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On the Ridge Between Life and Death: A Climbing Life Reexamined

On the Ridge Between Life and Death: A Climbing Life Reexamined

by David Roberts


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What compels mountain climbers to take the risks that they do? Is it the thrill in the physical accomplishment, in managing to defy the odds, or both—and why do they continue to do what they do in the face of such great danger?

What compels mountain climbers to take the risks that they do? Is it the thrill in the physical accomplishment, in managing to defy the odds, or both—and why do they continue to do what they do in the face of such great danger? In On the Ridge Between Life and Death, David Roberts confronts these questions head-on as he recounts the exhilarating highs and desperate lows of his climbing career. By the time he was twenty-two, Roberts had already been involved in three fatal mountain climbing accidents and had escaped death himself by the sheerest of luck. And yet, as he acknowledges, few things have brought him more joy than climbing.

In a famous essay on the subject written more than twenty years ago, Roberts judged climbing to be “worth the risk.” He continues to climb to this day, and several of his challenging routes in Alaska have never been climbed since. But in reassessing the emotional costs to himself and to loved ones, he reaches a different conclusion, one that is sure to cause controversy not only in climbing circles, but among adventurers of all kinds. Candid and unflinching, On the Ridge Between Life and Death is a compelling examination of the risks we take in order to feel more alive.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780743255196
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 09/07/2006
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 432
Sales rank: 454,798
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.44(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

David Roberts is the author of twenty-four books on mountaineering, adventure, and the history of the American Southwest. His essays and articles have appeared in National Geographic, National Geographic Adventure, and The Atlantic Monthly, among other publications. He lives in Watertown, Massachusetts.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One: Gabe

The trouble began on the fifth pitch. I handed Gabe our hardware — half a dozen soft-iron pitons and eight or nine carabiners dangling from a nylon sling — and said, "On belay." Once again, I had been unable to drive a single piton for my anchor: instead, I had found a bucket-shaped hollow in the ruddy sandstone and sat in it with my back against the right wall, my feet braced against an opposing bulge.

Gabe started up the inside corner, angling left as the arching dihedral dictated his path. The going looked easy, for he was moving with that jerky efficiency that had become his forte during the last three months. My breath escaped in a sigh of well-being. Once again, we were launched on the flight that turned the neurotic thrum of ordinary life into a staccato pulse of purpose.

But there were no cracks for our pitons. That was the trouble with the First Flatiron — with all the Flatirons, those massive tilting slabs that stared east from Green Mountain over the mesas above Boulder. Eighty feet up, Gabe sidled left around a protruding aràte and passed out of sight. Still he had placed no protection, so as I fed the rope out, I knew my belay was worthless.

The rope stopped. Gabe's distant voice: "Should I go straight up? Or traverse left?"

We had been shouting too much on this climb — conferring from a hundred feet apart, as we had forced our way through the route's odd intricacies. The elders in the Colorado Mountain Club who had taught us to climb early that spring had stressed the importance of economy in our shouted signals: "On belay!," "Climbing!," "Slack!," "Up rope!" — the syllables apportioned so that even over a droning wind one call should never be mistaken for its opposite.

"Try to go straight up!" I yelled back. So the route had seemed to unfold, as I had studied it in binoculars from my home on Bluebell Avenue. Atop this pitch, I thought, we would have it made, with less than 200 feet of easy scrambling to the notch just below the summit.

The rope inched out again. Ten minutes later came Gabe's call: "Off belay!"

With a sense of relief, I started up. It was a perfect summer day, pine sap wafting on the fickle breeze, warm sun slanting across the cliff, the whole of the First Flatiron to ourselves. Each wrinkle in the sandstone offered a toehold, each knob a handle to seize with my fingers. The rhythm of movement absorbed me.

The burden of my previous winter lifted: in the blue sky at the brow of our universe, an answer hovered. I need only struggle up to find it, turning fear into power, ambivalence into act. After this pitch, we could waltz to the top. Gabe would get back in plenty of time for his cousin's birthday party.

As I climbed, the rope drooped unnaturally to my left. Despite my advice, Gabe must have continued his traverse, rather than heading straight up. Oh, well: I trusted his route-finding.

When I was fifty feet up, the rope began to drag at my waist. I pulled in about ten feet of slack, then moved farther up. Once again, the drag restrained me. This time when I pulled, no slack came. Somewhere the rope must be stuck. I peered left, and noticed, across forty feet of blank purple slab, a downward-pointing prong, beneath which the rope disappeared.

I stepped carefully left, hanging on to a horn with my right hand, to regain a few feet of slack. Taking the rope in my left hand, I swung it vigorously in a counterclockwise turn. A loop spun down the GoldLine cord, ebbing as it went. At the prong, it died. I tried several more times, but the rope was jammed fast.

On my tongue, I tasted the first trickle of dread.

It was July 9, 1961. I had turned eighteen a little more than a month before, Gabe Lee two months before that. We had taken minimum-wage jobs that summer between high school and college: I planted seedlings in the tundra at 12,000 feet for an alpine research lab, while Gabe peeled potatoes in a kitchen at the University of Colorado. We lived for the weekends, when we could climb together.

I had known Gabe since our kindergarten days at Uni Hill, and yet, how well did I really know him? I could picture him in third grade, hunkered in jeans fraying at the knees on the gravel playground, as he thumbed an aggie toward my vulnerable marble in our endless game of keepsies. I saw him in gym class at Baseline Junior High, gliding deep down the left sideline under a bomb hurled by Steve Green, our sandlot Johnny Unitas. And I saw him the previous fall on our Boulder High tennis team, as he gritted through a pivotal match against Fort Morgan, his lobs sailing astray in a blue wind out of the east, heavy with the sickly-sweet odor of the sugar-beet factories.

Gabe was shy. He kept his private self impermeable, deflecting any questions that veered toward the personal. When he talked, it was in that quick, jerky voice, the complement of the way he climbed — as if each sentence were a burst of weakness that he could not purge soon enough. And we, his classmates, cut him all the slack he needed: for, with his younger brother, Martin, and his sister, Marian, Gabe had grown up without a mother. Why, we had no idea. We never thought to ask.

Then, just three months before our climb on the First Flatiron, in March, driving on a freeway south of Houston, Gabe's father had been hit from behind by a speeding drunk. His car had shot across the divider and collided with an oncoming vehicle. Gabe's father had died in the hospital an hour later.

A week before his eighteenth birthday, Gabe had in effect become the head of his orphaned family. When he resurfaced at Boulder High after his week in purgatory, I mumbled my prepared formula: "I'm really sorry about what happened."

"That's okay," Gabe said in his breathless syllables. "When can we go climbing?"

Gabe was an inch taller than I, at five eleven, with short brown hair swept left, a round face, and heavy eyebrows shielding his brown eyes. He was as thin as I was. He was smart in school, though not the scholar I fancied myself. At first, I had been the better rock climber; but he had improved so rapidly in the last two months that now he routinely took the leads of which I was leery.

On weekends through May and June, Gabe and I had gone after all five Flatirons. The Colorado Mountain Club mentors who had given us our lessons on five successive Saturdays had taken us up the Second Flatiron as our graduation exercise, then turned us loose into the labyrinth of our half-mastered craft. Gabe and I had done the standard routes on the First and Third, at the time the most popular climbs near Boulder. It was the Fourth and Fifth Flatirons that remained obscure, and, as we roped up at their bases, we had no idea where our predecessors had gone, or how hard the climbing might prove. With those forays had come a new, deeper enthusiasm, that of explorers setting out upon uncharted oceans. And on the Fifth Flatiron several weeks before, Gabe had led a dauntingly smooth pitch without placing a single piton — his finest effort yet. I knew that I wouldn't have had the guts to try it myself.

Early that morning in July, I had called Gabe up with my plan. "I want to try the First, but not the standard route," I told him over the phone. "I've been looking at a line on the left. It goes pretty much straight from the bottom of the cliff to the summit. Maybe eight or nine pitches. It's possible nobody's done it."

Gabe had hesitated; I heard talk in the background about a birthday party. "We can get back by five," I exhorted. "We're fast. It'll be a great thing to do."

"The rope's stuck!" I yelled. "Pull!"

Gabe pulled, to no avail. Later I would wonder whether the effort had only jammed the GoldLine tighter under the downward-pointing prong.

The dread on my tongue blossomed in a wave of malaise, which I tried to swallow down. An obvious course of action loomed. I could try to traverse to the snag, free it, and climb straight up to Gabe. But as I gazed at the frighteningly smooth tract of no-man's-land that lay between me and the prong, I knew that I couldn't climb it. At some point, I would fall, whipping down and then left as forty feet of slack abetted my plunge. The brunt would come in a sudden, wrenching jerk. If it were forceful enough, and if Gabe, like me, had been unable to place an anchor piton, that jerk could pull him off his ledge. Alternatively, if the 3/8-inch rope were wedged across a sharp edge, there was a chance that it would sever on impact.

My mind raced. I looked hard at the smooth slab, searching for nubbins that would hold the sharp rubber edges of my rock shoes. But there was nothing.

I could think of only one other thing to do. As I contemplated that choice, a gust of pure nausea chilled me. With careful fingers, I untied from the end of the rope. Gathering up as much of the GoldLine as I could, I made three small coils. Then, awkwardly, I hung on with my left hand while I cocked my right arm, like a discus thrower, and flung the coils as hard as I could into the void. "Pull!" I screamed at Gabe.

What I had hoped to accomplish was to snap the line loose from the prong with the force of my throw. If that worked, Gabe could simply pull the rope up to his ledge. Reunited there, we would tie in once more and get on with our crawl toward the summit.

I took two deep breaths, then started climbing, unroped, up to Gabe. For the next eight or ten minutes, I concentrated so hard on the sandstone beneath my feet and hands that the rest of the world vanished. I made each move with an exaggerated, stodgy caution, hesitating before I dared transfer my weight. I could not afford the slightest misstep.

In the myopia of my concentration, however, I must have taken a route different from the one Gabe had followed. A hundred and twenty feet out, I saw no sign of him. At last I stood on a generous, rounded shelf. Above me, the going looked easy. "Where are you?" I called.

"Right here!" His voice was so close it startled me. He must have been only fifteen feet below me and to the left, yet an intervening bulge had eclipsed him from my sight. "It's still stuck!"

The nausea returned. What could we do? Briefly, I toyed with a humiliating scenario. We could call for help, hoping to catch the ear of some hiker on the Mesa Trail below. Then wait for hours, stranded on our separate ledges, as experts from the Rocky Mountain Rescue Group climbed up the back of the First Flatiron and down the face till they could lower us a rope. Yet I knew I could never bring myself to take that course. In the mountains, as all the climbing narratives I had read since I was twelve made clear, you got yourself out of trouble.

"Can you set up a rappel?" I yelled.

"No!" answered Gabe. "I can't get anything in."

What could we do? Then, from the depths of our predicament, Gabe delivered the answer. "I think I can climb down to it!" he yelled.

A tide of relief engulfed me. Gabe would do the hard work, just as he had volunteered to take the scariest leads on the Fourth and Fifth Flatirons. "Be careful," I pleaded, then sat down to wait.

That summer, it was not college that loomed on my horizon. It was the north face of Grand Teton, up in Wyoming — the August test of all that I should have learned about rock and balance and nerve. The Grand scared me, and yet I longed for it with a passion as sharp as first love. Somewhere on that great wall, I might find the signposts that could guide me out of the benightment of myself.

For two years before the Colorado Mountain Club had taught me the rudiments of rope and piton, I had hiked in the Colorado mountains, gradually taking on more and more difficult challenges. The previous August, I had made a solo traverse of the Maroon Bells; that December, a long scramble in a blizzard up the sharp, notched east ridge of Pacific Peak in the Tenmile Range.

I would never, however, have dared approach such a storied wall as the north face of the Grand, had another schoolmate — the most accomplished climber in our Boulder High crowd, with two solid years of rope craft under his belt — not invited me. Though Jock (not his real name) and I had never been friends, he had taken notice of my bold mountain scrambles and had approached me when his regular partner had backed out.

My final exam had come just the month before, in June, when Jock and I climbed the east face of Longs Peak. On that 2,000-foot wall, I had led the hardest pitch, and when, exhausted, only 400 feet below the summit, Jock had started to lose his cool as he kicked steps up a snow couloir that was ready to avalanche, I had talked him back to calm proficiency.

As skillfully as Gabe scaled the cliffs we tackled together, Jock and I never considered including him in our plans for the Grand; for before the previous week, Gabe had had no mountain experience at all. That Sunday, he and I had barged unroped up a dangerous chimney on Mount of the Holy Cross, in the Sawatch Range. Unacclimatized, Gabe had trailed behind all day, pausing to plant a forearm on his knee and gasp for breath. On the summit, he threw up; but only moments later he blurted out an uncharacteristic confession of the overarching joy the climb had brought him.

As we had rested there at 14,000 feet, Gabe said that he had finished the copy of Annapurna that I had lent him. I had first read the book some years before. Maurice Herzog's grim tale of frostbitten fingers and toes sacrificed to the first conquest of an 8,000-meter peak had paradoxically infused me with my passion for ascent. In the ecstatic redemption the Frenchman had found as he languished in his hospital bed, I divined a mystic alternative to the dreary plod of Baseline Junior High.

Atop Holy Cross, still dizzy with altitude, Gabe struggled to express a kindred transport. "Those guys," he said, "Terray and Lachenal and the rest — what they did was incredible. The whole thing is just so inspiring." He paused, looking out at other Sawatch summits. "We gotta do more stuff like this, Dave," he said.

For ten minutes, I sat on my shelf, staring east over the straw-colored plains. Lazy cumulus clouds sailed far above, riding the breeze over the crest of the Front Range. It was still a perfect day, warmer than it had been all morning, though the sun had nothing to do with the clammy sweat on my palms. I guessed that it was three o'clock. Still time to get back for the birthday party, if things worked out...

I could not stay silent. "How's it going?" I called, trying to sound calm.

Gabe's voice was much farther away, the words strung even tighter than usual. But the news was joyous. "I've got the rope!"

"Way to go!" I yelled. "Coil it up."

"No, I'll just drape it over my shoulder." Gabe had always been impatient. In the circumstances, I could hardly blame him. "I'm going to go up a different way."

That last remark disturbed me. It was almost always easier to climb up a pitch than down it. Having successfully descended to the snag, why didn't Gabe simply reverse the moves as he climbed back up? Something on that line must have bothered him. Be careful, Gabe, I pleaded silently.

Again I waited. Throughout the process, I had caught not a glimpse of my friend: the bulge ten feet beneath me blocked out much of the lower face of the Flatiron. And again, to wait and say nothing was agony. "How's it going?" I yelled for the second time.

Gabe's voice had an unfamiliar, choked urgency. "I just got past a hard place," he said, "but now it's easier." I guessed that he had climbed to within twenty-five feet of my shelf of safety. My brain whispered, Bring up the rope, Gabe, and we'll be all right.

I waited and stared. Far out, above the plains, a hawk danced in circles on an updraft, mocking our gravity-bound plight. The sun blazed on my back and neck.

A sound I had never heard before seized my ears, yet I knew at once what it was. It was the sound of cloth sliding against rock.

"Dave!" Gabe screamed.

I lurched upright, holding a knob with one hand, straining forward to peer over the brow of the eclipsing ledge. For the first time in half an hour, I saw Gabe, forty feet below me. He was rolling and sliding down the smooth, steep slab, the rope whirling about his body like an unraveling ball of yarn. "Grab something!" I yelled.

Gabe's cry came up to me, even as his body accelerated away: "No! Oh, no!" He began to bounce, the terrible arc of his trajectory longer after each impact. Four hundred feet below, he sailed upside down through the empty air, hit the cliff headfirst, and was flung into the treetops at the base of the Flatiron.

Only seconds had passed. Silence reclaimed Green Mountain — but my blood was roaring in my ears. I forced myself to breathe.

It was impossible that Gabe had survived such a fall. And yet if there was the slightest chance...

The Colorado Mountain Club training came to me unbidden. As loud as I could, I yelled "Help!" in successive bursts of three. After a few repetitions, a voice from below answered me: "Help coming!" It turned out that two observers had watched Gabe's fall, one (the patriarch of the Rocky Mountain Rescue Group) through binoculars from his home on the south edge of Boulder.

Now I knew with absolute certainty what I had to do. I must sit and wait for the rescue that, a few minutes before, had loomed as a humiliation. There was nothing I could do for Gabe. The worst scenario would be to compound the disaster with a fall of my own. I sat down on my ledge.

Within seconds, I was back on my feet, headed up the last 200 feet of the Flatiron. To sit and wait, with the film clip of Gabe's plunge playing over and over before my eyes, was impossible. Adrenaline drove me upward. My scrambling was almost out of control, a scuttling jog from hold to hold.

Minutes later, I stood on the summit of the Flatiron. I had been there before, setting up a rappel off the overhanging back side. I knew there was a tricky down climb somewhere on the south, so I set out to find it.

Now adrenaline served to calm me. I made the moves, traversing right at the crux, muttering under my breath, "Don't blow it here." The moment I reached solid earth, I started running down the gully between the First and Second Flatirons.

I met the first rescuer, who looked as wild-eyed as I felt, near the base. "Where is he?" he cried.

"In the trees!"

For five minutes we searched, as one by one, other rescuers arrived. Our inability to find Gabe seemed to add a cruel insult to the blow the cliff had dealt him. I crashed through downed trees and slipped on moss-covered talus as, fueled by desperation, I sought my friend.

At last I heard a call: "Here he is!"

A rescuer led me to the spot. Gabe lay facedown on a pine-needled slope, his limbs bent in positions no living person could have struck. A big swath of blue jeans had torn away, baring one buttock, scraped and raw with blood.

I could not bring myself to touch Gabe's body. I slumped to the ground, caught my head in my hands, and gave myself up to the sobbing that the last thirty minutes of terror had kept at bay.

Copyright © 2005 by David Roberts

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