Navigations: The Liberty of Silence

“Navigations,” a new column published twice a month, offers a deep dive into a great adventure story by writer Mark Jenkins. Jenkins, a seasoned climber and contributing writer to National Geographic, has been on 50 expeditions to more than 100 countries to cover adventure and geopolitical topics such as the war in the Afghanistan, climbing 8,000-meter peaks in the Himalaya, and biking across the Soviet Union. Some of the essays were previously published in his four books: A Man’s Life: Dispatches From Dangerous Places; The Hard Way: Stories of Danger, Survival, and the Soul of Adventure; To Timbuktu: A Journey Down the Niger; and Off the Map: Bicycling Across Siberia.

The plaque was Keith’s idea. He wanted something that spoke for itself, something permanent. It was his way to memorialize our four closest friends who had died on an expedition in the Arctic that summer. He came up with the epitaph below the names of the dead: Adventurers with Courage, Competence, and Comedy.

In their honor, Keith and I climbed the Medicine Bow Diamond, a 700-foot wall, at night. I led and Keith carried the heavy bronze plaque in his pack. The rock on the Diamond is knife-sharp quartzite and I remember we shredded one of the ropes during the ascent. We summited at dawn. The welkin above and Lake Marie far below were lavender. Tim Banks, another one of the few remaining members of the Wyoming Alpine Club, was there to help mount the plaque on the mountain.

While Keith and I had climbed up the face through the night, Tim, a gnome-like, thick-mustached man soon to become police chief, had been sitting on the summit, feet dangling over the face, throwing bottle rockets down on us. At first I thought we were being shot at, until I sniffed the telltale firecracker acridity. Although he said nothing, Keith must have known immediately what was going on—he had actually been shot at and furthermore, was himself a closet pyro.

On our annual winter expeditions deep into the Rocky Mountains, just as everyone was cocooned in their sleeping bags, explosions would scare us to our bare feet in the deep snow. Keith would have planted roman candles and night hawk missiles and whistle rockets around camp, and lit up the frozen night sky like it was the 4th of July.

Climbing with that heavy plaque on his back, like some Teutonic warrior, Keith hadn’t said a single word that night. This was classic Keith. He was the definition of stoic. He made the infamously tight-lipped British mountaineer H.W. Tilman seem garrulous; he made Clint Eastwood characters appear to be blabbermouths. On one Himalayan expedition I did with him, over the course of two months, I doubt if he said more than I’ve already written here.

Keith was in the Air National Guard; his silence suited such a profession. Staff Sergeant Keith Osborn Spencer, 6’3″, lean and hard as an I-beam. Keith was the strongest person any of us knew. He was a biathlete and competed for the Guard. He ran a three-hour marathon but, like a gymnast, could also snap out 25 pull-ups. His hairy chest was a block of steel. For two decades he was one of my two stair-running partners—-although we didn’t run them together. I ran the stadium, he ran the eight flights in the engineering building. Fond of unorthodox training methods, one summer Keith obtained a length of hawser and hung the anaconda-like rope from a cottonwood in Tim’s front yard. Tim has a photograph of Keith climbing the thick rope with no feet, like a kid in gym class.

When Keith went to Ranger School he was deeply disappointed. Training days were so easy for him that at night he would slip out for an extra five-mile trail run—Keith had the stride and easy power of an elk—followed by an hour or so of push-ups and sit-ups. He was acutely aware of the difference between discipline and self-discipline, once remarking that the former was merely coercion.

Keith lived a Spartan existence, as befitted his temperament. He kept a tidy apartment, as if he were living on a ship or in a tent. He was the kind of man who folded his pants before going to bed. Besides his biathlon rifle and his mountaineering equipment, he had few possessions, other than books. Although he had degrees in geology and biology, military history was Keith’s specialty. His shelves were neatly arranged with man’s inhumanity toward man. He could tell you about mistakes made in Vietnam or World War II or the Peloponnesian War. Accordingly, he hated Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and all generals and politicians too arrogant to learn the lessons of history. To Keith, an apostate military man, it was both immoral, and perhaps worse, dishonorable, not to understand the causes and consequences of war.

Honor mattered to Keith. It wasn’t a posture;  he was so understated posturing would never have occurred to him. He didn’t see honor as old-fashioned. On the contrary, he saw it as a way of life.

Still, the Guard was just a means to an end for Keith—hazardous duty pay and extra leave earned through deployments in Afghanistan gave him the cash and time to single-mindedly pursue his true passion: mountaineering. He’d done many things in life—walked the length of both the Pacific Coast Trail and the Continental Divide Trail, gotten his pilot’s license, mountain biked Australia’s Great Divide end-to-end—but it was mountaineering that truly moved him. Mountains were his match. Because he was too reticent for most people, he often climbed alone. Keith soloed all of Colorado’s 14ers as well as the highest peaks in North and South American, Denali and  Aconcagua.

Keith’s closemouthness was both frustrating and entertaining to his friends. He was practically impossible to speak to on the phone, the pauses being unbearable. In person, we would joke that you could have a half-hour conversation with Keith in which nothing was said. Some of us thought Keith understood and accepted the redundancy of language in most situations. Others felt Keith really wanted to communicate, but that he had been hurt in his past. When you asked him a question, he would furrow his thick eyebrows and stare at you unnervingly with intense, deep-set eyes, as if he were searching for just the right response. That never came.

On our expedition to Tibet in 1995, Keith’s muteness drove me mad. We hid in the back of transport trucks slipping 400 miles deep into a military restricted zone, were detained, and escaped, then arrested and jailed for two days, and in the end still climbed a virgin 20,000-foot peak with no food for the last three days and no water for the final 36 hours, none of which warranted more than a few words from Keith.

Upon reaching Hong Kong, we were both gaunt and ate five meals in a row, walking restaurant to restaurant under neon lights until we were bloated. But at the airport, Keith, known for his prodigious appetite, was still hungry. Our plane was about to leave. Despite this reality, he set out for another meal, while I went through security, assuming he was going to miss the flight. I was standing in line when I realized we had managed to switch passports during check-in. I quickly memorized Keith’s date of birth and his passport number. Presenting the document to passport control, I had sweat trickling down my sides. Keith and I look nothing alike. He is almost a foot taller with a narrow face. I’m short with a meaty countenance. The border patrolman stared at me, then at the picture of Keith, then me, then the photo, then stamped Keith’s passport and waved me on.

He made it on the plane, loping down the concourse with his  long, tireless legs. In our seats, we traded passports, Keith grinning mischievously.

As is always the case, we learned very different things from that expedition. Keith discovered that he did not sleep well at altitude. Because of this, on subsequent mountains he developed his own unique method of ascent. The standard routine is to gradually move from one camp up to the next over a period of several weeks, eventually going for the summit after a night in the highest, coldest camp. Keith, in contrast,  summited from base camp. I know this sounds unbelievable, and only Keith was strong enough to pull it off. For the first few days, he would climb up to camp 1 and back to base camp. Then he’d go up to camp 2, and back to base. Then camp 3, all the while sleeping each night at base camp. Keith was a cautious but ambitious mountaineer. When he felt ready, he would set out at night and climb for 15-25 hours straight, alone, from base camp to the summit and back to base camp. Keith perfected this arduous, unusual technique until he could climb even the tallest mountains in the world with it.

What did I learn? That if we were to get an alpine start, say 4 am, Keith had to get up at 2:30 to be ready, for he was fastidious about everything in his life, including breakfast. Where I would crawl sloppily out of my sleeping bag at ten till four, cramming a candy bar in my mouth while lacing my boots, Keith would have to cook himself a big breakfast and clean and restack his pot and stove before leaving the tent.

Philosophically, I learned that stoicism wasn’t any fun. Americans love their myth of the tall, quiet, soldier who does what needs to be done without talking about it. Stoicism is somehow associated with bravery and toughness—which Keith had in spades—but in fact stoics are simply people incapable or uninterested in talking. At the time, I found it difficult to be around.

But that gradually changed.

Keith and I kept climbing together. He was always painstakingly slow and I invariably, narcissistically fast. I would talk and Keith wouldn’t. For years this was uncomfortable, until I realized that it was actually my issue, not Keith’s. He had no problem with silence. Unlike me, he didn’t need to fill space with words.

After that revelation I started seeing the trips with Keith as my Zen practice. I wanted to develop some patience, and Keith, simply by being Keith, was the perfect teacher. He was a koan all to himself.

One January Keith and I were driving up to the South Fork of the Shoshoni River to ice climb for a few days. We went there every winter. We’d been driving for about two hours and neither of us had spoken. I finally broke down and asked Keith how his girlfriend was doing. It was a joke—he didn’t have a girlfriend. Keith said nothing, of course. Then perhaps ten minutes later, he spoke up.

“I have one,” he said.

I was shocked and began peppering him with questions about her. Was she in the Guard? Was she a climber or a skier? Was she attractive? All the questions a guy asks another guy about his girlfriend. Keith didn’t respond.

We’d driven along for another 20 miles before he said: “She’s five three.”

Keith’s sense of humor was as dry as good champagne.

He would ride his bike over to visit you, stay for an hour, say very little, then leave with this goodbye: “You’re always welcome here.” It was his signature. The last postcard I got from him, a photo of a glacier in the Tibetan Himalaya, is signed in childlike print: “Hope all is well, Keith. P.S. Thanks for the card.”

Some years ago Tim Banks, not known for being a meticulous house-keeper, was  gone on an adventure. Keith happened by his house, found Tim’s lawn more overgrown than ever, and decided to mow it for him. He did a meticulous job—Keith was nothing if not meticulous—carefully cutting out the word TIM in the tall grass. For years Tim had no idea who did it. Then once, on a winter camp-out, he brought the mystery up and Keith’s eyes began to twinkle.

It took years, but after I passed through my apprenticeship in patience, a new world opened up to me. Whenever I was with Keith, I was freed from the need to communicate. I didn’t have to share my thoughts; I didn’t have to converse. I could say absolutely nothing for hours and Keith would not be offended. This was Keith’s gift to me: the liberty of silence.

This year, on New Year’s Day, Keith and I drove up to the South Fork for our annual ice climbing pilgrimage.  It’s a seven-hour drive and for the first time in his life, Keith was practically voluble. He had just returned from soloing Cho Oyu, the sixth highest peak in the world. He recounted the entire two-month adventure to me, blow by blow. I listened without saying a word. He had executed his base-camp-to-summit system flawlessly. He’d made close friends on the climb and together they were planning an expedition to Lhotse in two years time. It was as if he’d finally found his stride, both as a climber and a communicator. And perhaps I had too. Some things take decades.

Over pizza in Riverton, we got to talking about Justin Moe, the 17-year-old son of one of our friends who had died in the Arctic. Justin’s father had been killed when he was three, and over the years Keith had made an effort to take him out hiking and climbing. We’d done several winter trips with Justin and my two daughters, and Keith had thrilled the kids with his surprise fireworks show in the snow.

Justin, a natural risk-taker like his father, but as quiet as Keith, was in a bit of trouble so we cell phoned his Mom, Diana, to find out the latest. Justin had made another misstep and his mom was deeply concerned. Keith and I promised her we would find the time to take him out. After we hung up, Keith started outlining a plan to take Justin climbing.

We arrived in Cody late and spent the night at the Spike Camp, an ice climbers’ hostel. The next morning Keith was back to his old laconic self. We silently ate bowls of cereal, made sandwiches for lunch, filled our thermoses with hot chocolate and drove out the South Fork.

When we got there, it was still dark so pulled we off into the snow to wait for day break. We just sat there in the car in the dark on a ranch road deep in the Absoraka Mountains of Wyoming. We didn’t speak. We didn’t turn on the radio. We just waited, car off, listening to the winter wind. That was enough.

Eventually, in the gloaming, we began to glass various icefalls, deciding on a five-pitch moderate route called the Main Vein. It looked like our safest option; the ice was so fat that even the first pitch had formed, an unusual occurrence. Although I’d done the route several times before, Keith had never climbed it.

It was a typical blustery, snowy Wyoming day. We could see the icefall, which wound up a gash 1,500 feet above the valley floor, but the rest of the mountain, another 1,500 feet above, was shrouded in clouds. We hiked to the base through knee-deep powder. I would lead the ice pitches, Keith would lead the snow pitches. We didn’t talk about it. We knew our strengths. Keith was faster postholing the deep snow between the falls, I was faster on the ice.

Part way up the second ice pitch we were hit by a spindrift avalanche. This was common in the South Fork. We laughed it off. I took a picture of Keith with snow packed inside his goggles.

At the bottom of the third icefall we discovered a large pile of hardened  avalanche debris with the stump of a tree sticking out. This bothered me. I asked Keith how he was doing and he said, “Fine, long as there’re no more avalanches.”

I said, “I think things are most likely safer, now that anything loose has been swept away.”

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This was a logical response given the information we had. Small sloughs were common on ice climbs in the South Fork, but avalanches of size were unknown. No one had ever died or even been hurt by an avalanche while climbing in the South Fork.

Had I experienced this avalanche in another mountain setting, while backcountry skiing for example, I would have looked up, seen the fracture line, and decided to get out of there. But we could see nothing above us but billowing white.

Looking back now, I question whether my dismissal of the potential danger, and Keith’s acquiescence, was the result of a clearheaded assessment of conditions, or merely a justification to keep climbing.

I quickly led the next pitch, twisting in only two ice screws in 200 feet because the ice was plastic and safe.  Keith lead the next section, a snow ramp, running out all the rope. We simul-climbed for another couple hundred feet to reach the base of the last head wall, a 220-foot, near vertical icefall.

Stomping our feet and clapping our hands to stay warm, we ate sandwiches and Christmas peanut butter fudge. We didn’t talk. We didn’t need to and didn’t want to. We were in high spirits. Almost all the snow was gone from the canyon-like rock walls around us and the icefall itself was completely clear of snow, which validated our previous decision to continue. I was eagerly anticipating leading the headwall. We would divide it into two pitches; I would climb halfway, put in a belay, bring Keith up, then lead the second half to the top.

The ice was as good as ice gets, what we call “thunker”—with a single swing, the pick of each ice tool sunk in solidly, as though the ice were soft wood. The ice was so safe I climbed 115 feet using only one ice screw for protection. I placed the belay in a tiny alcove of ice, below a vertical bulge, so that Keith might be protected from any falling chunks of ice when I led the last pitch. I kicked out a platform for my boots, deeply placed two ice screws, and called to Keith.

I had climbed on two ropes, but Keith decided to climb on just one, so I pulled up the second rope and stacked it neatly at my feet. Knowing Keith might slip, I belayed directly off the ice screws rather than my body. He began to climb, methodically and slowly, as was his way.  While belaying, I kept staring up at the last pitch, planning my route through the overhanging umbrellas of ice.

Keith was just pulling up over a bulge, only 15 feet from me, when he suddenly shouted, “avalanche,” in a nonchalant voice. I’m sure he expected it to simply be another slough. A second later a horrific roar began. It was such a hideous, unimaginable cannonade, I can only compare it to placing your head against a railroad track as a freight train thunders by.

I instinctively smashed myself flat against the ice. The bombardment went on and on and I fully expected to be torn from the ice. I was screaming from terror. The thought of my two daughters sparked in my mind. I cannot say how long the avalanche lasted—30 seconds, a minute, two minutes. When it finally ended I was in shock, disbelieving that I was still alive, and knowing, without having to open my eyes, that Keith wasn’t.

Nonetheless, I began shouting his name in a cracking voice. When I finally got down to him, it was obvious. Sobbing “I’m so sorry Keith, I’m so sorry,” I checked his pulse on one wrist, then then other, then on his blackened neck.

The gruesome details of the rest of that day and the next, when Keith’s body was recovered, I will not recount. Suffice it to say that Keith died instantly of a broken neck.

A search-and-rescue plane flew over the day after the accident and took pictures, which were later analyzed. It was determined that the avalanche had started at the very top of the mountain when a five-foot-deep, quarter mile-long cornice broke off, funneling thousands of tons of snow down over the 30-foot wide icefall. The unstable cornice had been created by unusually high winds and extremely cold temperatures. The search-and-rescue team, the local ice climbers and professional avalanche forecasters all concurred that there was no way Keith and I could have anticipated this avalanche.

We have a tradition in the vanishing Wyoming Alpine Club. Once we have passed through the hardest stages of mourning, we hold a celebration of our dead friend’s life. It’s a potluck, a modern wake for a fallen mountaineer. We come together. We break bread together and drink together. Everyone brings slides and stands up and tells their personal stories about our dead comrade. We laugh and cry and bring our friend back to life.

Keith will return for that night. He wouldn’t miss it for the world. And then some midnight this summer, Tim Banks will hike around to the top of the Medicine Bow Diamond, and sit down under the stars with his pack full of fireworks. Justin Moe and I will silently climb the quartzite face together, through the cold black night. I will lead and Justin will carry the plaque, the epitaph already written.

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