Facing Death In The Mountains

They told us someone died on Kyajo Ri a week before we had arrived.  But the Tibetan monks at the monastery didn’t have any exacting information.  Only that it was a father and son and the father got injured.  The son tried to carry him out but the father died.  They had seen the helicopter come and take away the body and land near their monastery in the high reaches of the Himalayas.  This wasn’t Everest basecamp where news travels at the speed of the internet over satellite uplinks.  This was a more remote area visited by few and climbed by even less.

It was an ominous start to a climb even before we reached our basecamp.  Knowing someone had perished while trying to reach the same peak we were about to climb, and not a very popular mountain at that, sat in the back of my mind.  It took a bit of the excitement that comes with a climb, of being some place remote and new (to me), and toned it down a little.  It was also a great reminder in that sense.  I’ve seen it thousands of times on climbing gear, at the gym, at competitions, on waiver forms, “Climbing is Dangerous!”.  Oh yeah, that’s right.

But without reliable information that’s all it was, a warning.  Climbers like to have specific information, or beta, on a route especially if there is danger.  Most of us are not some cavalier crowd who throw caution to the wind and spit in the face of Fate.  Most of us like to stack the odds in our favor because, quite frankly, we do want to return home some day and see those we love.  We climb because we love it and we want to keep on doing it.  More information on the dangerous parts, please.  What kind of protection is best? What’s the avalanche danger in that gully?  And so on.

Drat.  No specifics on where the accident happened, what happened or how it happened.  Just a warning in the back of our heads, typically in a parental tone, “Be careful!”  But like most kids listening to their parents, that warning fades a bit with time.  After weeks on the mountain getting acclimated and going on some ice climbs near basecamp, I can’t hear the voice that much.  Actually, I don’t really recall it at all.

We ascend the mountain over the course of days, passing 15,000′, 16,000′, 17,000′.  And the labor of our efforts narrows my focus.  The lack of oxygen too, all of it working to shrink my world a little so I forget about what happened before and only see what is in front of me.  That is, until what is in front of me is exactly what has happened before.

We reached the accident scene in the afternoon with a light snow falling and a wind coming up the steep scree slope we were picking our way through.  Some rocks as big as VW Bugs.  Many much,  much smaller and loose under foot.  And on a few of those rocks lay a bloodied backpack, sleeping bag, frozen glove, ropes, sun glasses, a book in Danish with pages ripped out.  Confusion.  Carter and John reached it before I did but I knew what it was before I got the word from them.  It looked out of place amongst the burnt tans of the rock.  By the time I reached the scene they had moved on and I studied it, trying to figure out what happened.  Trying to learn.  Feeling deep sorrow for the son who watched his father die.

I looked up slope and there was evidence of some sliding around, disturbed rock and gravel.  Maybe the father was struck on the head?  John pointed out later that the glove was covered in blood and hair, almost as if the father was holding his head after some trauma.  There was no helmet to be found.  The two climbing ropes lay out as if removed from the pack.  The sleeping bag was a bit lower and in something of a flat spot.  Did the son need to keep his father warm over night before heading down?  Ripped out pages of the book were scattered around the sleeping bag but the book itself was seven feet away and higher up.  Was there a reason for that?  The sunglasses seemed to indicate the accident may have happened later in the day.  But it’s all just a guessing game on my part. I’m only looking at the aftermath.

I continue up and vow to not become another statistic of the mountain this trip.  I want to see my daughter again.  All this climbing of mountains seems like such useless shit in the moments after passing the scene (and on the way down the next day).  But it’s not, for me, and I know it.  It’s just deadly sometimes.

I thought about the son after seeing the pack.  I almost went through the pack to see if there might be something of sentiment he might have wanted from his father’s pack.  But I doubt it because I’m not eager to disturb anything.  I know he would have been eager to get down and would have left behind many things (although his pack is no where to be seen, so he must have taken it down).  But the thought stuck with me, “Should I check to see if there is anything he might want?”  John says I’m a better man than him as he was eyeing the ropes (fairly new) thinking they might be of use.  I admit to eyeing the sunglasses as mine had broke.  But it felt wrong to both of us to take from a tragedy.  While at the time a question pops into my head, “When does ‘sacred’ items left on a mountain just become trash?”  To someone arriving a year or two later than us, with no knowledge of what happened, it may just look like someone forgot a cache and is cluttering up the mountain.  When, if ever, does the sacredness of the scene of a death wear off, if it was ever there to start with?

These are questions I hadn’t expected to be struggling with on the mountain.  I had a sack full of my own, I didn’t need others.  But mountains don’t care who you are, they treat us all the same.  And I still turn those questions around in my mind, sitting at home, warm, in front of a computer.  Far away from Nepal.  Far away from a lesson I feel I should be learning but still fail to grasp.

Maybe the next mountain will reveal the rest of the lesson.  It’s almost time to pack, I should go now.

2 Replies to “Facing Death In The Mountains”

  1. John Miller

    Very thoughtful and well written Peter. I think the practical things we can glean from this are 1) wear a helmet 2) learn to move fast on easy terrain 3) don’t travel under glaciers in the heat of the day and 4) it’s random– you have to be prepared to accept the fact that you could die doing this. THat being said, none of my climbing partners have died climbing, though many have been hurt. The more time spent out there, the greater the chances of something like that happening, but also you get more skilled with every hour accrued spent in practice.

    The intangible lessons are those of impermanence perhaps and about the fragility of life which should lead us to live and love in every moment, because we have not a second to spare.

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  2. Julie Broadbent

    Very well written. I find myself getting anxious – feeling scared – when I read this. I don’t know how you do it. Thank you for sharing your adventure(s) and most importantly your thoughts that those adventures evoke.

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