They’re still doing it but without him: adding to our lists, trying to get ourselves good and scared, bagging peaks in all kinds of weather. He’s still with us, too, with us enough to make us turn around on a late-day trail and check the environs, because we carry him around as a memory, a legend, a lesson. Maybe in other ways, too. We’ve been lucky, true—lucky enough to live through some stupid stunts. In luck, there’s a duty to talk about the lessons, but not too much, since he wouldn’t have approved of a preacher. Still, we are smarter than we used to be, more experienced, if older, chubbier and slower.
After the day has faded, you want to feed the flames, watch them build, cook your dinner, watch them flicker down, stir them as they die, and study them into the night. Stirring the coals has always been a hard thing to do on paper.
Fifteen years have passed since Mark died from hypothermia as a result of a canoeing accident on Great Salt Lake. His death was caused by a typical, though tragic, mistake. He could have worn a wetsuit. He had one with him but left it in the car. Pete wore his and lived to tell about it. Even though I wasn’t there, I can still hear Mark:
“Wetsuit? Hell, it ain’t rainin’ now, Pete. Wetsuit? What color is the sky? Huh? Sure looks blue to me. Nothin’ but beeeeleeew skies! Wetsuit … that ain’t workin’. Me go without wetsuit. Me go now in canoe. That’s the way you do it.”
He liked his thrills sharp and straight, without chaser, but in December, storms can arise suddenly on Great Salt Lake.
Fear of that kind—legitimate, for-your-life fear—releases an array of chemicals in the blood that can enable a victim to perform extraordinary tasks for hours. It is a strange mixture of desperation and mania. Yet in the case of hypothermia, a slow and sullen numbness creeps in. Gradually, the extremities shut down as the body tries to protect its core functions. In the fading warmth comes paralysis, comes a tightening and clenching.
Probably he felt himself slipping, his mind fading into angry water and cold wind. Maybe he watched himself, hovering above. I, too, have watched and imagined Mark when they finally reached the breakwater jetty, unable to move, as Pete ran off to get help, the only thing he could have done.
At the same time, stirring the coals reveals a tinkling of yellow aspen leaves in the high country, the arrowy wake of a zephyr crossing a mountain lake, three moose feeding in a willow-girt meadow, the bleat of a pica, the smell of hail and rain, wood smoke and pines, and I hear shouts—I hear our crazed shouts—shredding the tranquil-ity, ten miles from the nearest road, from the summits of dozens of mountains. Yes, dozens.
We played glorious hooky for two summers in the 1980s. Because Mark ran on a higher amperage than most, he wanted to cram in as much as he could between his fieldwork studying pine martens in Newfoundland and his studies at Utah State University. Since I was living in exile in New York City in those days, I, too, felt I had a lot to make up for during my sojourns west to my spawning pool. We therefore dedicated ourselves to climbing peaks in all kinds of weather, reaching the tops no matter what.
Lamotte Peak we ascended in a ripping, September blizzard, and we were chased off the summit by Zeus the Thunderer, who sent seven bolts our way as we trotted—then flat-out sprinted—down the miles-long summit ridge. We added Dead Horse Point to our lists in fog so thick that, from the top, we saw precisely nothing. On The Cathedral, we savored a 200-square-yard “window” of stunted pines and talus through a rent in the fog, and we plunged down a steep, brown gully when the rain and electricity started. We didn’t stop ‘til we reached the West Fork far below.
Zeus the Thunderer knew us well as sitting ducks but moving targets, perhaps most intimately on Wasatch Peak (13,156 feet), when he sent several hundred thousand bolts our way as we scuttled down from the summit, in a blizzard, over trout-slippery rocks. First came the wretched stench of busting rocks and ozone. The white world grew intensely quiet as our hair began to stand at attention. Suddenly, the sky cracked. Blinding flash and deafening crash were simultaneous. There was no time even to think, I’m gonna die now. The bolt coursed down our backs and knocked us to our knees. Groveling about on the rocks, unable to see for the blizzard, blinded by the bolt, given over to fear and certain that Zeus’ next shot would do what the first one hadn’t, I screamed into the storm. Mark was crouched a few yards away, just as shitlessly scared as I was.
“What do we do now?”
“Let’s get the hell out of here!”
We down-climbed a snow-coated cliff and cowered and cringed as more bolts crackled overhead. We then rounded a slippery corner and careened down the first escape gully we came across and didn’t stop running until we were well into the sheltering trees thousands of feet below.
“I really really really really really hope we don’t do that again,” I said.
“What? Duh “
“What?” I said. “Duh. We damn near died.”
“But we didn’t. Next time, we’ll just go faster.”
“Can’t get any closer. …”
“No closer—” He paused, smiled. “That’s the way you do it!”
Having kissed the earth, though, I made a vow—a vow I’ve kept, for the most part, through the years. When the heavens start rumbling these days, I lift tail. I turn around.
I’m not saying we were models of decorum or sobriety on our adventures. We were not. Dionysus and Ja were our guiding lights; chaos was our catchword.
So happy were we, for instance, to have made it up and back down Lamotte Peak alive—having outrun seven bolts, each closer than the last—that, as soon as we reached the deserted-but-for-us, late-September Christmas Meadow campground, we commenced with many moments of delighted, delirious bellowing—“Whaaahiiiyeeeeeaaaaahl”—aided, it is true, by much canned barley soda. So bloodcurdling had been the hollers, however, that we might have disturbed a summer homeowner down the drainage. The next morning, bright and early, Smokey Bear showed up in a minty-green pickup, ostensibly to check on the toilet paper supply in the facilities. He approached us eventually and, as we were packing up, asked if we would be leaving, then. We told him, Yes. Yes, sir. You bet. We told him about our near-misses on Lamotte, how we had been … were … are … happy to be alive. He set his jaw and asked if he could take a horse up there. Maybe a real good horse that doesn’t mind blizzards, hurricanes, endless talus and a whole lotta lightning.
What was he going to do—give us a ticket for disturbing the peace? What peace? Out there? Our language was earthy, sparse and inane. There was generally no need to talk, so we didn’t, except for the occasional grunt or, “Please pass me a fucking cookie. Now!”
In more expansive times, we repeated the key phrases of ‘80s anthems—”Bullet the Blue Sky” and “Money for Nothing”—perhaps eight million times. “One hundred; two hundred … That’s the way you do it.”
Something about the incessant, senseless repetition of slogging— peak bagging—made it easy enough to do. It’s all numbers. You go up, then you turn around.
Mark let his reddish beard grow wild, and he wore ridiculous and filthy poly-cotton pants—Dickies, as a matter of fact. His rucksack was seasons old, stained and hand-sewn where a pine marten had raided it. His stove worked occasionally, even after he had kicked the poor Peak One into submission following a flare-up. Lycra, he did not know; of pile, he sported but one piece. He would have had no use for today’s mountain trendies with their fancy catalogue gear, slim lists and Camelbaks.
“What’s that boy suckin’ on? Huh? Just what is that? A pacifier? Ain’t that boy been weaned? A b-b-b-binky? Binky! That ain’t workin’.”
I shudder when I realize that he may have been a precursor snowboarder. He was easily the world’s worst backcountry skier and had left marvelous figure elevens, and sometimes even magnificent exclamation points, on the slopes of western mountain ranges. Unable to ski, he might have dragged knuckles had he survived: He just loved “post-holing” (snow climbing without skis or snowshoes) up winter hills, but really his attitude and dress were incipient grunge, though he rode that wave before it crested.
Mark grew up in Buffalo, N.Y., and he misspent his adolescence among a crowd his brother, Richard, calls “sewer rats.” He came West and discovered his vocation with a vengeance at Utah State University—wildlife biology. His specialty was small mammals.
Perhaps you might imagine that he maintained a respectful, detached and scientific curiosity toward all living things. He did not. There had to be a pecking order, and he hated songbirds. They intruded upon and often served to ruin his wilderness experience. Their songs he invariably greeted with a resounding, “SHUDDUP!” For squirrels, he displayed great contempt and for similar reasons—too noisy, too territorial. He’d make-believe blast any Bambi we came across, as well, both to mock the nimrod spirit and because he found deer simply too damned skittish. Wapiti and moose were his siblings.
One time, coming down the rosy talus of South Kings Peak, he spotted a herd of elk in Painter Basin and took off after them, camera in hand. He followed the herd for several miles, snapped the obligatory spot-the-wildlife photos, and discovered, as the sun was setting, that he was two canyons over from where he should have been. He expended much sweat before he finally returned to camp, after it had grown so dark that you couldn’t see a lens cap in front of your face.
Owing to his two seasons of fieldwork, watching, banding and radio-collaring the indomitable pine marten, he liked to give tedious expositions of its nature and ways, in particular its strange and remarkable courtship ritual. The male pine marten grabs a willing female by the neck and drags her round and round through the humus. During the dragging, the female emits the celebrated “love chortle of the pine marten.” Mark was able to mimic a most convincing love chortle.
Pete and Mark were doing a bird survey on Great Salt Lake the day of the accident.
I got the call long-distance. The facts were stark and simple: Pete had called 911 from the first house he found. Mark had been LifeFlighted, in a coma, to University Hospital, where desperate efforts were made to warm and revive him, but he never regained consciousness and was pronounced dead, white male, victim of hypothermia, result of canoe capsizing in freak storm, 27 years old.
I became obsessed with his body. The thought of him in a hospital morgue—a body I had climbed beside and soared beside and bellowed with until our throats were raw—in a fridge with an I.D. tied to his toe, proved almost unbearable. We had to do something to honor his memory.
Six months later we ascended a Wasatch mountain, Lone Peak, to return his remains to earth. We—his friends, his brothers—formed a circle and tried to mouth a few worthless words—how, at least, we were all together. We opened the urn and slowly scattered dust and small shards of bone, still stained with his marrow.
Ashes was too vague a word. We held Mark in our hands, more intimate than lovers, and we tried to make sense of the accident and the process by which organs, flesh and eyes had become fine powder and aggregate: life-dough mixed with tears.
And that which remained—the first dusting of snow.
On the walls of the central corridor of Old Main, the venerable, neo-Gothic, Romanesque-revival building that surveys Cache Valley, Utah, hang several white marble tablets upon which are engraved the names of the benefactors of Utah State University. Mark’s name can be found there. In his memory, Marks parents donated funds to endow a scholarship in wildlife biology. Money for something lasting—that’s the way you do it.
Mark’s parents visited me while I was living in Torrey, Utah. His mother, who was English, was different than I had imagined her, and his father, too, who, though he physically resembled his son, was shy and soft-spoken. I wondered that they could have raised such a wild child.
His mother said that Mark and I must have been close, as I appeared in so many of his photos. They thanked me for some lines I had written for the memorial service. Although we spent an hour together, we shared few words. There was nothing much to say.
I have just returned from climbing Lamotte Peak, again. My camp is located on a shelf above the roaring Stillwater Fork. The sound of rushing water troubles my sleep. It’s June of a dry year, very different from the last time we were here. The mountains are shedding their snow early. In the sound is the warmth of rebirth, and the chill of death, too, an echo of winter winds.
I spent an hour on the summit, alone, hoping, perhaps, for some vision or even for the appearance of a hawk or eagle. Instead, I saw a lot of rocks, a parade of peaks we had climbed, familiar, yes, but already receding, as if in a rearview mirror.
As I cook dinner over a small wood fire, a moose wanders into view. The moose stops no more than 50 feet away. Yes, 45 or 50. Despite his size and strength, the moose, like his kind, appears a little ungainly up close. Big ears twitch at mosquitoes. Dark eyes stare. It seems to be looking directly at me, but moose eyesight is poor. After several minutes, the moose beds down. Water boils. I tend the fire. The moose, resting, watches me.
We are driving between Craig and Dinosaur, Colo., in the absolute middle of nowhere. We are swilling Schmidt s beer—the one with the elk on the can. We pass no traffic. Mark uses both lanes and avails himself of the horn often, schooling the road, the fences, the flora and fauna. The radio blasts a Dire Straits tune. His foot is solid lead.
“What’s the fastest North American land mammal?”
“I don’t know. Is it the badger—a mad one, I mean? An angry one?”
“The domestic bovidae? Especially the Holstein?”
“No, it ain’t that one. Have another try.”
“Urn … the, uh … Hell, I give up.”
“Its the pronghorn antelope, son. Antilocapra Americana! Not an antelope, of course, but rather a cameloid. A cameloid. Fine, fine creatures, the pronghorn. Why, just look. There are some right over there. And also over there. Antilocapra. An-ti-lo-cap-ra! That’s the way you do it.”
We are driving past blue mesas, over white clay, past scattered junipers and mannequin antelope. The rabbit brush blooms. It’s the first frost in six weeks. We are driving, and the empty land looks nearly perfect.