Introspection at Death’s Door
A Short Story
April 12, 2016
Outside magazine interviewed Clive Wilson about his many climbing exploits just days before his death.
The next to last thing he said to the journalist during this interview was, “I have done nearly everything I have wanted to do in this life. I have also done many things that I regret doing. Unfortunately, the sum total in the regret category tips the scale in the wrong direction. And, quite frankly, I believe that there are better ways to measure the value of one’s life than vertical hikes.”
February 2, 2016
William Least Heat Moon warned us about plans formulated in the dead of night. In his iconic treatment of driving America’s backroads, Blue Highways, he begins by saying, “Beware thoughts that come in the night. They aren’t turned properly; they come askew, free of sense and restriction, drawing from the most remote sources.”
Clive disregarded Moon’s sage advice and decided, at 74, to do a solo winter climb of Ben Nevis. He was no stranger to the Scottish Highlands, having lived and guided climbs there for several decades.
Ben Nevis claims lives every year, and winter climbs are notoriously dangerous. But Clive was not considered foolish by himself or by others. That he chose a risky venture over a long hike to take stock of his life is not surprising to anyone who knew him.
Clive knew that few climbs were left in a body that was starting to turn on him.
The idea of a final climb was a nocturnal one. Such thoughts usually evaporate at the first light of day, but this one persisted.
After a quick breakfast, he selected one of his longer ice axes. He cinched it on his pack with a pair of crampons. He threw in a couple of energy bars, a can of pilchards, and an apple.
When he headed out the door, Clive figured on being back before dark.
Unroped, the climb would go much faster than getting partnered up. Besides, there were things he needed to think about; he wanted to be alone Two hours into the ascent, he had already made it up through the notorious overhanging bulge and onto the relative safety of the ridge. But this also meant the climb could not be reversed; he could not retreat.
And then the storm made its presence known.
Clive knew that this storm was not likely to be kind to him. The winds blew the blinding snow up the north face making upward pro-gress impossible.
He found some relief from the wind on the south side of the ridge, but the visibility was no better. The wind chill factor would rob him of body heat quickly. Clive did the only thing he could; he dug out a body-sized cavity in the snow with his ice axe and crawled in.
In the relative warmth of his parka, he knew that there was some time left to consider his predicament.
The irony of Clive dying on a peak that is a good 400 feet lower in elevation than Spruce Knob in West Virginia was not lost on him. His posthumous reputation would have been better served if he were to die on an 8,000-meter peak in the Himalayas.
He chuckled wryly at that thought.
Clive should have checked the weather report before leaving that morning. He had put his life in jeopardy out of pure arrogance.
Even worse, there would be those who would believe that it was just an elaborate suicide, should he die. “Live by the sword, die by the sword,” some people might say. With a jolt, Clive realized the anguish this could bring to his wife and son if they thought it was a purposeful death.
He had learned that he had a brain tumor less than 24 hours earlier and did not want to tell his family the news over the phone. He soon found himself bargaining with a God he wasn’t sure existed. He must try to get through this night with or without divine intervention.
Had his wife not been visiting their son, she would have never permitted this folly in the first place. She would have blocked the door, calling Clive, “just a silly old man trying to hold on to his youth.”
She had persistence, a good thing. On the other hand, Clive was guilty of insistence, a not-so-good thing.
Being a doctor, an emergency room doctor to be precise, he immediately started assessing his situation. Without a sleeping bag and a tent to break the wind, his body would start bleeding heat.
He would soon start shivering in a last-ditch effort to maintain his waning core temperature. But that too would eventually stop, and his brain would then give way to the insidious cold, robbing him of all rational thought.
Then he may remove his gloves, parka, and much of his clothing, thinking himself suffering from heatstroke as he was being battered by sub-zero winds. The same brain that now has an inoperable tumor would fail to even try keeping him alive.
Clive acknowledged that these dreadful things awaited him if he surrendered to deep hypothermia. But he felt that there was still time for introspection – to look frankly at the blessings and failures in his life.
And, anyway, this was the intended purpose of the climb – he just didn’t plan for the storm.
When the neurosurgeon delivered his prognosis, Clive immediately understood that the Glioblastoma had permeated a large portion of his frontal lobe.
The doctor said, “Removing all of the cancer is impossible. It would be like cutting the color red out of strawberry Jell-O.”
The surgeon was not being funny – Clive knew the man well. He was a great surgeon, but he didn’t possess a scintilla of humor in his bedside manner or otherwise.
Clive accepted the prognosis without further discussion.
It was getting dark now, and he still felt reasonably comfortable. Clive had worked his way beyond his many blessings and had entered the darker zone of regrets and remorse.
There was so much to choose from when it came to mistakes – where to start?
One cannot really appreciate how short human life is until vantaged from the far end of it. Still, there is plenty of time for committing the regrettable in this brief experience of being alive.
Clive had taken full advantage of his capacity to make poor decisions regarding those he cared about.
Was he a good father and husband? he asked himself. He knew that the answer was a resounding “no” on both counts. During much of his son’s childhood, Clive was roaming around the world climbing mountains.
When Clive finally put his medical degree to work in a hospital in Edinburgh, he found the female medical staff too great a temptation. His indiscretions were not unknown to his wife – the hurt became a permanent fixture in her eyes for decades afterward.
She loved him so much that she never brought it up again. And, though Clive never strayed again, he never let himself off the hook either.
He started lightly shivering about the same time that he realized that he couldn’t feel his toes. But, he reasoned, that means that the core temperature, the temperature that counts for survival, is still sufficient for rational thought.
How could he atone for his transgressions now, with so very little time left? At least with the brain tumor, Clive could expect a few more months of life. But staying alive until daylight seemed out of the question now.
The green luminesce hands of his diving watch said 10:47 p.m.
Clive concentrated his thoughts on those things that required recognition, perhaps even atonement. He felt that not recognizing the unvarnished truth about his life was cowardly.
Clive unzipped his parka with numb fingers, clumsily searching through the layers of garments underneath. He finally located the St. Monica medallion on his chest.
He put his dog tags on the same chain in Vietnam but couldn’t remember when or why he took them off. Maybe the tags brought back a particular memory he would just as soon forget.
Clive had never formally committed to any one belief system. He wore the medallion at his mother’s request, which was made hours before she died in her early thirties.
Clive was only seven years old, but he remembered his mother placing the chain in his hand from her deathbed, saying in a weakened voice, “Wear this, son; it will protect you when I can no longer do so.”
Apparently, it worked, at least until this particular climb.
The memory of his mother pressing the St. Monica chain into his tiny hand led Clive to remember the last time he went to confession.
He was 14 years old, and he had purposefully shot a pileated woodpecker while squirrel hunting in Pennsylvania. His gentle and compassionate girlfriend was with him at the time.
She sobbed uncontrollably as she held the dead bird to her chest on the walk home, never once looking at Clive. He couldn’t remember if she ever really looked at him again.
Even here on this mountain over a half-century later, that memory still tears at his heart. The 50 Hail Marys’ prescribed by the priest never even began to assuage his guilt.
Clive hoped for just a few more hours of consciousness. He had to confront more important, more serious things, even if some attempt at atonement was now out of the question.
Clive wondered if he could confess now, confess to the screaming wind. Surely, the wind returns to the author of all that is. If God exists, Clive reasoned, he will hear my confessions.
So he did just that. Clive screamed out his sins and lamentations from a dark ridge on Ben Nevis during a vicious snowstorm.
To be concluded in next week’s For Your Consideration.