Dispatches from the Periphery

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