Tuesday, December 8, 2009

From the Archives

Tis the holiday season, which for me brings a lot of reflection and often sadness. Writing this piece for Climbing Magazine helped me through some of the grief of losing one of the people I looked up to most, on Christmas. Posting this is not intended to be a downer for readers, but simply a reminder to celebrate what really matters this season.

Nothing Lasts for Long
By Janet Bergman

(Published in Climbing Magazine, Issue 236)

The plan that hatched on the long drive from California to Ohio that December was to pay my family dues over the holidays, before departing for Asheville, North Carolina, where I’d likely max out my VISA card while getting settled. It seemed so simple. Armed with my newly acquired B.S. from the University of New Hampshire, and drained of all energy and money from a half-year climbing trip, I was ready for life. Whatever that meant.

Our extended family traditionally spends the holidays together in a nonstop train of parties. My cousin Tim and I caught up at the first party on December 23, 2002, exchanging stories, reminiscing, and musing over the state of the world. Tim promised to visit North Carolina that spring, and reminded me to keep up with my writing.

The family gathered again at Aunt Betty’s on Christmas morning, but Tim never arrived. Hours later the news came that he had committed suicide early that morning, after a last night out with his siblings and friends. The family remained together through our initial periods of disbelief, pain, and anger. Funeral and memorial services, and days and nights of mourning, replaced the family parties. The dizzying days rolled into weeks.

Some mix of having grown up together, yet having chosen different paths, has made for unusually close and always interesting relationships with my cousins, and Tim was no exception. He was always present, always interested, always observing. He was committed to his family and friends, but insisted on experiencing his life alone as well. He was eccentric in his thinking and his ways, and an individualist in his every action. Tim’s suicide flipped my life upside down, presenting me with a crux I didn’t know how to surmount.

In my usual way, I pushed through with plans to “start my life” in Asheville, still rocked from my loss. After weeks of aimless bumbling, indifferent to a new city and unmotivated to find my bearings, I realized that fighting through my grief wasn’t the same as topping out a boulder problem or cracking tricky Beta. I soon retreated to my family in Ohio, only to lapse into a confused depression that spanned the next six months. Tim’s act profoundly affected me more than anything I knew.


Sarah, my friend and climbing partner, graduated that spring and began a climbing trip. We made plans for “big-wall school” in Yosemite. Though I consciously avoid expectations, climbing keeps me in the present and always lends new perspectives to the past and future. Ohio life had me feeling … flat … and I needed this trip to free me from the consuming weight of reticence, apathy, and sorrow.

Reuniting with friends at Camp 4 was like going home. Sarah and I shared a vague, lofty dream to climb El Cap, which we discussed between daylong free climbs. Enough talking, heckling, and begging landed us in a party of four, complete with more food, gear, and perspectives than we needed. Our objective was the Nose. Sarah and I quickly jumped at an open spot in line, and together we fixed to Sickle Ledge while our other partners finished the Zodiac.

We spent the next four nights on the wall. Sarah and I got schooled -- five day’s worth of exasperation from the boys while we learned wall climbing on lead. Flowing through my fear on the Nose put me in a place I’d been sorely missing; absorbing the sunset and the moonrise over the Valley soothed me. The simplicity of the demands on us -- to move ourselves and our gear up the wall -- was both enlivening and taxing. The higher we got, the more engaged I became. It was enough to finally awaken me from my depression. Dozing on a ledge one morning, Sarah and I made plans to meet at the end of her trip for the beginning of my “start my life, take two” mission -- this time in New Hampshire.

That August we descended upon the Mount Washington Valley, joining the usual suspects for a late summer and fall of climbing, swimming, exploring, and general bliss. I felt at home, fueled by the strength of my friendships, partnerships, and adventures, carried along without thought or worry.

After my time in Ohio, the stimulation of an active climbing life was thrilling. Those experiences -- not successes or failures on climbs, but those moments when movement and rhythm are all that exist -- were familiar to me, and lie at the heart of my climbing obsession. But depression had weighed me down for so long that those experiences soon felt unwarranted. I wanted to “move on” emotionally, but any attempt served only to veil my remnant confusion and sadness; thoughts of Tim lingered in the periphery of my conscious. Unreconciled grief mixed with an indulgent sense of satisfaction from climbing, and, once again, I found myself rocked emotionally.

I needed to convince myself that Tim was wrong, that life is worthwhile. But why should I keep living if life wasn’t important to him, someone I’d looked up to my whole life? The deeper I searched, the more I concluded that life is futile, and living painful. Climbing continued to be my escape.


As the holidays approached, the rock got wet, the ice hadn’t formed, and the one-year anniversary of Tim’s suicide loomed. Friends migrated for the winter, others returned from fall trips abroad. I forced myself to stay busy -- unable to be alone lest that veil pull back, spiraling me into painful, unanswerable questions, remembering times past that couldn’t be restored.

I wanted to smash my radio whenever Christmas music played during the drive to Cleveland. The family parties commenced, but I was faltering. I couldn’t communicate with those I loved most, and I cried myself to sleep nightly. The anticipation was agonizing -- I was sure we’d relive the pain tenfold. But Christmas came and went. That day will never be the same, but for me, it won’t ever be as painful. It was then that I realized that I’d survived the worst of my pain.

Until Tim’s suicide, an oblivious and idealistic perspective lulled me into believing that life was understandable, and that I was unshakable. But understanding didn’t follow this experience. Climbing has taught me to accept the process, and experience the results that naturally follow. The less cerebral I am, the more likely it is that I’ll pull through. This simple-yet-complex realization offers a powerful outlook on life, and gives me a way of dealing with the emotional scar that I’m forced to bear.

Tim lived a good life, savoring every moment. His passionate ways -- down to his last act -- inspired me to search within. Before his passing I ascribed to the theory that climbing is separate from life. But climbing isn’t separate from life. Right now, it is my life, my cause, my harmony and melody, and often my reason to live today and look forward to tomorrow.