Mỹ Lai: What we learnt about ‘forever wars’ from one of America’s worst atrocities

The following appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald.

This month marks the 50th anniversary of an event in history the Vietnamese people call Tham sat Mỹ Lai – the Mỹ Lai Massacre. Unmatched as the most appalling episode of America’s campaign in Vietnam, the incident at Mỹ Lai was so visceral and so objectively abhorrent as to have a permanent impact on the ultimate perception of the war. The name “Mỹ Lai” itself has become practically synonymous with the “war crimes” concept.

In total, as many as 500 men, women and children were murdered on March 16, 1968 – the final outcome of a clearance operation conducted by the US Army inside a so-called “free fire zone” in South Vietnam.

Immediately afterwards, Captain Ernest Medina, the commanding officer of the company responsible for the killings was issued a Letter of Commendation and General William Westmoreland, the overseer of the entire war, personally congratulated the unit for an “outstanding job”. A “heavy blow” had been “dealt” against the enemy, the dispatches initially claimed.

When all was said and done though and the truth about Mỹ Lai was finally revealed, Second Lieutenant William Calley, a junior-level officer present at the scene, was charged and convicted with 22 counts of pre-meditated murder. He was the only officer to serve time for offences related to the massacre.

Although some Vietnam veterans like Colonel David Hackworth have asserted that there were literally “hundreds of Mỹ Lais” over the course of an almost 20 year military engagement in Southeast Asia, Mỹ Lai retains a particularly important place in the imaginarium of this period – in part because of the sheer scale of the slaughter and in part because of its effect on public opinion at a time when opposition against the war was becoming increasingly vociferous.


Images of the massacre taken by US Army photographer Ronald Haeberle. Immediately after the killings, Haeberle destroyed some of the evidence. Photo: AP

The somewhat sensational revelation of the killings and the subsequent highly publicised trial of Calley also raised important questions about the issue of responsibility in a war crimes situation.
How did such a thing as Mỹ Lai occur? Who participated in it? And perhaps more importantly, who ordered it and/or allowed it to happen?

One view, the “wrath of the centurions” view, asserts that the greatest culpability lies with the leaders at the small-unit level – the bottom-level links in the so-called “kill chain”. By this reading, the low-ranking “centurions” who directly oversee the killings – the “strategic corporals” and the Second Lieutenant William Calleys who are physically present when atrocities occur – are primarily responsible when clusters of army privates gang-rape, mutilate and murder civilians as the US GIs did at Mỹ Lai.

As military psychologist Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman argues in On Killing, “the proximity [emphasis added] of the obedience-demanding authority figure” is the most important factor in enabling killing behaviour, especially when the killing occurs under morally questionable circumstances.

The opposing view is that incidents like Mỹ Lai reflect a broader cultural problem within a military force – that the very creation of so-called “free fire zones” in Vietnam demonstrated an indifference to and perhaps even a disdain for the act of separating innocent civilians from lawful combatants.

When William Calley was convicted for his role in the killings, Brigadier-General Telford Taylor, who had served as a senior American prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials, asserted that the US military had done a great injustice with its failure to lay charges against any higher ranking officers.

Following this logic, the broader strategic emphasis on attrition and the Pentagon’s obsession with body counts and “kill ratios” was as much a part of the problem as the “centurion” on the ground marking a child for death.

Observe, for example, Calley describing Captain Medina’s orders during his trial: “I was ordered to go in there and destroy the enemy … I did not sit down and think in terms of men, women and children. They were all classified as the same, and that’s the classification that we dealt with over there, just as the enemy”.

Of course, just as the Nuremberg trials established the principle of “command responsibility”, Calley’s excuse that he was only following orders, was just as comprehensively shot down during Telford’s prosecution of the Nazis. The SS man guarding the door to the gas chamber was just as culpable as Himmler or Hitler.

But perhaps it is also true, as General Walter Boomer, Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps, succinctly put it: “My Lai happened because officers failed.”


2nd Lt William Calley being led away after conviction. Photo: AP

Irrespective of where the blame for atrocities like Mỹ Lai should lie – be it with the grunts, with their “centurions” or with their high-ranking overseers – the Vietnam war, we now know, ultimately became a lost cause. And perhaps it already was a lost cause, even before the soldiers of Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment began the initial sweep into the My Lai hamlet cluster.

Increasingly, as we have seen more recently in Iraq and Afghanistan, savage “wars among the people” are simply not viable. As “forever wars” like Vietnam drag on, infantrymen will fatigue, the “Other” will be dehumanised and the lines between enemy and civilian will be blurred by a miasma of relentless combat. Maybe under these circumstances, incidents like My Lai are inevitable – a sobering realisation.

Ultimately then, perhaps final responsibility for the events of March 16, 1968 lies with the American public for allowing the unwinnable war in Vietnam to carry on as long as it did.

The Lost Generations

Physicists suspect that the universe is expanding – that the space, time and matter that constitutes our everything is spreading out as part of an ever-growing cosmos. One day, they theorize, that process of expansion will come to a stop – finito! – and everything thereafter will begin to contract, collapsing down into the ultimate form – the dimensionless singularity – as it was at the time of the Big Bang. Then and there, some believe, the cosmological film-reel will play over.

Such as it is, history appears cyclical, not linear. The universe expands, contracts then expands again. History doesn’t merely tend to repeat itself – it must repeat itself. This is the story of everything.

While the physicists have the hard data to prove it, the minds behind the world’s great religions suspected as much too. After all, this recurring cyclical trope re-appears with the emphasis on the prefix “re-“ in most human belief systems. “Reincarnation”, “resurrection”, “rebirth” – even in words like “repentance”. As in, to return in penitence to see things as they truly are. The return to the source. Faith, like the universe, works in cycles too. It comes and it goes.

When a friend goes missing, people hope. When a death occurs, people pray. History repeats itself.

Likewise, it also follows that our own lives are not merely timelines – as if we were progressing through the pages of a book – but rather a part of one great oscillation – the slow building up of fetal matter into separate bodies of selves and the slow degradation of those same selves into their separate constituent parts. This act of molecular separation is “the end” – the thing called “death” – with which we are all familiar.

But just as one person’s universe collapses into nothingness, a new universe will be born again somewhere – beginning anew the process of expansion and contraction.

Death is inevitable, we know. But so, in all likelihood, is life – a truth made self-evident by the facts of our repeating universe.

A man who falls from a mountaintop, and plummets to his forever into the bowels of a crevasse, will one day be ground up and ejected at the glacial terminus. His tissues and ribcage powdered, his heart and brain broken down into the molecules which comprised him. The atoms that once constituted the body will be washed downstream in alluvial deposits and one day those waters will be consumed by a high-altitude farmer who, in turn, will beget a descendant. One life into the next. The particles reconstituted, the stories recycled. Some might call this “reincarnation”. I simply call it “repetition” – the cyclical order of things.

When Marc-Andre Leclerc, just twenty-four years old and one of the most accomplished alpinists that North America has ever seen, went missing last week on a mountain in Alaska’s Medenhall Towers, he fulfilled his part of a covenant which dictates that every member of his generation will die.

His partner too – Ryan Johnson, a thirty-four year-old Juneau native – fulfilled the same pact – the theorem of inevitable contraction. In so doing, they also proved another sad fact – another seemingly inevitable occurrence throughout history – that the boldest and best of every new generation will be the first to perish.

In recent months and years, many of their peers have joined them. Hayden Kennedy, Inge Parkin, Kyle Dempster, Scott Adamson, Justin Griffin, Ueli Steck – and others too who ventured into high places to meet an early end.

They were the trail-blazers, “earth-shifters”, record-breakers, explorers of the possible when possibilities were thought already established.

Solo ascents of the Emperor Face of Mt Robson and the West Face of Tahu Rutum; mind-boggling ascents of The Ogre, The Eiger, the high peaks of Annapurna. Even an ascent of the hardest single pitch crack-line at Bear’s Ears-Indian Creek – as notable for its pure difficulty as any listed heretofore. These were paradigm-shifting climbs which defined a generation – a series of historical high-points now contracted into a single singularity by the common deaths of their authors.

Alpinism is no different to any other dangerous pursuit. The great tragic historical cycle – the inevitable loss of the best and brightest – will continue on as ever, as happened with Kukuzcka and Loretan, Boardman and Boukreev, Piotrowski and Sveticic.

It happened too with the Lost Generation – those who came of age, who had their baptism of fire, on the killing fields of World War One.

“You are all a génération perdue,” as Hemingway had it put to him. “That is what you are. That’s what you all are.”

Many of Shackleton’s crew survived the ordeals of the Endurance only to later die a chlorine gas-filled death in the trenches. Wilfred Owen died one week before the Armistice was signed.

Dulce et decorum est.

Perhaps even worse, where some young braves survived the Somme and other horrors – as George Mallory did – they took their struggles to the Greater Ranges, recuperating their losses with a death on a high peak, one atmospheric layer closer to heaven. The deadly, mad dash to make sense of it all – eyes wide open, at last, in hypoxic lethargy.

And now, with the names of these latest young dead piling up, the only logical conclusion is that my generation too is doomed – as Hemingway’s was, as Owen’s was. The best of us – the Marc-Andres of Agassiz and the George “Ryan”s of Juneau will be the first to go. Already, it seems, it is written in the cycles of history.

Some, especially outsiders looking in on the world of alpinism, might be wont to condemn wholesale the act of self-extinguishment that is dying on a mountain. The whole thing is abhorrent, they’ll say – an act of incalculable selfishness that disrespects the burden placed upon those who remain.

“How dare a young man so talented, so promising, throw his life away like that?”

“How dare he indeed?!”

In part, it’s true. Our obsession carries a cost. The extra food, the jet fuel, the broken equipment in dustbins, the torn synthetic down jackets in landfills. The flowing tears of the left-behind. These are real-world costs. Familial, environmental – sometimes even political.

As The Globe & Mail’s Doug Saunders, in decrying what he calls the “empty egotism” of our pursuit, writes of Mallory’s decision to climb: “when Mallory made his fateful 1924 attempt on Everest, he not only abandoned his wife, children and academic career to seek some affirmation for his shell-shocked soul, and endangered many Sherpas, but (as Wade Davis brilliantly chronicles in Into the Silence) he also did enormous political damage: outrage over the climb divided Tibetan politics, creating a lasting crisis that weakened the country enough for China to seize control. Indulging one’s obsessions carries a steep price.”

Even within our own community – the tightly-knit coven of international climbers – many among us, upon critical reflection, have found our actions wanting.

As big-wall climber Andy Kirkpatrick writes in his The Normality of Tragedy”, surely the best essay he has ever written:

Is this the story of our age… [The story] of our narcissism and desire to gobble up the pig of life, that life does not matter in the end, that we are at war with nature and there will be casualties?… Bodies and relationships wrecked in pursuit of something of no value at all… a line on a mountain.”

They died doing what they loved yes, but dying wasn’t part of the plan.

This was the game they played. “Climb the mountain, come back alive”. No mention of a death wish in there.

The dilemma for us then – the surviving members of this the latest Lost Generation – is what to do with this information. We know that death in the mountains has happened before and we know that it will happen again. Do we find something else to do – “pull out the needle and walk away”, “take the bins out” as Kirkpatrick suggests?

The weaning process seems unlikely. The mountains are just too goddamned inspiring. The only remaining avenue then is acceptance. To accept the universe for what it is – a series of ends and beginnings, an ever-expanding-then-contracting cycle. We grieve for our friends but we also grieve for ourselves because we know we’ll eventually join them – if not in a bergschrund’s hallowed halls than in a hessian-lined hospice room.

And yet, all the same, the atoms which comprise our bodies will also somewhere, somehow be reconstituted. Into soil. Into glacial run-off. Into grass or goat’s milk. Into something else. Something living and breathing perhaps.

When our kin die, our universe collapses and the sheer shock of it sees our emotions contracted into hopeless singularities. But history is not linear and this same old story isn’t new. Find me a serious mountaineer who has not lost a friend in the mountains. Find me a family tree that has never grieved for the falling of a fruit. None of us are alone in this  – in this, the eternal cycle of history.

Perhaps that knowledge then – the knowledge that the end isn’t really the end, that history repeats itself, and that life like the universe is a great big cycle – provides just enough hope for us to come up for breath in this hypoxic air.


The Mendenhall Glacier

On Doing Stuff

From Erich Fromm’s “Escape from Freedom“.

“One possible way to escape this unbearable state of uncertainty and the paralyzing feeling of one’s own insignificance is the very trait which became so prominent in Calvinism: the development of a frantic activity and a striving to do something. Activity in this sense assumes a compulsory quality: the individual has to be active in order to overcome his feeling of doubt and powerlessness. This kind of effort and activity is not the result of inner strength and self-confidence; it is a desperate escape from anxiety.”

In short, “do stuff”. Or, at least, that’s how I interpret it. The Calvinist mentality, that is. Not sure that Fromm is completely sold on it. He sees such industriousness as a problem. Indeed, he perhaps unfairly blames this bias for action as the cause of the rise of Nazism. Not sure about that, but I’m kind of sold on the doing of stuff, at least aspirationally. On balance, seems better than doing nothing.

There’s “freedoms from” and “freedoms to” in Fromm’s dialectic apparently, and when I think of something like alpinism it seems to fall into the latter category – the freedom to get out into the hills and escape the probable meaninglessness of the antediluvian world.

This debate conjures up Twight’s simple equation. Talk minus action equals zero (T-A=0). All discussion and no percussion doesn’t add up to much.

Maybe it [the route I put up tomorrow] will be repeated, gang-soloed, down-rated, dismissed. So what? I respect action and competence.

Talk less and climb more. Or write, maybe. At least putting pen to paper, or finger to keyboard, is doing “something”. I find Fromm a little wanting and I say so with my keyboard. #keyboardwarrior


Grumpy bastards with their Protestant work ethic.

Some Climbing Spray & A Return to Blogging

I’ve decided to take up blogging again. You know, actual blogging. Not the kind of literary wordsmithery that ends up in Alpinist or the news-casting clickbait that ends up on the ticker tape of a national broadcaster. Real, grassroots blogging. That unadulterated stream of consciousness stuff used for documenting the road, the research, the RUMINT and the rest. Dostoyevsky (and my wonderful editors who have in the past enabled me) eat your heart out.

For sure, I’ll keep working on various writing projects for the formal fora, covering everything from mountaineering to war crimes in Afghanistan and everything in between those everythings.

Pourquoi? Because I like to transmit what I regard as well-crafted arguments (others may disagree) on important moral and public issues; because the bylines are good for the ego; and, yes, because it occasionally pays.

Nevertheless, blogging is where it all began for me and so it’s to blogging that I would like to return. Besides, it’s incumbent upon every writer to keep the people happy and I’m unsure what the masses think of my fiction. I suspect it’s crap.

Point is, blogging is great because it provides a medium to spray about yourself, your travels and your climbing under a thinly-veiled literary guise that is more socially acceptable than the solipsistic selfies you see plastered all over social media. And, more importantly, it keeps you writing. Which is always a good thing. Like a good workout. Exercise your expression. It’s the reason I got into climbing actually. Makes for good content. HW Tilman played a role too, I suppose. (He’s still the greatest climber-explorer ever).

Anyway, since moving to the True North with my now-wife-then-girlfriend more than three years ago we’re more or less completely Canadianized – sans l’accent. I have the citizenship to prove it and she’s a spousal dependant so they won’t kick her out. On this front then, everything is as it should be. We’re firmly entrenched in the mountain culture of British Columbia with no pressing desire to move back to the flat, dry bushland of our upbringing. Good. I think I’ll stay.


This country does not suck. Snowpatch Spire, Bugaboo Range, BC.

There’s been plenty of climbing about which one could give a frothy spray-down but in reality none of it is particularly noteworthy. Certainly, there’s been no ascents of late that a visiting punter couldn’t get beta for at any climber’s cafe in Squamish or Canmore. And for sure, nothing is as personally memorable as the first ascent/solo soul-quest trip I took across the Islamic World a few years ago before moving here.


The Becky-Chouinard Route on the South Howser Tower. A “turbo-classic” as my friend Grant Stewart would say.


Slesse is also a nice peak. Must get out that way more often. Fred Beckey called the NE Buttress “the crown jewel of the North Cascades”. Go do it. We had fun.

Just working through the classics in the standard North American areas mostly – Yosemite, Indian Creek, the Bugaboos, the Cascades, the Canadian Rockies and the Coast Range. Developing the skill-set to take on technical objectives in remote, difficult-to-access mountain ranges abroad.


“Slab Daddy” in the North Cascades. 800m of 5.10+ granite slab… ooo Daddy!


Me and my lovely wife on top of Mt Habrich


One cool area we checked out this winter was Grand Cache in Northern Alberta. Here is an aerated “Wi6” (whatever that means) pillar which we ran laps on.

With my friend Olek, I did manage a fast sea level-to-sea level Tantalus Traverse (just under 48 hours I think) last summer, but I’m sure someone else has done it faster. I don’t run much anymore and there are plenty of ski-mo/endurance athlete types around here that do.


Proper glaciated terrain in that range. Somewhat real at times.


Made an ascent of this route “Shreddie” (90° ice, wet condition) on the Duffy Lake Road with my buddy Ryan Larkin this winter. Per Ryan, it was the first time someone has been up it and lived long enough to spray about it on the Internet in over a decade. But then again, did Instagram exist 10 years ago? Anyway, we got up it not because we are good but because the route never comes in and I guess everybody else in the Corridor had to work that day.  It was something like my second or third day on ice for the season and it was Ryan’s twenty-somethingth so he led both pitches. Free ride, can’t complain.


Another turbo-classic from a recent trip to Field. “Carlsberg Column” (90° ice, hooked out easy condition). Climbing on this well-trafficked Rockies stuff is straight-up #movingmeditation. The chill beaten-out nature allows you to take it uber-slow, breathe, close your eyes and live it. Just perfect. I find I don’t really get pumped on ice lately. Maybe I need to try scarier, more complex waterfalls. Or maybe not…


Train tracks. Ice tools. Old-looking bridge. Snow. Trees. Frozen river. Elk. Trucks (preferably with six wheels). Beards. Nearby gas exploration facility. Northern #Alberta. Disturbingly #Canadian. #🍁#didntevenmentionTimHortons

Irrespective of records, timekeeping and verified proof of how rad we are, I’ve been on the rocks and out on the tools a decent amount last few years and in so doing I’ve become a reasonable crack climber with an analogous penchant for granite slab heinosities as well. Plenty of cool places that an interest in those two rock types can take you.


A photo taken a few summers ago on Sentry Box. Squamish’s first 12a. Great route.


I fell off shortly after that hero snap was taken


And here is me dragging my fat ass up Kahoukers (5.12b) on a sunny day in the Bluffs the day before yesterday. I’d pretend that I’m using double-rope technique because I’m a gritstone-fed British hard-man but the real reason is I like to stitch it up like a Janomi sewing machine and this is the only way I can place 15 pieces of gear in 5 metres.

So naturally, in the spirit of grade-chasing, why not make a list of some of the routes I’d like to ascend around the traps this year, in ascending order of difficulty (because ascending is what we do). Why does the reader need to see my list of unticked pre-spray? Because tick-lists are the only thing which rock climbers are good at creating. Endless fucking tick-lists. Meaningless, largely counterproductive-to-society tick-lists. Climbers are, after all, society’s least-productive individuals.

Here it is.


  • Winter Sustenance (5.12c), Trout Creek, OR
  • Frog Pond (5.12d), Index, WA
  • Zap Crack (5.12d), Squamish, BC
  • Zombie Roof (5.12d), Squamish, BC
  • The Optimator (5.13a), Indian Creek, UT
  • Ruby’s Cafe (5.13a), Indian Creek, UT


  • Leonissisation (5.12a), Squamish, BC
  • Remembrance Day (5.12a), Squamish, BC
  • The Technician (5.12b), Squamish, BC
  • Resoler (5.12b), Squamish, BC

I’ve also been back to the Antipodes a few times since the Great Migration. Climbed some nice granite cracks in the bush and had a few false starts on secret projects in New Zealand’s Southern Alps with my good friend Lee Mackintosh (a Department of Conservation SAR technician and all-round beautiful man based out of Mt Cook village).

For the most part, climbing in the First World is generally pretty chill so I’m looking forward to doing some more routing in what Trump refers to as “shithole” countries. The Yemens and Irans of the world tend to have a character about them that just makes for a better all-round experience.


Aoraki/Mt Cook in the background. Unclimbed rock routes on this wall. They are not the aforementioned secret projects



#Bushclimbing. The eucalyptus symbolises rebirth. Regeneration after a bushfire. New life against the odds. The name from the Greek “kalypto” meaning “to cover”. As in to cover a whole country. And to cover it well. So too with the granite tors of Australia’s capital territory – blanketing the landscape. Fire-roasted granite exfoliating to reveal new lines. Old aid lines waiting to be freed. So much potential here and this place is waiting to be born again. Just ask the extant population of rock wallabies.

Other good days out are catalogued below.


Scrobiculate” (adj): “having numerous shallow pits and depressions”. This is the pock-marked snowscape of Pelion in the early morning light.


Must do more of this. Get into kayaking again, that is


“White Blotter”. Fat.

Elsewhere, and in the fall, I’m to begin a MPhil/PhD at King’s College London. Even better, with the wonders of the Internet Age at hand, I don’t actually have to live in London. Sporadic visits to my supervisors during the four or so years of study shall suffice. The supervisors too, are world-class. Jon Hill is a noted authority on social movements in Algeria. He is also a bloody champion when it comes to email banter and can crank out some excellent constructive criticism to-boot. My second supe, Mike Martin, a British Army officer-turned anthropologist was the guy who literally wrote the book on conflict ethnography in Afghanistan. Kilcullen is a poser. Martin is the Pashto-speaking real deal. Kind of ideal really.

If you follow any of my news-centric writing for #theirABC or elsewhere, you can probably glean that I’ve developed something of an interest in war crimes of late. Moreover, I’ve realized after dabbling in other fields to mine that criminology is basically a sub-discipline of my core specialty – the anthropology of violence and conflict.
So, and following this discovery, my PhD thesis is going to be fairly interdisciplinary – combining anthropological, biogeographical and criminological perspectives with area studies to make sense of some of the many awful things emanating out of North Africa.

My main interest is in how terrain and topography shapes political culture and patterns of violence in Algeria and Mali, particularly with respect to the Atlas and the Sahara. In this respect, and with my recent dabbling into war crimes literature at the back of my mind, I’d be interested in doing some fieldwork in the Algerian Atlas – in the same parent range where French mountain guide Hervé Gourdel was beheaded in 2014.

The subject matter is dark but I can’t really think of anything more important than figuring out, sociologically-speaking, how a group of punk kids from a remote mountain village fell sway to a foreign ideology as atrocious as ISIS’ brand of jihadism. Moreover, the fieldwork, though challenging, should be reasonably safe as the Algerian government seems to have cleaned up the various networks in the area.

Otherwise, there’s always more to blog about and I hope to do so more often. Someone on the internet machine referred to me as a “journalist” the other day. Strictly speaking, and given that I have written for various journals and news imprints in the past, there may be an inkling of truth to that. That said, I’m still unsure how I feel about the label. In the Army, soldiers are taught (I better add “not explicitly”) that journalists are the lowest form of life. Hence why I’ve always preferred the term “writer”. And hence, in part, why I’m becoming a “blogger” again. My way of reconciling the ontological insecurity and cognitive dissonance created by my systematic indoctrination by the military.

Since leaving the green machine though, I’ve learned that the lowest-form-of-life designation commonly given to journalists is largely an unfair stereotype. Many working newsmen, like my friend Dan Oakes – investigative reporter over at #theirABC – are painfully fair, balanced, hard-working and under-appreciated. Personally, I have a lot of respect for “the press” now – particularly when it comes to dredging up wartime atrocities and other nastiness committed by various actors the world over.

More on that later no doubt.

For now though, there’s been an excessive use of the words “I” and “me” in this blogpost. There’s also been very little mention of the partners who drag my fat ass up routes and belay me on my redpoint flails. Unsung heroes. As such, I’m going to sign off now before I read this whole thing back and realize it’s all completely unfit for public consumption.

Till next time.



Swim against the current. #arty


I ski like shit. But here is a picture of me skiing. Remember, blogging is the art of the spray-down.

The Eye

Short story by C August Elliott


There was a dead man lying face up in the elevator but he hadn’t realized it until about ten minutes ago. No one else had seen the body yet either.

If he’d been monitoring the CCTV terminal more closely he would have seen a pair of rigid sneakered feet protruding from the elevator doors into the lobby. Bottom left camera. Top right corner of the frame. The feet had appeared on-screen about two hours earlier. It was possible that if he had been paying closer attention – as perhaps he was supposed to be – he’d have noticed the discrepancy a little earlier.

But he wasn’t and he hadn’t. The Facebook notifications on his smart phone had occupied most of his attention for the better part of the evening. Such is life when a dull man’s duty – the day in the life of a guard – becomes a routine.

That said, it wasn’t fair to put all the blame on his being lazy. By the time the doors were locked at ten, the cleaners were all gone and the nightwatchman was often the only man left in the building – unless someone upstairs was working late.

And normally he’d know if there were others upstairs. He’d worked security at Panopticus Technologies for five years now and he was accustomed to the sight of employees bivouacking under desks during his midnight rounds.

For the last six months though, he’d been instructed to skip the upstairs rounds. The office suite and the server room were off-limits to everyone who wasn’t part of the product development team.

“A temporary measure for a special project”, read the email. “No non-essential access”. That included the security team and the cleaners. The developers would empty the bins themselves. The CEO himself had come down to instruct security to remove the surveillance cameras from upstairs.

“Get rid of them,” he’d said.

Really then, with interior patrols cut to nil and with nothing but the lobby cameras and the external cameras to monitor there wasn’t much for him to observe that couldn’t already be discerned with the eye from behind the reception desk. Evenings of static watch had become his routine. Tonight, he’d moved twice from his chair. Once for a bathroom break and once for a smoke outside.

Outside, the night sky was aglow in the black-gold wash cast out by a circuitboard of city lights and street lamps.

It would still be dry and hot out there, he knew, even though it felt cool and breezy in the air-conditioned lobby. He’d felt the heat on the way in to work and knew it to be the type that didn’t go away. Typical for this time of year. That parched almost high-voltage hotness that is peculiar to Palo Alto in the summer.

“The hot buzz”. It was something to do with the local topography. The Santa Cruz range was both a desiccant and a conductor – a rain shadow-maker and an atmospheric particle-charger. A logical place to situate the data hub of Silicon Valley.

The police and the paramedics were on their way but he was stationary again – behind the desk. Right where he’d been sitting when the elevator doors had pinged open more than two hours ago. Right where he’d been sitting when he finally noticed, in the corner of his eye, that the elevator doors were still open because there was something preventing them from closing. Right where he’d been sitting when he stood up and realized what the obstruction was.

He knew the man was long dead as soon as he saw him. Pale skin. Cold to the touch. Dilated pupils. Stiff around the neck. Jaw the same. No signs of life. The man was not long dead but he was definitely dead. The guard never even started CPR. He’d just called the number – the number that everybody knows – then returned to the desk to wait.

He had the dead man’s ID badge and lanyard in his hand now. Common American first name. Immigrant surname. A second-generation “Senior Developer”. Early thirties. No doubt the man, when alive, had been a genius of some sort. They all were.

You didn’t have to be a tech insider to know that the company was in the business of recruiting talent. All of that information was publicly available on everyone’s LinkedIn accounts. Data analysts poached from Palantir and Darktrace. Software engineers with Google-y CVs. Sales and marketing types with personal endorsements from the likes of Kalanick, Thiel, Musk and Zuckerberg. And the CEO, of course. A college dropout from Berkeley – a kid with big ideas who’d keyed together some show-stopping code in his Mom’s basement. Standard. Made his first fifty million aged twenty-one.

Hadn’t they all?

He wondered how much p.a this second generation “Senior Developer” would’ve reeled in before he died.

Six figure salaries were entry-level in this industry, weren’t they? That six figure salary couldn’t be spent now though.

Mindlessly, he enacted the protocols for a workplace emergency. The on-call lead-hand – his supposed supervisor – wasn’t picking up. That guy never picked up (hopeless). He did however get onto the building manager who, groggy sounding, said he would call him back.

Outside, he could hear the sound of sirens now and he moved to unlock the main entrance.

The phone rang again but it wasn’t the building manager. It was the CEO. The shock in the kid’s voice was palpable.

“How did he die?”

The guard told him he didn’t know.

“Is there anyone else still working upstairs?”

The guard told him he didn’t know because interior patrols had been cancelled by Corporate.

“Will you wait till I arrive before you show the police the rest of the building?”

The guard told him he wasn’t sure if he could do that because they were talking about a potential crime scene. He might have to take his cues from the officers.

As he put down the phone, he could imagine the kid on the other end throwing on a T-Shirt and sliding into the driver’s seat of his Aston Martin.

There was no doubt they handled some sensitive projects in this building.  For a company that had teamed up with other tech giants in the Valley to protest the FBI’s demand for “back doors”, Panopticus had concurrently in the last six months, signed a contract worth a quarter of a billion with the US Government.

There had been some controversy about that. Given the CEO’s public image as a data privacy advocate and given that the company’s lead engineer had once-upon-a-time designed system architecture for Wikileaks – “he fancies himself a grey-hat hacker on the side of radical transparency” read one profile in Wired – some were saying that the company had sold out to the Man.

Who knew really? The guard certainly didn’t.

The police were here now. Three of them. Paramedical team behind. The paramedics confirmed the man dead.

“How long was he here before you found him?” One of the officers asked.

The guard told them that he hadn’t yet checked the camera backlogs.

“What do you know about the nature of his work with the company?”

The guard told them that he didn’t know the ins-and-outs of Panopticus’s work beyond the basics. That its engineers were experts in the field. That its clients included media giants like The Guardian as well as government entities based out of Maryland.

That two days ago, he’d overheard a conversation between two developers. “We’re not trying to create an all-seeing eye here,” one of them had said. “The aim is to filter out the crap. Good IT turns complex information into easily-digestible tidbits. Anything that doesn’t do that is bullshit – vaporware”.

The police asked him if he’d observed anything unusual in the building or in the immediate vicinity during the course of the evening.

“No. Nothing.”

Had he ever observed violence in the neighbourhood?

“Yes”. He had, in fact. There was a black homeless man would sometimes be seen in the alley next door. Harmless fellow. Never a nuisance to anyone, least of all to security. It was just after the election – just after they announced the results. He’d seen it on Exterior Camera #4 – which pointed down the alleyway. The attacker was wielding a knife. A white supremacist with a long history of violent crime, as it turned out. “Emboldened”, per the headline in the LA Times the next day. If not for the guard’s intervention that evening the homeless guy would’ve been a statistic. Even still, the stab wounds had been life-threatening.

The CEO arrived just as the police were finishing their questions. He was told to wait outside – “but please wait there, because we’ll need to talk to you too”.

The officer turned back to the guard. “What time are you supposed to finish?”

“Well, not till seven a.m really.”

“You can go home early if you want. Now, if you wouldn’t mind.”

The building was now a crime scene and they’d be calling him into the station tomorrow (today, really) to make a formal witness statement.

He collected his things and took one last glance at the body. Unlike with last year’s stabbing, he hadn’t really witnessed anything at all. That was the whole point. He hadn’t been doing his patrols upstairs so he hadn’t even known who was in the building. He still didn’t know who was in the building. After all, there weren’t any cameras upstairs.

He walked out into the hot night and the glass doors of the building closed behind him.

A man died tonight, he reflected. And he was too late to help. For a number of reasons.

Not to worry though, he consoled himself. The eye can only see what the eye sees after all.

Searching for Xwechtáal

The following words appeared in Mountain Life (Winter/Spring 2018)

Photos by Alex Ratson (@aratson)

Video by Erica Sorenson/Squamish.com


Viewed from the base of the Stawamus Chief, the Black Dyke – a basalt streak which splits the mountain’s sweep of granite greys – seems foreign, out-of-place.  

On either side, the flanking granite is countertop smooth but the basalt itself, to the touch and to the eye, is variegated and friable – dark and loose and wet as it slices through a series of roofs on its path for the summit.

While ostensibly a geological quirk – the legacy of a spurt of basaltic magma obtruding along a vertical fracture in the mountain – the Black Dyke has another, mythological origin that reaches back to the earliest histories of Squamish First Nations.


It begins with Sínulhkay̓ the two-headed sea serpent, explains Alice Guss, a Squamish Nation storyteller and educator. Per the local oral traditions, the tales told about Sínulhkay̓ (pronounced “See-nool-kay”), have varied across the generations. One version has Sínulhkay̓ as a creation deity – analogous to the serpent-creators of Sumerian or Australian Aboriginal mythology – a powerful being who carved out the known valleys of the world with the weight of his slithering.

Another story imagines Sínulhkay̓ as a primordial aggressor, an elemental monster who terrorized the earliest ancestors of the Squamish people. Alice Guss’ Sínulhkay̓ story envisions the two-headed serpent as a little bit of both – a monster and a creator – and her story also describes the origins of the Black Dyke.

In earlier times, Alice narrates, Sínulhkay̓ menaced the inhabitants of the village of St’a7mes by hiding in wet, watery places – hypnotizing then devouring the locals whole. As the body count rose, Xwechtáal (pronounced “Zeh-wetch-eh-tall”), a young warrior, was called forth by the village chief to protect his people.

Victory over the serpent however, would not be a labourless feat. Every time Xwechtáal would get near Sínulhkay̓, he would become sick – intoxicated by the serpent’s supernatural aura. Only through a ritual of daily bathing and self-purification, could Xwechtáal even begin to approach Sínulhkay̓.

Eventually, Xwechtáal flushed the serpent out from his nest and chased the beast south along the shores of Howe Sound. According to legend, the coastline crenellations left by the serpent’s slithering became the notches and coves of Horseshoe Bay while the round hulk of present-day Anvil Island was carved out as a quay upon which Sínulhkay̓ came to rest.

But Xwechtáal was relentless. Aboard his war canoe, he located Sínulhkay̓’s refuge, armed and ready for battle. But the serpent dove deep into the Sound, surfacing later through a tubular tunnel which connected the fjord to Murrin Lake. (This curious detail blends Alice’s myth with geological reality because the lake does indeed connect to Howe Sound via as-yet unmapped artesian wells.)

Finally, in a last ditch effort to escape Xwechtáal, the serpent slithered up the side of the Chief. “There, look, you can see the black markings,” Alice points to the Black Dyke. Concluding her story, she recounts how in a final feat of bravery, Xwechtáal scaled the rock face, summiting the Chief and then tracking Sínulhkay̓  as he carved out the slithering contours of the Shannon Valley. At last, in the sacred waters of Kookx’um (today known as Shannon Falls), Xwechtáal slayed the beast and returned a leader of his people.


It’s surely true that indigenous stories such as this invite a closer inspection of the landscape – imbuing the stones, streams and summits with a cultural history that sits quietly beneath the surface, jumping out when uncovered. Likewise, the contemporary climbing-route lore of the Black Dyke is equally dramatic. Guidebooks, alpine journals and first-hand accounts offer tantalizing glimpses of the epics witnessed on this dark streak of stone.

Tales of pitches protected by “prayers”. Monstrous run-outs above knife-blade pitons jabbed into questionable rock. Harebrained yarns of aid-climbers dangling from stalactites “like a frog on a crocodile’s tooth”. Somehow, in 1970, Al Givler and Mead Hargis, made it to Bellygood Ledge (three-quarters of the way up the Chief) alive, shimmying off the wall and onto the flats with a spectacular ascent behind them.


Descriptions of the Black Dyke in Gordon Smaill’s 1975 Squamish Chief Guide reveal further madness in the route’s history.  Quotes like “this climb turns into a veritable bag of liver in the rain” and “Bricks Shannon soloed the top of the Dyke on motor responses” speak to the spirit of the times.

Finally, with the inception of new ways to realize the art of ascent at the turn of the century, the route was free-climbed by well-known, Squamish big-waller Matt Maddaloni.


Other impressive feats followed, culminating perhaps with Sonnie Trotter and Matt Segal’s 2006 ascent of the “Squamish Triple” where they linked The Black Dyke, The Grand Wall and The University Wall (via The Shadow) for a thrice-in-a-day ascent of the Chief via three different 5.13 routes.

Since its very beginnings then, the Dyke has stood firm as a testament to the hard – a vestige of a bygone era of bold and dangerous aid climbing; a proof of mastery for those who wish to use only their hands and feet; and a totem to Man’s mythical struggle writ real in indigenous oral traditions.

In a serpentine twist of the narrative however, the Black Dyke became exponentially more difficult. In 2014 a series of crucial holds fell from the crux pitch.

“No one has freed that roof since those holds fell off,” says Kumarri Berry (“Koo” for short), a young Australian woman who has spent the last two summers on a mission to do just that – to prove that climbing the current arrangement of basalt holds on the Black Dyke is humanly possible.  

“Boys sending or girls sending. Who cares? I just want to have a good time,” Koo says. She invites me to join her on her most recent attempt to ascend Sínulhkay̓’s glistening trail. Fascinated by the rock, the route and the rich cultural history surrounding it, I leap at the chance to support her.

At ten o’clock on a Sunday – just enough time for Koo to recover from a raging hangover from the night before – we begin climbing. Rising up and out of the forest, we move fast over lichen- and mud-clad basalt, the Douglas Firs shivering lithely beneath us. The base of the wall is coated thick with bushels of glistening creepers. Chunks of dislodged basalt litter the valley floor, slowly growing smaller beneath us.



Koo swears that her laps up and down these lower pitches have cleaned up the worst of the loose holds but climbers reserve a very specific term for this amorphous, non-geologically-specific-but-definitely-unattached rock type – “choss”.

Approaching the base of the first major roof, Koo starts up the pitch, casually clipping quickdraws before an abrading rumble, like boulders rolling downstream, rents the relaxed atmosphere in two. Ten metres to our left, a tooth of granite slithers from the wall and hurtles into the void. Awed, I watch as the human-sized block plunges groundward, bouncing off the Chief’s lower slabs before showering the forest floor with a high-velocity airburst of shrapnel. A chorus of “whoahs!” emanate from other climbers on the wall.

“That was fucking crazy!” I yell from my secure nest of rope and nylon.

“Holy shit! Epic!” Koo whoops.

No one seems to have been injured so our attention returns to the rock. When I meet Koo at the next belay she reaches for the day-bag, procuring  her never-would-dream-of-not-having-them pack of roll-your-owns. Time to calm those frazzled nerves.

On the wall, Koo, a connoisseur of the irreverent, drinks and smokes like Warren Harding and carries her water in a never-washed two-litre vodka bottle. Off the wall and during the week, she works rope access jobs in the city and trains like a World Cup boulderer in the gym. In between and on the weekends, she hangs her harness outside a tent at the base of the Chief before returning Sunday night to the room she rents in the home of a family of nudists.

“Personally, I’m not that in to getting naked,” she tells me while hanging upside down from an eight metre roof on our next outing on the wall, “But hey, do what you want I reckon!”


On our second day up high, Koo reaches the first roof with the sequence now locked down and I watch as she throws her heel high, rocks up onto it and then darts her right hand for a sharp crimp. Execution effortless.


Like Xwechtáal on the Chief’s mythical first ascent, Koo is a strong, seasoned climber. Her belay-chat, while relaxed and filled with hilarity, belies an internal drive to try hard and treat her climbing as a vehicle for self-improvement.

This is a woman who loves to party but who also loves to work hard – living the life she wants while remaining an ascetic at heart all the same. In her quest to maximize her time on the rock, she’s cut away the superfluities – be it a car (with its attendant bills) or a comfy sleeping pad. And watching Koo locked in a vice-grip struggle with the crux, I’m reminded of Xwechtáal, the first hero to feature in the Black Dyke’s story.

“Day by day, he would sacrifice more of himself,” recounted Andy Paull, a Squamish Nation lands rights activist who also carried the totemic name of “Xwechtáal”. “Eating a bit less, and sleeping with less blankets and clothes. All of this was part of his training to kill the serpent.”


Emulating Xwechtáal’s path seems to be common in Squamish, even if the emulators might never have heard his name. For generations prior to the arrival of colonial settlers, First Nations men would train their bodies by climbing up the lower slabby sweeps of the Chief before diving into the mouth of river to bathe and purify. The hordes of rock climbers living out of their tents and vans continue to do the same today. Koo though, is remarkable among these new-age Xwechtáals in that she’s climbing the very route on which her First Nations counterpart enshrined his own legacy.

Step-by-step, she’s breaking her goal down into its constituent parts – first by facing up to her fears. She’s two summers in now but I know that with persistence, and perhaps a little luck, the Black Dyke will go for her. It might take some time. But all great struggles take time. And anyway, Koo’s got a few more seasons to break the current record. After all, it took Xwechtáal four years to slay his serpent.


The Science of Warmth

(Entry – 2017 CBC Short Story Prize)

The air felt colder than the previous morning. He could feel it in his joints. It was a wintry cold – a now familiar sting. As though someone were scraping shards of ice along where his bone-ends met. Gingerly, he stepped down from the porch and took off across the way. The snow was hard beneath his rubber boots. It made a crunching sound as he walked. The morning was still.

Beyond the treeline, he made out the cabane à sucre – little more than a rudimentary shack he had cobbled together with sheet metal and spare timber three summers ago. He’d meant to put in a better one last August. He’d meant to. But then – of course – other things had ended those plans.

Rays of grey sunlight filtered between the maples. Halfway across the forest floor, he turned to look back at the house. The study light in the loft was turned on – he could see it glowing through the window.

An onlooker might think that someone was sitting up there. “Nice spot to sit and watch the forest,” they’d say.

Of course, he knew better – that there was no one up there, that it was he who had turned the light on that morning. Above the window, the chimneystack was smokeless. He sighed and his breath hung in the air like cooking fumes.

Again, he turned and traversed the last of the gap to the sugar shack, taking his glove off as he reached for the door handle. It felt cold in his hand and he winced slightly as the metallic chill needled around in the interstices of his digits. Even beside the fire at night, his knuckles were gnarled and swollen and with each successive winter he’d noticed that the aches intensified when the mercury dropped below zero.

Last night too, he’d been outside in the cold. For longer than he’d have liked. He’d chopped wood for an hour around midnight before the stiffness got too much and his joints locked up and he sidled off to bed. There was leftover soup on the stove when he passed by the kitchen on his way upstairs but he’d ignored it and crawled under the sheets instead.

When he entered the sugar shack, the chill followed him inside – like a tendril of wind-breath gusting off the St Lawrence. The ambient warmth from yesterday’s fire was all gone. It bothered him how poor the insulation was in here. He would do a better job next summer.


He walked towards the evaporator to check the dials before he began boiling. Like the arthritic fingers manipulating them, the knobs and handles creaked as he jostled with them.

Sure, it was a backyard hobby operation but he liked everything to be ready before he began.

“The finished syrup must have a Brix scale density of sixty-six degrees,” he remembered telling his daughter when she was little. “Any other value and it’s not maple syrup.”

It was an exact science this syrup business.

His own father, though, had not been so sure. “If we were in it to be efficient,” he remembered the old man saying. “We’d have a commercial extractor pump to hook up to the trees and an industrial evaporator that works via reverse osmosis. But we don’t have any of that. We’re about open pan evaporation here because syrup-making is an art, not a science.”

His father was there when they’d opened up the gates of Belsen – the first medical officer on scene to take in the enormity of it all. Once, he recounted going through some of the Nazis’ lab notes – recalling an experiment where they’d placed Jewish prisoners in interchangeable vats of increasingly hot and cold water until cardiac arrest. They’d recorded the time and temperature of death in a banal little table – five columns across, twenty-one columns down.

He’d had the story recounted to him on a university semester break – a week after he found out he’d aced his biology exams.

“Be careful son,” his father had said to him. “Because that’s science too.”

His attention returned to the apparatus in front of him. With everything ready, there was but one task left.

To build a fire. When the thought came to him, he smiled a little because he knew his father would’ve approved of the reference.

Leaving the door of the shack open behind him, he stepped out into the cold again and ambled towards the woodpile. He’d hoed into the hard work – the woodcutting – the night before so he had enough timber now to at least get things going.

As he pulled the loaded sled across the forest floor, he heard the phone ringing from inside the house. Half a dozen rings. Enough to pay lip-service to an attempt at a phone call but not enough to be patched through to an answering machine. He’d find no left message when he walked back inside.

His daughter led a busy life. Sometimes, it was hard enough just to keep up with her whereabouts, bouncing as she did between the various mountain towns and ski resorts out west.

Back in July of course – when it all happened – she’d called him everyday. But now she called less. Once a week maybe. Certainly no more than twice a week. He didn’t blame her though. She was young and life was meant to be lived. She had other things to worry about. The tinkerings of an old man in his sugar bush was only a cursory concern of hers. He understood. Still, a part of him wished she’d come out for a whole sugar season – start to finish. She was a good girl, and a hard worker when she wanted to be.

Re-entering, he closed the door behind him and began piling the morning’s wood against the wall. There were three chunks of timber, a bundle of sticks and a pile of kindling left on the sled when he was finished. Opening the stove-door with one hand, he arranged the remaining wood neatly inside.

Then he reached for the lighter.

The rapid oxidation of gases that accompanied the ignition of the firewood released an exothermic trifecta of heat and light and birch-smoke. He felt it immediately in his joints and lingered a little with his hands by the flames before closing the stove-door.

Half an hour went by and the boiler was running hot.

Content with it, he reached into a nearby cupboard and withdrew a chunk of maple candy. Something to gnaw on.

This is what happens when you heat the syrup past a Brix density of sixty-six degrees, he mused as he chewed. It crystallises.

He supposed it wasn’t all bad when you left it boiling for too long.

As the inside of the sugar shack began to warm, his thoughts flitted to the outside. It was nine o’clock now – the night was long gone.

How are the buckets going?” His father’s usual reminder. Always there. Even from beyond the grave.

He opened the door and felt immediately the change that had taken place since he’d left the house two hours ago. It was warmer now. Inside and out. The grey rays from the early morning sun had turned to gold and the edges of the melting snowbanks were gilt by the russet hues of fallen leaves previously buried by the winter. There was a loud unannounced whumph in the air as the hollow patch of snow closest to him settled into the wet spring ground.

Où sont les neiges d’antan? Words from his schooldays.

Quite right, he thought to himself. Where was the snow of yesteryear? The icicles had all fallen from the eaves. The frost that glazed his wintry windows had disappeared.

He imagined his father’s response – speaking French with that thick Anglo accent of his. “Où sont les neiges d’antan? Fondues mon garçon.” He’d have offered it as an explanation of course – as though the question had been a scientific one.

“Those are the facts,” as the old man used to say. He could be a man of contradictions, his father.

The taste of maple sugar still sweet on his tongue, he stepped out into the open air. The ground was still cold and the air was still still but now everywhere you could hear it. The drips. The aluminum chime. The music of buckets filling.

It was April and the sap was running. The winter had been cold and the season had been late to start this year – but there it was. Bitter as mornings like these could be sometimes, the maples, with their sweetness, always came through in the end.