The Spindrift Diaries

by laurel holland
Laurel Holland & Marshall York

—Woodstock

In recent weeks, you may have gotten wind of the news that I’m leaving New York.

Why are you leaving? people ask. Where are you going? And what will you do when you get there?

This song is my reply, the simplest one I could think of.

Thank you, Marshall, for your collaboration, time and love with this.

Laurel Holland & Marshall York

—Stand By Me

The last time I saw my father was March 26, 1989. It was Easter Sunday.

The Easter bunny had scattered jelly beans on the piano keys and left a basket of chocolate eggs on the loveseat in the living room. It was sunny but cold that morning, and I had to wear my winter coat over my Easter dress to church. That afternoon, I picked the first crocuses of spring from our garden while my mother roasted lamb shanks for dinner and my father finished packing. I helped him double-check his list of gear as he packed his skis, an extra coil of rope, his lucky Swiss Army knife. And after dinner, before he got into his silver Scirocco and drove away, he played “Stand By Me” on his 1969 Martin.

Now I wonder, after all this time and all of the in-between, if my father was always quietly standing by. 

Knowing you’re not alone can be the thing that saves you.

Here’s a rendition of that favorite tune. Lovingly accompanied, recorded and edited by Marshall York, of 31/31 fame. And yes, that’s me on the vocals, a little raw but no less heartfelt. Headphones recommended for best quality. 

xx 
Laurelbird

APRIL 3

Do you ever whether your life might have been different if, on a particular day, you’d stayed home from work, if you’d missed your flight, if you’d held on a second longer when someone hugged you good-bye? I think about that all the time. About timing and choice. About how a ringing phone or a knock on the door can change in an instant the way your life was supposed to be.

Today is always the hardest day. 

image

THE PARIS REVIEW!

So this happened today.

Positively thrilled to have a post up on the Paris Review blog. Read “Finding a Life on the Edge” here.

Heartfelt thanks to Dan Piepenbring and Sadie O. Stein for making this happen. 

SETTLING SCORES

imageCanada 2010. Settling scores.

Mom and I sat holding hands in silence, the engine of our rented Ford Edge idling and the heat cranked to full blast. Ours was the only car in the visitor parking lot. For a sunny day in early September, it was colder than I’d expected, and though it was approaching 10:00a.m., frost still hung on the grass.

It had been exactly three weeks since we’d gotten the news that two college kids working for Brewster Bus Company had found my father’s body at the base of Snow Dome while hiking on their day off. Reporters had called, TV crews had appeared at my door stoop, family and friends with whom I’d long lost touch came out of the woodwork in droves to express their shock and sympathy. And still the question hung in the air: what do we do with him? 

And so, following the close of the production at PS122, Mom and I met in Edmonton to see my father one last time.

Dressing that morning had been a chore, and it had taken me over an hour to get out the door. I couldn’t decide what to wear: dress or skirt and blouse? Boots or pumps? Silver hoops or pearl studs? When my hair wouldn’t curl the way I wanted it to, I’d thrown my brush at the vanity mirror in frustration, narrowly missing one of the light scones affixed to the bathroom wall. I was as nervous as I was before an audition or first date.

The thing of it was: even though my rational brain knew what to expect – even after knowing it was he who’d been found, he who hadn’t run away, he who’d been stranded on a glacier alone for over two decades – the greater part of me still believed that when we walked through the doors of the funeral parlor, I’d find the live version, that my father would finally see me for who I was. Even after the fact, I still held out hope that the story, the newspapers, the autopsy report had all been wrong. 

The digital clock on the dashboard clicked to 10:00. Mom squeezed my hand. “Should we go in?”

I looked over at her. Suddenly, everything we’d ever gone through together seemed etched on her face — in the lines between her eyebrows, in the creases of her mouth. My mother, it struck me, had aged. How would my father compare?

Nodding, I squeezed back and unclicked my seatbelt. She turned off the engine and reached for her purse on the floor by my feet.

“He’d be proud, right?” I blurted out, tears leaking from my heavily made-up eyes. “I mean, he would, wouldn’t he?”

“Oh Laurel,” she said, smiling up at me. “Of course he would.”

When we walked through the grand oak doors of Connelly-McKinley Funeral Home, we were greeted by the kindly director. She led us to her office, offered us coffee and tea biscuits. For nearly an hour, the three of us sat as she listened to our story – about how in the years after the disappearance, time and life had marched on, how mom had remarried and had a son, how I’d gone off to college, buried myself in French literature, and moved to New York to act. And then how, with one phone call, we’d been jolted back to the past.

After conferring biographical details for the certificate of death (there had been some initial disagreement as to whether the certifiable date of death should be listed as 1989 or 2010, and at one point along the way, a woman in the coroner’s office had blatantly accused my mother of polygamy) and arranging for cremation – which, the director was happy to inform us, she could provide at 50% off the going rate! (given the weathered state of my father’s body when it had finally arrived at the morgue, they had not been able to embalm it properly) – we were led into a holding room and given masks and goggles. Despite the measures taken to preserve him, the lingering human odor was strong. 

“It may be a bit much, you know,” she said, treading carefully in her genial Canadian lilt.

When we were ready, the director held open the door to a linoleumed examination room illuminated by fluorescent lights. “Take your time,” she said, bowing out and closing the door softly behind her.

There, in the middle of the room, lay a corpse on a stretcher, partially covered by a baby blue hospital sheet. A single long-stemmed red rose had been laid at his side. I took a deep breath and Mom took my hand. She and I approached.

“Hi Daddy/Hi Bill,” we said in unison. 

His hair and mustache were still shockingly intact, and though he had suffered severe head trauma and years of exposure to the elements, I recognized the shape of his teeth, how perfectly aligned they were after all this time. There were his lips, the shape of the songs he had sung to me as a child, the shape of the stories he had told at bedtime. 

This was my father.

imageMay 21, 1988. My 5th birthday.

August 24, 2010.

At the end of the summer of 2010, I was cast in the most laughable stage production of my acting career. The play – whose title I will refrain from posting here – was a new work based loosely on the characters from Gilligan’s Island and set in the waiting room of a psych ward. A friend and former colleague from college was co-producing the show and had sought me out all the way from Berlin to offer me the role of “Ginger.” In our correspondence earlier that year, the project was pitched to me as a “chatty dark comedy about how overloaded we are in today’s multi-media world.” I was intrigued. When she told me it was a paying gig and would play as a rental at the venerated off-off-Broadway venue, P.S.122, for a two-week run in September, I was sold. After two years of acting for free at the Flea, this felt like a step up. I accepted and didn’t think twice. I didn’t even ask to see the script. 

As I quickly learned, Martin*, the playwright – a sixty-something native of San Francisco with a dwindling inheritance and pocketfuls of wishful thinking – had come to New York with his twenty-something Polish mail-order bride to produce, direct, and star in what he was convinced was a seminal work. Forget that he had never penned a script. This was the play to end all plays. It was what the theater world had been waiting for. And Martin was vested in the project in the way only a true egoist could be: he had put up over fifty thousand dollars in private capital for the two-week run, convinced that, with his directorial vision and writerly gifts, the production would be Broadway-bound in less than a year.   

The night of the first read-through, I realized my mistake. We convened at the National Arts Club in a mahogany-paneled second-floor drawing room that overlooked Gramercy Park. The NAC is a stuffy “cultural” organization founded in 1898 by and for connected artists from old money. Martin had been a longtime member of the club and was staying there with his wife Anya* while we were in rehearsal. When I walked through the doors, the club had an off-putting air that made me uneasy. My instinct later proved spot-on: that fall, an investigation was launched against the club president and Martin’s good friend for his manipulation of the club’s apartments, which he had allegedly used to hoard roomfuls of personal junk and rent at below-market rates to family and friends.  

I showed up to the read-through in a long silk red maxi dress with a plunging neckline – a cheeky homage, I thought, to my character. I’d never met Martin, but when I glimpsed a man in head-to-toe white linens with a slicked-back comb-over talking excitedly to one of the other actors, I was pretty sure it was him. When he saw me, he made his way over and introduced himself with a little too much empathy and an obvious enthusiasm for my breasts.

“Giiinn-ger!” he said, extending a Rolexed hand. “You must be Laurel. Martin Redele. I’m honored you’re here. Really. Just. Honored.” He spoke with an affectation that had a slight faux-British twinge.

“It’s nice to finally meet you, Martin,” I smiled diplomatically. “Really looking forward to working with you,” I added, wishing I’d chosen my wardrobe more wisely. I was grateful when Anya swooped in between us to say it was time to begin. 

We all gathered in a circle and went around introducing ourselves.  When it came to Martin, he proceeded to talk for nearly two hours about the process by which he came to write the play, what it signified to him, where he hoped it would go, and, above all else, how crucial it was to remain true to the text. As I sat in my footed leather wingchair willing a bathroom break, I knew the production would be a disaster. Martin was disorganized, emotive, and – based on our initial interaction and the way in which he spoke about Ginger’s fetishized character – was mildly misogynistic. My tolerance was waning quickly and we hadn’t even read the opening stage directions.

Martin had cast himself opposite me in the role of “Rambler,” a greasy, lecherous cowboy who ogles Ginger throughout the show. Ironically, as the rehearsal process dragged on, Martin struggled somehow in memorizing Rambler’s lines – lines he himself had penned. We had several scenes together, and invariably, our rehearsals would dissolve into prompting sessions. I knew his lines better than he did. I’d gently remind him of the lengthy speech he gave about his beloved text, and he in turn would beg forgiveness, then chalk it up to how exhausting his responsibilities were as producer/writer/director/actor. 

“There just isn’t enough time in the day for one man to do it all, Laurel,” he shook his head condescendingly during a break at rehearsal one afternoon. 

Livid, I snapped and retorted back, “Then maybe you should find a replacement who can,” and stormed out of the theater to the nearest coffee shop for a cappuccino and some fresh air.

When opening night rolled around, Martin had given up all hope of retaining his lines and decided it was best to tape his longer speeches into the copy of Playboy that his character perused on stage. But he had failed to tape them securely into the pages of the magazine, and during one performance, a speech came unglued and fluttered to the floor, landing face-down underneath his seat. Luckily, the five audience members in the house that night were too busy either napping or playing Angry Birds on their iPhones to notice. 

To document the evolution of the show, Martin had hired a close family friend as the videographer, who, in retrospect, I’m almost certain was in the adult film industry. The man had an eye patch, wore shirts unbuttoned to his navel, and took enormous liberties filming behind-the-scenes footage – backstage, during breaks, and, once, even in the women’s dressing room prior to a performance. One night, we were all half-naked powdering our faces and quietly cursing the show when he barged in with his camera and boom mic. I turned on my heels and looked squarely into his good eye.

“You come in here again, and I’ll have Equity on your ass so fast you won’t know what hit you.”

To Hell if I wasn’t actually a union actor. Throwing around empty threats helped lance some of my wrath.

And then there was the real-life octogenarian duo who played “The Powells.” After decades of chain-smoking, Mrs. Powell was permanently hooked to a portable oxygen tank she wheeled around the stage. Mr. Powell, we discovered, was slightly narcoleptic and tended to fall asleep halfway through their scenes. Mrs. Powell would speak to him not realizing he’d dozed off, and in the awkward lull of waiting for a response, the sound of her hissing oxygen tank filled the quiet theater.

The sole convenience of the production was its rehearsal schedule, which took place at night so the actors could maintain their survival jobs during the day. At the time, I was employed as the personal assistant to celebrated former film critic, Judith Crist. My job consisted of opening her emails, feeding her petulant cat, and maintaining the semblance of an office environment in spite of the fact that most days, Judith spent finishing her crosswords and reading about political scandals and drug busts in The Daily News. 

Judith, then eighty-eight, had a fusty and profound suspicion of computers and the Internet. I was therefore required to print out and physically file her entire email inbox. On Fridays, she would spend the morning cutting every film review from the Times, which I would then paste, label and file away in her overstuffed office cabinets fifty years deep with film reviews. A sharp-tongued ninety-pound old bird who smoked like a fiend and lived for her five o’clock cocktail, she would chastise me for leaving the watering can empty (“If I catch a newspaper on fire with my cigarette, what on earth do you expect me to put it out with? My martini?”), for filling the watering can too high (“It’s too Goddamn heavy for me to lift when you fill it to the brim!”), and for not removing and preserving the stamps provided on return envelopes enclosed in begging letters (“It’s a fucking waste of postage!” she exclaimed one day when she found a stamped envelope I’d discarded. “Do you know what an individual stamp costs these days?”) 

Judith alone I could handle. And the play probably would have been tolerable had I not been working for her. But the combination was overwhelming, and by mid-August I was calling my entire life into question. I suddenly felt beholden to an outdated, unsustainable dream and was unsure if I wanted to be an actor as bad as I thought I once had. It was hard to fathom I’d really spent four arduous years and all that college tuition to scoop cat shit out of a litter box and be asked to consume a banana suggestively on stage. If this is what “paying my dues” meant, I wasn’t sure I could cough up the collateral. I was on the verge of cracking.               

On a weekday afternoon in late August, I had returned home from work via a coffee date with a friend and had enough time to make a quick grocery run before that evening’s rehearsal. My apartment, which I shared with a friend from college, was in the Meatpacking District just across from Chelsea Market. I tore home to drop off my gym bag and slip into a pair of jeans before dashing to Manhattan Fruit Exchange. 

At the intersection of 15th and 9th, I reviewed my lines in my head. I was on edge that afternoon: Judith had been especially cantankerous, and I was dreading rehearsal. When the light turned green, I crossed the street and checked the time. I had twenty-nine minutes before I needed to catch the L across town.

In the cool den of the store’s produce aisle, I was bent over a bin of fresh arugula when my phone buzzed to life in my back pocket. I was surprised to have service. With all the brick and concrete surrounding the block-deep building, I’d had too many dropped calls in Chelsea Market to count.

A crepuscular picture of a woman in a lilac dress holding a glass of red wine and smiling coyly appeared on the screen. MAMAN it read. A twinge of guilt for just having purchased a new pair of shoes with our shared “emergencies only” Visa constricted my diaphragm. 

“Hey Mom, in a huge rush. What’s up?” I answered brusquely.

“Hi baby,” Mom’s voice chirped on the other end, odd and off-key. “What are you up to?”

“Uh, just grocery shopping before rehearsal,” I said, eyeing a sign for discounted chèvre across the aisle. “Why? What’s up? Everything okay?”

“Are you— Well, are you sitting down?” she hesitated. “Or, no. How about I call back. When you’re home?”

I lowered my basket onto the nearby case of cheese.

“Mommy, are you okay?” 

When she didn’t respond, I started to panic. 

“Mom!” I yelled into the receiver. “Talk to me!”

She paused and inhaled with a toothy sharpness.

“Laurel, they found your father.” 

BODY FOUND 21 YEARS LATER ON GLACIER: Climber perished in 1989 on Mount Snow Dome in Jasper National Park

image

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Conal Pierse
Edmonton Journal, with files from Ben Gelinas

After 21 years buried under ice and snow at the foot of the Snow Dome, the body of American William Holland was found this month perfectly preserved in his full climbing gear, spiked boots on his feet and rope slung over his shoulder.

On April 3, 1989, Holland was climbing a frozen waterfall on the mountain’s northern face — a treacherous kilometre of ice known as slipstream.

The route is threatened by avalanches of snow and ice, and climbers must cross dangerous glacial terrain pockmarked by deep crevices just to reach its base.

An account from Parks Canada said two parties set up the mountain early that day. Local pair Rick Costea and Ken Wallator headed up first, with Holland and his partner Chris Dube, who had come up from the United States on a climbing expedition, following shortly after. The climb up was uneventful, with both teams safely reaching the summit by the mid-afternoon.

But visibility at the top was poor, and thick clouds and howling winds made for whiteout conditions. Holland walked out onto a hardened lip of snow hanging over the cliff’s edge to search for a safe route down, prodding the ground with a ski pole and his coil of rope at the ready for quick deployment. As he neared the edge, the ground gave way and Holland disappeared over the side.

The violent weather punished the other three climbers on the descent, battering them against the ice.

Costea dislocated his shoulder as the three men made the hard retreat to base camp.

Wallator and Dube had to leave Costea at camp and ski down to the highway to summon a helicopter.

Attempts to recover the fallen climber’s body were held at bay by deteriorating weather and winter storms.

At one point a search and rescue team combed the waterfall’s base with a rescue dog, only to return the next day to find the area had been obliterated by a monster ice fall. After a week of searching, the extreme hazards posed by the mountain brought an end to attempts to recover the body.

"This was a well prepared mountainist, and he was by all means up to the task of the climb," said Steve Blake, a public safety specialist with Parks Canada.

"He just made a judgment error getting to the edge."

Blake has been involved in several rescue attempts on slipstream. He said it’s not uncommon for people to spend longer than they intend to on the mountain because of the size and difficulty of the ice climb.

"It’s big, serious, imposing, all of those words," said Cyril Shokoples, a local guide with 35 years climbing experience.

Slipstream is a frozen waterfall that stretches to the top of a 3456 metre peak called Snow Dome, which reaches up between the Athabasca and Dome glaciers.

"Getting to the top of slipstream you’re really only halfway," Shokoples said.

"The other half is getting yourself off in one piece."

Shokoples said there are two ways down: the long way around then a walk down the Athabasca Glacier, or a lengthy rappel down the waterfall.

The last time someone died on slipstream was in the mid 90s, when an avalanche took three climbers. Over six months, all three bodies were recovered.

Blake said it’s rare for a climber to just vanish, but when they do, it’s even rarer to find their body intact two decades later.

More often climbers will find pieces of equipment like broken axes and frayed rope — worn relics matched to descriptions of people lost in the mountains.

Holland’s body and his gear were discovered intact on Dome Glacier. A pair of hikers out on an Aug. 15 day trip found his body lying on top of the ice, apparently carried down the mountainside by melting snow.

Blake said Holland’s remains likely spent the last 21 years buried under mounds of snow or hidden inside a crevasse, waiting to be freed by warmer weather.

Costea, reached in the Yukon by satellite phone Friday night, said he could hear Holland’s cries for help in the dark, carried by wind down the mountain.

Costea lay alone at base camp, nursing his shoulder. It was dislocated when he pulled Wallator out of a gap between the glacier and the mountain during their descent with Dube.

Costea called out to Holland, but he’s sure Holland couldn’t hear him.

"He probably died overnight but there was no way I could go out there," Costea said.

"The voice haunts me, that’s for sure."

The helicopter came up with the morning sun and before it flew Costea down the glacier, they took a spin around Snow Dome to see if they could spot Holland.

Costea saw where the ice broke off, but there was no sign of Holland.

Though it’s been more than 20 years, he remembers much of that climb up slipstream, how he and Wallator took their time, while Dube and Holland scrambled up the ice, actually passing them on the way up.

When Costea and Wallator made it to the top of Snow Dome it was stormy. The only signs of the Americans were footprints heading away from where they should have been going, Costea said.

The men followed the footprints and that’s where they found Dube, alone, pacing in the blowing snow.

Holland was gone.

"I’m glad his family has closure. They took it really hard, his death," said Costea, who has lost two friends in other incidents on slipstream.

"It’s an evil route."


* name changed

Ghosts in the Attic

PART II

I’ve never had as much clarity about my father’s final days as I began to have that summer afternoon sprawled on the floor of my grandmother’s attic. Until then I’d never known the exact details of the trip to Canada, how he and his partner Chris functioned as a team, the way their physical abilities measured up or the effect it had on my father’s psyche. As I pored over the journal entries, the rough sketch of events I’d had in my head for so long began to flesh out, and the snowy miasma began to clear.

On Easter Sunday of 1989, my father and Chris flew from Boston to Calgary. The next morning, they rented a car and drove to Canmore, where my father’s good Austrian friend owned and operated the Haus Alpenrose, a popular climbing lodge he’d opened in the 1970s. When the two arrived at the Alpenrose Monday night, they socialized, ate dinner, and excitedly charted out their climbing schedule for the week.

From the way it looked in the journal, my father and Chris had planned a serious ice climb every other day, giving themselves a day of rest in between. With two full weeks in the Icefields, this gave them some latitude in the event weather was inclement for a day or two. The daily climbs would progress in duration and difficulty, ultimately culminating with Slipstream.

image

Maps. Clockwise from left: a map of the Icefields Parkway, a map of select ice climbs in the Jasper area (see Weeping Pillar and Polar Circus in the top left corner), and a picture of Weeping Wall.

Not long before the trip to Canada, my father had been diagnosed with a severe case of early-onset arthritis. Due to prior bouts with frostbite and the extreme physical strain his body was constantly enduring, his hands, feet, and spine were painfully deteriorating. When he sought out a medical opinion, his rheumatologist gave him five to ten years before he would be completely debilitated. In less than a decade, the doctor bluntly informed him, my father would be unable to climb, to ski, to move in the way he knew how. But for a man who defined himself in physical extremes, living on the edge was what kept him alive. The thought of losing his ability to move was a crisis of existential degree.

My father’s older brother Tom told me once that there are two types of people in this world: the ones who flow with the grain and the ones who fight against it. My father was a fighter, he was headstrong and resistant. Rather than give up and give in, he ran faster, climbed harder, pushed his capacity for physical and mental endurance at every opportunity. He was on a manic crusade against the inevitable: his physical deterioration, the onslaught of age, the passing of time itself. He sought out younger, more daring climbing partners, for someone who would compete with and exhort him, someone willing to accompany him to the edge. Chris, a formidable athlete who was five years younger, newly wedded and not yet a father, was game for these epic ambitions.

During the first week together, however, Chris and my father struggled to negotiate their stride as a team. In spite of the strenuous physical and mental training they had undergone prior to the trip, my father constantly fell behind, was tired and worn. In the journal he continually mentioned how Chris climbed faster and was more agile on the ice. The morning they set out for Whiteman Falls – a two-pitch[1] face known for its nasty overhangs and hollow, brittle ice – they encountered heavy snow during their ski to the base of the falls. But the long ski in was an energy drain for my father, and I could read the frustration in the fervent slant of his writing. Here he was, fatigued already, and they hadn’t even begun to climb.

When they arrived at the falls, Chris led the first pitch. My father tried to lead up the crux[2] but got spooked by the steepness halfway up and retreated. Chris led the rest of the way through. Though the commentary was minimal, I could tell my father was embarrassed.

“I felt very bad,” he wrote, “but Chris didn’t make a big deal out of it. The climb was beautiful and in spite of my faux pas, we did it in good time and style,” adding, “My head is not into steep ice after laying off for 1½ months.”

Two days later following a tranquil afternoon telemark skiing in Banff, the two headed to Polar Circus, a watershed located along the west face of Cirrus Mountain to the east of the Icefields Parkway. A far longer route than Whiteman Falls, Polar Circus features about nine total pitches that ascend 2,300 vertical feet, 1,600 of which are sheer waterfall ice. Due to its southern exposure, the ice on Polar Circus is prone to melt from the heat of the direct afternoon sun, causing it to crackle and pop. This renders the route both unpleasant and dangerous to climb once the sun is fully overhead. Because they’d had a few sunny days, my father and Chris wanted to be off the summit before the sun hit.

They began at 7:00 that morning, passing the lower ice with a traverse on snow. At the first sign of steepness, they geared up, and while my father was seconding behind Chris’ lead, two Banff climbers caught up to them. They got into an unspoken race with the Canadians and beat them to the top. “We burned up,” my father wrote. “I was very tired.”

The two teams debated over who should continue up first. “Because we were third-classing,” my father wrote, “the Canadians agreed – though somewhat disgruntledly – to let us pass through.” And so Chris and my father proceeded up the pitch.

At the time I discovered these journal entries in 2008, I was unfamiliar with most of the technical terminology my father used to describe his climbs. I didn’t know what “third-classing” was. So I pulled my iPhone from my back pocket and Googled “third-classing climbing terminology.”

This was the first result that Google yielded:

Class 3 - n./adj. AKA Third Class. Denotes scrambling involving the use of the hands as well as the feet, but where a rope is not needed. More commonly used to describe climbing without a rope, especially when the climbers have [one].[3]

Perplexed, I re-read the definition, sure I’d misread it or had somehow selected the wrong link. I hadn’t. I refreshed my Google search and perused the other sites that yielded results. They all said the same thing. To “third class” is to solo.

I looked out the window at the breezeless summer afternoon wishing I had a glass of water. I couldn’t understand what the hell the two of them were doing climbing without ropes. To me, the whole point of having a partner was to be connected to him, especially on a route that seemed so precarious. I didn’t get it. I went back to my phone and Googled “solo climbing benefits.”

What came up was an explanation of how soloing – namely climbing without a rope, without a partner, without protection, or some combination therein – is both the purest and most dangerous type of climbing. The site explained how climbers opt to solo because it allows them to be in control of everything, and that as a direct result of the extreme risks involved, it allows a climber to push human limitations and satisfy a need for thrill and excitement. Soloing helps a climber better understand himself, the website explained, and tells him just how far he can go.[4]

Swallowing hard, I looked down at the journal in my lap. For years I’d searched for answers like this – in photos, in stories, in letters. What made Daddy climb? I’d wondered. Why did he love it so much? And, I’d secretly feared, had he loved it more than me? Now here I was nineteen years later, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to understand. That it all – a life, a love, a fatherless childhood – boiled down to adrenaline and ego made my mouth dry.

But then again, I thought, at least I knew where the story was going. I picked up the journal and read on.

The two men soloed – ropeless – up the first four technical pitches of Polar Circus as Chris led them higher along the frozen falls. On the middle of the third pitch, a chunk of ice came loose under his crampons and fell onto my father below. Because he was tired and his leg muscles were cramping badly, he angrily shouted at Chris to stop. Chris called down and asked if he wanted a belay.

“No,” my father yelled up. “Just stop so I can avoid getting knocked off the ice!” (“Really,” Daddy confessed parenthetically, “I wanted a rest.”)

When they arrived at the top of the tier mid-way through the climb, they stopped to take a break and eat. After resting they continued on. There was no mention of roping up. My father led the first of the two middle pitches and finally began acclimatizing to the steep ice.

“I was coming into it after all, even in my near exhausted state,” he wrote. I thought about what my uncle Tom had once said to me, about how there are those who fight and those who flow. My father was fighting so hard.

They finished the climb at 11:15 a.m. My father wandered up to the snow bowl above to collect his thoughts and reflect on the climb. He hadn’t been particularly challenged by the grade of the ice – “none of the pitches gave you a real airy feeling, and the difficulty was no more than grade four”[5] – but he and Chris were climbing well and working out their differences.

“Chris is obviously fitter than I,” he wrote with a bitter twinge, “but I am coming around mentally as well as physically and am finding my own pace.” It was clear his competitive spirit was irked by his physical limitations. It broke my heart to imagine my father like this, hindered but forcing himself through the hindrance, as if he had something to prove.

Their climb two days later up Weeping Pillar defused a lot of the frustration my father had experienced in the preceding days. The Pillar is a classic route that features six pitches ranging in steepness from grade four to grade six. It is considered by some to be one of the best ice climbs in the Canadian Rockies.

That day, my father and Chris finally settled into a groove. The weather was cloudy and cool, providing them with perfect climbing conditions. Though the ice was gnarly in places, the steepness was thrilling. My father grew stronger with each pitch, and by the time the climb was over, he and Chris had finally synced rhythms.

“Total adrenaline rush! Chris was jazzed, too,” he scribbled, adding, “We’re an excellent team when we are both climbing well.”

He went on, describing the exhilarating final pitch.

“A straight shot up a groove[6] with good but technical ice[7]. Many observers from below. We rapped the rock raps[8] – incredible free hanging for 165o off the top!”

I didn’t know what “free hanging” meant, but my mind conjured a man in the likeness of Tarzan gripping a dizzying overhang with one hand and victoriously fist-pumping the air with the other. I knew he was sorry to see it end.

On the way back to the car, they saw that their spectators had left them notes of admiration in the snow: “Totally awesome!” and, “Hey dudes, all right,” and then, “Will you give me a lesson?” Buzzed from the climb, my father wanted to return to the hostel where they’d stayed two nights before. A group of European climbers were lodging there, and he wanted to go back and brag about what he described as one of the most intense experiences of his life. So, under the pretext of having left extra gear behind, he and Chris drove down for a night of celebration.

At the hostel they encountered the men who had watched them from the base of Weeping Pillar. The group communed over beers and burgers, swapped climbing stories and talked about their plans for the coming days. At the mention of Snow Dome, two Canadian climbers piped up and excitedly spoke of their recent adventures on the eastern face.

“They gave us info on Slipstream that will prove useful,” Daddy wrote.

Hoping for more but fearing what came next, I turned the page. It was a blank.

imageCanada, 1989. The journal entries from my father’s final climbs.



[1] In the strictest climbing definition, a pitch is considered one rope length (50–60 meters). However, in guidebooks and route descriptions, a pitch is the portion of a climb between two belay points.  (Source: Wikipedia.)

[2] The most difficult portion of a climb.

[5] On the six-point New England Ice (NEI) grading system.

[6] A chimney or corner full of ice. 

[7] Any terrain with enough steepness to require protection so as to avoid injury in the event of a fall.  Examples include low-angle ice with crevasses or overhanging icicles.

[8] They rappelled off the rock rappels.  

Ghosts in the Attic

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PART I

With little more than a pair of running shoes and a tube of lipstick in my carry-on, I flew home in August 2008 to help my mother empty out my grandmother’s house. Granny, Mom’s mom, had succumbed to a fraught battle with non-smoking-related lung cancer in 2004. In the four years since, Granny’s house on Washington Street – the mint-green stuccoed haven where Mom and I had first taken refuge when we moved west, the same house where I’d spent a year between high school and college caring for Granny during rounds of chemo and experimental drug therapy – had sat untouched. It was a mess. Every corner was filled, every closet jammed. Fifty years of junk and sentimental treasure poured from its seams. Mom and I would make My Brother’s Keeper jokes, giggling darkly at how you could enter the place and never emerge. In truth, though, I knew it mortified her, the thought of being buried under all that emotional baggage. It was time to let go. And so I came home.

For nearly two weeks we rummaged through Washington Street. We began in the boiler room and fanned upward, floor by floor, sifting through tokens of fond memories and sweeter times long since reduced to dusty, decomposing matter. There were garish souvenirs from trips abroad and incomplete collections of crystal stemware, stacks of sheet music and stamp collections, dolls with missing appendages, army medals. By sheer virtue of the fact that seemingly nothing had ever been thrown away, everything was endowed with worth. Mom and I see-sawed between what to keep and what to trash. Ours was a complicated system of hoarding and purging.

One afternoon I decided to attack my grandmother’s attic. My relationship to the attic had always been a complicated one. As a child, I loved climbing the creaky stairs to search for dress-up clothes and fodder for make-believe. But it was scary up there; you practically needed a map to navigate your way through. There were ceiling-high metal file cabinets, rolling racks of dresses, framed old-fashioned photographs of people I knew were ghosts. It was not a place to visit after dark.

The door to the attic mysteriously locked from the outside. Local lore had it that the family who owned the house before my grandparents had a sociopathic son whom they’d lock upstairs when he misbehaved. When Mom and I first moved to Walla Walla, I remember sneaking up to the attic after school one afternoon and leaving the door open. My grandfather came along, and, not realizing where I was, shut the door and locked me inside. After the incident, I always left a sign for passersby: “Laurel is up here.”

That Saturday in late August 2008, I made my way up once again, reminding my mother where I’d be and wondering what, this time, I would find.

It was a hot afternoon and there was no air conditioning or fan, so I headed for the far corner near the window, hoping for a slight breeze. I weaved past a stroller, a pile of mismatched shoes, a wooden ski. I nearly tripped over my red Radio Flyer wagon and thought of the time I’d declared at seven years old that I was running away to become an Indian princess. My wagon and I made it as far as Pioneer Park four blocks away when I ran out of string cheese and courage and turned to make my way home.

At the window I strained to unlatch the rusty lock. Years of neglect had swollen it shut. As I struggled to prop open the frame, I caught sight of a box buried beneath a stack of textbooks and dusty drapes. It was labeled “WRH MISC.” I went to the box and removed the detritus. Plumes of fairy dust bloomed upward as I lifted the lid and peered inside. It was a stash of my father’s keepsakes that had remained quietly tucked away and forgotten since our move in August 1989.

The box was a coffer of lost time. It contained my father’s childhood collection of Indianhead coins, the student ID from his sophomore year at Colby, a stack of half-filled stenographers’ notepads with illegible geological charts and indices. I removed each item gingerly, fingered every article. I thought of the hands through which they had passed, speculated the possibility that his were the last to touch this fold, that page. In that moment it was as if we were reaching out from opposite ends of the void, Daddy and I. We were grazing fingertips.

As I burrowed deeper past an assortment of geodes, a box of slides, and a pile of correspondence bound by two yellowed rubber bands, I came across a tan pebbled leather journal with my father’s initials engraved on the front plate. I ran my thumb over the monogram and put the leather to my nose, inhaling its age and musk. Carefully, I turned open the cover and examined its contents.

Before me were the entries Daddy had scrawled during his trip to Canada in the spring of 1989.

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Laurel Holland

—KGB Reading Feb. 28, 2014

Last night’s reading! Enjoy the NYC background noise. 

Nanda Devi

In the spring of 1978, my parents, still in the blissful first months of their relationship, attended a sold- out lecture given by one of the Pacific Northwest’s preeminent alpinists, John Roskelley. Roskelley, a native of Spokane, Washington, had come to speak to the students of Eastern Washington University and screen a short documentary of his tragic 1976 expedition to Nanda Devi with renowned American alpinist, Willi Unsoeld.

Nanda Devi, the second highest peak in the Indian Himalayas, was also the namesake of Unsoeld’s then 22 year-old daughter. Raised in her father’s shadow, Nanda Devi had spent her childhood and young adult life in apprenticeship to Unsoeld, cultivating a fervent devotion to mountaineering and the outdoors. The trip to India in 1976 was, in part, intended to celebrate her rise to alpining proficiency, but in the course of the expedition, the young Nanda Devi fell ill with altitude sickness and dysentery. Within seven days of departing base camp, she died.

In the film, Unsoeld – who continued to climb after his daughter’s death until an avalanche on Mt. Rainier two years later claimed his life – was asked if he had regrets about the expedition and his daughter’s demise.

"To do so would be denying reality,” he replied haughtily. “Nanda Devi died fulfilling her dream. There are worse ways of dying."

That evening after the lecture, my parents had their first argument. My mother was disgusted that Unsoeld’s self-aggrandizing actions had cost him his daughter’s life. But my father was inspired by what he had seen, riveted by the lengths to which Unsoeld had gone and aching, in some twisted way, for his own Nanda Devi.

“I would have done the same,” he had said.

It was in that moment my mother caught a glimpse of my father’s irrational penchant for risk-taking, a fanaticism that would forever pepper their relationship. And she knew it wouldn’t be their last argument on the subject of sacrifice.

After my father’s disappearance, my mother would lie awake at night recalling the argument that night in ‘78 and all it had augured for the twelve years they spent together. If fate, she reasoned, had to be cruel, at least it had chosen the least tyrannical of circumstances. For, in the wake of all that my father had willingly risked in his life – for every time he knowingly led friends into avalanche country or unroped from his harness to freestyle, for every time he had wittingly disengaged from the rules of the game, for every near miss – at least I had not been, would not be the sacrificial lamb to his wild and obsessive aspirations.

And in those lonely nights, she would pull me close, crying quietly to sleep, sickened but sure that my father’s death was recompense for my salvation, that his life had been the necessary sacrifice for me to live out my own in full.