Sometimes achieving your dream comes with a price others must pay
Sometimes achieving your dream comes with a price others must pay
Sometimes achieving your dream comes with a price others must pay (Getty Images)
Maria Coffey

The Survivors

"He died doing what he loved best," they always say. But when climbers meet their end on the high peaks, the ordeal is just beginning for their wives, husbands, children, parents, and friends. An exclusive excerpt from Where the Mountain Casts Its Shadow

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They wouldn't tell me Joe was dead—not at first. “Disappeared” is what they said. Lost without a trace on a knife edge of ice and snow at 27,000 feet. Last seen on the evening of May 17, 1982. I was 30 then. Joe Tasker, my boyfriend of two and a half years, was on a British expedition attempting Everest's then-unclimbed Northeast Ridge. Thirty-four years old, he was one of Britain's climbing stars, with a number of new Himalayan routes to his credit, including the north ridge of 28,169-foot Kanchenjunga, on the border of India and Nepal, and the west face of India's 22,520-foot Changabang. With him on the ridge that day was his frequent partner, 31-year-old Pete Boardman, who, in 1975, had become the youngest man, and one of the first Brits, to summit Everest.

Joe and Pete set off from advance base camp, at 21,000 feet, on the morning of May 15. Monitored via telescope by expedition leader Chris Bonington and base camp manager Adrian Gordon, they climbed higher for two days, without supplemental oxygen. As the light faded on May 17, they moved out of sight, behind a pinnacle on the ridge. They never reappeared.

The news blew my life to pieces. For months I staggered from day to day, unable to fully accept the fact of Joe's death, unwilling to believe he wasn't coming home. That September, Pete Boardman's widow, Hilary, and I set off on our own journey to Everest. We stayed in the same hotels they had; we crossed the high, dusty plains of Tibet in the back of a truck, as they had. We trekked for ten days across the passes of the Kharta and Karma valleys, on the eastern side of Everest, and up the rough 12-mile trail to the site of their advance base camp. We sat in flattened-out areas where their tents had stood, and we collected relics: an empty whiskey bottle, film cartridges, the tattered remains of a copy of Bruce Chatwin's In Patagonia, which I had given Joe to read on the trip. On our way back down, through the Rongbuk Valley, we left mementos among the stones of Joe and Pete's memorial cairn. We planted a garden around it, scrabbling in the dirt with our fingers, transplanting patches of moss, burying poppy seeds, trying to beautify the closest thing we had to a grave.

No one can teach you how to mourn. As with climbing a mountain, you can try to prepare, but it's impossible to know what will happen once you are on its steep slopes. Before my trip to Everest, I'd gone from my home in Manchester, England, to the Lake District to visit the Boningtons—Chris and his wife, Wendy. Chris and I walked with his dogs, and he listened with kind patience as I talked endlessly, repetitively, about Joe. Standing on the top of a hill, watching cloud shadows slide over the rolling green fells beneath us, Chris suddenly said to me, “I know you can't imagine it now, but one day you will fall in love again—and be happy.”
I remember feeling angry with him, as if he underestimated my pain. Eventually, however, he was proved right. In 1986, on a teaching exchange to British Columbia, I met Dag Goering, a Canadian veterinarian who, like Joe, loved adventure but, unlike Joe, was prepared to compromise so I could come along. We got married and began to explore the world by kayak.

(Getty Images/iStockphoto)

A decade later, we were in Austria, paddling down the Danube. One windy afternoon, as the sky filled with roiling storm clouds, we pulled ashore in Vienna. While Dag studied a menu at the marble-topped table of a coffeehouse, I went outside to a phone booth to call my mother, in England. She answered not with her usual delight and relief but in a voice choked with tears. “They found a body on Everest,” she blurted out. Time slowed, images sharpened. I leaned against the glass door of the telephone booth, staring at fat, perfect raindrops bouncing off the shining flagstones of the square. “It was on the news,” my mother continued haltingly. “They say it has to be either Joe or Pete.”

I called my friend Ruth Seifert, a psychiatrist who has been married to London neurologist and expedition doctor Charlie Clarke for 32 years. She told me that a Kazakh climber had come across the body on the Northeast Ridge. He had taken photographs and, when he returned from the Himalayas, would send them to Chris Bonington. It would be several weeks before they arrived.

A photograph, I told Dag. If it were of Joe, how would he look after lying for a decade near the summit of Everest? Surely he would be perfectly preserved, forever youthful as I'd grown older? Gently, Dag warned me about the ravages of UV radiation, dry winds, extreme cold; the remains might not be pretty, he said—might not even be recognizable.

I sensed a wall of silence surrounding them, as far as “the life,” and the possibility of death, was concerned. They didn't complain about it or question it. The implicit understanding: Take it or leave it.

A month after I stood in that phone booth in Vienna, Chris received the pictures. From the clothing, Hilary and her mother-in-law identified the remains as Pete's. For Hilary, it was an affirmation of her belief that Pete hadn't fallen. If he'd died violently, she had always claimed, she would have sensed it. I was relieved, too. During the weeks of waiting, I'd begun to dread what the discovery of Joe's body might unearth in me. But I felt compelled to see what death on the mountain looked like.

The next time I saw Hilary, she handed me a large brown envelope containing a copy of the black-and-white photograph, then quietly withdrew. I thought I was prepared. But when I saw the picture, I cried out loud: desiccated skin drawn tight over bones, hair bleached white, the head uncovered, the hand gloveless in the snow. As shocking as the ravaged body, however, was the supreme bleakness of the place where it lay. That image of Pete Boardman's shell, leaning against a bank of snow on the Northeast Ridge, is fixed in my memory as one of profound loneliness and desolation. When I cried over it, I cried for Joe, too, for the fact that he had perished so far from warmth, and from life.

“This is a desperate place,” he'd written to me from base camp a few weeks before he died, describing the high winds, the cold, and the unforgiving landscape. And now I saw, truly, what he meant.

“If climbing were totally safe, it wouldn't have the same draw,” says Royal Robbins, 68, one of the pioneers of big-wall climbing in America. “You know it's dangerous in the first place, and the ironic thing is that when there's a mountain on which people died, getting up that mountain alive has a greater value.”

It's true: For many, risk is a necessary part of the game. Over the past decade, however, more climbers have begun to talk openly about the darker side of high-altitude mountaineering. “The defining thing about climbing is that it kills you,” says British mountaineer and author Joe Simpson, whose 1988 classic, Touching the Void, recounts his own close call with death in the Peruvian Andes. “Not many people publicly question the fatality rate, because it opens up a very nasty Pandora's box. Your rather fragile rationale for why you are climbing might not stand up to a close examination, and so you'd rather not talk about it. People feel uncomfortable and think, No, no, it's not like that. But you only have to look at the facts.”

According to figures collected by Kathmandu-based historian Elizabeth Hawley, the 79-year-old chronicler of decades of Himalayan expeditions, the death rate on climbing expeditions to Nepal between 1950 and 2001 was 1.9 percent. But, she points out, that includes all Nepalese mountains. Zero in on people doing new routes in the high Himalayas and the statistics change dramatically.

A 1988 survey by Charlie Clarke and Oxford pediatrician and High Altitude Medicine Handbook author Andrew Pollard examining 83 British expeditions to peaks over 7,000 meters between 1968 and 1987 found that 23 of 535 climbers were killed. Excluding the deaths of Sherpas and porters, for which it was difficult to find accurate information, this added up to a fatality rate of 4.3 percent—at least one death for every fifth expedition. “If that were Formula One and more than one out of every 25 drivers were killed over this time span, it would be crazy,” says Clarke, now 59. “The level of risk would never be accepted.”

Joe used to say he was as likely to get killed in a car crash as on a mountain, and many climbers still echo that sentiment. But according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, approximately 42,000 people in the United States are killed every year in motor vehicle accidents. Out of a population of 281 million, that's approximately one death in 6,700. When I ask Steph Davis, a 30-year-old climber from Moab, Utah, who has tackled some of the biggest walls in the world, how many of her friends have died in climbing accidents, she counts eight. American alpinist Mark Twight, 41, says that 43 people he's known have died climbing. Over the past 15 years, Joe Simpson has lost, on average, a friend a year to the sport. How many people have lost that many friends to car wrecks?

(Getty Images)

According to Ruth Seifert, risk is, for many people, a totally abstract concept. “Mountaineers know terrible things happen to other people, but they think those people have been unlucky or made some mistakes. They say, 'Oh, I'm a careful person. I've survived lots of other expeditions. I'm going to be all right.'”

But what if something does happen? What if they don't survive? This is a question that has long been taboo in mountaineering. Most climbers are happy to discuss the reasons they climb—the thrill, the joy, the sense of purpose—but ask about the people waiting at home and their tone changes. The ebullient Slovenian alpinist Tomaz Humar, a 34-year-old father of two, suddenly grows silent. “This is the hard question,” he says.

Andy Kirkpatrick, a 32-year-old British alpinist who also has two young kids, becomes defensive: “If I were an armed first-response cop, would it be any different?”

Only Royal Robbins is unflinching in his reply. “We have to remember that if we're talking about true risk,” he says, “occasionally there has to be a price paid.”

“By whom?” I ask. “The people left behind?”

“Yes,” he says. “That's part of the largeness of the price.”

Until the 1980s, most elite climbers were men. Since then, an increasing number of women have taken up the sport, but the arena of high-stakes mountaineering—the most difficult routes on the world's highest peaks—remains dominated by men. These days, their partners are often involved in the sport themselves and are aware of the dangers. It wasn't always so.

When I first entered the climbing tribe, few of the other wives and girlfriends of mountaineers I met were climbers. I sensed a wall of silence surrounding them, as far as “the life,” and the possibility of death, was concerned. They didn't complain about it or question it. The implicit understanding: Take it or leave it.

I'd met Joe in the fall of 1979, in the kitchen of a friend's house in Wales. I'd walked in while he was recounting how he and his friend Dick Renshaw had put up a new route on the 23,184-foot Indian peak Dunagiri and then, without food or fuel to melt water, endured an epic five-day descent. Joe was slim and wiry, with blue eyes and rather pinched features. He wore jeans and a fisherman's sweater. A web of fine lines ran across his forehead, and his hair was thinning. Had I passed him on the street, I doubt I would have given him a second look.

After the storm, another climber found these items, along with a trail of blood leading down the mountain to where her body lay, unreachable. How do families—children especially—make sense of something like that?

I already knew a little about the climbing world. My oldest brother, Mick, was a climber at the time, and I shared a house with a young mountaineer, Alex MacIntyre. I had watched their girlfriends suffer the stress of separation when they left on expeditions, and it wasn't the life I wanted. Nevertheless, I was drawn to Joe's mix of danger and charisma, and the glamour of his life was a welcome distraction from my job as a high school teacher. I found myself in the company of some of the world's elite climbers, people who were always on the move, making plans, zipping off to remote mountains to do audacious routes, and returning with wild stories. Nothing was static; nothing was certain.

As a newcomer, I looked up to veterans like Wendy Bonington, a woman with long and hard experience. In 1966, while Chris was on a volcano in Ecuador, their two-year-old son, Conrad, drowned in a stream. It was more than a week before Chris got the news, another week before he could get home. Even then, Wendy never asked him to stop climbing. The couple had two more sons, and year after year, while Chris went off to K2, Annapurna, and Everest, becoming one of England's most famous mountaineers, Wendy stayed home. “Love to me is the whole plant,” she says. “Once we put conditions on something, that is cutting off one branch of growth. There are very often things about another person that you cannot understand, but to me that does not change whether you love them or not.”

Not all of the wives were so supportive. “I don't see why mountaineers need to be protected,” says Ruth Seifert. “What—they're going to have absolutely everything? Plus the dear, faithful wife who's never to say anything horrid about them? Well, that's too much to ask, frankly.” For 20 years, whenever Charlie left on expeditions, Ruth became a single mother to their two daughters while practicing psychiatry full-time. “I've preferred to have a life where I've not been the little wifey, where I've had to be the man and the woman,” she says. “I know what I did at home was much harder than what he did in the mountains. It took me to my extreme. I thought, Good, I know who the strong one is.”

Of course, Ruth also emphasizes that she and Charlie “really like and love each other and always have. Mountaineers aren't disappointed people. They don't feel they are wasting their lives. They've gone out there and done something.” Charlie came into his element in the mountains, Ruth realized. He was a different person, more lively, more confident. Like most mountaineers, he felt alive in high, wild places. It was a feeling that home life couldn't provide. “Chris left Wendy with babies. Charlie left me with babies and a full-time job,” she says. “They thought, What's the big deal? I'm a brave mountaineer. I'm doing something incredibly dangerous here, and all you have to do is look after the house and family. Let's get this into proportion.”

Nothing can prepare you, of course, for the phone call or the person at the door telling you there's been a storm, an avalanche, a falling rock, and that your husband, wife, father, or daughter isn't coming home. You can't allow your mind to expect that sort of anguish.

And when he did come home, Ruth says, “Charlie was a nuisance. He just wrecked the whole well-oiled machine. They come back and expect that the whole universe of their home is going to revolve around them—God, I hated him when he came back. He was so full of himself. And then, after every expedition, he became depressed. And so I wasn't adequate—none of the wives could ever supply the real love and the enormous romance that they have with the mountains.”

For many climbers, the hard part starts when they get home. According to Joe Simpson, the fears they face in the mountains are primal ones, of falling, or suffocating in an avalanche. Against these he sets “uncontrolled fears,” about money, children, career, success, love—the daily concerns that can never be fully resolved and that never go away.

When I mentioned these theories to Chris Bonington, he smiled knowingly. “The big questions are simple questions, aren't they?” he said. “It's the little questions that are hard. Sorting out your income tax, trying to make the fridge work, getting the car fixed, dealing with your children being expelled from school or wanting to borrow money from you so they can do something you don't really approve of—those sorts of things are much more difficult questions than trying to climb a mountain or facing life and death. Life and death are simple.”

So why stay married to a mountaineer? Ask Ruth this and she'll laugh. She was too busy to leave him. Others like the time apart, including Erin Simonson, 45, whose husband, Eric, 48, co-owns International Mountain Guides, in Ashford, Washington, and led the 1999 Everest expedition that discovered George Mallory's body. “Eric going on these long expeditions is a positive thing for our relationship,” says Erin, who helps manage IMG. “It's this process of constant renewal. Just about the time we're getting on each other's nerves, he goes out the door for a couple of months and it gives me time to reflect on the things I really like about him.”

“Life is just easier if you put him on the back burner and do your own thing 100 percent until he gets home,” Lauren Synnott, 32, told me when we spoke in early 2002. She has been married to 33-year-old North Face-sponsored alpinist Mark Synnott for five years. For several months each year, while Mark is off climbing, Lauren is at home in Jackson, New Hampshire, with their two sons—Will, age four, and Matt, one. The possibility of becoming a widow crystallized for her in 1999 when Alex Lowe was killed on Shishapangma, a month after he and Mark were in Pakistan together climbing Great Trango Tower. “It really brought it home to me,” she told me. “I just have to block the worry out. It does affect our marriage, because I put up an emotional wall when he leaves, and when he comes back it's hard to instantly tear it down. It never comes all the way down. The wall helps me prepare myself for if I ever did have to deal without him.”

Andréa built up a fantasy around her father's absence. He hadn't died; he'd faked his death.

Four years into their relationship, Lauren left Mark and got engaged to her high school sweetheart. A regular guy with a regular job, he came home to her every night and weekend. Lauren is a self-confessed homebody with no desire to travel; it should have been a perfect match. “The life was so boring,” she told me. “I kept comparing him to Mark.” She eventually dumped her fiance, returned to Mark, and married him. “Everyone loves an adventurous spirit,” she said, “especially if you're not that way yourself. I live vicariously through him.”

A year before Joe died, he and several expedition mates gave a lecture, in London's prestigious Queen Elizabeth Hall, on their first ascent of 25,325-foot Mount Kongur, in China. Standing at the back of the auditorium, I watched Joe cast his spell. As he spoke, pictures were projected on a huge screen behind him. Precipitous snow slopes. Knife-edge ridges. Summits soaring into the sky. Joe stood before us, brimming with hubris, spinning stories of daring and death. By then I knew his faults, the weaknesses behind the image. But like everyone else in the audience, I was enthralled. I envied him the certainty of his calling. He was the hero I could never be, the hero I thought I needed—without any real inkling of what that would cost.

Nothing can prepare you, of course, for the phone call or the person at the door telling you there's been a storm, an avalanche, a falling rock, and that your husband, wife, father, or daughter isn't coming home. You can't allow your mind to expect that sort of anguish.

When Erin and Eric Simonson met, on a climb up Kilimanjaro in 1997, she asked him if he would climb Everest again if he had a family. If children were involved, he told her, he would think twice. “What his answer told me,” says Erin, “was that he felt he wouldn't have the same sense of responsibility to a wife that he would have to children.” In 2000, the couple had a daughter, Audrey; Eric went to Everest the next spring. “I used to feel like I came home from trips with my little bag of experience fuller than when I had left,” he told me that fall. “That whatever I brought back with me overcompensated for something I might have missed. But you can't rewind the tape on a kid—you're either there or you're not.” Eric continues to climb, but he has made a conscious effort to reduce the time he spends at high altitude. Still, says Erin, “he's willing to take that risk, even as a father.”

In 1995, 33-year-old British mountaineer Alison Hargreaves, the first woman to climb Everest alone without oxygen, and the mother of two small children, wrote from K2 base camp, “It eats away at me—wanting the children and wanting K2. I feel like I'm being pulled in two.”

Like many climbers, she didn't stop. As she neared the summit of K2, on August 13, it was late in the day and threatening clouds were forming to the north, but she kept on. At 6:30 p.m., she stood on top of the world's second-highest mountain. The sky was clear, the air still. But thousands of feet below her, the clouds were generating storm-force winds. On her descent, Hargreaves, along with two of her climbing partners and three Spanish alpinists, was plucked off the mountain by the wind and slammed down so brutally that her jacket, her harness, and one of her boots were ripped off. After the storm, another climber found these items, along with a trail of blood leading down the mountain to where her body lay, unreachable. How do families—children especially—make sense of something like that?

It doesn't matter to 45-year-old Andréa Cilento that her father, American mountaineer John Harlin II, never finished his dream climb, a direct route on the north face of the Eiger. Or that the route he took now bears his name: the John Harlin Direct. What matters to her is that he's been gone since she was eight.

The Harlins moved to Leysin, Switzerland, in 1963, when Andréa was five and her brother, John, was seven. Harlin and his wife, Marilyn, had jobs at two American schools there, and in the Alps he could pursue his passion for mountaineering. By the time Andréa was eight, he had given up his regular job to establish the International School of Mountaineering and to focus on his plans for the Eiger.
Harlin made his attempt in the winter of 1966. On both sides of the Atlantic, the Eiger expedition was big news. On March 22, a British reporter, Peter Gillman, was on a hotel balcony at the bottom of the mountain, scanning the north face through a telescope. He was searching for Harlin and his climbing partner, Dougal Haston. Suddenly he saw a figure in red, falling. A human figure. “It was stretched out,” he wrote in his book Eiger Direct, “and was turning over slowly, gently, with awful finality.”

A fixed rope Harlin was jumaring up had broken, and he fell 4,000 feet down the face. Haston later admitted to Marilyn Harlin that he'd noticed the rope was frayed but thought it would hold. She couldn't bring herself to look at the body.

Joe's death stripped away my desire to live for the future. My life became the past and the present. I lived from moment to painful moment, a vivid and extreme existence where nothing mattered and anything was possible.

Andréa built up a fantasy around her father's absence. He hadn't died; he'd faked his death. It was perfectly plausible. He'd run away to start a new life. Eventually he would come back. He would let Andréa know where he was. It would be their secret, and she could go and visit him. Back in America, she held on to that fantasy until she was a junior in high school. When she started dating, she went for “skinny city boys.” Eventually she married a nonclimber. Now they have a family, and in their house in Olympia, Washington, among the framed photographs of their children, are shots of her father and of his near double, her brother, John. He, too, is a climber. And the father of a seven-year-old girl. Andréa shakes her head at the thought.

“When climbers die,” she says, “I hear lots of people saying, 'Oh, well, it's OK—they died doing what they love best.' I don't think that at all. You should make sacrifices when you have children, because they need you. People say, 'If climbers didn't do what they love to do, they would die inside.' Well, excuse me, but there are other people involved in life, and you're not an island, especially when you have a family. I can only go by how I felt growing up in that situation. I felt abandoned. I felt like I was less important to my father than that mountain. I still feel that way.”

Was she less important? Certainly Harlin loved his children, but he resented the demands of fatherhood. In a 1960 letter to his wife, when Andréa was two and John was four, he wrote, “With [the kids] I have a trapped feeling, and I lose interest in myself, you, even life….Away, I become a romantic…just a different person. This person is more me, and it's the way I want to be.”

“He had us too early,” says John Harlin III, now 47 years old. “I wasn't planned. My father was 19 when he conceived me. He had great, driving ambitions. I was twice my father's age when I had a child. But I was still frustrated by not having climbed what I felt I should have by then.”

When John was six, his father took him on his first multipitch climb, in the Calanques, on the southern coast of France. Harlin's competitiveness was legendary, and as hard as he was on himself, he made impossible demands on his son. When he died, John was ten. “Everyone else was crying,” he says. “But I thought, How could he do that? How could he fall off? I wanted to know the details right away. I wanted to hear that he hadn't made a mistake.”

Conclusive proof of death is a basic human need. On May 25, 1996, 37-year-old Bruce Herrod, a British photographer on the first South African Everest expedition, reached the summit of Everest and was patched through via Base Camp to his girlfriend, Sue Thompson, in London. He was never heard from again, and his fate remained a mystery for a year. Then, in 1997, Sue received an e-mail from an expedition on Everest telling her that a team led by Russian climber Anatoli Boukreev—who himself would die on Annapurna that December, leaving behind his own grieving partner, American Linda Wylie—had found a body attached to the fixed ropes at the bottom of the Hillary Step. There was little doubt that it was Herrod; he'd been the last person to summit the mountain in 1996, and Boukreev's team was the first to go so high since then.

“My first reaction was, 'Oh, so you can come home now,' ” says Sue. “Until you think, No, he's still just as dead as ever.”

She contacted several expeditions at Everest Base Camp, asking them to look for personal effects on Herrod's body. Most important was his camera—she knew that he would have been recording his journey for as long as he was able. “You're aware it's the most horrible request to make: 'Can you look through his pack, and if his camera's there, can you bring it back?' But that became my obsession,” she says.

An expedition led by American filmmaker and mountaineer David Breashears agreed to the task. When they reached Bruce's body, it was still clipped into the fixed ropes. He was hanging upside down, his arms dangling, his mouth open, and his skin black. “Like Captain Ahab,” Breashears wrote in his memoir, High Exposure, “lashed to his white whale.” Another American climber on the team, Pete Athans, secured Herrod's pack to the fixed lines, then cut the body free and watched it fall out of sight.

The roll of film inside the camera was marked, in Herrod's writing, “Eve of 24/5/96 South Col.” There were only two exposed frames. They were identical: There was the memento-strewn marker on the summit of Everest, and Herrod, leaning over it, smiling jubilantly at the camera, the earth curving behind him. 

The image brought Sue some comfort, but the questions of how Bruce had died and whether he had suffered still haunted her. In the spring of 1999, she went to Everest and met Athans, who had just come down through the Khumbu Icefall. “To meet the guy who carried out the burial,” she recalls, “who sent Bruce spinning thousands of feet into space, is the ultimate proof that his body has gone and he no longer exists. I knew that when I shook his hand, the hand that had cut the rope, this would be confronting the final truth as far as I was ever going to see it.”

Sue suspects Athans was being kind when he assured her that, despite having hung near the summit for a year, Herrod was recognizable. He told her that he thought Herrod had suffered a very bad head wound, and that it was likely that he'd got his leg caught in old ropes and flipped back, knocking himself out. Athans also assured her that, unlike the remains of George Mallory, which had been discovered that spring, Herrod's body would not greet future climbers—the fall from the Hillary Step was long and hard. “I got this image of a body in pieces, and it's almost like that was the dissolution I needed,” Sue says. “I realized it's easier to deal with when you don't think of the body as a dead entity anymore. It's somehow dissipated.”

Imagining a body broken into a thousand pieces, watching a coffin being lowered into the earth, planting flowers around a cairn: These are ways of finding acceptance that someone is truly gone. But the questions that surround death in the mountains always linger. Herrod chose to go to the summit of Everest alone, late in the day, when his climbing partners were on their way down. Joe and Pete were fully aware that their strength was sapped by weeks on Everest, and that, should anything go wrong, their tiny team was too depleted to mount a rescue attempt. Nonetheless, the two men set out from advance base camp that May morning. What happened remains a mystery. What is certain, however, is that they didn't say to each other—in good enough time—”This is crazy. We're way beyond our limits. Let's turn back. Let's return to the people who love us.”

I used to claim I felt no anger over Joe's death. Other climbing widows admitted to bouts of rage—one kicked a bouquet of condolence flowers around the house, another slapped the person who came to break the news of her husband's death on K2. I used to say, “At least he died doing what he loved best”—as if that somehow made it all right, both for him and for me.

Ruth always insisted that, at some level, though I certainly knew what I was getting into when I chose Joe, I had to be angry. “Joe and Pete—all the climbers—pursued a passion that was above their responsibility for their family, and which took precedence,” she said. “It's like a mistress, really. The anger has to come out somewhere.”

A few weeks after Joe died, a trunk of his belongings arrived from Everest. Inside it I found love letters from another woman. It felt like the ultimate betrayal—and I realized that, if the mountain hadn't claimed him, I might have lost him anyway. That was unbearable. I burned those letters, and buried the memory of them for two years. When I finally spoke of them to a friend, I experienced a huge upwelling of anger—for what Joe had put me through, for what he'd expected of me, for what he'd left me with. And then I felt tremendous relief; at last I could move on.

But even when you think you have reached acceptance, when you are sure it's all sorted out, your subconscious tells you otherwise. All these years later, occasionally I'm disturbed by dreams that Joe has come back from Everest, sorry for all the upset he caused and wanting to be together. Grief, for me, has not been in stages or in tasks completed. Rather, it has been like a spiral: At first the spiral was so tight I could see nothing beyond it. Now it is made up of huge arcs, only faintly perceived on the horizon. Some of the old pain will always be there, but mostly I think of Joe fondly, and with gratitude.

Ask mountaineers why they climb and invariably they say that it allows them to live in the moment. Ask those bereaved by climbing accidents if anything positive has emerged from the tragedy and, in one way or another, they usually echo the climber's sentiment. If they love someone, they tell them. If they have a gift to give, they give it. They take nothing for granted.

I understand that sentiment. Joe's death stripped away my desire to live for the future. My life became the past and the present. I lived from moment to painful moment, a vivid and extreme existence where nothing mattered and anything was possible. That intensity, I now realize, was Joe's legacy. It compelled me to follow his example, taking from life what I wanted and needed, knowing that the end can come suddenly, without warning.

Joe's death jolted me alive.


From Outside Magazine, Sep 2003 Lead Photo: Getty Images

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