JLWS: Dying Lights
The phone rang, and my 2-year-old daughter looked toward the noise. Leaving her side, I picked up.
It was Doug.
“Hey, man. What’s up? How are you?”
“I’ve been better.”
“I don’t know how to tell you this.” His voice cracked, and he paused for several long seconds. “Seth was killed in Alaska yesterday.”
It was May, 2000. A serac had collapsed near Mt. Johnson in the Ruth Gorge. The phone receiver cold in my hand, I tried to absorb the details—why, how, with whom. Our friend Tim Wagner had escaped the serac fall with a broken leg. The rangers said that tons of unstable debris had buried Seth. There would be no body retrieval.
A numbness crept into my chest. The sick feeling, the tightness in my sternum: so familiar. Only six months earlier, our friend Alex Lowe had been swept away in an avalanche on Shishapangma, in Tibet.
Seth Shaw, Doug Heinrich and I had all worked at a local Salt Lake mountain shop, had guided and climbed together for over a decade. We had swung leads from Zion to Yosemite, held each others’ lives a hundred times.
The recitation of cold facts gave way to a mutual pause.
“I can’t believe he’s gone,” I mumbled. I held the tears back until after our goodbye.
What ephemeral medium is a soul? It is the thing that is best in us one minute, and seconds later escapes like a cooling mist through crushing blue blocks of ice. What kind of vehicle can carry a spirit so strong, bold and caring? The vessel of 38 years of compassion and love now cools—literally on ice.
A week later I met Sue Nott for the first time in Camp 4 during a soul-searching visit to Yosemite. She was looking for partners, and I had just lost one.
Sue was sponsored by the same brand that had supported Seth’s climbing career, and the two had just begun working and climbing together at events and photo shoots.
“He was always up for anything. No grumbling. No hesitation,” she recalled. I nodded in silent agreement, and remembered how he was never shy about thrashing up a flared desert crack with suspect gear.
I mentioned that the Steck-Salathé on Sentinel was one of Seth’s favorite climbs, and it turned out that neither Sue nor I had done it. We decided it would make a worthy homage the next day.
The morning started late, and we racked up hastily at Sue’s rust-speckled home, the “tan van.” She crashed around inside upending milk crates, looking for gear.
“I’m really low on cams,” she said nonchalantly. “We had to bail off in a thunderstorm the other day. I probably left $400 worth of gear.”
We wound up with a his-and-hers rack and began hiking. Shaded and north-facing, Sentinel loomed over the meadows of Yosemite like a tombstone. I thought of how Seth’s eyes twinkled as he described the Steck-Salathé.
Was it really a worthy climb, or was he sandbagging me?
Sue walked beside me, her quick short strides keeping pace with my lanky ones. I was amused that her clothes were more Roxy girl, or surf-skate, than the sturdy technical ones I wore. She chattered away, bringing me up to speed on all the sick lines she wanted to climb.
Upon our mid-morning arrival at the base, we performed the routines of putting on tape, shoes and rack. Unroped, we headed up the long sloping ramp that guarded the start. Two climbers passed us, already descending.
“Going up the Steck-Salathé?”
“Kind of a late start. Know what you’re getting into?”
The two returnees continued down, shaking their helmeted heads. Sue and I, probably foolishly without headgear, said nothing. Doubling my pace, I burned to the base of the climb. Fuck it. Like a sailor breaks his gaze from the shore and turns out to sea, I tied in and started climbing.
The first few pitches of the route slid by easily. Then I was forced into a deep cleft with barely enough room for my torso, mashing face and arms and ass against stone. I fought for friction. Cold air blew from deep inside the mountain, smelling of dust and ancient shadows. I emerged from the squeeze and reveled to be standing again in the daylight.
Two pitches later our route map slipped from Sue’s pocket and swirled away. We now had no topo, no roadmap. Fifteen hundred feet of granite still stood above, and we had no idea which way to go. We could only rely on our climbing instincts and each other. Sue looked up at me in concern.
“Should we bail?” she said, her voice edged with guilt.
I muttered Seth’s favorite line about any mishap or impending epic: “Aww, it’s not that bad.”
I led on, over shattered stone, the plates of granite shifting with a gritty rumble. For pitch after pitch we wove between options, continually asking ourselves, Are we off-route?
Then telltale marks of passage—a cluster of scratchy, bleached webbing around a tree, or a piton slammed in a corner—would appear.
Watching Sue climb, I was reminded of Seth. She was small in stature but harbored abundant muscular power, as he had. She smiled as she followed over a bulge.
“Never a doubt.”
Her white smile eased some of my anxiety.
We summited onto the Flying Buttress, a little island of horizontal ground halfway up the route, laughing in the sun. Sue handed me some mashed cherry-flavored bar. I offered her a pocket-warmed chocolate granola bar. We washed them down with a sip of precious water from our one-liter bottle. Our day pack didn’t hold much. We had felt the fast-and-light approach would have met with Seth’s approval.
The Narrows were the crux. This black chasm in Sentinel contained little protection and, without our topo, an abundance of uncertainty. Stemming out of the bombay fissure, I tried to decide where to go next. Climb the gaping chimney? Or exit the chimney and climb the exposed face outside?
The rope at my waist hung in a lazy arc, swooping back 30 feet to the belay, where Sue watched nervously. With each move I made, a faint sine wave rolled along the slender blue nylon rope from my knot to Sue’s hands and back again.
As the distance between us gaped, I felt a fight-or-flight moment coming. But no need: A narrow crack at the very farthest extent of the chimney provided some gear and showed me the way out. I paused, relaxed—my feet straddling a void of 2,000 feet of air. Thirty feet higher I set a belay, from which I then enjoyed Sue’s subsequent struggles. She might be working hard, but she was safe. I kept the rope snug to instill confidence.
The instinct to keep moving tapped me on the shoulder. Daylight slid away over the summit of El Capitan. Like a scarf drawn over a lamp, the line between sun and shadow ran up the wall.
Sue led the final pitch to the summit, and I hurriedly joined her, saying, “Ha! On top before dark!”
My words were edged with anxiety, as the sunset over El Cap turned to rust. We grabbed a quick summit snapshot, the growing darkness enough to trigger the camera’s flash, and swigged the last of our water. Sue headed off to find the descent route.
Momentarily alone, I pulled a battered oval carabiner stamped with Seth’s initials off my rack and placed it on the summit block. It had appeared in a gear sort, just before I left for the Valley.
Descent from Sentinel was the antithesis of climbing—crouching, crawling, inelegant movement. We were uncoordinated, Sue going her way, me trying another path through the dense undergrowth. Where there had been the chore- ography of lead and follow, now there were only discord and confusion. Twilight disappeared before our descent was five minutes old. Turning on our one headlamp, I adjusted the circle of light to cast as wide a beam as possible. Like rabbits we scurried through manzanita tunnels, slipping and sliding on the dusty, silvery bronze leaves, slick as waxed paper. Finally we spotted a cairn of small granite stones marking the top of the true descent gully.
The descent-route cleft in the flank of Sentinel was steep, filled with precariously perched boulders. Dangerously slick and water-polished, the slabs between the boulders were loaded with ball-bearing-like granite peas. Downward progress was like walking through a minefield. We considered rappelling from a scrawny tree barely rooted in a crack, but decided it would be yet more dangerous. We had been a team, tied together in a clear process of leading and seconding. Now we acted like two exhausted contestants at a marathon dance contest–who was the leader was always in question. The shadow of Sentinel loomed over our left shoulders, impartial, unwilling to recede.
Our thirst grew. Our climbing shoes were tight and painful, every step a little punch in the toenails. Down climb, stop, look back and shine light. Sue down climbed to me, and it all repeated again.
Out of nowhere, a rain fell, colder than the night air. I started to shiver. After what seemed like an hour, we paused on a tiny ledge. The rain had stopped, but our breath was visible in the cooling air. I turned out the headlamp. For the moment we were secure in our immobility, our wet clothing steaming in the stillness. A star shot across the cobalt sky.
Sue asked, “Do you know any constellations?”
“My dad taught me some. There’s Scorpio and the Pleiades.” I pointed, trying to sound confident and knowing, as though childhood memories of a summer’s eve in my father’s lap could help me navigate through the cold darkness we faced.
“We should get going,” I said.
I turned on my headlamp. It glowed for a moment, then faded to a weak yellow. I snapped off the light, trying to stay the loss. In the last second I caught Sue’s gaze, her wide brown eyes growing larger. My body felt impossibly heavy.
The gully ahead remained steep, filled with water-smoothed stone and unseen drop-offs. Wet, slick granite is perilous even in daylight. We sat next to each other, unmoving on our one-foot-wide ledge.
Minutes passed. Sue broke the silence in a soft voice.
“I didn’t feel much of Seth today,” she said. “I thought I would.”
My heart beat faster. I reached out in the dark to find her hand, scarred and roughened by stone, but warm and powerful.
“I’m glad we did it. A week ago, I don’t know. I hated climbing.”
“You and Seth climb a lot alike. You don’t back down,” Sue said, squeezing my hand.
“I can’t believe he’s gone.”
My eyes filled, and I choked on a sob. With chalky hands Sue tried to wipe the tears from my face. My pupils dilated, I could make out her smile and the wet glint of tears behind her windblown hair.
“I gotta cut this out. We’re already wet enough.”
Sue laughed. “I guess we should go for it.”
A beam of moonlight appeared between thinning clouds and bounced off white granite, creating a pool of faint illumination. Buoyed by the small amount of light, I began my first move onto the slick granite. I turned to see Sue take a step, like me surrendering to the unknown.
Where do our souls go when we die? What happens to the memories of youthful friends doing crazy, bold things and getting away with it? Do the images leak into the ground, running like meltwater? Or are they like a lightbulb attached to a dying battery; fading into amber hues, narrowing its spectrum, until a pinprick of light disappears?
A few years later, the phone rang again. Sue Nott and her partner Karen McNeill, ages 36 and 37, had disappeared on the Infinite Spur, Mount Foraker, the Alaska Range. What happened remains unknown, and only their footprints were ever found.
Drew Bedford is a Salt Lake area writer, producer, avid first ascensionist and former U.S. Climbing Team member. In 2018, he participated in the the John Long Writing Symposium, an annual writing workshop run by Rock and Ice.