I tasted death today.
It was fairly innocent. My brother Ed and I had just bagged the second peak on the ridge, named Monte Cristo, which was knife edged at all sides but our route up. We couldn’t sit on the peak because of the dreadful flies that seemed drawn to the pinnacle, but we found a nice place on the ridge between both of the peaks to eat lunch. Between Mount Superior and Monte Cristo you get a fabulous view of Alta and Snowbird, to the point where my brother was pointing out all the ski and snowboard runs he’d done, and ones he wish he could do at Alta, even though he was a snowboarder who wasn’t allowed in. We decided to start back, as we didn’t have a whole lot of water.
Coming up to Mount Superior, we decided to not climb it and just traverse around, as we only needed to make it to the continuation of the ridge. We ended up on a path leading into a ravine, with no obvious exit other than down. It was either climb down with no ropes or helmets, or walk quite a ways around then up to the peak, something neither of us really wanted to do. I made the decision to continue, Ed wasn’t going to make it for the both of us. We could have turned around, probably should have, and in the end I wish we did.
It was a series of steep inclined steps, leading down in a staggered side to side fashion for a couple hundred feet. On either side were some decent hand holds, but footholds were lacking in any consistency. Everywhere, on every nice piece of rock, were little chunks of rubble that had fallen down the ravine from the peak above. Once we had committed to the descent, it dawned on me why I felt déjà vu.
Last summer my best friend Justin came out to visit me for a month in Utah. My family had just moved there a month previous, so I was all giddy about exploring the mountains. Justin, my littlest brother Monty (age 12) and I left early one morning to go climb a mountain. We picked a moderate one, one with a view, maybe 8 miles round trip with a couple thousand feet vertical. Getting on top was easy, but we decided to go a different way down. We must have dropped five hundred feet on scree fields that were so loose we couldn’t go back up. It could have occurred to me I was going exploring with my little brother and my friend who had never really been climbing before, but it didn’t. Our options of descent ran out when we found ourselves on top of a cliff. A single sinuous ravine stared at us as the only option other than hours upon hours of toiling to climb back up the scree field.
I told them to wait as I scouted, and I went down what I thought was about a quarter of the way. It was steep, but had handholds and was narrow enough to cross with relative ease. I stood at the bottom as Justin, with surprising ability, climbed down the series of rubble covered angle steps. Monty started down clumsily, and every moved knocked multiple rocks down that accelerated to high speeds by the time they reached me. In the absence of a helmet or a place to avoid it, I resorted to using my backpack to deflect the fist sized rocks. No amount of coaching would convince Monty to do anything different than what he thought was right. Every move was a goof, and I couldn’t get him to see his carelessness wasn’t safe for any of us. I continued down the ravine and saw it didn’t get any easier. The layout was a chute ending in a shear cliff. At the end of the chute there was a small climbing route to the side making the ravine route still doable. Monty knocked another rock down, and it narrowly missed my head. He had nearly slipped. I looked at the cliff again, and watched the rock fly off into the void below the chute. A slip that ended in a slide down the chute would result in death by twenty five foot fall onto jagged rocks.
The point when I realized this was the single scariest and depressing point of my entire life. I felt like I had single handedly brought my best friend and my youngest brother into a life endangering situation that only I was able to safely get out of, and for the sole reason of wanting to explore. I thought of sprinting down the mountain to the town in the valley, screaming for someone with a cell phone so that they could wake Monty up from his eye-open stare at the bottom of the ravine after slipping. I thought of the phone call to Justin’s parents, who were planning to let me stay at their house when I got back to Pittsburgh, and that I would have to tell them Justin wouldn’t be able to ski anymore, because he was paralyzed from the neck down, the result of breaking his back on those horrible jagged rocks.
I don’t know if they knew I was as scared as I was. I continued to direct them down the ravine, explaining moves to make, chiding Monty for standing up on such a slippery slope. We made it down the mountain in one piece, although ironically Monty slipped on some rocks near the flat section at the bottom next to the trail, scrapping his leg enough to make it bleed. I didn’t explain to my dad how scared I was, because he is an expert mountain climber, and I subconsciously wanted to impress him with my ability to not get fucked up on a simple day hike.
Back to today. When it occurred to me what I was remembering, I stopped climbing to watch Ed climb. Ed is a good climber, probably equal to me, but as we descended he kept kicking rocks down accidentally. As I looked up, I noticed two men standing on the peak watching us. One yelled down “You guys all right?” It occurred to me then I wasn’t the only one who noticed that we weren't skilled enough to descend safely. I yelled back “Yeah, thanks for asking!” He replied to his buddy in a voice I could still hear, “I don’t think there’s anything we could do for them anyway.”
Ed hadn’t been paying attention, and was doing a move along the edge when he knocked some rocks down again. One rock was so big it started a mini-rockslide, taking a couple hundred pounds of mountainside pummeling down into the valley. We edged our way slowly down the ravine, scouting for safe ways out of an unsafe situation. It took us a long time to finally get back on the normal trail, and exhausted, we collapsed into the shade of a tree along the ridge.
They say you should do something every day that scares you. Endangering your brother’s life shouldn’t be it.
Mountain Fall Kills Former Publisher
On September 4th, Daniel Rector fell nearly 200 feet to his death off of the approach to Monte Cristo, a 11,132 foot peak. He was an experienced climber and died of massive head injuries.
He took the same route we did.