Posted on: June 1, 2007
Karen McNeill in the Canadian Rockies, winter 2006. McNeill and partner Sue Knott disappeared on Mt. Foraker's Infinite Spur a few months after this photo was taken. [Photo] Andrew Querner
On the Deck
I'm hungover, sanding the deck railing, when I daydream that Karen is dead. A squirrel chatters; there's paint on my hands. I wonder what her death would be like: What would I do? How would I feel? I keep sanding, arms and hands moving, back and forth, pushing through. The world lurches, steadies, continues revolving.
A couple of hours later I'm crossing the street after unloading a wheelbarrow of garbage when Rob drives up.
"What up?" he says. He gives me a hug as usual. It's not typical for Rob to stop by, but it's not abnormal, either. I show him what I've been doing on the deck and in the yard. We chat about his new girlfriend. He sits on the railing with his feet kicking under him.
Then he says, "Ammon got an email from Mark Westman today. They've started to look for Karen."
I jerk. "How long have they been gone?"
"Will Mayo and Maxime Turgeon saw them starting up on the 14th."
Quickly, I calculate backward. My mind stumbles, recalculates, tries to get a smaller number. But it keeps coming up nineteen days. I breathe out slowly, studying the sanded two-by-sixes. "Fuck."
I talk fast. Think fast. "How much fuel did they have?"
"The nearest guess is fourteen days." (Weeks later we will know they had less.) "Mayo said their packs were huge."
"They could stretch fourteen into nineteen." I grasp at shreds of logic. Rob lets me. He's not as close to Karen. He's come because of me.
When Rob and Ammon climbed the Infinite Spur in 2001, it took them seven days. Rob said it was the hardest thing he'd ever done. He said he saw God. I look at his tan quadriceps flexing and pulling, strong knees, big feet kicking back and forth. I imagine Ammon, even bigger, 215 pounds of agile brawn.
When Rob leaves, I panic. I run through the house, up and down the stairs, throwing open doors and windows. Dial Will's cell phone. Slam the receiver down on his voice mail. Dial Jen. We have to trust Karen, she says—it's not faithful to think the worst. I call Meagan. She says she doesn't feel anything bad. I hang up and hyperventilate. Sob a mantra: fuck me fuck me oh fuck fuck fuck. I float away from my body, where I see my hysteria isn't going to help.
The next day Brad, Karen's partner, calls at noon. "Kim, they've started a search."
I tell him I know.
Then he says, "They found a pack. The radio. A sleeping bag."
My panic goes berserk, sprinting around my mind. Wringing its hands. I visualize slapping it across the face. Snap out of it. Swallow hard.
"It's not good, is it?"
"They're calling every two hours. I get confused. I don't know what they're talking about."
Brad's an artist, a master chef. He's not a climber. I tell him I'm coming over. He sounds relieved. But I go out on the deck and paint for two more hours first.
The day before Karen left for Alaska, she came over to borrow a pair of axes. Petzl was sending her a new pair, straight to Alaska, but she worried they might not make it in time. Why didn't she just take an old pair of hers? I asked. Her old tools were too heavy, or they'd been lost, or they didn't have a good adze. I don't remember exactly now.
In my garage: that's the last place I saw her, surrounded by climbing gear—packs, carabiners, pitons, ice screws, ropes. I shuffled through a stack of picks like a deck of cards and picked out two new ones. I unbolted the old pick with a wrench.
"You're bringing a radio this time, aren't you?" I asked
She laughed—nervously? "We have two for base camp," she said. "I'll hide one in my pack for the route if Sue doesn't want to take it."
"I'll kick your ass if you don't. Tell Sue I'll kick hers too."
We talked about tools. I thought she should take mine on the route. "Sue has these tools, too, so you can share the extra pick," I said. "It makes sense to use the same tools." I bolted a new adze onto one of them, threaded a leash through the head and estimated the proper length for her big Alaskan gloves. I remember the feel of the axe moving through my hands—the familiar weight, the rubber grip. I reached up and swung it in the air. "I love these tools. I've climbed thousands of feet with them."
If she took them, a part of me would be with her. I'd have a hand in helping her succeed. I finished tightening down the picks and reminded her to check them for loosening before she used them. I handed her a spare, just in case. I gave her a tutorial on the leashes even though she knew perfectly well how to use them.
She moved to the doorway. The early May sun was high behind her. Her dark silhouette hid her features but spread her in a thin shadow across the concrete floor. I walked across her shadow, her silhouetted legs much longer and skinnier, her wild, curly hair diffused over an empty backpack. I passed her the axes, together, crossed like an X. Her hand brushed mine as she took them. I smiled at her. "Don't do anything I wouldn't do."
We hugged. My face was lost in her hair, the smell of madder-root shampoo. Black curls sprung into my eyes and nose. A low rumble in my mind, like far-off thunder: "Is this the last time I'll see her?"
I'd forgotten her birthday the week before. I'm terrible at remembering birthdays; she remembers everybody's, every year. She hadn't said it, but I knew I was in a bit of shit. I'd already told her that she had to come home to get her present. In those last minutes I thought about telling her to be careful, to keep her wits about her. But I would never say that; I'm not sure I even thought it. I'd felt similarly when she left for China the year before, hadn't I? It's normal to feel that way, par for the pre-expedition experience.
Instead, I said, "Remember, no birthday present unless you come back."
She raised her eyebrows. "I look forward to it."
The gate slammed. I listened to her feet slap the sidewalk as she ran to her car, too excited to walk.
Three weeks after Karen's memorial Brad gave me a key to his place. We were in his kitchen. He was making a green salad. I stood, swilling wine between sentences. In the search for a salad tong, he had unconsciously pulled open Karen's catch-all drawer.
"Ah fuck," he said. He swung around and leaned on the sink. "I can barely move in here—have to keep my eyes down so I don't see stuff. I can't walk in the front door without breaking up."
In the drawer were scraps of paper scrawled with Karen's handwriting: lists, phone numbers, notes-to-self, recipes, a varied assortment of lip goop, sunglasses, a tampon, hair scrunchies. I picked up some Burt's Bees lip balm, opened the lid and sniffed.
Brad started crying. "Her shit is everywhere. I can't fucking stand it—crying every second."
I replaced the lip balm and picked up a piece of notepaper. "Gone to gym. Make me dinner, bitch!" signed with a squiggly happy-face, three curls springing out from above the eyes. Below the note, a recipe for chicken madras curry, and a homemade card from one of her students: "Ms. McNeill's got the best smile, she wears the funniest pants, she makes me happy," in unsure lettering over a water-color rainbow. A lined page ripped from a spiral notebook entitled Alaska Contacts: a number for a hotel in Anchorage, two numbers for Talkeetna Air Taxi, park service numbers, Sue's cell phone, Dr. Jen Dow.
Brad peeked over my shoulder. "Christ." He slumped back on the sink again and took a long pull off his rum and coke. "She was worried. Never left me so many goddamn numbers before." He raised his drink to the fridge. There was another contact list just above a picture of her surrounded by a massive, flowering Scotch Broom bush in New Zealand. Cheeky smile, ruddy skin, black hair springing out boisterously in all directions. She looked like an imp.
"If you want, I'll clean this place, get rid of stuff. Pack it up."
"Would you? I can't. Don't know what to do." He was shaking.
I poured myself another tall glass of merlot, took a long slow sip, stared into the red.
"I'll deal with it," I said.
In the spring of 2005, my boyfriend, Will, lost his longtime friend and flying brother Chris Mueller to a hangliding accident. Fuelled by the angst of his grief, Will single-handedly bulldozed and wheelbarrowed massive rocks around the yard for two days to create the Chris Mueller Memorial Rock Garden. Now it seems we work on our yard every time a friend dies. Not long ago, right before the first big ground freeze of the season, we planted the Todd Skinner Memorial Hoopsi Spruce. For weeks this summer I worked on the McNeill Memorial Lawn.
In order to make the lawn I had to dig up an old concrete greenhouse foundation. Demolition therapy. Me, a pickaxe, a sledge hammer and bare feet against two-foot-deep slabs in the rocky dirt.
The Monday after Brad gave me the key to his place I pounded and dug in the garden for eight hours straight. Again, on Tuesday, I pounded for most of the day. I was terrified of being alone with Karen's things: picking them up, packing them, throwing them away. What if she got pissed? Karen was never fun when she was angry. But even more I was scared I might melt down. That I might not recover.
Finally, exhausted enough to be courageous, I dropped the pickaxe, headed over to her place and let myself in the front door. The empty echo nearly knocked me down. I reeled up the stairs and into the kitchen. There were three bottles of wine unfinished from Saturday night. I popped a cork and had a glass. Poured another.
I started in easy places like the laundry room and the downstairs bathroom, removing things—Gore-Tex soap, durable water-repellency treatment—that Brad would never use. In the bathroom I replaced fancy, frilly soaps with plain white ivory. I threw her shoes—so many shoes—in one box, her coats in another. A cupboard full of jewelry boxes, wrapping paper, ribbons, fancy gift bags went into the garbage.
A couple of hours later I was drunk, angry and crying when I found myself standing in her bedroom at her closet door. Karen loved fashion. She loved to shop. She watched Entertainment Tonight to see what the stars were wearing. I spent three hours trying on every single thing in her closet: painted jeans, wild, print-patterned pants, frilly shirts, vinyl jackets, silk scarves, underwear. Everything that I had given her in the past and everything that I decided I liked I pulled out and put in a pile: "I'm taking this back, bitch." Or: "Hey, I want this. I think I'll have it. Ha."
It took me three days to pack up all her stuff. I stayed drunk the whole time. Between glasses of wine I took breaks and smoked Drum cigarettes out on the deck. I touched all her things. I sorted her journals and her books. I wasn't painting or digging, but my arms and hands were moving back and forth, pushing through. When I locked the door behind me after the third day the world moved steadily along.