This story originally appeared in Alpinist 70 (www.alpinist.com). The illustrations are the work of Andreas Schmidt.
Thank you to Andreas, Katie Ives, Paula Wright, and the entire Alpinist team.
From the Tailings
The early alpine sky appeared black against the shard of white granite, the Bugaboo Spire, that rose above me. My heart thumped and my breath felt short as I plodded over the broken rock and snow of the col. I regrouped with my climbing partner Erik and caught my breath. Erik tried to reuse a joke about the ragged assortment of stoppers that he’d packed for the climb, but thoughts of the looming spire stifled our laughs. Once we left the snowy ramp, all our plans would be replaced with reality: cold rock against warm flesh, scoured glaciers far beneath us, our bodies small dots among the granite expanse.
I first saw the Bugaboo Range on the cover of the seventh edition of Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills. Silhouetted climbers crossed the central spire as distant peaks cradled the stark white glaciers below. The image stirred something within me that I knew had been waiting. Although I was not a climber, I knew I would stand there one day. I started climbing and found adventure in the mountains with my wife, Lindsay. But lately, climbing had begun to increase the distance between us. While I was in the Bugaboos, Lindsay remained at home, nervously awaiting news of our climb.
Originally the word bugaboo referred to an object of fear, and it would be easy to think that an early climber named these spires. In fact, miners bestowed this name on these mountains in 1895 during an ill-fated gold rush. After fighting their way through miles of dense forest, they’d found only meager deposits and worthless rock. Bugaboo reflected the alarm they must have felt having worked themselves into a dead end.
On the drive to the trailhead, Erik and I passed Bugaboo Falls, where the prospectors had abandoned their efforts. We continued further along Bugaboo Creek before leaving the car to hike heavy loads up the steep trail. We made camp on a small patch of flat rock that nestled below the soaring granite towers. I spent a fitful night vacillating between fearing the looming towers and reminding myself that I was well-prepared to climb them. But at the base of Bugaboo Spire, I looked up at the sharp fang and I was still afraid.
I took the lead at the base of the spire’s northeast ridge and started climbing the first crack I saw. About thirty meters into the climb, the crack twisted within the mountain, one side forming a flake that narrowed into a sharp edge. When I flexed my fingers behind the flake, I felt it shift. I plugged a cam into the fissure at my knees. The crack above thinned and disappeared into ripples of smooth granite. I didn’t need to look at the topo to know that I was off route. The crack I should’ve been climbing was twenty feet to the right.
I had worked myself into a dead end, balancing precariously on the slope under my feet, not a handhold in site. I decided to commit to the traverse with no gear. As I took the first few, lichen covered steps, I felt a tug on my harness. The rope had caught on the flake a dozen feet below me. I flicked the rope out from behind the sharp edge and set my foot on a small dish of granite. Just as I relaxed, I was airborne. Passing the flake and the cam, I realized that this was going to be the longest fall I’d ever taken. As I continued to drop, I wondered what I could have done to prevent this outcome. Before the rope came tight, I realized that, much like the ill-fated miners before me, I couldn’t have changed a thing.
I come from a long line of coal miners in the Ohio River Valley. My great-grandfather, Robert (Božo by birth), and my great-grandmother, Smilja, migrated here from Serbia at the turn of the century. As her boat arrived in New York Harbor, Smilja later recalled, the backdrop of twinkling lights of Manhattan looked like heaven. But after a full day of travel, as she stepped off a bus into ankle-deep mud in southeastern Ohio, she was certain that she was in hell.
In a way, Smilja was right. Thirty years after her marriage to Robert, on July 5, 1944, she lost her husband and their son Dewey in the Powhatan Point mine disaster, where sixty-six men slowly asphyxiated, trapped underground below a raging fire. A year later, when the bodies were finally recovered, Robert and Dewey were found in each other’s arms. As the miners waited in vain for rescue, the foreman, George Emery, scribbled notes describing the harrowing scene:
I thought I heard a noise from the outside at 844 p.m. Some of the boys are getting afraid.
Oh Lord what shall I do? The boys are now laying back to back to keep warm.
I have been around again. A lot of the men are out. I tried to help. It’s too late for them and me. God bless us.
1040 p.m. I can see the smoke in this place. The men are restless. They are talking about death. That is a bad sign. I am starting to vomit myself.
1045 p.m. I am lying down. Too sick to explore. My light still burns…. God bless us all. I don’t think we can last much longer…
After the bodies of his father and brother were recovered, my grandfather Eli never returned to work in the coal mines. But when my father went to college, he worked a mining job in the summers to pay for school.
The foreman’s last words had always haunted me in my youth. But unlike those before me, I didn’t sweat and toil underground. Instead, I spent my summers running into backyard woods, down steep hillsides, and into small creeks. In the heart of Appalachia, these remote, steep ravines are known as “hollers,” or hollows.
As I explored those hollers in my youth, I sometimes found myself in a secluded homestead or hunting encampment—places where I knew that I didn’t belong. Occasionally, an angry landowner would chase me away, yelling as I vanished amid the maple trees and thick undergrowth. I passed fields desolated by strip mining. Piles of mine tailings had been discarded and forgotten. Streams were tainted orange with acid mine drainage. But I also found beauty amid the plundered landscape. At sunset, as I clambered up the muddy slopes toward my home, I’d listen to the same chorus of spring peeper frogs that my ancestors heard when they first arrived in Appalachia.
When I left home to go to school, I moved further and further east. I eventually landed in the flat lands of eastern Pennsylvania, where I practiced engineering and raced bicycles all summer. Among the vast fields of corn, each mile I rode took me further from my childhood.
Lindsay balanced on a granite arête high on the shadowed north face of Prusik Peak. The afternoon sun shot rays of light through the gaps in the jagged rock above, casting a pink haze over the horizon and the valley of larches below us. We had just completed our first alpine climb as husband and wife.
Earlier that day, as we approached the West Ridge of Prusik Peak, every time we crested a rise in the poorly defined trail, the knifelike prism of granite would come into view, and my breath caught in my throat. At the base of the climb, the icy wind cut through us as we tied in together. As soon as I began climbing, my early morning nerves had dissipated, and I marveled at the shimmering alpine lakes and golden trees below. Lindsay seldom seemed to look beyond the rock right in front of her. At each belay, I asked her about the last pitch and relayed what was to come. Each time, Lindsay offered up short responses between shallow breaths. But at the apex of the climb, she broke into a full smile. I can still picture her figure against the backdrop of snowfields clinging to mountainsides and emerald lakes glinting far below.
As we descended, on the second-to-last rappel, Lindsay balanced her feet on the arête, walking downward through an overhung section. I looked up as one of her feet skidded from the granite, and the rope swung back into the rock. Her rappel hand struck a sharp horn, and as the shard bit into her skin, she let go of the rope and began to plummet.
A prusik knot stopped her fall almost as abruptly as it began. She hung in the air, still and silent. I called out, “Are you OK?” Without a response, she slowly descended the last few feet onto the ledge next to me, visibly holding back tears. I tried to suppress her fears, ignoring my own.
As soon as we reached the ground, I took off toward camp, walking a few steps ahead of Lindsay, without uttering another word about the fall. Looking back, I can see how foolish I was—bounding over the scree field, ecstatic with the day of climbing, clueless as to the true impact of the day. Lindsay trailed behind me through the talus, hesitating through the precariously balanced boulders. Back at our tent, we untied our wedding rings from the roof and slipped them back on our hands.
I grew up on the Ohio River. In less than a half-day’s drive, down the Ohio and up the Kentucky River, you arrive at the Red River Gorge. In that region, numerous tributaries cut through the hillsides, forming hundreds of miles of undeveloped clifflines that are scattered all around the Red River. Many of the ravines are isolated from the communities nearby. On a trip to one of the many climber-owned and maintained preserves of “The Red,” Lindsay and I ran into a local Kentuckian. Though he wasn’t a climber, he was out walking a trail on the way to one of the nearby crags. I followed quietly behind as his weathered boots, with exposed steel toes, trampled the pine needles lining the trail. He wheezed as he waddled his way up the steep switchbacks, but I still had trouble keeping up with him as the outlines of sandstone began to appear through the forest.
He seemed curious about climbing, and I was happy to take a break from it and indulge him in conversation. He was quick to cast aspersions about the owners of these preserves, “These people think they are so smart. They think they can just come here and buy whatever land they want and boss us around.” His comments came unsolicited, and I suspected that he viewed all climbers as outsiders.
The mistrust carried an echo of resentment against outsiders controlling the lives of local workers of the past. During the early 1900s, the owners of most Appalachian mining operations structured their business so that miners’ lives depended on their employers. Mining companies owned the housing, grocery stores and social services, and even controlled the currency. (Until the 1950s, some Appalachian mining companies still issued and paid employees in “scrip” that was only redeemable at company-owned stores.) “Coercion, the scrip system, and the physical distance often combined to force the miners to deal at the company store,” as historian David Alan Corbin explained in his book, Life, Work, and Rebellion in the Coal Fields. “Through the monopolistic control of food and clothing and tools and powder, the coal companies were able to render wage rates and wage increases meaningless.”
Additionally, with a subjugated workforce, companies were free to push for more production at the sacrifice of safety. Catastrophic accidents were common, and shortly before my ancestor’s arrival, the worst mining disaster in American history claimed the lives of an estimated 500 people. On Friday, December 6, 1907, an explosion at a mine in Monongah, West Virginia officially claimed 361 registered workers; however, many more actually died,as children often accompanied their relatives in the mine and were not part of the official worker rolls. In response to these accidents and the mining companies’ monopolistic control, workers began organizing and founding unions. The push for safety, workers autonomy, and better wages came as a large threat to mining companies, who retaliated by hiring outside security agencies to break picket lines and allow willing workers, derided as “scabs,” to enter the mines and continue work. Tensions rose as tens of thousands of miners and their families were evicted from company housing and relocated to makeshift camps supported by the United Mine Workers union.
A series of battles broke out throughout West Virginia. In 1921 the Battle of Blair Mountain pitted miners against private guards, mining companies and the government, forming the largest insurrection since the American Civil War. Hired guards utilized private airplanes to drop bombs on the miners, and both sides of the conflict armed themselves with surplus machine guns left over from World War I. Between 1912 and 1921, hundreds of lives were lost, mostly on the side of the miners. In the wake of the battles, many union members were tried for murder and treason. Today, these battles are a memory in the hills of Appalachia, brief tales relegated to highway plaques. But among the people, a sense of resentment toward outside infuence remains.
As Lindsay and our friends tied in and began scaling the orange sandstone, the steel-toed Kentuckian and I took a seat on a fallen log. He moved on to other topics, “All this money coming in here, and I can’t get a real job. I went to school for two years. Now working as an EMT, to make half of what my daddy used to make mining coal.” Despite his earlier sentiments about the climbing community, I identified with him. I told him how my great-grandfather had to work in mines as it was his only option, and how my grandfather and father also worked in the mines before finding their way out and into jobs performed above ground. I left out that those jobs were as an art teacher and in engineering.
He looked up at my friends scrambling around the cliff and grimaced, spitting chewing tobacco into the dirt. I waited for what might come next, but he just sighed and nodded. After a long silence, he waved me off to go join my friends, “You know I ain’t gonna go up there and play on that rock, you better get to it.”
I realize that I have been gifted with the good fortune to be born in a time and place that has never required me to risk my life to make a living, and that has allowed me the freedom to move about the world. On that day on Bugaboo Spire, I charged up the wrong route finding myself airborne in the longest fall of my life. Aside from bloodied knuckles, the only thing hurt was my ego. When the surge of adrenaline subsided, I was able to pendulum over to the correct route and resume climbing, my hands leaving traces of blood to collect in patches of lichen. Past the summit, the ridge formed a perfect railing for my hand as Erik and I walked untethered far above the ice below. But with the passage of time, I think less about the summit, and more about the fall and the weaker parts of myself.
In the week after the climb on Bugaboo Spire, Lindsay joined Erik, his wife, and I for a hike in the nearby Kootenay National Park. We walked a bit off the main trail to a pass that cut through limestone monoliths on either side. At the top of the pass, we sat down to have lunch. To my surprise, I could just make out the striking features of the Bugaboo Spire, fifty kilometers to the west. I directed Lindsay’s attention to the distant spire and pointed to the route Erik and I had climbed. For a moment, the sky was crystal clear. The sun struck the front of the spire, leaving the ridge a dark knife jutting towards the sky. But as I pointed and stammered, a few clouds moved in and cast shadows over the mountains. I soon fell quiet, squinting into the distance, as the sunlight in the Bugaboos was blotted out entirely.
For a time, Lindsay and I continued to travel around the world. We climbed to the top of many other peaks and motorcycled through Vietnam. We slept on airport floors and stayed in Buddhist monasteries. I thought the adventures wouldn’t end. But I started hearing comments such as, “That was a great climb, but I would never do it again.” Or “This is an OK house, but it isn’t my forever home.” Or finally, “I can’t see myself losing your last name, but I can’t continue in this.”
After the divorce, I just wanted to keep moving. The house was sold in a matter of months. I let go of most of the possessions inside: I never again wanted to look at our old table or dresser, with all of their sharp and precise edges. Aside from the barest of necessities, the only possession I kept was a black-and-white photograph of Prusik Peak reflected in an alpine lake. I distinctly remember asking Lindsay that I be allowed to take it. It was the one possession that felt contested between us. I thought Lindsay may say that she wanted it, or maybe she would have preferred that neither of us had it. But her hesitation lasted only a moment, and she nodded silently in assent. After we’d taken turns removing and dividing all of our other possessions, I grasped the flaking wood frame and pulled Prusik down from its station above the fireplace.
I returned to our old house one last time. The walls echoed with all the contents removed, the empty spot above the fireplace reverberating. I found a nook in the stairwell on the way to the basement, just above a faded bumper sticker that stated, “This Car Climbed Mt. Washington.” I placed a nail just out of sight into the age-hardened oak. Before leaving for good, I removed my wedding ring one last time, and let it fall onto that nail.
In the years after my divorce, I lived alone in the attic of a boarding house with the photo of Prusik Peak and other reminders of my past. I hadn’t soloed before, but now I found myself drawn to long days alone on big mountain ridgelines. I loved these sojourns for their ability to consume time. For days before a solitary journey, I could contemplate the possible outcomes. For days afterward, I could recite the events in my own mind, solidifying those moments of beauty that weren’t shared. I still recall the solemn pickets of mottled schist above New Zealand, the lonely ramparts of metamorphic mudstone in Colorado.
When I mustered up the energy to face our old friends, I climbed in a group again. One of the cliffs we frequented was near the coal-mining town of Mocanaqua. As I first walked up the Black Creek drainage, I noticed how the soil was loose enough to scoop with my hands. As I pulled up handfuls of coarse rock that grated my fingers like sandpaper, it became clear that the debris was unnatural. When I returned home, I read mining and geology journals for more information about the history of the area. The ground underfoot, I learned, was comprised of waste from defunct mining operations.
Mines often pile their waste, or tailings, wherever it is convenient. Near Black Creek, the beautiful gorges of exposed quartzite provided an easy dumping ground. Dumping these tailings into the gorge, the mines rendered what would have been a 200-foot-tall cliff that might have rivaled the Shawangunks of New York in popularity, into a sixty-foot-tall obscure destination. But as coal mines have shuttered, residents of Mocanaqua have suffered with the industry’s demise. Many jobs left the area. Abandoned and dilapidated homes ease themselves into their foundations. Closed businesses are marked with boarded windows, plastered with advertisements for addiction recovery centers.
As part of my job, I assess damaged buildings, and I often find myself in similar towns, commiserating with the homeowners about their plights. Very often, we’ll talk about their former jobs in coal mines or steel mills. I try to explain that there is beauty to be reclaimed all around them, but the world of a rock climber, seemingly wasting time wandering the forest in tight-fitting shoes, is far removed from the life of a retired coal miner with an oxygen tank in tow. I have been in so many of those homes that they all start to blend together: dark shag carpeting, wood paneled walls, smoke stained ceiling tiles. Eventually, conversation stalls, and I leave the dimly lit living rooms, grateful for a reminder of my family’s past.
It is easy to understand the indignation that many coal miners must feel. In 1962, a surface fire ignited an entire network of underground mines in Centralia, Pennsylvania. Despite the resulting plumes of toxic carbon monoxide and sinkholes that opened to swallow children, many residents were slow to move away. During the 1990s, as the fire raged underground, the governor invoked eminent domain to condemn a majority of the town, forcing many of the residents out of their homes. Today, even as the underground inferno still burns, homeowners are petitioning to remain. Their jobs and sometimes their homes have disappeared. Lung diseases, herniated discs, lost loved ones, and lifetimes of struggle are often left unacknowledged.
I have chosen all the risk in my life, but my great-grandfather and great-uncle didn’t have that opportunity. Mining has since become a lot safer, but once Robert and Smilja stepped off that bus in the Ohio River Valley, their lives and Robert’s death underground were almost inevitable. A pocket watch, recovered from the body of my great-grandfather, has become a symbol of our family’s trauma. I have only seen this watch once. My uncle keeps the heirloom hidden from view, as if opening its faceplate could reveal the suffering inside. I have actually never held the watch in my hands, but it remains fixed in my imagination. I can see it resting in my great-grandfather’s coal stained palm, his arms wrapped around his son, as the waning light from dying headlamps fades deep beneath the earth.
On Prusik that day with Lindsay, I was focused on the task at hand: movement over rock, placing protection, rope drag, building belays. With a single-minded purpose, I passed over an old Chouinard cam wedged deep in the rock. I didn’t bother to clip the rope into it. I kept moving, built an anchor, and set to work belaying Lindsay. The rope fed steadily through the belay device, with Lindsay out of sight, until she stopped for a long period of time.
I started to become impatient, and just as I was about to call out to her, the rope began to move again. Soon, Lindsay quietly joined me at the belay. As we exchanged the gear for me to lead the next pitch, she paused for a second. “I don’t think this is yours, is it?”, she said. She held up the Chouinard cam that I’d dismissed as stuck. I was shocked to see she had freed that relic from the stone. Lindsay held it out to me, in both hands, as if it was a gift. I took the cam and looked at it closely for the first time. The edges of the red lobes were well worn and rounded, decades of granite filing at the aluminum. The trigger wires were frayed, and when pulled, one side of the cam remained stuck in the closed position. I had dismissed the cam as beyond recovery, and it was only Lindsay that took the time and had the patience to bring something back from that day.
Now, the photo of Prusik Peak sits above my bed. The cam hangs as a make-shift pull switch for the light in that room. I have to decide what parts of my past I will reclaim. In my more honest moments, I know I am ceaselessly repeating the past, indignant that the world is changing around me. I become so focused on what I want the future to be that I can overlook the present. But I am trying to change. I want to bring someone new into my life and show them both the cam and photograph. I want to tell them about the day Lindsay reclaimed it from high on that peak, to explain the parts of my past that I do want to keep.
As I put these thoughts to paper, I sent Lindsay a message, “Do you miss the photo of Prusik that I took? I’m writing about it, and I feel like I didn’t give you much of a say when I took it.” I never found out what was behind her hesitation when I asked to keep the photograph all those years ago. Privately, I was worried to learn why. I know I wasn’t prepared for her to take the photograph back. But if the past is any indication, I’m not sure I’ll ever get the luxury of feeling ready to move on.