Water: Life, Death and Mountains
Posted by Joseph Anderson
Life, Death and Mountains
“Rainier: Six missing climbers, no chance of survival,” read the headlines on the front page of Seattle Times this past May. “Shit” I think to myself, “that’s terrible.” Before I could press for more details my cell phone buzzes with a text “Eitan just passed away on Rainier.” My heart sinks, “Eitan’s just a kid.”
I am deeply affected by this. I flash back to a summer of guiding work for Alpine Ascents. We where hiking a large group of clients up the Rainier Trade Route to Camp Muir when I noticed one of the other new guides, a kid really, maybe twenty two at the time. He must have observed my grey hairs and with his big inquisitive smile was eager for mountain wisdom. I don’t remember his questions I just remember the last thing that I said to him “The only person looking out for you in this business is you.” He got it. Two years later he asked me for summer work – he got that too. Eitan ran rock and mountain trips for me. Clients liked and appreciated him as a guide. He was an asset to all of those around him and a good man.
This past year I received a call from a woman who has been part of our children’s Waldorf School. She was shaken up. Jake Merrel had passed away at twenty three years old. Jake was an eighth grader when we first became part of the Whatcom Hills Waldorf School community. I didn’t know him personally but it turns out people loved Jake. He was an amazing person with boundless energy and an endless thirst for life. He died in the Wallawa Mountains on his first assignment as a working professional guide.
Two years ago I went skiing with a friend on Mt Baker. We had a great day….great day. While skinning up the trail he expressed that he loved his girlfriend, wanted to marry her and maybe even start a family. When we got back to town that evening we received word that she had died in the mountains.
Even when death in the mountains comes to those I don’t know, as a mountain guide it affects me. One July day I was hiking into Mt Baker. It was drizzling and the trail was empty until a disheveled gentleman heading down the mountain stopped us. “Excuse me have you seen a woman walking down the mountain ahead of me?” he asked.
“No.” We answer “Haven’t seen a soul.”
“Damn!,” he says to himself, then following with “I think she fell into a crevasse.”
When I got higher on the mountain the sky was clearing and a rescue helicopter was able to come in. There was a clear butt slide mark into the suspected crevasse of which the bottom I could not see. I waved my ski pole at the helicopter letting them know that was it. My clients were spooked and we did not ski the mountain on that trip.
Another time on a trip on Mt Rainier’s Emmons Glacier Route there were two young brothers hanging out with the resident climbing ranger. Their father died on the mountain the day before. He too fell into a crevasse. I remember watching them hiking off with the Ranger feeling terrible for those boys.
Mountain tragedies affect my clients as well. A couple of years ago three clients gave me a call who were scheduled to ski with me for the next few days. They were skiing at Steven Pass in Washington State when a terrible accident occurred with multiple deaths. “I’ll keep you safe” I assured.
Mountain accidents have profound impacts on communities, families, the media, public opinion, perception and on me. I have watched life flash before my eyes many times in the mountains saying to myself “this is it, I’m going to die.” Do I want to give some harrowing speech on why everyone should keep climbing and skiing regardless? No, I don’t. You need to figure that out for yourself. But what I do find the need to share are some of the other deaths, the ones that did not occur in the mountains. These deaths effected me very deeply as well, but not in the same way. Instead of leading me to question the mountains they lead me to celebrate and thank them for a full life.
This past spring, my friend Clay Patton, my first mentor on how to be a guide and business owner passed away. It had been 12 years since I saw him last. We made much anticipated plans to meet one afternoon outside of Durango, CO. When we showed up at his work to catch up we were informed he passed away the night before. A heart attack at age 52 while watching TV. “Dam it Clay. I wanted you to meet my family, why not one more day?”
My dog Sunder was a mountain climber as well; having shared countless days with me in the mountains he got his start 15 years ago when he was six months old in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado. When my friend and I got down from the 3 pitch water ice climb Sunder was half way up the first pitch, dog nails as good as ice picks. He was a tireless companion and would summit peaks throughout the Cascades with me. He died this year, peacefully, quietly, in our arms.
Another friend and inspiration, Bean Bowers, a symbol of an indestructible spirit and a life thoroughly lived in the mountains like some sort of Demi God. He passed away at 38 from stage four cancer. I remember sitting with Bean while waiting for our plane to pick us up out of the Alaska Range. We were sharing a bottle of whiskey and sharing stories. That was the last time I saw him.
All of these passings make me realize and understand how I got here in the first place. My grandfather died slowly over six years from Alzheimers. He was my first inspiration in the mountains through stories – stories of fighting the Germans in the Alps on skis during World War II, stories that would fascinate any child with or without an imagination or sense of adventure. When he came to visit in the US for his last time I remember showing him a photo of what I had just climbed in the Elk Range of Colorado. He looked at me with a proud smile and a knowing twinkle in his eyes, “Fais attention” (be careful), he said. “Oui” (yes), I answered with a smile. I knew he was proud.
My beloved father-in-law passed away in 2010 due to an airway accident. I remember not crying at his funeral. I realized I was angry with him. Why did you have to die? He inspired all of us in different ways and was legitimately happy and proud of his daughters family even with a lifestyle so foreign to his. He whole heartedly approved and shared in our freedom and joy. I remember him amazed watching my son Jacob as young as six years old rock climbing on steep rock, in control, in the flow. We were getting Ivan out of his element onto bigger and bigger hikes in WA, picking blue berries in the Appalachians and doing things a Long Island stockbroker does not do. “What the Hell Ivan!” I think to myself. You may have been ready but we were not. “Ila is named in your honor, but we would have done that if you were still here.” I wish I could tell him. “Your granddaughter is beautiful, strong willed and a hell of a lot smarter than me.” That’s what I want to tell him. I wish I could have showed him pictures of his grandsons and I climbing the big walls of Yosemite. He would have understood. He would have been proud.
All of these lives and all of these deaths affect me deeply, more than I realized at the time. They have taught me that the mountains have given me life and are everything to me. They have influenced me directly as well as indirectly through my family and close friends. When the mountains take a life I am reminded that the most important thing is not the passing but the lives of these great individuals and the time that I have spent with them. I can’t help but to think of my own father in Virginia. As one of the major driving forces in supporting my career and my love for the mountains, I wish he would live forever. For that reason I will make sure to spend as much time in the mountains with him as I possibly can. I think of all of my friends, my family, my customers and how much richer our lives are because of our adventures together. I think of a marriage on the summit of Mt Baker and engagements on summits from Mt Baker to Mt Rainier. I asked my own wife to Merry me at 16,000 feet on a mountain, I think about endless times shared, adventures big and small, so many moments that are so rich and I would never trade in for anything. I think about the past year that I just took to travel with my wife and kids, to hike, to climb to explore together and to live life together….THAT is living.