Cover photo by Michelle Felix
This winter proved particularly cold and dark here in Bozeman. There was a lot of coffee, indoor long-john wearing, and plastic-pulling required for survival. It’s been a great season for skiers and, hopefully, wildfires. That being said, I was freaking thrilled to bust outta white on a trip to St. George for spring break. The week-long hiatus is more aptly named winter break for us northerners.
We drove south on I-15. The suburban sprawl gave way to the distinct brand of wildness that is Utah’s high-alpine desert. No matter how many times I make the drive to Utah’s climbing meccas, the sudden and stark transition from byways to cacti, cars to jackrabbits never fails to startle. It’s like driving through a funnel of claustrophobic development and then whoosh—with a giant exhale the skies yawn back open and land runs wild away from the road.
A quick sleep in the van and we’re off again, finishing the last three hours as sun spreads a rose-gold warmth across the sage and sandstone. St. George began as a series of exits. The town itself is American-blah, with more chainstore mega-boxes than quaint and quirky ma-pop getups.
But we didn’t drive tens hours for the culture. We came for the limestone. A few four-lane roads later and we’re continuing east, into the mountains. Most climbers think of sandstone when they think of Utah: between Moe’s and Joe’s, there’s plenty of it. But nestled back into these creases of risen earth, where snow can gather while the town remains soaked with sun, bands of limestone fan out, offering long routes on nearly-perfect rock.
I knew I wanted to write something about St. George, as it’s one of my favorite places to escape winter and torment the skin on my hands. When I envisioned writing this post, I thought of offering a mini-guide to the climbing there like the Bozeman bouldering and Kalymnos posts I wrote.
But what my fingers crave to write about is the pervasiveness of loss. The thing is, the last time I climbed in the Utah Hills I was with Inge.
She met my husband and I there along with her friend, Michelle, and our friends Christine and Derv. The trip remains one of my favorites: we all camped past the Black and Tan wall, creating a circle with our trucks and vans. Christine and Derv kept us laughing with their exceptionally crude and witty humor. Inge and Michelle made us all look lazy with their pre-breakfast recovery runs. Christine would call them “Little Speedsters” as they took off while we all struggled to get coffee going.
Christine and Derv moved from Bozeman to Nevada in Christine’s pursuit of becoming the world’s creepiest doctor, (just kidding, love). I can still meet up with them in St. George or whatever climbing destination we may both be visiting on any given vacation. What I’m still struggling to wrap my brain around is the fact that I will never see Inge again. And yet—she’s everywhere. Literally not one day has passed since October seventh that I haven’t rubbed up against her memory.
And it’s almost always in places. It’s as if memories aren’t actually stored in our minds, but instead dwell in the curve of a cliff or a seat at the table. We were at the Blank Cave in Sunset Alley and I saw her latching the big throw on Moving on Up. We were at the hardware store in St. George and I saw her eating tacos across the parking lot. Yet even the taco shop is gone now, with only the foundation hinting at its once-existence.
While Inge remains present in my life, conversation about her all but ceased a few weeks after the hurricane that was the Hayden-Inge death story. I think: well, it’s not like we were all sitting around talking about Inge before she died. I also think people are wary of “triggering” one another, as if by mentioning Inge a completely safe and fun moment will become harrowing.
Anyway, the hurricane died down mid-November and winter descended.
We returned home from St. George. Spring takes its first, tentative baby steps into the valley. With the promise of warmth’s return in 40 degree weather—t-shirt weather, for crying out loud!—it feels appropriate to write “looking back on winter.” So, looking back on winter, it probably wasn’t the cold or dark that made the season particularly harsh. It was, I think, the layers of loss.
It was easier to project melancholy and the slow peeling of grief on the white upon white upon white or the fact that wool is probably the most uncomfortable fabric ever.
Yet really, Inge’s death happened in fall, right before we plunged into physical darkness. The first layer was thus surrounded by the explosion of golden leaves and it lasted probably a month. It was her face on posters at the gym. It was spreads of her and HK in magazines. It was the sea of people at the service and the sweat running down my temples as we rampaged to house music at the after party. It was potlucks and damp shoulders and the inhale bringing community together.
The second layer was November, the equivalent of wool in the fabric of months. We were all exhausted and quiet. Climbing felt terrible. I even hated it at one point. What a stupid sport, I thought. How meaningless.
Meaninglessness. That’s what I struggled with the most for the winter. I grieved for Inge, for her family, for Hayden and his family. But as this layer peeled like a sunburn, deeper struggles surfaced. I carried a card Inge’s mom wrote around with me. It summarized what I was feeling in a way I hadn’t been able to distill: “Everything is meaningless and yet meaningful and fragile.”
Death wasn’t new. I’ve lost relatives and friends in the past. What was new was the loss of the way Inge and I related and how she made me feel empowered and seen. I suppose that’s what we all crave in our relationships: people who help us see our inherent and expressed values. The cliché here is that I didn’t understand her importance in my life until, well, you know the saying—until it was gone.
And I hated the meaningfulness of this knowledge. I still hate it, though less so. Oh, great, I thought. I’m glad her death offers some profound life lesson. Hey Universe: I could have just watched a movie on Netflix. We didn’t need someone so young, kind, and big to die. We didn’t need to lose not just one, but two amazing people.
In this way it felt meaningless. Inge had plans and goals and she was pushing her limits in climbing and skiing. It almost felt like she was punished for being such a talented, awesome human. It was almost like we were punished for admiring and loving her. These questions of “why” slashed and gnawed, and the meaninglessness festered within the lacerations.
You can probably see the flaws in the way I was thinking. There’s truth and value in anger, and it’s important we honor it. But of course we can’t just watch a movie to truly learn why relationships matter.
The flip of this, though, is that the meaningfulness became daunting. I constantly questioned if I was being a good enough friend, daughter, sister, wife. The fact that all my relationships were sacred in their fragility overwhelmed me for a solid couple of months.
The other obvious flaw was allowing death to overpower the significance of effort. In mid-January I began truly enjoying climbing again, though it wasn’t until this St. George trip that I internalized anew the joy of trying. Indeed, death itself doesn’t overpower the significance of effort, but begets it. Another cliché, perhaps, but as is death.
Here’s a fact: I tried a climb that I wouldn’t have tried last fall. I looked at the line and asked myself, why not now? I’ve wanted to try a climb that hard for years, and I always had an excuse. Not enough power. Not enough endurance. Not enough. Not enough.
There’s no tidy ending following sudden death, no last layer to shed, no final winter. Yet there is this simple fact that when I asked myself that question—why not now?—I looked across the cave to where Inge had thrown herself at a line with big moves and I tied into the rope.