A Dying Light
By Drew Bedford
Published in Rock & Ice Magazine, 2018
I got the phone. It was Doug.
“What’s up? How are you?”
“I’ve been better.” he replied.
“I don’t know how to tell you this.” His voice cracked. There was a long pause. “Seth was killed in Alaska yesterday.”
A serac had collapsed on Mt. Johnson. The rest of the conversation is on auto-pilot. Why, how, with whom. Did it matter? A numbness crept down my chest. Only six months ago our friend Alex had been swept away in an avalanche. The sick feeling, the tightness in my chest, boomeranged back. Seth, Doug and I had worked and climbed together for over a decade. The phone conversation ended quickly. We had held each other’s lives a hundred times, but I held the tears back until after the choked goodbye.
What ephemeral medium is a soul? What is that drive to seek a summit, the thing that is best in us one minute, and seconds later escapes like a cooling mist through crushing blue blocks of ice. What vehicle carries a spirit so strong, bold and caring? The vessel of thirty-eight years of compassion and love, now cools–literally on ice.
A week later I meet Sue Nott during a soul-searching visit to Yosemite. She was sponsored by the same brand that supported Seth’s climbing career and they had worked and climbed together. She was looking for partners, and I was down one. I told her that the Steck-Salathé on Sentinel was one of Seth’s favorite climbs, yet neither of us had done it. We decide it would make a worthy homage.
We perform a quick rack up at Sue’s rust-speckled home, the tan van. She crashes around inside upending milk crates, looking for gear.
“I’m really low on cams. We had to bail off in a thunderstorm the other day. I probably left $400 worth of gear.”
We wind up with a his and hers rack and begin hiking. Shaded and north facing, Sentinel looms over the meadows of Yosemite like a tombstone. Seth’s eyes would always twinkle describing the route. I wonder, is it really a worthy climb, or had he always been sand-bagging me?
Sue walks beside me, her quick short strides keeping pace with my lanky ones. I’m amused that her clothes are more Roxy girl than Patagonia. She chatters away, catching me up on all the “sick lines” she wants to climb.
Our mid morning arrival at the base is a tardy one. We perform the litany of tape, shoes, and rack. Unroped, we head up the sloping thousand-foot ramp that guards the start of the climb. Two climbers pass us descending.
“Going up the Steck-Salathé?”
“Kind of a late start. Know what you’re getting into?”
The two refugees continue down, shaking their helmeted heads. Sue and I don’t talk. Redoubling my pace, I burn to the base of the climb. Fuck it. Like a sailor breaks his gaze from the shore and turns out to sea, I tie in and start climbing.
The first few pitches slide by easily. Then I’m forced into a deep cleft in the rock that offers barely enough room for my torso. The primal movement forces me against the rock, mashing face and arms and ass against stone. I fight for friction. Cold air blows from deep inside the mountain, smelling of shadows, ancient and crafty. I emerge from the squeeze and enjoy standing in daylight, arms-length from the rock.
Only a few hundred feet into the climb, our route map had slipped from Sue’s pocket and swirled away. No topo, no roadmap. Fifteen hundred feet of granite lie above, and we have no idea which way to go. We could only rely on our climbing instincts, and each other. Sues concerned eyes look up at me. I mutter Seth’s favorite line about any mishap or impending epic, “Aww, it’s not that bad…”
Moving over shattered stone, plates of granite shift with a gritty rumble. Pitch after pitch we weave between options. Are we off-route? Then telltale marks of passage appear. A cluster of scratchy, bleached webbing around a tree. A piton slammed in a corner.
I’m reminded of Seth as I watch Sue climb, her shorter stature harboring an abundance of muscular power. She smiles as she seconds over a bulge.
“Never a doubt.”
Her white smile continues long after we break eye contact.
We summit onto the Flying Buttress, a little island of horizontal ground. Laughing in the sun, we eat some warm sticky energy bars. Sue hands me some mashed cherry something. I offer her unidentifiable chocolate whatever. We wash it down with a sip of precious water from our one bottle.
The Narrows are the crux. This black chasm in Sentinel contains little protection and an abundance of uncertainty. Stemming out of the bomb-bay fissure, I try to improvise. Climb the gaping chimney? Or exit the chimney and climb the exposed face outside? The rope at my waist hangs in a lazy arc, swooping back thirty feet to the belay where Sue watches nervously. With each move, a faint sine waves roll along the slender blue nylon rope from my knot to Sue’s hands and back again.
As the distance between us gapes, I feel the fight or flight moment coming. But no need. The solution is there–a narrow crack at the very farthest extent of the chimney shows the way out. With the key in the lock, I pause, relax, and revel–my feet straddling a void of two thousand feet of air.
With my lead over I set a belay, happy and glowing. I enjoy Sue’s struggles. She may be working hard, but she’s safe. I keep the rope snug to instill confidence.
Anxiety taps me on the shoulder. Daylight slides away over the summit of El Capitan. Like a scarf drawn over a lamp, the line between sun and shadow runs up the wall.
Sue leads to the summit, and I join her quickly.
“Hah! On top before dark!”
My words are edged with irony as the sunset over El Cap turns to rust. A quick snapshot of our summit hug, the growing darkness enough to trigger the camera’s flash. We swig the last sip of our water. I pull a carabiner off my rack, stamped with Seth’s initials. It appeared in a gear sort before I left for the valley. I leave it on the summit.
Descent from Sentinel is the antithesis of climbing– crouching, crawling, inelegant movement. We’re uncoordinated, Sue going her way, me trying another path through the dense undergrowth. Where there had been the choreography of lead and follow, now there is only discord and confusion. Twilight disappears before our descent is five minutes old. Turning on our one headlamp, I adjust the circle of light as wide as possible. Like rabbits we scurry through manzanita tunnels. The dusty, silvery bronze leaves, slick as waxed paper, make our footing insecure and backtracking feel like defeat. Finally a cairn of small granite stones marks the top of the true descent gully.
The way down is steep and dangerously slick with white granite peas cast across slabs. A rappel from scrawny trees barely rooted in cracks would be more dangerous. Like two exhausted contestants at a marathon dance contest, we lead and follow, lead and follow. The shadow of Sentinel looms over our left shoulder, impartial, unwilling to recede.
Our thirst grows. Our climbing shoes are tight and painful–every step a little punch in the toenails. The downward leapfrog continues. Down climb, stop, look back and shine light. Sue down climbs to me and it repeats again.
Out of nowhere a rain falls. It’s colder than the night air. I start to shiver. On a tiny ledge we pause. I turn out the headlamp. For the moment we are secure in our immobility, our wet clothing steaming in the stillness. A star shoots across the cobalt sky.
“Do you know any constellations?”
“My Dad taught me some. There’s Scorpio and the Pleiades.” I try to sound confident and knowing, as though childhood memories of a warm summer’s eve in my father’s lap could help me navigate through the cold darkness we faced.
“We should get going.”
The words are barely spoken when my relit headlamp begins to die. Our sole source of light becomes limp and yellow. Before the voltage is completely gone, I snap off the light, trying to stay the loss. In the last second of weak light I catch Sue’s gaze, her wide brown eyes growing larger. My body feels impossibly heavy.
The gully is still hideously steep, filled with water-smoothed stone and unseen drop-offs. Wet, slick granite is perilous even in daylight. We sit next to each other, immobile on a one-foot wide ledge.
Minutes pass. Sue breaks the silence in a soft voice.
“I didn’t feel much of Seth today. I thought I would.”
I say nothing. My heart beats faster. I reached out in the dark to find her hand. It is scarred and roughened by stone, but warm and powerful. We squeeze.
“I’m glad we did it. A week ago, I don’t know. I hated climbing.”
“You and Seth climb a lot alike. You don’t back down.”
“I can’t believe he’s gone.”
“You loved him.”
My eyes fill with tears. I’m sobbing. Sue’s chalky hands try to wipe tears from my eyes. My pupils dilated, I can make out her smile and the wet glint of tears behind auburn locks.
“I gotta cut this out. We’re already wet enough.”
“I guess we should go for it.”
A beam of moonlight appears between rain clouds and bounces off white granite and creates a pool of faint illumination. I make my first move onto the slick granite and turn to see Sue take her first step, surrendering to the unknown.
Where does our soul go when we die? What happens to the memories of youthful friends doing stupid things and living to tell about it? Do they leak into the ground, running like melt-water? Or is it like a light bulb attached to a dying battery; fading into amber hues, narrowing its spectrum, until a pinprick of light disappears?
Months later, I again answer the phone. Sue and her partner have disappeared and are presumed dead on Mt. Foraker in Alaska.