When I heard about Laurel I felt a deep shock, a sense that no, this can’t possibly have happened. She was such a solid climber. She was, in many ways, one of the leading members of our close knit climbing tribe. She was humble and not at all cocky, she always wore her helmet. It was hard to imagine her making a mistake.
Up until 6 years ago I only knew her by reputation. I met Laurel and Daphne together late on a rainy night in Vantage when Ritchie and I drove up to their tent. They were already asleep but they popped out and we re-lit the fire to drink beer and tell stories.
But in the years that followed it seemed I couldn’t go anywhere without running into Laurel. From Darrington to Smith to Index to Trout and Vantage, there would be Laurel, climbing something so hard I couldn’t even do the first move. Daphne climbs closer to my level, and we’ve been on some long trips to Smith together, she is good people.
I last saw Laurel when I dropped by her house the day she was packing for Waddington. I was there to pick up my Valley Giant which she had borrowed for Pipeline. We had planned to do Pipeline together that weekend, but it was raining in Squamish. I asked her about her recent lead of the notorious offwidth and we did that classic climbers dance out in the road in front of her apartment. She would mimic the moves and I would mimic them back.
Me: “So, at the crux, did you do a double fist jam, or was it like this, with a chicken wing?”
Laurel: “No, like this, you jam the edge of your hip in and kind of wiggle, see?”
Me, watching her movements: “Hm, I think I need to send Split Beaver clean first, before I try Pipeline.”
Laurel: “Ok, next sunny weekend after I get back from Waddington.”
But now we won’t get that chance to climb Pipeline together…
It was 1976 when I lost my first friend to the mountains. My former high school girlfriend died on Nanda Devi in the Himalayas. Devi was a beautiful blonde goddess who for some crazy reason took a liking to me. Her dad Willi Unsoeld was a world famous climber. He told some amazing stories about his first ascent on Everest in ‘63 as he sized me up around the dinner table.
They were both gone within 3 years, killed mountain climbing. I’ve lost 4 other friends in the mountains, and now Laurel.
It is so, so beautiful up in the alpine, I very much miss those views.
Back in the 80’s there seemed to be a trajectory in mountain climbing, at least for Sue and I. As we got better, and started trying bigger and harder routes with mixed rock and ice in the winter, the close calls got scarier.
It didn’t happen often, and in fact was quite rare, but we started to notice that some of the best climbers we knew were dying. We got so scared after one memorable epic that we quit climbing altogether and took up gold panning. But that only lasted 6 months and we were back to climbing, but not in the mountains.
Cragging still has plenty of danger, and could easily kill me someday. After almost 40 years of climbing with nothing worse than a broken ankle, I feel like I’ve found a balance between the fun and the risk. I sometimes wonder whether civilization is simply too tame, and we have a biological need for danger. I’ve seen people who swear they would never climb, drive down the freeway like a maniac, endangering their lives far more than most climbing trips.
But Laurel, man it just doesn’t seem possible.