By the time you read this, I’ll be married, which for most people is a welcome event, a joyous occasion. That’s the public face I put on it, because that’s what I’m supposed to do—right? Sometimes I even believe it with all my heart. But as my future brother-in-law described my upcoming nuptials (49 days away, and ticking, as I write): “It’s a celebration for her, Pete. It’s more like a funeral,” he added with a chuckle, “for you.”
In a way I know he’s right, and statistics support that notion: In records from 2002 through 2004, America was ranked fifth-highest out of 94 countries in “crude” divorce rate (for some reason Gibraltar, Aruba and the Isle of Man beat us by over an entire percentage point). Of my close climbing friends, seven out of 10 who have been married are divorced—and I am no exception.
As the saying goes, “Once bitten, twice shy.” I was married years ago. After the rigors of divorce, I staunchly maintained my bachelor status for a dozen years or so, to the point where most of my friends pretty much gave up on ever seeing me settle down. Periodically, I’d hear speculation, often to my face, more often second-hand, that I had psychological/emotional issues, some kind of disorder, bonding issues, separation anxiety, Peter Pan Syndrome, or—this is a great one—“commitment-phobia.” Some even suggested I was gay, which was, as recently as last week, proven to be ludicrous when I personally met Viggo Mortensen and felt nothing.
Climbing—even as a hobby—extracts a tremendous amount in time, potential earning and mental energy. Getting married has a way of altering the trajectory of one’s life, and, depending on where one wants to go, it can be for the good or the bad. With climbing comes a large resource-allocation quandary. Think of it as a pie chart. You have 24 hours in a day, seven days in a week, and 52 weeks in a year. Spend eight hours per day, three days per week and 50 weeks per year going to the crag, traveling, climbing and sliding in and out of work-a-day life, and the math soon reveals that half your productive life—naturally, your vacations are climbing-related—can be spent climbing. Under the best of circumstances, marriage is tough. Throw in climbing, which creeps in and co-opts one’s life as a true obsession, and you have a recipe for domestic disaster.
History is cyclic. To believe in a unidirectional evolutionary nature of events is spectacular hubris. Is that what I am doing? I am knowingly entering a cycle that statistically points to a higher recidivism rate for second-time marriages. Psychology Today notes that 60 percent of remarriages fail. I’d bet that rate is higher for climbers—and that the more “committed” the climber, the higher the attrition rate. Only time will tell.
It’s been said that the vanity of women is to think that men will change after marriage. It’s also been said that the vanity of men is to believe that getting married is the culminating act of a life, and that after that, they’ve done their jobs and can rest on their laurels—or, better yet, the couch (or in our case, the crag or the boulders).
It’s a cruel joke of fate that with both climber-to-climber and climber-to-non-climber relationships, each progressive escalation of dating, monogamy and domesticity often yields a proportional level of misunderstanding. I can personally attribute getting married the first time to a vague yet potent notion of “doing the right thing,” and doing so to plug the leaks in a ship that was already foundering.
I guess I wasn’t done with a certain time-consuming climbing-as-lifestyle lifestyle, and had no business being married. I tried to make my honeymoon a climbing trip, to, of all places, Patagonia. Was I on crazy-pills to think that my new wife, a lukewarm recreational climber and happy peak-bagger, would find mutual romance in a sub-zero, shrieking, windswept misery fest?
The memories of the non-honeymoon (we never went to Patagonia), the ensuing debacle, the affairs and ultimate divorce are clear even though it’s been 12 years. In the interim I deliberately tried to heed history, at least its mistakes. I spent three years after my first marriage in monk-like celibacy, a punishment for real or imagined transgression. After that, I managed to dive back into a pattern of monogamy that, though serial, was so frenetically paced it earned me on at least one occasion the title of “man-whore.”
It all changed last August, when I went for a hike with my girlfriend, DeAnn, to Chasm Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park. Below the austere splendor of the Diamond, I proposed to her. DeAnn is a pediatric ER nurse who works at Denver’s Children’s Hospital. We’d been dating for a few years and the pressure was on to get engaged or get out. When we met, I never felt the cymbals clash, heard the angels sing, or registered the incandescent passion that had always accompanied that happy blush of new love. At some point I’d even tried to weasel my way out. For some reason all my traditional fallback excuses—“She’s not the one,” “I’m not ready,” “I don’t want to buy into someone’s biological time clock” and so on—didn’t quite work. We went to counseling, and like a veteran semi-sociopath I managed in less than three sessions to manipulate the interactions in such a way as to earn myself diagnoses including Borderline and Narcissistic Personality Disorders. I even pumped up the creep factor with a Freudian parallel of DeAnn’s profession being the same as my ex-wife’s (also a nurse). These extended and costly efforts could neither deconstruct DeAnn’s love, nor enable me to build a convincing enough case to conjure sufficient escape velocity. Try as I might, I could not shake the certainty that life with her was just better than life without her.
About a week after proposing, I left for the Karakoram in Pakistan. Over the years, DeAnn, a climber and Rifle aficionado whose résumé includes hard routes coast to coast and in France and Spain, had become accustomed to my long absences on trips and to near-death tales of avalanche, rockfall and whippers. Even as I was leaving, I was missing one front tooth and the ends of two others from a bad fall on the Diamond. I’d postponed the expense of dental repair in favor of an expedition, and as I departed, she looked at me—a toothless, broke, 43-year-old climbing bum who lived in a basement—with some disgust, and said, “I guess this is what I’m marrying into.”
As invariably happens, my climbing partner and I found ourselves at the mercy of bad weather for much of the trip. During one long spell, I called DeAnn via sat phone. To call America from the Karakoram is to hemorrhage money. With full knowledge that talk time was limited, DeAnn launched into an unexpected update: She’d set a wedding date, made the reservations, picked a ceremony location. I was aghast—the terms “unilateral action” and “extraordinary rendition” echoed through my head, even as the war in Afghanistan raged a mere 100 miles from where I crouched. As the reality of her words sank in, I glanced nervously across the glacier at the fearsome, storm-beaten, serac-draped spike of granite that was our climbing objective. Suddenly, the peak didn’t look so threatening. I walked into the cook tent and announced that on August 23rd, at 4:00 p.m. I was to be married at Snow Mountain Ranch, north of Fraser, Colorado, in a ceremony attended by 150 of our family and closest friends. My partner Steve, the cook and our basecamp manager listened—and burst into laughter.
I had a few days of tent-bound reflection before the next phone conversation. The weather was still appalling. Before I could launch into a condemnation of what I saw as her flagrant disregard of any chance of “domestic policy oversight” by me, DeAnn said, on a different note, “Don’t act on any silly ideas that this is your last trip. I don’t want you to take any stupid risks from feeling under pressure. I know how you are and I am telling you, you can always go back.” I was speechless. From halfway across the world, I had been granted an unsolicited gift, all I’ve ever wanted—to be free to risk my life in pursuit of something beautiful and useless, climbing. It was a bargain at $15 per minute.
I hope and believe that marrying DeAnn is true reciprocity, that practical necessity easily forgotten in the fog of first love. It also helps that I’m older now, have gotten a few more climbing bugs out of my system, and have even learned a thing or two. If freedom is what I value, then giving a bit of my personal freedom and altering my life’s path is a gift to her—my expression of trust and love.
This year, after DeAnn’s and my wedding ceremony in the Colorado high country, I’m going to Sikkim, the thumb of land between Nepal and Bhutan that rises from tropical jungle to 8,000 meters. This time my honeymoon is not planned around something I want to climb, but rather, something we can share, a few weeks of trekking.
Pete Takeda’s book An Eye at the Top of the World was recently optioned by Hollywood. Part of his entrée into the film world, as a co-producer, was visiting the filming set of The Road. That’s where he passed the Viggo test.
Ever a climber, however, Takeda has just gotten his teeth fixed in Mexico, “saving thousands,” except that his discount permanent bridge has just cracked. We wish the happy couple, especially DeAnn, all luck.