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TNB: Thoughts On Death, and Last Words

04-Feb-2014
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I have been thinking about death. Not because the Broncos were stomped like floor mats on Sunday, or because I have a premonition that I am about to die, or because it is ice-climbing season, but because Saturday evening I heard Dr. Ralph Stanley sing, a cappella, “O Death,” at the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen. His rendition, if you haven’t heard it, is as chilling as a graveyard. Now 86 years old and soon to turn 87, Dr. Stanley is the Fred Beckey of bluegrass and country music—no one else has had such a long career or is as accomplished. When he asks death to “spare me over ‘till another year,” I imagine he actually means it.

It is good for climbers to think of death—the absence of life is a simple mistake away and if you climb much, or long, you will have partners, friends, acquaintances go to the hills and never return.

I have on occasion wondered what people who have been close to the eternal fire think about it. In 2009, I asked the Slovenian alpinist and soloist Tomaz Humar if he was afraid to die. Humar, who was with Jeglec when he disappeared on Nuptse, who had soloed the South Face of Annapurna and been rescued from the Rupal Face of Nanga Parbat after spending six days in a snow cave, said that he had a magical “third eye” that watched out for him. He wasn’t especially troubled by thoughts of death, he said. He was protected. Later that year he was dead, taken by a solo fall on the technical 7,000-meter Langtang Lirung in the Himalaya.

A few years ago I posed the question to Reinhold Messner, thinking that when he stood alone and without oxygen on the cold summit of Everest in 1980, he must have considered that he might not make it back down alive. With no other climber on the mountain at that time, he was as far removed from life as you could get, yet not be dead.

Without pause, Messner paraphrased the Greek philosopher Epicurus, saying he did not fear death because he had not feared birth. “I had a few moments that I was near to death,” said Messner. “It is interesting to feel that dying is the most simple thing … but if you are really at your end it’s like ‘OK I am happy that it is over.’”

Not everyone shares the sentiment. Martin Boysen, when he had his knee stuck in a wide crack—the Fissure Boysen— during the first ascent of Trango Tower in 1976, wrote that when he realized that he was beyond rescue and that the approaching nightfall would bring his death, he “choked out a single sob, the distillation of my despair. I would never again see my daughter Katie, my wife Maggie; never smell the warmth of love and life. I would miss everything, utterly.”

Boysen lived, of course, to write his account, Last Trango, for Mountain magazine.

Still other climbers have taken delight in or at least made light of death. Or more precisely of other people’s dates with the reaper. Don Whillans was notorious for mocking death. On the Eiger North Face with Tom Patey in the early 1960s, Whillans and Patey came across a boot low on the face. “Look and see if there’s a foot in it,” Whillans declared, adding “You might as well get used to them now, this is where they usually glance off, before they hit the bottom.”

Higher on the Eiger, Whillans and Patey elected to retreat due to heavy rockfall. Coming across a team of Japanese climbers bent on making the first Eiger ascent for their country, Whillans asked them if they were, “Going —up?”

Yes, the Japanese replied, “Always upward.”

“You may be going up Mate,” said Whillans, in Patey’s account A Short Walk With Whillans, “but a lot ‘igher than you think.”

Patey, a doctor and one of climbing’s greatest wits, perished a few years later while rappelling from The Maiden, a seastack off Whiten Head on the Sutherland coast of Britian. Whillans fared better, but, a heavy drinker and notoriously overweight, he succumbed to a heart attack at 52, in 1985.

When time had permitted, others have left haunting last words. The great Chamoniard alpinist Georges Bettembourt (32) was struck by stones on the Aiguille Verte near his home while searching for crystals. Roped to the face with three friends he heard the rockfall coming and reportedly said to his companions, “Gentlemen, this one is for us.”

The Italian soloist Renato Casarotto fell into a creavasse while descending from an attempt on the unclimbed Magic Line on K2. “Goretta, I have fallen,” he radioed to his wife in basecamp only 20 minutes away. “I am dying. Please send help. Quickly!”

“The Last Kiss,” were the last words of Johnny Waterman, who disappeared on Denali in the early 1980s, presumably a suicide by climbing.

In 1960, Yosemite saw its first climbing death when high school junior Irving Smith, bent on becoming the youngest to scale Lost Arrow Spire, fell out of a rappel while trying to get into the Arrow Notch. He plunged 500 feet before lodging in the Arrow Chimney. NPS rangers, judging his body inaccessible, closed the Arrow to climbing for a year. Steve Roper, with Yvon Chouinard, was eventually the first on the scene, coming across Smith’s shriveled remains.

His words to Chouinard?

“Goddamn it! His parka doesn’t fit me!”

Finally, we have the words of Toni Kurz, who had already cut loose the bodies of his two companions, killed by storm on the Eiger North Face. (A third ropemate, Andreas Hinterstoisser, had fallen to his demise earlier in the day.) Only a few meters from his rescuers, Kurz got a knot in his rope jammed in the rappel. Weak, and with one hand frozen solid, he was unable to unweight the rappel and clear the knot. “I can do no more,” he said, and slumped over dead.

I’ll leave you to ponder that.

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