wow, haven’t posted in a while. Here is a story that I wrote in my journal about an adventure last summer…
“Seek Adventure” – Micah Dash, Alpinist
Death beckons me as I look between my legs at the empty space below. That’s why I’m here in the first place. A man died up here a few days ago. He was an ultrarunner, a brother who takes inspiration from these mountains the way that I do. I had never met him, but his death of course saddened me. I ran up here to the ridge crest above the Ice Lakes to see where he had died. And to think about death.
For about the last year I have worn a bracelet on my left wrist composed of a string of tiny skulls carved by hand out of yak bone. I bought it in Namche Bazaar in Nepal, on a cloudy and rainy day. At the time I was reading The Tibetan Book of the Dead, which inspired me to spend quite a bit of time contemplating the nature of death.
When people say things like, “I was contemplating the nature of death,” our culture usually reacts by thinking that they are prone to committing suicide. Our culture, to me anyway, seems to be in no way curious about death, instead we are neurotically afraid of it. It seems that at our most fundamental level our culture strives to be entirely deathless–we will do anything to fight against our own and other people’s death. The Tibetan Book of the Dead instead taught me that death is another step in the process that is life, a transformative step. It told me that there is opportunity in death, there is a moment when our souls get to choose whether to be reborn into this world once again, or to realize that we have experienced enough and that we can instead escape it. The message to me was clear–escape the fear of death and you are truly free to live life to its fullest. I did not want to forget this epiphany, as it feels like I so often do with other sudden realizations and insights, so I bought the bracelet of yak bone skulls, and still wear it to this day to remind me to live my life without fear.
Most of the greatest people I have known in my so-far short life have seemed to possess the ability to live their life without fear. I suspect that the man who died by falling off of Pilot Knob, near where I now stood, was one of these rare and blessed individuals. He was up on this jagged, loose, and magnificent orange-tinted ridgeline trying to complete a route known as the Ice Lakes Traverse. It is a somewhat well-known, although rarely completed, linkup of many beautiful mountain peaks that surround the famous Ice Lakes, although one typically only undertaken by ultrarunners, who have the speed and endurance to complete such an arduous task. I heard that he had even completed the traverse himself one time before. The Ice Lakes Traverse had in fact been on my list of objectives, or ultrarunning adventures, that I wanted to complete during the summer and his untimely death was unfortunately a perfect excuse for me to wake up early and finally tackle it.
You see, I was curious. The shallowest part of my curiosity simply wanted to see the scene for myself, to play detective if you will. I wanted to take in with my own eyes the spot where he must have fallen. How crumbly and loose really was the notoriously bad rock? Had he simply fallen? Did he reach the summit of Pilot Knob, halfway through the traverse, the steepest and most inaccessible of the summits, and fallen while down-climbing? These were amongst the simple questions that I strove to answer.
But there was another layer of curiosity as well which resided deeper within my heart, or psyche, I’m not sure which. I wanted to be close to his death, to feel it. I don’t mean that I wanted to be almost dead myself, although I can’t deny that an experience of that nature would likely be extremely powerful. I just wanted the energy of his life to aid in my contemplation and understanding of what it means to die, and far more importantly, grasp what it means to really live. Surely there was some of his residual life force in the place where he had perished just a couple days before. Surely there was power in the process of retracing the final action of his life. My curiosity was simply to be in that place, feel that energy and power, and to experience what was there.
As I scrambled along the laughably loose sides of Pilot Knob, halfway through the traverse, standing like a crumbling castle on top of a tall hillside above the stunningly beautiful aqua blue lakes below, I exalted in how difficult this peak was to climb. While there are literally thousands of jagged peaks in the Rockies of Colorado, virtually all of them hold relatively benign climbing routes; trails made by humans or animals most often lead one to the summit. But there was no easy way to the top of Pilot Knob. In fact, as I ascended higher I marveled at the fact that this may be one of the most difficult Colorado peaks I had climbed.
The way was convoluted, with no clearly marked path. I found myself beneath large cliffs comprising the summit castle, but could find no obvious way through. So I traversed along the bottom of the west side of the peak, not following any human trail. The ground was steep and made up of loose dirt and teetering blocks of scree. Each step sent a scurry of loose pebbles and stones tumbling down myriad shallow gullies, creating a cacophony as they entrained more rocks in their tumble off the mountain. I was aiding in the geologic erosion of this peak–it was falling down as I was climbing up. Looking behind me I could easily discern my recently created path, each step forming a deep dimple in the soft dirt mountain, like a track across a sand dune. Looking ahead there was no trace of a human like me having traveled this way in the last few days, it seems as if my lost friend had decided to traverse under these cliffs on the other side of the mountain.
I felt as if I was beginning to piece the puzzle together, but mystery still remained. I knew that the body had been found in the basin on the East side, the opposite side of the mountain from where I now stood. I also understood that he had not traveled the same way that I was, but then again, I wasn’t even sure that I was on the correct path. I continued my traverse looking for signs of human passage, which I was eventually bound to encounter. Even on a difficult peak like this one there would be a “common route” to the top, I just had to find it. At the moment I was thinking these thoughts I suddenly noticed a small cairn, a small pile of stones, on a ledge above me. A closer look and I saw another one even higher up the gulley-like feature that looked almost vertical. The cairns told me this was the way, so I began my climb upwards. Despite its steepness, the climbing was much easier than it looked from below, although loose rock was scattered about on all of the horizontal ledges. Soon I gained the summit ridge atop the gulley.
The ridge was an airy and precarious place indeed. Gone were the piles of loose stones, but the huge vertical drops on every side had only become larger. Places like this is where my soul feels most alive; I felt full of joy. The bright sunshine warmed me, a light breeze caressed my face, and the view was nothing but mountain summits and clouds in every direction. There was nowhere I would rather be.
Back to playing sleuth, I decided to peer over the precipice on the other side. I needed to ascertain whether there was another way up through the cliffs than the one I had just ascended. The summit ridge was narrow as a sidewalk. Although it was not steep, it was peppered by many rocky bulges on the way to the top. My perch was on one end of this catwalk in the sky, and on the other end, only a little higher than me, was the true summit. On all sides were large drops. I peered over the edge carefully and saw a sheer rock wall about 200 feet tall. There was certainly no ascent gulley on this side of the mountain. While a skilled climber could surely ascend these castle walls, doing so with no belay while wearing running shoes was not an option. I decided there was virtually no way he had ascended the mountain from this side, the side where his body was found.
The last clue that Pilot Knob was likely to reveal would be at the summit. I turned my attention towards it and quickly completed the scramble along the ridge. Surmounting the rocky bulges was easy but exposed. Soon I stood on the highest point. I poked around for a summit register and found it tucked under the small summit cairn. A grey PVC tube with a screw lid protected the tightly rolled sheaf of papers from the mountain elements. I removed the register and thumbed through, looking for the last entry, needing to know whether he had signed his name. He had not.
It made me ponder. Sometimes people choose not to sign in on mountain summits, not wanting to divulge their presence in the mountain wilds, but more often they do, especially on rarely attained summits like Pilot Knob. There had been no register on the top of Ulysses S. Grant Peak earlier in the day, as is also often the case, so I had no opportunity to see if he was a signor or not. But never-the-less, his name did not appear at the end of a long list going back close to ten years on the top of this mountain, so I don’t think that he made it to the top before he fell. I took the Bic pen out of the tube and used it to add my name to the list, then rolled the papers up tight, stuffed them back in the tube, and screwed the lid back on. My eyes found their way to the peaks on the distant horizon, but my mind was lost in melancholy thoughts.
I reviewed everything I had learned today about his fate. His body was spotted by helicopter on the East slopes of the mountain. This was the opposite side of the mountain as the only ascent route that I could find. From talking with friends who were involved with the search and rescue I learned that he had not been struck by lightning, or there would have likely been evidence on his body. He had supposedly completed this traverse before, so should have known where the route up and down Pilot Knob was. It stands to reason that he should not have traversed onto the East side of the mountain unless he needed to, and would not have chosen to climb the mountain that way. So, I think he must have been trying to descend. Below the East Face of Pilot Knob is the Ice Lakes, an immensely popular hiking destination, with an easy trail back to the parking area where his car was. But the East Face is a treacherous slope of steep dirt and large loose boulders. It is not a slope one would choose to descend unless they absolutely had to. A violent thunderstorm, extremely common in the San Juan Mountains in the summer, probably arose quickly to the West. His position on the ridge would be an extremely dangerous place to be engulfed in a lightning storm, and his retreat options were to go back the way he came along the long ridge, or go around Pilot Knob and continue further on the ridge, but both of these options would be slow going and extremely exposed. Or he could head straight down the East Face. Perhaps he was in a rush, or maybe not. He could have been going very slow and being extra careful, but either way a single slip on the steep loose dirt or a single rock giving way underfoot could have led to an uncontrolled tumble from which there was no recovery. I don’t know if this is what happened or not, but picturing it in my mind brought a tear to my eye as I sat on the top of the mountain.
Unconsciously my gaze dropped to look at my own hands, resting in my lap. Around my left wrist was a bracelet made of yak bones carved into the shape of skulls. Death… Pictures of dear friends no longer alive flood my vision, friends who died in the mountains… I remember each of them, the times we had together, and the moments that I found out that they were dead. I didn’t know this friend who died here on Pilot Knob, but in a way I did. His memory joins all the others, swimming around in a soup of sadness. I don’t know how long this reverie lasted, but eventually the visions and memories of these friends now gone joined the wind and the sun and the distant peaks to cradle me in a giant cosmic embrace alone atop that mountain.
The overwhelming moment of reflection now past, I brought my gaze up from where it rested on my bracelet and gave myself back over to the present moment. Uncontrollably, my lips curled up into a giant smile. My life was happening here and now, on top of this beautiful Colorado ridgeline.
As I stood up and began to move again, the words of my long gone friend Micah Dash, another victim of the mountains, echoed around the inside of my head: “Seek Adventure.” I can’t even remember the context in which these words came out of his mouth, I think it was in a movie, but his face and voice, looking at me head on, directly in the eyes, and speaking to me from soul directly to soul, are burned indelibly into my state of being. I never think of him without hearing those words. On top of Pilot Knob, as if he was the Great Spirit himself, his vision and voice emanating from everything, everywhere, all at once, he implored me once again– Seek Adventure!
So, with his fire and his energy exploding out of every pore in my body, I bounded off down the ridge, as happy as I’ve ever been, fulfilling my dreams, running ridges in the sky.
There is no story that doesn’t come to an end. There is no life that won’t end in death. While it is a cliché that has been expressed in obituaries and at funerals for as long as we humans have existed, there is still no greater truth than, “It is not important how a person dies, what is important is how they lived.” Just as I mourn for the life of my newly deceased brother here on Pilot Knob, it brings a lump to my throat and a tear to my eye to contemplate the deaths of all of my friends who have perished in the mountains. Sometimes it’s a tough pill to swallow. But their memory gives me far more powerful gift: the inspiration, love, and joy to remember the passion with which they lived. I rarely contemplate my own death, but on the rare occasion that it creeps into my thoughts, the message is always very clear: LIVE!