“Why would someone want to do that?” my mother asks. She is sitting at my dining room table and has opened my new issue of Outside Magazine to a full-page glossy picture of a guy in a kayak hurtling at the speed of God-knows-what down a gushing waterfall. He seems to be hovering just above the spray, paddle suspended, as he careens nose-first over the white crashing waves.
It’s the kind of question my mother asks about a lot of things: why someone would want to be a politician or listen to heavy metal or wear the color yellow? Why does anyone want to do anything, Mom? I want to say, using my most teenaged voice. But it is extra vexing in this case because asking the question about an adventurous person encapsulates so much that she has actively avoided and how much I have stared at, as if unable to look away, for the past six and a half years. My brother David, an elite athlete and lover of all things outdoors, died falling from one of Colorado’s famous “14ers,” one of 54 peaks that top out at 14,000 feet or more.
“Didn’t you know your son at all?” I ask, bristling. I don’t think about how vicious it is going to sound until it is said. Once the words spill out of my mouth, I wish I could take them back. Her question is, in fact, precisely the one I have been trying to answer ever since his accident.
To my mother, this is an illustration of illogical risk taking. It doesn’t make sense to her why anyone would do something that so clearly taunts death. We both know from experience that the expensive helmet he is wearing won’t save him if he becomes pinned under the water or gets knocked out by a rock or the current becomes too swift and he loses control. She sees this two-dimensional stranger and I imagine she imbues him with selfishness, lack of awareness or consideration of others, perhaps a mental instability. I envision her mind catapulting straight to thoughts of his parents, his wife, his children, his teammates—and even the photographer taking this picture — who will be forever traumatized should he end up injured, paralyzed, or dead.
Despite my guessing at her thoughts—something I’ve done my whole life—she gives little away. I watch her face; skin softened a little with age, blue eyes behind simple frameless glasses, pink lips pursed. Her gaze is steady on the page, as if she is reading, though there isn’t more than a short caption; her stoicism never ceases to amaze me.
To David, this photograph would have been a perfect encapsulation, a visual definition, of the word “thrill.” It’s the kind of image that captured his imagination for most of his life and propelled him into the world of athletics, competition, and outdoor adventure.
My mother doesn’t get it. I’m not entirely sure that I do, even after studying it like it’s my job. Why would someone want to do that? Why indeed?
I’ve been attempting to get a handle on the psychology behind extreme sports for a long time now. You could say it’s been my pet project. After David died, I was ravenous to understand him and his world.
So I subscribed to Outside, which I still read faithfully cover-to-cover each month. I’ve learned about BASE jumping, surfing the biggest waves at Mavericks in California, the youngest female freestyle snowboarder, Nordic skiing in the Alps, the Ironman World Championships, how difficult a 5.15 climbing route is, the behavior of grizzly bears, where to plan an adventure vacation, the best towns in which to live for outdoor activities, how athletes fuel before races and how they pack for major expeditions, what it’s like to swim with sharks, safari living, kiteboarding basics, even how to sneak in exercise while sitting at your desk at work.
I regularly review the equipment section near the back of the magazine to guess what new gadgetry and gear would turn him on: wind and waterproof shells made of high-endurance, lightweight fabrics, thermal cameras, backpacks made from recycled materials, shoes that can go from mountain to rickshaw to airport to coffee shop to trail run. What would I buy him for Christmas this year? I think. If here were here. And why didn’t I read this magazine before? If I had, I might have known what to get him for his birthday each year. He was always so hard to shop for.
I’ve bought so many books about adventure in exotic locals that Amazon and Goodreads continually make suggestions to me in their “you might like” sections for more and different stories of this ilk: titles like The Last of His Kind and Deep Survival. I have read about Amundson at the South Pole, Krakauer on Everest, Shackleton in Antarctica, Herzog on Annapurna. I consumed books about mountain biking through Ireland, skydiving in the desert, free climbing rock walls, long distance swimming, traveling with sled dogs, walking all of South America, kayaking the rivers of North America, living in ice caves. Women, men, teams, individuals, couples, families. Lots of things David did and lots of things he didn’t. Anything I thought he’d find intriguing. You name it. I wanted it. I needed it.
I don’t actually do any of those things. As my husband can attest, I was once so exhausted and unhappy on a one-hour hike that I sat down in the middle of the path and started to cry. I’m better now, but still no athlete. It doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate a stunning view or understand the sense of reward from a major accomplishment. But fundamentally, because I don’t relate to David in this way, I always found it both profoundly interesting and completely alien. I suppose that part of me thinks if I fully understand what is so compelling about being away from home, seeing exotic locations, pushing oneself so hard—pushing oneself to the brink—I will know why it was worth it for him to leave us.
Mom, who loves to research and buy books, finally caved in and started buying adventure books for me because I wasn’t reading the fiction she sent. I know she cringed. She acted like somehow the danger would seep into me, like the thrill-seeking would be contagious. Or maybe she just didn’t like my obsession. It could also be that she’ll never understand my insatiable need to know my brother this way.
Fundamentally, David was terribly curious. He always wanted to see something different, experience something unknown, try another discipline, challenge himself in a new way. Uncharted territory was the quest. Like all extreme athletes, he also wanted to push himself to achieve more and always to do it better and faster.
We were always a pretty active family, riding bikes, playing tennis, shooting hoops and snow skiing. My brothers both played soccer at the Y. They rode dirt bikes when we visited our cabin in East Texas, popping wheelies all the time. But David took it so much further; when he attended medical school in Galveston, he got his first taste of multi-disciplinary racing and training by doing a bunch of triathlons: he was running, cycling and swimming alongside and right in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
The next thing we knew, all of his free time was spent traveling and taking on new physical challenges: scuba diving in Mexico, bungee jumping in Australia, skydiving in Europe, bonefishing in the Christmas Islands, trekking in Iceland. He was so accomplished that he was once featured on the cover of Runner Triathlete News. In the photo, he’s making a hilariously avid face as though he’s yelling, “Yeah!” at the top of his lungs while gripping the handlebars of his mountain bike tightly and barreling down a slope as fast as he can.
When David found adventure racing, I think it was like falling in love. Such a variety of disciplines to master—and all while orienteering through exotic, rugged places. He regaled me with stories about how the reading of maps and compasses was done in the middle of a desert, the way to sneak in a nap during so that you had enough energy but didn’t fall behind, the gear they had to pack in order to be ready for extreme heat and cold, wet, and dry. Once, we had a lively conversation about whether one really needed a snakebite kit when roaming through Tasmania. Just that summer, he had competed at Primal Quest in Montana, where his adventure racing team came in 5th worldwide. I can still see him and his teammates in a glossy color photo, triumphantly holding up the American flag in front of them like a bright shield.
I don’t know for sure, but often I think the fact that death is just around the corner can actually be a motivator, whether conscious or not. Cheating it is its own thrill, I imagine. Titles like Addicted to Danger have taught me a lot. There was clearly something addictive about the rush David experienced competing athletically, and especially when he was attempting to conquer The Great Outdoors at the same time. Adding weather, water, rocks, or altitude to the equation provided a background at once exceedingly beautiful and dangerously exciting.
Maybe I should have been concerned, but this was my big brother. I always assumed that he was invincible. And there was never any question of trying to stop him from doing it — he had always been on his own journey, and his fervor seemed to grow each time he stumbled on a new sport or location to explore. We lost track of his trips and contests, there were so many. He was always getting ready for some competition or excursion. It became the norm for him to arrive at 8:30 a.m. for Christmas breakfast at Mom’s house and tell us he had done a 10-mile run before he arrived.
The next morning, Mom comes into my room just as I am waking up and plops down on my bed as if this is some regular, cozy routine, though she is visiting for the first time in over a year. Noticing the stacks of books surrounding me, she reaches out to one on top of my nightstand.
“They wrote a whole book about this?” she asks. I look up and realize she is holding a mid-sized paperback called Colorado 14er Disasters.
“David’s in there, you know,” I say as if it is an answer. Her nosing around always irks me, but this discovery feels especially invasive. I wonder why I kept it out in plain sight.
“He is?” She sounds stunned. Her eyes are initially wide and then her brows furrow as she opens the cover.
“Yeah. Shaun told me about it. I think Patti told him,” I respond, mentioning two of David’s former teammates.
“Well I find it interesting no one told me,” she says with a tone I recognize from the many times she has acted slighted, betrayed, or left out, especially when it comes to me and my siblings. I’m 42 years old, but I feel like I’m a little kid in trouble. “Where did they get their information?”
I tense, feeling her distrust emanate through the room. Should I have told her? It hadn’t even occurred to me.
“I don’t know,” I say quickly, which is true. The minute I answer, I actually wonder for the first time: Who is this Mark Scott-Nash, the author? Did he talk to our brother Tommy? Were the details reported to him by Search and Rescue? Why had I had simply accepted the information without question?
“Do you want me to show you the passage where he appears?” I ask.
“I don’t know,” she says, as she thumbs through the pages.
I continue to sit in bed next to her as she goes silent, flipping through black and white photos of mountain passes, stopping at chapter headings. I feel pinned in and I am not quite awake enough to know what to do. I feel like she has stumbled on some secret, though I’ve been completely up-front with her about my interest in digging into these things.
Finally, she comes to it on her own. “Well, there’s an error right there!” she announces triumphantly.
“Really? What is it?”
“They got the date wrong. It says he was found on September 4th and it was the 5th.” She’s right.
It had been the only document I had to go on that was specific to David; it was the only thing that provided any details about the accident because no one was with him when he fell. And I knew there was initial confusion about his date of death because of when he had fallen versus when he was actually discovered. I had used this book as a research tool to help myself try to make sense of what happened—or at least understand what might have happened.
As I sat there in bed, I remembered when I had ordered the book a few months back. I remember the anticipation and wondering what it would contain. I remembered bringing it upstairs to this same bed, and hungrily opening it, looking for “David Boyd” in the table of contents and then flipping to the back, hoping for an index that wasn’t there. It took me some time to locate him on page 87 in the middle of a chapter aptly titled, “Solo,” since this was one of the few trips he took alone. I remembered how my husband Peyton had come into my room just as tears started to stream down my cheeks in a way I couldn’t control.
I had asked him, “Can I read this to you?” because it felt ever-so-slightly safer with him there as a sort of witness. He stood in the doorway with an expression I had seen many times over the years — equal parts helpless and nervous, sad and loving — and not answering. He was hardly in a position to deny my request. This was, after all, perhaps the book I’d been looking for as I read those dozens and dozens of other stories.
I launched into it, though I struggled over each paragraph, choking through the recap of David’s journey, sobbing with a force that I hadn’t experienced in a long, long time.
“Boyd’s ambitious plan was well within his athletic ability,” I read. “He was a regular participant in hundred-mile biking and running endurance events. He had climbed forty of the 14ers already…” It was moments like this that I realized again how little I knew about what he had achieved. He had been so humble about his accomplishments. When he told me about his trips and competitions, he focused the camaraderie with his team, how cool the experience was, describing the beauty of the landscape and how much fun he had.
I continued reading: “Boyd summited Blanca Peak, a relatively straightforward trail hike, signed the summit register and progressed to Ellingwood Point… then descended back to the basin below the ramparts of Little Bear Peak.” David’s final climb had been Little Bear, so this anticipation was painful to read. It was like watching a movie you’ve seen before and knowing how it ends, yet hoping—beyond all reason—that it will be different this time. He won’t fall. He won’t die.
The author went on describe the challenging parts of the final climb, which my brother apparently managed without issue. Because of where he was found, it was apparent that “he had negotiated the most notorious pitches of Little Bear only to succumb on the relatively simple lower slopes, apparently trying to descend the west ridge too early, mistaking a steep, cliff-like couloir for the easy exit further down the ridge…”
It was almost too hard to read. But it revealed details I didn’t know and I was so hungry for information. “There are at least two explanations for Boyd’s apparent lapses in judgment.” This phrase alone was gutting. Anyone who ever knew him was aware that he was always in control, safe and smart. “The first was his physical state…. He had expended an exorbitant amount of energy at altitudes above 13,000 feet… It is likely Boyd was not at 100 percent decision-making capacity…. The second explanation is that he may have been caught in a storm…” This was the only theory that had really been bandied around in the immediate aftermath and it was one that I had clutched to my bosom because I simply couldn’t imagine him making such a terrible mistake.
There was something about the accident documented in black and white in great detail that made it real all over again. It was almost like learning about it for the first time. I had bit my lip to try to control my crying and held onto Peyton tightly, as if he were a life raft.
Now, I brace myself for my mother’s reaction as she continues to read, maybe hoping for one? But her expression never changes and she says nothing. She simply puts the book back on top of the others where it had been.
Lots of the stories I read illustrate the early drive for daredevil stunts. Some of these colorful characters were babies climbing the rails of their cribs. Certainly, my brother was always brave and always inquisitive, from his early barefoot water-skiing days to high school chemistry experiments gone wrong. I suppose the sense of immortality that most of us feel when young could have hooked into David in a more permanent way. Maybe it’s something innate.
He did get hurt a lot. A motorcycling accident and falling asleep behind the wheel could have killed him either time. On an old postcard sent from Mexico he wrote: “I’ve been having a great time diving, even though I got bitten by a moray eel my second day here.” Another time, while mountain biking in Costa Rica, he had a dramatic spill in the rainforest, which resulted in a giant cut. He got bored waiting for the doctor in the Spanish-speaking hospital and just stitched up his own arm. There were a number of broken bones along the way. All in a day’s adventure.
It’s not as though David or any of his friends didn’t know what could happen. They did. I don’t know if any of them actually believed that it would happen, especially to someone so focused on safety, so fit, so prepared. But they all talked about it — it’s not something they squeezed into the backs of their minds. It’s why my brother’s teammates knew his wish to be cremated when we, his family, didn’t.
Even knowing the risks, I didn’t think David was ever actually afraid. Maybe that wasn’t true — just my superhero version of him. Mom told me he confessed to her about one time he was genuinely worried about his team, and once, he told me about someone he knew who was treed by a bear that ultimately ate her. We knew the possibility was there. Despite it all, I never worried about him. He was that kind of guy.
But I know Mom did. We used to watch his team online during adventure races, as they crossed mountains, kayaked rivers, swam across ponds, ran through deserts, biked across plains. My mother was always a little white-knuckled when we checked in with each other over seven or ten or fourteen days of his trips. I often had the feeling she didn’t sleep well during those expeditions, because I know she checked the website almost constantly. But we also rooted for them, excited when they moved up the leaderboards.
My curiosity persists. One day at work, I Google “author Mark Scott-Nash” and am surprised when I easily find him on LinkedIn. I send him a message through his account, and within a matter of hours, we have scheduled a phone date. I am excited about his responsiveness.
In preparation, I read more about him and learn he is both an accomplished mountaineer and search and rescue guy. I put together a few interview-ish questions, just in case. When Mark calls, I am surprised by how high his voice sounds. After a few introductory niceties, I launch right into the story about my mom picking up his book.
“So where did you get your information? Were you on my brother’s SAR?” I hope that using the abbreviation for Search and Rescue makes me sound more knowledgeable than I am.
“No,” he answers, and I am semi-relieved. I had considered this possibility before we spoke and thought it might be too intimately close. “And I didn’t know your brother. But I knew the guys on his SAR. I talked to them and I talked to people who were on the mountain that day.”
He tells me that he was inspired to write book after telling others about accidents in the mountains over beers. They were interesting stories, he told me, and because people often make the same mistakes, he hoped lessons might be learned. David’s accident just happened to occur while he was in the midst of writing the collection and that was why his journey was included.
Mark describes Little Bear’s topography for me since he has climbed it four times himself. The couloir leading to the summit funnels a lot of spontaneous rock fall along with moisture from recent rain, snow, or groundwater. Every time he climbed it, it was wet. He says David’s note in the register at the summit, “Nice & Dry!” might have referred to this section more than the weather in general. He told me about being caught in a hailstorm there, and that conditions are changeable within an hour.
“The best climbers in the world have accidents,” he assures me. “I consider myself very, very lucky. I’ve had many close calls.”
This statement provokes my pinnacle question: “So, Mark. Let me ask you, why do you do it?”
“There are a lot of reasons,” he says. “It’s a compelling lifestyle. If you love the outdoors and are strong enough to climb the mountains, it’s a personal accomplishment. You also get a lot of reinforcement and admiration. The ego thing—it’s there,” he admits. “But it’s also the whole experience, the singular focus, the involvement of your entire self. Mountaineering involves all the parts of me—nature and the environment and being part of it. It’s also an intellectual thing —making decisions, in an expedition, all of the things you have to put together. It’s a visceral experience in life that you don’t get anywhere else.”
“But what about the risk?” I ask.
“Risk is part of the whole experience,” he says. “You’re beating it.”
This research—my own adventure—gives me a kind of peace, a sense of understanding, a little extra closeness to my brother, but I wonder how it makes my mother feel.
I want to tell her about my conversation with Mark, but I have no idea what her reaction will be. Part of me feels I’ve called her bluff simply by reaching out to him. Part of me is unapologetic. Part of me wishes she would fall apart just to demonstrate that she is as emotional, as broken, as human as I am. But I realize it is possible that her grief is so large that removing her finger from the dam would drown her.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Casey Reynolds