The call came as a harsh reality check.
I sat down, stunned. The consistent momentum of life rasped to a halt, the gears grinding. Alex Reed had fallen at Smith Rock.
In the following days I found myself scrutinizing, more closely, life and all the fears I harbor in the alcoves of my soul, mostly, fear of death, which prompts me to chase something other than the “typical” life.
I think most people have the same fears I do, but maybe it manifests itself differently from one person to another, solely a result their life experiences.
I fear living a meaningless life, and I fret about the legacy I will leave. I fear missing the spectacular moments in life, but I also fear death finding me as a result of the chase.
I wonder what Alex’s fears were.
Chris Doll and I drove to Bend on a Friday afternoon with the intention of spending two or three days climbing at Smith Rock State Park. Neither of us had ever climbed there before. Our plans for a summer climbing expedition required that we get as much time on the rock as possible, and the weather in North Idaho was not cooperating.
In the weeks before our trip I had been in contact with Alex almost daily, asking for beta, a climber term for information, on local camping spots, climbing routes, and catching up on life. Alex agreed to meet us on Saturday morning and get a few routes in before he had to work.
I had first met Alex at the local gym in Coeur d’ Alene where he worked as a climbing instructor on the small rock wall that towered between the treadmills and the front desk. I spent most of that winter at the rock wall, hanging out with friends and pushing myself in preparation for spring. I was climbing at my best and Alex was already better than I was. That goofy kid with the constant smile, almost 20 years younger than me, was already an awesome climber, and he was getting better.
As spring progressed I began climbing outdoors instead of at the gym. I didn’t see the crew of climbers from the gym very often. Eventually I heard from a mutual friend that Alex had moved to Bend and was living in his van. He got a job working at the local rock gym and was spending all his time climbing at Smith Rock. He was living the “dirtbag” life that every climber dreams of.
When Chris and I decided to head south to find some dry rock Alex excitedly started filling my head with beta of the awesome climbing we would encounter at Smith Rock.
We met in the parking lot as the sun was cresting over cliffs of volcanic tuft. Our early morning start seemed charged with some sort of electrical current; we were about to climb in an area renowned to climbers.
As we hiked down into the park, Alex happily showed us the routes he was currently “projecting”and told us about routes we would probably like. He talked about living in a van and his plans for route development in the park. His passion for the life was obvious in everything he said.
On the first route of the day, I soon realized just how good Alex had become. His easy-going character was quickly replaced by seriousness and determination as I watched him climb a route that I had no chance of even beginning.
I’d been out of climbing for the most part of several years. Work, family and purchasing a house had taken precedence, as well as the several other outdoor activities I regularly cycled through.
I had difficulty on the routes that morning. I was somewhat embarrassed by how far my skills had fallen. None of that mattered to Alex. I had fallen several grades in climbing, but to Alex everything was about climbing and just the fact I was excited about climbing was enough for him.
After Alex left for work, Chris and I ate lunch at my truck and realized we weren’t going to be able to take Alex up on his invitation to climb in the Marsupials area the following morning. He was so many levels above us. We spent the afternoon searching other areas of the park for the 5.10 and 5.11 routes that Alex had happily suggested. We climbed some fun routes and headed to Bend as the sun began to drop in the sky. Alex had offered us a spot to crash for the night behind the Bend Rock Gym where he and a roving roster of climbers slept out back in their adventure wagons next to the railroad tracks.
We woke the following morning and left before anyone else was awake, found some coffee and raced to Smith before the crowds.
That morning I texted Alex from the top of a multi-pitch route Chris and I had just finished and wished him good climbing. We looked toward the Marsupials as we left the parking area and tried to guess where the young “crusher” was climbing.
It had been an epic first trip to Smith Rock. I left the trip with a stoke for climbing that I hadn’t felt for several years.
I decided to let some of the other pursuits I’d had on my winter’s mind fall to the wayside and dedicate my year to getting back into climbing. I talked with Alex over the following days and invited him on an alpine climbing adventure Chris Doll and I were planning. We talked about meeting up in Washington to climb some sport routes in Mazama.
In the days after our trip I marveled at his complete stoke and natural ability for climbing. I was even jealous to a degree. A part of me wished I was his age again and wondered what would have happened if I had made a different choice 20 years ago when I was freewheeling around Montana.
I had been living with my best friend out of the back of his Jeep Cherokee in Western Montana. We hiked and adventured and enjoyed the fact that we had left everything we knew behind in Vancouver, Washington, and didn’t know where life was taking us. When I got down to my last $300, I had a decision to make. Should I continue to “dirtbag” it or head for safety? I panicked and retreated to Coeur d’Alene where I stayed with my grandparents and got a job.
Alex made the choice I didn’t.
Only nine days after the trip to climb at Smith I received a phone call from a friend telling me Alex had fallen 200 feet and was gone. He had been hiking up the Misery Ridge trail to a route he was developing with a friend and had fallen before ever beginning his rappel onto the half-completed route.
Alex had been on the road to something spectacular, something I’m sure I would have read about someday in the climbing magazine. The beautiful thing was that he was so passionate and gracious about the path he was walking to get there.
Sometimes life hurls something in your direction that causes you to look up from the trail and look around at your surroundings. You wonder how you got to this place and whether you’re still walking in the direction you intended to when you started out.
I was impacted by the strangeness of life. I thought long and hard about the scares I’d had while adventuring. There have been several. I thought long and hard about the balance between chasing adventure and staring down the inevitable end.
I decided to focus more on my climbing, almost as a way of honoring Alex. I vowed to be at the same time more mindful of my actions in life, both in adventuring, and with my wife and daughters. I know life is an offering you shouldn’t turn down.
Twenty years of life led me to the place where I now stand. I am married to an amazing and beautiful wife; father to two daughters I love and enjoy watching grow, more so every day; a weekend adventurer who still chases a spectacular life and has nonetheless found a spectacular life where he never started to look.
Cheers to you Alex, I know heaven found you on some sweet rock. Thanks for the beta.