The very word ‘gloaming’ reverberates, echoes—the gloaming, the glimmer, the glisten, the glamour—carrying in its consonants the images of houses shuttering, gardens darkening, grasslined rivers slipping through the shadows.—Joan Didion, Blue Nights, 2011
ON A WINTER’S EVENING, at the crest of an icefall, I stop climbing and look north: beyond the narrow, wooded cleft of Smugglers’ Notch, the barren hills fade into burgundy and shadow. The head of my axe forms a tiny perfect window, and through its frame, the last light blazes a flaxen, yellow glow. And then my arms begin to get tired, and I swing again, moving upward into the dimming of the trees.
This last year, more and more, I’ve felt a longing for solitude and half-light, for that gloaming time when the twilight ripples over the ice in watery shades of deepening, phosphorescent blue. Only slowly did I begin to realize that I was searching for something that I had put off during my youth, and that because of an accumulating series of events, I could postpone thinking about it no longer. Over the course of many evening climbs, I now hoped to find some sense of harmony or at least some preparedness, not only for the rest of my life, but also for the inevitability of its, one day, ending.
“PEERING OVER THE EDGE attunes you to mortality,” Michael Kennedy says. “Climbers have already seen it. It’s not as mysterious.” For the most part, mainstream Western culture shifts the subject of dying into the periphery, where it hovers in a shadowy, almost taboo realm. To discuss it explicitly seems “morbid.” But there are other hazards that come from losing the awareness of our end: the risk of not experiencing, fully, the raw and urgent joy of life; of not taking conscious responsibility for our brief presence in the world.
In some ways, mountaineering literature seems to offer a map for exploring mortality. Ever since the early alpinists merged beauty and terror into the “sublime,” references to “limits” and “edges” persist—as if the boundaries between life and death were embodied in a physical topography, allowing visitors to return (if they were lucky) with a more visceral understanding of the universe and themselves. After the 1938 first ascent of the Eiger Nordwand, Heinrich Harrer described the “true confidence” he gained from “standing on the very frontier of things, times when one could even cast a glance over to ‘the other side'” (The White Spider, 1959). Twenty-eight years later, on that same dark wall, John Harlin jotted down the beginnings of a thought:
It is my opinion that by subjecting oneself to the pure and focused experience of survival, accompanied by careful introspection, one can approach an ultimate in self-control. For example, in climbing, there is the problem of a moment’s exertion on a particularly difficult bit of rock or ice, with alternatives of life and death. The movement requires not only strength, the reserves of which….
He never finished. As he jugged the fixed lines on a new direttissima, the thin cord broke. Watching through a telescope from the base, his friend saw the flare of a red spot falling over dark grey stone (Straight Up, James Ramsey Ullman, 1968).
Perhaps behind the well-worn phrase, “he died doing what he loved,” there’s an echo of older, religious texts on the “art of dying”: the imagining that the instant of death could somehow become the final, defining expression of a life (although perhaps it rarely, truly is). Harlin had pictured his own death thus: “By piercing that mask, that shell of a body, I wanted to physically transcend the personal… to find a vivid moment of truth.”
In our media-saturated age, the inability to represent the actual sensation of dying makes it seem, to some philosophers, like a symbol of the inviolably real. For centuries, Japanese poets used their last strength for the final brushstrokes of haikus, trying to capture a reflection of that moment. The images are simple and concrete: the first frost, the falling of petals or leaves, flashes of lightning and melting ice, the emergence of the moon. Each poem seems to portray existence at its most keen edge, perception at the cusp of transparency and change. The words appear like traces of the absent: dark figures on white snow. The true vision lies in what’s unwritten (Japanese Death Poems, Yoel Hoffman, 1986).
Climbers, too, move along the borders of the inexpressible. “The essence of a climb burns out in the moment of experience,” Marko Prezelj once declared in 2007 (Alpinist 21). “The core of an alpinist’s pursuit will always lie in ashes.” In 1688 a dying Japanese woman wrote, “It lights up/ as lightly as it fades: a firefly” (Death Poems).
NEAR NIGHTFALL, after ice climbing, I walk down the closed Notch Road. My shadow appears, dark and sudden, at my feet. The snow ignites to rosy gold. I look back: the half moon is right behind me, smoldering through broken clouds. “What’s terrible is that others die, not that I die,” the late philosopher and mountaineer Arne Naess said, at age eighty, “I have the experience of the death of others, but not of my own” (Is It Painful to Think?, David Rothenberg, 1993). For the ones left behind, each absence leaves a mark—like water runnels on a cliff, the hollow spaces of pin scars. Alone in the woods at night, I feel haunted in a way that seems, almost, briefly, like solace. Unfinished stories of lost writers drift through my mind. Shreds of phrases and muted voices surface, fading just beyond the rim of sound.
At home, I wake in the middle of the night, and for an instant I’m unable to breathe, thinking only of this: a body at the base of a granite ridge, cold stone, thin air, night stars.
MUCH HAS BEEN WRITTEN about the deaths of alpinists on high peaks. Those who survive continue on another, sometimes more harrowing, journey into night. After Joe Tasker’s memorial, Tim Lewis urged Maria Coffey not to grieve too long for her boyfriend’s disappearance on Everest, but to seize life while she could. A few months afterward, he explained that he’d been diagnosed with a painful, terminal illness: “I’d rather get the chop on a mountain. Any time” (Fragile Edge, 2000).
For others, the process of aging can suffuse ordinary life with a sense of existence on the edge. “At age sixty,” Reinhold Messner told Thomas Huetlin, “to die because of some dangerous situation that I’ve placed myself in, becomes unlikely. I thus truly have a chance of growing old. The only question is ‘how’? The curiosity is total” (Mein Leben am Limit, 2005).
Facing death in the high mountains, Messner recalled, “I become like a wild beast. My eyes grow bigger, and my body produces energy, anger and rage.” He realized that he would continue seeking and creating new adventures, blazing with a primordial intensity, to the very end.
“HOW DO WE CONFRONT that moment toward the end?” the eighty-one-year-old physician Tom Hornbein asks. “To have survived a life of living a tad on the edge is satisfying, and perhaps adds seasoning to the prospect of a gentler exiting.” In 2004 Hornbein was present at the last hours of sixty-eight-year-old Barry Corbet, a fellow teammate from the 1963 American Everest Expedition:
It was not rage, nor traveling through the looking glass to some other unknown place (my take anyway), but rather a gentle running down of the clock, the end of a multifaceted journey, an acceptance of inevitability. Barry confronted dying, as he did everything, with style. His three children were there, their spouses, his grandchildren. We watched films and read poetry, splitting our sides over Winnie the Pooh. To have an end like that, a party full of emotions in flux. It was magical. The person dying is only one of the participants…. Barry showed me the way.
Several days later, Corbet’s last letter reached his friends: “Nothing missed and no regrets. Live on in peace, health and happiness. Look for meaning where you can, and cherish mystery when you can’t” (The American Alpine Journal, 2005).The moment of dying, the philosopher Walter Benjamin once said, is what gives “authority” to all storytelling (Illuminations, 1968). Perhaps behind the idea of a “good death” is the hope that the act of taking leave might transmit a final message, a glimpse of that ever-uncharted landscape, a guide to mourning and to living, a remembrance and a gift.
In February 2012, shortly before he passed away at eighty-one, Harvey T. Carter recalled his desert climbs with Layton Kor. His eyes lit up: “Should’ve done more, but we did OK.”
AT NINETY, NAESS STILL MUSED in the small hut that he’d built in 1937, more than sixty years ago, on the rain-swept flanks of Hallingskarvet, Norway. Behind him rose the wall of grey cliffs he’d scaled for decades. A sea of green meadow light and roiling clouds glimmered through his window. He felt himself merge with the vastness of so many minute things, the rocks, the flowers and the storms:
It is strange how one opens oneself more to life when death is no longer something alien and threatening…. There is something fundamentally wrong when only older people reflect on that which is significant in life, while younger ones… do not have time or opportunity to reflect on what is almost incredible: that today they actually are in the land of the living (Naess, Life’s Philosophy: Reason and Feeling in a Deeper World, 2002).
When I was a child, I felt there was something I had to find before I died. I imagined it as some lost, golden country, glittering on the other side of the mist across our neighbor’s fields, hidden within the shadows behind our stone wall — some place beyond the fixed patterns of society, the grey chronology that led inexorably to death. In my twenties, on my first free solo, the light seemed to shatter through me, and the sky pour down the rock. Like so many climbers, immersed in that sudden, radiant awareness of now, I’ve had that brief and total conviction that each moment is both fleeting and eternal. Partway up an icefall in the dusk, I’ve felt a kind of wild faith that nothing and no one is lost, that everything belongs to something immense and luminous and indestructible, and that even when I die, it will never let me go.
NIGHTFALL. The wind roars through the shadows of the branches, but under the surface of the ice, there is only the quiet trickle of new-flowing water, the wan yellow of frozen minerals glittering in my headlamp’s beam. Ahead, a few more bulges wind like glass staircases farther into the dark. I wish each moment of my life could be like this: lit by snow- and ice-light; still, sharp and clear; mind, breath and body following, without thought, what J. R. R. Tolkein once called, “that shimmer of suggestion that never becomes clear sight, but always hints at something deeper, further on.”
We all live in the gloaming. Climbers — and others whose lives bring them close to the edge — may feel it more. Each evening in the Notch, I summon the images of those I’ve loved and those I will love, in what time remains for all of us. I know that nothing now before me, not the long slant of the moon’s rays on the ice, not the enfolding shadows of the trees, will ever console me for their loss. And still I hope that at my own last instant, I might feel that blaze of cold and brilliant light. That vivid moment of truth. Rise to a point, flicker and go out.
A graduate of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the Banff Mountain and Wilderness Writing Program, Katie Ives is the editor in chief of Alpinist Magazine. Her writing and translations have appeared in various publications, including The American Alpine Journal, Mountain Gazette, Circumference, 91st Meridian, Outside, Patagonia Field Reports, and The Rumpus. Her short story, “Transgressions,” appeared in the 2013 anthology Rock, Paper, Fire: The Best of Mountain and Wilderness Writing. In 2016, she received the H. Adams Carter Literary Award from the American Alpine Club. That same year, one of her articles made the Notables List for Best American Sports Writing.
Reprinted from Alpinist Magazine 40, courtesy of Height of Land Publications