Christine Chan, aged 31 and an incredibly promising young woman climber of high intelligence and remarkable accomplishments, inexplicably lost her life in a climbing accident in July of 2010. The following looks at the sport of climbing today, particularly as it applies to the high rock found in Yosemite National Park, and reflects anew upon what it is to be human.
A TRIP TO TIGER MOUNTAIN
As someone recently reminded me, an old Chinese aphorism states “He who visits Tiger Mountain too many times will eventually meet the tiger.” There are many Tiger Mountains scattered throughout the world, but while this particular reference is most likely purely allegorical, there is also a possibility that it has a historic tie to famed “Dragon and Tiger Mountain” (Longhu Shan, or Lunghu San, depending upon whether the term is expressed in Mandarin or Cantonese dialect), located just south of Yingtan City in Jianxi Province. A venerably sacred mountain to Taoists, who regard it as the ‘cradle of Taoism’, it is a site to which many pilgrims today still travel as a sort of ancient Chinese ‘Holy Land’.
According to ancient Taoist lore, at some point in the East Han Dynasty (25-200 AD) the first Tian Shi (Taoist Priest), an individual by the name of Zhang Daoling, lived on this mountain where he concocted medicinal elixirs that were imbued with sacred power. According to legend, when these magical elixirs were first created, a dragon and tiger appeared. Originally named the ‘Mountain of Splendid Clouds’, immediately upon the appearance of the dragon and tiger the mountain’s name changed to ‘Lunghu Shan’ or ‘Dragon and Tiger Mountain’. The visually sumptuous and scenic site contains many splendid landscapes filled with rocky escarpments, unique pinnacles and red pyroclastic rock formations. There are over ninety-nine peaks there to view as one drifts down the languorous Lu Xi River that winds sinuously through them. It is accordingly a most perfect setting in which to reflect upon the area’s significance as the legendary birthplace of Taoism.
This morning I was sitting in my study, cup of strong black French Roast close at hand and trying to do some reading, as is my customary Saturday AM habit. I say trying out of deference to the fact that using my few moments of quiet reflection optimally at serenely quiet moments is a process that is complicated considerably by being possessed of only two hands. By my side next to my chair lay a furry black and white female Siberian Husky body pressed closely against the chair’s cushions (my other Husky, a somewhat older male, has sufficiently austere self-dignity to prefer stretching out a few feet away from me, at my feet). On my left the coffee mug perched on the corner shelf of a bookcase with its tendrils of rising steam signalling me to drink it before it cooled too much, while on my lap sat the book I had selected for reading. Unfortunately, the logistics of this recurrent Saturday AM scene present significant challenges in that I need one hand to keep the book open and prevent it from shifting out of position, while the other hand must be delegated manditory duty rubbing the neck of my young Sib female (her name is ‘Nala’, but it could just as easily be ‘AYESHA: She Who Must Be Obeyed' from the immortal H. Rider Haggard chronicle of the same name, since she is very insistent upon being given this attention instantly upon demand). To ignore the obligatory neck-rubbing duty is to risk having my lovely quiet moments ripped to bloody shreds as Nala will otherwise noisily attack a particularly raucous orange squeak-toy that is her favorite 'what about me?' persuader. This tactic is used most often, I strongly suspect, to irrevocably divert my attention from whatever book I am trying to read to the thick ruff on the back of her neck.
The book I had picked up off my shelf was an older illustrated climbing route book I have had around since the 1970s, showing rock routes up the various faces and peaks in the Yosemite National Park area. My thoughts had been directed to Yosemite by yesterday’s news of a fatal fall sustained by an individual on Yosemite’s famed Half Dome. Those familiar with Yosemite will instantly recognise Half Dome as that dramatically sheered-off iconic granite symbol of Yosemite National Park that was many thousands of years ago carved out of Yosemite's living stone by a heavy glacial ice sheet. My interest piqued by this latest Yosemite tourist fatality to date (the 17th this year), I absently recollected that a good friend and I had long ago made plans for ascending Half Dome’s Southwest Face via the Snake Dyke route, described as ‘exciting Class 5.4’ (although actually 5.7) in some of the earlier climbing guides of the 70s. In other, more modern guides, Snake Dyke has been referred to as ‘the easiest technical rock climb’ in Yosemite (technical likely for the dramatic exposure faced on that route). Regardless of the varying descriptions, Snake Dyke is a spectacularly scenic climb that actually begins at the rounded Southwest Face shoulder and then follows a line of granite ‘dykes’ (ridged granite extrusions) toward the summit that protrude prominently on the otherwise glacially polished and deceptively slippery slabs that make up its surface. My friend Dex and I never quite made it up this venerable route, owing to all the usual diversions and excursions that occur in life, but it has always had a special appeal to me nevertheless and it is still considered one of the classic ‘moderate’ climbs in the Valley today.
As events revealed, the most recent victim on Half Dome appears not to have been a rock climber, but simply a tourist (for lack of a better term in this instance) who had ascended to the summit of Half Dome via the Northeast Face cable route (a fixed protection aid consisting of a permanently installed pair of steel cables that allow people to reach the summit with their assistance; it is otherwise merely strenuous but highly exposed Class IV). During that part of the year when snowfall is still heavy, the twin cables remain flush with the surface of the rock, hugging the face as it rises upwards to the top; only when seasonal conditions are deemed safe (usually late Spring through early Fall) do the park rangers raise the cables and affix supportive posts to holes drilled into the rock, so as to allow them to be used as cursory ‘hand rails’ for park visitors. At 8,800+ feet elevation, the ascent is a spectacular one not so much for its particular difficulty as for its superb views from the top and the exposure is indeed impressive as one looks over the edge of the uppermost overhang at its summit to gaze down the near 4000 foot sheer vertical drop-off.
On a clear summer day, literally hundreds of people jostle each other up and down from the summit on the cable route, but although the word ‘safe’ has been used here to describe this path up Half Dome, the reality is that it is anything but safe in the strictest sense. As one of the highest points in the Valley, Half Dome's summit is the frequent target of sporadic lightning strikes whenever a storm passes over (surprisingly frequently in the Sierra) and whenever the rock is slick from moisture it can be particularly hazardous, even with the fixed protection there to assist hikers. Due to the fact that the cables are steel, they can actually conduct ground current from a lightning strike, a circumstance that appears to have been a dynamic factor in the fall a 26 year old woman visitor took while using the cable route on 31 July 11.
The Half Dome cable route has been a part of the Yosemite experience for many years, since an early wooden precursor was first installed on that face back in the late 1800s, but with the recent dramatic increase in fatalities on Half Dome, there has been discussion by park authorities of permanently closing off this route by removing the cables; if that were to take place, Half Dome would once again revert entirely to being the exclusive preserve of sport climbers only (as opposed to casual tourists and adventurous hikers).
In the latest death on Half Dome, an investigation has recently revealed that this most recent victim to fall to his death on Half Dome was not a rock climber but a confused young man). As nearly as may be determined, the victim (a 23 year old from the Santa Cruz area named Ryan Leeder) may have been mentally disturbed, having had a clinical history of mental illness since being a teenager. Speculation has it that he was perhaps distraught over a series of recent events in his life and had also been recently released from jail (where he had been placed after threatening a stranger with a knife). Rangers think that it is most likely that Leeder ascended the dome via the cable route and then, for reasons as yet undetermined, fell from the summit over the steep Northwest Face to the rocks at its base, 4000 feet below. Whether a suicide or an accident, his death marks a new high for fatalities at the park, exceeding the previous season’s total by a substantial margin.
This year the Sierra Nevada mountains have seen an unseasonably high amount of snowfall, owing to the relatively cool and wet weather that persisted throughout the spring and summer months, but it is often overlooked by those who are focused on this year’s increase in park fatalities (the total records death from all causes, including trauma and natural causes such as coronaries, etc.) that in previous decades record snowfalls like the most recent one were not all that unusual. I personally recall a party of climbers who set out in clear, warm weather to climb the Sawtooth Ridge area (Matterhorn Peak, etc.) on Yosemite’s eastern border, back in the early 80s, figuring that the weather would continue to remain excellent. To their dismay, they were unexpectedly caught high up on the peak with only lightweight clothing and protective gear when a sudden and fast moving storm swept in over the Sierra crest from the Pacific Ocean. Of course, since the climbing routes up that peak are all on the eastern side of the Sierra crest, it is impossible to see or detect a sudden but fierce and totally unpredicted spring storm until it is directly upon you.
Various factors have been pointed out as contributing to the present surge in deaths in the Yosemite Park area, but chief among them seems to be disproportionate number of park visitors this year; along with the up-tick in tourists has apparently come a corresponding increase in careless or casual disregard for the very real dangers posed by Yosemite’s spectacular geophysical terrain. In illustration, this July three tourists (two young men and a young woman) visiting Vernal Falls ignored the clearly marked warnings advising visitors to the falls to NOT go beyond the protective fences separating them (on the falls’ verge) from the rapidly flowing water and stepped over them to take pictures closer to the rushing torrent of white water. One by one each was caught in the powerful current and pulled over the edge, falling the 300+ feet separating the Vernal Falls outlook from its outflow at the bottom. Only one body was recovered and the other two (those of a young man and a young woman) remain undiscovered, due to the exceptionally full run-off that has characterised this year’s snowmelt. Other similar near-disasters have been recorded this year as hikers and tourists have repeatedly persisted in ignoring the very obvious warnings and posted danger signs, seemingly feeling themselves somehow exempt from the constraints of common sense.
This trend (and it does seem to be one) to venture forth naively and do things that one’s experience and abilities may not safely justify is on the increase and one can’t help but wonder if the present day fascination with ‘extreme’ sports hasn’t played a role in things. The number of snowboarders ignoring warnings to stay out of non-patrolled areas adjacent to snowboard runs (due to avalanche dangers) at resorts is gradually increasing as the years pass and reports of hopelessly ill-prepared and unaware hikers, backpackers and tourists exceeding prudent limits of safe conduct also are on the rise in parks like Yosemite. Another possible factor playing into these trends is the all-pervasiveness of personal cellular communications devices, perhaps lending a false sense of security in areas that would otherwise seem more forbidding and remote. Directly consequent to this enhanced willingness to recklessly venture off into activities that would nominally require advanced knowledge and prior experience, the frequency of (expensive) full-scale search and recovery operations being mounted is also on the rise, as well.
This last consideration is a very serious concern to those agencies charged with search and rescue (SAR) efforts, owing not just to reduced manpower and staffing concerns that budget constraints have forced, but due also to the greatly increased cost of mounting and logistically supporting such activities. In many areas, the present cost for SAR efforts has grown so substantially that a number of agencies are now charging (for the first time) those who have been or are being rescued for the full cost of their recovery operations (the costs were previously either free or paid for by taxpayer money). As an illustration, just keeping a simgle helicopter in the air for an hour can cost as much as $9,000 in fuel alone! Clearly, things cannot continue to advance along this steep curve of increased ultilisation without some consequent and rather radical changes in the public agency SAR policies that govern provision of emergency services in the parks.
Back in the 1970s, when I first began my own acquaintance with the Sierra Nevada mountains, rock climbing and traditional mountaineering (i.e. mountain traversing that combines a number of complementary skills that may include skiing, rock climbing, hiking, backpacking and snow & ice climbing) were relatively new phenomenons, having just been ‘reborn’ in the decades immediately following the Second World War. Those US Army troops who had served in the US Army’s 10th Mountain Division (a specialised light infantry component of the 101st Airborne Division) during the war returned home and began using their mountain skills for purely recreational purposes. This sparked a resurgence of the traditional climbing activity that had all but come to an end in the early 1940s; it soon led to increasing commercialization of all phases of outdoor sports activity that resulted, among other things, in the institution of a range of entirely new ski-resorts across the country (Vail, Aspen, Heavenly Valley, North Star, etc.) and the establishment of outdoor clubs dedicated to snow-shoeing, skiing, hiking, back-packing and related activities.
In California in particular, with the magnificent granite walls of places like Yosemite National Park beckoning those from San Francisco and Los Angeles like a distant beacon, mountain climbing gathered momentum with the advent of ‘big wall’ rock climbing as a distinctive sub-division of conventional American mountaineering. It was a very interesting and exciting time to be sure, with a small but hard core of eccentric rock climbers arriving in the Yosemite Valley in the late 50s and 60s to tackle the many as-yet unclimbed vertical routes in Yosemite. They soon pushed the few pioneering routes already done there far beyond the expectations anyone could have reasonably imagined at the time.
As the 60s yielded to the 70s and 80s, new groups of young rock climbers grew up to replace the ‘old guard’ 10th Mountain veterans and pure technical rock climbing truly took off on a steep ascent of its own as a new sport without apparent limits. Climbing techniques until that time relied principally upon traditional rope work and belays were accomplished with hardware that consisted almost exclusively of oval carabiners, wooden wedges, bolts and hammer-driven steel and iron pitons. It's amusing to recall that I was one of the young men who had recently discovered climbing at that time and who sought to discover themselves on the rock walls by challenging the limits of gravity. Camp Four on the Valley floor was (and still is) the ‘climber campground’ where all of us young crazies crashed on our periodic visits, but I quickly found (to my chagrin) that I lacked a lot of the steely characteristics (or raw craziness, call it what you wish) and nerve of the truly gifted young rock climbers I associated with there. Finding myself generally lacking that enormous spirit of personal commitment required to push the limits of the possible, I preferred to remain mostly a sideliner and a dilettante and one who was focused more on safety and equipment technology aspects of the sport than on sheer physical gutsiness and macho bravado. Perhaps ‘wimpy’ might be a more apt term, but I soon recognised my limitations and never quite pushed as hard as most of the others did consistently. Since I was involved with pulmonary medicine at several hospitals in the East Bay area (San Francisco), my time was also limited and I had to be able to count on returning to my daily duties intact and possessed of all my facilities each Monday morning.
With each new wave of young climbers came entirely new techniques, new hardware (jam nuts and mechanical cam expansion devices, AKA 'Friends'). The current climbing ethic also changed form rapidly as hardware-strewn walls studded with permanently emplaced pitons yielded to ‘clean climbing’ techniques (pitons and other rock defacing devices were replaced entirely by jam-nuts and cams). This later led to ‘free climbing’ (ascent undertaken without the protection of belays by a partner) and eventually to solo free climbing (the ultimate in risk-management exercises carried out on a steep rock wall).
As someone heavily influenced by the old (post-war) school, I had been brought up within the convention of hoary Sierra Club dogma that started off with a Prime Directive that began: ‘The Leader does not fall’. Careful teamed rope-work was considered a norm right out of the classical climbing gospels and falls were regarded as something to be avoided at all costs. If one prided himself in his technique and mastery of rock, falls were considered extremely bad form when they did occur (although invariably checked with a partner’s dynamic belay) and exceeding one’s personal limits and abilities was sternly frowned upon by such ascendent luminaries as Royal Robbins. The belief that one shouldn’t even be climbing if one ‘fell’ with any regularity was shared by most who climbed at the time and beginners were not usually welcomed into the ‘club’ unless they showed substantial adeptness and unusual promise from the onset.
All that changed considerably with each new group of young climbers and as the climbing fad expanded into the 1980s, the art of rock climbing had been pushed so far beyond prior convention that to those archaic old antediluvians like me, it seems as if the laws of gravity had actually been suspended, or at least permanently altered. All throughout this period of the 60s, 70s and 80s, however, climbing as an ‘envelope pushing’ activity had remained the exclusive domain of a small, elite fringe of outdoor enthusiasts (mostly all young and trying to discover their inner identities, in the time-honored manner of all individuals on the path to maturity). Urban climbing walls, such one sees everywhere today, with their artificially manufactured hand-holds, hadn’t even been conceived of yet, and the typical visitor to Yosemite Valley was by and large an older, more ‘conventional’ adult individual who was simply visiting to take in the awe-inspiring scenic beauty that the Valley had to offer viewed from its floor. The old 'never fall' ethic gradually yielded to a new ethic wherein if one didn't fall regularly, one was not giving full vent to one's maximal abilities.
Regrettably, with the 70s and 80s, a concurrent influx of youthful rabble-rousing wannabes followed the serious climbers and with access to the Valley newly upgraded for vehicular traffic, it wasn’t long before the sight of punks, drunks, and delinquents hanging out in the Valley, complete with loud music, substance use, alcoholism and total disregard for the natural majesty of the setting became commonplace. One direct result of this was that formerly unarmed naturalist interpreters (AKA: Park Rangers) soon found themselves sworn in as gun carrying law enforcement officers (LEOs) and ranger duties began to include a disproportionate amount of public disorder control, in addition to their traditional naturalist functions.
Fortunately, although the Valley of the 80s itself sadly degenerated into an overcrowded, noisy, smoggy and at times semi-chaotic tourist scene (filled with everything from Barnum & Bailey’s three-ring circus to mass mobile home camps jammed with trailers and WAY too many automobiles), there was still much natural beauty to be found both high-up on the rock walls (above the rabble below) and further out, in the granite hewn periphery of the park’s outer reaches (Tuolumne Meadows, et al). It was out there on harder to get to sites like Tuolumne’s Castle Peak, Lembert Dome and similar areas far off the vehicular tourist track, that the remaining untrammeled, pristine and near virginal reaches of Yosemite’s ‘high country’ could be discovered. A lot of my own formative experiences in Yosemite occurred there in the Meadows and on Mt. Lyle, Mt Dana (Tioga Pass) and the adjacent Yosemite high area.
Although I had at the time expected the climbing bubble of that era to soon deflate, certain factors worked to assure that climbing would not gradually fade away and become passé in the public eye, but rather continue to expand. Thanks (I use the term ironically) for that fell largely on a whole new industry dedicated to the manufacture and sale of climbing gear. Originally small and regionally localised companies like North Face, Sierra Designs, Ski Hut (Trailwise), Kelty, and REI quickly expanded into today’s multi-million dollar corporations, producing an ever increasing array of technical climbing equipment that in turn sought to promote self-serving public interest in these activities. Thanks to their unrelenting media and marketing efforts, it wasn’t long before the whole nation began to become increasingly preoccupied with some phase or another of these new outdoor activities (i.e. back-packing, climbing, skiing and more recently snowboarding). As sales of outdoor equipment burgeoned exponentially, so did the numbers of middle class people whose fancy had been caught by this new wrinkle in outdoor sports activities. Before long nearly everyone possessed at least one pair of mountain boots and bought recreational mountain gear that included backpacks, portable stoves and high-tech outdoor apparel. Small ‘out of the home’ operations like Marmot Mountain Works (now simply ‘Marmot’) that had begun with a single old-fashioned sewing machine in a Berkeley bedroom quickly grew to corporate status and a whole new game was afoot called (as likely as not) ‘make big money by selling nature to the masses’.
The same phenomenon had earlier been seen in the California surf scene of the 50s, 60s and 70s, wherein a small and distinctly marginal subculture (in this case ‘surfers’) expanded almost logarithmically, thanks to a national awareness of the hip image surfing offered bored American youth (that was largely the product both of Hollywood’s film industry and the makers and sellers of surfing equipment). Formerly sparsely occupied and relatively unfrequented stretches of beautiful beach quickly became hotly contested venues filled with angst-filled, angry young ‘dudes’ all trying to outdo each other in living the hip myth of California coastal youth culture that surfing symbolized for so many. And the more people who discovered the semi-mythical surf scene, the more enjoyment of the sport declined due to negative dynamics like ‘surf rage’, overcrowding, immature attitudes and over utilization of existing surfing sites.
This pattern seems to repeat itself every time a distinctly ‘new’ form of outdoor activity is developed, since commercial opportunities invariably present themselves immediately for corporate exploitation of hip subcultural intereasts. And while this is not of itself a bad thing, what makes it so disastrous in the end is that there are no limits to the extent to which commercial and corporate media exploitation will go to create newer and greater profits. In a sense, this is the crux of a larger and far more pervasive downside of the American capitalistic materialist model that is, of course, based upon the fallacious premise that economic expansion is an infinite and unending dynamic process with no natural limits (no natural checks on growth and profits) whatsoever. In reality it is, in my opinion, one of the worse aspects of our entire American socio-economic concept of ‘the good life’, but sadly there is no evidence I am aware of that this trend will end anytime soon, nor even before American totally destroys itself in a fit of unchecked, unregulated and wholly self-consumptive ouroborean economic dysphagia.
The reason I even mention the above at all is that this process ties in directly to the present tendency for average, ordinary people, possessed of no particular special understanding of the hazards and dangers nature may hold, to suddenly decide that a beautiful natural place like Yosemite is a sort of Disney themed entertainment venue, where one buys a ticket (the park entrance fee) and takes a ride (snowboarding in an outlying avalanche area near Badger Pass, for example) on a whim. Unfortunately, rather than make any (or at least much) effort to help assure the fact that our natural resources will be appropriately respected and regarded by consumers of their outdoor, most of our modern recreational corporations give little more than obligatory PR lip service to that implicit, inherent responsibility. As a direct consequence, the wilderness is now filled up with total naïfs who not only lack broader knowledge and awareness for the most part, but lack even the most basic common sense.
I think we all know the drill by now. Whenever one of the completely clueless individuals (such as those mentioned here) transgresses the limits of reasonable prudence (e.g. as did the three hikers who were swept away over Vernal Falls in Yosemite by deliberately ignoring the fences and warning signs there to deter accidents), we are invariably treated to an evening local news report that features an interview with the victim’s surviving family members who typically insinuate (between teary sobs) that park officials aren’t doing enough to protect visitors from such hazards (sob-sniffle-sniffle). As far as I am concerned, in a time of increasingly slashed public, local, state and Federal budgets, such sentiments totally transcend mere laughability, flying off the distal end of sublimity so entirely as to provoke open-mouthed wonder! The fact that news anchors even solicit such tear-besotted survivors' inane and incredibly stupid assertions at all is a scathing indictment of exactly how far our public understanding of what constitutes appropriate ‘news’ (versus fluffy, sentimentalized and maudlin entertainment) has dropped off the charts of reasoned logic.
It would be all too easy to continue the above thread of critical disgruntlement, but let me instead close with mention of a remarkable woman who was the exact opposite of all that ‘public dumb-think’ that passes for the common norm of the herd these days. I use the word ‘was’ in view of the sad fact that this extremely special and exceptionally positive individual was herself last year lost to a tragic climbing accident on the Eichorn Pinnacle (a spur of Castle Peak) in Yosemite’s Tuolumne Meadows.
Christina Chan (or simply ‘Chris’ to her friends and family) was one of those near-unbelievably talented and supremely capable people we all occasionally come across in life. Born in the United States of Chinese parents, Chris Chan was a young woman (31 at the time of her untimely death) who had exceptional promise, bringing acute intelligence, extreme competence, empathetic compassion and a remarkable sense of cheerful humaneness to all activities she chose to partake of. Highly educated, completing an undergraduate degree in only three years and taking two separate subsequent graduate degrees in technical subjects, Chris was a mere 4 months short of completing her doctorate in political science at the time of the accident. Despite all of this, the sentiments expressed most often by others to describe her are invariably that she had an immense love of life and was possessed of a remarkable sense of humility for one so highly accomplished. Co-equal with her drive for academic excellence was her passion for climbing, twice serving as president of the Stanford Alpine Club, among other climbing related activities.
After taking time off from her doctoral work to return to China, she entered and quickly completed an accelerated intensive Chinese language course at the Beijing Foreign Languages Institute before returning to California. Friends and those closest to her constantly remark on her passionate commitment to climbing and her intense and obvious joy whever the chance to go high up steep rock presented itself. In this last context, Chris Chan’s list of notable climbs and important ascents is both remarkable and lengthy, including a solo climb of the notorious Shield Route on Yosemite’s El Capitan. In addition, she taught rock climbing in Stanford's climbing club (Stanford Alpine Club) and gained widespread recognition of her extraordinary skill on challenging rock.
As remarkable as she was, Chris Chan remained a very humble, unpretentious and consistantly straight-forward, honest and supportive person in all ways to her many friends and associates. I am told that her quick and easy smile was unforced and straight from the heart, always. In truth, although I never had the privilege of meeting Chris myself, the universal praise for who and what she was is virtually unending and rather astounding and I am not ashamed to admit that just knowing that such exqusitely capable people like Chris exist makes me feel almost inadequate and insignificant, by comparison.
And yet, while free-climbing with a partner on Tuolumne’s Eichorn Pinnacle in July of 2010, 31 year old highly accomplished rock climber Christine Chan made a simple yet inexplicable mistake on what is regarded as a modest climb and fell more than 300 feet to her death. Eichorn Pinnacle, although spectacular to view from the adjacent Castle Peak summit, is not a remarkably difficult or technically challenging climb, especially for someone as skilled in rockcraft and climbing techniques as Chris was. Rated in the climbing guides as a Class 5.7 route, the ‘standard route’ she took on Eichorn is a highly enjoyable and quite scenic one frequented by many climbers of average skill.
As a tremendously intelligent (one can only guess at her IQ), highly thoughtful and reflectively aware person, Chris Chan was about as familiar with risk-management concepts as anyone can possibly be. She climbed with full commitment, fully mindful of the risk for serious injury or death that advanced rock work carries with it and it can be factually stated that she completely accepted these risks as a necessary component of the climbing that brought her so much personal reward and satisfaction. And yet, on the free descent of Eichorn, something that can't be fully explained happened. Her climbing partner, who was above her, remarked that he was turned away when he heard a noise and then, looking down, saw that Christine had fallen off a ledge where the Eichorn route rejoins the Castle Peak shoulder, plunging the 300+ feet to her death below. For someone like her to make so catastrophic and uncharacteristic an error is as tragic and remarkable as it is inexplicable, it goes almost without saying.
On that sad day, the world lost one of those wonderfully gifted members of humanity whose life could have helped compensate immeasurably for all the scores of dim-bulb yahoos, all the rough, crude and ignorant idiots and social morons that seem to populate our planet so densely. I can’t bear to think of the equally bright and wonderful children she may have been able to co-create and nurture, had she but survived that terrible event and it truly brings an incredible sense of sadness to me when I reflect upon the ineluctable senselessness of all this.
But Chris Chan, however exceptional, was also as mortal as the rest of us and all we who remain among the living may do is try in our own humble ways to strive for the same incredibly high standards of personal conduct as did Christine. I only wish more people were aware of Christine, and who and what she was, and could be consequently inspired by the fullness of her brilliant, young and tragically shortened life. In the end, none of this makes any greater sense than it did originally, although I am once more reminded of the Taoist aphorism that ”He who visits Tiger Mountain too many times will eventually meet the tiger.” With certitude, we will ALL eventually met the tiger ourselves of course, although perhaps not as dramatically and certainly not having accomplished so much in our own rather ordinary lives as Chris did in her 31 years.
Below are several URLS where a few brief glimpses into Chris Chan’s accomplishments and life may be gained. What a remarkable woman and what an inspiration for the rest of us (although not perhaps as gifted or talented) to aspire to similar personal greatness in our own lives!
Aloha mai e, Christine, sister of the high and holy places!