Hiking with ghosts
Rob Kehrer is dead. Based on reports I assume he and the other founding member of Team Heavy, Greg Mills, hiked around the Tana River canyon and put back in on the river, where Rob was quickly flipped by a boil or whirlpool, became separated from his packraft, and drowned and/or succumbed to hypothermia before he could reach the shore. In a PFD and rain gear, and on a very big and cold river, caution is necessary but not sufficient. The same can be said for any sort of wilderness trip, even ones far less outrageous than the Wilderness Classic, and indeed for life itself.
I met Rob in both 2011 and 2012, and on both occasions he struck me as the paradigm of how one wants to react to adversity. We go to the woods because modern life lacks sufficient challenge to find out the important things about ourselves fast enough, and the Classic is a hyperbolic version of this iconic western bourgeois tradition; best suited for either the most thirstily introspective or the most hard-of-inner-hearing. Robs humility, grace, generosity, and good humor in the face of both success (2011) and failure (2012) was something I aspired to, especially given the blows my own ego suffered in the Wrangells.
When someone dies in the mountains it’s easy to compartmentalize that death as needless, because the activity is so obviously divorced for the necessities of everyday life. This bifurcation is particularly simple when the fatal activity is one you’ve deemed too dangerous, something the Classic certainly is for most. The particulars are worth past and future discussion, but the move of distancing ourselves categorically from these deadly pursuits is not likely to teach us anything. Life is deadly, and all statistics do most of the time is allow us to ignore that for one more week. So I propose that you drink a beer for Rob this evening, a beverage whose richness and joy (alcohol, a poison) is tied up in the extent to which in excessive doses it is inimical to life. After you drink one for Rob, drink another for all the good people still in your life, because you do not know when they will be gone.
One of the things I felt bound to do after ending my traverse early last week was the classic Glacier hike from Logan Pass to Granite Park chalet and down to the Loop. These days this 12 miler, which in the summer is massively crowded, is an easy stroll, with minimal elevation change and fantastic scenery had with scandalously little effort. When I first did the hike with my family, nearly a quarter century ago, 12 miles was a enormous distance, which explains why it of all first-decade memories remains amongst my most vivid. It is among my most cherished not just because I can so easily recall and revisit it, but because my dad died of cancer a few years later. Life events last week told me it had been too long since I’d been up there to pay tribute, so I went.
I recall the initial catwalk and it’s garden-hose covered safety cable. I recall the boulders and marmots below Haystack Butte. I recall the first clear view of the chalet across the long cirque which drains Grinnell overlook, and how far it actually was still to go. I recall the steep rock steps leading up the chalet, running up them in excitement, and running back down to take my dads sweaty pack. I remember sitting in the chalet, back when they still served lunch, and eating what I remember as my first-ever tuna sandwich, which explains the enduring and largely theoretical fondness I still have for tuna salad. When I got to those steps last week I found out in a hurry that while I don’t have too many tears left my father, I can still tap into the fluid depths in the best moments.
The whole day it seemed hard to grasp that my memories of so important a person can be increasingly isolated, fleeting, and distant from what I’ve become, while the dirt, rocks, and wood boards we both walked across so many years ago remain, largely unchanged. Time does not stop for us, and it does not flow evenly, in a manner which allows for experience and memory to be easily set in order. It is mysterious, violent, and indifferent, like the river which killed Rob. It is also all we have available for placing ourselves, and those for the moment with us, in order such that we can understand ourselves well enough to move forward. A part of the current if it please us today or not, we have no choice.