Love & Loss

In this piece from Mountaineer magazine, we hear about loss in the mountains, and what it means to experience and move forward with grief.
Liz Johnson Liz Johnson
7-year member
May 26, 2020

 I knew something was wrong. I could feel it. I was out on a solo hike and had stopped for a break when a small voice in my head propelled me into motion with a sudden sense of urgency. Get back down the trail, it said. Now. Go carefully and take the easy route. Get home quickly and take a shower. Keep your phone close. Somehow my subconscious knew before I did that Tyler’s life had ended. It would be hours before I got the call that changed my life forever.

I moved to Seattle almost exactly a year before, and my world was dramatically and wonderfully different. Ostensibly, I came west for graduate school, but fundamentally, I wanted to live near the mountains. I grew up on the east coast, and had always loved the hustle and bustle of New York City. As I got older and had opportunities to travel, I found myself awestruck by the mountains. I was fascinated by skiing and climbing, though I had very little experience with either. I felt drawn to mountainous landscapes, but had never heard of the “backcountry,” and to be honest, I didn’t even understand what hiking was. Was it different than walking?

On my first day at the University of Washington, I overheard some classmates talking about rock climbing and I swiftly introduced myself. Soon, I was climbing outside for the first time wearing shoes and a harness borrowed from one of my new friends. It didn’t take long for me to develop a regular gym habit. It was a magical time, making friends, getting to know a new city, and embracing new hobbies.

LOVE

I met Tyler online a few months later. My roommate and I were both single and we decided to join an online dating site in solidarity. I started off passively, just replying to the messages I received, but after a couple of weeks I decided to be more proactive. The first time that I went searching, I found Tyler.

When I read his profile, I had a strong feeling about him immediately. I wrote him a message, but I was too nervous to send it, so I shut my laptop and went to sleep. The next day, I opened my computer, looked at the message, took a breath, and hit send. The page reloaded and, to my complete embarrassment, I realized that Tyler had sent me a message the night before, and now, like an idiot, I’d just sent him one that didn’t make sense. Luckily he didn’t hold that against me.

Our first date was a delight, devoid of awkwardness and full of laughter. I remember thinking how handsome he was - we could’ve talked forever. Our drink turned into dinner, then ice cream. I’m someone who often puts my foot in my mouth, but when I made an outrageous joke, Tyler just laughed and laughed.

IMG_0645.JPGLiz and Tyler camping at a music festival. Photo courtesy of Liz Johnson. 

For our third date, Tyler suggested we climb Midway on Castle Rock near Leavenworth. It was my first multi-pitch climb and first trad climb, and I was excited about the new experience. Patches of snow remained on the ground, but the sun shone warmly on our faces. Belaying on the first pitch, I watched him easily make his way up, placing gear along the way. When it was my turn, I began to climb, engrossed in the simultaneous tasks of climbing a chimney and cleaning pro for the first time. At the end of the pitch, I clumsily pulled myself up to the anchor atop Jello Tower. After securing my PA, I looked down and saw how tiny the cars looked in the parking lot. Suddenly aware of the exposure, nervousness started to build in the pit of my stomach. I took some deep breaths, put Tyler on belay, and watched him step across the gap to lead the next pitch, leaving me alone and feeling trapped on my island in the air. I was having second thoughts, but knew that we had to keep going up in order to get back down. I took some deep breaths and tried to focus on the climb. I promised myself that if I could just get through this, I’d never have to do it again. As soon as I topped out though, my relief was overshadowed by exhilaration. I couldn’t wait to do it again.

That spring and summer, Tyler became my climbing partner, my dance partner, and my best friend. We got to know each other on long drives and approach hikes. When we were in the city, we were often at the climbing gym or out dancing with friends. Of the things we shared, climbing was especially important to me. Looking back I realize that it gave me the sense of adventure and exploration I had been seeking when I moved out west.

One of our last conversations was about how it felt as if we’d known each other forever. He saw me as I was, and I saw him too. I was enamored by his generosity, empathy, and enthusiasm for new experiences and adventure. He was always lending his time or his gear to a friend in need or carrying more than his fair share of gear in his pack. Tyler had an uncanny way of noticing if someone felt left out or uncomfortable and putting them at ease. He knew himself well, and he lived life according to his principles. He inspired me to do the same.

Though we’d only been together for a short while, it felt like much longer. We had lived so fully, and we were already making plans for a life together.

LOSS

On Friday, September 13, 2013, I was with Tyler at his apartment while he packed up for a climb. He told me his objective - Forbidden Peak - and expected return time - maybe Saturday night, but probably Sunday.

The next day, Tyler and his partner summited via the west ridge. On their descent, a falling rock struck Tyler on the head and knocked him off his stance. He fell hundreds of feet and his partner was unable to reach him, but with the help of another party, was able to descend and notify rangers.

The next day, I got the call. I had just raced home from the solo hike. I knew in my gut that something was wrong, but when I learned of his death, I went into shock. I cursed and wailed and threw things at the wall. I crumpled into a pile on the floor. There was nothing I could do – Tyler was gone. I called my mom, sister, and friends.

The first few days are a blur spent in sad camaraderie with other people who loved Tyler, punctuated by administrative chores: planning memorials, writing a eulogy, and trying to sort out our intermingled lives. For days, I could hardly eat, and in the evenings friends and I would laugh and cry over beers while I tried not to over-indulge in alcohol on my empty stomach. At night, I’d get in bed and frantically journal before my emotional exhaustion set in and I’d fall into a deep sleep. When I awoke in the mornings, there’d be a few peaceful seconds before I remembered what had happened.

GRIEF

My grief felt unimaginably deep, but the breadth surprised me as well. I didn’t know that when someone close to you dies, you grieve for more than the person. I was mourning Tyler, our relationship, and our plans for the future. I mourned the things I would never know about him, the mystery of him that I had yet to uncover. I mourned the way our relationship grounded me. I mourned the way he saw me clearly and helped me see myself.

Grief exhausted me. I soon returned to an incredibly supportive community of classmates and professors, but completing my academic work felt impossible. I was so tired and frequently overcome with emotions that it was difficult to focus to class. My interest in what I was studying and working on couldn’t compete with the grief I was feeling. I scaled back my responsibilities by dropping some classes and resigning from my student council position to make more time for what invigorated me: connecting with others and physical exercise.

Having lost so much, I was scared of losing more. I clung to those things Tyler and I had shared, climbing in particular. I climbed all the time, with my friends, with his friends, with new friends. It felt familiar and the exercise did me good. Eager to continue alpine climbing but short on partners and skills, I enrolled in The Mountaineers Basic Alpine Climbing Course. Tyler had taken Basic, and he had encouraged me to do the same, emphasizing the value of learning from multiple teachers and getting to know the community.

I had an incredible time in Basic and I am lucky to remain close friends with several of the instructors and students I met that year. Being in the mountains, surrounded by climbers, grounded me in the present moment, away from worries about the future and sadness about the past. It provided a sense of achievement and strength. But it wasn’t always easy, and there were times when I was overcome with fear in a way I hadn’t been before. I remember crying at the bottom of a summit belay while loose, crumbly rock rained down on me and a partner.

I had to keep living when I was out of the mountains as well. I started seeing a therapist, which was immensely helpful. I spent as much time as I could with my friends and I got to know some of Tyler’s friends in a new way. Connecting with the people who also loved Tyler was powerful - we cried a lot but we laughed so much too. I will always be so grateful to the people in my life whose love and support sustained me at the time. They listened when I needed it, and distracted me when I needed that too.

IMG_0660.JPGPhoto courtesy of Liz Johnson. 

As time went by, the grief did get easier. I stepped into my own as a climber. I regained some of my focus for school and life. I made new memories. My good days became increasingly more frequent. This simultaneously brought me both hope and despair. There were times when I clung to my grief because it was my closest connection to Tyler.

LIFE

Before Tyler died, I imagined death or loss as something you eventually get over. After he died, the idea seemed absurd. Just as he will never cease to be a part of me, our time together will never cease to be a part of my story, and his loss will never go away.

But, the other inevitability is that I am not fixed in time. I am no longer the woman who just lost her partner. My story has continued. Like rings in a tree trunk, my life, my story, and my identity has grown around Tyler and beyond my time of intense grief.

Today, whenever I think of Tyler it’s almost always with a smile. But every now and then something cracks the grief back open. Sometimes it’s something small, like a smell that reminds me of him, but most often my heart breaks whenever I learn of another life cut short in the mountains.

A few years ago, I met a new partner who shares my love of the mountains. I taught him to rock climb and he taught me to backcountry ski. Recently, we learned to mountain bike together. Sometimes I worry about losing him too, but that fear is greatly outweighed by the sense of inspiration, grounding, and joy that moving through the mountains brings to both our lives.

I don’t know what the rest of my story will look like, but I’ve learned the importance of trusting my gut and spending time doing the things that most make me happy. Tyler made the most of his short life, and I want to make the most of whatever time I have, both for me and for him.

NorthCascades.jpgTyler in one of his favorite places: the North Cascades. Photo courtesy of Liz Johnson. 

Lead image: Liz and Tyler post-climb in the North Cascades. Photo courtesy of Liz Johnson. 

This article originally appeared in our Spring 2020 issue of Mountaineer Magazine. To view the original article in magazine form and read more stories from our publication, visit our magazine archive.


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