Let’s Change the Subject: An Upbeat Story About Death

It might sound strange that a fatal mountaineering accident would be a nice upbeat change of pace from one about APS principals changing jobs, but, despite the death involved, the mountain story is about the goodness of the human spirit, while the APS story certainly seems to be about the darker angels of our bureaucratic natures.

Much of the internet consists of a whole bunch of small virtual towns whose citizens are passionate about a single-issue. The tubes, to use the snarky post-Senator Stevens vernacular, are places for people to come together to discuss and obsess about highly specific things, things that 99% of the world doesn’t give a damn about. I belong to two such communities: a weird form of fantasy baseball called “Strat-o-Matic“, and a Colorado mountain climbing site called 14ers.com.

I’ve “belonged” to the 14ers.com community for about three years now, listening/lurking more often than actively participating. The site has been great in providing information for my infrequent excursions up places like Mt. Shavano, and has given me the chance to vicariously experience hundreds and hundreds of “trip reports” from far more accomplished members who regularly climb, ice axe and scramble their way to more demanding peaks. Perhaps more than anything, the site provides moral support for the contention that mountains and the outdoors provide the only sanctuary away from an urban/human world that is fundamentally untenable psychologically.

And that gets us to the fatal mountaineering accident. On Monday of last week I came home from a day working the mines of the human/urban world, went to 14ers.com and ran across a message board thread entitled “Climber Injured and Stranded on Humboldt Peak”. The site gets quite a bit of traffic, but this thread already had an amazing 175 messages in it. I went in and quickly found out why. The stranded climber was none other than “Talus Monkey”, a ubiquitous member of the community whose wacky gentleness on the boards included photos of him celebrating peak conquests with a 16 oz. can of Colt .45 Malt Liquor, wearing a purple “pimp” costume (hat included) and a willingness to help and co-climb every 14er with every member of 14ers.com imaginable. A true rock star of the message boards, but not one to rub it in and with a kind word to say to all, even us ultra-wimps who only get to one 14er a year.

I spent the next few hours scrolling through the rapidly increasing number of posts, and the following unfolded. David “Talus Monkey” was stranded high up the mountain overnight after dislocating his hip and arm as the result of an ill-advised glissade going awry. His climbing partner went for help, but assistance was slowed by an incoming snowstorm at altitude. Many, many posts of concerns and prayers followed as the wait for rescuers to reach David lengthened. Doubts about David being alive began.

Pages later, the report came in….David was found and was alive! News was sketchy, but he was conscious and was being taken to hospital as soon as he could be taken off the mountain. More delay as that proved more and more difficult. These reports were coming from Search-and-Rescue workers who are also members at 14ers.com. Finally, now some 15 pages of board messages later, news came that he was headed to the hospital. Members, now a bit more upbeat, suggested some Colt .45 and other Talus Monkey-oriented remedies for his condition.

Then, at 9:29 P.M on Monday, May 7, 2007 (and because it’s an internet message board that timestamp is still on the message), a friend relayed news that David had died.

Another 16 pages of thread messages followed sharing grief, shock and condolences to Talus Monkey’s family. New threads sprung up with ideas of a tribute ascent of Humboldt, members who had never actually met the guy planning to go to the funeral service in Denver, and a special forum section on the boards dedicated to David and all the threads, trip reports, etc. devoted to/written by him.

The word “unbelievable” gets thrown around far too often, but in this case is not excessive. An unbelievable outpouring of every kind of emotion flooded out from this small internet town.

And that’s the reason this story of death seems so much more upbeat to me than any ill-conceived shenanigans by APS yahoos to move some principals around. In the days since, David’s death and the 14ers.com community has been the subject of several TV news stories and now this longer piece in this morning’s Denver Post. It is a bit of a strange feeling to have ones internet small town invaded by the outside hard-copy world, but I don’t mind sharing what is to me about the best “feel good” human interest story I’ve ever been even tangentially involved in.

That doesn’t mean I won’t miss Talus Monkey, his postings or his pimp hat and Colt .45 astride a high mountain peak. And I never even met the guy.

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