Climbing for Brian

Climbing for Brian

10553818_903535722993720_2619385696188103555_oTwo years ago my friend Brian died. He was climbing on Cathedral Ledge, doing laps on a route I’ve been on countless times before. I was in Peru at the time, a long way from home, a long way from the people I turn to when things get difficult.

I had plans to spend eight months in South America, plans to bounce from Peru to Chile to Argentina and all over and up to Central America. But it didn’t fit. After a month traveling in Chile I flew home.

Instead I went climbing: Red Rocks, Zion, Eldo, Rifle. Looking Glass. Rumbling Bald. The Obed. I wandered through 14 states over five weeks, clipped bolts, jammed cracks and hung on gear. I got scared. I got lost. I fell. I saw old friends and made new ones. I took the type of trip Brian loved taking. He and I had discussed a trip to the desert or to Yosemite, though it never happened. But I felt a connection to him out there, a recognition that “gone” and “with us” can be indistinct.

A month ago was Brian’s birthday. Facebook was kind enough to remind me. It popped up in my feed like he was still here, like I should send him a card or a gift. But he’s not.

13172996_1480482645311149_7238612379710389030_oA few weeks earlier I made it to one of the desert towers Brian and I talked about. The North Face of Castleton is a beautiful 5.11- up steep orange rock. My friend Jim just happened to be in Moab at the same time as me, and it was his birthday. He put a post on FB asking if anyone wanted to climb the next day. “Seriously?!” I said. “You’re in Moab?? Let’s climb Castleton!”

We met the next morning around 10 a.m. and drove to Castle Valley. It was noon by the time we reached the route, but at only three pitches we figured it would go quick. I took the first lead, a steep blue Camalot crack that ended in thinner cracks through a patch of white calcite. Two guys were repelling off as I started up. “Mountain Project says you need 6 number threes,” one of them said. We had two. Jim looked at me. “Maybe leapfrog that one below you?” I heeded his advice.

But the crack was straightforward, the climbing uncomplicated. I jammed and I jammed, making quick progress. I hit the calcite rested and laughing, enjoying the movement and exposure. No wonder Brian so loved such places—the red of the sandstone gleamed, and every jam felt handcarved. This was climbing at its best.

13147451_1480754145283999_7137182934756421799_oJimmy followed, pushing his way up the final exposed crux with a grunt, and we scampered up two more pitches, both excellent.

From the summit the Valley ran off in every direction, a landscape carved out from the red stone with snow-covered mountains as a backdrop. It felt like paradise, God’s country, the kind of place Brian would smile at.

There is a photo of Brian taken on top of another tower. He is sitting, his legs outstretched, writing in the summit register. A valley spills out below him. The sun is high, the sky blue. It looks peaceful. This is how I like to remember him. He was joyful, at ease.

It’s been nearly two years since Brian fell. I’m on another trip, roughly 20 states in, another handful of climbing areas. There has also been surfing and freediving and random beach visits. And yet this still feels like an homage to him. He keeps popping up. I started this post a year and a half ago, while I was on that first trip. It came back to me today, begging to be finished. I couldn’t ignore that call.

There is a sense of being lost in wandering, but there is also an open door, a chance to be reminded of people, events, places that otherwise fall into darkness. So quickly we forget, but wandering we remember. Some of that can be painful. Other parts are beautiful. Perhaps every visit to the desert will in part be Brian’s. I hope so. I see him in the beauty of the landscape. I feel blessed to share it with him. It may only be in my heart, but that is enough.

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Great Reefs and Little Rats

Great Reefs and Little Rats
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Bleaching in the NYTimes.

In Australia things are a mess.

First, the Great Barrier Reef: mass bleaching has left huge tracts of this 1,400-mile wonder dead. It’s the worst such incident scientists have recorded, and the third event of this type in two decades. In some places as much as half of the coral has been left dead.

Bleaching occurs when water temperatures climb too high. The warm water makes the coral release its colorful algae, turning it white. And often once released the coral needs temperatures to come back down if there is to be any shot at recolonization. Corals that do survive such warming events often do not grow as rapidly as they should.

Screen Shot 2016-06-14 at 10.12.13 PMSo that’s one. The other Australia story is also from the Great Barrier Reef, but this time from land: a small rat known only to live on one island is likely extinct, and the cause is us. Scientists are calling the Bramble Cay melomys likely the first mammal to go extinct as a result of climate change, and they haven’t minced their words:

“Anecdotal information obtained from a professional fisherman who visited Bramble Cay annually for the past ten years suggested that the last known sighting of the Bramble Cay melomys was made in late 2009.

The key factor responsible for the extirpation of this population was almost certainly ocean inundation of the low-lying cay, very likely on multiple occasions, during the last decade, causing dramatic habitat loss and perhaps also direct mortality of individuals. Available information about sea-level rise and the increased frequency and intensity of weather events producing extreme high water levels and damaging storm surges in the Torres Strait region over this period point to human-induced climate change being the root cause of the loss of the Bramble Cay melomys.”

“Human-induced climate change.” There it is. The rats have abandoned ship. Never a good sign.

I head to Belize next month with two missions: one to work on a social service project with American high school kids, and two to check out their reefs, which had their own bleaching event in March, also the third in recent decades. So I’ll get a look firsthand at what warming temperatures do to undersea life. So that’s to come.

CDS Column: Constitutionally Speaking

CDS Column: Constitutionally Speaking

6f8cf-rustIt’s happened again: Another shooting. In Orlando this time, 49 victims plus wounded.

And in the aftermath we fight. Among friends, countrymen, the arguments begin. It didn’t take a day — 2 a.m. shooting, lines drawn by sunrise — that is America.

We are a nation trapped by ourselves.

Omar Mateen was an American Muslim, a U.S. citizen of Afghani roots inspired by foreign extremists to buy guns legally and turn them on gay nightclub goers. In one hateful rampage Mateen put himself into the center of multiple American tinderboxes — immigration, religion, guns, foreign wars, terrorism, homosexuality. If his attack was an act of terrorism it was one well-aimed — these issues we willingly tear ourselves apart over. His spark hit its mark, and it was more than enough to ignite an explosion.

But that is where America is today: Ever ready to draw swords. Fight-or-flight is now our political status quo, and over and over again, America’s choice is to fight, especially among ourselves.

But where does that get us? What kind of country is left when every debate turns brutal? That is our habit, but how do you govern from a never ending cage match?

Take guns, for example, that tinderbox among tinderboxes. What is the appropriate gun policy? Is the current level of regulation enough? Too much? What does the Second Amendment really mean? How does “a well regulated Militia” play into “the right of the people to keep and bear arms,” a right that “shall not be infringed”? How does that fit in the era of the Glock and the AR-15? Is it still relevant?

These are reasonable, basic questions, the sort of conversations that should be raised in the halls of Congress after such an incident as Sunday’s attack. Any modern state would consider such questions foundational to finding a balance between the rights of citizens to own guns and the rights of citizens not to be killed by them.

But we have no such discourse. Opponents of guns declare there is no legitimate use for an assault rifle. Ardent defenders return to the “cold dead hands” refrain. Instead of an articulate conversation on gun policy we are fed campaign slogans. The conversation inevitably goes nowhere.

Two hundred and thirty years ago, the Founding Fathers banded together “in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” This sort of squabbling is not what they meant.

But in America today conversations go nowhere. The greatest country in the world, we can’t talk about our problems. We can’t discuss what is killing our citizens. We need a frank discussion on guns, gun rights and the appropriate balance between individual rights and collective security, but all we get are shouting matches and campaign slogans.

This is one issue. There are more: immigration, terrorism, religion. Mateen touched on many of them. But there are still more: abortion, economic stratification, race, gender equality. These are the tinderboxes that tear America apart, and they are also the issues too tender to address directly and with grace.

They are issues close to our hearts, ones we have stared at too closely for too long, and now all we can do is fight over the details. We measure our progress in battles but have forgotten the point of the war.

And what is the point? “To form a more perfect Union.” To “insure domestic Tranquility” and “provide for the common defense.” To “promote the general Welfare,” to “secure the Blessings of Liberty.”

But what good is liberty when Muslim Americans are killing gay Americans in American streets, and no one is willing to talk about it?

Shout about it? Sure. But not talk.

We are a nation populated by rugged individualists grown too independent to govern ourselves. The general welfare and the common defense are concepts alien to us. We are left with 330 million different burning visions for America that struggle against each other.

Maybe it was always this way. Maybe we have always shouted past each other. Maybe the common defense was never that common, the general welfare never that general. Maybe when the Framers who wrote the Constitution 230 years ago did it it was with a smirk and crossed fingers. Maybe those opening words were window dressing.

But men who conjure a country from thin air aren’t the sort to shy away from tough conversations. Our Founding Fathers knew the importance of discourse, of disagreeing agreeably. They fought, but they did so with a shared goal: “in order to form a more perfect Union.”

Where has that spirit gone? Where is the sense that America is the sum of its parts, and those parts are myriad. This country needs room for ideas, room for discussion, and debate and disagreement safe from being declared tantamount to treason. The problems facing us are global, and in an interconnected world, damage is never isolated. A shooting in Florida sparks fear everywhere. The tinder will light. No one is immune.

Yet we stand by our individualism as it kills us. And all the fires Mateen so efficiently set around immigration, religion, guns, foreign wars, terrorism and homosexuality, they remain burning. To be defused and extinguished will require thoughtful consideration, citizens and legislators working together to hammer out compromises that navigate a sea of conflicting tensions: security versus freedom, security versus privacy, individual rights versus collective rights, religious freedom versus personal freedom. All in an evolving world, where terrorism is the new communism and the new terrorism is only a matter of time.

To do that we have to start talking, we need to be willing to ask hard questions. Of each other. Of all of us.


 

This piece appeared in today’s Conway Daily Sun.

For B, in Gratitude

For B, in Gratitude

10491231_958451607514258_8227570007696309004_n“Life and love are confusing things, and too many nights are spent sleepless.”

A friend sent a note the other day, and those were my words typed in solidarity with someone trying to figure it out. It had a certain ring to it, flowed in a writerly way I strive for all in all my work.

And it’s true: whether in life or in love I have no idea what I’m doing, and many nights are spent tossing. If the world overwhelms you, if it seems too bright or too fast or too complicated, I get it. I too am doing my best to hold on.

I read a book the other day by Oliver Sacks, now-deceased professor, writer and neurologist. The book was called Gratitude. It’s small, took barely an hour, four essays Sacks wrote in his final years. It chronicles turning 80, the revelation he has cancer, and his final thoughts before his death at 82. It’s short enough to read in an hour. And like any book addressing death directly, it’s powerful. A Washington Post reviewer called it Sacks’ posthumous gift.

Perhaps anything that grows so directly from death is bound to be moving, bound to contain poignant reminders our days are few, that life will not continue forever. A year ago my step-grandmother died, and the piece I wrote about her was similarly affecting.

But death is not only sad; it also a doorway, a secret entrance, the key to god and the universe and life and love and everything. It is both. It is everything. It is all of it at the same time.

How? Simple: You are already dead, so there is nothing to fear. Ever. Nothing.

How easily we forget. How easily we get distracted by work and bills and advertisements and immediate needs. But we will die. We will not escape. We are there already. Time has bent and death is upon us and every thought we have from now until it arrives is but a dream, the briefest hallucination.

Death will come, and when it does it will come fast, fully, completely. And in that moment it will feel like your life was a blink, a sneeze, a flurry of activity ended premature. There is no way to sidestep, no way to avoid that which everyone before has succumbed, which everyone we know will succumb, that which we ourselves will eventually also submit.

But there is something comforting in that. You will die, and I will die, and no matter how many people surround us in the end it will inevitably be alone. But it is a doorway everyone passes through. We all walk together to that aloneness, united in something we cannot but do by ourselves.

So we know it is coming. There is no stopping it. And we know it will happen alone. But in that truth we are united and no one is ever alone. So let go of the fear. To fear death is to expend energy that makes no change. Instead we can welcome it, look with openness and wonder as it approaches, greet its coming with a willingness to see what adventure it holds, the final and most brilliant version following a life of mini-adventures.

That switch, that walk through death’s doorway with openness and grace, makes all the difference. It transforms everything. Death is coming, but exorcised from fear it loses control of us. It becomes just another step, another dance we are lucky enough to experience. And in becoming that it allows us to let go of ourselves. Death’s inevitability becomes just one more step, one more mystery to uncover, one we can do with grace.

Because mysteries are the most amazing parts of life. Falling in love is the mystery of meeting someone new, watching the story of them unfold before you. Life is but the unfolding of your own mystery. Death is just another version, a new step in a dance we are privileged to practice. Like life, like love, it is an experience to cherish, something to be lived fully, felt fully.

And stripped of fear, stripped of the need to control every step, those moments before death arrives become brighter, richer. There is no reason for fear, no reason for regret, no reason to look back and say “I wish.” Because stripped of fear, stripped of angst and worry, we live fully. Love falls deeply, wildly, uncontrollably. Life runs reckless, perfect and free. Every moment becomes a chance to fill the space we are offered with beauty, grace, wild blasts of perfection, moments that breathe and then die just like we do. We do not look to hold onto them after they are over, because they, just like us, are temporary. And in the briefest spark burns the full essence of life.

Life, love, sleepless nights and the promise of an adventure far greater than anything our memories hold—it is all before us, within us, surrounding us completely. We cannot get away from it, the raw beauty of a world stripped clear of pretense and fear. It whispers in the wind, hides the air we breathe, courses alongside the blood in our veins. It is all that we are.

But we forget. We wander and stray. We fall into ourselves, trapped in a conversation so easily distracted.

But not to worry, Death will greet us all someday. You will be reminded. And when that time comes, I will be next to you. As will everyone.

 

Morning with Monsters

Morning with Monsters

Fear is a funny thing. Run from it and it is always at your back, embrace it and its capacity to overwhelm you evaporates. Like darkness each morning, it can be pushed aside by the light. But as the sun rises in one place, darkness falls somewhere else. Face fear once, twice, a thousand times, and it inevitably crops up. We have a choice: keep facing our fears again and again forever, or try to run and hide from them for just as long.

This morning I got up before sunrise. My bag was already packed, tools strapped to the outside. I pulled on my Capilene, ate a small breakfast and jumped in the car. The road was coated in snow as I pulled onto Route 302.

About a month ago I soloed Standard Route at Frankenstein for the first time. It was an amazing experience, a moment where I embraced the fear of being ropeless and kept going. My brain screamed “NO” the whole way, and yet I continued upward, rejecting logic and letting trust and faith guide me.

Now, weeks later, the fear of being ropeless on Standard has dissipated. A week or two ago I ran up it again, this time before work. That time the tether anchoring me to the ground tugged but never grew taught. I was able to climb in control the entire time. The fear was gone, at least on Standard.

But there is always a bigger monster around the corner. As I drove to Frankenstein this morning I knew Standard was just the warm up. My fear, my test, was named Dracula.

The idea of soloing Dracula, the classic grade 4 at Frankenstein, first popped into my head on the descent from that first Standard solo. It wasn’t in yet, but as I walked past I knew in my heart it would go. This morning I went to Frankenstein determined to embrace that knowledge.

I got to the parking lot before the plows. It was still dark when I started walking down the railroad tracks. It was warm, above freezing, but I was dressed light enough I had to walk fast to stay warm. I followed deer prints in the fresh snow to the ice.

I got to the base of Standard and dropped my pack. The snow and ice above me glowed an eerie blue. I pulled on my harness, racked up and tethered into my tools in the pre-dawn light. I sighted the straightest, bluest line and started climbing. Standard flowed beneath my picks, an old friend accustomed to sitting together in silence. The first oranges and reds of morning sparked to the south. I snapped a few pictures as I climbed, but mostly I just cleared my head and concentrated on floating. “Breathe,” I thought time and time again. “Breathe.” In less than 10 minutes I reached the top and was walking back down.

The descent from Standard makes it easy to consider a second act. Most days I don’t have time to consider such things before work, but this morning I’d started early. Dracula looked soft, forgiving and beautiful. I walked to the base and stared up at it. I knew it would go. I took a sip of water, ate a snack, pulled on a dry pair of gloves from inside my jacket and swung a pick into the column. The ice was wet, pliable, perfect. I swung in the other tool. “This will go,” I thought, and I began climbing.

The first steep section went quick, a handful of moves up to a ramp. From there I kept going, swinging and kicking into dryer conditions. The ice was an open book as it flowed down a corner, so I stemmed my way skyward.

About halfway up, though, doubt crept in. My feet felt too wide. I was off balance, and the ice cracked more than I liked. I glanced down. A fall would break my legs and maybe my back. I’d bounce off the ramp, shoot out over the first column, hit the base and then tumble down the approach gully. I could see myself dying. “Shit,” I thought, “I don’t want that. Why am I here? This is stupid.” The terrestrial tether suddenly felt stretched to the limit. I prepared to climb down.

But I knew — KNEW — I could climb it. I’ve climbed Dracula countless times and never fallen. That doesn’t mean I never will, but I knew at that moment the thing holding me back wasn’t my strength or my skill, it was my head. The thing holding me back was me. I worked my way down, out of the corner and back to the ramp. I found a stance and buried my tools in the ice. I pulled off my gloves and tightened the laces on my right boot, took a deep breath, then another. “OK,” I thought, “you know the consequences. There is no logic to going upwards. None.” I switched feet and tightened the laces on the left boot. “Keep going and you could die.” I thought. “Just go down. The ground is safe.” I looked at my tools, drops of water glazing the orange paint, and then raised my eyes up. There were miles of steep ice above me. I looked at the sky, then down at the ground, and I felt a wall inside me crumble.

“That is wrong,” I thought, knowing in that instant I would continue climbing. “The ground isn’t safe. You think it is, but you may die there too. I might crash my car on the drive to work, or die of a heart attack at my desk, or get cancer. In fact, if I spend my entire life on the ground, it is inevitably where I’ll die. Going up isn’t about dying, going up is about living.” I swung my pick into the corner and started for the trees.

Every day we arrive at work on time, or make it to school, or meet a partner at the crag, we are fooling ourselves. We think because we made plans we were in control, that things worked out the way they did because we decided they would work that way. We’re wrong. We trick ourselves into believing we live in control, into believing that tomorrow will come just as today did, particularly if we avoid risk, never realizing the world can blow our plans off course at any moment. In a second we could die of a blood clot, or wind up shot dead in a movie theater. When it doesn’t happen each day we start thinking it won’t. We forget life is random, fleeting and final. We make plans for the future — a week, a month, a year, 30 years — thinking, KNOWING, we’ll be here to enjoy it. We walk through the world sure our lives will work out, wrapped in our own ignorance.

And we are wrong. I may die today. I may die as I write this, or tomorrow, or the next day. Life doesn’t wait and it isn’t guaranteed. It shows up wherever we make it, however we make it, whether on the ground or in the air. We will die someplace, that is the only guarantee. Darkness, fear may keep us from embracing LIFE, but it does nothing to stave off death. It rolls towards us nonetheless. The ground is not safety, and the route is not danger. They are simply the ground, and the route. There is risk in both, in all.

So I embraced the risk before me. “Breathe,” I thought as I moved up the final headwall. “Breathe.” It was the same thought I’d let fill my mind for the last 40 feet, the same thought I kept to the summit. It was my mantra, the thought that kept me in the moment, that pushed the fear of falling out, the fear of death out, the fear of failure and everything else out. I let the thought wash over me, let it carry me over the ice. It filled my mind, leaving my hands and feet to do the climbing they are so accustomed to. “Breathe,” I thought as I crested the ice and swung into turf. “Breathe,” I thought when I reached the trees.

I stood in the snow and let out a long, slow breath. “Today I lived,” I thought, rather than just survived. I smiled, clipped my tools to my harness and started the walk down.

Light is always looking for darkness. Allow it into one more place. And one more place. And one more place.