A climber ascends the Maiden in Colorado's Flatirons.
A climber ascends the Maiden in Colorado's Flatirons.
A climber ascends the Maiden in Colorado's Flatirons. (Photo: Photo: Erik Johnson/TandemStock)

Moments of Doubt

As a young climber, David Roberts believed in the greatness of risk. Then death came suddenly, too easily. And it came again and again.

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When one is young, one trifles with death. –Graham Greene, at 74  

A day in early July, perfect for climbing. From the mesas above Boulder, a heatcutting breeze drove the smell of the pines up onto the great tilting slabs of the Flatirons. 

It was 1961; I was 18, had been climbing about a year, Gabe even less. We were about six hundred feet up, three-quarters of the way to the summit of the First Flatiron. There wasn’t a guidebook in those days; so we didn’t know how difficult our route was supposed to be or who had previously done it. But it had gone all right, despite the scarcity of places to bang in our Austrian Soft-iron pitons; sometimes we’d just wedge our bodies in a crack and yell “On belay!” 

It was a joy to be climbing. Climbing was one of the best things—maybe the best thing—in life, given that one would never play shortstop for the Dodgers. There was a risk, as my parents and friends kept pointing out; but I knew the risk was worth it. 

In fact, just that summer I had become ambitious. With a friend my age whom I’ll call Jock, I’d climbed the east face of Longs Peak, illegally early in the season—no great deed for experts, but pretty good for 18-year-old kids. It was Jock’s idea to train all summer and go up to the Tetons and do the route: the north face of the Grand. I’d never even seen the Tetons, but the idea of the route, hung with names like Petzoldt and Pownall and Unsoeld, sent chills through me. 
It was Gabe’s lead now, maybe the last before the going got easier a few hundred feet below the top. He angled up and left, couldn’t get any protection in, went out of sight around a corner. I waited. The rope didn’t move. “What’s going on?” I finally yelled. “Hang on,” Gabe answered irritably, “I’m looking for a belay.” 

We’d been friends since grade school. When he was young he had been very shy; he’d been raised by his father only—why, I never thought to ask. Ever since I had met him, on the playground, running up the old wooden stairs to the fourth-grade classroom, he’d moved in a jerky, impulsive way. On our high school tennis team, he slashed at the ball with lurching stabs, and skidded across the asphalt like a kid trying to catch his own shadow. He climbed the same way, especially in recent months, impulsively going for a hard move well above his protection, worrying me, but getting away with it. In our first half-year of climbing, I’d usually been a little better than Gabe, just as he was always stuck a notch below me on the tennis team. But in the last couple of months—no denying it—he’d become better on rock than I was; he took the leads that I didn’t like the looks of. He might have made a better partner for Jock on the Grand, except that Gabe’s only mountain experience had been an altitude-sick crawl up the east side of Mount of the Holy Cross with me just a week before. He’d thrown up on the summit but said he loved the climb. 

At 18 it wasn’t easy for me to see why Gabe had suddenly become good at climbing, or why it drove him as nothing else had. Just that April, three months earlier, his father had been killed in an auto accident during a blizzard in Texas. When Gabe returned to school, I mumbled my prepared condolence. He brushed it off and asked at once when we could go climbing. I was surprised. But I wanted to climb, too: The summer was approaching, Jock wasn’t always available, and Gabe would go at the drop of a phone call. 

Now, finally, came the “on belay” signal from out of sight to the left, and I started up. For the full 120 feet Gabe had been unable to get in any pitons; so as I climbed, the rope drooped in along arc to my left. It began to tug me sideways, and when I yanked back at it, I noticed that it seemed snagged about 50 feet away, caught under one of the downward-pointing flakes so characteristic of the Flatirons. I flipped the rope angrily and tugged harder on it, then yelled to Gabe to pull from his end. Our efforts only jammed it in tighter. The first trickle of fear leaked into my well-being. 

“What kind of belay do you have?” I asked the invisible Gabe. 

“Not too good. I couldn’t get anything in.” 

There were 50 feet of slab between me and the irksome flake, and those 50 feet were frighteningly smooth. I ought, I supposed, to climb over to the flake, even if it meant building up coils and coils of slack. But if I slipped, and Gabe with no anchor . . . 

I yelled to Gabe what I was going to do. He assented. 

I untied from the rope, gathered as many coils as I could, and threw the end violently down and across the slab, hoping to snap the jammed segment loose, or at least reduce Gabe’s job to hauling the thing in with all his might. Then, with my palms starting to sweat, I climbed carefully up to a little ledge and sat down. 

Gabe was now below me, out of sight, but close. ‘It’s still jammed,’ he said, and my fear surged a little notch. 

“Maybe we can set up a rappel,” I suggested. 

There was a soft but unmistakable sound, and my brain knew it without ever having heard it before.

“No, I think I can climb back and get it.” 

“Are you sure?” Relief lowered the fear a notch. Gabe would do the dirty work, just as he was willing to lead the hard pitches. 

“It doesn’t look too bad.” 

I waited, sitting on my ledge, staring out over Boulder and the dead-straw plains that seemed to stretch all the way to Kansas. I wasn’t sure we were doing the right thing. A few months earlier I’d soloed a rock called the Fist, high on Green Mountain, in the midst of a snow storm, and 60 feet off the ground, as I was turning a slight overhang, my foot had come off, and one hand . . . but not the other. And adrenalin had carried me the rest of the way up. There was a risk, but you rose to it. 

For Gabe, it was taking a long time. It was all the worse not being able to see him. I looked to my right and saw a flurry of birds playing with a column of air over near the Second Flatiron. Then Gabe’s voice, triumphant: “I got it!” 

“Way to go!” I yelled back. The fear diminished. If he’d been able to climb down to the snag, he could climb back up. I was glad I hadn’t had to do it. Remembering his impatience, I instructed, “Coil it up.” A week before, on Holy Cross, I’d been the leader. 

“No, I’ll just drape it around me. I can climb straight up to where you are.” The decision puzzled me. Be careful, I said in my head. But that was Gabe, impulsive, playing his hunches. Again the seconds crept. I had too little information, nothing to do but look for the birds and smell the pine sap. You could see Denver, smogless as yet, a squat aggregation of downtown buildings like some modern covered-wagon circle, defended against the emptiness of the Plains. There had been climbers over on the Third Flatiron earlier, but now I couldn’t spot them. The red, gritty sandstone was warm to my palms. “How’s it going?” I yelled. A pause. Then Gabe’s voice, quick-syllabled as always, more tense than normal. “I just got past a hard place, but it’s easier now.” 

He sounded so close, only 15 feet below me, yet I hadn’t seen him since his lead had taken him around the corner out of sight. I felt I could almost reach down and touch him. 

Next, there was a soft but unmistakable sound, and my brain knew it without ever having heard it before. It was the sound of cloth rubbing against rock. Then Gabe’s cry, a single blurt of knowledge: “Dave!” 

I rose with a start to my feet, but hung on to a knob with one hand, gripping it desperately. “Gabe!” I yelled back; then, for the first time in half an hour, I saw him. He was much farther from me now, sliding and rolling, the rope wrapped in tangles about him like a badly made nest. “Grab something,” I yelled. I could hear Gabe shouting, even as he receded from me, “No! Oh, no!” I thought, there’s always a chance. But Gabe began to bounce, just like rocks I had seen bouncing down mountain slopes, a longer bounce each time. The last was conclusive, for I saw him flung far from the rock’s even surface to pirouette almost lazily in the air, then meet the unyielding slab once more, head first, before the sandstone threw him into the treetops. 

What I did next is easy to remember, but it is hard to judge just how long it took. It seemed, in the miasma of adrenalin, to last either three minutes or more than an hour. I stood and I yelled for help. After several repetitions, voices from the Mesa Trail caught the breeze back to me. “We’re coming!” someone shouted. “In the trees!” I yelled back. “Hurry!” I sat down and said to myself, now don’t go screw it up yourself, you don’t have a rope, sit here and wait for someone to come rescue you. They can come up the back and lower a rope from the top. As soon as I had given myself this good advice, I got up and started scrambling toward the summit. It wasn’t too hard. Slow down, don’t make a mistake, I lectured myself, but it felt as if I were running. From the summit I down-climbed the 80 feet on the backside; I’d been there before and had rappelled it. Forty feet up there was a hard move. Don’t blow it. Then I was on the ground. 

I ran down the scree-and-brush gully between the First and Second Flatirons, and got to the bottom a few minutes before the hikers. “Where is he?” a wild-eyed volunteer asked me. “In the trees!” I yelled back. “Somewhere right near here!” 
Searching for something is usually an orderly process; it has its methodical pleasures, its calm reconstruction of the possible steps that led to the object getting lost. We searched instead like scavenging predators, crashing through deadfall and talus; and we couldn’t find Gabe. Members of the Rocky Mountain Rescue Group began to arrive; they were calmer than the hiker I had first encountered. We searched and searched, and finally a voice called out, “Here he is.” 

Someone led me there. There were only solemn looks to confirm the obvious. I saw Gabe sprawled face down on the talus, his limbs in the wrong positions, the rope, coated with blood, still in a cocoon about him. The seat of his jeans had been ripped away, and one bare buttock was scraped raw, the way kids’ knees used to look after a bad slide on a sidewalk. I wanted to go up and touch his body, but I couldn’t. I sat down and cried.

Much later — but it was still afternoon, the sun and breeze still collaborating on a perfect July day—a policeman led me up the walk to my house. My mother came to the screen door and, grasping the situation at once, burst into tears. Gabe was late for a birthday party. Someone had called my house, mildly annoyed, to try to account for the delay. My father took on the task of calling them back. (More than a decade later he told me that it was the hardest thing he had ever done.) 

In the newspapers the next day a hiker was quoted as saying that he knew something bad was going to happen, because he’d overheard Gabe and me “bickering,” and good climbers didn’t do that. Another man had watched the fall through binoculars. At my father’s behest, I wrote down a detailed account of the accident. 

About a week later Jock came by. He spent the appropriate minutes in sympathetic silence, then said, “The thing you’ve got to do is get right back on the rock.” I didn’t want to, but I went out with him. We top-roped a moderate climb only 30 feet high. My feet and hands shook uncontrollably, my heart seemed to be screaming, and Jock had to haul me up the last 10 feet. “It’s OK, it’ll come back,” he reassured. 

I had one friend I could talk to, a touch-football buddy who thought climbing was crazy in the first place. With his support, in the presence of my parents’ anguish, I managed at last to call up Jock and ask him to come by. We sat on my front porch. “Jock,” I said, “I just can’t go to the Grand. I’m too shook up. I’d be no good if I did go.” He stared at me long and hard. Finally he stood up and walked away. 

That fall I went to Harvard. I tried out for the tennis team, but when I found that the Mountaineering Club included veterans who had just climbed Waddington in the Coast Range and Mount Logan in the Yukon, it didn’t take me long to single out my college heroes. 

But I wasn’t at all sure about climbing. On splendid fall afternoons at the Shawangunks, when the veterans dragged us neophytes up easy climbs, I sat on the belay ledges mired in ambivalence. I’d never been at a cliff where there were so many climbers, and whenever one of them on an adjoining route happened to yell—even if the message were nothing more alarming than “I think it goes up to the left there!”—I jerked with fright. 

For reasons I am still not sure of, Gabe became a secret. Attached to the memory of our day on the First Flatiron was not only fear, but guilt and embarrassment. Guilt toward Gabe, of course, because I had not been the one who went to get the jammed rope. But the humiliation, born perhaps in that moment when the cop had led me up to my front door and my mother had burst into tears, lingered with me in the shape of a crime or moral error, like getting a girl pregnant. 

As we blew the morning campfire back to life from the evening’s ashes, Clough remarked, “Did you hear the screams? One of the poor lads must have had a nightmare.”

Nevertheless, at Harvard I got deeply involved with the Mountaineering Club. By 20 I’d climbed McKinley with six Harvard friends via a new route, and that August I taught at Colorado Outward Bound School. With all of “Boone Patrol,” including the senior instructor, a laconic British hard man named Clough, I was camped one night above timberline. We’d crawled under the willow bushes and strung out ponchos for shelter. In the middle of the night I dreamed that Gabe was falling away from me through endless reaches of black space. He was in a metal cage, spinning headlong, and I repeatedly screamed his name. I woke with a jolt, sat shivering for ten minutes, then crawled, dragging my bag, far from the others, and lay awake the rest of the night. As we blew the morning campfire back to life from the evening’s ashes, Clough remarked, “Did you hear the screams? One of the poor lads must have had a nightmare.” 

By my senior year, though, I’d become hard myself. McKinley had seemed a lark compared to my second expedition—a 40-day failure with only one companion, Don Jensen, on the east ridge of Alaska’s Mount Deborah. All through the following winter, with Don holed up in the Sierra Nevada, me trudging through a math major at Harvard, we plotted mountaineering revenge. By January we had focused on a route: the unclimbed west face of Mount Huntington, even harder, we thought, than Deborah. By March we’d agreed that Matt Hale, a junior and my regular climbing partner, would be our third, even though Matt had been on no previous expeditions. Matt was daunted by the ambition of the project, but slowly got caught up in it. Needing a fourth, we discussed an even more inexperienced club member, Ed Bernd, a sophomore who’d been climbing little more than a year and who’d not even been in big mountains. 

Never in my life, before or since, have I found myself so committed to any project. I daydreamed about recipes for Logan bread and the number of ounces a certain piton weighed; at night I fell asleep with the seductive promises of belay ledges and crack systems whispering in my ear. School was a Platonic facade. The true Idea of my life lay in the Alaska Range. 

At one point that spring I floated free from my obsession long enough to hear a voice in my head tell me, “You know, Dave, this is the kind of climb you could get killed on.” I stopped and assessed my life, and consciously answered, “It’s worth it. Worth the risk.” I wasn’t sure what I meant by that, but I knew its truth. I wanted Matt to feel the same way. I knew Don did. 

On a March weekend Matt and I were leading an ice climbing trip in Huntington Ravine on Mount Washington. The Harvard cabin was unusually full, which meant a scramble in the morning to get out first and claim the ice gully you wanted to lead. On Saturday I skipped breakfast to beat everybody else to Pinnacle Gully, then the prize of the ravine. It was a bitter, windy day, and though the gully didn’t tax my skills unduly, twice sudden gusts almost blew me out of my steps. The second man on the rope, though a good rock climber, found the whole day unnerving and was glad to get back to the cabin. 

That night we chatted with the other climbers. The two most experienced were Craig Merrihue, a grad student in astrophysics, said to be brilliant, with first ascents in the Andes and Karakoram behind him, and Dan Doody, a quiet, thoughtful filmmaker who’d gone to college in Wyoming and had recently been on the big American Everest expedition. Both men were interested in our Huntington plans, and it flattered Matt and me that they thought we were up to something serious. The younger climbers looked on us experts in awe; it was delicious to bask in their hero worship as we nonchalanted it with Craig and Dan. Craig’s lovely wife Sandy was part of our company. All three of them were planning to link up in a relaxing trip to the Hindu Kush the coming summer. 

The next day the wind was still gusting fitfully. Matt and I were leading separate ropes of beginners up Odells Gully, putting in our teaching time after having had Saturday to do something hard. I felt lazy, a trifle vexed to be “wasting” a good day. Around noon we heard somebody calling from the ravine floor. We ignored the cries at first, but as a gust of wind came our way, I was pricked with alarm. “Somebody’s yelling for help,” I shouted to Matt. “Think they mean it?” A tiny figure far below seemed to be running up and down on the snow. My laziness burned away. 

I tied off my second to wait on a big bucket of an ice step, then zipped down a rappel off a single poorly placed ice screw. Still in crampons, I ran down into the basin that formed the runout for all five gullies. The man I met, a weekend climber in his 30s who had been strolling up the ravine for a walk, was moaning. He had seen something that looked like “a bunch of rags” slide by out of the corner of his eye. He knew all at once that it was human bodies he had seen, and he could trace the line of fall up to Pinnacle Gully. He knew that Doody and Merrihue were climbing in Pinnacle. And Craig was a close friend of his. During the five minutes or so since the accident he had been unable to approach them, unable to do anything but yell for help and run aimlessly. I was the first to reach the bodies. 

Gabe’s I had not had to touch. But I was a trip leader now, an experienced mountaineer, the closest approximation in the circumstances to a rescue squad. I’d had first-aid training. Without a second’s hesitation I knelt beside the bodies. Dan’s was the worse injured, with a big chunk of his head torn open. His blood was still warm, but I was sure he was dead. I thought I could find a faint pulse in Craig’s wrist, however, so I tried to stop the bleeding and started mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Matt arrived and worked on Dan, and then others appeared and tried to help. 

I can picture her face in the instant of knowing. There was a depth of personal loss that I had never really known existed.

For an hour, I think, I put my lips against Craig’s, held his nose shut, forced air into his lungs. His lips were going cold and blue, and there was a stagnant taste in the cavity his mouth had become, but I persisted, as did Matt and the others. Not since my father had last kissed me—was I ten?—had I put my lips to another man’s. I remembered Dad’s scratchy face, when he hadn’t shaved, like Craig’s now. We kept hoping, but I knew after five minutes that both men had been irretrievably damaged. There was too much blood. It had been a bad year for snow in the bottom of the ravine; big rocks stuck out everywhere. Three years earlier Don Jensen had been avalanched out of Damnation Gully; he fell 800 feet and only broke a shoulder blade. But that had been a good year for snow. 

Yet we kept up our efforts. The need arose as much from an inability to imagine what else we might do—stand around in shock?—as from good first aid sense. At last we gave up, exhausted. I could read in Matt’s clipped and efficient suggestions the dawning sense that a horrible thing had happened. But I also felt numb. The sense of tragedy flooded home only in one moment. I heard somebody say something like “She’s coming,” and somebody else say, “Keep her away.” I looked up and saw Sandy, Craig’s wife, arriving from the cabin, aware of something wrong, but in the instant before knowing that it was indeed Craig she was intercepted bodily by the climber who knew her best, and that was how she learned. I can picture her face in the instant of knowing, and I remember vividly my own revelation that there was a depth of personal loss that I had never really known existed, of which I was now receiving my first glimpse. 

But my memory has blocked out Sandy’s reaction. Did she immediately burst into tears, like my mother? Did she try to force her way to Craig? Did we let her? I know I saw it happen, whatever it was, but my memory cannot retrieve it. 
There followed long hours into the dark hauling the bodies with ropes back toward the cabin. There was the pacifying exhaustion and the stolid drive back to Cambridge. There was somebody telling me, “You did a fantastic job, all that anybody could have done,” and that seeming maudlin—who wouldn’t have done the same? There were, in subsequent weeks, the memorial service, long tape-recorded discussions of the puzzling circumstances of the accident (we had found Dan and Craig roped together, a bent ice screw loose on the rope between them), heated indictments of the cheap Swiss design of the screw. And even a couple of visits with Sandy and their five-year-old son. 

But my strongest concern was not to let the accident interfere with my commitment to climb Huntington, now only three months away. The deaths had deeply shaken Matt; but we never directly discussed the matter. I never wrote my parents about what had taken place. We went ahead and invited Ed, the sophomore, to join our expedition. Though he had not been in the ravine with us, he too had been shaken. But I got the three of us talking logistics and gear, and thinking about a mountain in Alaska. In some smug private recess I told myself that I was in better training than Craig and Dan had been, and that was why I wouldn’t get killed. If the wind had blown one of them out of his steps, well, I’d led Pinnacle the day before in the same wind and it hadn’t blown me off. Almost, but it hadn’t. Somehow I controlled my deepest feelings and kept the disturbance buried. I had no bad dreams about Doody and Merrihue, no sleepless nights, no sudden qualms about whether Huntington was worth the risk or not. By June I was as ready as I could be for the hardest climb of my life. 

It took a month, but we climbed our route on Huntington. Pushing through the night of July 29-30, we traversed the knife-edged summit ridge and stood on top in the still hours of dawn. Only 12 hours before, Matt and I had come as close to being killed as it is possible to get away with in the mountains. 

Matt, tugging on a loose crampon strap, had pulled himself off his steps; he landed on me, broke down the snow ledge I had kicked; under the strain our one bad anchor piton popped out. We fell, roped together and helpless, some 70 feet down a steep slope of ice above a 4,500-foot drop. Then a miracle intervened; the rope snagged on a nubbin of rock, the size of one’s knuckle, and held us both. 

Such was our commitment to the climb that, even though we were bruised and Matt had lost a crampon, we pushed upward and managed to join Ed and Don for the summit dash. 

At midnight, 19 hours later, Ed and I stood on a ledge some fifteen hundred feet below. Our tents were too small for four people; so he and I had volunteered to push on to a lower camp, leaving Matt and Don to come down on the next good day. In the dim light we set up a rappel. There was a tangle of pitons, fixed ropes, and the knots tying them off, in the midst of which Ed was attaching a carabiner. I suggested an adjustment. Ed moved the carabiner, clipped our rope in, and started to get on rappel. “Just this pitch,” I said, “and then it’s practically walking to camp.” 

Ed leaned back on rappel. There was a scrape and sparks—his crampons scratching the rock, I later guessed. Suddenly he was flying backwards through the air, down the vertical pitch. He hit hard ice 60 feet below. Just as I had on the Flatiron, I yelled. “Grab something, Ed!” But it was evident that his fall was not going to end—not soon, anyway. He slid rapidly down the ice chute, then out of sight over a cliff. I heard him bouncing once or twice, then nothing. He had not uttered a word. 

I shouted, first for Ed, then for Don and Matt above. Nothing but silence answered me. There was nothing I could do. I was as certain as I could be that Ed had fallen 4,000 feet, to the lower arm of the Tokositna Glacier, inaccessible even from our base camp. He was surely dead. 

I managed to get myself, without a rope, down the seven pitches to our empty tent. The next two days I spent alone-desperate for Matt’s and Don’s return, imagining them dead also, drugging myself with sleeping pills, trying to fathom what had gone wrong, seized one night in my sleep with a vision of Ed, broken and bloody, clawing his way up the wall to me, crying out, “Why didn’t you come look for me?” At last Don and Matt arrived, and I had to tell them. Our final descent, in the midst of a raging blizzard, was the nastiest and scariest piece of climbing I have done, before or since. 

A week later, I called Ed’s parents. His father’s stunned first words, crackly with long-distance static, were “Is this some kind of a joke?”

From Talkeetna, a week later, I called Ed’s parents. His father’s stunned first words, crackly with long-distance static, were “Is this some kind of a joke?” After the call I went behind the bush pilot’s hangar and cried my heart out—the first time in years that I had given way to tears. 

A week later, with my parents’ backing, I flew to Philadelphia to spend three days with Ed’s parents. But not until the last few hours of my stay did we talk about Ed or climbing. Philadelphia was wretchedly hot and sticky. In the Bernds’ small house my presence sleeping on the living room sofa, an extra guest at meals—was a genuine intrusion. Unlike my parents, or Matt’s, or Don’s, Ed’s had absolutely no comprehension of mountain climbing. It was some esoteric thing he had gotten into at Harvard, and of course Ed had completely downplayed, for their sake, the seriousness of our Alaska project. 

At that age, given my feelings about climbing, I could hardly have been better shielded from any sense of guilt. But mixed in with my irritation and discomfort in the muggy apartment was an awareness—of a different sort from the glimpse of Sandy Merrihue—that I was in the presence of a grief so deep its features were opaque to me. It was the hope-destroying grief of parents, the grief of those who knew things could not keep going right, a grief that would, I sensed, diminish little over the years. It awed and frightened me, and disclosed to me an awareness of my own guilt. I began remembering other moments. In our first rest after the summit, as we had giddily replayed every detail of our triumph, Ed had said that yes, it had been great, but that he wasn’t sure it had been worth it. I hadn’t pressed him; his qualifying judgment had seemed the only sour note in a perfect party. It was so obvious to me that all the risks throughout the climb-even Matt’s and my near-disaster-had been worth it to make the summit. 

Now Ed’s remark haunted me. He was, in most climbers’ judgment, far too inexperienced for Huntington. We’d caught his occasional technical mistakes on the climb, a piton hammered in with the eye the wrong way, an ice axe left below a rock overhang. But he learned so well, was so naturally strong, complemented our intensity with a hearty capacity for fun and friendship. Still, at Harvard, there had been, I began to see, no way for him to turn down our invitation. Matt and I and the other veterans were his heroes, just as the Waddington seniors had been mine three years before. Now the inner circle was asking him to join. It seemed to us at the time an open invitation, free of any moral implications. Now I wondered. 

I still didn’t know what had gone wrong with the rappel, even though Ed had been standing a foot away from me. Had it been some technical error of his in clipping in? Or had the carabiner itself failed? There was no way of settling the question, especially without having been able to look for, much less find, his body. 

At last Ed’s family faced me. I gave a long, detailed account of the climb. I told them it was “the hardest thing yet done in Alaska,” a great mountaineering accomplishment. It would attract the attention of climbers the world over. They looked at me with blank faces; my way of viewing Ed’s death was incomprehensible. They were bent on finding a Christian meaning to the event. It occurred to them that maybe God had meant to save Ed from a worse death fighting in Vietnam. They were deeply stricken by our inability to retrieve his body. “My poor baby,” Mrs. Bernd wailed at one point, “he must be so cold.” 

Their grief brought me close to tears again, but when I left it was with a sigh of relief. I went back to Denver, where I was starting graduate school. For the second time in my life I thought seriously about quitting climbing. At 22 I had been the first hand witness of three fatal accidents, costing four lives. Mr. Bernd’s laborious letters, edged with the leaden despair I had seen in his face, continued to remind me that the question “Is it worth the risk?” was not one any person could answer by consulting only himself. 

Torn by my own ambivalence, studying Restoration comedy in a city where I had few friends, no longer part of a gang heading off each weekend to the Shawangunks, I laid off climbing most of the winter of 1965-66. By February I had made a private resolve to quit the business, at least for a few years. One day a fellow showed up at my basement apartment, all the way down from Alaska. I’d never met him, but the name Art Davidson was familiar. He looked straight off skid row, with his tattered clothes and unmatched socks and tennis shoes with holes in them; and his wild red beard and white eyebrows lent a kind of rundown Irish aristocracy to his face. He lived, apparently, like a vagrant, subsisting on cottage cheese in the back of his old pickup truck (named Bucephalus after Alexander’s horse), which he hid in parking lots each night on the outskirts of Anchorage. Art was crazy about Alaskan climbing. In the next year and a half he would go on five major expeditions—still the most intense spate of big-range mountaineering I know of. In my apartment he kept talking in his soft, enthusiastic voice about the Cathedral Spires, a place he knew Don and I had had our eyes on. I humored him. I let him talk on, and then we went out for a few beers, and Art started reminding me about the pink granite and the trackless glaciers, and by the evening’s end the charismatic bastard had me signed up. 

We went to the Cathedral Spires in 1966, with three others. Art was at the zenith of his climbing career. Self taught, technically erratic, he made up in compulsive zeal what he lacked in finesse. His drive alone got himself and Rick Millikan up the highest peak in the range, which we named Kichatna Spire. As for me, I wasn’t the climber I’d been the year before, which had much to do with why I wasn’t along with Art on the summit push. That year I’d fallen in love with the woman who would become my wife, and suddenly the old question about risk seemed vastly more complicated. In the blizzard-swept dusk, with two of the other guys up on the climb, I found myself worrying about their safety instead of mere logistics. I was as glad nothing had gone wrong by the end of the trip as I was that we’d collaborated on a fine first ascent. 

Had that botched rappel been my demise, no friends would have seen my end as meaningful.

Summer after summer I went back to Alaska, climbing hard, but not with the all-out commitment of 1965. Over the years quite a few of my climbing acquaintances were killed in the mountains, including five close friends. Each death was deeply unsettling, tempting me to doubt all over again the worth of the enterprise. For nine years I taught climbing to college students, and worrying about their safety became an occupational hazard. Ironically, the closest I came during those years to getting killed was not on some Alaskan wall, but on a beginner’s climb at the Shawangunks, when I nearly fell head-first backwards out of a rappel—the result of a carabiner jamming in a crack, my own impatience, and the blasé glaze with which teaching a dangerous skill at a trivial level coats the risk. Had that botched rappel been my demise, no friends would have seen my end as meaningful: instead, a “stupid,” “pointless,” “who-would-have-thought?” kind of death. 

Yet in the long run, trying to answer my own question “Is it worth it?,” torn between thinking the question itself ridiculous and grasping for a formulaic answer, I come back to gut-level affirmation, however sentimental, however selfish. When I image my early 20s, it is not in terms of the hours spent in a quiet library studying Melville, or my first nervous pontifications before a freshman English class. I want to see Art Davidson again, shambling into my apartment in his threadbare trousers, spooning great dollops of cottage cheese past his flaming beard, filling the air with his baroque hypotheses, convincing me that the Cathedral Spires needed our visit. I want to remember what brand of beer I was drinking when that crazy vagabond in one stroke turned the cautious resolves of a lonely winter into one more summer’s plot against the Alaskan wilderness. 

Some of the worst moments of my life have taken place in the mountains. Not only the days alone in the tent on Huntington after Ed had vanished—quieter moments as well, embedded in uneventful expeditions. Trying to sleep the last few hours before a predawn start on a big climb, my mind stiff with dread, as I hugged my all-too-obviously fragile self with my own arms—until the scared kid inside my sleeping bag began to pray for bad weather and another day’s reprieve. But nowhere else on earth, not even in the harbors of reciprocal love, have I felt pure happiness take hold of me and shake me like a puppy, compelling me, and the conspirators I had arrived there with, to stand on some perch of rock or snow, the uncertain struggle below us, and bawl our pagan vaunts to the very sky. It was worth it then. 

Lead Photo: Photo: Erik Johnson/TandemStock

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