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The author travels to the beaches and breweries of southern California, where he faces both his work as a journalist and the loss of his friends
By Chris Van Leuven
April 18, 2019. Waking up covered in sweat, pain pulses in the back of my skull, reminding me of last night’s wine party. I try to sit up, a sharp aching courses through my ribs, the result of my friend’s daughter running me over with her bike. Slumping back in my bed I grab my phone. Trolling for stories is my job. I’m a journalist.
I bolt upright, ignoring the pain. An early report that three professional climbers – men I’d interviewed over the years – had been swept away in an avalanche and were presumed dead. Hansjörg Auer, Jess Roskelley and David Lama gone.
My phone’s pinging with birthday wishes and condolences. Today is my 42nd birthday but that’s the last thing on my mind. It’s my job to cover this tragedy. My thumbs pitch an email to Outside magazine; the reply is immediate. Three hours to deadline.
I’ve covered everything from suicides to rockfall to avalanches, more than 30 obits and profiles on fallen climbers, BASE jumpers, members of my tribe that practice the extreme. It doesn’t get any easier, at least not for me. I’m still reeling from the loss of Hayden Kennedy and Inge Perkins in 2017—I had climbed El Cap with Hayden when he was a teenager—now this.
I had been ice climbing with both Jess and David earlier in the year; Hansjörg I knew only through reputation. I’d sat down with David for an interview right after he finished a panel discussion with Alex Honnold at the Outdoor Retailer show the previous winter. Jess and I were planning climbing trips together; I’d also interviewed his family members for stories. “This one is very close to home,” I write my editor. “I’m gonna have to go out for a cry after this.”
No time to grieve, the writing felt automatic. I knew what points needed to be covered. After one more fact-check, I submitted the piece and it was out of my hands. Walking out my door into the Mariposa countryside, nothing felt real. I had no energy, my eyes stung from the sun, the tears came out.
I want to sit in my cathedral El Cap meadow, Yosemite Valley and be with my thoughts but I’ve already committed to a press junket arranged weeks ago. The next day I’m rolling downhill toward Fresno for a press trip with Saint Archer Brewery in La Jolla near San Diego. “Wanted to reach out to offer you an immersive opportunity to experience the brand world of Saint Archer Gold,” enticed the email. “The team will show you what the Saint Archer Gold lifestyle is all about by giving you a surfing lesson, take you on a hike up their favorite trail, and show you the brewery.”
Traveling was a blur, the flight south, the Uber ride, getting dropped off at the historic La Valencia Hotel. Checking in I knew one thing for sure: I didn’t belong here. For the past 28 years I’ve climbed all over the world on a shoestring budget, I’m used to sleeping in gravel parking lots and caves. This place was astronomically out of my price range. It reminded me of my days as a housekeeper in Yosemite back in the mid-90s. I worked as a maid my first winter in the park at the luxurious Ahwahnee Hotel. I cleaned every room in that place; I know how to scrub toilets and how to make a neat little triangle on the toilet paper roll.
Careful not to disturb anything, I enter the room putting my pack down on the bed. There’s a knock on the door, James Marcello the publicist from Saint Archer who invited me here, hands me a case of beer and is gone. Alone with my thoughts and a case of Gold, I crack one-off and finish it in the shower, then head to the pool with my laptop.
I find a spot at a lawn chair overlooking the ocean and order another drink, the sun glaring down at me. Women in thongs and men in tight bathing suits strut by. I open my computer to see a list of heartfelt messages — friends, editors and the mentors who’d taught me the craft, also hurting from this loss. They complimented my piece and said it spoke respectfully of our shared community. Though well-intended, the messages made the pain intensify.
The suicide of a Yosemite climber five years ago was my first death story. Later, I profiled a BASE jumper for The Guardian who died a few months after my piece came out. Then came another suicide story, then a double fatality on El Cap. Countless times now I’ve heard men and women cry over the phone as they told me about lost friends and loved ones. So many years and so many friends, these days it doesn’t take much to bring me to tears.
Tacos and Surf Camp
The next morning I stagger through beach traffic to a meeting with the group from Saint Archer and other writers at Woody’s taco shack on the boardwalk. Instagram influencers and writers share where they’re from, what they do. My eyes were watery, and my thoughts focused on the trio buried in the snow.
I guess it was written all over my face, I shared bits and pieces of the tragedy. I can remember their eyes, the kindness, support they expressed. A few shared their pain from lost ones and failed relationships and it offered comfort. The brewery was founded by a group of surfers and skaters, because our sports overlapped when it came to creative expression and movement, it was easy to connect with them.
It had been a decade since I’d stood on a surfboard and that morning I failed my way through a refresher class on the beach. The inability to pop up on the board due to my injured ribs meant I would slump to one side and instinctively grab the injury with a free hand. I knew the pain wasn’t going to end anytime soon.
The first cold waves slapping me in the face as I paddled out brought me back to the present; this made me smile. Gone was the pain in my heart. The waves were smooth and after catching the first, I immediately paddled back out and caught more. Surfing the whitewater on my giant pink board felt like running through an easy bouldering circuit in Yosemite. Movements and reactions were automatic.
The Messages Intensify
I check my phone and see another list of messages. They’re raw, people sharing their hurt, my eyes water up again.
That night the group gathers outside the brewery for dinner and drinks. An emcee’s voice drones from inside calling out trivia questions. The highway is nearby and I can barely hear people talk over the roar of cars. A helicopter and a plane fly overhead, a fighter jet roars past. We’re near military bases and all the noise makes me flinch like I’m in a warzone.
We tour the brewery next. I’m overwhelmed with the smell of hops and the scents of 30 beers on tap. They produced 40,000 barrels of beer last year, making them a large-scale microbrewer. There’s an old bouldering wall tucked in the back of the shop, one leftover from when they purchased the space from Vertical Holds climbing gym.
I allow the draw of climbing to bring me in. Swinging from one hold to the next, twisting my body, hanging upside down from large holds felt good. The aged, slippery grips made me feel like a teenager at my old climbing gym in Marin County. The movement reminded me why I fell in love with the sport all those years ago, and why I still love it.
The Service in Spokane
A few weeks later I fly to Spokane to attend Jess Roskelley’s service. At the after-party, scenes of Jess looped on a screen. The band grew louder. We drank until dawn. Flying home the next day, I saw Jess’s service on the front page of the local paper. The woman sitting across from me on the plane had it out. She handed it to me and I cried through the flight.
It’s nearly September now. My ribs continue to hurt and I still think of the three fallen climbers. Yesterday I read another story on Jess, Hansjörg and David; it reinforced how much their deaths impacted climbers worldwide.
My energy levels have mostly returned and I’m climbing again, but my ice climbing gear remains tucked away in the back of the closet. I don’t feel drawn to that world anymore, maybe someday. But for now, I need to heal.