As Above, So Below: A Climbing Story

Many of you may already know that I have been running a kickstarter campaign for a book I wrote, called As Above, So Below. But I think it is likely that very few of you know the story behind the story.

Today, I want to share that story with you. If what you read here compels you, or if you’ve ever enjoyed the free articles I provide via Fringe’s Folly in the past, please consider backing the project. It would mean the world to me.

Thanks so much,
Chris Kalman

A First Brush With Death

I started climbing in 2000, but really began taking on risky climbs around 2010, following the end of a five year relationship. I had fallen in love with mountains, was starting to spend all my time climbing big faces, and I also began to free solo (climb without ropes). The apex of this high-risk climbing was probably during the winter of 2011/12, when I did the first ascent of a blank slab of clean granite approximately 1000 feet long, unrehearsed, without a partner, and with no rope, on a trip to southern Chile’s Cochamo. It must have been about 5.8, or 5.9, sustained. It’s hard to say exactly, that was so long ago. But it was hard enough and long enough that I didn’t want to go back down the way I came up.

That climb took place shortly after I began dating my partner, Megan Kelly. At the time, it didn’t occur to me to consider her feelings about what or how I climbed. That all changed when her family came out to visit us in Seattle. We started talking about free soloing at dinner one night, and her dad just looked at me, and said flat out, “Chris, you can’t do that. My daughter is in love with you. You’re not allowed.” I looked at Meg, and she wordlessly confirmed that yes, my soloing days were numbered. This was a first for me. My parents didn’t like it, but they knew better than try to tell me to do anything. If they did, I’d (historically) do the opposite. We pursued sort of a don’t ask don’t tell policy. So Meg’s dad (and later her mom and sisters) asking me not to was a first for me. And although I didn’t like it one bit, I decided to do my best to honor their wishes.

Meg and I were on a walk in Volunteer Park up on Capitol Hill when I had my first brush with death in the mountains. Nick Hall, a coworker and friend, had died in the course of a rescue high on Mt. Rainier. I found out via phone. The months that followed shook me up pretty badly, and ultimately led to my leaving that job at the end of the season. There were two reasons: one, the risk was suddenly very real. Two, as far as I could tell, Nick died doing what he most wanted to do professionally. I knew that if I had died on Rainier, that wouldn’t have been the case for me. I wanted to write. So I began to pursue that more seriously.

Nick Hall at the top of Mount Rainier. Photo courtesy of Philippe Wheelock.
Nick Hall at the top of Mount Rainier. Photo courtesy of Philippe Wheelock.

A Hard Year

The next summer, in 2014, I got another phone call. Or was it an email? My friend Cory Hall had just been killed in Peru, during a solo climb of Piramide. Cory and I had gotten close recently, and I had become pretty fond of him. He was smart, talented, and fearless. He reminded me of myself a few years back, but a little bit better, and a little bit bolder. The last thing I ever said to him in person, when we went our separate ways in Indian Creek, was “tone it down a notch, Cory. Take it to where you think you’re being safe, and then take it down a notch from there.” Maybe he did just that, and just got unlucky. I’ll never know.

I was dangling off a rope high up at Index’s Lookout Point later that summer when I got another phone call. This time from Megan, sobbing. Her words hit me like a scene from a movie – one of these surreal life moments that feels scripted, and fake. Her dad, Kevin, my friend, had been diagnosed with cancer. They didn’t know how bad yet, but, it didn’t sound good.

The months that followed were a blur, as I left Washington, and moved back to Maryland to be with Meg and her family. Kevin’s diagnosis kept getting worse and worse, although physically, he seemed strong and healthy to us. It was hard to believe he was actually approaching the end of his life. In retrospect, it is hard to explain how I didn’t see it coming. But I didn’t. And for me, not really believing it was going to happen manifested in still being focused on climbing.

So one weekend in November, I went up to the Shawangunks in New York to climb with friends, and give a slideshow about Cochamo at a climbing store in New Paltz called Rock and Snow. I was half way up High Exposure with my good friend, Matt Raue, when somebody came by the base yelling for anyone and everyone to come help with a rescue. We finished our pitch, rapped, and headed over. There on the ground, cold and lifeless, was a girl with a broken neck. Paramedics were already doing CPR on her. She had fallen from about 25 feet high. It was something that could have happened to anyone. I wondered how many times I had been that high without protection in. Matt and I helped to carry her body down to the ambulance, so we both got a good look at her face. But she was so pale and cyanotic that we didn’t even recognize her. It wasn’t until hours later that as details came out, we realized it was our mutual friend, Hiedi Duartes Wahl.

I don’t know what kind of energy I brought back to Maryland, but I know I wasn’t always easy. Looking back, I think my relationship with death was still some sort of state of denial. Anyway, I tried hard to be a good person, and be there for the Kellys, but I was often elsewhere in my mind. My friends were preparing for a trip to Torres Del Paine, for which we had won a prestigious Copp Dash Award. I came up with the objective, put the team together, wrote the initial grant proposal. I decided in November, shortly after Heidi’s death, not to go on the trip. Soon I was replaced, and that was that.

Following Thanksgiving, Kevin began to go downhill. Everything in life shrank to a pinpoint as we all turned our attention to a 24-7 focus on these final days of his life. He was cognizant, and conscious, right up to the end – the final night. I still get goosebumps and shivers thinking about that last night. Being in the room with Kevin and his family when he took his last breath was the most sad, but also the most beautiful, the most incredible, the most humbling thing I’ve ever experienced. Being there for that was, and is, the greatest honor that anyone has ever bestowed upon me. And it has done a hell of a lot for my relationship with death. God, I miss him so much. We all do. But seeing the way he went, in the arms of loved ones… that looked right to me. It felt right. I had some sort of feeling of beauty, and mystery, and understanding, which the accumulating climbing deaths had never given to me.

Kevin Kelly, on his beach in Maryland.
Kevin Kelly, on his beach in Maryland.

Writing As Above, So Below

It was in that house, in the months following Kevin’s death, that I began to write what would eventually become As Above, So Below. Kevin’s death was terribly sad, a real tragedy. He wasn’t out risking his neck like I had on so many climbs. He was a good father, a good man, a healthy man. He was far too young. It didn’t seem fair. But at the same time, it didn’t lead me to conclude, “well, screw it, life can kill you at any time, so might as well do whatever you want and take risks.” Quite the opposite. It made me want to think less about myself altogether, and try to invest more in the people I was fortunate enough to count as friends and family. People gathered from all over the country at the drop of a hat to be there and wish Kevin love luck and light. That is a testament to who he was, how he lived. For me, at least, there was some resolution in that. I never felt that kind of resolution with Nick, Cory, and Heidi. Or with any of the growing list of friends and acquaintances, and even complete strangers, that has perished out there in the hills. I didn’t know what to think about any of that.

But I knew that this subject was something that deserved to be talked about more deeply than the way I noticed it being discussed in the climbing circles I traveled in. Not so much in real life conversations, but in media, and social media. It always felt like these conversations boiled down to fist bump and rock on emojis. “So and so died doing what s/he loved.” It felt empty to me. Didn’t add up. I wanted to provide another possible narrative.

I guess all of this stuff was weighing on me pretty hard, because in the months following Kevin’s death, I sometimes had trouble sleeping at night. I would get out of bed, careful not to disturb Meg, and go downstairs. I’d pour myself a glass of port, put it on ice (as per a custom of a dear friend), and drink, and write. As far as I can recall, the initial piece (what is now a third of the book) came out in three consecutive nights. It just poured out of me. It was a story I needed to get out.

I sat on what I had written for a full year. I sent it around to a few people to look at, but that was about it. Finally, in the spring of 2016, I submitted it to a reputable and distinguished writing program at the Banff Centre in Canada, called the Mountain and Wilderness Writing Workshop. I was accepted into the program, and left for Banff the following fall. While I was there, the story tripled in size. Again, mostly on cold dark nights, I would stay up late in my little hotel room drinking port on ice, and trying to recreate the mood.

Up in Banff for the writing workshop.
Up in Banff for the writing workshop.

Searching for a Home

For the past year, a giant pile of papers has been sitting on my desk in my home office, staring at me menacingly. They are the collective suggestions, edits, and advice I brought home with me from Banff. But really, it’s not the edits that have been keeping me up at night. It was just trying to figure out what to do with the story. It meant a lot to me, and I wanted to do something big with it. My goal, and hope, was to reach as large an audience as possible; to try and broaden and deepen the way we talk about risk in climbing. To provide a counter-narrative to what feels to me like a tired trope that we resort to perfunctorily and perhaps thoughtlessly any time someone dies climbing.

That goal meant reaching out to publishers. But none of the big five will take manuscripts from authors without agents, and most agents won’t take authors without previous publications. Neither of the two most prominent American publishers of climbing literature will take on climbing fiction, so they were out as well. I did get one offer: to make an e-book. And although I respect that publisher, I have always envisioned this story as an elegant hardcover novel, with beautiful illustrations. Something that would have more staying power than a digital file, something that would affect and mold whoever reads it in a more permanent way.

And so I finally decided to just try a kickstarter. For months I agonized over clicking the launch button. How would people respond, I wondered. To the premise of the story, sure, but also to me as a writer, as an artist. Would anyone back it at all? And if not – would that be the end for As Above, So Below? For my dreams of being a full-time author?

After one week, I am ecstatic to say those doubts and insecurities have been almost entirely assuaged. 135 backers. Less than $1000 to go. To say I am amazed would be an understatement. To say I am touched, honored, and humbled is just the tip of the iceberg.

But I’m not there yet.

So please, if you are able, help me to continue raising funds for this project. If you have already backed the project, or you don’t feel you can afford to back it, you could help a ton by sharing this on your social networks.The $8500 goal is a conservative one. It simply covers costs, and a bare minimum payment to the talented artists that will be illustrating the book and designing the cover. The more money I can raise, the more books I can print, and the more I can prioritize this, and other work like it, in my career.

The more people back and believe in this project, the more leverage I have to talk to big publishing companies and say “look, I’m not delusional, people actually want this kind of thing.” And with any luck, that can be a foot in the door to doing the kind of work I believe I am best suited to do: creating stories to help people better appreciate and understand what it means to be a human… to distill just a little bit of the wonder of being alive, and to share it far and wide.

Looking for a home...
Looking for a home…

 

Thanks again for reading… Again, if you haven’t already, please go now and back the project on Kickstarter! And don’t forget to tell your friends via social media channels, too!

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