As many of you already know, my father died in a mountaineering accident this past August. It was a shocking loss for our family. You’re never really “ready” for someone you love to die, but when they die so suddenly and unexpectedly and in such a dramatic way, it really throws you for a loop. I’ve written other posts about my dad’s death, but one thing I decided to do a few weeks after he died was to create a list of books that were meaningful to him in some way and read them as a way of maintaining a connection with him and exploring the books that he always meant for me to read but I never did. The first book I chose to read was Where the Mountain Casts Its Shadow by Maria Coffey.
You may think it is an odd choice to read a book about “the dark side of extreme adventure” so soon after my father’s death in a mountaineering accident. The book is about what compels men and women to pursue the dangerous sport of mountaineering and the consequences of loving people who pursue such risks, including the constant threat of bereavement and the lives shattered in the wake of climbing accidents. Coffey herself was driven to write the book after her boyfriend Joe Tasker disappeared on the Northeast Ridge of Mount Everest in 1982.
I chose the book because my father himself recommended it to me—in the only comment he ever left me on this blog. His comment was:
“Because it is there.” Mallory’s quip was his terse answer as to his rational for climbing Everest. Maria Coffey in Where the Mountain Casts Its Shadow gives a more comprehensive answer but the primary focus is the detritus that the spouse, friend, parent, child and sibling experience when a climber selfishly departs for climbing is a selfish and dangerous endeavor.
Joe Tasker and Peter Boardman vanished on Everest in 1982; Maria Coffey was Tasker’s partner who reveals “the exhilarating highs and inevitable lows, the stress of long separations, the constant threat of bereavement” even with a successful expedition. The loved ones of servicemen and women know these stresses. Top climbers, their widows and families interviewed include Jim Wickwire (read Addicted to Danger), Conrad Anker (married to Alex Lowe’s widow), Joe Simpson (read Touching the Void), Anatoli Boukreev (hero/goat of Into Thin Air fame), Chris Bonington and many others.
The subtitle aptly summarizes this work “The Dark Side of Extreme Adventure.”
I’m sure my dad never thought that he himself would be the one to make this book so personally relevant to me. In the days immediately following his death, my mind flew to his comment about this book, and I felt compelled to read it immediately. I think I was searching for answers to help make sense of what had happened to my dad. In my grief, I think I took his comment as a premonition of some sorts; a way of leaving me a “clue” or a sign post to help me understand what had happened to him. I know that my dad had given this book to a friend of his whose fiance had been killed in an avalanche while hiking in the Himalayas so I know he saw this book in that light—as one that could provide answers and comfort to those left behind.
As with all the posts in this reading project, I’m writing a little bit about why I read the book and then I’ll write a letter to my dad about my thoughts after reading it. In this small way, I feel like I’m able to still talk to him and share a connection. As emotional as it is to do this, I’m hoping to find it healing as well.
Well, I finally read the Maria Coffey book you told me about. I’m sure you had no idea about the circumstances under which I would be reading it, but I thank you for pointing me to it. It gave me lots to think about in the weeks after you died.
Please don’t take this the wrong way, but, in many ways, I’m almost glad that you died the way you did. I know you always made us promise that we wouldn’t put you in a nursing home, and you dreaded becoming incapacitated or helpless as a result of aging. I know that seeing your patients suffer from Alzheimer’s or multiple sclerosis and other cruel diseases made you fear a similar fate for yourself. I remember you telling me about a patient who literally became trapped in his own body, with his brain functioning but unable to communicate or move in any way. Being unable to be your full self was something you dreaded and feared. The fact that you died while doing what you loved and in full health is an odd blessing in a way. You didn’t have to face these fears, and we didn’t have to watch you suffer.
Mom and I talked about how it might have almost been worse if you had survived the fall but been paralyzed or brain-damaged. I think that would have been more painful than just losing you altogether in one swift stroke. I know I couldn’t have handled seeing you that way. You would have hated it and been so angry. Perhaps it would have given us a chance to say goodbye to you, but I wouldn’t wish that horror on you just to gain a sense of closure for myself. I know that you loved me, and I know you know I loved you. And in the end, what more is there really to say?
I know that being in the mountains was a form of escape and relaxation for you. It was one of your passions, and I know it brought you peace and stillness in a way that nothing else could. Mom and I talked about how being in the mountains was like your going to church. It was your form of spirituality, your way of seeking God and achieving peace from the stresses of life. I want you to know that we all understood this, and I didn’t begrudge you the chance to seek this outlet that I know you so dearly needed. I know Mom understood your need for this. Why else do you think we all moved out to Montana?
You mentioned in your comment about the “selfishness” of climbers, and this is touched on again and again in Coffey’s book. How can climbers who love others cling to such a dangerous pursuit, where the possibility of death hangs like a shadow over every expedition? The climbers in the book talk about how they didn’t feel fully alive unless they were on the mountain. That without it, they were only shells of themselves. And even the angriest and most grief-stricken loved ones left behind attest to this truth. For those who have “mountaineering in their blood,” it simply isn’t an option to not do it. It would be like being half-dead. And if you truly love someone, can you ask them to give up an essential part of themselves? It is a difficult question to answer. Part of me thinks: “Well, if you loved me, you wouldn’t put yourself in this position to let something awful happen to you.” Then another part of me thinks: “But is it fair to deny a person you love the thing they fuels their happiness and passion and fire and makes them who they are?”
In the end, Dad, I don’t think you were selfish. I know you were careful and planned and took as many precautions as you could during your trips. You pursued this sport for years with nothing bad happening, and I think that lulled all of us into a sense of safety. When I head you were going up to Glacier that weekend, I didn’t think twice about it. You went there all the time. However, I think I can say this because you got to see your kids grow up, you saw your grandchildren, you had 42 years with Mom, and you left Mom well taken care of as far as finances. Had this happened when we were small and we never got to know you, I think it would be much harder for me to say this. I think the widows in the book who lost their husbands while they had several small children had a much harder time coming to terms with it. It is all a matter of degrees. If you had this accident when you were 45 instead of 65, it would have been a whole different story.
But we’re talking about your story here. I think, in a weird way, you might be glad you “went out” the way you did. It was bold and spectacular and dramatic. As they say, “Better to go out with a bang than a whimper.” You were not a whimpering type of person, Dad. We all know that. We loved you for who you were. We miss you terribly, and we all wish you were still here. But still, part of me is glad you never had to face a debilitating illness or dementia. Mom and I talked about how you never know what is around the corner, waiting for you. Perhaps in a year you would have been diagnosed with cancer and spent the remainder of your days wasting away in pain. That would not have suited you at all. I prefer to think that God gave you a beautiful death that was suited to who you were and saved you from experiencing that which you dreaded and feared above all else. Your death is a reminder to all of us that we never know what is coming so live fully in the now. Love those you are with while you are with them. Experience life fully without waiting. In Coffey’s book, so many of the loved ones left behind say “His death jolted me alive” or “I started living life with a vengeance.” Could there be a better legacy than that?
I miss you, Dad, and I always will. I wish we could have gotten to talk one last time or had a chance to say goodbye. I wish we could have had more time together. But wishes won’t make that happen. I accept what happened to you, and I hope to visit the place where you died in the near future. I know it is beautiful, and I think it will help me to achieve some closure by being there.