October 30th. Julie’s birthday.
Twenty years ago today. A cold bright day. The smell of juniper and ponderosa pine. Bryce Canyon, Utah.
We went out early – Mikey, our oldest son, Julie and I – and made it to the top of one of the easier spires via a linking ridge.
More a scramble than a climb, really. (I was already beginning to feel my climbing days were over.)
On the tiny summit the size of a dinner table, we looked down on the weird orange and ochre geology of the canyon.
Our plan was to rappel down the sheer side. Julie loved to do that. Mikey set the anchor and slung the ropes.
Julie went down first.
After a minute or so, there were sudden, erratic movements on the ropes. Mike reached for the rope but it was free.
“My God, she’s lost it”, said Mikey.
“I’m going down”, I said.
“No, Dad”, Mikey said, “I can get to Mom faster than you. Set and light a flare. Wait till I’m off the rope. Then go down slowly. Don’t try to retrieve”.
He set the ropes and stepped backwards over the edge, calling out to Julie as he went down, his voice getting fainter.
The flare hissed up into the sky.
Some minutes later, I heard a vehicle, then distant voices.
As soon as the ropes got free again I started down. Then, the vehicle was leaving.
I seemed to take an age to get down. A ranger was waiting for me. He called in another vehicle. The ranger said: “She’ll be with the doctors now”.
At the hospital, half an hour later, a doctor came out and told us she was dead. She must have missed her footing for some reason, then inverted, and lost the rope. She had hit a ledge, rolled off and then dropped 60 feet to the ground. She probably died instantly.
Not even a cry. And why did she lose the rope? We’ll never know. Did it catch some clothing and she tried, unsuccessfully, to reset it? They said that in vary rare cases climbers get severe muscular spasms in the hands and lose the ability to feed the ropes. But they could not be sure…
Oh Julie. The bright, positive, energetic American girl who was my wife.
I feel so sad today. As ever.
I once overheard her say to a friend: “He doesn’t love me, but I chose him — so that’s too bad”. Then she gave her chugging laugh.
The girl with the big smile. The girl who just got on with it. Even when she cried there was a laugh behind the tears.
She made our home and raised three great kids.
The day after she died, and I said to her sister Elsa “What are we going to do?” Elsa said: “The kids are going to live with us”, firmly, as if there was simply no other option. “We’ll get a bigger house and you can help us with the money, but you’ve got to do what the kids expect of you – they want to see your name in the papers and hear you reporting from faraway places. You are the one who tells them there’s a big world out there, who widens their horizons.”
And the kids did have a good time with their cousins in the big ranch house in Klamath Falls, Oregon where Elsa’s husband, Lonnie Petersen, was the Principal of the High School.
And they all went away to college and now they’re all doing fine.
That was in 1990 when we were both 43 years old, and Mikey was only 15.
Seventeen years later, Elsa flew down to Los Angeles and we drove out into the desert, and as we walked out among the 1000 year-old creosote bushes, I said “I am going home”.
“I know”, she said.
Two months after that she was helping me pack up my neat little gem of a house just off Third Street, by the Farmers’ Market.
But oh, on this day, how I would love to see again the American girl with the big smile and feel that zinging slap on the back she used to give me.