I’m lucky to be alive.
I just as easily could not be. I used to climb with little regard for the risk or consequences. In my mind, two things were true.
1. There were certain climbs (and other experiences) that were worth dying for.
2. I was experienced and mature enough to have any idea what was worth dying for, or what affect my death might have on other people.
I can count at least six near misses or close calls on various climbs throughout my twenties. I’m 34 now. Climbing is still a central part of my life; I get outside on stone 2-3 times per week. I still enjoy the feelings of adrenaline, risk, and uncertainty. But I’ve worked hard to dial it in, and I hope I will live to climb at a ripe old age.
Over the past five years or so, I’ve undergone a significant change of heart when it comes to the costs and benefits of high risk forms of climbing like alpinism, and free soloing.
Now, I believe two different things.
1. There is no single experience worth dying for.
2. My prior acceptance of risk was based on two delusions: first, that it wouldn’t actually happen to me (the invincibility delusion); second, that if it happened it wouldn’t really be so bad (the ignorance delusion).
The more friends and colleagues I lost in the mountains, the more clearly those delusions were laid bare. It really could happen to me, and if it did, it would really suck. Not just for me, but for all the friends, family, and loved ones who invested time, energy, and emotional support into my life.
I’m sure there are mountain athletes for whom these concepts are not delusions. For whom the risk and the reward have been accurately surmised, and for whom dying in the mountains would not be a tragedy so much as the consummation of an ethos. But if I had to guess, I would guess that climbers such as these are few and far between. My interest is not to dissuade these few, but to encourage the rest of us to engage in a deeper, more thoughtful analysis of the costs and benefits of the ways we climb.
I used to think that there would be some glory, honor, or nobility in dying doing what I loved. This is hard to admit to myself, and even harder to admit publicly, but I used to imagine the articles the climbing magazines would write about me. Maybe some of my favorite short stories would finally get published, read, and acknowledged. Maybe people would say I was a great climber. Maybe there would be a gathering that hundreds of people would show up to to say nice things about me, and celebrate how I lived. Who knows, maybe I’d even get an Adventure Grant made in my honor.
These days, I think I’d much rather just keep on living. All of that still sounds really nice. But they are not rewards worth cutting my life short for; they are merely a meager consolation prize. I feel fortunate to have come to this conclusion before it’s too late… to have realized all this from the comfort of my home, rather than in those rueful moments hurdling through space, as the ground approaches quickly and irrevocably.
For me, I think the temptation of the void has always been about a deep-seated desire, hope, or expectation of greatness. To be remembered. To become in some way, shape, or form a legend. I don’t know why I’ve wanted that for as long as I can remember—whether it’s more about a quest for immortality, or simply living up to other peoples (or my own) unreasonably high expectations. Regardless, I see this desire as a source of great suffering. A sort of clinging to an apparition. As they say, sic transit gloria mundi—so passes the glory of the world.
Regarding this last point, I’ve long admired the famous sonnet, Ozymandias, by Percy Bysshe Shelley. Perhaps it will resonate with you, too.
I met a traveler from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
Inspired and saddened recently by the passing of three legends within our community, Hansjörg Auer, David Lama, and Jess Roskelley, I decided to write my own sonnet. It is not a commentary on how they lived, or how they died. This is not for them, but for me. Following the rhyme scheme and loosely-iambic pentameter of Shelley’s poem, here it is:
If you should find me in some dark valley,
Body broken and torn and all alone,
Add not your voice to the tired rally
Of peers who cosset the prize I have won;
O wond’rous end—O grandest finale—
To have perished enjoying what you love!
‘Twould be better instead to tell the truth—
I’d rather be here still than up above.
I’d have dragged my body, given the chance,
Through the gauntlet of invincible youth.
Would trade in a moment, for one last glance,
Such noble and gilded finality,
Of crumbling mountains, gazing askance
At chimerical immortality.
Top photo: Chris Kalman approaching one of the crux pitches during the first ascent of Aurora Peak via the Northwest Passage (1,430m, VI 5.11- R A0, Kalman, Oakley, Photo: Siadak