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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

No Consolation

"He died doing what he loved."

My wife hates that phrase, and after resisting for years, I'm coming to see her point. But wait, you say: Surely it’s better to die in an avalanche while skiing untracked powder or by falling from a favorite crag than to be mangled in a car crash or waste away in a cancer ward. Right? I used to think so, but this sad summer, when so many friends have died while climbing, “doing what he loved” feels like a feeble attempt to ease the pain of the living. The statement is accurate, but it's nowhere near adequate.

Last week my friend Craig Luebben was killed while climbing in the North Cascades. He was 49. Last week, too, the great Italian alpinist Riccardo Cassin died at home at age 100. Cassin, of course, didn’t shy from risk. He began climbing new routes in the early 1930s, when gear and techniques were still primitive, and he completed major new routes in the Alps (including the Walker Spur on the Grandes Jorasses), on Denali, and in Peru during a climbing career that spanned about half a century.

Craig also enjoyed the pleasures of risk, especially earlier in his climbing life—I remember once in the early 1990s watching him solo the Rigid Designator ice column in Vail one afternoon, and then learning that he had already free-soloed Bridalveil Falls and the Ames Ice Hose, on the other side of the state, that same day. However, as Craig aged, married, and had a daughter, Giluia, he dedicated most of his time to reducing risks for climbers: through guiding, teaching, writing instructional books, and field-testing gear. Although he succeeded on very difficult and sometimes dangerous climbs, he was among the most methodical and careful climbers I’ve ever tied in with. For the most part, he avoided high-altitude mountaineering, climbing’s deadliest game. Yet Craig died young and Cassin lived to 100 and died in bed. It doesn’t seem fair.

I know for certain that Craig Luebben did not want to die “doing what he loved.” He loved his young family—he loved living—too much to take any satisfaction in seeing his life cut short while climbing. When I saw Craig last—ironically, at a memorial in July for Jonny Copp, Micah Dash, and Wade Johnson—he told me with his big, enthusiastic smile how much he had enjoyed teaching Giulia to ski, and how much he looked forward to skiing with her this coming winter. Craig wanted to grow old and ski and climb and hike with Giulia and Silvia until his creaky bones could move no more.

I’m struggling this summer. Right now, climbing seems excessively dangerous and cruelly unfair—it cuts down even the most cautious among us. Yet I continue to climb. And though I can’t imagine a life without climbing, the loss of several friends in one summer makes continuing feel like a form of madness.

Three days ago I stood beneath a crag in the Uintas in eastern Utah, satisfied with the route I’d just led, pleased to watch my wife smoothly climbing above me, relaxed and happy in the warm sunshine at 10,000 feet, and I found myself staring at the fingers of my right hand, loose but ready around the rope a few inches from my belay device, and suddenly I had a vision of how easy it would be to make a careless mistake and let go at the wrong time. We were sport climbing on half-pitch routes—among the safest climbing that’s possible—yet my belay hand seemed too weak, the margins too thin, the responsibility too great. I wanted to call to Chris to come down to the relative safety of the flat earth, to take our chances with the perils of I-80 and irreversible aging. But I didn’t. She was having too much fun; I was having too much fun; this is what we do.

My friend and colleague Kelly Cordes just wrote a beautiful short piece in the new Alpine Briefs about his struggle with the death of Jonny Copp this summer in China. In one passage, Kelly wrote:

…We console ourselves with talk of inspiration and memories, and how the ones we lost wouldn’t want us to be sad. We whisper wistful “if onlys,” but it remains undeniable that the risks were part of the person, as all of our experiences make us who we are—that the close calls and willingness to go came with the love and laughter and joy and inspiration, and you can not go back and remove one component from an integral whole. It was him. All of it.

I couldn’t agree more—the risks, the difficulties, the frustrations, and the joys of climbing shaped Jonny and shaped Craig, and they’ve shaped me, too. But I don’t want to die doing what I love. I want to die like Cassin, looking back on a lifetime of doing it. The lesson for me in Craig’s death—and Jonny’s and Micah’s and John Bachar’s, and so many others over the years—is not to quit climbing. The lesson is to focus more intently when I’m doing it, so I can draw even more from climbing’s infinite trials and gifts, and so, with great care and a bit of luck, I won’t die in the process.


Anonymous said...

As always, amazingly well said, Dougald.

All my best to you...climb high, climb hard, and climb safe.


Sara Lingafelter said...

Thank you. Well put, and bookmarked.

Michael Kennedy said...

Well put, Dougald. Thanks!

Rose said...

Beautifully worded! The best way to live is to do what you love... and to survive it for the ones you love.

Haliku said...

Very thought provoking and well crafted. Thank you.

Dave Chase said...

Well said Dougald. I am rather new to climbing and mountaineering. The hardest thing I have found about both is the risk related even to moderate climbs. I think your piece covered very well some of the reactions and feelings I have had in my relatively short climbing experience.

Reedster said...


Thank you for putting into words what I have thought for a while. Yea, I guess if you have to die you might choose it to be doing something you love to do, but I'd always chose to continue living and doing over dying.

I hadn't talked to Craig in quite a few years but I have thought of him often and I'm very sad to know that I won't see that infectious smile again.


Majka Burhardt said...

Nice, and difficult, post Dougald.

Unknown said...

Thanks, Dougald.

bfp said...

I am really sorry for the loss of your friend.

Rameshwar Puri said...

its really sorry to hear the loss of gr8 souls. The determination form climbing more pushes us further.