The end of summer was spent where I began it: Ten Sleep, Wyoming. The canyon showed signs of fall in aspen leaves fringing gold. Days faded faster into nightfall, bringing send-temps and sunsets sooner. More than once we would begin a climb in dusk and lower in darkness.
And darkness for most climbers propels us to our creek-cold beers and camping chairs. If not darkness, than surely an evening rain. But apparently not Erik Christensen. Leslie and I found him at day's end waiting below the start to Cocaine Rodeo, second bolt clipped and rope tied to his harness. The sunless sky had started to drizzle, but he stood there grinning: psyched.
We both watched with a mix of fright and astonishment as he screamed through the climb’s first boulder problem crux. He glided through the second crux just as the drizzle turned into rain. At the last crux right below the chains, Eric climbed, down-climbed, then did the tenuous move and clipped the anchors. All we could see was the faint glow of his headlamp and the stars emerging.
This was the first night of the trip. Needless to say, Erik can no longer solely call himself a boulderer after on-sighting 12a in less than ideal conditions. He was among one of the dozen or so Bozeman climbers enjoying Ten Sleep Canyon during Labor Day weekend. Having so many friends in a beloved place, exchanging encouragement and belays during the day, passing round the whisky bottle at night, was a wonderful end to the summer.
Yet when we all found out about Kevin Volkening’s passing in a climbing accident that very weekend, there was a shared pain for the loss of a good friend and impassioned climber. I had known Kevin for a few years; him, his wife, Marge, and I grew close as we spent the last year in Salt Lake City together. Many have offered stories and images of Kevin since his fatal fall. Yet I also would like to share what Kevin gave to me.
During my graduate studies, when I was deeply immersed in the study of environmental issues, I often felt depressed and hopeless. Kevin and Marge would have me over for dinner, and we would eat Marge’s really good cooking and drink beer and voice our frustrations about work that day or excitement about our training programs at the gym.
I remember Kevin always telling me, “You know Slayther, we need to care. But we also need to have fun while we’re here.”
Today will be two weeks since his passing. In the conversations with his family and friends, I have found a vivid and ubiquitous impression Kevin left with all of us: a “spirit” for living. Kevin wasn’t immune to anger or despair. But he knew that despite a bad day at work, or debt, or whatever dark and rainy dusk we find ourselves in, there are people and places and activities available to help us remember that life truly is one precious, fleeting adventure.