Also in This Area
Also in This Style
What We Search For
Posted on: January 30, 2023
[This story originally appeared in Alpinist 80, which is available in our online store.—Ed.]
Illustration by Andreas Schmidt
WHAT THEY SEARCHED FOR wouldn't look like a body, not anymore. They looked for a small thing to place in a grave, a way for his family to say goodbye. His ice axe glinting in the snow, perhaps, or a boot, wedged between some boulders.
Maybe his bones.
Most of the searchers didn't know Matthew Greene. Most hadn't met him. He'd climbed mountains, as they did, and that's why they went looking. Some went into California's Eastern Sierra shortly after he disappeared and found nothing. Others went back, year after year.
Matthew left his campsite in Mammoth Lakes on July 17, 2013. He'd had car trouble in Mammoth, and he often hitched rides or took shuttles to trailheads while it was being repaired. He didn't tell anyone where he was going that day and never returned. He was reported missing thirteen days later.
With no last-known destination, no official search and rescue team was dispatched to look for him in the rugged Sierra backcountry above Mammoth Lakes. "There's nowhere to search," Mammoth's police chief told CBS News at the time, "because there's hundreds and hundreds of square miles just in our county."
The author Norman Maclean once wrote, "One of the finest things men and women do is rescue men and women, even when they know they are rescuing the dead." Those people emerged after Matthew disappeared. Some Mono County SAR members did go looking, checking summit registers for Matthew's signature under the guise of training exercises. A California Highway Patrol helicopter visited the Minarets on a training run. Mono County SAR also posted on climbing forums, like SummitPost, asking "peak baggers in the Central Sierra Nevada" to keep their eyes open. Volunteers and SAR members posted flyers at trailheads and shuttle stops. Dean Rosnau, a retired SAR expert, spent over 200 days searching for Matthew's body. He returned for several summers, mostly alone, scouring an endless landscape of snow and shifting rock. Another searcher, Peter "Maverick" Agoston, organized yearly trips with members of an online outdoors forum. He picked a new location each time.
The volunteers made calculated guesses, reading the runes of what gear Matthew left in his tent and broken-down car. They speculated over what he might've taken with him, the ice axe and boots, missing pages from a guidebook. They imagined Matthew's ambitions, which routes would have intrigued him, which climbs he'd skip. All of the searchers could be wrong.
Illustration by Andreas Schmidt
I DIDN'T KNOW MATTHEW either. I've never rescued anyone. I'm just a reporter. When I first saw his face on a missing person flyer, I was sitting in a cubicle in Pennsylvania at the newspaper where I work. Matthew's halfsmile and pale blue eyes reminded me of a dear friend I'd loved and lost. Matthew and that friend, Anthony, didn't have any connection or much in common. People often pointed out that discrepancy over the years as proof I'd gotten lost in this story.
Anthony and I met in high school in the early 1990s. We were partners on the wrestling team and wannabe poets; two brooding, psychedelic explorers of our suburban New Jersey landscape. One impulsive night, when we were teenagers, I decided I didn't fit in this world. Adulthood, I figured, would be worse. Hours later, when I awoke on railroad tracks, I carried Anthony home and dumped him on my lawn.
"You need to take us to the hospital," I told my parents.
We each spent a night or two in the ER and went to see therapists afterward, then seemingly went on with our lives. We didn't talk about that night much. As adults, I thought we'd found lives we could live with. I married and had kids in my early twenties and yearned for the steady life. Anthony moved to San Francisco. He dated beautiful women and had lots of odd jobs and adventures in Lake Tahoe and Napa. When I visited him once, we took mescaline and crawled around Joshua Tree's mind-bending landscape for hours. For many years, his life in California seemed idyllic, until I learned, one day, that it wasn't. It was September of 2011 and Anthony had flown home for a wedding. Over coffee, he told me he was finished fighting. He planned to fly back and take his own life. He wanted to say goodbye.
Instead, I alerted his family and, a few days later, confronted him at the Philadelphia airport in a panic, threatening to pull fire alarms if he boarded the plane. He promised me he'd stay alive and flew back to California. We talked more than ever after that. He came back to New Jersey a few months later to be closer to family. He juggled jobs and medication and we continued our long debates about life and death.
"You will never get or understand what it feels like to be me. Sorry. You can't feel the pain I have," Anthony wrote to me in January 2012.
"I know," I replied. "I thought I could, but I can't fully understand it. I want to help you, though."
Those who need our help the most, as Maclean wrote in A River Runs Through It, often elude us. All Anthony seemed to want from me was a "goodbye," a promise to move on without him, and I couldn't.
"I wish people could just forget I am here," he wrote me.
Anthony died on September 23, 2013, a few months after Matthew Greene disappeared.
Grief, we're told, has distinct stages. We expect to pass through each one, like a doorway, from denial all the way to acceptance. I expected that too. As the months wore on, a sense of guilt metastasized inside me. Friends and family said I tried my best with him. I had no special power, they said, to keep him alive. I rejected those words and turned inward. Grief warped my ability to love, and to accept it, too. I spent a lot of time in bed, barely present with my kids. I sobbed in my car during commutes.
The volunteers made calculated guesses, reading the runes of what gear Matthew left in his tent and broken-down car.... They imagined Matthew's ambitions, which routes would have intrigued him, which climbs he'd skip. All of the searchers could be wrong.
Those doorways through grief soon became unhinged, and then the walls disappeared.
MATTHEW GREENE HAD GROWN up in northeast Pennsylvania, in a middle-class family of six, not far from where Anthony and I grew up in New Jersey. He felt at home in the rivers and lakes around him. He was willing to test limits, too, and said as much in 1991 when he graduated from Lehighton Area High School. Greene, a National Honor Society member, was chosen as the student speaker. "We must not be too scared to take risks, and most of all, we must live life to the fullest," he told classmates.
After college, he taught for three years with the Peace Corps in Papua New Guinea. Afterward, Matthew became a high school math teacher in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. Matthew was in his midtwenties when his colleague and close friend Viola Krouse introduced him to climbing and mountaineering during a road trip through Canada. He honed his skills in New York's "Gunks," she said, and summited most of the Adirondack high peaks. Krouse told me Matthew quickly graduated to more difficult routes, his skills and ambition outpacing hers and those of most other climbers she knew. He lived alone in Bethlehem, a former steel town seventy miles north of where I worked in Philly, and he spent summer breaks driving west to bag peaks and tackle challenging climbs in Utah and Colorado.
When the school year ended in June of 2013, Matthew headed west toward California. He camped in Mammoth and climbed nonstop. On June 29, he met up with friends to climb the iconic Crystal Crag above Lake George. On July 8, he soloed Riegelhuth Minaret, a striking, 10,560-foot spire of loose rock in the Minarets. He told a friend it was "scary." One of his last-known climbs was Unicorn Peak, south of Yosemite's Tuolumne Meadows, on July 13.
On July 16, he told his parents, Bob and Patricia, that he was planning one last day in the mountains. Then he would retrieve his car and rendezvous with friends for more climbing in Colorado. The next morning, he left campsite 164 at New Shady Rest Campground and didn't tell anyone where he was going. On July 21, the campground host notified police that a camper hadn't returned, and Matthew's belongings were placed in storage. A friend reported Matthew missing on July 29 after learning his car had been repaired and had been sitting in the shop for over a week.
Illustration by Andreas Schmidt
Within days, news of his disappearance spread. Matthew's mother, Patricia Greene, told a reporter he was a bit of a loner and that weeks could pass before the family heard from him in the summer, so his silence wasn't unusual. In the weeks after Matthew was reported missing, his friends and climbing partners converged on Mammoth to hand out flyers and talk with business owners. His disappearance became a popular topic on SuperTopo, where users posted hundreds of comments and searchers, like Dean Rosnau, wrote trip reports. The Greenes hired a plane to scan and photograph large swaths of the Eastern Sierra near Mammoth to no avail. They hoped survival skills he'd learned in the Peace Corps would help him stay alive.
"It's possible," Patricia said. "It's just that it's so long. No matter how good you are, no one is invincible."
IN THE SPRING OF 2014, I was using my own journalism as a sort of makeshift therapy. None of my editors saw I'd become a vampire for grief. Instead of going to grief counseling, I focused on stories full of heartache. I arrived at funerals early and lingered in places where the shock of bad news hadn't worn off. Pain that raw made me forget my own for a moment. When I read about a man who watched his wife die while BASE jumping in Zion National Park, I reached out to him, barely pretending to be a journalist.
"How did you deal with the grief?" I asked him.
I first read about Matthew around this time and saw his photo from a newspaper in Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley. I was at my desk in downtown Philly and began to dig a little more. Journalists had written a dozen or so articles about Matthew's disappearance by then, often focusing on the vastness of the Sierra and the long odds the searchers faced. One article mentioned students wearing "green for Greene" at a Nazareth football game, while another highlighted a scholarship the Greenes had created in Matthew's name, for a student interested in "hiking, the outdoors and math." (Later, while still looking for information about the case, I came across an excellent article in a 2016 issue of Climbing magazine by Monica Prelle that chronicled the days leading up to Matthew's disappearance.)
On the "Find Matthew Greene" Facebook page, I connected with Matthew's sister, Tiffany Minto. She let me read letters Matthew had sent her during his Peace Corps years, when she was still home, navigating adolescence. He had lent her his car while he was gone, with the caveat that there be "no making out in the back, front, or in the trunk." He's the epitome of a big brother in the letters, both wise and a bit of a wiseass. An easy idol to look up to, I imagine, and a hard person to lose.
Tiffany told me her family was heading to Mammoth that summer. Her dad planned to "hike, find peace...I don't really know." I hatched a muddled plan. Despite minimal research about the Sierra Nevada and zero climbing experience, I would fly to California to help search for Matthew's remains or, better yet, drive there with Bob Greene. Finding Matthew's bones could inch the Greenes closer to closure, I thought, and also pay off my perceived debt to Anthony's family on some cosmic ledger.
I wrote Matthew's parents letters and left voicemails, asking them if I could tag along on their journey or interview them at length in Pennsylvania. I mentioned my friend, what I thought was our common bond, but the Greenes didn't respond. I stopped short of driving to their home in Pennsylvania.
"They are really nice people; just set in their ways and stubborn," Tiffany explained. "What happened with Matt just hangs around us in various ways; we're all still dealing with it separately."
The Greenes' silence led me to Dean Rosnau, the retired SAR expert looking for Matthew. Tiffany said he was going to guide her father in Mammoth. I found Dean on SuperTopo, where he went by "Cragman," and we messaged each other for years. I mostly pestered him about gear and his search plans. I revealed things he didn't need to know: "I think I'm going camping in Maine this summer," or "I think my marriage is falling apart." I made and canceled plans to join Dean for a search in California several times over the years. I had three children, a second job and a bloated mortgage. He could probably see how chaotic my life was, how little backcountry experience I had, and he seemed wary. I didn't blame him.
"Grief," Joan Didion once wrote, "turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it." Over time, that statement felt truer than anything else I'd read about the subject. One winter night, in 2015, I reached my own dead end. I was sobbing over a bowl of cereal at 3 a.m. and wished I could fall asleep and not wake up. I decided, finally, to seek counseling.
In those dark years, my journey to the Sierra remained a future to cling to.
WHEN MATTHEW'S FAMILY, friends and former students traveled to Mammoth in the summer of 2014, they were looking for ways to say "goodbye." They hiked the lower elevations, safer trails below the ice and summits where Matthew likely died. Dean wrote an affidavit that the Greenes presented before a Pennsylvania judge, who declared Matthew dead. Dean later told me that he thought Matthew likely died in a fall, possibly in the Ritter Range west of Mammoth.
A trampoline sat on the lawn, beyond the flowers, and I imagined my kids jumping on it, their heads reaching for the sun. A lump rose in my throat, and I had to look away.
Bob Greene spent the entire summer of 2014 in Mammoth. He hiked over 650 miles looking for his son, spending several days searching with Dean. Bob was close to seventy then and he'd dropped thirty pounds in preparation by hiking Pennsylvania trails with a backpack full of rocks.
Tiffany spent a week in Mammoth and joined Bob for a few hikes. She told me the trip gave her a better understanding of her brother's passions. But it wasn't closure.
"Today was my last day in Mammoth," she wrote on Facebook before departing for home. "Waiting for my red eye home. Can't begin to describe how hard it was to turn away from the place that brought me closer to Matt and to my father for the past week. I think it was the first time all week I cried."
Bob kept an online hiking journal, where his methodical journal entries reflected his former profession as an engineer. He detailed precise elevation changes and shifting weather patterns, a deer crossing his trail. His stoicism rarely cracked but he mentioned, briefly, writing personal messages to Matthew in registers atop Mt. Ritter and Pridham Minaret.
There's no common word to describe a parent who loses a child. They're not widows or orphans. It's something far worse, I think. For a while after Matthew disappeared, Bob cut his lawn and shoveled snow from his sidewalk. Even now, almost ten years later, there's been no funeral, and there's no grave to visit. Bob replied to one of my emails, about a year after he returned from his search in Mammoth. He thanked me for reading his journal entries and apologized for not answering me earlier. Making his pain public would just be more painful, he said.
Bob told me his trip to the Sierra was a failure. He believed it would take a "chance encounter" for someone to find Matthew's remains or gear.
"Hopefully within what is left of my lifetime," he told me.
IT WAS LATE AUGUST OF 2017 when I finally flew to California. I'd booked four nights in the campground where Matthew stayed. I was freshly divorced, between grief counselors, and completely unprepared.
Dean Rosnau was still searching, and he'd recently published a memoir, The Shortest Straw: Search and Rescue in the High Sierra. I planned to join Dean on a hike to his base camp at 10,500 feet and write a profile of him when I returned.
Wildfires had dotted the Eastern Sierra that summer, and smoke forced Dean down from his search area near Banner Peak just before I arrived. He warned me that he'd torqued his knee, too. We met at a gym in Mammoth, where he was speaking to a Rotary Club about Matthew and his book, which I'd read again on my red-eye to Sacramento. According to his memoir, Dean had helped recover sixty-six bodies, one of them a dear friend who had died in an ice-climbing accident in 1996.
"I've always found the things I go looking for," Dean told the Rotarians.
Dean finished his talk with Matthew's case, and afterward, an older man spoke up with an observation about the life he'd chosen. It must be so painful, he said. Dean took a deep breath.
"Matthew's case...," he said before choking up. He paused and pursed his lips.
"Matthew's case has become very dear to me," Dean said. "The Greenes are family to me now, so yeah, it's tough."
Afterward, Dean told me he was returning home to California's central coast to get his knee checked out. We wouldn't be hiking into the backcountry. Instead, Dean drove me to the Minaret Vista, a sightseeing spot a few miles outside of Mammoth. At 9,265 feet, it was the highest elevation I'd ever been to.
An endless field of mountains stretched as far as I could see. Mt. Ritter, at 13,143 feet, was the tallest of them. Matthew could be there, I thought. My brain swirled at the view. Before I arrived, Dean told me I'd need to bring a "willingness to suffer" to complete the twenty-mile round-trip hike to base camp. I figured that was bluster, but those minutes at the vista convinced me I was wrong.
"You can see it's the ultimate needle in a haystack," Dean said. "It would be hard enough to find a living person."
Dean had wandered off to help some tourists with photos. I was so lost in the view, I hadn't heard him return.
"I really had no idea," I said.
Dean and I went to a tiki bar for dinner in Mammoth. I drained my beers. We spoke about marriage, how I'd longed to raise my kids in a mountain town like Mammoth, as he had, and how that wouldn't happen now that I was divorced. The beer kept me talking. When I drove in from Sacramento that morning, I had pulled over to sleep at a gas station, and at sunrise, I recognized the town. My ex-wife and I had passed through Lee Vining in 2013, celebrating our tenth wedding anniversary. We camped at Calaveras Big Trees State Park, Yosemite and Lake Tahoe. We lay in the Travertine Hot Springs, not far from Mammoth, both of us staring off at the brown hills of sagebrush and cheatgrass and the snowcapped Sierra peaks beyond them. I daydreamed about a better life for us in California, about wild places untaming our kids, and love returning to our marriage the same mysterious way it had arrived. Anthony would be there too, wrestling with my sons and sharing a beer in my imaginary cabin.
Anthony died three weeks later.
"So many things fell apart for me after that trip," I told Dean.
At the campground later that night, I stayed awake in my tent, blood pounding in my ears. I kept ruminating on my losses. I wouldn't see my kids on Thanksgiving or Christmas, per the divorce, and a friend said I'd lost my identity as "the family man." It pained me when he said it, because it was so true. I also worried about losing the woman I'd met in the midst of all this grief, that she'd bail on such a broken person.
On another sleepless night, I tried to visit Matthew's campsite, number 164. But it was closed for construction, cordoned off by orange safety fencing. I finally understood a quote I once saw etched into some fancy Grand Canyon lodge: "Dreams of mountains, as in their sleep they brood on things eternal."
One morning, I drove east to Crowley Lake to interview a man who'd helped Dean search for Matthew in the early days. The White Mountains seemed to float above the shimmering heat beyond the lake. The man's wife followed their dogs as they chased butterflies through the wildflowers on their lawn. Wind chimes swayed. A trampoline sat on the lawn, beyond the flowers, and I imagined my kids jumping on it, their heads reaching for the sun. A lump rose in my throat, and I had to look away.
On my last day in Mammoth, I hiked to McLeod Lake. On the far side of the shore, Mammoth Crest rose above the water and lodgepole pines like an ivory wall at 11,483 feet. Matthew climbed it on July 12, 2013, a few days before he vanished. I found a boulder and pulled myself up to take it all in. The mountains felt like they were pressing on me for most of the trip, drawing something out like a salve. Maybe it was the altitude.
Flies buzzed in the willow by the water, more than I'd ever seen in one place. The vibration of a million wings made the hair on my skin hum. My sweat evaporated. My breathing was slow and deep. A woman stood in the water with a little boy somewhere off to my left. He was throwing pebbles and giggles bubbled up from him. A breath rushed out of me, like a bird carrying off some last pieces of pain caged inside, and I cried a little when I felt it leave.
"I completely understand why Matthew Greene came here," I said aloud.
The trip didn't feel like a failure after that.
A MONTH LATER, I was wandering the hallways of the high school where Matthew taught in Pennsylvania. Dean was giving a presentation in the auditorium, the same talk he'd given to the Rotary Club in Mammoth.
"Do you know where Matthew Greene's classroom was?" I asked a custodian.
He didn't recognize the name.
About 100 people had come to hear Dean, many wearing shirts that honored Matthew with a familiar John Muir quote: "The mountains are calling, and I must go." Viola Krouse, Matthew's dear friend and climbing mentor, urged the crowd to answer that call.
"Don't let anything stop you," she said.
Dean projected slides of the Ritter Range onto a large screen, the mountains undulating across his body as he paced the stage. One slide paused on Matthew's face, those blue eyes and that smile, and people wiped away tears. Bob put his arm around Patricia and pulled her closer. While they mingled in the lobby afterward, I decided I would apologize. I made it clear who I was—the writer who had mailed letters and left voicemails, trying to hitch my grief to theirs.
"That was unfair of me," I told them.
The Greenes needed searchers willing to hike into mountains and climb peaks, like Dean, not writers looking for absolution.
That night in the school lobby, Bob told me about the ritual he and Patricia perform in the absence of answers. Before they go to bed, they place a candle in a window. I kept imagining it as I drove home to New Jersey in the dark. The candle faces west, Bob told me, a waymark to guide their son home.
THE WOMAN I'D MET in the midst of all this turmoil stuck with me. She once stood alone on a street corner in Philly, holding up a sign in support while I walked eighteen miles for a suicide prevention fundraiser. She never met Anthony, of course, but her father mentioned him in his toast at our late-summer wedding in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 2019. Anthony's sister was there, smiling at us.
Before I proposed, I had written to him again. "Hey dude, miss you. I think I'm getting married again. So much has changed."
Wedding guests were puzzled about why I was going to California in the coming days and why my wife wasn't. She was familiar with Matthew Greene's story well before we married. I didn't have a new contract to write about his disappearance, but I thought I could have one of those "chance encounters" Bob had mentioned to me years earlier. I felt mentally and physically ready too, unlike before, having lost weight for wedding photos. My wife knew, perhaps without fully understanding, that I had to go and gave me her blessing. We agreed to honeymoon later.
Peter "Maverick" Agoston had organized his fourth search for Matthew with buddies from High Sierra Topix, a California climbing and outdoors forum he moderated. I had reached out to him in February of 2019, and he invited me to join them around Labor Day that year. Maverick would pick me up at Mammoth's small airport. I'd camp at New Shady Rest again and have twelve hours to acclimate. We'd hike up to the Minarets and camp along Minaret Lake for several days, breaking off into smaller groups to search the area.
Storms forced my flight to Mammoth back to Los Angeles. If I caught the next day's flight, the searchers would be gone, and I'd have to hike to Minaret Lake alone. I wound up renting a car with two strangers on the plane and we drove 315 miles through the night, into the high desert, to Mammoth. I got dropped off at New Shady Rest just after midnight. Maverick helped me pitch my tent without waking everyone. He wanted us up at 5 a.m.
"Crazy day for you. Get some sleep," he said before disappearing back into his tent.
The searchers met at the Devils Postpile Ranger Station around dawn. One had driven up from Anaheim and slept in his car. Another was seventy-four and battling prostate cancer. One searcher emerged from a thicket of shrubs and lodgepole pine with a rust-colored cattle dog named Bear. Flowers poked out from his half-buttoned shirt.
"I've been chasing mountains all my life," he told me.
The group would grow to twelve. A handful were serious climbers and former worldclass cyclists, speeding toward their sixties with bodies of people half their age. Everyone had backcountry experience, besides myself. Even Bear had a climbing harness. I was there as a journalist, but I yearned to be a set of eyes too, for the Greenes.
The hike to Minaret Lake felt like climbing a staircase for five hours. Views of waterfalls and alpine meadows gave me an excuse to rest and suck down water. Maverick, the leader, moved fast on the trail, but he backtracked past me to stay with the slowest hiker. I was one of the last to arrive in camp. I soaked my tired feet in the frigid lake and fell asleep early while the others were still out talking.
The next morning, I joined Maverick and a half dozen other searchers on a hike to Volcanic Pass, just above us at around 10,500 feet. The more experienced climbers went higher, to tackle the Minarets. I guzzled water and couldn't catch my breath, my heart thumping hard against my chest. During one break, we stood in chest-high mountain willow, and a coyote trotted through the wildflowers below us. You belong here, I thought.
At dusk, when the two groups convened for dinner, I rested against a fallen hemlock. Ribbons of purple clouds stretched out in the sky. Some searchers threw sticks to Bear or snuck him bits of jerky. Others planned out their next routes. No one had found anything that day.
A headache pounded against my skull, and my stomach swirled. I wanted to turn in early without looking suspicious. If Maverick saw me getting sick, I feared he would send me down and have to sacrifice a searcher to help me. So I slipped into my tent before sunset and sent my wife a text message: "a little nauseous and worried."
After hours of squirming in my sleeping bag, I stepped into the darkness in long underwear and a down jacket. I shuffled toward a stand of pines about fifty yards from the tents, hoping I'd get sick quietly. I swayed there in the cold, my head still throbbing. Clyde Minaret stood like some monster's ragged tooth, silhouetted against the stars above me. At night, the pillars looked electrified, like neon black.
Back in my tent, I decided to play it safe and spend the next day by the lake while others searched higher elevations. On Saturday, I'd hike down to the ranger station and ride the shuttle back to Mammoth. I'd get some tacos, find a shower, then fly home to my family. I'd probably gotten closer to Matthew than I had in 2017. That would have to be enough, I told myself.
AT DAWN I boiled water for coffee and freezedried eggs and tried to ward off the disappointment creeping in. I felt much better, but was still resigned to stay put by the lake. The climbers had left the campsite early and the searcher sleeping closest to me, Dave Ayers, came over to chat while I sipped my mug on the hemlock.
"You should come up with me since you're up early. I'm going up to Cecile Lake. We can get a head start on the others," he said, warming his hands with his mouth between sentences.
Cecile Lake sat in a bowl of rock above us, just below the approach to Clyde Minaret. Getting there would bring me to over 10,000 feet. The search area Dave had in mind included snowfields and talus fields, both foreign to me.
"Well," I said, looking up toward the trail, "I felt terrible yesterday and I think I should stay by the lake today to play it safe."
Maybe Dave sensed disappointment in my voice. I'd come this far, he said. You'd regret it. You could always turn back. Maybe Dave just didn't want to go alone. But he was right, I would regret it. Matthew had urged his classmates to take risks, to live a full life. At Anthony's memorial, long before I'd heard of Matthew Greene or imagined myself two miles above sea level, I'd urged mourners to do the same.
I felt good, physically, for the first time in days. I felt I owed some effort to Matthew and the Greenes, to my wife, my ex-wife and our children, for the hours I'd lost thinking about these mountains, for not being present. And to Anthony and all the times I'd begged him to keep going.
Dave and I took the trail up to an overlook above Cecile Lake. I had grown to rely on my trekking poles, but I had to stow them in my pack. We needed feet and hands to scramble up the narrow chutes. In some sections, as I edged my body over a protrusion of stone, it felt as if the rock was pushing me off. I moved upward, slowly. Dave said it was "Class III climbing," but I didn't know what that meant. When we rested on a flat overlook above the lake, Dave gave me binoculars and I scanned for something that didn't look like snow, rock or gnarled vegetation, any burst of color.
"There's something shiny," I told Dave. "I think it's a balloon."
There was a wet rock reflecting in the sun, then a small wire grill, wedged under a boulder. Everything looked the same, for miles, like a shifting puzzle of rock and snow.
We pushed on, stepping onto a snowfield that sloped down into Cecile Lake. The ice was soft. I inched along, steadying myself with my poles, trying to not look down. "It would be hard to get out of the water if you fell in," I said to Dave. "You wouldn't," he replied. Dave moved upward into a boulderfield where some rocks seemed as large as compact cars. I couldn't keep up, stepping gingerly from one to another, trying not to peer into the dark spaces between them. The shifting boulders made a sound I felt in my spine. I sat down, pulled out the binoculars and kept scanning, having edged past my comfort zone. I waited for Dave, watching him disappear high up into a snowy chute beneath Clyde Minaret. Things could end so quickly in the Sierra, I thought. A boulder rolls, a rope breaks on a vertical wall or you slide into a lake, like the one below me, and death snatches you in the breath between heartbeats.
Back at our campsite, I made a video call to a close friend, someone who'd been a sounding board for the grief I carried over the years. I thanked him for being there through all this, for the thousandth time. Then I phoned my kids too.
"You wouldn't believe the places I've been today," I told them.
When I saw Dave, I thanked him for nudging me and wanted to hug him but didn't. Later, when everyone returned, I drank pennyroyal tea plucked from the meadow beside the campsite. I did whisky shots from a travel flask, and one searcher helped me catch a small trout with a fly rod. I felt like part of the group, like a searcher, perhaps, for the first and only time. Everyone recounted their climbs that day, their adventures from the past. It would be easy to imagine Matthew sitting there too, sharing pita bread and peanut butter under the Eastern Sierra's rainbow-sherbet skies.
Maverick told me the group would return, when it could, to search somewhere new.
"Just being out here, you understand how nature can really hold you and have a draw on your soul. We can relate to that, and that relation is something that made me think we can help, especially for the family," he said that night. "It has to be anguish, the constant wondering—where is he, what happened. If we can help with that by climbing here and getting people together, we will. People are willing to help."
In the morning, I said my goodbyes and hiked down to the shuttle stop alone. I found a trampled flower with petals dipped in reds and orange on the trail and stuck it in the brim of my hat, a small reminder to pin to a wall, perhaps, or place between the pages of a Sierra guidebook I owned. On the winding roads into Mammoth, my eyes followed the Minarets, miles away now, beyond the shuttle window. They felt familiar, not ominous like they had before. The shuttle dropped me off by the tiki bar I'd visited with Dean years earlier. The street was bustling with tourists, women in wide fedoras and men dressed for golf. I was grimy and sore, not a climber, but somehow different than who I was when I'd arrived.
The shower at an RV park cost a few bucks. Afterward, I walked across the street to New Shady Rest Campground. At campsite 164, I knelt down, leaned my head against the post and closed my eyes for a few minutes.
"Are you OK?" a woman asked me.
She'd wandered over from a nearby campsite where kids were kicking a soccer ball. I told her about Matthew Greene, the people searching for him at that very moment up in the mountains. This is where he last stayed, I told her, before he vanished.
"Was he a friend of yours?" she asked.
"No, I didn't know him," I said. "But he reminded me of a friend."
Anthony didn't reach out to me in the days before his suicide. His boss found him on a Monday afternoon and called me. He was standing in Anthony's driveway, peering into his black car. Maybe he's just asleep, he said, but I knew.
I last saw Anthony a week earlier, at a fundraiser where he worked. He was quieter than usual that day, but sweeter too. I didn't know he'd stopped taking his medication. Grief counselors said I couldn't have done anything to save Anthony. Even now, nine years after his death, some part of me thinks they're wrong.
We hugged when we parted that afternoon, making plans to meet up, and he held that embrace a second longer than usual. I still feel him, pressing on me, like a mountain.
"Love you, bro," we said to one another.
The flower I took from the Minaret trail was wilting on my hat. The colors still blazed burnt orange but it would never be this bright, this beautiful, again. So I left it there, draping it over the post at Matthew Greene's campsite, and said goodbye.
[Resources for anyone who is struggling with thoughts of suicide or who is concerned about someone who might need help can be found 24/7 by calling or texting the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988.
This story originally appeared in Alpinist 80, which is available in our online store.—Ed.]
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