First World War Zone
It’s 3AM here in Benghazi, Libya and I’m now wide awake trying to figure out if the bursts I can hear outside my hotel room are fireworks or gunfire. These ones don’t have the follow up crackle of fireworks. It’s Wednesday morning. I’m just going to stick with fireworks.
I went to Libya to work as a nurse with the Novick Cardiac Alliance as a part of their attempt to help the country establish a self-sufficient pediatric cardiac surgery program. On our daily commute to the hospital, reminders of Libya’s recent revolution are everywhere: pickup trucks with anti-aircraft devices in the back, blown out buildings, the occasional plain-clothed man at the hospital door that I’m guessing is security. Or, he’s just another guy walking around with an AK-47. It could go either way.
The local nurses talk of the revolution and the difficult times it brought. Every patient and parent we treat has been touched by the cruelty of the former dictator, Gaddafi, and the fight that eventually overthrew him in 2011. The fear and uncertainty of what would happen next led some of them to live at the hospital for weeks on end, feeling as though it were the only safe place.
A few years ago, I stated to my then-boyfriend that my life had not been marred by much death. My climbing style was “high risk, high reward” and I could chirp out lines about how living this way made me happy; if I died doing it at some point, it was all worth it. I believed what I said whole-heartedly. The closest I had come to death was when my friend Nic lost his dear wife Allisyn B-M in a BASE-jumping accident in 2010. Her death was only the start.
I used to say with confidence that this lifestyle, full of adventurous sports in the world’s most beautiful and dangerous places, was unequivocally worth the risk.
On June 2nd 2012, I took a tumble in a mountain gully that very well could have been my end were it not for the appearance of a ledge large enough to stop my fall. When the rocks settled and I sat up, I was fine, except for my lower right leg that bent a full 90 degrees in the wrong direction. It has been slow to heal. I’ve had two surgeries, and the accident certainly has altered the course of my life. But I was lucky.
Three weeks after my fall, my friend, Mike Ybarra, died in the Sawtooth Range of the Sierras on a solo ridge traverse. Not a month after that, my dear friend’s brother, Eric Tietze, fell to his death on a ridge traverse in the Tetons. A month later, my climbing partner, Gil Weiss, died as he descended his new mountain route in Peru. After that, it was Fernando Mota, the man who linked El Cap and Half Dome with m; he died as he was BASE-jumping in Utah. And then Felix. Felix, my boyfriend’s best friend, died on the East Buttress of El Capitan from climber-induced rock fall. Then, Sean Leary—climber, BASE jumper, soon-to-be father.
Six beautiful, young and talented human beings that had touched my life now gone. And there are more. More before and more to come. The grief of losing friend after friend is coupled with a jarring feeling of betrayal. My friends are dying doing the things we have dedicated our lives to, the things that I look too for my happiness and sense of wellbeing. It feels like the love of my life has cheated on me with my worst enemy.
My perception of my life and the world I have created has been entirely upset and I am in a state of turmoil. I feel like I’ve created my own First World war zone with the all-too-real chance of death at every turn. I recognize that it is inappropriate to compare a country’s bloody fight for freedom to the hurt I feel at losing friends doing the voluntary activities to which we have dedicated our lives. But the last couple of years for me have been riddled with chaos sans security. The infrastructure of my existence is under attack by the very forces I once embraced.
I hope that, like Libya, I too will rebuild. Just as they’ve elected a new government in attempts to re-create stability and structure in their society, I hope to either be at peace with the lifestyle I lead, or finish my revolt and find happiness in a whole new institution.
What have my friends died for? It’s times like this that I feel that we really are nothing but “conquistadors of the useless,” yet still I load up my pack and come back to the mountains. But in order to do so, I hang on to what my best friend wrote after Felix died:
Our lost loved ones are not gone. Only dead. Redemption lies in the influence that they still have on us: What we see or do that we wouldn’t if they never walked in our lives. Us humans are not self made and isolated arisings. We take the history, words, memories and emotions of those that came before to construct our reality. We are echoes of our ancestors and they still live through us in the actions that we make and the world we see. This is why silence buries someone much deeper than dirt.
For now I climb. I work in Libya. But in doing so, I will continue to climb and jump with my lost friends by telling their tales along the way, keeping their memories and their motivation alive and coursing through me.