The casual cruelty of digital screens haunts me. In between mundane email about a bank transaction and another asking me to rate a customer service interaction, the words gather like storm clouds. I know what the email says. I have read it now what seems hundreds of times. A partner, a friend, is dead.
I couldn’t stop myself. I googled the names and the places and the events. My partner, Alex, lost his life on a mountain. The ice and snow and rock upon which we built our partnership had shifted, had broken, had severed ropes and time and connection, had left only the feeling of loss. I closed the computer and drifted into memory.
Alex and I met by happenstance and his driving desire pulled me up a mountain. We shared beers on tables hewn from the twisted stumps of the Patagonian oak forest, making plans based on the bravado of climbers at the bar, while the shadows of the Fitzroy Massif darkened the dirt roads. Finding myself on the trail, heading steadily upward towards the glaciers of Piedra Negra, it was easier to think this could all be simply a wash—tomorrow the weather would crowd in, would dampen our plans with snow and wind, would provide a noble escape from those granite faces.
But the day dawned clearish, and Alex moved us upward. We had plans, and of course those fell apart. What climber, on mountains this big, has clocked every change of belay, every swap of gear, every pitch to the correct second? Condors croak at our plans, and we peek our heads above the sheltering ridge atop the Fonrouge nearly an hour and a half past our turnaround. The sky has fallen. Cerro Torre, long gone in the gray-black of storm. Then Fitzroy. Then Mermoz. Then our final 100 meters of snow, blasting over the steeps. Alex is calm, he states he will return and the actual summit is irrelevant. We finished the rock route, and our camp, our food, our water, our shelter is below.
And yet, Alex would not return to that summit. He would go on, climbing throughout South America, until a sheer ice face in Peru gave way around him.
In the modern world of constant communication and global friendships, we lose track of those dear to us. It becomes so easy to talk across borders that we forget to do so. Alex and I would Whatsapp, him sending me pictures of terrifying peaks in the Cordillera Blanca, and I would answer with a shot of Rainier’s caldera summit. And then a lapse of weeks, months, almost a year. Till an email from an unknown climber’s chance visit to a chance posting on a climbing website—then the world comes collapsing back into reality.
Alex dragged me up the hardest mountain I have ever climbed. When the streams were frozen, he took our water bottles to the emerald glacial lake to fill. When I was broken and beat, he led. When I suggested we had reached our event horizon, the only way off being up, he simply put me on belay. When we pulled the knotted rope past our anchor in the ice coulior, he led the sketchy ice to avoid our benighting on the mountain in the middle of the storm. When the wind crashed against the sides of our tent, pushing the poles to acute degrees, we laughed in the cramped nylon world.
Alex was not a famous climber. He did not grace the cover of magazines nor did he move to Boulder to boost his media profile. He did not #vanlife his extended South American climbing odyssey. He wasn’t chasing grades or lines to say he ticked them. He simply climbed and made those around him better for it.
After the final accident report listings, Google reveals a number of blog postings and casual mentions of Alex from fellow climbers. We knew the man as a force, a smiling face in the face of big ice, cold nights, high winds, and frightening leads. But we also remember him sharing ice cream, bending his glasses back into something halfway functional, and failing to control his wild hair. We remember Alex’s exasperated sigh when we say we don’t understand the differences between LINUX and UNIX. We remember Alex diving into the ice cold waters at Chorillo del Salto. We remember him standing on the ridges, mountains and glaciers and ice and rock and the whole world stretched out behind him. We remember a human being. We remember a partner.