Josh, a climber from my great state of Georgia, RSVP’ed as a “maybe” for HC’s July 2010 convention, and if he had been able to come, maybe you’d have met him.

Josh, in a standard southern climbing scene

The first time I met Josh, I was utterly charmed.  Most straight guys wouldn’t step anywhere near an aerial fabric, either because it looks frightening, or because it’s not the butchest activity to try for the first time (or ever) in front of others.  One time at the climbing gym, unmoved by either concern, he insisted that I show him a few moves, and he picked it up immediately.  Me and a gay friend sighed, that fuck-shit-motherfucker sigh resenting that someone so amazing doesn’t bat for our team.  Us crushing on him didn’t bother him either.  This made the resentment yet worse.  So cool!

Six months ago, he fell in Tallulah Gorge.

When someone dies, your response isn’t about the person who died, it’s about you.  Which is why when you hear about a death, the most immediate reaction is to find out exactly how it happened, and then once you find that out, you can distance yourself from it.  “I don’t do that, therefore, I am safe.”

But I don’t feel safe.  I imagine, like the rest of us players in the “extreme” sports, he participated because these activities order the emotional tumult we find inherent.  People who smile are aware more than anyone of the costs of living authentically–social rejection and the fear of not doing what everyone else is doing are a certain penalty, and so the risk of physical danger is just another bullet in the ledger.    I feel like the context of his death, expanded to the appropriate level of generality, implicates me, and us.

I feel bitter, and sad, detached, and angry, and vaguely guilty, despite being a hundred miles away.

When I was a freshman in college, the world opened up.  So much changed since then.  I learned to climb, I became an atheist, had sex, fell in love, traveled to new places, took big ice cream scoops out of my brain and replaced them with (usually) better things.  He was nineteen, about to carve his own path, but we lost him and what he would have become.

We don’t know how to talk about it, so we revert to the conversations we would have had before.  “How are you?”  “Good. How are you?” “Good.”  Everyone has bags under their eyes.

The margin of safety in our sport ebbs and flows, as it does with even the most mundane activities–not everyone rides around in a brand new Volvo with side curtain airbags.  Maybe it’s too expensive and what we have is the safest we can get, or maybe we just don’t want a goddamn ugly Volvo.  Sometimes we drift off a trad route to a runout, and decide that it’s safer to keep going rather than down-climb.  Or we see a route, weigh the risks, and climb it anyway.  This is the same choice you make when you step out of the house, have sex, cross an intersection.

Trad climbers will say (well, not if they’re honest) that they always put in more pieces, sport climbers will say they don’t climb trad, non-climbers will say they don’t climb, etc.

Even the most edge pushing trad climbers fall faster to heart disease and car crashes.  And yet climbing accidents suffer an almost religious examination, despite being indistinguishable from the pleasures of an antique car or a hamburger.

I think it risks being reductive to say that Josh died doing something he loved–I’d rather say that he died being himself.  His attitude was to be open to the world.  I’m sure this hurt him before.

It would be too easy to say you would have put in more pieces.  I’m sure there are moments in your life, whether in climbing or elsewhere, where the background thought was (or the equivalent of) “don’t fall.”  If X, then catastrophe, and the chance of X can’t be eliminated.  My brother almost died in a bike accident–I still ride my bike, and he now rides a motorcycle.

If there is one thing to be said of climbing and the nature of the risk that makes it unique to us, I would say that it’s the cognizance of the risk.  The legal term of art is “assumption of risk.”  Climbers are, I’ve found, universally very well aware of the risks they are taking, and accepting of those risks as part of the deal.

I wish he had put in more pieces, taken a different route, gotten up thirty seconds earlier that morning, but it’s too late to ask for that now.  The most we can say at this point is that, if he’s anything like the rest of us, his sport was representative of a much larger image of living the life that he wanted.  A more risk averse person wouldn’t have embraced other people so easily or had a smile that tore through walls.  Fate’s roll of the dice confined us to enjoy Josh’s presence for a terribly brief slice of time.

I ask myself if I knew him well enough to justify feeling this shocked.  I know there are not many people who make others feel welcome in the climbing community, but he was one of them.  When people die, there are always emotions that you want to instantiate in words, but you don’t, for fear of some social rejection. It’s the same reason most people don’t smile. I feel pretty weird writing and posting this, for example. I can’t eulogize him as well as the people who were close to him.  But that boundary would have meant nothing to him–I know if I had died before him, he would have said something about me.  Maybe he was afraid, and he just overcame it on an incredibly regular basis.  I hope the memory and example of his life will at least partly replace what we lost.

A smile etches itself into memory in a world of fear.  His death has and will continue to burn for an enormous number of people.

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