Facing death on the mountain: What my father taught me on his last great climb

Years later, I remember how the gusts of wind against the barren rock of the Exum Ridge sounded like a buffalo herd

Published June 17, 2018 9:00AM (EDT)

Looking toward the Grand Teton from the summit of the Middle Teton (Getty Images)
Looking toward the Grand Teton from the summit of the Middle Teton (Getty Images)

Signe Pike is a travel writer and author of "The Lost Queen" trilogy (Touchstone; September 4, 2018). Visit her website at www.signepike.com

"I want to be able to record every beautiful thing I see, so that when I look back on my life in a time of darkness, I won’t be able to say that I have never lived in light.” — From your diary, 1996

The summer you turn 16 finds you in the mountains with your father. It is August and the sun blazes over the plains but the Teton Range is still capped in snow. You can see the mountains towering mythic and forbidding beyond the twist of the Snake River, their granite peaks rising from the dry fields of sagebrush, and you name them because your father has taught you: Middle, Grand, Teewinot, Mount Owen, Mount Moran.


There are only three radio stations in Teton Park and all of them play country. You fiddle listlessly with the dial until gravel finally churns under the tires of the Ford and your father turns down the narrow dirt road to the Climbers’ Ranch. The sameness of the place is like greeting a friend: The aspens still flutter their silvery leaves along the banks of Cottonwood Creek. The climbers’ cabins are still stacked like Lincoln Logs in the flat bed of grasses that borders the steep, pine-covered hill. Your father’s brown eyes soften like he is greeting a memory.

Once, he tells you, this was the land of the Shoshones.

Your father is not Native American. He is a city boy who does not like concrete, a Jewish man who does not believe in God, a university lecturer of 35 years who is not a professor, a former Navy lieutenant who does not believe in rank. He is a storyteller who could not write a book. When winter is slow giving way to spring you roll your eyes as he bows his head and echoes T.S. Eliot: “April is the cruellest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain.” No, he is not Native American, but he wishes he were, you think. He knows their stories and their spirits – Coyote, Bear and Fox. Sometimes when you walk the woods he reaches a hand out, stilling you. You try to walk like him, without making a sound.

Dusk falls at the Climbers’ Ranch, and men with three-day beards gather around their fry pans and propane stoves like moths around porch lights, telling tales of glaciers and grizzlies in the softly sinking light. You fall asleep on a plywood bunk, the silence of the high peaks ringing in your ears and somewhere in the dark below, the sound of your father breathing.

In the morning your stomach feels like a skein of wet wool. You eat because you know your body will need it. Your father hefts his pack onto his back and you smear zinc on your face, following him up the trail. It’s shady and quiet here, under the canopy of green. But as the sun climbs its arc in the sky you begin to learn there is no such thing as battling a mountain. The switchbacks tell you that, the way they slowly twist, wicked and ceaseless, the packed summer dirt of the trail kicking small clouds of dust off the back of your father’s boots. You fix your gaze on him and remember how many mountains you have climbed simply by following his muscled back, by simply putting one foot after the other. The wet skein of wool lodged in your belly tightens; the snatches of beauty are never enough to compensate for the long stretches of pain – a child’s legs fighting to keep time with her father’s, or the harsh scratchings of fear – the mountains mean being lost in the dark when you ache to be home, being too wet with snow, being too hungry with a packet of spoiled food. There is always a mistake. And yet his feet plant with purpose, a moving meditation.

“Breathe,” he reminds you. “Breathe.”

At 7,000 feet the switchbacks fall away and you step into the tufted pine meadows of Garnet Canyon. Clumps of alpine grasses dotted with wild blue flax and rich golden butterweed shiver with the breeze sweeping up the canyon. You lean, each of you on a boulder, take some water and trail mix, and all too soon it’s time to resume the climb. Sweat soaks your shirt beneath the thick padded straps of your 75-pound pack. Spruce, pine and gently swaying aspens give way at the tree line to boulder fields and their sloping shoulders of ice. You wish you didn’t know there were another 4,000 feet of elevation to gain before you reach the Lower Saddle. You begin to feel as though you are wading through molasses.

“What will it be like when we get there,” you ask. “You know, where we camp?”

Your father sighs. This question is perilously close to Are we there yet, and he too, is fighting for breath.

“It’s a glacial moraine, an alpine pass. The Lower Saddle hangs between the Middle Teton and the Grand.”

It sounds desolate and cold, like camping on the moon.

The trail narrows, then disappears. Your father takes out the guidebook and shakes his head, traces the route with a weathered finger. Your trailblazing father has lost the trail. There is nothing to do but try to find it. You follow his surefooted boots blindly, gripping your way up a steeply pitched boulder field, lungs flaming in the thinning air. And then when you come to the top, everything changes.

You see your father’s face has gone pallid.

He has set down his pack and his peppered head is bowed, his body caved, his hands on his knees. He is struggling for breath in great rasping heaves and his eyes are too wide. He is blinking at old age as if it caught him by surprise. The surprise catches you too: You never imagined his body could be anything but invincible. And yet never has your father seemed so fragile – a smooth-shelled egg of a man, teetering on the tip of a canyon. Your eyes sting and you turn your head away, but he is your father. He can smell your tears like a threatening storm.

“Hey,” he tells you. “Hey. It’s OK, kiddo. It’s OK.”

His dark eyes are filled with a determined sense of wonder.

“This is why I wanted to do this. I’m getting old,” he says, and his voice is gentle. “This may be the last great mountain I will ever climb.”

You sink into a place where words do not live. In the fibers of your body, you knew this. He is only 56 years old. You did not come because you wanted to climb this mountain. You came because you did not want your father to climb it alone.

Several minutes tick by and you help him shoulder his pack. Looking down from this height, he points out the Lower Saddle sprawling beyond, a desert of gray boulders and ice. Somewhere below is the hollow trickle of a glacial stream.

Together you pitch the tent at 11,600 feet.

You wake up at 3 a.m. to begin the final ascent and the velvet sky has exploded with stars. You realize you have been sleeping nestled closer to the heavens than you have ever been before. So much light. Outside the tent, light from the stars illuminates the barren moraine like fairy dust. The snow that shoulders the peaks glows like a white-winged moth in the darkness. The trickle of ice water seems to whisper, this, this, this.

You understand that here, your father has found his God. This is why the month of planning and preparation. This is why the tedious road trip more than halfway across the country. This is what living can show you.

Can you see it?

Will you remember this?

Eyes opened wide, you blink like the shutter of a lens in an effort to embalm it, this moment, before the pain claims you – of climbing, of aging, of burning into dust. He studies you in the dimness and nods. He says with his eyes, Good, kiddo. You finally understand.

In the shelter of the tent you don hat, headlamp and expedition-weight long underwear. You slip your rock shoes into your daypack and look to the mountain overhead, never imagining there will come a time in your life when the only mountains you climb will be constructs of glass and steel beam. When you will try to find the heavens and see no stars at all, only pinpoints of light from the Brooklyn Bridge, or the fluorescence of Midtown.

Years from now you will remember how the gusts of wind against the barren rock of the Exum Ridge sounded like a herd of wild buffalo, how you folded yourself into granite chimneys on the shadowy expanse of the Western face – the mountain held you then, like a mother who forgave your stupidity. Like the calcified embrace of a compassionate old man. You closed your eyes and wished you could stay.

You will remember how you reached the summit too late, the 2 p.m. shadows on the crags of the rocks, your triumph tempered by the darkening storm clouds billowing their way toward the peak. You’ve heard stories of climbers who’ve gotten pinned by weather near a summit, struck down by lightning or frostbitten or worse. You snap one quick photo of the patchwork expanse below and it’s time to descend. You haven’t gone far when you reach the first big free rappel, a 200-foot drop over the edge of a cliff with no rock to anchor your feet upon. Your father drops his daypack and pulls out the blue climbing rope, ready to clip in and rappel you back home.

He has uncoiled the rope and worked it through the carabiner, peering over the sheer rocky drop. It’s then that he stops.

Slams his fist on the granite beside him.


His curse is venomous and you wince involuntarily. He shakes his head, rubs his hands over his face. His rope is not long enough to get you back down. There is a flash of despair before his eyes harden. He knows he screwed up but he’ll never say it. This is not the first mistake, but this is the worst. There is fury and you swallow it because what is the point? This is the last great mountain your father will ever climb.

You won’t remember how it was decided that you would be the one to go in search of help and a long-enough rope. Maybe he didn’t want to leave you alone at the top of a mountain. What will stay with you is the moment you choose between fear and survival. You use the short rope as far as it can take you. You unclip and demand your fingers stop shaking in their crevices of rock. Now you are free-climbing down the western face of the Grand. Your climbing shoes slip on black ice. You look down 13,000 feet to the border of Idaho and realize that sometimes in life there is no room for mistakes.

And so you cannot make one.

In the end when you find climbers, they will not lend you a rope. It’s your father’s fault, they say. He has no business climbing a mountain. Tears brim to the surface then. You shrink back to the rock and begin the climb up to your father.

This is when I would lean in, a shadow of the woman you will become; as your fingers sought for notches in the granite, as your legs and arms worked like a spider, slow and cautious in spinning her web because her life will depend on it. This is when I would tell you:

Neither of you will die on this mountain, but in 10 years, your father will be gone.

It will happen in his sleep, 10 days after Christmas. He will be home in his bed. Outside his kitchen window there will be cardinals and chickadees and snow on the feeder. You will be watching the taxis rush up and down Broadway when you get the call. The shock feels icy as the water of Cottonwood Creek and all you can think is, I saw him, I just saw him, until you collapse onto the floor in search of a lower altitude. You will never know what causes his death. Heart failure is what they say, after all, when the human heart stops beating. And what you will wish is that you could have collected every bright moment you spent with him, not only that summer you were 16, but all seasons after and before, as if you could pluck their effervescence from the darkening sky and seal them in a jar.

For years without end you will keep two of his undershirts tucked in the back of a drawer. There are photos. Bones, antlers, fossils and turkey feathers. A mountain egg of granite from the slope of the Lower Saddle.

When your fingers grip the roughened rock you will remember the calluses on his fingers and your father’s last great climb.

You will not have to remember disaster because just when you thought the mountain wouldn’t let you down, two Australian women came upon you and your father. They had summited so late, close to 3 o’clock, but they were smiles and good cheer as they knotted their rope onto yours. After you and your father were safely down, they glided down the mountain side-by-side in their rappel and did not even pendulum, not one fraction of an inch.

You will forget how many days it took to drive from Jackson Hole, Wyo., to Ithaca, N.Y.; the journey will be a blur of rest stops, of flat lands and corn, of big sky and distant lightning. Too vaguely, you’ll remember the way your father’s thick fingers turned the dial down on Mozart to talk about the Native American Medicine Wheel; how it was composed of the four directions, and how people were composed of these four directions, too.

North is the way of the buffalo,” he says, “and its color is black. These people are directive, they are our leaders. South is the way of the deer; its color is green. These people are our nurturers, they are our healers. West —” he holds up one finger like he does when he’s teaching — “is the way of the bear; its color is sunset. These people are the doers, our hard workers who pay great attention to detail.”

He glances over at you. His dark eyes sparkling.

“You are of the East,” he tells you. “The way of the eagle. Your color is blue. You are imaginative, and creative. But you cannot follow through.”

You never ask your father his direction. Maybe you are cross with him and you don’t want to know. But you know he is right. You may have climbed this mountain, but you do not follow through. You make things hard so you can quit when they get difficult. You have inspirations that breathe in the back of your mind but you leave them to suffocate in a box where failure cannot touch them. You will become a city girl who begins to long for the country. An editor who remembers that some day, long ago, she wanted to write.

It will take his death to make you quit your job and leave New York. His leaving will cause you to seek out your own gods in faraway mountains. You will mine your own stories from the belly of the earth and hold them up to the light. And the adventures you have will teach you something about mountains, too. You’ll learn that there is nothing so lasting as those granite giants. Not love, not even sadness. You will realize your father did not live long enough to finish the lesson he began in the car all those years ago.

You are not only one direction, north, south, east or west. You, like everyone else, are parts of them all.

The glittering of the stars and the trickle of glacier stream, the view from the office tower and the scattering of cirrus clouds that sweep the Grand Teton. You cannot battle life, and you cannot conquer it. What your father hoped to teach you was how to survive it. How to appreciate what brilliance you happen upon – to roll in it and smell it, and feel it sift between your fingers. You can only hope to move through vast canyons and experience their wonder, because even when they are desolate, there is a beauty in their breathing. Our footsteps fall into the land and they become a part of it. Just as your father will always be a part of you.

By Signe Pike

Signe Pike is a travel writer and author of "The Lost Queen" trilogy (Touchstone; September 4, 2018). Visit her website at www.signepike.com

MORE FROM Signe Pike

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Editor's Picks Families Fathers Day Grand Tetons Mountain Climbing Nature Outdoors Parents