There are messages that you hope to never receive—the ones that constitute nightmares. It was less than a year ago that I received one such message—“Eric is dead.” I was stunned by the news. I knew it would be climbing related.
Eric Klimt was an amazing climber. But more than that, he was an incredible person and someone I truly aspired to be like. Kind and altruistic—his biggest complaint was that his students didn’t appreciate math as much as he did. His death is one which demands the question—why?
My head is reeling—clouded with thoughts. The sandstone feels more brittle, the handholds are more filled with dirt and the runouts between protection are longer than ever. My mind is cluttered. “Not now,” I think to myself. Distractions lead to mistakes. I was at the base of the climb from which my friend fell on that fateful day.
This route had been on my mind ever since his passing.
Moonlight Buttress rises above Zion Canyon, commanding the surrounding landscape while its imposing features challenge man to ascend its sandstone face. Since the first aid climbing ascent in October 1971, the climb has been considered a classic. The route once again captivated the climbing community’s imagination in 1992, when the first free ascent was established. Today, the route is still considered a test for the advanced free climber. It is this very reputation that undoubtedly tempted Eric to free climb the route.
Going into the climb, I told myself I would simply not think about the incident. The more I tried, the more the memories would resurge. Climbing into the night, I felt more alone than ever. In the darkness far below, my friend was climbing the rope, much like a spider ascending its thread. I simply hung, suspended by metal and nylon—suspended in my thoughts. Loneliness can be a vicious friend.
The stars shone with a brilliance that our preindustrial ancestors would have marveled at. It was by this light, that I climbed the last pitch of the day. Exhausted, we quickly set up the portaledge—our home for the night. It was there, suspended halfway up the 1200’ face that I was finally able to process my thoughts. Pain, uncertainty and disbelief all intertwined.
I was able to revisit the question which had been left unanswered. “Why?” Did he take too many risks? Was he complacent? Is climbing just too dangerous? Inevitably, this led me to the question of “Why do I climb, if the consequences can be so big?” Eric was a safe climber. I would have trusted him with my life. Yet, accidents happen. It is hard to quantify the outcomes of climbing, be it good or bad.
Sometime during my argument with my own psyche, I stopped to observe the stars glimmering in the open sky. The calico sandstone of the canyon walls was animated by the dancing moonlight. Through the soft breeze, I could hear the river rushing below. The same river that had shaped this powerful landscape. Suddenly I felt small—insignificant: not unimportant, just insignificant.
I still do not have answer to the questions posed. Some questions it seems, are better left unanswered. While I could come up with a dozen answers for why I climb—none of them would be completely true. I do find consolation in knowing that even the most famous mountaineer, George Mallory, did not have an answer. When asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, he replied with “Because it’s there.” Then again, maybe it is just that simple.
The following morning, with a clear mind and the inspiration of a beautiful sunrise, my climbing partner and I finished Moonlight Buttress by early afternoon. Light rains greeted us at the top as we packed our gear. Before we left, I stopped to look around. I can only hope that my last memories are filled with scenes as beautiful as Eric witnessed from the top of Moonlight Buttress.