The Three Fingered Jack - Pt. 1

“I really miss Tyler”, he confessed to me. I hesitated, unsure of how to respond. 

We were sitting in our shared two-man tent, sipping a cheap bottle of gas station wine and gazing at the stars through the thin mesh. A few long, empty minutes had passed since we had exchanged words – we had the kind of friendship where words sometimes weren’t necessary, and, in this case, we were both in deep contemplation.

“I know man” I paused, inhaling in the thin tension between us. “Me too.” I sipped my wine. I didn’t know what else to say. Of course we, along with the many others missed Tyler. I never once doubted that Corey had experienced a moment where he didn’t think of him or miss him in a way that only a gaping hole left in your heart from a lost friend can.

The silence resumed, each of us sipping on the cheap gas station wine out of styrofoam coffee cups, each of us looking up at the soft glow of the moon cast upon our sleeping bags through the tent. 

“It’s kind of weird getting into a campsite at night and not knowing where you are” I remarked after a few more heavy moments of silence. Corey didn’t respond. He didn’t have to, and the silence resumed. 

It had been just over a year since our friend, Tyler Heilman had passed away in a climbing accident. Corey and I had travelled to Bend, Oregon to climb the mountain that his accident had taken place on. I had no experience with this mountain; no association or knowledge other than what Corey had told me from that fateful day a year ago.

Corey had been with Tyler on the day of the accident. I couldn’t fathom how much courage Corey had to come back to the place where our life, and especially his life began to unravel a year ago into a chaotic cacophony of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, doubt, uncertainty, and grief.

It was a few months prior that he had asked me to join him on the climb to commemorate the anniversary of Tyler’s passing. He brought the idea up tentatively at first, as if he wasn’t quite sure of it yet himself.

“Only if you want to” He said. “Only if you feel ready, and if you feel like you would get something out of it… I know it’s a lot to ask” He laughed, brushing off the immensity of the question. Corey had a way of bringing up heavy matters by laughing. It was his tell-tale sign that it meant a lot to him, as if he was saying ‘this is super mssed up so I’m going to laugh because I don’t know how else to show my emotions’. 

Of course I would join him. I didn’t once doubt my decision to climb with Corey and to support him on this climb, and to receive some sort of closure for myself, whatever that meant and whatever form that took. So here we were, laying in our tent, sipping gas station wine out of styrofoam coffee cups and reminiscing, and grieving, about our beloved friend.

I couldn’t remember falling asleep, but I did remember waking up to the splattering of rain coming through our tent mesh. Hastily, I stumbled out of my sleeping bag, threw on the fly of the tent – decided it was good enough to keep us mostly dry for the remainder of the night, and crawled back into our now wet cocoon.

The crisp air of fall greeted us the next morning, and the iridescent red glow of the rising sun began to illuminate the sky as we shuffled about the tent getting ready. Our surroundings became more and more visible – we had pitched camp surrounded by the fire-scarred skeletons of trees. In the distance, the matterhorn-like shape of Mt. Washington was illuminated in the sun. We spent the morning as most climbers do – organizing gear, drinking copious amounts of coffee at ungodly hours, and nervously watching the weather. 

Thankfully, we were joined by two of our friends parents: Craig and Randy. They were both very experienced climbers in their own right, having taught climbing and embarking on expeditions around the world when they were younger. More importantly, there was no doubt that they experienced a similar experience of loss in the mountains. If you spend enough time in them, your bound to have a tragic story or two of your own. They were our kind of karmic guru’s, guiding us through the day and climb gracefully and with a lightness that middle-age, hindsight, and a great deal of life experience bring.

“I was mislead into doing this climb!” Randy bantered over coffee. “It’s a 6 mile hike, to climb 4 pitches! That’s not a climb, that’s a hike!” he joked. We all laughed. It was true, it wasn’t a very technically or physically demanding climb. To counter Randy’s jubilant and crude humour, Craig, our other climbing companion and long-time friend of Randy’s stoked his fire in a way that only long-time friends know how to do.

“Have you heard my story about the time I was climbing Half-Dome during an earthquake?” Randy posed as we began hiking, trying to get a rise out of Craig. He had probably heard this story dozens of times before, but he entertained Randy and led him on. “Oh no, I never have, please tell me”, enunciating each word with a fake monotone of excitement. It was this sarcastic humour that made the pair a great duo, and Corey and I were glad for their lighthearted company. 

We began the hike, and made our way to the base of the climb in a similar fashion. Much of the day was accompanied the exchange of stories by Randy and Craig, describing their own near-misses in the mountains and tall tales from their youth. Corey and I listened and laughed intently, always reflecting, mostly in quiet contemplation as we walked towards the base of the climb.

Losing those close to you is never easy. Losing friends in the mountains is a totally new way to experience loss. Of course, there is the tragedy of the situation – the inevitability of grieving the loss of someone close to you. But equally important is the questions that arise about yourself and your own life that you have chosen to live in the mountains. You begin to wonder if your own pursuit of exploring these high, dangerous, and desolate places is worth it. If you’ve taken risks that could have otherwise been avoided, or if it was selfish of you to put yourself in harms way for the pure enjoyment and satisfaction that comes from traveling through the mountains.

After Tyler’s death I began to put myself in the shoes of my family and friends, wondering what the effect an injury or accident might have on them. I felt selfish to be enjoying these risky pursuits, but I couldn't just stop pursuing them. They kept me sane in same way.

“I could get used to this” I said to Corey, laughing about our unhurried, lazy plod through the forest that slowly brought us closer and closer to the climb. 

“Isn’t it awesome?” Corey said. “Randy and Craig pace” he laughed.  We were used to racing through the mountains… The eagerness of youth not lost upon us to fit in as much as possible in a given time. Tyler especially was never able to contain himself - running everywhere he went with boyish enthusiasm and excitement, but with the strength of a person who had been living his life that way all along. We always had desire to go faster, further, harder, higher. It was refreshing to go so slowly, and especially on that day allowed us more space to reflect and absorb the stillness of the forest. 

I was thankful that for the majority of the hike we were in the forest – especially because I had feared a view of the climb – and the unforgiving West face which Tyler had fell towards his death down would be looming over us constantly. I was especially thankful that Corey didn’t have that visual in his mind. Instead, our methodical, calculated steps slowly carried us towards the base of the climb. Out of view for now, and mostly out of mind.

I fell in step behind Corey - watching him from afar, letting him guide the way and guide the pace of the day. After a few hours of hiking, he stopped ahead of me. I joined him by his side - quietly filling the space. His gaze held, overlooking the treetops at a peak in the distance, surrounded by a torrent of clouds. Even from a distance, you could tell the clouds were moving quickly, and on an otherwise bluebird day, it was an ominous sign. 

"There it is" Corey sighed. He didn't need to say anything more - I felt my own emotions well up in my chest. I stifled the before Randy and Craig arrived - only to make light of the situation. "Looks like some fine alpine weather boys!" Randy joked. I feigned a smile. I wasn't normally one for superstitions, but it felt deeply affecting to see Tyler's mountain in such a state, the tumultuous weather and wind, an isolated storm matching our already somber moods.

We decided to continue on. If we couldn't climb the mountain, we could at least hike to the base and get a better view. Soon enough, we came upon the base of the climb. We were sweating in the hot Oregon sun, yet looming above us the mountain was still shrouded by a heavy layer of cloud and fog. I still felt uneasy. I couldn't tell if it was because of my emotions, or because of the weather, or both.

Before I had a moment to ask Corey if he wanted to continue, or pay our respects at the base of the climb, Randy and Craig began scrambling up the loose volcanic scree without pause. I glanced at Corey to read his expression. Our eyes met, and he shrugged, put his head down and followed step up towards the col where we would start the climb.

As I hiked up the scree, my mind kept reeling with thoughts of what the day was like one year prior when Tyler and Corey climbed it. I laughed, thinking and knowing that Tyler would've raced up this scree field, probably yelling something like "C'mon man! It's SO cool". He'd run up and up, out of breath but his excitement carrying him higher and higher. It was always hard to keep up with him in the mountains.

Midway up I glanced at Corey who was similarly having a hard time climbing the scree. One step forward, two steps back. It was like climbing a sand dune, but with large, sharp, volcanic stones turning over your feet cutting your ankles.

"Tyler was so excited to come back down this" Corey said as he caught up to me. I laughed, knowing full well that would be true. Tyler always like racing down dangerous things, whether on his feet, skis, or a bike. Things that would make others, like myself, think twice about where we were placing our feet or making our next turn.

 I looked out across the slope - 500 feet of volcanic scree. I imagined Tyler and his boyish laugh, sliding down the slope dangerously fast, toeing the edge of tragedy or triumph as he might balance precariously on his feet. He always seemed to triumphed though, and I felt a tear well up in my eye that he never had the chance to once again prove his prowess in the mountains.

While hiking up the scree, the peak remained hidden behind a thick torrent of clouds and winds. The summit was never visible to us, and the clouds enveloped the peak in such a way that it looked foreboding, like the peak could stretch into the sky endlessly.

We finally made it to the saddle, where we could begin roping up for the climb. Once there, we had entered the torrent of clouds, wind, and moisture. Speaking was impossible as the wind whipped around our faces, buffeting our jackets and bodies. I was intimidated. It wasn't overly dangerous, but with each wind gust I felt as if I could be blown off the side of the mountain. So much so, that I stifled myself at all times with a hand on a solid handhold, should the wind decide to carry me off into the oblivion.

Again I looked at Corey to see if he felt a similar level of apprehension as I did. Our eyes met again, as they had throughout the day, and we both shared a look of "This is kind of fucked up, but I guess we're doing this". He looked at me, his eyes heavy as if to say:

“Hey man, you don't need to do this if you don't want to, just speak up. I kind of feel the same way". I probably communicated a similar message through my concerned expression, but neither of us spoke up. The wind howled around us, and we could barely communicate. We kind of nodded at one another, and began to put on our harness and get the climbing gear ready.