A post where things get heavy: On life, death, and life-and-death matters

Until recently, I’ve spent very little of my life thinking about death. It was pleasantly abstract; a concept with which I was lucky enough to have almost no personal experience. I have four living grandparents. I can count the funerals I’ve attended on one hand.

As my interests in climbing and skiing developed from infatuation to lifestyle, though, I’ve been forced to come to grips with the harsher realities of my chosen professional and recreational pursuits.

I first realized it when I was an intern at the American Alpine Club. As I pored over old editions of Accidents in North American Mountaineering, tallying the ways in which climbers had been hurt or killed in the preceding decades, it dawned on me: Statistically speaking, if you do this long enough, you or someone you know will die.

Well, shit.

Still, as a twenty-one-year-old intern who’d just picked up climbing, it was easy to rationalize: I’ll always check my knots, I’d never go out with a storm in the forecast, how could you possibly end up benighted?

Since then, I’ve made all those mistakes—and then some. So far, I’ve been lucky.

The first climbing death that felt real to me hit home because of my work at the AAC. I’d corresponded with Chad Kellogg during my internship—reading his trip reports, eagerly requesting photos for a project my department was working on, reading and re-reading my emails in what I now recognize as a vain attempt to sound like I wasn’t a complete gumby.

When I read that he’d been killed in an accident in Patagonia, it smarted. Not like it did for his close friends and family, of course. But it felt like a big deal: here was this guy I admired, doing an estimable climb in a beautiful place—dead. He hadn’t even done anything wrong. No Accidents mistakes. Just rockfall.

Things picked up after that. A few weeks after Kellogg’s death, a friend of a friend died of injuries sustained in an avalanche. The following summer, a friend of another friend was killed in a climbing accident in South America. Both were talented, passionate athletes in the prime of their lives and careers.

It wasn’t these deaths themselves that I found devastating; I knew of them only insomuch as I cared about the people who were mourning them. I watched as a dear friend grappled with the loss of a loved one, trying to make sense of something that didn’t make any sense at all. I struggled to say the right things and act the right way, racked my brain for words of comfort or hope.

I eventually settled on simply listening: despite my best efforts, I quickly discovered the words and phrases that felt so meaningful in my head came out sounding hollow and cliché.

“At least he died doing what he loved” doesn’t do much good. It doesn’t bring anybody back. It leaves your mouth, sounding more like a question than an answer, and just sits there, daring you to follow it up with something of substance.

Friends who’d grieved the loss of their loved ones told me the first few days and weeks were blurry—all kinds of people come out of the woodwork with condolences right after a death—but that the friends they’d really appreciated were those who had checked in months, even years, after the fact. I want to be that kind of friend.

I got more practice with that than I was ready for this winter. In my line of work, I feel like I’m inundated by news of death: role models, peers, colleagues, and friends-of-friends, it seems, are constantly being memorialized by the magazines I read, the websites I visit, the people I interact with.

Then, in January, a fellow APU student was killed in a climbing accident.

I mostly knew Dasan by reputation. We’d chatted in the halls a few times and had some mutual friends, whose stories about him always left me feeling a sort of terrified admiration. He was pushing limits and climbing hard lines—the kind of climbing I hoped I might do someday, if it weren’t for my own fear and self-doubt.

Immediately, I knew who he’d been climbing with when it happened: his best friend, a classmate I knew pretty well and liked a lot. Another friend and mentor, for whom I have deep professional and personal admiration, responded to the scene. I listened to each of them tell the story of what had happened at a debrief session organized by the school.

My own reaction to Dasan’s death caught me off guard: it was gut-wrenching. Bix and I had been skiing in Denali National Park when the accident happened, and as we drove home the next morning, I was surprised to find myself crying. I didn’t know Dasan very well, but we did share something significant. As I watched the sun rise, brilliantly illuminating the glaciated peaks of the Alaska Range, I cried because this person who so loved the mountains, who felt a spiritual connection to them, whose spirit reflected their vibrancy and transcendence, would not get to watch another sunrise like this one. It seemed almost too sad to bear that his passion for mountain life was not enough to sustain it.

I was annoyed with myself for feeling so sad, as if my sorrow—visceral and authentic as it was—somehow detracted from the grief of those who knew Dasan better than I did. I watched as his friends, family, and admirers gathered from the many corners of his too-short life, and waited for the familiar feelings to wash over me: What should I say? How can I help?

And for the first time, those clichés didn’t sound hollow to me. I listened as Dasan’s friends shared stories of their adventures together, as his mother detailed the depth of his commitment to the mountains, as an essay of his was read aloud, an impassioned and eloquent acceptance of death as a potential risk of his chosen pursuits. I realized that Dasan really had died doing what he loved, and I found it comforting, in spite of myself.

A month or so later, an acquaintance—an apparently healthy woman in her early thirties—died of a massive heart attack. It was terribly sad, and at the end of a season spent mulling over the potential consequences of working and recreating in the mountains, it struck me as incredibly unfair.

Death isn’t about fairness, of course. It’s waiting at the end of the line for each of us, and while sometimes we play a part in choosing its timing and manner, it seems that just as often we’re blindsided by it.

Dasan didn’t plan to die in the mountains, and neither do I. That’s enough to influence the way I make decisions, but it’s not going to keep me from venturing into the vast unknown. When my number is up, I hope it’s after a long, satisfying life. But whether my life ends in a week or when I’m one-hundred-and-two, I want to live the rest of it in such a way that people remember me with as much warmth as they’re remembering Dasan—we should all hope to touch so many lives.

I get to spend a lot of my life doing what I love, and in a very uncertain world, that’s enough.

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