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Wake For A Climber

Following the tragic loss of young climber Jess Roskelley, Timothy Tate explores the connection between loss and the sacredness of living a life true to oneself

Photo courtesy NPS / Tim Rains
Photo courtesy NPS / Tim Rains
Conrad Anker and his wife Jenni Lowe-Anker rolled up in their late model white Subaru Forester in front of our home on the southeast side of Bozeman at 6 a.m. We were headed to Spokane, Washington for a 3 pm “Celebration of Life” memorializing the late esteemed mountaineer, Jess Roskelley at the Bing Crosby Theater. 
 
The 403 miles on Google Maps stretched out and appeared before us rain-soaked and somber. Conrad was one of eight speakers to address the 800 people who were gathering later in the afternoon to mourn the loss of their native son in a theater named after a famous other one.

I was asked to serve in the role of the Master of Ceremony.

Loss, as I’ve written before,  is not for the faint of heart, nor are 5.13 pitches 20,000 feet closer to the sun. This mix of climbers called to the texture, cracks, and uncharted routes up the stairways to heaven gathered together in grief feels like electric-shock therapy, but without the mouth guard.

The charge built in the theater much like lighting suffused the atmosphere with ozone. Layers of capacity and experience crowded the foyer like sedimentary rock expresses epochs. John Roskelley, Jess’s dad, represented rock tested over five decades, and was joined by other legends of his 70-plus years. The next strata was charged with the likes of Conrad and those around his 56 years of tempering. He’s attended his share of funerals and memorials. Then came the vein of damp compressed loam peppered by the likes of Jess and his fellow climbers David Lama and Hansjorg Auer, ranging in age from 28 to 36.

The mix of people was a cross-section of the extraordinary. Known and esteemed hugged and cried with the stalwart. Children laughed and adults wept. Animated conversations sparked memories. Shared stories spread around between husbands, wives, lovers, climbing partners, widows and best childhood friends. The network of those who have touched the sky and those who hold space for their return commingled in sudden intimacy.

Perhaps more importantly than those who scrape the sky are those who wait for their return home. Eli Francovich states it like this in the May 18, 2019 edition of Spokane’s The Spokesman-Review: 

“From Joyce Roskelley’s deck Mount Spokane is visible in the distance, slashes of lingering snow running like vertical veins down its upper reaches.

Joyce’s home, which she built with her husband John, is most visibly a testament to a successful climbing career. On the walls are mementos to John’s climbing achievements, Tibetan begging bowls bought while on expeditions, ornamental knives from Nepal and books authored upon safely returning home.

But on a subtler level this house is a testament to Joyce Roskelley and the rock-like support she gave John during his decades-long career scaling some of the world’s tallest and most dangerous peaks. Joyce was a teacher – a very good one – who still receives letters from students decades later.

Her talent and regular paychecks were what filled in the gaps between book deals and advertisements. And her commitment to the home front launched her three children, Dawn, Jordan and Jess.

So, it’s only fitting that at her only son’s memorial Friday, Joyce did not speak, remaining the silent force behind her families ambitions.”

The ultimate fear that Jess’s Mom would repeatedly and pointedly share with him was the admonishment: “Watch the cornices. Don’t go out on the cornices. Don’t go under the cornices.” It was a massive cornice collapse that swept the three young alpinists away.

No parent can keep their children safe, especially after they are set free to more thoroughly become themselves.

The Roskelleys offered us their home for our overnight stay. We followed Joyce home across Spokane’s flooded streets. The night’s driving rain reflecting off the roadway and oncoming headlights made visibility challenging as if looking through a translucent shower curtain. Eventually we arrived at the Roskelley family home out among the rolling saturated green hills and tilled farmland. So peaceful and serene.

The program cover for Jess' Celebration Of Life.  Click to enlarge
The program cover for Jess' Celebration Of Life. Click to enlarge
We had been awake for 18 hours, drove for seven of those and then dove into the celebration of life event and after-party with no holds barred. Exhaustion was knocking on my old head and Joyce led me to a bedroom en suite that looked like warmth shaped into a queen-sized bed. She said to get settled, speaking like only a mother can, that hot sleepy time tea was on its way. She delivered. Although it took me time to amp down, the tea and my weary brain succumbed to a fitful sleep punctuated by dreams yanking at my soul. 

What is it about those left behind in the world of climbing who are often women and children? Is it their love, their acceptance, their willingness to agree with the call of their partners at their own expense?

It’s not that simple. 

The climbers I know are not looking for permission nor are they contrite about their calling. It’s like if you were dating a panther you wouldn’t mind the kill. And those men and women who call peaks their home know no other place. 

I mean Emily Harrington, an introverted North Face alpinist, who truly is a "rock" star known for her prowess. Speaking of climbs past and others yet to come as she drove me to the San Jose airport from The North Face retreat in Big Basin, she conveyed the intrepid passion of a person gripped by the mountain’s granite. No excuses or explanation anymore than Da Vinci would justify his genius. And maybe that’s getting closer to the nub. If our life, no matter how long or short it’s span, is not a story worth telling, then life is not worth living. 

Down deep, everyone does have a story to tell. You don’t need permission to live it or tell it. 

Returning to Joyce and her relationship to this paradox of love and extreme adventure played out in her husband and son’s lives, the Spokesman-Review column stated. “What right did he have to ask her to stay home?”

Joyce didn’t see it that way. Instead, she knew her husband was engaged in an Olympian-level effort. One that required 100 percent concentration. The way she figured, anything she could do to ease John’s mind and help him focus, and thus get him home safely, was worth it.

“Our sticking to routine at our home was contributing to his safety,” she told the newspaper reporter.

The next morning I could hear from my bedroom Joyce making sounds in the adjacent kitchen, those that only a loving mother know how to orchestrate. Arising and after showering with towels she pointed out were there for me to use, I joined her in the kitchen. It was us, together in her kitchen, looking out over wetlands she and John caretake, with Mount Spokane wrapped in low hanging saturated clouds beckoning from the distance. 

We went out onto their balcony deck above the chattering songs of red-winged blackbirds, larks, swallows, ducks of many feathers, geese, and others known by name to her yet unfamiliar to me. She became the spokeswoman for Mother Earth in all her singing glory and resilient abundance. If I belong to the earth and she is within me as even I am a participant in her long suffering am I not also bound together with the wetlands as well as the craggy peaks in a slow moving spectrum from low to high?

I deal with grief nearly every day in my work as a therapist. 

There is no mistaking the fire in the heart of those who agree to the implicit, invisible, untamed wildness inherent with the mountain’s spell. You see, the spirit of the mountains is not a romantic affectation anymore than it is an excuse. Its allure is in its enigmatic effect on those among us who heed its call.

 We will dream it, join in heated conversations about risk/reward, gear up for an expedition, sharpen tools, seek sponsorships, submit to the temptation of satisfying ego’s demands, infect our loved ones with its spirit, and climb into the clouds where the immortals whisper “welcome home.”

The toil and trouble sweeping the world of commerce, urban definitions of success, the demands of money, the rat maze of overpopulation being spun with clueless leadership, the squalor of poverty and prejudice, the morass of cultural malaise, the neurotic force of “normality” play out in the lowlands. 

There is no wonder that the high Llamas of ancient monasteries live well above 8,000 meters, which according to the mystic Franklin Merrell-Wolff in his book Pathways Through Space, contends that the oxygen mix below 8,500 meters is unsuitable for enlightened consciousness, living as he did in the late 1930’s about that altitude on California’s Mount Whitney as a hermit. In rather stilted yet ecstatic words he described his ascent to both his abiding place of mind and body like this:

“The haze grew thin and vanished.
Then, before me, immeasurable Largeness, Buttresses of the ancient Mountain;
Height rising on height, beyond all vision.
Filled anew with cheer and rich assurance,
Fast I climbed, until at last
Above me stretched the awful cliff,
Transcending the final reach of thought.
Here I lingered but briefest hour,
Extracting from thought its inmost core,
Seeking the Power above all powers.
Success crowned effort beyond all hope
And, as it were, in Time’s briefest instant, Outreaching time and space and cause, I rose
To unthinkable heights beyond unthinkable heights, Finding at last the ancient Home,
Long forgotten, yet Known so well.
Gone was the forest-world, a new World mine;
Joy untellable, Knowledge all-consuming,
Eternity stretching everywhere;
Not anywhere aught but I
Sustaining all universes,
Their origin and consummation.
Darkness of ineffable LIGHT
Enveloping all.”

There are those among us who are not left behind, even though not present on the summit, only those, who in their own called and chosen way come along. There are no us and them only we. That’s why when someone dies in the high country, even if we don’t know them well, we empathize with the pain of those left to deal with the loss.

The agreements we make privately, and hold in personal solitude and then might then share with those we love, allow us to behave in the way we do our sacred contract with life. Sacred is personal; it’s meant to convey what is particular to your life’s integrity. It is not about some convention of the collective holy. Rather it is the purest form of our unique character. 

The call to mold personal character can take one to the highest, most remote escarpments imaginable where the cost might be the ultimate sacrifice—your life and loving bonds to those left behind. Such sacrifice will happen; it is part of the territory and it is inevitable. Like a parent watching a child grow up and come into their own without their protective hand, there is no insurance against suffering. 

Sacrifice is meant to make life more sacred and reflective for the living. Without embodying one’s own hand-crafted sense of the sacred in the wake of sacrifice, we are doomed to live a profane life. To those among us who both climb and who wait, that outcome—a life without risk— is unacceptable.

Timothy Tate
About Timothy Tate

Community Psyche columnist Timothy J. Tate, who lives in Bozeman, Montana, has been a practicing professional psychotherapist for more than 30 years. For decades, he had an office on Main Street behind The Blue Door. He still works with clients downtown.
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