Climbing and, indeed, all alpine-oriented sports are inherently dangerous. I clearly don’t need to state that fact. As any piece of climbing gear or climbing guidebook will tell you, CLIMBING IS DANGEROUS. Just this past September, we lost Kyle Dempster and Scott Adamson in Pakistan. In almost any climbing magazine, there will be a special section dedicated to the recent deaths and accidents that have occurred in the climbing community. Hell, risk is one of the reasons some people climb in the first place!
I’m not going to write an opinion entry on how much risk is too much, or spend too much time pondering the pointlessness of the sport that has changed my life. I am, however, going to reiterate that to be alive is to be at risk; to be alive is to be uncertain. Many climbers, I believe, just have a hankering to face the reality of that a little more head-on.
Which brings me to James.
I had just finished a day of climbing at Indian Creek followed by another day at Mill Creek outside Moab. I was tired, it was warm, the sunset was and delicious pink, I was about to eat food, I was complete psyched on life, and then my mother called to inform me that my childhood friend had passed away.
The juxtaposition of feelings is difficult to describe. This was a person who was born two houses down from me, two weeks before me. He was the first non-family member to whom I ever professed love. James was born with heart trouble, and so was not able to play team sports growing up, but he was still the one who taught me how to tackle, how to wrestle, the throw a football and play basketball. We’d play in the pool together, and he’d speak in ridiculous voices, vigorously rubbing his eyes in a strange tick that was uniquely his whenever he thought something was funny. He always knew how to make a person laugh and was pursuing comedy in Chicago before having to have open heart surgery in October. James and I had not been very much in touch after we both graduated from UNH, but the connection was always there, and those roots go deep.
Back in the Spring, shortly after I had decided to leave home, I was having a conversation with James’s mom at a town meeting. She asked me how I was doing, and I told her of my plans to set off on my own for the first time. “Good for you!” she exclaimed, “You know, you deserve to be doing something you love to do. Look at Jamesy. He’s working jobs that he just hates out there in Chicago, but he’s making it work so he can do something he loves to do. You’re both so young and so capable, and I just really think you deserve to do what feels right to you.”
It’s been a significant thing to me; to set out from the safety of home, to do the hustle and the dance necessary in pursuit of what I love to do (in this case, travel, climb, and write). But, as I’ve been working through saying goodbye to James in the last two weeks, I’ve realized how important a role model he has been for me. James was not a climber, he did not take “undue risks;” his whole life was a risk. He knew it, and he didn’t frickin’ hesitate to get after what he wanted from his life. I want to be like James. I want to relentlessly pursue that which makes me feel alive, throughout all the risk and uncertainty. Maybe I’ll get a little bit of James’s luck and make a few people laugh along the way.
Kind regards and love to all who knew and are missing James Conklin,