Life lessons from the an­nus hor­ri­bilis of 2017.



TO FUNC­TION IN THIS WORLD, we need a foun­da­tion. For me, it’s climb­ing, a so- called “high- risk sport.” It’s given me struc­ture and de­fined my pri­or­i­ties. I’ve learned from those who have gone be­fore me, from their lega­cies and mistakes. Climb­ing has given my hus­band and me a com­mu­nity that we con­sider fam­ily. Es­sen­tially, climb­ing has given me life. And yet, in 2017, I also learned how much the climb­ing life can take away. In late May of last year, friend and East Side leg­end Matt “Honky” Cian­cio died in a sky­div­ing ac­ci­dent in Lodi, Cal­i­for­nia, when his para­chute failed to de­ploy prop­erly. He’d moved to the East­ern Sierra from his na­tive Con­necti­cut in 2005. I met Honky in sum­mer 2009 in Tuolumne. Dressed in over­sized sweat­pants and a raggedy Char­lie Brown Christ­mas shirt, he seemed like a couch potato, but my ad­mi­ra­tion for him grew over time. Over the years, I saw Matt in the Sierra con­stantly. In Yosemite, he sent an in-a-day link-up of The Cru­ci­fix (V 5.12b), Astro

man (V 5.11c), and the Rostrum (IV 5.11c); plus, he ticked pretty much ev­ery route on the Sierra’s In­cred­i­ble Hulk—where he gar­nered the nick­name “The Mayor.” His draws hung on hard sport routes through­out the Owens River Val­ley, at Bear Crag, and at Tioga Cliff. His hu­mil­ity, hu­mor, and can­dor set him apart, and our friend­ship grew as we shared our undy­ing stoke.

Ad­di­tion­ally, Honky was also an avid BASE jumper, and had jumped nearly ev­ery Val­ley for­ma­tion he’d climbed. Though he en­gaged in risky be­hav­ior, Matt also mit­i­gated the risks, some­times hik­ing down off Half Dome or El Cap when winds were wrong.

“Is all this risk worth it?” fel­low East Side climbers asked in the weeks fol­low­ing Matt’s death. With his death came an aware­ness, a raw­ness, a swell of fear that threat­ened to crash upon us. Yet Matt hadn’t died climb­ing; he hadn’t even died BASE jump­ing, which, ac­cord­ing to wing­suit­, causes 1 death per 500–1000 jumps. No, he’d been sky­div­ing, which only causes 1 death per 100,000 jumps. It had been a freak ac­ci­dent.

Ad­ven­ture seek­ers—and their au­di­ences—have been pon­der­ing risk since time im­memo­rial. Some em­brace it, while oth­ers search for their life jack­ets—cling­ing to this idea that if we “play it safe,” we’re pro­tected from chaos. Af­ter Matt’s death, I won­dered what value there was in ques­tion­ing risk. No mat­ter how much philo­soph­i­cal energy we put into it, the facts re­main that shit hap­pens and we can’t con­trol all the vari­ables. Per­haps I’d be safer if I went

boul­der­ing, I mused, but then I re­mem­bered that most of my in­juries had been from boul­der­ing. I spi­raled down fur­ther—what was I re­ally afraid of: death or bro­ken bones?

IN MAY 2010, af­ter a late-spring storm, I hiked up the East Ledges of El Cap­i­tan with Hay­den Kennedy, the then-19-year-old son of the alpin­ist and for­mer ed­i­tor of Climb­ing Mag­a­zine, Michael Kennedy, and Julie Kennedy, long­time climber and founder of 5Point Film Fes­ti­val. Our plan was to rap into Golden Gate, a route we’d been rained off ear­lier that year. As we nav­i­gated muddy trails and wet ramps, we de­cided to short­cut a steep slab in­stead of cut­ting back through the man­zanita. At 6’ 2”, Hay­den’s gait dwarfed my own 5’ pedal, and I strug­gled to keep up. I smeared my ap­proach shoes around wet rock and used my hands to steady my­self as Hay­den dis­ap­peared over a slop­ing bulge above. Things felt sketchy to me, but he’d waltzed up it. I thought I was just be­ing a weeny. Then my foot slipped. I pressed against the wet slab try­ing to grab any­thing, and then … whoosh! I was on a wa­ter­slide, plum­met­ing to­ward the 2,000-foot drop off the south­east face of El Cap.

Af­ter 50 feet, slid­ing faster and faster to­ward the abyss, I spot­ted a small, boul­der-strewn ledge. I jumped off the slab, aim­ing for the ledge; as I con­nected with it, the mo­men­tum slammed me into the gran­ite. I landed, crum­pling into an adren­a­line-filled pile as water poured down my back.

A minute later, Hay­den reached me. “Holy shit, I thought you died!” he said, his eyes wild. He held my shoul­ders as blood poured from my head. My jaw felt bro­ken. Ev­ery­thing hurt, but I was rel­a­tively OK. I couldn’t be­lieve I’d stuck the ledge—it had been a last-ditch ef­fort.

Hay­den took my pack and as­sisted me back down to the Val­ley floor. He waited with me for two hours at the Yosemite Med­i­cal Clinic where I re­ceived 17 stitches in my scalp and was di­ag­nosed with a par­tially torn MCL, two dis­lo­cated ribs, and some road rash. An ex­cep­tional climber, Hay­den

ex­celled at hard sport and trad routes, but he shined bright­est in the moun­tains, with first as­cents in Pak­istan on K7 and Ogre 1, and in the Keke­tuo­hai Na­tional Park of China. In 2012, he and Ja­son Kruk made their “fair-means” (no-bolts) as­cent of the Com­pres­sor Route on Cerro Torre, dur­ing which they no­to­ri­ously chopped more than 100 of Ce­sare Maestri’s bolts dur­ing the de­scent.

But in the last year, he had moved away from alpin­ism, choos­ing to set­tle down with his part­ner, Inge Perkins. The idea of risk­ing his life in the moun­tains had lost its ap­peal. In­stead, he took EMT courses in Boze­man, Mon­tana. On Oc­to­ber 7, 2017, he and Inge trig­gered an avalanche while ski­ing on Imp Peak. The snow buried Inge and par­tially buried Hay­den. He dug him­self out and searched for her, but to no avail. Af­ter what I can only imag­ine to be fran­tic search­ing with him oc­ca­sion­ally yelling, “This is so fucked!”, he re­turned home, left a de­tailed note on where Inge could be found, and then took his own life.

My hus­band, Ben, and I had as­sumed we’d all grow old to­gether. Hay­den had be­come a lit­tle brother to Ben and I, and his death hit us hard. With his sui­cide, a piece of us dis­ap­peared, an in­te­gral part of the pic­ture for­ever blurred.

ONE WEEK AF­TER Hay­den’s pass­ing, Rocky Moun­tain Na­tional Park climb­ing ranger and badass big-wall queen Quinn Brett fell 100 feet while speed climb­ing the Nose of El Cap­i­tan with Josie McKee. In an in­ter­view af­ter­ward, she re­called, “My mind was def­i­nitely dis­tracted on this pitch.” Com­pla­cency kills, as they say, but in this in­stance Quinn didn’t per­ish. How­ever, she broke four ribs, punc­tured a lung, bruised her liver, and shat­tered her scapula and her twelfth tho­racic ver­te­bra, the lat­ter leav­ing her par­a­lyzed from the waist down.

About two weeks later, Brad Go­bright and Jim Reynolds, us­ing sim­i­lar tac­tics, broke the Nose record. The me­dia ex­ploded. Climb­ing felt like The Hunger Games, in which each par­tic­i­pant bat­tles to the death as the pub­lic watches from home. In this case, one team ex­pe­ri­enced tragedy; the other, vic­tory. It all felt so ran­dom and un­fair.

But this is life. The re­al­ity is that we’re all frag­ile and all mor­tal— the older you get and the longer you climb, the more you’ll ex­pe­ri­ence this. Through­out the years, I’ve lost many friends. In 2014 and 2015, Yosemite climbers Sean “Stan­ley” Leary, Dean Pot­ter, and Gra­ham Hunt all died BASE jump­ing. Honky died sky­div­ing. Inge died in an avalanche. Hay­den, rather than live with the all-con­sum­ing grief, killed him­self. Quinn’s life will be for­ever changed. All are climbers who’ve taken risks, and they all faced se­vere—and even the ul­ti­mate— con­se­quences. So, should we take risks or should we live cau­tiously? Should we forgo our dreams be­cause we could get hurt or die? No one has the an­swer, and that’s why it’s so hard to grasp.

“Routes ticked, cruxes over­come, and sum­mits achieved can be su­per mean­ing­ful, but they’re also not the most im­por­tant things in life,” Hay­den wrote at Evening Sends shortly be­fore his death. “The true, last­ing mean­ing… is found in the friend­ships and part­ner­ships that we build while pur­su­ing our climb­ing goals.” If I weren’t a climber, I would not have the life—and com­mu­nity—I have to­day. Had I taken the road more trav­eled, I would have risked miss­ing out on a full, rich ex­is­tence. No mat­ter the choices, life is fleet­ing; we find mean­ing in the face of our mor­tal­ity by re­al­iz­ing our po­ten­tial, pur­su­ing our dreams, and forming con­nec­tions with peo­ple and places along the way. I have found no bet­ter way to do this than climb­ing.

Poet Rupi Kaur per­haps put it best: “We have been dy­ing since we got here and for­got to en­joy the view. Live fully.”

KATIE LAM­BERT is a pro­fes­sional climber based out of a van in Cal­i­for­nia’s Sierra Ne­vada with her hus­band, pho­tog­ra­pher Ben Ditto. Lam­bert has climbed for more than 20 years on ev­ery­thing from boul­ders to big walls.

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