Normality of tragedy
I wrote the following short essay in 2016 and it ended up being one of the most read posts on my website. The reason for that is that in climbing, tragedy is always in season, and although the names may fade, death does not. Having watched the numbers spike again, on K2 and the alps, I thought it worth sharing these words again.
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 UKclimbing - sort of something to do before you have something to do. The Alpinist site is a good site, with 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 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 the previous months, read down to the deaths of Justin Griffin, Gerhard Fiegl, Doug Tomkins, and on and on it went. Sad tales that left you only 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 the Alpinist site where a climber had been killed during the descent from a new route, the account written by one of his partners. He death is added 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 had read so many pieces like this before that I almost failed to recognise just how odd such a piece of writing really was. It asked a fundamental question about our sport and about the psychology of people who do it, namely, why was it even written? It was so easy to just see it as yet another write up of a climb that went awry, but then you need to ask when someone dies what is your motivation to even write up the climb in such a way? An obituary about the death of a friend, and his last climb, 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 single-mindedness, where people are on extended trips or projects where someone dies, not a stranger, but someone you know, maybe a bond as strong as a brother, and right there in front of you… 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, death no more than a speed bump.
This has been on my mind a lot of late, planning on returning to try the Harlin on the Eiger - fourth time lucky - but now 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, so absolutely perfect, like some final destination I’m happy to stay, 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 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 of me and my desire 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. What you take as joy, and colour, and living, is that joy, and colour and living, when the spike goes in, that rush as the drug flushes real life back - real love and understanding and clarity of the human heart.
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, somewhere, 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 sure he plans his return, I’m sure - and 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 realisation 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.