My good friend and climbing partner Meg was in a serious mountaineering accident last week. She was struck in the head by falling rock while attempting to climb Martha’s Couloir on Long’s Peak, a mixed ice and snow route. Her helmet saved her life, but by all accounts from those back home, she faces a long journey to recovery. Meg’s a strong person; the strongest I know, probably. But a traumatic brain injury is not a small thing.
When I saw the news on Facebook, I felt powerless. Here I was, halfway across the world in Morocco, while a good friend lay in the hospital on the verge of death. Had I been in Colorado, I might even have been on that mountain with her. I felt guilty.
My first instinct was to see how I could help.
I have a platform here, an audience that cares about what I have to say. I dashed off a post about the accident; imploring people to donate to the GoFundMe her family had started to pay for the sure-to-be-staggering medical bills. It felt good to be doing something. I was even going to send a message to my neglected e-mail list. I might lose some subscribers, but someone would probably donate. I wanted to help. I almost pulled the trigger.
But then I hesitated. Something didn’t feel right.
I went for a walk in the mountains. Here in Chefchaouen, mountains rise right outside of the town—their powerful presence is a big part of why I have lingered in this sleepy Moroccan pueblo for so long. Mountains have always been where I find my peace; where I find my best self. Meg, I know, is similar.
I walked out of town, accompanied by a new friend from the hostel, doing her best to distract me from my morbid state of mind. Admirable effort, but I still found myself thinking about the times Meg and I had shared together as climbing partners. I thought about the reasons we go into the mountains. I thought about why we do these things which we know could kill us. And I thought about what Meg would want.
Here it became clear to me, the story of a broken person in need of help wasn’t the story she would want told. That’s not Meg’s story. I wouldn’t dare to write it.
Instead, I want to tell the story of the day we climbed Long’s Peak.
Meg and I first tried to climb Long’s Peak in late spring of this year. We failed. Run off the peak by early afternoon electrical storms.
That was it. Our last chance in spring, before the snow melted.
Meg likes climbing on snow. Easier on her knee. She’s had three knee surgeries.
Spring is her favorite season. But she climbs year-round. She’s not the type of person to let a little thing like some pain stop her from doing what she wants.
We came down off Long’s Peak, beaten and used up.
I went to Panama, a long-scheduled trip, where the feeling continued.
Sitting on the surf beach in Bocas, I thought about climbing mountains.
I returned home to Colorado in mid-August. My reason for coming home was a wedding. I scheduled a day for the hangover, and the day after: Meg and I would have our revenge on Long’s.
Meg was chomping at the bit to claim the summit. She was only a few peaks away from finishing a six-year-long goal: summiting all 58 of Colorado’s 14ers. 14ers, 14,000+ foot peaks, are a popular Colorado ‘thing.’ It’s a badge of honor to hike one.
It’s a mark of a warrior to stand on top of 58.
At my wedding, all drunk, I told my friend Austin about our plans to climb Long’s Peak. Always down for an adventure, he asked if he could tag along.
Sure, I told him, that makes us three.
Climbing in a party of three is notoriously inefficient.
Our first, failed attempt on Long’s took us 17 hours.
Our successive, successful climb clocked in at 20+ hours.
Not to pretend that we did anything impressive — we climbed the Cables Route, one of the easiest technical lines up the mountain. Long’s holds many lines — more challenging aspects, different faces, many more future adventures, we told each other as we came down from the summit.
Two and a half months later, Meg went out for one of those other adventures. She came back in a medevac helicopter.
Death was on our minds that day in mid-August. Our route traversed across the top of the Diamond, a precipitous rock face that defines Long’s Peak. At many points, any misstep would have sent us over the edge, and down a 1,400 foot drop.
It’d take you about ten seconds to hit the ground, we figured.
Don’t slip, we joked.
And that day, no one slipped. We came down safe, ate a burger at Meg’s favorite place in Estes Park. We were all three exhausted: soaked from rain, sore from too many miles, and a little punch-drunk from lack of sleep.
It was a miserable meal, at the time. I just wanted to sleep. But in retrospect, it’s kind of enjoyable. Climbers call this Type-II fun.
But there are things in the mountains beyond human control. As climbers, we all know this. Rocks fall from above. They are dislodged by other climbers, or the mountain simply exfoliates. Avalanches cut loose. Ground which seems solid can give way without warning. Weather builds quickly in places you cannot see. Apartment-building-sized sections peel off El Capitan. You just have to move quickly, avoid objective danger, and hope for the best.
Inshallah, as they say here in Morocco.
I’m going to die by falling off a mountain, Meg has told me more than a time or two. These aren’t exactly encouraging words to hear from the person on the other end of your rope, but I understand what she means by it. A life lived in pursuit of a passion is about all we can ask for, if you don’t go in for the spiritual stuff.
How could you begrudge a person following their passion?
I wonder if her family, sitting vigil in the hospital room, understand. They probably do; mostly. Meg’s an extroverted person, always happy to talk your ear off. I’m sure she has, over the years, shown and said her piece. They know climbing is not just a big part of her life — it is her life. But still, some part of it must all seem so meaningless.
I wish I had the words to explain.
But if you could get the feeling by reading, no one would risk dying.
Back on Long’s, that day in August, everything seemed to gel for us. We started in the dead of night. We walked for some hours through moonlit forest, chatting all the while. Meg’s got quite a life story, and my friend Austin is a curious guy.
I mostly walked, listening to them feel each other out.
By dawn, we had cleared most of the Boulder Field, the famous landmark that guards the base of the easier routes on Long’s. We sat and watched the sun rise, one of the many small pleasures to be balanced against the vast suffering that makes up the huge majority of time spent climbing a mountain.
“I like that you stopped and watched the sun rise,” Meg told me after our first climb on Long’s. “Sometimes I get so focused on the objective that I forget to enjoy the reasons I started doing this in the first place.
“Maybe I should drive down south and hike Handies,” she mused. “That’s my favorite mountain in all of Colorado. Dead easy — just a walk — but it’s sooooo pretty.”
Meg never did go hike Handies, as far as I know. What she did do was climb three other mountains. Big, hard mountains. Long mountains, which I know kicked her ass. Like I said, she’s a hard-as-nails lady. In early October, six years after her first taste of high-altitude hiking, she had climbed every 14er in Colorado.
She messaged me: Rainier next summer, a 6,000 meter peak in Peru the year after that.
I penciled them in.
I fully expect she will still want to do them.
From the Boulder field, we suffered up a steep scree slope to the base of the Cables, the technical section of the route. I offered Meg the lead, but she declined. There was no ego in it for her; I simply would be the most efficient leader.
I led the first pitch — 30 meters of easy climbing, made a bit more engaging by the thin layer of verglass coating the rock. Last time we’d climbed this route, we’d done so in microspikes. I missed the purchase they provided, but ultimately climbed the pitch without major troubles.
I rigged a belay and brought Meg and Austin up simultaneously. Austin is relatively inexperienced as a climber, and I could hear Meg coaching him through the technical processes. In return, he encouraged her when she struggled with the technical moves.
“I hate rock climbing.”
Meg says this habitually, far too often for a person who climbs as frequently as she does.
I know she was excited for the return of snow on Long’s.
That day we found no snow. I cruised the second pitch, Austin and Meg followed, and we slowly, carefully picked our way across the top of the Diamond, to the summit of Long’s Peak.
We spent an hour on the summit. It was sunny, pleasant and temperate. Those of you familiar with the mountains will know, those are conditions to be appreciated.
We took some photos, smiled, and breathed in the fresh mountain air.
The descent took a long time. We had to reverse our route above the Diamond. Again, with much morbid conversation. From the edge of the Diamond, we abseiled back down the cables.
“Always, always, always knot the ends of your rappel rope,” she instructed Austin. He nodded, intent. “Most dangerous part of climbing, right here,” I said, as I tossed the ropes. A poor throw. They tangled, hopelessly, and I hauled them back up to try again.
Shiwya, shiwya, as they say here in Morocco.
Climbing a mountain is a lot like living a life. Memorable moments interspersed with long periods of silence, suffering, and work.
The day we climbed Long’s Peak is one of the better days I’ve had this year. That’s high praise, considering my last year has been spent across five different countries, just as many states, and a similar number of climbing partners.
It’s a pleasant memory. I will have it for a long time. Austin, too.
Meg has a long ways to go. I don’t delude myself about that. But I know after this long dark period, someday in the future, we will share another summit together.
Meg keeps a blog at Megofthemountain.com. Obviously she hasn’t written anything since the accident, but this piece about her journey climbing with multiple sclerosis and chronic pain is a good read. It will make you appreciate your life all the more. She has an amazing spirit.