I found out yesterday that my friend Mark Davis died in a rock climbing accident while repelling down the Rambo Wall near Moab, Utah. It appears that there was a gear malfunction. When I read the email advising our family of this it felt like a punch to the gut and yet by morning I realized that the spirit of Mark was gracing me in the Will Center-with his forceful pillar of strength.
I first met Mark Davis in February of 1994 while on a ski trip in Breckenridge, Colorado with my cousin Cass and Uncle John. Mark was a friend and co-worker of Cass. They both worked together at the resort as cameramen and film editors for a company affiliated with the Breckenridge Ski Resort. He was instantly more than a friend; Mark was part of the family.
I saw Mark only about once every three years over the last two- plus decades but each encounter was infused with a certain depth of connection. We loved each other. Mark mirrored a quiet, reflective soul quality. He was a man with a great depth of soul understanding. He lived his life as his spirituality; this quality made him unique among all human beings that I have known. There was no pretense in the man, no religious affiliation, no spiritual talk using metaphysical language or sanskrit terms, no talk of Jesus or Buddha and yet authentic spirituality, true soul force emanated from him as effortlessly as a horse grazing in a green pasture.
Mark’s quiet, often unassuming nature was balanced with a incredible determination and stamina. I will never forget the adventures we shared together–like the classic Santa Cruz Triathlon (my first and last) which I later named ‘The ‘Drownathlon’-for Mark it was all effortless play.
One adventure, and a few moments in particular, are forever etched in my heart.
It was the year 2000-Mark, Cass and I were climbing the East Buttress route of Mount Whitney. Mark knew he was taking neophyte climbers up a new route at high elevation. He made sure to fix double protection for us, rechecking the rigging and gear of my cousin and I. On one particular pitch, Mark was having difficulty finding the route. This is often the case as books and research can only get you so far; no matter how many maps,pictures or previous climbers you have spoken with. Now, off route, above 13,000 feet with fledglings to watch over, Mark effortlessly led the most difficult section of the climb. After securing protection on top of protection, he called out:
“Okay Hman, your turn.” I breathed a few deep breaths. “On Belay.” Mark yelled with emphatic authority.
We had been climbing for over 8 hours with only a few minutes break here and there. I knew this new section was not our regular 5.6 pitch and stood, intimidated and near spent. A 5.9 crack climb loomed straight in front (I later learned). I began to inch my way up, jamming my fists into the crack and leaning back, standing up and putting one foot nearly on top of the other, slowly but surely creeping upward. Then I fell. Mark caught me. I fell again; Mark’s rope held again. Then one more time I slipped. Each time Mark had the rope, arrested my fall. My cousin Cass was quiet, later telling me that he was intimidated and focusing on his climbing strategy, as he was next to climb.
Doubt crept in. Would I be able to do this? I was at the edge of my rock climbing capability sandwiched between the final glimmers of physical strength. I began to visualize, remembering the only time I had ever seen someone crack climb, from the movie K2. Mark, Cass and I often made jokes, using lines from that movie as we climbed. One line seemed apropos now, as I “was really sucking the O’s!”
Mark stayed quiet, letting me find my own way. After the 3rd fall though, I yelled up:
“I don’t think I can do it man! Is there some other way up?!”
Mark spoke from a depth that I had never heard before; the force and power I will never forget.
“Hman you have to do it; there is no other way! We cannot down climb.” He did not speak these words as demands, commands or orders; it was all three and yet there was no sense of belittling, judgment or coercion in his voice. There simply was no other choice and suddenly trust replaced doubt.
I started up again, my heart was racing above anaerobic threshold, past the point where oxygen could be used as an effective fuel source. For the last 30 seconds of the climb, my lungs, heart and oxygen imbibing systems were no longer working but Mark was in view and the look on his face, the energy that he embodied willed me up that last few meters. I sat next to him, unable to talk. We looked into each others eyes. He said gently:
“Good job.” Then he looked down at Cass below; all of Mark’s energies now focused on Cass’s security and well-being.
The last time I saw Mark was the day of my father’s celebration of life- a year and a half ago. He had come to show his love and respect. Our family asked him to film the Service. I had written a tribute to my father but it was so deep and intimate that I could not see reading it at the Service in a coherent fashion, without endless tears. I asked Mark if we could videotape me reading it the day before. We did that.
At the service, an hour before it was to begin, Mark realized that the audio was, as he said: “Hot.” This meant it was unusable.
Once again, I was on the rock ledge with Mark. He spoke in that same powerful way, with the trademark calm.
“Sorry Hman, I did everything I could.” He said apologetically. I took a deep breath. “I feel this was meant to be. I really do. Just get up there and speak from your heart. It doesn’t matter what you say. It matters where you say it from.” He looked at me with compassion and love. Instant strength entered.
A few weeks ago, we exchanged our last email. I had sent him a message that said simply:
“I am so grateful for your friendship. You are a good soul.”
His last words to me, in response via email, were:
“You are the good soul.”
Of course he was talking about himself.