A week and a half ago I woke up to see a missed call from a Norwegian telephone number that I didn’t recognize. Somehow I felt that there had been an accident. I went to my computer, and sure enough, my friend Nils Nielsen had sent me an e-mail when I hadn’t answered my phone: Stein-Ivar Gravdal and my good friend Bjørn-Eivind Årtun had been killed while climbing on Kjerag (the same cliff where they had established a fantastic and futuristic big-wall ice climb a couple years ago).
Unfortunately, this isn’t nearly the first time I have lost a friend and climbing partner to the mountains. As I’ve experienced before, I have a hard time consciously accepting that Bjørn is dead – I still somehow expect that I’ll see him and climb with him again. I guess that is denial. When I dwell on it, and visualize the scene on Kjerag, and the grief of Bjørn’s daughter, Iben, then it hits me hard.
I had a very productive and positive climbing partnership with Bjørn, making two great trips together to the Central Alaska Range. Bjørn was a very strong climber technically, and was also extremely fit, thanks in large part to his background in competitive nordic skiing. Bjørn was also the most motivated climbing partner I’ve ever had. There was no doubt that Bjørn was very inspired by the mountains, and he was as much of a dreamer as any climber I know of. In fact, the biggest difficulty we faced in our partnership was the disconnect between Bjørn’s big-dreaming and my more hesitant inclination and more timid goals. I have Bjørn’s overwhelming enthusiasm to thank for some absolutely amazing climbing experiences. On both the French Route on Begguya and Dracula on Sultana, it was Bjørn who convinced me to dream big and go for it. Despite his tremendous motivation and skills, Bjørn was a very gentle, polite and kind person, and that was what ultimately made him so special.
This past summer I went to the Karakorum with Bjørn, and it ended up being a very short trip. We had a number of things go wrong with our expedition from the start, and I developed a bad feeling about risking our lives there. It was the only time my intuition has ever told me to run away, and I decided that I needed to listen to that intuition, so I threw in the towel when our expedition had only barely started. Bjørn was understandably very disappointed that I bailed after so much preparation, and it wasn’t until this past season in Patagonia that I got to see him again, and spend some time repairing our relationship.
The end of January was a very crazy time in the Fitz Roy range. I participated in a difficult and futile attempt to rescue Canadian climber Carlyle Norman from Aguja St. Exupery in a storm. Bjørn was one of several other climbers who came up to the Exupery-de l’S col to support the rescue effort, and our brief encounter during the tense frenzy of the rescue effort was our last exchange, except for a brief passing in Niponino the following day. While I was recovering in town from our rescue effort, Bjørn was climbing the west face of the Torre with Chad Kellogg, and then when I went back into the mountains, Bjørn returned to town and flew home straight away.
When I heard the news from Nils, I had been home from Patagonia for about a week, and I had been meaning to e-mail Bjørn. I wanted to congratulate him on his climb with Chad. I wanted to simply say hi, since we never got a chance to say goodbye when he left Chalten. I also wanted to tell him how much I appreciated his friendship, apologize again for bailing on him in Pakistan, and tell him that I hoped we would do more trips together at some point. But I was busy with a million tasks after three months away, and I was a couple days too late to ever tell Bjørn those things.
The vast majority of the people that surround me in my life are constantly risking their lives in the mountains. Losing friends to the mountains is unfortunately something I have grown accustomed to, and I suppose I should grow to expect. The Seattle climbing community has been hit hard in the past several years. Just a week before Bjørn and Stein-Ivar died, a friend of mine in Chamonix, Felix Hentz, perished in an avalanche skiing off of the Aiguille du Midi. But I’ve never lost a climbing friend who I had shared as many experiences with as Bjørn.
Climbing with Bjørn for the past several years also gave me the great pleasure of getting to know the Norwegian alpine climbing community in general. In a country with a population less than the State of Washington, there is an outstanding group of extremely-motivated, very talented and particularly kind and friendly alpinists. Rolf Bae having died on K2 just a few years ago, the deaths of Bjørn-Eivind and Stein-Ivar are a huge blow to the Norwegian climbing community.
Climbing deaths always cause one to ponder our activity and its risks. For me there is no question that I want to climb mountains and that I accept the risks. However, we CAN put an extra piece in the belay, be extra careful with that loose block, and take a different route when that windslab seems questionable. More than anything else though, I think that losing a friend to the mountains reminds me to cherish the people we spend time with during our brief existence. I really wish I had the chance to say goodbye to Bjørn.
Farewell, Bjørn-Eivind. Alpinism will miss the great dreams you had, and all of us who knew you will certainly miss you and remember you for a long, long time.