Death Again

This is an email to a military friend, in the same unit as the subject of the first paragraph, present when he was killed.

I received the bad news over the weekend. I was deeply saddened because I enjoyed working with him last winter. A friend from another address was visiting and he gave me one or two more details about the incident. I wrote to someone else that when a member of any brotherhood falls the whole becomes weaker, and each individual is slightly poorer. The brotherhood of climbers I am part of is no different and many of us have been through this more than we want to remember.

When I was climbing I kept a careful accounting of my friends and partners who died in the mountains. Or in car accidents coming home from those mountains. Or plane crashes on the way to them. Some died on big, hard routes. A lot more died in stupid, avoidable accidents. Some actively bit off more than they could chew. Others drew a bad hand. Luck played a big part. But sometimes guys made their own luck - good or bad. I lost a lot of friends over the years.

In the late-90s I quit climbing for a while. My retirement started in Chamonix, where my climbing career had begun. I was there for work and met with some old friends. From the era when we were all active and pushing it hard there were only a few of us left alive. At dinner that night the three of us realized we were the survivors. So I quit. I was sick of the sickness, tired of my friends getting killed. Scared that I might be up soon. But whether I was still climbing or not others kept doing it and some of them didn't make it home. They were prey to an obsession, to the addiction of going harder, higher, for longer. But they also died doing what they were put on this earth to do.

My retirement was short-lived. I still had things to do. I came back hard and did those things. I put all of my experience and knowledge to use in one near-perfect expression that summed up my career. And that was it. I had to be done because the next logical step was a bigger one than I could take. So I walked away.

Again, others didn't. They kept pushing. Or simply kept exposing themselves. And more died. I can't help but keep a list in my head. I don't do the detailed accounting anymore. My list of dead climbing partners and friends would total somewhere around 55 or 60 if I wrote it out tonight. I have always wished that I could teach the lessons I learned well enough to keep other guys out of trouble in the mountains. I know I have done it sometimes. But I have fallen short too.

It's a terrible thing to second-guess our actions. We ask if we could have done something more, if we might have influenced the outcome of a bad situation in some way. But as long as we were giving our all, as long as we were already doing the maximum then asking more of ourselves in hindsight is a dead end. We have done our best. We can't go back. We can replay it and learn from it but that past is written and our duty is to the future. All we can give is everything we have. And believe that most of the time it will be enough.

While I was writing this Vince Anderson called. He is in the Canadian Rockies, as is Steve House. Steve was climbing with Bruce Miller on Mount Temple today and took a long, bad fall. He was rescued by helicopter and flown to the hospital in Banff. His condition was too serious for that facility (collapsed lung, chest injuries, broken pelvis, maybe more) so he was transferred to the big trauma center in Calgary. I am waiting for some more concrete news. It sounds like he will make it, and that it won't be "life-changing" but it's a short straw ... and difficult in some ways for us. When we realize how helpless we are to improve the outcome of events already in motion we confront the idea of that same inability in other situations, those over which we imagined we had control. But it's all fucking chaos and most days we are impotent -- as it sounds like you and the other guys were when the shit hit that fan.

Mark Twight
Mark Twight