By Dan England © 2011
I was asking myself what the last day of my life would be like.
I wondered Saturday morning if that day would be the day.
I never thought about death before I had kids when I went mountain climbing. I don't think that's because I never considered the possibility. I think that's because there was no real consequence if it happened.
Even after I got married, I figured Kate could find another guy. She was young, beautiful and without issues. Those women are rare. She'd be fine.
I valued my life. I wasn't cavalier about it in the least. Ten years ago, when a bunch of large rocks swept under my feet, threatened to swallow me under their granite and bashed into me, I fought for my life, flipping through the air to stop myself and walking 17 hours after I was hurt to get help from the hospital. When, four years later, I slipped and rolled toward a ledge, I desperately looked for a rock to wrap my leg around and found it.
But I knew, deep down, that if I did indeed die, I'd die doing something I loved and that it was my choice to put myself in danger to do it.
Thing is, these days, when I prepare to do something like Saturday's Little Pawnee-Pawnee traverse, I know I'm no longer making a choice for myself but for my family.
And I still don't know if it's fair.
• • •
The day looked to be another glorious one in the mountains. At least that's what weather.com said. I saw something completely different.
I saw a sullen sky that spit droplets of water on my climbing partner's windshield as she swept down the highway. Hmm. Lighting is always the biggest concern, and days like the one the clouds were predicting rarely produced lighting. But on a route like the one were planning to tackle, the rain is almost as bad because it soaks the rock, and wet rock is slick rock. If it was raining when we got to the trail, the hike would be over before it started.
But as we got higher, the sky got clearer, and by the time we reached the trailhead and parked, the sun and blue sky were pushing us to go on. In fact it looked like exactly the kind of day you need to do a long, dangerous traverse like the one that faced us.
• • •
Rules, like the one I discussed above (1. Never climb a tough route in the rain) helps salve my guilt over doing something dangerous when I've got twin 3 year-old girls, a 5-year-old boy and a haggard wife, but only some. It helps because you can convince yourself you're being smart, and when most climbers die when they're not being smart. Climbers die when they go off the route, don't stick with their plans, push their luck with the weather, forget to bring the right equipment or make a thousand other fairly easy mistakes that seem small and yet can turn really bad too quickly. It's happened this year. It happens every year.
In fact, it's easy to convince a guilty mind that EVERY death is because of some error that, of course, you would never make. But believe that and you're lying to yourself in the way addicts lie to themselves about just needing one last hit, or one last fling, or one last bet. A young guy died this year on the Maroon Bells when a rock hit him, causing him to fall. Another climber was severely hurt just this year on the very traverse we'd be attempting that day. In both those instances, no real mistakes were made by the climbers. They just got hurt, or killed, doing what they loved.
• • •
The day started out with some map reading, trying to find the best route up the mountain before we could start our climb of the ridge. Despite 200 climbing trips, this is still one of my biggest weaknesses. This time probably still took longer than it really should. It's a little tricky because the start isn't an obvious, jutting peak you can identify through any photos, and there was two alternative routes, neither one which stuck out or looked all that promising. You could either wander through a forest until you reached a grassy ridge or take a more direct route through cranky bushes and a growling boulderfield. We chose the second option.
Once we reached the ridge, it started easily enough, with some easy class 3 climbing. If you don't know, class 2 means walking off a trail, and class 3 or above means you'll need to use your hands as well as your feet. Class 4 is essentially hard class 3 climbing that's usually exposed, meaning a fall could hurt or even kill you.
I wish sometimes that I didn't love hard, class 4 routes as much as I do. But as we started into the trickiest part of the day, an exposed downclimb that many prefer to use a rope on, my voice shook a bit. I was afraid, of course, but the shaking, I have to admit, came from something.
I was pumped.
• • •
I'm not a junkie. Not really. I'm not the maniac I used to be, when I was doing 20 peaks a year, some of them difficult, even dangerous. I'd look at a weekend at home during the summer as a wasted opportunity. I climbed three peaks this year because I needed to be home more than usual this summer, and I honestly didn't miss it as much as I thought I would. Running is a good challenge for me now, and it seems to fulfill that other side of me. The side that needs some sort of adventure or goal. Maybe even a touch of pain.
But that other side needs a trip like Saturday's once a year. I still wish I didn't. But as we scampered across ledges and climbed our hearts out, I was giddy, like a teenager in love. It was just so much FUN. It's fun to get scratched by the rock and fun to have your foot graze open air and fun to be out there. Just out in the open. It's fun to accomplish a cool feat. It's fun to solve the puzzle of a route and use your whole body and be thoroughly exhausted. It's fun to see such beauty and rely on yourself.
And, yes, it's fun to go through something dangerous and make it through unscathed. I have felt a much deeper fear, too, now that the consequences of me getting hurt or killed is much more severe. Occasionally, that fear brings me to tears, as it did last year on what I consider to be the toughest 14er in the state.
I know if I die climbing, it's an incredibly selfish act, perhaps the most selfish act ever. It leaves my kids without a father, and even if someone else stepped in, it could scar them for life. And I'm taking a chance that that could happen. It's a small chance. I never felt like Saturday was beyond my abilities. But even a chance is also selfish.
I have a response for the conflict. Climbing is a part of me and has been since I was 13. So how can I teach my kids how to live if I can't feel alive?
But that's an easy statement. And so it's not really an answer. It's just something I say to soothe my nerves before I throw on my backpack and head out into the wild.
Dan England is a writer from Greely, CO.