3,977 Miles

3,977 Miles
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Brian on the East Buttress of El Cap. Dominic Tracy Photo.

It’s a long way from Cuzco, Peru, to home. It’s almost 4,000 miles. 3,977, to be exact.

But that’s to North Conway. I wonder what the distance is to Cathedral Ledge? To the upper left section of the cliff, the Barber Wall? To the route Double Vee, a 5.9 crack I’ve climbed many times before, where yesterday my friend Brian fell and died. How far is from the place I sit, in my hotel in Peru, to that spot? 3,977.6 miles? 3,978.3? I’m not sure, but it feels like a long way.

In 15 years of climbing, I’ve never had a friend die. I’d had friends get hurt, and I’d known of many friends of friends who died, but none were my partners. None were direct connections to me. In the last month and a half, however, the mountains have claimed two. Eitan fell 3,000 feet down Mount Rainier. Brian fell 50 feet off the top of Double Vee. Both were men I’d shared a rope with. Both were on routes I’d climbed, died in places I’d stood. Now both are gone.

What is death? The speed with which it comes, the ferocity with which it attacks, makes no sense. It’s like a cloud above gets transformed from weightless mist into solid concrete, and when it falls it does so with ruthless finality. One minute, floating peacefully, the next, wreckage. Where will it land? Who will it smother? More than I can know. The light of life is not constant. Too often it flickers and dies without warning.

But in every flicker lives the roaring strength of first light, the brilliance of the star we were born from. There can be no fade without that brilliance, and the darkness left behind is directly proportional to his radiance. And Brian’s light shone rich, alive and perfect. Before the clouds fell, he was the sun.

I do not know the story. 4,000 miles is a long way to search for answers. The light, however, has faded. That much I know.

GLA-1040533But with every light, with every life, there are choices. Life is short, and choices can make it shorter still. But each body, each heart, is a vessel. A longer life, one built of safer choices, may make for more years, for a larger vessel, but it says nothing of the potency of what fills it. Brian’s life was one of passion, one of kindness and friendship and adventure. Perhaps those choices not to live a safe, sheltered, quiet existence shrank the volume of the vessel that was his life, but it only strengthened the nectar of the man that vessel contained. Brian was pure, undiluted. He did not live at a deficit, at a loss. He lived recklessly, with an open heart, throwing every ounce of his being into his life and himself, into living with richness and passion and love and perfection and freedom. I would not ask it to be different. A bigger vessel, a few more years, would not be worth trading in the man he was.

But then, such questions are meaningless. There can be no revisions in this book. There is only today. Today, Brian is dead. The clouds fell. His vessel has shattered. But the Earth is sweeter for what his life has spilled. Even 3,977 miles away, I can taste it.

Author’s Note: The news story I wrote about the accident is available here.