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A B C D E F G H I
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Item #: BK2582
THE LIST: AN ICE CLIMBER'S SAD DIARY James P. Sweeney 2012
By Sweeney, James P.
Price: $17.95


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Detailed Product Description
2012. 104 pp. In this small but tremendously wild book, Sweeney travels the length of his life and paints portraits of loss, love and humor into climbing adventures in Alaska's wilderness. He speaks to us in a voice that is all his own. Sweeney walks on the edge as he charms readers with humor and insight, be it on a road trip, climbing a frozen waterfall or a scaling a mountain. Make no mistake this book full of sorrow also carries with it a strong sense of hope. Angela Ramirez's stark linoprints complement the book's style and feel. New paperback.
 
 
The list

An ice climber's sad diary

By James P. Sweeney

Andy Embick's list still hangs on the wall in his Valdez house. The list haunted me while I did yoga and exercises the other night. It includes trips, goals and other things my friend wrote down before he died May 28, 2003.

Andy and his wife Kathy Todd were a great source of inspiration to me ever since climber Steve Garvey brought me to their home in 1987. Our trip in 1987 is legendary in the climbing world. We, mostly Steve, blazed a 1,000-foot route that we called “Sans Ami,” which means “without friends” in French. We completed “Sans Ami” during the second week of the 1987 Valdez Ice Climbing Festival. Andy, the father of the festival, launched it in 1983.

In Andy's Blue Ice and Black Gold, his authoritative 1989 guide to climbing around Valdez, he and Chuck Comstock interviewed Steve and me about our “Sans Ami” climb. Somewhere I have pictures of all of us. We were young, thin and happy. We were wild-looking.

Today, 17 years later, Steve Garvey, Chuck Comstock and Andy Embick are all dead. Embick took his life. Some say Garvey and Comstock killed themselves, too. By all rights, I should be dead from all my time in the mountains. Somehow I was spared.

I'm a complete wreck these days. I'm bitter, sad, angry and confused. My girlfriend and I recently broke up, but what really bothers me is that I don't get to see her dog, Toula, anymore. Toula was a snow white, yellow lab with a black nose. I raised and trained her. She meant everything to me this past year. She was by my side as I mourned for my lost friends. I arranged my jobs so she could be there with me at all times. I got up early and stayed up late to be with her. Some nights, I'd lay on her bed when I couldn't sleep.

After losing Toula and breaking up with my girlfriend, I checked into the Executive Suite motel in Anchorage and buried myself in my job. I got sadder and more bitter as each day passed. Nobody called. When I finished my job, I decided I needed to go to Valdez, the place where I spent so much time with Andy, Steve and Chuck.

Before I left, I spoke to the wife of my best friend, Dave Nyman, who saved my life on Mount Johnson. She told me to stay away from the town. “Suicide is an epidemic, and in your state of mind, you shouldn't go there,” she lectured me. I told her I had a great love for life and I knew which way was up.

Fortunately, I had a good partner I was traveling with, John Wieland - another climber with no good reason why he's still alive. For six days, we climbed, skied and reminisced about Andy, Steve and Chuck. Andy's inspiration was a constant topic. In fact, I started my own list of goals, like that one that still hangs in Andy's house.

Get a dog

Build a home

Climb both Bridalveil and Greensteps in a single day

Not being much of a paper-pusher, this is where my list stopped. Naturally, I moved to No. 3. Bridalveil and Greensteps are icefalls in Keystone Canyon, 12 miles from Valdez. When you drive through the canyon, they are quite visible, only a five-minute walk from the road across the frozen Lowe River.

On February 12, my birthday, I went to Keystone Canyon and climbed the first two pitches of Greensteps with my friends. I drove back to Valdez alone and went to Andy's wife's house. After Andy's wake last June, Kathy said she would be disappointed if we climbers and skiers quit coming to her home. I was scared of my sadness.

That night, I did my exercises under Andy's list, then took a sauna alone. I had to duck under the boat Andy rode to his death. (Andy took his homebuilt rowing scull on Prince William Sound and shot himself. The boat, 24 feet long and weighing only 65 pounds, looks like a shark. “The Stealth,” some called it.)

Steve's picture hung on a cabinet door. Chuck's presence was everywhere. My chest hurt. I missed Toula so badly. I was with ghosts. But they wouldn't have anything to do with my sorrow. Andy never could deal with my pain. Steve always said, “If you're not a climber, who is?” Chuck, well, he was a prick, in the best of all ways, of course.

I left Kathy's and went to the Oaken Keg. I bought four big bottles of beer: two Raspberry Lambics, a Coho Red and a Arrogant Bastard. The women behind the register wished me a happy birthday. I drove to Brian Teale's house for dinner. Kirsten, Pete and Dean Cumming (world extreme-skiing and heli guide) were all there. They got me laughing a bit, and I was thankful to be with them, but I couldn't shake how badly I felt. I told them I'd rather fall of a mountain than feel like this. I left my friends, went back to Kathy's and cried with my ghosts.

The next day was Friday the 13th, so I took a rest. Steve Garvey died on Friday the 13th. He cut his rope on sharp rock while climbing near Middle Glacier in the Portage Valley.

On February 14th, Valentine's Day, I woke up early. I was still a wreck. I went to the Eagle supermarket and bought flowers and chocolate for Kathy. The next day, my buddy Joel showed up. He was ready to help me make good on my goal - ascend Bridalveil and Greensteps icefalls in a single day, both of which are about 650 feet. After a long ski, we hung out at Kathy's and sharpened our tools and crampons.

February 16 came in clear and cold; the digital in front of the Totem Inn read eight degrees. We drove to Bridalveil for our first climb. Any hope for an easy day evaporated when I saw Joel putting in a screw 30 feet off the ground. The ice was brittle, creaking, cracking and groaning.

When I reached Joel, he said, “You should lead the pillar.” The wind blew spindrift everywhere. My sadness and bitterness were perfect in these elements. I loved it.

The last pitch was the easiest we'd see all day. We rapelled the route, grabbed a sandwich and water, and then turned to Greensteps. Bridalveil had taken us six hours. At that rate, the chances seemed pretty bleak we'd accomplish climbing two icefalls. I told Joel we should only take one rope for Greensteps (to cut down on weight) and not extend any slings. That would speed things up, I said.

Joel did a good job leading us on the first pitch. While I belayed him, ravens drifted in the wind. I thought about Toula. I wore two down coats and ran in place to stay warm. The ghosts came back. As I followed fast up the first pitch, there was Chuck saying, “Nice move,” which meant I was moving slow. I heard Steve say, “Sweeney, forgive everyone.” Andy wouldn't talk about pain and suffering. Tears froze to my face.

To keep us moving, I asked Joel to lead the second pitch, hoping that would shorten the time we spent in one place. It was mistake. Joel hadn't eaten his sandwich. Now he was crawling his way up. Thank God he didn't know what was going on in my mind as I covered his back on the belay.

“You can do it,” Andy said.

“Get moving! Break out your weed!” Steve yelled.

“Sweeney, you always were overrated,” Chuck snipped.

Chuck had the best footwork I ever saw; Steve had the biggest balls; and Andy, he was a Rhodes scholar, author and doctor. They believed in me as much as anyone I've ever known.

I started the third pitch up Greensteps, climbing directly above Joel. I went up 30 feet and moved to the right to get out of his way. I pulled off a giant chunk of ice, yelling as it bounced past me and down Greensteps. I hadn't changed my gloves all day. I lowered my heels. My tools felt good, and I climbed ice as well as I ever had.

“Maybe you'll get it Sweeney,” Chuck said.

“Break out your weed,” Steve said.

Andy didn't say anything, but I felt his respect.

The last pitch was hard and as bad as ice gets, notorious for whooping climbers. I moved fast in the looming twilight, finding a patch of good ice to sink a screw. I hooked my tool around a small alder and stepped into the ragging wind scouring the canyon top. Joel made it up soon after me. It was nearly dark but we'd done it, bagging both Bridalveil and Greensteps in one day.

That was almost a month ago. I'm still sad as hell. Embick had a big memorial service. When Chuck died, I was in Canada. I cried alone. I never got to grieve for Steve. I had to get involved in his children's custody case and deal with all his business. I pushed his body on a cart into the crematorium. I guess these are things you do when your friends die. But I don't know how to deal with suicide, except to support family and friends.

My list is getting shorter. I got a puppy now, an Iditarod sled dog. I named her Aluot, which is Toula spelled backwards. I've got to go now. The Valdez Ice Climbing Festival starts in three days. I have some exercises to do under Andy's list.
 
 

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