3,977 Miles

3,977 Miles
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.

One More Time

I’m about to head off on another international reporting trip, this time to Peru’s Cordillera Blanca, where the receding glaciers are quickly changing the landscape. This is an economic story, not just an environmental one — tourism is the third largest industry in Peru, behind mining and resource extraction, and in many areas the snowcapped mountains are the primary draw. That is true of the Ancash region, where Peru’s highest mountain range sits. Tourism has been a crucial part of the economy there, but as the glaciers melt that is changing things. I’m going down there to meet with the people affected, from the restaurant owners to the mountain guides. I made connections when I was there several years ago, and now this tim I’m going to tell the story.

One More Adventure

So if you’re wondering why LPJ has been quiet for a bit, I’ll tell you — I just got back from a trip to Yosemite Valley, Calif., were I climbed El Capitan, the largest granite monolith in the word for a travel piece I’m working on. It was a crazy trip that had me sleeping 2,000 feet up a rock face.

It’s called the best rock climb in the world, and when it was first climbed more than 50 years ago it took 18 months. We spent four days climbing and spent two nights on the wall. I’d hoped to do a radio piece as well, but the amount of work it took just to climb every day made that impossible. I will, however, be writing up a killer account of the climb, and I will weave into it the story of the first ascent.

I have another such adventure planned for several weeks from now. It will include work on a story about the disappearing glaciers of South America and the effect that has on the economy there. Again, I’m toying with doing it for radio as well as for print, but we’ll see. I’ve already got one media outlet lined up, and I’m working on more. One adventure after another — just the way I like things.

Pitching Like Crazy

So I have a day job, but in the modern media environment I would feel remiss if I wasn’t pitching all the time too. A steady job is the surest way to lure yourself into obsolescence, I’m sure of it, so I always have a story or two headed to NHPR or somewhere else.

Lately, however, I’ve been trying to pitch elsewhere, and to some big names. I’ve sent a few things into the New York Times over the years, never with success, but I’m trying a little harder lately. I’ve also been talking with an editor at the Boston Globe, which at least has some regional connection. I also had a brief chat with NPR, for whom I’ve done production work but not done stories. I’ve also got something lined up for PRI’s The World, so hopefully that’ll go.

It sucks to get told no, or to hear nothing back at all, but I figure the only way to get in there is to pepper them with stories until one lands on an editor’s desk they can’t refuse. I’ve got a few good ones out right now, and when I get shut down by one person I turn around, tweak it and send it on to someone else.

I’ve already got tickets to California for a story I’m determined to sell, so that one better land somewhere. I’m also arranging to go to Peru for another, so that one better not strike out either. But no matter what, I’m a veritable pitching machine. If you get an email from me don’t be surprised if the subject line says, “Article Query.”

A Plane Ticket Away

Riots in Russia had me thinking about buying a ticket to Moscow. Shelling in Syria got me wondering what it takes to get smuggled across the Lebanese border. Elections in Libya have me looking at maps for Tripoli. And burning Korans in Afghanistan have me thinking it’s time to keep my head down.

After more than a year since Iraq, I’m starting to think about what’s next. I’ve worked out a situation where if I can come up with a cool story I will be able to go, so now I just need that story. I’ve been looking at a lot of war photojournalism lately, like this from James Nachtwey, and it has me again thinking about a trip, only this time without embedding.

I’ve also been shooting a lot of photos, working deliberately towards improving my composition. Some of my shots have been popping up in cool places, like these on a local ice climbing site. Photography is barely a part of my day job now because the paper has an awesome photographer, but every time I can I pull out my camera. Mostly my photos wind up all over Facebook because I’m just out there having fun, but I’d like to take one of those trips with a mission to only shoot, shoot, SHOOT.

I felt that way when I got back from Iraq, where I spent more time playing with microphones than behind the camera. I wanted the other side. Now I’m trying to figure out how to find the time to make all sides — print, audio, photo and video — happen in one trip. And along with that, how to make money doing it.

So I’ve been perusing plane tickets again, and I’m pretty close to buying. It isn’t the sort of thing where I’m looking at AK-47s this time, but instead an environmental story from South America. I am looking at the whole kit — video, audio, photo and print. But at least this time IEDs won’t be a part of the mix.

That will be soon enough.

Home Again

I’m home. In fact, I’ve been home for a week, but it took a week for my life to get settled down enough for me to sit down and time to write for pleasure. My trip to Peru was amazing; I can’t wait to go back, and I can’t wait to tell everyone about it. I’ve been talking about it nonstop ever since my flight touched down in Boston, and everyone I talk to wants to see pictures (or at least they say they do…).

I want more than to look at pictures; I want to relive the moments: summiting 17,782 foot Urus East with my wife; climbing to the top of Ishinca (18,143 feet) and sitting on the knife-edge ridge with my climbing partner Scott; bailing of Ranrapalca (20,216 feet) after watching three major rock fall/avalanche events and reaching the Southwest Ridge way later than planned. Those are memories I’ll never forget, but it’s back to work now. And I don’t believe I’ve had a busier month.

We did have challenges. For one thing, don’t ever fly Spirit Air, unless you’re taking a very short trip. We rode Peruvian buses with more amenities. And one member of the expedition got sick for almost the entire trip. She went from pharmacy to doctor to hospital but was never able to figure out what was wrong. She was a trooper, however, and never really slowed down, despite being at 15,000 feet and not having eaten in a week.

I missed a lot while I was gone. I knew I would. Summer is ending, September is starting, and I’m still trying to find my bearings. In Berlin, political season has been ramping up and it’s getting down to the wire on the biomass projects. Lots going on. But I’m still catching up.

I’ve got a couple extracurricular North Country projects lined up, one for the New Hampshire Charitable Fund and one for the New Hampshire Grand Initiative. I’m also enrolled in WMCC’s Leadership North program, and taking a couple classes at Plymouth State University. Plus I’ve got a city to cover…

I’m still waiting to hear from United States Forces—Iraq about embedding with troops there. We’ll see how that goes. Lots going on, almost more than I can handle. But that’s what keeps life interesting.

OK, I’m back, I posted a few photos, and now it’s time to get to work. It’s a short week this week, with the Labor Day holiday, and because of my disorientation I’ll need all the time I can get to fill the paper. It’s time to get to it!

Down South

Well, today I went to 14,000 feet to get used to the altitude, and for my trouble I got a splitting headache. Tomorrow we are headed to a nearby rock climbing are to test our climbing skills at altitude, and then we’ll head east to begin our adventure in earnest.
I have to admit, walking around here, climbing seems like a frivolous thing to be writing about. I’m happy to do it, but the poverty, the inequity and the ecological degradation seem more pertinent.
But the market for such stories is limited. Stories about leisure and travel sell, stories about poor people in developing countries don’t.
I’m really interested in this opportunity in Iraq, and I am hoping to maybe leverage that experience into more of that type of work–international reporting of consequence. I get to do that kind of work at the Reporter, from time to time breaking truly important stories. I’d like to do that more places.
Regardless, I’ve got an interesting story here, and it’s great experience. I’ve been able to get a few of the photos I need, but as we are just getting into the mountains I’ve got a lot more to get. Mostly I’ve just got to have a great time so I have something positive and upbeat to write about. That shouldn’t be too hard, as long as I don’t ascend 14,000 feet in two days again.


My two bags are packed to the limit, and I still don’t have a place for my cameras. I’ve got ice tools, crampons, a tent and sleeping bag, ropes, a harness, and all sorts of other gear.  I’ve still got to add socks and flip-flops to the mix, but mostly I’m there.

This is a project that might make me a couple thousand dollars, in addition to providing me with a great vacation. Working at the paper is a good job, but it isn’t lucrative enough to convince me to give up other opportunities. I’ve got to chase them just to make it all come together.

In many ways I’m like Berlin: I’ve got to diversify. My staple industry just doesn’t pay the bills the way I’d like it to, so now I’ve got to figure out how to spread myself around to make that work.

I just finished a video project for a nonprofit client, making three short videos aimed at their various demographics. (These are the rough cuts. I just burned the final DVD today, but I’m not going upload updated clips to YouTube before we leave tomorrow.)

These are another example of what working in the modern media landscape means. It pays to have multiple skills, because as newspapers change they are edging out the promise of a secure profession. Having a bit of photo, video and audio skills, plus some design experience and website development, really helps. It makes it possible to live in the most seemingly impossible places, like northern New Hampshire.

I’ll be chasing after another branch of my diversification in the coming weeks, and then again when I head to Iraq (hopefully) this fall. And piecing it all together, if I can make it happen, should be quite rewarding.

It’s like reviving your economy with a prison or two, a biomass plant, a resurgent paper mill and some tourism dollars—not the same as the old model, but it can work if it’s the right combination.

So while my packs are almost packed, in some ways it’s my schedule that’s even more packed. At least every piece is baggage I’m excited to carry.