Collateral Damage

Posted on: June 18, 2008

David Thoenen

Stefan's dog was playing with his bowl in the corner of the kitchen. He dropped his front legs to the floor, stuck his nose into the empty bowl, and with a twist of his neck slammed it into the baseboard.

Trevor's worn nerves ripped. “Reinhold!” he bellowed. “Cut that shit out!”

Reinhold ignored Trevor. I poured another cup of coffee from the pot on the kitchen table.

Trevor resumed his account. “Stefan broke trail up through the base of the ravine. It didn't get technical 'til we got up to the gully. Just post-holing through new snow.” The tension in his voice intensified as he spoke.

“Once we got in the gully we found ice but it was thin. Early season stuff. We should have just turned around, Freddie. But we'd invested a lot of energy to get that far. Neither one of us wanted to admit that the best decision was to go home.” He stroked his beard. “We didn't discuss it.”

I interrupted. “But Trevor, we've been there under similar conditions. We've turned around. More than once.” I stared down at the table and shook my head.

“Sure, Freddie, ” he confirmed with a bitter tone. “But we weren't there with Stefan. When you're climbing with someone that strong there's a feeling that he can get up anything. You know. You've been there. The sun is shining; there's no wind; Stefan will lead. It'll be a great climb.”

“Yeah, I've been there,” I agreed. After a decade of climbing with Stefan, Trevor and I had felt that vibe often.

The bowl slammed again. Reinhold barked and shot a glance at Trevor, testing for a reaction, hoping for some attention from his new master. Trevor, now caught up in his story, seemed to have forgotten Reinhold.

He continued. “Right from the start Stefan was balancing up some really sketchy shit, but he was able to get in three decent screws. We had those bolts at the top of the first pitch so our anchor was solid. I just tippy-toed up without much worry. Stefan offered to swing leads but it was too dicey for me.” Trevor took a sip of coffee before continuing.

“Now there's no chance to get in a screw. He messed around at a couple of spots, giving it a try, but it was a waste of time. He just kept climbing, angling for the rock wall on the left. I guess he figured he could get in some gear at the wall. Then " and I don't know why " his right crampon came off. For one or two seconds it was dangling at the heel, and then it dropped clean off.”

“Did he fall right away?” I asked.

“No. He had his tools planted so-so and, I guess, a not-too-bad foot. I just held my breath. He'd run out about forty feet and didn't have a frigging thing in above my belay. He slowly, very slow-like, moved a tool a little farther to his left. Real slow and smooth. Headed for the wall. He did this one-legged thing where he'd set his tools and then swing over with his foot. I thought he'd make it. But after five or six of these moves a tool popped when he was moving his foot. He hung on by the other for maybe a second. Then it came out and down he came. Quietly. Didn't say anything. Nothing. He just slid and bounced right on past me. His helmet came off. Head injuries killed him. Flipped and bounced on his head.” Trevor sighed and resumed tugging at his beard. “Those bolts are solid. I'm here to vouch for that.”

He paused for a moment and then whispered, “We shouldn't have been up there. We had choices. Another week, a little more ice, a couple of screws and it would have been cool. But I figured with Stefan ...” Trevor stopped for a few seconds, watching the dog. “Well, you know, no worries.”

He got up from the table, retrieved Reinhold's dish from the floor, and tossed it into the sink. “More coffee, Freddie?”

“No, thanks,” I replied. “I'm meeting Claudine at twelve to help wrap up arrangements for the funeral. She's really suffering. Eight years. And now she's lost him.”

Trevor looked absently around the room. Suddenly he sat down and looked up with an angry expression. “Freddie? You know what pisses me off? It's those assholes that keep referring to Stefan's 'tragic death'. Tragic? He's dead, that's for sure. And, yeah, he was just thirty-one and all of that bullshit. But tragic? Tragic is those kids in Darfur that are starving to death! Tragic is some poor son-of-a-bitch with a wife and three kids sitting down at his desk just when a frigging terrorist flies an airplane through his office window! That's tragic. Stefan getting his ass killed falling down some ice?”

His tone softened. “That ain't tragic.” He shook his head, the anger returning in his voice as he whispered, “Sad? Sure! But not tragic!”

I shrugged and moved towards the door. Then I turned back to Trevor. “Trevor? What about his mom and dad? And Claudine? He was everything in her life! For them it's an awful hurt. It's a tragedy for them. Isn't it?”

“For them? Yeah, for them it's tragic. They have to live with it. No damn choice. But not tragic for Stefan. He had choices. Didn't he, Freddie?”

I nodded and left. Reinhold bounced out the door and trotted at my heels, hoping to hitch a ride home to play with Stefan. “Stay, Reinhold,” I commanded.

My truck slipped down the snowy drive. In the rear view mirror I could see the dog, lying in the drive, head between his paws, watching the truck leave. Yeah, Reinhold, I thought. It's the bystanders. They're the ones that pay the piper.