How a Climbing Tragedy Shaped My View of Risk, the Outdoors, Parenting, and Life
By Michael Lanza
The finger-numbing morning shadow of Maine’s highest peak, Katahdin, hung over us as we organized ropes and gear to rock climb the Pamola Cliffs, a slab of heavily fractured granite rising several hundred feet above us. Somewhere up there, Katahdin’s famous Knife Edge ridge—where we intended to finish the climb—scraped at the heavens. Below us, Chimney Pond caught the light of the clear sky like an unblinking eye in the dark green conifer forest.
I felt a powerful and untarnished sense of joy and excitement that always washed over me on the brink of a great, new adventure. I was back in one of my favorite spots in New England, Baxter State Park. I’d organized the trip months earlier, planning to climb that first day, hike a loop over Katahdin the next day, and backpack north of Katahdin for three days after that, with an assortment of friends, some of whom were arriving that night. None of that ever took place; we never even reached the top of the Pamola Cliffs. Within a few hours, a good friend was dead and the way I viewed the outdoors would be changed forever.
Five of us roped up as two teams, with one friend, Bill, and me leading. Belaying and following were my girlfriend, Penny; my friend Rick, with whom I started climbing four years earlier, and whom I’d known since his older brother and I became best friends in high school; and Rick’s girlfriend, Diane. On the second pitch, 150 feet above our companions, Bill and I tried to build belay anchors. But the rock was crap, breaking off every time we tried to place gear in a crack.
At my suggestion, Bill reached up and tapped the cliff as if knocking lightly on a door, a routine test to see whether it was solid. Then we watched, stunned, as a block of granite bigger than a large suitcase slid past him.
We both yelled, “Rock! Rock! Rock!” as the block plunged toward our friends, smashing apart into dozens of stones. I believed I was about to watch them all die. As the rain of granite washed over them, I saw one cantaloupe-size piece strike Rick on the head, tearing off his helmet and flipping him violently over backward.
Penny and Diane looked up, miraculously unscathed. I stared at Rick, hoping he would stand up and wave to let us know he was fine, too. Then Penny shouted to me, “Blood is gushing from his head!” Bill and I down-climbed to them as quickly as we could, and Diane lowered Bill to the ground to get help while Penny and I pumped Rick’s chest and breathed into his mouth. Diane began screaming Rick’s name repeatedly, her voice echoing across the cirque, eventually followed by her sobbing. We kept scanning the sky for the helicopter that arrived much too late.
I watched Rick for any sign of life, any slightest movement, even hoping he would cry out in pain. But he never moved again.
Twenty years have passed since that day, Sept. 2, 1995, when the outdoors, for me, changed color. After spending several years prior to that day living for hiking and climbing, my life took a hairpin turn that I could never have anticipated. The journey that ensued not only still continues, it has probably shaped how I look at everything today—certainly including my perception of risk in the backcountry and how I think about taking my children anywhere: backpacking, climbing, paddling whitewater, skiing, even bicycling on streets. It also shapes how I talk to them about the challenges and hazards they face growing into young adults.
There’s an old saying that time stops for no one. But there’s one exception to that rule: It stops only for those whose time runs out. Twenty years ago today, it stopped for my friend, Rick Baron. As I have aged two decades since then—as my life has taken the myriad, often unpredictable turns that a person’s life takes over the course of 20 long years—my friend Rick has been frozen in memory at the age of 30.
He’s my friend who never grew old.
First Climbing Partner
Rick and I had known each other since I was a young teen: He was the younger brother, by four years, of my high school best friend. In our twenties, we became one another’s first climbing partner and found a new basis for a growing friendship. He was one of those people who smiles and laughs frequently but parses out spoken words frugally; and yet, when he did say something, it usually seemed worth hearing. He had the gift of likeability—maybe a benefit of not talking too much, or maybe simply because he rarely saw reason to get into a conflict with anyone.
He and I were developing together a growing passion for the outdoors, and climbing frequently. We climbed together from New Hampshire to New York’s Shawangunks, from Yosemite Valley to the Grand Teton. (The lead photo at the top of this story shows Rick on the Grand Teton’s Lower Exum Ridge.)
For at least a few years after the accident, I thought about it and Rick almost daily. These days, I think about him now and then. I wonder how many days we might have shared in the mountains over these two decades if not for one fateful moment that I wish I could have back. I wonder how much closer we might be as friends today.
I look at my kids and contemplate what the children he never had would have been like—and whether our kids might have become close friends. The impacts of an untimely death are multi-generational, rippling forever even as time stops for the one who leaves us. The void where there is no one gets filled with fading memories and pained thoughts of what might, could, should have been.
Twenty years is a very long time. Humans take about that long to reach adulthood. Most animals, domestic or wild, don’t live 20 years. Most of us who are in middle age or beyond might look back at the person we were 20 years ago and see someone quite different from who we are today. Although we occasionally wish it would, time doesn’t stop for the living.
Over the past 20-plus years, I’ve been fortunate in my work as a writer to have hiked all over the U.S., including many of our major national parks, and around the world. I’ve accumulated a lot of miles and memories—most of it wonderful and enriching—in places as far-flung and exotic as New Zealand, Patagonia, Iceland, Norway’s Jotunheimen National Park, Italy’s Dolomite Mountains, the Aitana Mountains of southern Spain, the Swiss Alps, and Nepal’s Himalaya.
In the past 20 years, I have gotten married to the woman who was my girlfriend that day on Katahdin, moved to a Western city that I’ve come to love, and had two children who are now 14 and 12 and serve me a helping of wonder every day.
I’ve had more near misses in the backcountry in the past 20 years than I could count on both hands. Rick had some near misses before Sept. 2, 1995; we shared one or two. But while you get an unknown number of near misses in life, if you get hit, that’s it. You only get one.
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Life is Risky
The American Alpine Club publishes an annual, slim book titled “Accidents in North American Mountaineering,” a compendium and analysis of all reported climbing accidents on the continent. If you climb or have an appetite for a certain kind of non-fiction horror, or a fascination with the variety of human miscalculation and its consequences in vertical environments, you might find its dry prose captivating.
According to “Accidents,” between 1951 and 2007, an average of 25 people died in climbing accidents annually in North America. No one knows how many climbers there are out there or the rate at which climbers perish relative to, say, the total number of climbing days they amass as a population. Experience in climbing leads one to conclude that within such niche activities, there is significant variation in risk levels, depending on how and where you’re pursuing it. Given how often human error factors into accidents, how much you know about climbing safely is huge, too.
It’s hard to quantify relative risk, especially for backcountry and wilderness activities; there isn’t a wealth of statistics out there. But I did find one website that rather morbidly compiled the odds of a wide variety of modes of departing this world.
According to besthealthdegrees.com/health-risks (which cites numerous, respected sources), the odds of dying in a car are one in 6,700. On a plane, it’s 1.27 deaths for every 100,000 flight hours. The odds in specific forms of sport and recreation include 7.1 deaths per one million bicyclists; one in 101,083 in skydiving; one in 15,700 in mountain hiking; one in 10,000 canoeing; one in 1,750 mountain climbing; one in 560 hang gliding; one in 167 in Nepal (activity not specified, though presumably trekking in Nepal presents more danger than spinning a prayer wheel); and one in 100 in Grand Prix racing. Climbing above 6,000 meters in the Himalaya has a frightening death rate of 10 to 12.6 of every 100 participants. Even more disturbing: One in 60 participants in BASE jumping dies.
Life is an awfully risky proposition, it turns out. I’ve seen more people than I could list die prematurely from an array of causes: car accidents, brain bleed, heart disease (read: cigarettes), cancer and other diseases—enough people that I make no assumptions about anyone’s longevity, mine included. Life expectancy is a statistic that applies only to a population, not any individual.
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One of my favorite quotes is from Helen Keller, who knew something about hardship: “Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men—as a whole—experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.”
I believe those words. Although it took me a while to get back on the rock after Rick’s death, I have climbed as much as I can fit it into a busy life over the past 20 years. I still love it, although its hazards occasionally give me small fits of terror.
Yes, we who love the outdoors venture forward in quiet acceptance of the uncomfortable truth that adventure walks hand-in-hand with risk. Things can go wrong.
But risk is not a constant; it’s a variable whose value rises and falls with our decisions and choices. We can acquire the knowledge and ability to minimize risk, but we also have to exercise that ability, and the emotional side of decision-making—the passion behind the pursuit of adventure, the beauty, the thrill—can compromise our thinking.
Before Rick was killed, I understood that loose rock is dangerous. But I didn’t envision someone I knew dying because of it. Rick’s death shifted my perspective 180 degrees. It’s as if I’d spent my entire life prior to that day looking through the wrong end of the binoculars. I lost not only a friend: I lost a certain innocence that comes with believing that everything in life usually turns out just fine.
Now I see hazards everywhere. I notice every flake of rock that time and erosion are patiently levering off a cliff face. I see every texting, phone-talking, distracted driver who could hit my children or me as we ride bicycles through town. With any activity, especially anything unfamiliar, I ask an inordinate number of specific questions, wanting to enter all available information into a mental algorithm in pursuit of a calculation of risk that will never be fully knowable, but that can inform better decisions.
I have now climbed for about a quarter-century, and tied into a rope hundreds if not thousands of times; but I always ask my partner to check my knot and my belay setup, because the human mind is fallible. I’ve seen—more than once, unfortunately—the consequences of a high-speed collision between rock and flesh. I would prefer to never see it again.
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Don’t Glorify Premature Death
I gave a eulogy at Rick’s funeral. I said something about how he and I enjoyed the thrills of climbing. If I were giving that eulogy today, I’d write a different one. I’d say that, 20 years out, I’ve long ago given up the search for something, anything, that validates that tragedy.
I know there’s no sharp line separating acceptable from unacceptable risk. But over the past 20 years, whenever I’ve read or heard about someone I don’t know dying too young in the outdoors, part of a very old wound inside me opens up again. It happened most recently earlier this summer, after the death of a semi-famous climber-adventurer who perished in Yosemite after leaping from a cliff wearing a wingsuit. (I’m not naming anyone because it’s not my intention to disrespect the dead or his loved ones.) I read a tribute to that victim, written by someone who shared the deceased’s love for adventure, and it followed a similar theme that such articles invariably do: glorifying the risks they took, however extreme, and making the specious argument that embracing a degree of risk that’s associated with a shocking death rate demonstrated their passion for life.
The irony in that contradiction feels like an enormous weight on my chest that’s too heavy for me to lift off.
Rick’s parents and brother have never blamed me, and we remain close. But I’ll never forget the first time I faced Rick’s mother after he died. Every adventurer who lacks an adequate respect for hazard should look into the face of a mother or father who has outlived a child. Some kinds of grief never go away.
And yet, Rick’s death did not extinguish my desire to climb, backcountry ski, and hike through wilderness. I take my children backpacking and rock climbing. My 12-year-old daughter wants to rock climb for our annual father-daughter trip. My 14-year-old son backcountry skis with me and has developed a love for whitewater kayaking. I encourage him in that, and I see hope for him in his fascination with the minutia of paddling whitewater, because that knowledge will inform his decisions about safety.
With any activity that entails some inherent risk, I explain it to my kids and talk about decision-making and consequences of mistakes—and I frame larger questions they will face as teenagers and young adults in the same context.
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When my family took a six-day rafting trip down Idaho’s Middle Fork of the Salmon River this summer, my son wanted to kayak it. He did great, too; but I was proudest of him when he decided, on his own, to not paddle through two difficult rapids. Maybe that approach will prevent him from becoming an elite, extreme kayaker. I’d be okay with that.
Most of the people I know who climb, kayak, and ski backcountry snow do not, as some people assume, inadequately value life. Besides family and friends, these things are still the best reasons I’ve found for living. I also intend to keep on living by making sure I’m doing these things as safely as possible.
I don’t intend this to sound dark, but I’ve learned that witnessing death brings life into sharper focus. The image resides forever in the back of your mind, never far from consciousness, never letting you forget. It frequently reminds you to cherish the people you love, to understand that time really is a thief—not just because it steals away our youth (which it does), but because it takes the people we love from us.
Life becomes more precious when you’ve navigated its edges.
In 2000, the singer-songwriter Warren Zevon released a song and album titled, “Life’ll Kill Ya.” It was prophetic. Three years later, he was dead of cancer at 56. A year before his death, on the TV show “Late Night With David Letterman,” when asked by Letterman whether terminal cancer had taught him anything about life and death, Zevon famously answered, “Enjoy every sandwich.”
It’s the unfairness and crushing finality of a young person’s death that leaves us feeling empty and robbed, like we’ve irreparably broken an invaluable possession that can never be replaced. That’s exactly what life is.
I still get a little weepy whenever I think about Rick; I am as I type this. I live with the regret that I looked at that loose rock on Katahdin and failed to suggest that we abandon our plans. But I’ve made my peace with that truth, and learned that some wounds never fully heal, but they grow calluses, and that’s a form of healing.
No doubt there are some “extreme” outdoor athletes who would scoff at my words. Most of them are young men, a fact that silently communicates volumes about unacceptable risk. Perhaps they would write me off as just another middle-aged dude who worries for his kids.
I’ll own that accusation proudly. And I hope every one of those young climbers, kayakers, backcountry skiers, and others has the good fortune to live long enough to become like me. It’s a good life. I highly recommend extending it to a ripe old age.
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