Previous to this moment, the thought was just too terrifying to hold onto for more than a fleeting second. I had always chased away the thought of free solo climbing at freefall speed. Before this night, I wasn’t ready to contemplate the notion of friction being my only lifeline. The friction between my hand or foot and the unforgiving rock just never seemed like enough. But over the past few months, I had changed. Some of the changes were tangible. I had spent a few days in the mountains exposed, slowly ramping up the difficulty until I was hand jamming with hundreds of feet of air below me. Some of the changes were ephemeral. I had become unbounded, recently single, and unsatisfied with the depth of vision around me.
For many reasons that evening, sitting on a bench in my little town in Pennsylvania, sipping a discreet beer from a thermos, reading the latest Alpinist Magazine, I was ready to let the thought free solo climbing rattle around my brain for a bit longer. I looked up from my reading, my gaze losing focus through the bustle of people walking by me and settling on the building across the street. I focused on the gaps between wall panels, on the distance between balconies, and on the incut roof edge. My thoughts landed on the question of free solo climbing. Where would I set that intention? Where was I capable? Where was it worth the ultimate consequence? The Lakeview Route on Cannon in the White Mountains quickly boiled to the surface. A classic route with an iconic finish – stunning zigzagging cracks on a vertical wall all leading to the Fritz Wiessner corner, a beautiful dihedral with improbable holds, always just barely within reach. And although the route is only 5.6, it crosses over 800 feet of New England granite, giving it that just-right feeling for my free solo.
I did not dwell on these thoughts too long, but gathered my things and started my walk home. I was traveling to New Hampshire to climb in the White Mountains the next day, and my empty fridge convinced me that I should stop at a local bar on the way home to grab something to eat. I ordered my dinner and contemplated the next few days in the White Mountains. Not only were we going to climb an alpine route in the Huntington Ravine, we were going to deliver my mother’s ashes from the start of the Presidential Traverse to the summit of Mount Washington. My mother, gone 15 years now, grew up in Gorham, NH, the town that lies at the start of the Presidential Traverse. My sister was going to meet us at the summit of Mount Washington where we would find the final resting place for our mother, Marie Lemire Munas. My sister Vanessa had taken on the burden of organizing all of this, and the toll of this responsibility was starting to wear on her. I was being careless with that burden when I said something about my desire to climb with my friends instead of being there when she arrived in New Hampshire, and she rightfully felt offended. The following exchange was extremely difficult but so important. I was able to recognize just how much my oldest sister takes on when she accepts the lead in organizing such emotional and important events. And I was able to express to her exactly how much climbing means to me. I told her when I am in the mountains, I feel so content that I could die. It is the closest I can be to mom, and the only thing I want more than that is for our family to be happy.
Perhaps this revelation, more than anything else, was pushing me further and further into the thought of climbing alone. As I ate my dinner and contemplated, a girl walked up next to me to order drinks. As she ordered, she looked down at the Alpinist Magazine sitting in front of me, then to me, and then back at the magazine. She hesitated for a second and then turned back to me asking, “Are you a rock climber?”
“I have climbed a little,” I responded and turned to face her. It was immediately apparent to me, that Sara was my kind of person. A genuine soul that is not afraid to approach someone if she has something to say.
“I have been wanting to get into climbing,” Sara said and proceeded to ask me about where I climb locally and how to get started. I did as I usually do and invited her to the gym where I climb and said if she wanted to get outside, she was more than welcome to join for a day of cragging. It was at this point, that I think Sara decided that I was her kind of person too, because the next thing she said was, “I don’t tell everyone this, but I feel like I met you for a reason. The reason I want to get into climbing is because my fiance, Paige, was into climbing and it was something we looked forward to sharing together. But she was hit by a car while we were on vacation and she died a month ago.”
The air left the room. I am not unfamiliar with death and tragedy, but this felt so intensely fresh, so visceral. Everyone struggles with what to say to a grieving person, but I knew better than to give some cheery advice. Sara wanted to be heard. “I’m so sorry, tell me about Paige.” Sara shared with me the light that Paige had brought into her life. I don’t remember all the words she said that night, but she recently wrote something on an Instagram post that I feel cuts right to the core. The photo is of Paige and her father in a kitchen. The coffee pot is just out of frame and the creamer is poised ready for the morning. Paige is holding a coffee mug delicately and sideways, with disregard, because something else has her attention. Her father stands very close, their heads together and his arm around her. They are both looking down at a phone, the thing that usually divides us. They are both rapt, sharing something. Sara wrote this of Paige, It made more sense to ask how could you not fall in love with her than to ask how did you fall in love with her.
The air had returned to the room. Our talk about Paige merged back into climbing, when Sara let me know “I just want to do something that honors her.”
“I think you will.” I told her that, for me, climbing has been 99% willpower and only 1% ability. I let her know that I would support her if she wanted do a climb in Paige’s honor. She immediately asked me if I had ever been to the White Mountains.
“I have, I am about to go there tomorrow,” I replied, biting my tongue and holding deep inside, my incipient plans to free solo the Lakeview route in the White Mountains. Sara let me know that Paige had grown up in the White Mountains, and she always felt a special connection with that place, through Paige and through Paige’s family. In response, I told Sara that the Whites were special to me too, that my mother had grown up there, and that this very weekend I planned to lay her to rest at the highest point, Mount Washington. The din of the bar had fully faded as we forgot about all the other reasons we had ended up sitting next to each other.
Sara shared her last bit of Paige, “The White Mountains are so special to me. Paige and I hiked to the top of Mount Lafayette together. That is where I asked her to marry me.” Those familiar to the White Mountains will know that there is only a simple notch, free air, and a couple miles that separate Mount Lafayette from the Lakeview Route on Cannon. Every time I had climbed that route before, I looked across the valley at the mountain that Sara had climbed so that she could ask Paige to marry her. My incipient, secret plans to climb that route alone, without a rope, came tumbling out to Sara in one long exhalation.
Sara and I just sat in silence for a second, overwhelmed by the continuous and unrelenting serendipity. That night, I made a pact with Sara that if she ever needed me to guide her on a climb, that I would be there, to help her fulfill that goal of paying tribute to Paige. Even if that climb is as big and removed as something like the Lakeview Route seemed at the moment. And even if it takes time, to learn to climb, to learn to grieve, and to learn to love again, I will be ready. I will be ready when both Sara and Paige are ready.
Sara recently moved away to Asheville, North Carolina, a chance for a fresh start, and to be close to the wilderness and mountains that Paige loved. I don’t know if I will get the chance to support Sara in finding a climb that honors Paige, but I suspect she won’t have to go it alone, no matter where she finds herself. And I can only be thankful that Sara was there for me, when I too wanted to go it alone. There to show me that being alone isn’t my true nature. I was meant to do big things, with someone by my side.
Authored by Andy Munas