I clicked onto the Alpinist website on Tuesday night, one of those “screensaver” sites you visit when your mind goes blank and you need something to do, clicking on Tumblr, BBC News, or UK Climbing – something to do before you have something to do. Alpinist has a lot of good content, but being a small affair it’s slow to produce new attention fodder, their time taken up producing the best climbing magazine in the world, no doubt, but one worth a visit when your thoughts nip out. On the front page there were six news stories, the last five ones I’d read already, while the newest one was an obituary for Doug Walker, killed in an avalanche on the 31st of December. The one proceeding this was an obituary for Ryan Jennings, killed by ice climbing, then another for Kei Taniguchi, who slipped and died while descending a mountain in Japan.
I looked at the page for a moment, clicked back to news from the previous months, read down to the deaths of Justin Griffin, Gerhard Fiegl, Doug Tompkins, and on and on it went. Sad tales that left you speechless, but just news like all the rest, just dying, as easy as checking the football scores.
A few weeks before, I’d read another piece on Alpinist where a climber had been killed during the descent from a new route, the account written by one of his partners. His death is mentioned in a paragraph close to the end, foreshadowed by the word “tragedy” in the title, then the writer swiftly moves on to describe his feeling about the climb:
“When we were coming back in the helicopter [on the second flight], I started to actually realize how amazing the line was that we climbed, that Gerry climbed. With all the blank ice and mixed climbing, we were really on the edge of our possibilities. Gerry stood on the summit of his biggest and most difficult climb and I’m thankful for that. I will never forget his shining eyes.”
I’ve read so many pieces like this that I almost failed to recognize just how odd such a piece of writing really is. It asked a fundamental question about our sport and the psychology of people who do it, namely: Why was it even written? What is the motivation? An obituary about the death of a friend and his last climb, yes, but a story of “your” climb with their death almost a footnote? I’m sure the author had no intention of writing something so transparent, an indictment of the normality of tragedy in mountaineering, because what he wrote was no different from a thousand other news pieces.
I see it all the time, a strange sort of focus and singlemindedness, where people are on extended trips or projects where someone dies, not a stranger, but someone they know, maybe someone with a bond as strong as brother, and then – after a brief pause for a Facebook eulogy, replete with comments that reinforce its tragedy – you just carry on with your trip or project, that death no more than a speed bump in your story.
This has been on my mind a lot of late, planning on returning to try the Harlin on the Eiger – the fourth time, but now with me very much in love. As is always the case, I kid myself that this will be the “last time,” but I also fear – as I always have – that as life is so good now now, so absolutely perfect, that this will be the one that kills me. I spend a month or two thinking about the route, planning and scheming, stressing, worrying, feeling that death each night I cling to Vanessa knowing I’d be a fucking idiot to want to go back. And then Atlantic storms pile in, one after the other, the date I’m due to go – today – put back, the window getting smaller, so small soon it’ll be impossible to fit, and in bed I can lay with her and know the danger has passed once more, work and stuff and love and fun blocking the way. Alpine climbing is a bastard game, so why do I play it, why not just stop? Am I scared of losing my voice – losing my job, no more free kit, no more opportunity to talk about my life? But what is that life worth?
Is this a story of our age, of our narcissism and desire to gobble up the pig of life, that life does not matter in the end, that we are at war with nature and there will be casualties? I’ve thought about this a lot in terms of competitive sport, in terms of drugs, bodies, and relationships wrecked in pursuit of something of no value at all: a gold medal, a record only held until someone breaks it, a line on a mountain. I know full well that when you’re that person, entangled and blinded by your selfish narcissistic dreams, you just can’t see the truth of your sickness and neither can anyone around you, who cheer you on and say good luck as you tap the vein.
It’s funny but I often thought these things about Steve House, a man I’d say was once wrapped up too tight in himself, a man who I thought would one day lie dead someone where, down a hole, on ledge, lost or found, but crushed by the end game of his unquenchable ambition, another Macintyre, Rouse, Lafaille, Béghin (this list could fill a book). But when I look at his Instagram these days I see a man who – perhaps – has withdrawn that needle a little, see him skiing with his wife, having fun, breathing at last, knowing what real sacrifice brings – perhaps. For Steve maybe a life changing accident was just that, and although I’m sure he plans his return, I hope he will not be that man again even if he wants to, even if that life without the drug feels like only half a life. I wonder if thinking like this, having some kind of growing realization of just how gloriously fucked up alpinism is, the tragedy engrained in its joy, well, maybe that’s a start. Maybe it’s not a weak man who pulls out the needle and walks away.