Out on a Ledge: High Risk—Life Lessons From the Annus Horribilis of 2017
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To function in this world, we need a foundation. For me, it’s climbing, a so-called “high-risk sport.” It’s given me structure and defined my priorities. I’ve learned from those who have gone before me, from their legacies and mistakes. Climbing has given my husband and me a community that we consider family. Essentially, climbing has given me life.
And yet, in 2017, I also learned how much the climbing life can take away.
In late May of last year, friend and East Side legend Matt “Honky” Ciancio died in a skydiving accident in Lodi, California, when his parachute failed to deploy properly. He’d moved to the Eastern Sierra from his native Connecticut in 2005. I met Honky in summer 2009 in Tuolumne. Dressed in oversized sweatpants and a raggedy Charlie Brown Christmas shirt, he seemed like a couch potato, but my admiration for him grew over time. Over the years, I saw Matt in the Sierra constantly. In Yosemite, he sent an in-a-day link-up of The Crucifix (V 5.12b), Astroman (V 5.11c), and the Rostrum (IV 5.11c); plus, he ticked pretty much every route on the Sierra’s Incredible Hulk—where he garnered the nickname “The Mayor.” His draws hung on hard sport routes throughout the Owens River Valley, at Bear Crag, and at Tioga Cliff. His humility, humor, and candor set him apart, and our friendship grew as we shared our undying stoke.
Additionally, Honky was also an avid BASE jumper, and had jumped nearly every Valley formation he’d climbed. Though he engaged in risky behavior, Matt also mitigated the risks, sometimes hiking down off Half Dome or El Cap when winds were wrong.
“Is all this risk worth it?” fellow East Side climbers asked in the weeks following Matt’s death. With his death came an awareness, a rawness, a swell of fear that threatened to crash upon us. Yet Matt hadn’t died climbing; he hadn’t even died BASE jumping, which, according to wingsuitfly.com, causes 1 death per 500–1000 jumps. No, he’d been skydiving, which only causes 1 death per 100,000 jumps. It had been a freak accident.
Adventure seekers—and their audiences—have been pondering risk since time immemorial. Some embrace it, while others search for their life jackets—clinging to this idea that if we “play it safe,” we’re protected from chaos. After Matt’s death, I wondered what value there was in questioning risk. No matter how much philosophical energy we put into it, the facts remain that shit happens and we can’t control all the variables. Perhaps I’d be safer if I went bouldering, I mused, but then I remembered that most of my injuries had been from bouldering. I spiraled down further—what was I really afraid of: death or broken bones?
In May 2010, after a late-spring storm, I hiked up the East Ledges of El Capitan with Hayden Kennedy, the then-19-year-old son of the alpinist and former editor of Climbing Magazine, Michael Kennedy, and Julie Kennedy, longtime climber and founder of 5Point Film Festival. Our plan was to rap into Golden Gate, a route we’d been rained off earlier that year. As we navigated muddy trails and wet ramps, we decided to shortcut a steep slab instead of cutting back through the manzanita. At 6’ 2”, Hayden’s gait dwarfed my own 5’ pedal, and I struggled to keep up. I smeared my approach shoes around wet rock and used my hands to steady myself as Hayden disappeared over a sloping bulge above. Things felt sketchy to me, but he’d waltzed up it. I thought I was just being a weeny. Then my foot slipped. I pressed against the wet slab trying to grab anything, and then … whoosh! I was on a waterslide, plummeting toward the 2,000-foot drop off the southeast face of El Cap.
After 50 feet, sliding faster and faster toward the abyss, I spotted a small, boulder-strewn ledge. I jumped off the slab, aiming for the ledge; as I connected with it, the momentum slammed me into the granite. I landed, crumpling into an adrenaline-filled pile as water poured down my back.
A minute later, Hayden reached me. “Holy shit, I thought you died!” he said, his eyes wild. He held my shoulders as blood poured from my head. My jaw felt broken. Everything hurt, but I was relatively OK. I couldn’t believe I’d stuck the ledge—it had been a last-ditch effort.
Hayden took my pack and assisted me back down to the Valley floor. He waited with me for two hours at the Yosemite Medical Clinic where I received 17 stitches in my scalp and was diagnosed with a partially torn MCL, two dislocated ribs, and some road rash. An exceptional climber, Hayden excelled at hard sport and trad routes, but he shined brightest in the mountains, with first ascents in Pakistan on K7 and Ogre 1, and in the Keketuohai National Park of China. In 2012, he and Jason Kruk made their “fair-means” (no-bolts) ascent of the Compressor Route on Cerro Torre, during which they notoriously chopped more than 100 of Cesare Maestri’s bolts during the descent.
But in the last year, he had moved away from alpinism, choosing to settle down with his partner, Inge Perkins. The idea of risking his life in the mountains had lost its appeal. Instead, he took EMT courses in Bozeman, Montana. On October 7, 2017, he and Inge triggered an avalanche while skiing on Imp Peak. The snow buried Inge and partially buried Hayden. He dug himself out and searched for her, but to no avail. After what I can only imagine to be frantic searching with him occasionally yelling, “This is so fucked!”, he returned home, left a detailed note on where Inge could be found, and then took his own life.
My husband, Ben, and I had assumed we’d all grow old together. Hayden had become a little brother to Ben and I, and his death hit us hard. With his suicide, a piece of us disappeared, an integral part of the picture forever blurred.
One week after Hayden’s passing, Rocky Mountain National Park climbing ranger and badass big-wall queen Quinn Brett fell 100 feet while speed climbing the Nose of El Capitan with Josie McKee. In an interview afterward, she recalled, “My mind was definitely distracted on this pitch.” Complacency kills, as they say, but in this instance Quinn didn’t perish. However, she broke four ribs, punctured a lung, bruised her liver, and shattered her scapula and her twelfth thoracic vertebra, the latter leaving her paralyzed from the waist down.
About two weeks later, Brad Gobright and Jim Reynolds, using similar tactics, broke the Nose record. The media exploded. Climbing felt like The Hunger Games, in which each participant battles to the death as the public watches from home. In this case, one team experienced tragedy; the other, victory. It all felt so random and unfair.
But this is life. The reality is that we’re all fragile and all mortal—the older you get and the longer you climb, the more you’ll experience this. Throughout the years, I’ve lost many friends. In 2014 and 2015, Yosemite climbers Sean “Stanley” Leary, Dean Potter, and Graham Hunt all died BASE jumping. Honky died skydiving. Inge died in an avalanche. Hayden, rather than live with the all-consuming grief, killed himself. Quinn’s life will be forever changed. All are climbers who’ve taken risks, and they all faced severe—and even the ultimate—consequences. So, should we take risks or should we live cautiously? Should we forgo our dreams because we could get hurt or die? No one has the answer, and that’s why it’s so hard to grasp.
“Routes ticked, cruxes overcome, and summits achieved can be super meaningful, but they’re also not the most important things in life,” Hayden wrote at Evening Sends shortly before his death. “The true, lasting meaning … is found in the friendships and partnerships that we build while pursuing our climbing goals.” If I weren’t a climber, I would not have the life—and community—I have today. Had I taken the road more traveled, I would have risked missing out on a full, rich existence. No matter the choices, life is fleeting; we find meaning in the face of our mortality by realizing our potential, pursuing our dreams, and forming connections with people and places along the way. I have found no better way to do this than climbing.
Poet Rupi Kaur perhaps put it best: “We have been dying since we got here and forgot to enjoy the view. Live fully.”
Katie Lambert is a professional climber based out of a van in California’s Sierra Nevada with her husband, photographer Ben Ditto. Lambert has climbed for more than 20 years on everything from boulders to big walls.