Finding a Life on the Edge
March 27, 2014 | by Laurel Holland
Every spring my mother flies out from her home in Walla Walla, Washington, to spend ten days with me in New York. Because her visits are often the only uninterrupted stretch of time we have together every year, they go mostly unplanned. “It isn’t vacation if you have to plan!” Mom has been known to say.
But when she made her way East in May 2012, just after my twenty-ninth birthday, her trip had an explicit purpose. It was my father’s fortieth reunion at Colby College, and she and I would be attending in his stead to represent his legacy and all that he had left behind.
In April 1989, at the age of thirty-nine, my father, Bill Holland, disappeared in an ice climbing accident in Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada. While he was attempting an unroped descent off Slipstream—the three-thousand-foot frozen waterfall that runs along the treacherous east face of Mt. Snow Dome—he fell through a cornice of ice and, as the accident reports later concluded, likely into a crevasse. A subsequent weeklong storm system dumped an estimated thirty feet of snow in the area, delaying initial rescue attempts. By the time a search party could safely enter, the snowfall had been so significant that Parks Canada was eventually forced to abandon recovery efforts. My father was never found.
At five, I couldn’t imagine what had happened to my father on Slipstream. I couldn’t fathom the enormity of the mountains that took him, couldn’t grasp the idea of “cornice,” couldn’t picture a crevasse. I imagined instead a kind of one-dimensional character like the cartoons I watched on Saturday mornings, plummeting slowly backward in half time, enveloped in a silent whiteness. There was no sound of body on ice, no struggle, no final image of a lifeless man that my five-year-old brain could conjure up. In my mind, his body never came to rest.
As far as I was concerned, my father was not dead. All we had was the official report, filled with vague details of the incident: that he and his partner had disagreed on which descent route to take; that the weather had set in; that, in the blinding wind and snow, he’d neared the edge, gotten too close, made a misstep, fell. But words on paper mean little when you need sinew and substance. And what is death to a child but a great vanishing act? Without a body, there was no proof.
And so, in August 2010, after years of living in the shadow of that myth—of believing that he’d staged the whole thing and run away—when my mother called while I was grocery shopping and said the words, Laurel, they found your father, there was, in the nauseating silence before she could elaborate, a hesitation. Alive or dead? I had thought.
As it turned out, two college kids working for Brewster Bus Company that summer had found my father’s body while hiking at the base of Snow Dome on a day off. Even after all that time, he was fully intact—body, clothes, gear—with the rope he should have used in the descent still slung over his shoulder. It was hardly the homecoming I’d dreamed of for so long. But after twenty-one years, he was finally home.
The recovery of my father gave me permission to let go of the mistruths that had guided me since his disappearance, but it also revealed how much of him was still missing. With the few artifacts I had—letters, journals, photographs—I’d spent my youth Scotch-taping together a composite of him: I had tried, mostly in vain, to comprehend who he was, what shaped him, what drove him to climb. When I learned of the Colby reunion, I knew I’d find answers there, and maybe, if I were lucky, a part of him as well.
* * *
The younger son of a registered nurse and a salesman for DuPont, my father wanted for nothing as a child. He attended Mercersburg Academy, summered in Maine, knew the comforts of a civilized and cultured life. He loved the outdoors and spent his boyhood, as boys do, climbing trees, hunting, fishing. But when, just after his college graduation in 1972, his best friend, Daryl, took him rock climbing for the first time, his entire life was recast. Seduced by the rocks, their steepness and height, my father fell in love. After the climb, he scribbled a manifesto of sorts on the front inside flap of his mountaineering guidebook:
In remembrance of my early years,
Spent in joy-drugged dreams of glorious peaks
Unclimable [sic], yet one day climbed;
To that hour, with the limits breached
I saw the Master, the mountain, and myself as one;
To that time when Life, the father, and Death, the son
Shared secrets, told stories and exposed lies;
Finally, to that moment I gained my precarious perch,
And saw the endless mists of truth come clear,
All in the eternity of a minute,
I dedicate this first ascent.
After graduating from college, my father spent a significant chunk of his errant twenties in western Canada studying its geology and obsessing over rock- and ice-climbing routes until he’d learned them by rote. By 1980 he had climbed nearly every peak in the Jasper area—Mt. Assiniboine, Popes Peak, Mt. Temple. He’d even made a successful assault on Snow Dome in the late 1970s. The Canadian Rockies were the training ground for the formidable alpinist my father became. And though he made his way back to the East in the early 1980s to start a life and a family, a part of him remained there forever.
All my life, I’d been told stories of my father’s incredible adventures in the outdoors, of his countless victories, his scores of near misses. Everyone—my mother, my uncle Tom, all the climbing buddies my father left behind—spoke of a man who derived profound clarity and a deep sense of self from his time in the mountains. Climbing for him was a meditation. It required problem-solving, precision, trust. “Being that close to death,” he once said to my mother, “you might as well be touching God.”
Despite his fierce intellect and borderline genius IQ, my father almost categorically defined himself in external terms: by his athleticism, his mountaineering coups, his physical capabilities, and the limitations he often pushed to surpass. Around the time of his accident, he had been diagnosed with what was then known as manic depression, the most complicated case his psychiatrist had ever seen. From my own memories, I recall a vivacious man who trained neurotically for bicycling races, who played the guitar until his fingers bled, who once deconstructed the engine of his silver Scirocco and spent two sleepless nights putting it back together again. It was a condition defined more by its mania than its depressive episodes, but if he strayed too long from the mountains, the repetition of daily ritual and domestic routine often sent him into bouts of depression little could overcome. “There’s got to be more to life than paying the mortgage,” he once remarked to his older brother, Tom. Compromise and balance were never his friends.
My mother has often said that climbing was the great equalizer of my father’s condition. It forced him to focus acutely, whether on problem solving or survival, and with it came an incredible high. The more he climbed, the farther he could distance himself from the nadir of depression. But at thirty-nine his body was beginning to age. Because of prior bouts with frostbite and the extreme physical strain his body was constantly enduring, his hands, feet, and spine were painfully deteriorating. When he sought out a medical opinion, his rheumatologist gave him five to ten years before arthritis would take hold and he would be completely debilitated. For a man who derived a sense of self from what he could do rather than who he was, the thought of losing his ability to climb, to ski, to move in the way he knew how was a crisis of existential degree.
Obsessed with the notion that he could elude the inevitable, he ran faster, climbed harder, took more and greater risks. It was that fear—the fear of losing foothold on the person he thought he was—that drove him to Slipstream in the spring of 1989.
My father, it seemed, had been in perpetual search of himself. I knew his struggle with manic depression was part and parcel of his genetic fabric. But as I dug deeper, I wondered, too, if it wasn’t, at least in some measure, environmental—if this propensity to question himself and the world around him had been spurred by experience.
The fall my father entered Colby—September 1968—was a time of seismic changes in the social and political landscape: in race and gender relations, in academic methodology and the approach to higher learning. At Colby it was the last year that dormitories still had house mothers, when the house-sponsored panty raid was an annual event, and when acceptable classroom and dining-hall attire—even midwinter in Maine—consisted of dresses and skirts for women, coats and ties for men. But change was floating in the ether. An excerpt from the fall 1968 Colby Alumnus captures the zeitgeist:
A permeating distrust emanates from that subculture—studentry—a distrust of authority and its products. It minds us of that commercial: But mother, I want to do it myself! No, nothing’s to be done for them. Maybe milieu, facilities, human begins, situations, all will help them sniff out whatever they’re after. Perhaps some will do it in a pattern of some sort, or in a design. But these may not be immediately recognized. In a way, it’s like that theorum [sic] of Dr. Wayne Butteau. Every experiment turns out right—but not necessarily as you expected it would—nor do you have to understand it.
At six feet two inches tall, my father, with his thick mop of dark brown hair, striking jaw line, and deep-set blue eyes that drooped slightly at the edges, was undeniably handsome. But when I look at photos of him from his college years, the images of the preppy kid with a lacrosse stick and slicked-back haircut in the fall of 1968 hardly resemble the leather-clad, guitar-playing ape who appears in the 1972 Colby Oracle. By the end of his sophomore year, he had grown his hair long, had learned to smoke pot, and had purchased a motorcycle, which, much to the chagrin of his roommate, he was constantly tinkering with in their common room at Kappa Delta Rho.
As his time at Colby pressed on, the change portended in the ’68 Alumnus continued to unfold. Anger over both the Vietnam War and the poor treatment of African American students mounted on campus. The relationship between the student body and the administration soured, and by 1970 students were taking over college buildings and demanding action. For the greater part of his four years there, Colby was literally overturned and run by its students. Woodstock, which he attended high and alone that famously rainy August weekend in 1969, was representative of everything my father was and went through as a twentysomething. It was a free and spirited time—but it was also a formative one, and the continued lack of academic structure for a young man with a manic predisposition gave way to a struggle between settling for the status quo and wildly defying it.
* * *
The weekend my mother and I spent at Colby in the spring of 2012 opened a door to my father’s past I didn’t know existed. We visited his old haunts and met his former friends, from whom came an array of blackmail-worthy stories. There was the time he pushed his desk out the second-story window of his freshman dorm; the time he and a frat brother arranged for a back-alley exchange of LSD in downtown Waterville, but were robbed by the dealers; the time he purchased a tanning lamp in anticipation of a date with a Smith girl, but then nearly gave himself second-degree burns from lying under the UV light too long. Everyone expressed a heartfelt fondness for the charismatic guy they called “the Dude.”
The year my father and his classmates graduated from Colby was the year of the Watergate scandal, the year when the last American ground troops were withdrawn from Vietnam, and the year the Equal Rights Amendment was passed by the U.S. Senate. In a tumultuous time, his class had managed to find cohesion and solidarity. These were the people, I realized, who had been his family.
A few weeks after the trip to Maine, I was on a subway platform when I noticed someone had scribbled on one of the benches: COLLECT THE PARTS OF YOU THAT WENT AWAY. I thought about my father and how, for nearly all my life, I’d been amassing the parts of him that had gone missing. Until the spring of 2012, I hadn’t appreciated how much his view of the world stemmed from his college experience. He, like so many of his classmates, was a product of his upbringing and of his time. If the mountains were his home, Colby was where he grew up. The weekend in Waterville two years ago gave me that piece of my father. But I am still looking for the rest.
Laurel Holland is a writer and former actor in Brooklyn. She is currently writing a memoir, Spindrift: The Memoir of a Climber’s Daughter. Follow her progress on Tumblr at spindriftdiaries.tumblr.com.