Thursday, August 14, 2014

Chad and I

Even though we both grew up in Seattle, I finally met Chad Kellogg three years ago on the wind swept streets of El Chalten, Patagonia. A mediocre weather window had appeared and we were both partnerless. "Solid" was the word that came to mind after chatting with him a bit. He was fit, open-minded, motivated, and kind. There was no doubt in my mind about his ability or temperament. We didn't need a warm up to test our partnership and a day later we left town for a shot at Fitz Roy. "Chadderbox" replayed story after story from his varied, adventurous, challenging, and beautiful life. We discovered on the approach that we shared a similar vision for our climbing, lots of mutual friends, and even had the same birthday, although Chad was ten years older than I. We got pummeled by rain the next day and my ticket back home was up. Chad went on to climb Cerro Torre for his first time with Bjorn Eivind Artun on that trip and when he returned home, we made plans to climb in Patagonia the next season.

Our paths didn't cross again until the next year in South America. We were both so busy! Since I had last seen him, Chad had attempted the speed record on Everest, made a bold solo bid on Nepal's highest unclimbed peak, Lunag Ri, and made the second ascent (solo!) of Jobo Rinjang, another proud mountain in the same region. Chad's self portrait on top of Jobo says it all. One hand holds the camera, the other flashes the "hang loose" sign, his tremendous smile back lit by an infinite stretch of high, snowy peaks.

Our time in Patagonia that year was mostly filled with foul weather, but on the last week of my trip we made two attempts at the SE Ridge of Cerro Torre. Our second attempt ended near the final headwall as snow and ice crashed around us. Despite climbing at night, it was too warm on the Torres. We had an exciting descent and I left for home utterly trashed, but psyched on the experience we had shared on such a beautiful spire. A few days after I left, Chad and Colin Haley forged the third "fair means" ascent of Cerro Torre via "The Corkscrew", an unbelievable journey that begins on the SE Ridge before finishing on the classic West Face. To this day, I am so very happy that Chad and Colin had success on such an incredibly awesome route.
Chad and I kicking it at the Col de la Patienca

Even while Chad and I climbed in South America, we talked feverishly about an objective back home. I had a strong desire to make a full traverse of the Southern and Northern Picket Ranges deep in the North Cascades. It turned out that Chad had attempted to traverse the southern portion with Dylan Johnson years earlier. When I asked him to join me that coming summer, he was all in. We spent seven days adrift on the ridge that July, fighting stormy weather, and doing our best to trace an elegant line through a maze of chossy peaks. Neither of us realized the impact this experience would make on us. As we stumbled out to our car Chad declared our Pickets enchainment one of the top five experiences of his climbing life. My mind quickly shuffled through all of his amazing accomplishments and I felt honored to have shared an adventure that found it's place among his finest.
Chad and I on top of Mt. Fury on day 4 of our Pickets mission

Not only was our Pickets Traverse valuable as a climbing adventure, it also cemented our friendship and climbing partnership. As soon as we got home, Chad took up the pen and got right to work on a series of grants we hoped would help take us to Tibet in the fall of 2014. We heard that we had been awarded the Mugs Stump as well as several other grants when we were hanging out in, where else,  Chalten this past season. Chad was ecstatic about the support, truly reminding me of a child's enthusiasm when they open their Christmas gift and see it is exactly what they asked for. Pure, soulful joy. The adventures were lining up just as we had envisioned and we could see the path ahead.
Chad and I having fun climbing crappy WA ice in the Entiat River Valley

Last season in Patagonia was a fairly stormy one. Early in our trip, Chad and I made strong efforts on Cerro Stanhardt and Fitz Roy, but gusty (understatement) winds and snow turned us back each time. On Stanhardt we sat for 9 hours on a ledge while the storm raged. Of course, by the time we bailed and were back in our tent at Niponino, the sky was blue. As a result, we brought a bivy sack when we tried the Supercanaleta a week later. Our plan was not to get skunked again and we spent a whole night and morning three quarters up the route with a thin sheet of nylon over our heads waiting for the freight train like winds to abate. "It's gonna break, I know it." and "How's it looking now?" being common conversational pieces.
Chad nestles into another padless bivy among the rocks on night 6 in the Pickets. These scenarios were truly fun for Chad!

We eventually bailed. On our descent, a Russian climber almost plummeted to his death when he threaded his rappel device incorrectly. He leaned back, fell and grabbed the ropes in front of him, narrowly avoiding a 2000 foot tomahawk down the mountain. "Super sketchy," Chad declared.

If summits are all that matter, Chad and I actually failed on almost all of our climbs. In fact, the only two summits we stood on together (besides the many we rambled over on the Pickets Traverse) were Dragontail in the Central Cascades and Fitz Roy. The main reason for this was that we always tried to pick the most unlikely or difficult route that we could. If we came up with an idea where success seemed likely, we shut it down and chose something a bit more absurd. In fact, The Affanasieff was the first route we chose together that was not at our limits. We had considered the conditions in the range and our lack of success that season, and decided we wanted to climb Fitz Roy, and that we would chose a route we knew we could do. Of course, we left the door of possibility cracked and chose to approach from the Torre Valley so that we could make use of any good weather remaining after climbing Fitz Roy to climb something in the Torres too.

Even though Chad didn't make it down from Fitz Roy, he did make it up. Our climb of the Afanasieff was more time consuming than we had imagined. We beat ice out of the cracks to make progress and moved carefully over loose terrain. Despite conditions not being perfect, we had a blast and Chad was obviously in his element. For him, alpine climbing was Type 1 fun. He enjoyed it so, so much. On top, at his request, I took extra photos of him flashing the hang loose sign with Cerro Torre poking at the sky just over his shoulder.

Since we were hoping to return to the Torre Valley after our climb, rather than Chalten, Chad and I chose to make our descent down the Supercanaleta. It was a warm day, so when we reached the start of the couloir and the rappels we sat on a ledge for a few hours and reveled in our position. We chatted and enjoyed each other's company. In retrospect, I am thankful we were able to spend such quality time together on such a rad perch. By this point, our friendship was easy and fluid. We talked about girls, climbing, and food (pretty simple minded dudes!). When the sun became less intense we began to rap.

I'm not going to go into the details of the accident. Needless to say, Chad was struck by a rock only a few rappels in and was killed instantly. Initially, I considered chucking myself off the mountain. The moment overwhelmed me beyond comprehension and dying too seemed like the only way to escape the nightmare. Quickly though, I recognized that I had to live. I had to return to Chad's friends and family to tell them what had happened. Rapping away from him was bar none, the most fucked up moment of my entire existence and I hope I never, ever feel such darkness again. My descent was long and trying. I became soaked by waterfalls and my ropes, always tangled, refused to slide down the couloir. Two times they became stuck above me and I was forced to climb up the couloir with my chincy axe and tennis shoes with strap on crampons to retrieve them. After finally passing the bergshrund, I sat in the snow and yelled into the night. The mountains stood fast in the full moon light and loneliness cut me like a wickedly sharp knife. "NOOOOOOO!!!" I screamed again and again.

The next morning, after having spent a few hours warding off the hypothermia that was taking over my body, I began stumbling towards Piedra del Fraile, often sinking to my knees in tears and utter disbelief. When I arrived there I ran into Henry, a Californian who had just climbed Guillomet. I told him what had happened and broke down. He sat silently next to me, his arm around my shoulder as I cried. After radioing the park service headquarters in Chalten, Henry and I hiked the last few miles to the road.

After only two days, I was on a flight home. Despite the physical difficulties of my descent, I realized I faced much greater emotional challenges ahead. As an alpinist, my body was trained to not sleep, to deal with pain, and to always keep going. But I had and have no idea or skills to overcome the sorrow that clenches my soul. Only through the love of the climbing community, my family, and my friends have I been able to catch glimpses of joy and a future beyond this traumatic event. I have continued to climb partly because I don't know what else to do and partly because despite Chad's death, I believe it to be a beautiful and worthy path to walk. I began the sport at seven years old. I'm now nearly 32. I don't know any other way but to return to the hills seeking answers. I'm not convinced this is best, but I'm trying as hard as I can to salvage my spirit with the means that I have.

Now, six months later, Chad is still at the forefront of my mind and heart. One minute I feel great happiness, the next finds me on my knees in tears. Some days I tie in and climb better than I ever have. Others find me quaking with fear and calling the day early. Some nights I drink too much and stare at my wall in stunned disbelief. Others, I spend running trails or scrambling favorite routes around my home, loving my life. It is a mixed bag and all I can do is take it day by day.

Chad Kellogg was without a doubt, one of the finest humans I've ever met. He was beyond inspiring, but also transparent about the struggles he had overcome and those he grappled with until the end. I found myself, through his friendship, becoming the person I knew I could be and wanted to be. I'm fighting to reestablish myself on that path of transformation, both to honor Chad and most importantly, out of love for myself.

I wish this post was something more conclusive, but the reality is, I will never come full circle with this experience. It will never be ok and I'll feel it's gravity until my last days. Still, I promise to myself, Chad, and you, my precious friends, that I will make it through this, hopefully rendering a more loving, balanced, and passionate soul.
Chad steps onto the Challenger Glacier. Just as the dawn's first rays warmed us that cold, final morning on the Pickets Traverse, so has Chad's spirit permeated my being. I will forever feel that light in my life, hopefully passing bits of it on to others I make contact with.
Thank you Chad

9 comments:

David Steele said...

Jens, this is phenomenal. Thanks for sharing, writing, and climbing.

Charlie Hagedorn said...

Thank you, Jens. Viewed from afar, Chad was a force of nature.

There's a whole community to support you as you heal.

fred said...

This is poignant and moves me to more appreciation of the connection and the spirit of those who choose me to walk with. Thanks Jens.

Unknown said...

Jens I don't know what to say beyond what the previous three commenters said. Chad seemed like he was a hell of person even though I only knew him through the internet.

Honestly in a way your personal writing scares the hell out of me. Acknowledging the inherent risk of the outdoor activities I do and the people I am involved with is terrifying. But I don't know if I'm willing to quit.

Thanks again for your writing and sharing your experiences.

manomagnetica said...

Your authenticity and transparency bring peace to me and other climbers who have lost loved ones in the mountains. Articulating your experiences remind us that we as climbers chose risk and therefore at times must bear the consequences of those risks. The reality of those consequences is always more complex than one can ever prepare for. Thank you for sharing your reality so that we may learn from it.

Sandy Montanya said...

Jens,
You taught me and my son to climb. so many years ago when You were at VW.. Maybe 20 years old. You helped create and foster a bond between me and my son that exists today because we climb together. You Jens will change peoples lives for as long as you are alive. I don't know how to ease your pain. It's real, it's deep and it is human... it's who we are, it's who you are to get the depth of such a real connection with another human, another friend, another soul. It's so painful but it's such a gift to Chad that you feel such a loss. Find the amazing joy too and continue to know that you are so special and we all need you here!

Hayden Kennedy said...

Thanks for sharing this piece with everyone Jens, its very powerful. Thanks always being the most stoked at the crag, for sharing your passion with your partners and for always getting after it!! Much Respect.

Tradbetty said...

Jens, thank you for sharing. You are an inspiration to me, and my life is brighter knowing you are walking in this world.
Words, I'm not too good with- Emotion, however, is what I am and your words moved my emotions.
Thank you for persevering and being you.

kyle dempster said...

Jens, it has been my experience, with regards to death, mountains, and dear friends, that this life we are living extends far beyond a privilege or a gift. Life is the action of a love so pure, its margins extending to an incomparable and indestructible nature. Those of us who have experienced the robbery of a bright soul, with whom we feel connected, are shown the darkest rift in life's purity. Fortunately, the purity, and the love, remains. We just have to find it. Chad will guide you, family and friends will guide you, the mountains will guide you. And the Love will heal you.

I look forward to loving this life, and sharing a rope, with you sometime. Be well, my friend.