The Climbing Life

Posted on: January 1, 2010

Longtime Alpinist illustrator Sean McCabe passed away on November 7, 2009. Sean's brilliant contributions to his community as an artist, a climber, a skier and an award-winning teacher—and his profound devotion to his friends, family and students—leave a legacy of vibrant color, beauty and light. For more of Sean's story, read the November 23, 2009 Feature. His art can be purchased at; proceeds benefit his wife, Laura, and daughters, Novie (7) and Dashe (3). [Illustration] Sean McCabe


The rattle of the compartment door pulls me awake. Weak gray light leaks in. Something blue moves on my right. The window is a black mass. Across from me, a hodgepodge of red and blond groans. Blind, I start to pat down my surroundings, looking for my glasses.


I don't hear the punitive-sounding voice until it finishes. The word doesn't seem to have any letters in it. I still haven't found my glasses.

"Potni List In Vozounica, PROSIM."

It's not English or German: Where are we anyway?

My hand brushes the familiar object, and the world comes into focus. I'm in a train. A man in a gray, paramilitary uniform is standing in the doorway. I'm definitely in the former Yugoslavia.

"Um, wake up, man. We're at a border. Tickets." I nudge my friend. Judson's blond beard emits another groan. The rest of his head extricates itself from his red soft-shell pillow. The guard is all gray except for his shining black gun belt, which is very full. Judson smoothes down his beard and produces a mess of strange-colored currency, receipts and napkins. From these odds and ends emerge our train tickets. The man's black boots match the gun belt perfectly. He shakes his head, saying something that sounds even harsher.


The man's heavy belt buckle is in a perfect line with the metal buttons of his shirt. Judson and I fumble for our passports, searching jackets and daypacks. The incomprehensible orders grow louder. I suddenly picture every grainy black-and-white photo of gulags that I've ever seen: work camps, tattered blankets, chains, a bare lightbulb swinging alone in a dark room.... I find Judson's passport just as Judson finds mine. Saved! We turn around. The guard has gone silent. Not good. He looks at me. I see the Siberian steppe, chained men crushing big stones into little ones.


The guard, his gun belt and his heavy black boots step into the compartment. I choke. He says something again, this time a single, indecipherable word: "Alpnisty."

He looks up to where our big packs are wedged into the luggage rack.

It's 3 a.m. My eyes feel as if they're melting. My head hurts. My feet hurt. My fingers are sore. All I want is sleep and a shower. We don't have drugs. We don't have cigarettes or alcohol or whatever you can't bring across the border. We don't even have toothpaste. I imagine unpacking our bags. Ropes, clothes, books, slings, cams (How do you mime placing cams?) and sausage spread out across the cramped train compartment. Shit, I bet there is a folding knife in my pack. I bet those aren't allowed. This is going to be really bad.

The man repeats the word.

"Alpiniste?" My brain clicks on. I know this word. And the guard isn't staring at the packs, but at the yellow something under the bags. The rope.

"Ja, Alpiniste." I say back. He slowly looks around our compartment. I follow his gaze: the yellow tails of our rope peek from under a bag; a climbing helmet containing a piece of fruit and the remainders of dinner rests on the table; muddy boots hide under the seats. His eyes grow soft at the sight of our torn pants and untamed beards. I look at his worn hands as he stamps our passports. Lined with wrinkles, his gray eyes smile. His face is cleanshaven, but slightly weathered, his nose peeling from a bad sunburn. His uniform is just that, a uniform, clothes.

"Alpiniste," he says one more time, we nod, and he backs out of the compartment gently pushing the door closed.

—Keese Lane, Westford, Vermont

Four more stories from our readers are published in Alpinist 29. Subscribe to Alpinist and never miss another issue. Submit your own story to The Climbing Life by contacting our editorial department.

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