I was mid-way through my teens when I realized that not everyone in the world strove to summit peaks and climb ice walls with picks and crampons. Growing up in the Rockies meant knowing a certain type of folk, attracted to the siren-call of steep. Our neighbors and teachers, babysitters and busdrivers had come looking for Big, More and Fresh. And they lived to tell about it – mostly.
Most adventurers have some pretty scary scrapes, some great stories and a day job. But the danger is real, and not an insignificant part of the thrill. As kids, we eavesdropped on worrisome calls about avalanches and wind sheers and inclement weather up high. We knew the heroes – ski patrolmen, search and rescue folks, and docs – and we listened breathlessly to bawdy wakes in our living room when, in the end, things didn’t go as planned.
Later, at college in the flatlands of Wisconsin, I met a man (from the flatlands of Wisconsin) who possessed some recessive mountaineering gene gone awry. It was, I’m sure, what attracted me. And it was what killed him in a New Zealand avalanche a few years later. In my grief, I was fatalistic. These are the people I am bound to know.
I’ve climbed more than a few peaks in my day, but I’m cautious (which is just a dignified way of saying chicken). On fine days, with clear skies and a good map, there’s almost nothing I’d rather do than push upward, burning lungs be damned. To scrabble through scree and over boulders, to rest near icy streams, to witness the raw enormity of a mountain. But risk is not one of my governing organs. Once, near the top of a fourteener, I watched an approaching electric storm pull my sister's hair on end. We were back below tree level before the first drop fell. Mine is a lust, but not an overriding passion.
What I think I understand about the people who’ve made it – or almost, or not quite – is that their passion gives them something the rest of us can’t know. A tangible knowedge of the earth's beauty and her danger. A complex sense of power and vulnerability, of thrill and meditation. A pure and perfect high. It’s something that I, for one, have been known to envy.
Blessings on Kelly James, Brian Hall and Nikko Cooke and their families. And blessings of gratitude for the brave and thrilling people I am bound to know.