Man brings all things to the test of himself, and this is notably true of lightning.
–Aldo Leopold


I lead the crux pitch and plugged a hanging belay into a fractured system below a roof. Clipping my anchor I leaned back into my harness and tried to stay comfortable while I belayed my partner up the blank face below me, and handing over the rack, up the pitch above. She edged slowly up poor rock under the overhanging shelf and soon disappeared from sight around the corner. As I hung there feeding rope I couldn’t ignore the sky. Purple thunder cells that had been massing over the basin due west of us all morning, then catching current over the Green River and swinging north, were to the south now too. Between my feet, in ballerina climbing shoes, were six pitches—over 800 feet—of verticle air down to the backpack. 500 more of steep slabs led to the top of a long talus field of enormous boulders and from there only a mile of hopping rocks to our basecamp. Still it would take hours. Suspended from the side of this wall of ice and rock I was getting cold.

Finally it was my turn to climb. I hurried and hardly thought about the moves. She wasn’t far around the corner, suspended from one sling looped over a round horn of granite at the base of an expanding crack. We didn’t alter the plan, we hardly talked: an arm of the storm billowed up above Temple peak and would be over us in no time. But we were almost to the top and from there we would fall in line with the rappel stations that would zip us back to the bottom. I grabbed the gear from her without organizing it, this was the last pitch, moderate, and tugged my way up the wide rift that seemed to be channeling its own wind through the center of the fractured and leaning tower we’d decided to climb. Soon the crack was wide enough for my whole body. I squeezed in and grunted out a body language of friction and opposition. There was nowhere to place gear so I didn’t worry about it.

The chimney ended at a large block that overhung in the verticle chamber. After swinging onto the top I had a view back down over the face straight to my belayer. Above me, the crack continued. I was exposed again to growing wind and a stinging front of tiny rain. I hardly acknowledged the darkening sky, the top just a cruise and from there I could lower. I’d already blocked out entirely the lightning flashing and cracking that surrounded us. Soon a cloud broke and hail pelted my shoulders, it bounced down the face and channeled into my crack, freezing my hands and making my feet skate. I moved faster. After stuffing a cam, I clipped it, and was interrupted from the middle of my stomach to between my eyes by simultaneous light and sound and an electric shock. There was no sense in reflection, I knew what that was. But as I continued to climb I heard, over the gushing wind, a thin voice; “Are you OK?” It gave me the pause. “Yes, are YOU,” I screamed, with a sudden image of my partner with a split forehead and blood on the fresh snow. “—YES,” I heard, and kept climbing.

Within a minute a second crash and electric jolt made my muscles flex. And it wasn’t until that second strike that something inside me wailed. I’m about to die, I’m about to die! because this violence is shooting everywhere and it’s arbitrary and I’m in the middle. I’m at the top of this tower of ice and nothing survives here. “LOWER ME! LOWER ME!” I began yelling and my partner didn’t understand. But it didn’t matter as the rope sang through my last piece I dropped back into the frozen gusting chimney where the sleet poured. In the dark of the crevice where the walls narrowed I yanked pieces of gear into shattered rock and I brought up my partner; we collected there, as our collars filled with icewater.

Mortality and me! It’s the only story that has ever been told. Like nearly every storm that blows through the mountains here, this one passed, and within several jarring hours during which I flinched at every subsequent stroke and explosion and sought one conclusive thought regarding my time on earth, we sat out on rocks in sun and ate a very late lunch. I admitted it had been a long time since I felt so close to dying until I realized that was not true: in June I bombed down the canyon below the bunkhouse where I live on my road bike in jeans and boots and no helmet my legs spinning out in the highest gear as the strongest wind of the spring sailed me through steep curves until I caught some wavelength of air, a crosswind perhaps, and my handlebars began vibrating into what would be a plane’s tailspin, my brakes had long-been fried, and I had to slow the bike down as I fought an accelerating chaos of vibration and images of my teeth driven into my sinus chin against the chipseal. When I swung a leg off my bike stopped by some miracle in the middle of the highway my hands had the deathgrip they describe of the brakeman for a runaway train, who must be sawn from his wrists for burial.

But this acquaintance with death is a different fear than the one I know best. It is not the fear that I fear. Look at it this way: no animal fears death like we do, and I am not including domesticated dogs dependent and dilute they only bark from behind windows. In the lives of wild animals, death surrounds them so, to be too real to fear, too much a part of beauty. A deer sleeps in the growing winter cold that breathes in life and breathes out emptiness. Yet it succeeds in believing the sounds of the night, the enormity of mystery, the randomness of survival. No deer hates a cougar the way a man hates a rival, the way a man hates an equal. Man fears his distance from death: how he has allowed trivialities to take the place of his beasts, trivialities that are everywhere and ultimately subjective as they vie for his irritation, his rage, his hell. Man fears because death is not real enough to know; death is a plot device of entertainment, of the distractions that aspire to make our moments and days far less than real. When I truly fear, I fear that my life is a given and death is so far away.

Perhaps man first feared death when he created things that could outlive him. Sculptures for the future, securities for his progeny, he planned for growth and blazed his signature. The cacophony of effort today, to stamp what’s bigger than oneself, has made life shrink separated from death, a charade of culture. Life is taken for granted and death is always too soon—too soon to cash in, too soon to garner one’s deserved recognition, to soon to enjoy one’s savings. Too soon to ascertain that one has actually lived.

I spent the last eight days in the mountains and found the site of pilgrimage made by a grieving wife to the overlook of last year’s plane crash that killed her husband and three sons. She left a vinyl flag that boasted his company’s name and logo, an internet something out of Minnesota, and the flag had already blown over and away, chewed and shit upon by marmots and pikas. She must have felt bewildered standing before this most gorgeous view from Indian Pass, a panorama of glacial ice and pulverized granite. I imagine her guide having to finally place the flag for her, seeing she’d lost the nerve, eager to get on already back to camp.