“You ready?” my partner, Mike, asks me.
I exhale sharply and nod. “Ready,” I answer, even though I’m quite certain I’m not.
Mike steps gingerly onto the steep face of the aptly named Ribbon, the rope trailing behind him. Disturbed by Mike’s skis, the frozen snow shatters into pieces which roll down the steep face, pick up speed, and then skip over the large cliff just twenty feet to our left. I count the seconds in my head until I hear it; those same ice chunks shattering on the rocks some 600 feet below.
It is May 2, 2019. We will spend the next four hours attempting to not fall off that cliff. If everything goes right, I will finally be done with a project more than two years in the making. But if something goes wrong? Well, then we will share the same fate as those chunks of ice.
I remind myself that the only reason I’m standing on this menacing ledge, scared out of my wits, is because of a goal I set in December of 2016: to ski all 90 lines in Andrew McLean’s iconic ski guidebook, The Chuting Gallery: A Guide to Steep Skiing in the Wasatch.
Published in 1998, The Chuting Gallery was the first guidebook to ignore the powder-seeking skier and focus solely on the world of steep, high-consequence skiing. In 2016, completing the book was nothing new—both McLean and another local skier, Noah Howell, had already accomplished that. But it had taken them both more than a decade. I aimed to do it faster. Much faster.
I went on a tear the first two winters of my project and, despite squeezing in my long ski tours between work and family, I managed to complete 87 of the 90 lines. I entered the winter of 2019 with only three lines remaining. Snow came in copious amounts that season, and I promptly ticked off two. Only one remained—the Ribbon.
Not all descents in The Chuting Gallery are created equal. Many of them are glorious romps down steep faces. Others beg the question, Is this even skiable?
Of all the lines in the latter category, the Ribbon reigns supreme. Just wide enough to collect snow, it extends across the length of the Devil’s Castle Buttress with an intimidating 600 feet of exposure. Tackling it requires being on belay along its’ entire breadth—skis on. If you can imagine rock climbing combined with skiing, you’re basically there.
As Mike finishes the first pitch and hollers at me to follow, I tell myself that the end of my goal lies a mere eight hundred feet away at the end of the Ribbon, where the cliff gives way to a plump snow apron. I just need to get there.
The rope pulls taut against my harness and I take my first step. But as I inch my way along the ledge, not daring to glance down the cliff, the dread begins to seep in. Because there is more to this day than the culmination of my goal; fourteen years ago on this very day, my life turned upside down.
It takes a moment for the main headline on CNN.com to register: Pentagon Loses Contact with Two F-18s in Iraq. It is May 2, 2005, and I’m in my dorm taking a break from studying. As I read it again, a wave of fear and doubt washes over me.
My oldest brother Kelly, a Marine pilot, is currently assigned to an F-18 squadron deployed in the Persian Gulf. Of course, there are hundreds of F-18s deployed there due to the Iraq War. It could be anyone. But I can’t shake the feeling that it is, in fact, my brother.
After an hour of pacing my dorm room telling myself not to assume the worst, my cell phone rings. It’s my other brother, Kurt.
“Have you seen anything?” he asks cryptically, and I immediately know why he is calling. All my doubts congeal into fact—submission to the truth.
I tell him about the headline. He clears his throat.
“It was Kelly’s plane,” he tells me. “Kelly is missing.
Back on the Ribbon, we hug the upper rock wall, placing protection as we go. That wall, we reason, is the farthest possible point from the cliff haunting our left flank. But the cliff is not our only problem. During the summer months, this face is covered with climbing routes; and like any good climbing route, this one has a crux.
Halfway through, a large limestone block extends out to the very edge of the cliff, neatly cutting the route in two. From our beta, we know there are two ways to deal with the crux: 1) going up and over it, which means scrambling on steep, bare rock in ski boots. Not ideal. Or 2) creeping down to where the block meets the cliff, where an even smaller ledge, barely 8 inches wide, allows passage to the other side.
We opt for the lower route. I strap my skis to my backpack as Mike boots down to the ledge, then disappears behind it. Soon enough, the rope goes taut. It’s my turn.
I boot down backwards. The pitch is steep enough that my nose nearly touches the snow. Then the ledge comes into view and, before I can think about what a dumb thing I’m doing, I step onto it.
The ledge is so narrow that my heels hang over the edge. I want to cling to the rock, but my ski tips keep catching on the rock above me, forcing me to lean back. I struggle to pull out a piece of pro. My breath comes out ragged. A slip here would be disastrous.
I force myself to look down. This ledge is the only thing between me and oblivion. But despite my fear, I’m still alive and still moving.
And before I know it I’m on the other side of the crux, clamoring back up to Mike and the safety of the upper rock wall where the dread, for the moment, is abated.
I fly out that night to San Diego where the rest of my family, including Kelly’s wife, Molly, and his baby girl, Abby, wait for any news.
We all put on brave faces. But deep down, none of us can fathom how this is happening to us again.
Just a year earlier, on Memorial Day Weekend, I had watched helplessly from the airshow bleachers as my father’s vintage WWII plane, beset by engine failure, plunged from the sky. I was the first to arrive at the crash site, where I found my father still strapped to the fuselage, his eyes glazed over. They rushed him to the hospital. He did not last the night.
Over the following year, our family rallied around Kelly for support. And now we found ourselves wondering if we had lost him as well. We waited for word as the Marines conducted their search some six thousand miles away. Two days later, the two Marines who arrived at the front door dressed in full uniform confirmed our worst fears.
Ever since losing my dad and Kelly, I have felt this inescapable sense of dread when the month of May approaches. I sense, beyond all logic, that something terrible is bound to happen. On the surface, I’m well aware that these feelings are ludicrous. Hurt, death, and loss can strike at any time; but we push those thoughts deep down, because to live with that
knowledge constantly would be unbearable. But we are nothing if not products of our experiences. And my experiences have taught me that May is a month to fear—to dread.
I never planned to attempt the most dangerous line in The Chuting Gallery on that day of all days. I had tried it earlier in the year, simply to avoid doing it in May, only to turn around due to conditions. But by the end of April, it was my only line remaining; and my window was closing. Once my partner and I had compared schedules, contemplated weather forecasts and scoured avalanche conditions past and present, we finally dialed in a date: May 2.
As it dawned on me that I would be attempting such a dangerous line on such a traumatic day, the old familiar dread crept in from all sides. In my mind, something was destined to go wrong. A piece of pro giving way, a slip in the wrong place—my imagination cycled through all the myriad scenarios involving my death. It was a silly line anyways, I told myself. Not even real skiing; why should it count?
But as the sun rose on May 2, I knew I could never live with coming so close to my goal, only to turn around. So I gathered my gear and headed out. The dread was there, strong and palpable. I just hoped my will was stronger.
As we round the last corner, the snow apron comes into sight. We just have to get there. But as we make our way onto the last pitch, the final obstacle becomes apparent.
The pitch is angled such that the sun warms it first thing in the morning, turning the ice and snow damp. But as the sun moves west, the upper rock wall drapes the last pitch in shadow. The heat dissipates; the cold seeps in; and what was once warm freezes solid again.
The snow is one uniform sheet of ice. If we lose our feet, there is nothing to stop us. We skirt under a large rock, then sidestep back up on the other side, Mike and I grunting as we kick our skis into the ice with every step. Our edges struggle to find purchase.
And then we’re through. The cliff gives way to snow and the danger passes. We gather our rope and gear and peer down through a clear snow ramp onto the apron.
Once through the tight exit, ice turns to powder and we let our skis loose. With each turn, I feel the heavy burden of my goal flaking away. For a fleeting moment, I allow myself to think that my dad and Kelly would be proud of me for finishing my goal. But that’s not right. The goal is arbitrary. What matters is what it took to arrive there. More than anything, they would be proud that I faced my fears. And for this one day in May, I suddenly don’t feel an impending sense of dread. I don’t know how long it will last; but I’m going to enjoy it for today.