I pulled into our driveway and my daughter Piper ran out the door. She’d been waiting for this day for a couple of weeks.
“Did you get Brooklyn’s ashes?” Piper asked when I stepped out of the truck. Our dog had died a couple of weeks earlier.
“I did,” I said.
“Can I see them?”
“Do you want to bring them inside?”
“I will be veeerrry careful!” she said. She could hardly contain her excitement. Only four-year-olds can’t contain their excitement.
I pulled out the ashes: 120 pounds of our best friend cremated down to about seven pounds of dust, wrapped in plastic and placed inside a velvet sack with a drawstring. I handed Piper the doggie bag.
As she walked through the front door, carefully carrying the ashes and not missing a beat, she busted out the anthem we sang any time our dog lumbered into a room.
“Brooklyn’s here! Have no fear! Our very best dog, Brooklyn is here.”
You gotta hand it to her … her comedic timing is spot on.
After my friend Hayden Kennedy’s death—Hayden, of course, was the great, young alpinist and all-around rock star climber who could easily be called the best climber of his generation—I began tracking where his ashes were sent. Hayden’s parents entrusted those ashes to the care of some of the world’s best climbers—the brotherhood and sisterhood of the rope. It was a tribe of soulful folks with diverse backgrounds and disparate interests, but whose common thread was a love of mountains and adventure and sucking marrow out of all the bones life throws our way.
Hayden’s ashes continue to find their way around the world. They’ve been spread on the summit of Castleton, Hayden’s first climb, which he did with his dad, Michael, when he was 13, to all over Europe, South America, the Himalaya, Patagonia, and even to some of the most difficult summits of Antarctica.
“I don’t understand,” my friend Chris said, “Hayden was so skinny. How could there be so many ashes?”
Some of the funniest jokes are born of death—even the ones that are so painful you can’t breathe.
As a climber, I’ve taken pride in believing this sport is engineered to endow its adherents with a certain armor against all the disquieting moments of existence. After all, climbing can be a way to practice facing fear, coping with adversity, pushing yourself through hardship, or just learning how to stay present in the face of difficulty, whether that means having the ability to center your mind around a single quiet moment at a rest spot on your project, or the ability to sit in a Zen-like state of patience while waiting for the right conditions in base camp.
Learning to face the uncertainty of the next pitch on a frightening wall is an investment climbers can tap into when we’re facing something like the uncertainty of life under a global pandemic.
Climbing teaches us to find ease in the paradox of when to hold on and when to let go, and ultimately how to do both at the same time. It’s a path to learn how to receive all the transcendent gifts of the natural world, and realize that those moments are only worth experiencing when they’re shared in the presence of your favorite climbing partners.
I’ve heard many climbers say that the longer you climb, the longer your list of dead friends gets. Indeed, being a climber means learning how to grieve lives that are constantly getting cut short.
Brooklyn’s heart stopped working the day before Piper turned four. We’d known this day was coming since she was 10 weeks old and the vet diagnosed a sub-aortic stenosis, a genetic condition common to some larger dogs. It’s a defective ticker. But what are you gonna do? Give a 10-week-old puppy away to someone else? Hell no.
I was surprised by how hard it was to lose Brooklyn, given that she’s a dog, given that I always knew this day was coming, and given that I had lost so many close friends in recent years. I felt I had been adequately training to not be so dismantled by these kinds of difficult moments.
[Also Read Climbing Grief Fund Announces New Grant (Now Open) For Climbers Impacted By Grief, Loss, Trauma]
Climbing might be called an embodiment of modern-day Stoicism, the philosophical movement advanced by the ancient Greeks, which, among other things, helped its followers foster resilience to the impermanence of things. Epictetus (c. 50–135 AD) taught that grief can be overcome by orienting ourselves not only to the impermanence of existence, but by centering our attention on all the wonderful moments preceding death, such that when we find ourselves in its presence we can be happy and grateful to have ever experienced all the good times.
I complained about this on the phone to my friend Steph Davis, who has experienced more than her share of loss—more than she or anyone deserves, but especially she. As a good friend, Steph called when she heard the news about Brooklyn.
“I really thought I was going to handle this better,” I said, alluding to the fact that death in climbing is such an ever-present part of our reality. Steph promptly squashed my Stoic fantasy.
“Actually, it doesn’t ever get easier,” she said. Nothing followed that statement. No “But…” and then some sagely stoical wisdom.
Just, “Actually, it doesn’t ever get easier.”
Grief is precisely as painful as it is. No more and no less. In that sense, climbing does offer a useful preparation for something like grief. Routes are precisely as hard as they are, and there are no shortcuts to sending. There’s only the experience of climbing the route. You can’t sidestep it. You have to go through it. I get that.
I’m volunteering my time to help with the American Alpine Club’s Climbing Grief Fund. I’m joining the AAC for the weekly Clubhouse Live broadcast tonight, May 28th, at 6 p.m. MDT. I’ll be speaking with fellow writer Ashley Shires, a registered psychotherapist from Boulder. Our presentation is called “Writing Through Grief,” and we’ll be talking about how writing can be an amazing tool for processing this experience. This link has more details on how to watch this free online presentation.