After my son died while rock climbing in Yosemite National Park, May 2003, I ventured into his world. I wanted to understand why climbing had been the heart of his life. Why would he have done something so risky that it could take him from us forever, especially since he knew I loved him so?
I learned that climbing for Chris had been an impassioned expression of a spiritual path. High up in the elements, moving across stone, Chris had felt a deep abiding connection. As his best friend, Greg, told me, “Chris climbed for the pure joy of the act itself. He was acutely aware of the ‘spirit of the mountains,’ an intuition that was obvious in his art form—that of dancing on rock.”
Entering the Rock Climbing World
In January 2004, for Chris’s birthday, Greg, his girlfriend Sarah, and I traveled to the climbing site of Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California. The scene was stark: granite monoliths rising out of a sandy plain studded with the twisted, spiked Joshua trees, resembling shrunken palms. The days were an immersion in sun, wind, and rock, as I watched Greg and Sarah climb, the nights fiercely cold. As we sat around the camp fire, Greg talked about his climbing partnership with Chris. They had come of age exploring the South Platte River Basin in Colorado. “Back in those remote mountains, Chris would often say, ‘I feel at home here.’ It was quality rock, a lot of adventure, and just that sense of solitude, when you’re the only one for miles and miles….”
On the drive home from Joshua Tree, the rugged beauty of red rock jutting out of a deserted landscape matched the raw empty feeling in my stomach. Chris’s homeland was there but he was not. It was hard, that first venture into his world. But it paved the way for a much bigger trip—a pilgrimage to Yosemite for the first anniversary of his death.
Throughout that winter I dreamed about Yosemite—the exciting but scary unknown that lay ahead. Then as spring approached, I learned that Teague Holmes, a climbing friend who had been with Chris the year before, was returning for the anniversary. We made our plans.
We went in a spirit of celebration. As we entered the uplands of Yosemite, I could sense the sacredness of this vast land of glaciated valleys and mountains shrouded in cloud—old, old spirits here. “Chris dwells here; this is his home!” I exclaimed, imagining him among ancient tribal peoples and naturalists of an earlier era.
Teague took me under his wing and got me a camping spot in Camp 4, the climbers’ camp. Each day I met more climbers, who welcomed within their clan—a reverent, humble family of able bodied, peace-loving folks.
One afternoon I met with a group of climbers in El Cap meadow, across from the sheer, awe –inspiring cliff of El Capitan. I told them of my interest in rock climbing as a way of better understanding my son. Although none had known Chris personally, several were aware of the “brother” who had fallen to his death. We sat in a circle, while I asked questions. Everyone was compassionate.
The climbers talked about how climbing is on the one hand a shared experience and on the other, a deeply personal one. One symbol of the partnership between climbers is the rope, which is the life connector as they put their lives each other’s hands. However, each climber is also alone, as he/she moves up the wall with heightened awareness, every muscle engaged. As one climber said, “Reality is a fine line up there between safety and danger…. You keep that focus and keep pushing through.” Another observed that while he abandons distraction to climb, he never abandons himself. “You find yourself,” he said.
Lincoln Else was one of the two climbing rangers first on the scene after Chris’s fall. We met in Camp 4, where he talked about the accident in detail. We went to the base of the mountain—Lower Cathedral Rock, where he indicated the line of fall by natural features in the rock. Chris had tumbled 150 feet. I saw where he came to rest—a viewing of concrete reality that brought acceptance.
On May 31, the anniversary of Chris’s death, Teague and I hiked Half Dome. We left camp at dawn and began circling the 4,000-foot giant towards the summit. In my backpack were three silk pouches of Chris’s ashes. At noon we emerged from forest onto the rim, where the rock sloped gently down before plunging to the valley floor. Across the canyon was a series of striking mountains, perfect likenesses of one another, indigo and snowcapped. The sky filled with bands of rainbow colors….
From the rim, the trail became a series of steep stone switchbacks. I struggled on behind Teague, and at last my foot landed on the broad outcropping of Half Dome’s shoulder. Ahead lay the last hunk of sheer rock, the half dome of Half Dome. There were cables to assist hikers in the daunting ascent. We started up, Teague following, prepared to catch me. Where the rock turned vertical, my hands began slipping. Whimpering, I told Teague I couldn’t go any further. We back down to the shoulder. I gave a pouch of ashes to Teague, and he scurried up to the summit.
Meanwhile, I watched ravens, diving, soaring, and flipping like black angels, the raucous call a crying out of blessed felicity. When Teague returned, he told me he had a beautiful experience, having sent Chris’s ashes cascading down the same route they had climbed together one year ago. We started down the trail. When we reached the rim, I ran out on the rocks and scattered the remaining ashes, then held my arms wide to the heavens.
The journey to Yosemite was a turning point in making peace with Chris’s death. After a year of exploring his world, I understood that rock climbing gave something to Chris that neither I nor anyone else could give. He had died living his dreams. It was time to move on.
After Chris’s death, I wrote Freedom to Fall, an intertwining of Chris’s world as a rock climber and my world as a bereaved mom. To read more about the book, published by morning song books, or to order a copy, click on the appropriate link above.