair amount of time in the outdoors, I didn’t fall in love with them until my time at UNH. Before New Hampshire, I could count on one hand the number of times I’d pitched a tent or spent a night outside. So when we met, I wasn’t exactly Linny’s type. She was into guys who could keep up.
One of the few who could, and one of the few who can say he had a romantic relationship with Linnea, was my friend Travis, himself a raw and potent personality and talented outdoorsman. Linny and Trav would disappear for weeks at a time, returning weatherbeaten and with stories of winter ascents of Mount Washington in screaming blizzards, sending mixed routes in Vermont’s Green Mountains, subzero nights in the bed of their beat-up old Toyota pickup, and other tales to which I was happy to listen in a warm, cozy coffee shop as New Hampshire’s winter wind howled outside.
For the most part, between them, Linnea and Travis taught me how to climb. Travis and I would head out to the smaller, local crags where he’d teach me the ins and outs of a figure eight, a trucker’s hitch, and a water knot. Linny led the first multi-pitch climb I ever did, on North Conway’s Cathedral Cliffs. They were always patient, even when they knew I was slowing them down. They were always willing to review that knot one more time, or down-climb something that sketched me out without making me feel ashamed that I had lost my nerve. Thanks to Linny and Trav, I learned to set up a top rope, to clip a bolt, to rappel on a prusik. But, beyond that, I discovered a deeper love for mountains, woods, and rivers.
Linnea and Travis were more than my friends; they were, together and separately, a model of what was to me, at the time, the ideal life. But with two such strong personalities in such an intense relationship, their coupling was hardly a smooth one. I can’t speak for Travis, but in my friendship with Linny she never really let me in. For whatever reason, there was a deeper level there I never saw, that I don’t think she showed many people, if anyone. She kept it hidden under a tough exterior. As for Trav, I think perhaps for him she opened up, or tried to. But the process was hard for them both.
After graduation, where she finished at the top of her class within her major, Linny and Trav skipped the commencement ceremony, jumped in their truck and headed west to California. They climbed in Yosemite and lived as dharma bums in the Sierra, bagging peaks by day and sleeping under the stars.
I’d get occasional updates from Linny, usually on her own brand of postcard: pages torn from the latest Patagonia catalog taped to a blank piece of cardboard from the inside of a used shoe box or cereal packet. She told me where they’d climbed and what she’d seen, and where they were going next.
Then, one night in October, I got a call from Travis.
He told me Linnea had died.
He told me all he knew at the time about her fall. He told me how he and Linny had decided a week before that their relationship was too intense, and, for now, they needed time apart, and he had come back east, leaving her behind. But, despite their separation, he told me they’d said they were both “in it for the long haul.”
“Travis, I’m so sorry.” I said, too disbelieving at the time to feel anything but shock.
The next day, one of Linnea’s unmistakable postcards, mailed the week before, arrived.
“Oh, Seanie,” she had written, mentioning Travis’ return to the East Coast. “Life is weird.”
About a dozen of us flew out to Minnesota, Linnea’s home state, for her funeral. It was a surreal trip, with emotions veering between wild grief and strange hilarity as we recalled Linny’s exploits at college parties or on camping trips. The day before the funeral, there were hundreds and hundreds of pictures of Linnea on display at her mother’s house. I still remember thinking-looking at those images of Linnea summiting snowcapped, jagged mountains and topping out on wind-blasted sandstone cliffs-besides my own loss of a friend, an amazing wealth of knowledge and experience had been lost to the world. She had seen and done so many incredible things.
Preparing for the funeral was a bizarre experience, as not many of Linnea’s friends owned the sort of clothes we thought were appropriate for such an event. I was one of the few who owned a collared shirt that didn’t feature a Hawaiian print and a pair of pants that had seen the inside of a dry cleaner’s.
As I put on my tie in the hotel room, tying a half-Windsor knot in the mirror, Travis tapped me on the shoulder. He held up a borrowed tie in one hand.
“You’re going to have to show me how to do this, man.”
Of all the knots he and Linnea had taught me, the only one I could teach in return was this.
More than ten years after her death, Linnea, a scholarship winner in her time at UNH, now has a scholarship in her name for outstanding students in the outdoor education major. Our group of friends has spread out all over the world, which, I suppose, if we are really anything like Linny, was only to be expected. As such, we’re not as tight a group as we were, and I’m sad to say Travis and I don’t talk very often, or even e-mail. Then again, I expect he’s rarely in close proximity to an internet connection, and if he is as he was, he would certainly turn a gimlet eye towards my iPhone.
And, while it’s true I haven’t tied many figure eights since Linnea’s death, I haven’t tied many half-Windsors either.
I think she’d be happy about that.