Focusing In On Death

This week, let’s focus on something a little different.  Let’s focus on something we don’t really like to focus on that much in our community – something that is always there in the background, the periphery, the back of our minds as we go a little further without placing a piece.  Let’s focus on death. It’s been a hard year for me, on the death front.  In this year alone, I’ve lost 5 people who I knew or was close to in the climbing community.  The closest of whom was a good friend – Cory Hall.  He died soloing a huge mountain in Peru. When I read about Cory’s death on Facebook earlier this summer, I did a quick flashback to the last conversation I’d had with him.  We were climbing together in Indian Creek last November.  It started snowing, and I was due back East to spend thanksgiving with family.  I think Cory was on his way to do the same. I wasn’t sure what to think of Cory at first – but by now he’d grown on me.  I was starting to really like this kid, even beginning to feel fraternal.  Cory had been tearing it up all year with an impressive string of mind-numbing ascents – mostly solo.  He was good, he was real good.  And he was fucking fearless, as far as anyone could tell.  I never took to big objective climbs quite like Cory did – but I’d had my bouts with soloing.  I can list off maybe 7 or 8 near misses, probably more if I stop and think about it.  But I’d been through that.  Was on the other side now.

Cory was bold, but calculating.  He was incredibly good at what he did, and I don’t believe he was innately risky, he simply chose very challenging objectives, and tackled them with a small margin for error.  It made me nervous – it made me want to tell him something.  I wanted to pass down a little bit of my 29-year-old wisdom that I had so painstakingly–and so luckily–acquired. The last thing I can recall saying to Cory in person was, “Turn it down a notch, Cory. Take it down to where you think you’re being safe enough, and then take it down another notch from there.” He told me he would. Maybe he did. I don’t know. We never will.

Last fall, Cory and I climbed the Nose together – both of our first times on the Captain.  We barely pulled off the NIAD, but the long list of SNAFUs that characterized the day lives on now comically in memory.  Sitting around with other friends who knew him, Cory keeps coming up in conversation.  I tell anecdotes about that day as if he were still here, as if he’ll be coming back to camp soon and we can all laugh it up with him like we use to.  It’s easy enough to do.  I don’t typically think about Cory any more, either choosing to ignore the sad spot he’s left, or doing so unintentionally.  More and more, I realize that Cory’s death is like a scratch on my glasses.  Most of the time I can just look past it at the rest of the world in front of me.  But if I focus in on it, it’s all that I can see.  You can’t go through life that way, so I don’t.  But that scratch is more or less permanent, and I always know it’s there.

I don’t think you can truly know what it’s like to lose a loved one prematurely and without warning until it happens to you.  To complicate matters, there are levels of closeness.  Cory and I were friends, but we weren’t best friends.  I know people who I can’t even think about losing out there – who want to go places to climb that skilled climbers die in each and every year (climbers sometimes more skilled and knowledgable than themselves).  Certain climbing areas in this world more and more take on the visage of the grim reaper in my mind, and I can’t quite look past that.

***

Just a few days ago, on Saturday, I watched the last signs of life fade away from someone I know.  She was not a best friend, but a good friend of a couple good friends.  Her name was Heidi -and she was a Chilean citizen living in New York.  She was an accomplished climber, spending a beautiful saturday out at the Gunks.  A year ago, she and I had talked about Cochamo, Chile – one of my favorite places to climb.  She had been there, and climbed some of my routes, as well as climbing with my good friend JB Haab.  We had hoped to see one another down there this year.  Saturday night, I was going to be giving a slideshow about my time in Cochamo at Rock and Snow in New Paltz.  I think it is likely that she would have been planning to attend.

The way Heidi died is hard to swallow.  She was about 30 feet off the ground on what was apparently an easy route for her, and does not appear to have placed any pro.  Her foot slipped on the notoriously slippery Gunks quartzite, and she decked.  I didn’t see the fall, but apparently she broke her neck and lost consciousness upon impact.  When her partner came over to her, her neck was angulated at nearly 90 degrees.  30 feet.  And yes, she was wearing a helmet.

Heidi had been wearing a helmet, climbing a route well within her abilities, and took a fall any of us could have taken.  Sometimes a 30 footer finds you with scratches and bruises, sometimes it kills you.  None of us should assume we can predict when it will happen, or how it will look when it does.  After what I would estimate at 15 minutes of CPR, about 30 volunteers all helped to caterpillar the litter that Heidi was in down to the carriage road, where CPR continued.  The original ranger claimed at the time there was a light pulse.  They brought out an AED, but in retrospect, I can’t recall if it called for shock, or not.  I do remember thinking that the rescuers hands never left Heidi, and so I didn’t think the shock had been delivered. At the carriage road, Heidi and paramedics were loaded into a 4 wheeler with a trailer and drove away.  They were still performing CPR – likely 20-30 minutes out from the time of the fall.  From there, I do not know if a helicopter came or not.  As Heidi quickly disappeared in the back of the trailer, that was the last I saw her – still not even knowing it was her. You see, a mere minutes after the fall, Heidi was so cyanotic, pale, and lifeless that neither I, nor a good friend of hers could even recognize her.  We didn’t know it was someone we knew until hours after the fact.

I gave the slideshow, and at the end, said some choked up bull shit about Heidi that I can’t really recall.  A bunch of us went back to a friend’s house and drank beers and talked about other stuff.  The next day was cold and gray and rainy, and I drove nearly 8 hours to another slideshow venue.  My mind kept returning to Heidi – it was hard to stop it.

Anything can kill you out there – a plane ride, a drive to the office, cancer, heart attack, etc.  I don’t think the point is to go through life petrified of the unknown – in constant terror at the concept of one’s own demise.  I don’t think the point is to quit climbing because it kills.  For myself, and for others who I am close to, climbing is a big part of what makes life so wonderful.

But perhaps the point is to turn it down a notch.  No matter what you are doing, go a touch slower, be a touch more cautious.  None of us is infallible.  None of us is invincible.  And you don’t have to fall far to fall all the way.  When we are climbing, it is incumbent upon us to take an extra step of precaution that at the time will often seem superfluous.  People who know me – who know how I climb – may scoff at words like these coming from my mouth.  But I am starting to take my own advice – one piece of bad news at a time.

The reason I’m writing all this?  Perhaps learning the hard way doesn’t have to be the only way.
Be safe, check your knots, and tell the people you love you love them.  That’s all that I can say.

8 comments

  • After sharing this with JB Haab – one of my good friends who knew Heidi well – he had this to say: “My only comfort in this arena is that these people live on in us and in our culture. They have effected us and leave their mark on us for our life time. In turn we will do the same to our peers and loved ones. As these lightning bolts strike our hearts I endeavor to hold my memories of them at the surface of my consciousness, not to be forgotten. Let my being be the clay that is sculpted by their hands.”
    JB’s beautiful words will stay in my mind, and are the important light to find in this place of darkness. If any one else has other thoughts they’d like to share, I encourage you to do so.

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  • I was one of the 30 who helped caterpillar her down thru the rocks to the carriage trail. I am not a climber, just a thru-hiker on my way back to Mohonk who came upon the scene. Thank you for this account and words of wisdom. I’ve been searching for any further word on who she was. The experience of watching and waiting to get her out, and then handing her down from one volunteer to another, will never leave me. I have nothing but praise for the initial attending Ranger and the heroic effort he made to save her. I have two daughters in their early twenties, and I hope if they ever try this type of activity, they will be extra-ultra careful in every way possible. I hope everyone will be the same. And like you said – tell people you love them – every day. May Heidi rest in peace.

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    • Hearing you, my friend never met “in person.” You are obviously a good person to have at hand at “the extremity” of this particular life. Go in peace and thank you for this account.

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  • I couldn’t agree more…Thank you for writing this piece. We are all so very fragile.

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  • A really thoughtful, and thought-provoking, reflection. Thank you for sharing.

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  • My deepest sympathy. It’s one thing to die doing what we love, when we are pushing our boundaries. It is another thing altogether to die on the boring part of a beautiful climb.

    All I can say is, every time I climbed the Yellow Wall, the final moves before the first bit of good pro at 20′ always chilled me … even though they are 5.7ish. I’ve been on worse climbs in terms of run-out. I’ve even soloed up to 5.10. But there is something about that opening 20′ on YW that always got to me. Possibly it is the ugly steep slab and giant talus blocks waiting below.

    Because the Gunks are so popular and crowded on the weekends and because most of the routes are generally so safe … it is easy to get into the mindset that you’re climbing at a gym instead of the outdoors. But the fact remains that holds can break … even in the Gunks … and while generally the rock on the opening of YW is not slippery or slick, there are a few footholds that have been polished by traffic. And the upper roofs can drip water on the slab below even a week after a rain. It never hurts to retain the alpine philosophy of “the lead climber must not fall” and move with extra caution and deliberation when facing ground fall.

    My thoughts are with Heidi’s family and friends.

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  • “But perhaps the point is to turn it down a notch. No matter what you are doing, go a touch slower, be a touch more cautious.” Of course, this is impossible. If all climbers follow this advice, there would never be any new routes, and the limits of what is humanly possible would never be pushed back any further.

    Another point, since you point out that your friend was climbing a well within her limits. If she had finished the route successfully, and gone home that night, You would not be saying that she had gone a bridge too far, and that she needed to dial it back a bit. Instead, you’d be having a drink with her and celebrating a great weekend in the outdoors. Making the suggestion after her demise, as you do, is no more than a way of saying you’re sorry to see her go. Hindsight is always 20-20. Whenever something goes wrong, we always look for a reason why that person had an accident, or was injured or killed. And no surprise, we find such a reason, a reason that allows us to justify continuing on doing what we do.

    at best, each time there is a serious injury or death in our chosen activity, we are given an opportunity to step away from being totally immersed in it, and to look critically at what we are doing. If in that moment we continue to find meaning in what we are doing, then we will continue. Otherwise, it’s time to hang up our skates.

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  • I don’t climb but knew Heidi. She was a kind person with tons of positive energy. She was way too young to die. She was being careful and not reckless. She left behind many people that cared for her and that she cared for. We should remember Heidi for the wonderful person she was. Take away any lesson you would like but don’t diminish her.

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