Finding Meaning on the Mountain: Thoughts for my friends Katie, Luke, and Anthony.

This past week has been hard for our family.  3 people were found missing on Mount Hood in Oregon. Two of the three were friends of mine that I have climbed with in the past. Of those two that I knew personally one was found dead while one is still missing. In a time where there is so much hurt and confusion, the inability to help seems  unbearable. Upon hearing about the situation, my wife Kami and I instantly thought of driving to Portland or even the mountain. Our goal would be to try and provide support practically and emotionally to friends and the families. Today, I realized I think that my greatest support can be offered in writing my thoughts as a friend and fellow climber of Luke and Katie. This writing is dedicated to the family of Katie, Luke, and Anthony. My hope is that it will provide some comfort and a small respite from the grief you are experiencing.

Katie Nolan and I on the summit of Mount Hood, April 2008 (You can see Mount Saint Helens and Mount Rainier in the background)

This past week I was reading  a book about K2, the “World’s Most Dangerous Mountain”,  by Ed Viesturs. He tells of the “tragedy” that took place in August of 2008 when 13 climbers died in a 36 hour period while attempting to summit the mountain.  More interesting than the actual event was the response of the general public. Armchair “experts” who had never spent time in the mountains all had very strong opinions about his very dangerous and seemingly purposeless “sport”.   It was interesting reading this book in the dawn of this week’s events.  Since Friday there have been so many news articles and comments made about the three climbers. Many critiques and judgments have been made. Some of which even suggest that “they deserve to die” and should be “stuck with the bill” from any rescue attempt. While I do not agree with these viewpoints, I feel like I understand them.  As a mountaineer, I have pondered these issues many times sometimes when asked by others, and sometimes just to justify my own actions to myself. In writing this I would like to shed light on my fascination with mountaineering and how my obsession with this “sport” has evolved and survived these questions and critiques. I do this with the hope that it may help surviving family and friends understand and possibly even find purpose in the Mount Hood tragedy.

“Because it is there” are the words that George Mallory used to answer the question “Why do you want to climb Everest?”  To most people these three words (considered the most famous words in mountaineering) do not make any sense. In his book “Into Thin Air,” Jon Krakauer describes his experience on the top of Everest in this way:

I hadn’t slept in fifty-seven hours. The only food I’d been able to force down over the preceding three days was a bowl of ramen soup and a handful of peanut M&Ms. Weeks of violent coughing had left me with two separated ribs that made ordinary breathing an excruciating trial. At 29.028 feet up in the troposphere, so little oxygen was reaching my brain that my mental capacity was that of a slow child. Under the circumstances, I was incapable of feeling much of anything except cold and tired.

To most people this condition sounds like hell. To a few of us, it sounds like our haven. My first experience on a glacier above 10,000 feet involved a 60 mph horizontal ice storm in the pitch dark. In that moment I was the most isolated from comfort and safety that I had ever been.  I discovered something about myself that day. Something I never would have considered or thought of. In the overwhelming noise of isolation and natural chaos I felt silence and peace. There have been very few times that I can remember being in this state of complete isolation, most of which were for very short periods of time.  But it is in the external chaos,  it is for me that the peace of the internal and eternal came into focus. To most, this does not make sense. Mountains, ice, storms, and avalanches are dangerous. “Peace”  for most comes from a warm room with a fire place and a cup of hot chocolate. While this may represent a peaceful environment it does not bring peace to my deepest being.  There is one simple reason for this. For me the biggest area of chaos is not in the outside world,  it is within myself. The biggest obstacle have not been in quieting the outside world but it is in quieting “the voices” in my head and the many conflicting feelings in “my soul”.

In all of my travels and experiences nothing has calmed the desires of the flesh for me more than the isolation and exposure that is found in the mountains. Amazingly this peace did not come in spite of the exposure and isolation, it came because of it.  Since this realization much of my effort and scheduling is built around getting to the mountains. By definition “exposure” and “isolation” are dangerous things. To an assuming outsider, my actions appear neurotic. But to me, nothing makes more sense. My experiences of meeting God on the mountain have been so life giving that they can can fuel me for months and years by providing perspective, inspiration, and even furthering this desire to encounter the eternal. I am not speaking metaphorically or using exaggeration. This is simply the reality of the worlds that I live in. This is why I prioritize and guard this time.

This has presented some very tough decisions for me in the past.  There is a lot of pressure from myself and others to be a “responsible” and “safe” father. This sometimes lies in stark opposition with the feelings that these seemingly “irresponsible” and “dangerous” experiences have made me a better husband and father for my family. I have accepted that there is no easy solution to this conflict. This will always be an on-going process of evaluating and prioritizing for me. In desiring to train my children as responsible and sacrificial it sounds scary to be a martyr for either. In the event of a death it is easier to make quick judgments, but in life these decisions consume me late into many nights.

For some people this issue remains very simple. There is a list of activities to perform, places to go, or prices to pay that are simply unacceptable. To these people the degree to which people are willing to chase “experiences” seem foolish. This is seen very overtly in many of the comments made in regards to published news articles. 

These are some anonymous samples:

“I can’t believe people can be so stupid as try to climb Mt. hood this time of year.”

“For people to leave Timberline Lodge at 1:30am without GPS navigational devices to ascend Mt. Hood is ABSOLUTELY IDIOTIC”

“I say they asked for trouble by making such an irresponsible decision.”

You will notice many judgmental  words used like “stupid,” “idiotic,” “irresponsible,” and “foolish”. While it may be much easier to draw such a simple lines of distinction they are not necessarily accurate. Everyone goes through different routines to reach  experiences that they think will help them to escape the mundane. To some this involves spending a week at a place where there is no running water, for others it means going to a place where a different language is spoken, and still to others it means going to a place where they can feel extravagant. Are these commentators willing to call these things “stupid”, “idiotic”, and “irresponsible”? My guess is no. What differentiates these activities from the others? Well the appearance would suggest that some are “dangerous” and could “cost” you your life.  While I do not disagree, I think we must be reminded that people give their life for something every day. Not necessarily in a life or death sense, but everyday we wake up for something. For many it is work or school. For others it is relationships. But everyone has inside them a desire for meaning and purpose that we, quite literally, give our lives for. For climbers, this is why we go to the mountains. Usually, there is no money or honor waiting for us at the top but that is that is ok. Because we climb  for one simple reason: Whatever it is that we experience in “the mountains” , is worth the risk that it takes for us to get there. When we go there we do not go there for safety. In fact, quite the opposite. So, suggesting it as “idiotic” to not take a gps, a beacon, a propane heater, or any other number of safety or comfort tools would be like asking someone who enjoys the very act of swimming why the don’t just take a boat? It just shows a misunderstanding of goals. For most mountaineers safety is a necessary evil. It is a tool that we use to reach our goals but never the goal itself.

What would it look like to have safety as your goal? If we are going to consider it “stupid”, “idiotic”, or “foolish” to expose your your life to “dangerous” situations then we must also be willing to explain and defend the opposite. Would these commentators it smart or responsible for one to stay at home and guard themselves from any physical or emotional danger? While this sounds extreme, we all have different standards about what we are willing to endure to experience life. Everyday we open ourselves up to the risks. This could come in the form of leaving your house, applying for a job, or being vulnerable in a relationship. What would it look like to make your life about protecting yourself from these “dangers”? It serves as a reminder to me that while protection and safety make great tools they tend to make a very for a very ill-suited purpose. In this sense the reason why Luke, Katie, Anthony and I climb mountains is no different than why many people get a degree, or create art, or take a risk in a relationship.

But in any pursuit there are lines and there is wisdom. In my own pursuit of mountaineering I have a very rigid code that has evolved which I believe protects me from, what I consider,  “unnecessary” risk. But to call someone “stupid” for pursuing different goals than my own enters into territory that goes beyond “common sense”. It goes into a realm of philosophy and even spirituality. I know I have seen my own lines change overnight. Even hearing news of Luke’s death brought tears to my eyes and made me wonder if I could ever climb again. Thoughts flooded me of my first times climbing and practices that I would never repeat now.  These changes have come with my education but much of it has come as my values and priorities have shifted and matured. I hope in 10 years I will look back with an evolved code of purpose and “safety” based upon more mature priorities.

While I have known both the Nolan and Gullberg families for more than 10 years, and have been to the summit of Mount Hood with both Katie and Luke I will not claim to fully know why each of them climb. But I have an idea, because I know why I climb. And I don’t think that it’s that different from why many people do a lot of other things. At the end of the day we think it is worth it. In my short life I have been to many countries and continents. But I have never met God in any place more consistently than in the mountains. Whether or not they realized it, my guess is that Katie, Luke, and Anthony were on Mount Hood to do the same thing. To that degree I hope they were successful. Because if they were, there can be no greater calling or evaluation for success. It is easy for me to sit in my chair at home and think about what I would do differently and what they could have done differently, but in the end I have one wish for them:   that they met God on the Mountain in in all of their moments of Life. And that they will fully meet God in beyond the mountain and the moments in death.

To the Nolans, Gullbergs, and Viettis: Our hopes and prayers are with you.  May we keep our eyes to the hills. That is where our Help comes from.

Thanks to Matt H. for helping edit. Sorry for my terrible writing. It’s so much clearer in my head and heart.

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27 thoughts

  1. Ben,

    As I read, I was reminded of several conversations I had with Luke about why he loved the mountains so very much. They were a place where he felt the most alive and the world made the most sense. Thank you so much for writing this and expressing your thoughts to us. It means a lot.

  2. Well said. Sorry to hear this is personally affecting your family. I admire the determination and discipline it takes for you mountaineers to accomplish your goals and although I can only understand in part because I don’t have that same desire I can understand what it means to do something that something very deep inside you says you must do, even when everyone else around you thinks you are crazy.

  3. Great words. It is not the grammar but the thoughts that matter.

    I did not know Luke and I do not know Katie or Anthony but my thoughts are similar to yours.

    Perhaps positive words and thoughts like these are what we can do as part of the brotherhood of climbers from the comfort of our warm homes away from the freedom of the hills.

  4. I tried commenting on this last night, but my phone wouldn’t let me post. I L-O-V-E that you took the time to write these words – and share them with the rest of us. Luke (Katie & Anthony too) would be pleased with this write-up. In looking at the reaction of others, I’ve been hoping for something like this. Thank you!

  5. Well said. I too know Luke, and I whole heartedly agree he met God beyond the mountain. I am praying for all of their families. For me, Mountaineering is a “thin spot” between heaven and earth. It is a place where life slows down, things become simpler, and one can truly experience their creator. I understand the draw; we (climbers) all assume the risk. My prayers have been for peace. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with all of us.

  6. Ben,

    Thank you so much for this. I know this was from the heart and how much Luke loved the mountains, as do I. The love of the mountains have been ingrained in the Gullberg family. I particularly loved this:

    “Because we climb for one simple reason: Whatever it is that we experience in “the mountains” , is worth the risk that it takes for us to get there.”

    These activities were not done for safety, but to learn and be closer to God. We can all take comfort in the fact that all of these climbers are now with God. Thank you again for such a beautiful post.

    -Ivon

  7. This truly touched my soul! I have never wanted to climb out of my nice warm bedroom, with my cozy fireplace and start climbing a mountain more then I did while I was reading this. I guess, I just never understood why “climbers” do take the risk’s they do, thank you for such a clear and beautiful explaination. It brought tears to my eyes.

    I truly hope that each and every one of them met god on that mountain, and achieved the peace within themselves they were searching for.

  8. I have lost 5 great friends in the mountains. Two are still on Mt Logan, one of them being the greatest mountaineer I have ever known. One died on Mt Alice, ski mountaineering. Two on Mt Ranier. The all share a common thread, they died doing what was the passion of their life. So much better than dying a nursing home or hospital. Those friends have left an indelible impression on my life. I hope that the three on Mt Hood will have given their lives, knowing that others understand why, and are touched but understand like I do. “Because it’s there” doesnt make as much sense to me as “if you have to ask, you won’t understand”. My prayers go out to the families and friends-they understand-critics who say why, dont understand

  9. Thanks. I went to college with Katie at WWC. She is or was a beautiful person inside and out. Thanks for putting a different perspective on things for those of us who don’t climb. LOL

  10. Thank you for writing this. I hope it will shed some light on this terrible tragedy. They died doing something they loved. If only we all could be so lucky.

  11. I don’t know these three but I have been following their story because I was at PBU at the same time as Katie. I admit that I did not understand why they would risk their lives. Now I do. My passions, the ways that I find closeness to God, are so different but I feel the same way about them that you do about climbing.

    Thank you for putting some great perspective on this for all of us non-climbers. My prayers are with their families.

  12. Thank you for writing this. Katie was one of my roommates in college. Your words have been eloquently stated and I appreciate your honesty and thoughts on climbing. I imagine Kate felt much the same way you do about being out on the mountains and I know she loved the thrill of it.
    Thank you…

  13. Thank you Ben, your words bring comfort. I am so glad God designed me to know him through the mountains, like my friend Katie. We are all designed to find him in different ways, but I am glad that this is mine.

  14. From one of Katie’s friends – thank you, Ben. Like the mountains themselves, Katie is epic and beautiful. May we all continue the journey with open hands and eyes toward the Creator of the mountains.

  15. Thank you. I heard some of the judgemental comments and struggled for an answer. Even struggled with my own anger over the loss. But I had forgotten. I often find God when I am alone on my motorcycle. I have been told that riding makes me an irresponsible mother. (Not that this is in any way compares to climbing!) But rarely am I more alone than those times.

    Those things that call to us and drag us out of our safe environments, those are the things that shape us the most radically. Those are the places God finds us to be available and in need of Him the most.

  16. I did not know any of the climbers, but Anthony did go to my parent’s church. My prayers have been with everyone that knows them. It’s been amazing for me to watch people come together and talk about these 3 amazing lives. I’m an athlete, but have never climbed, not that I wouldn’t just never taken the time. Both my parent’s climbed Mt Hood when they were younger than what I am now. Thank you for writing this blog. It helped me understand more about the heart of a climber.

  17. I don’t know how to say this sensitively, so I’m just going to say it. When I climb, the only thing I’m closer to is my own mortality, and in the realization of that mortality – in my own weakness – I am empowered as a human. Mountaineering is about connecting with the inner self (aka the ego). It’s about conquering extreme situations given one’s fragility and limitations. In a sense, it’s about observing oneself for who we are – weak, selfish, alone, and cold. This exemplifies the existentialism we all feel. We are all alone; as mountaineers, we smile at this end. Although I’m sure Katie, Luke, and Anthony experienced the panic so typical of one confronted with cold and imminent demise, I am sure they smiled at the end.

  18. To life there is a balance, between risk and reward. We drive cars because the freedom to travel long distances is worth the risk of serious injury, even death. Then the issue becomes what is an acceptable or unacceptable risk. To me it is acceptable when the car is well maintain, unacceptable if the brakes dont work. Life is full of risk/reward decisions, I pray that I have the wisdom and insight to make right and proper choices, even in the mirkiest of situations. These mountain climbers were not known as reckless, they choose to get into their car.. May God Bless them always.. Paul Baker

  19. Your writing is not “terrible”, Ben. Nothing I have read expresses the depth of motivation in the hearts of people who climb mountains more beautifully than you have in this essay. I also wonder sometimes if people like you and your friends are extraordinary channels for a level of courage and wisdom that is nearly extinct in the average person. As a mere artist trying to muster the courage to move to Oregon after forty-two years in Nebraska, the perceptions that you have shared in this blog are some of the are some of the most inspiring that I have encountered during these last few unsettled years.
    Thank you for sharing so much, and continue to follow your heart.

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