It was well over 400 days since we lost Dan Escalante to an avalanche, but last weekend we finally had a memorial for him. Before I write about the heart wrenching, beautiful, stormy memorial let me start off with a lighter story.
Note: this piece was originally published in the Durango Telegraph. Banner photo of Dan Escalante by Braden Gunem (also published in The Climbing Zine, Volume 20)
This last weekend, in Crested Butte, I also returned to something I have missed dearly: speaking in front of an audience. I was nervous about this one – not because of public speaking, I really enjoy that – I was nervous because I didn’t know if anyone would show up. Crested Butte has undergone some fundamental shifts in these last five years. After Vail Resort purchased Crested Butte Mountain Resort, the billionaires begun mixing in with the millionaires in Crested Butte, which has become a place where mostly only the rich can afford to live.
And while I might have a rich fan or two, the bread and butter of my audience is middle class working (or not working too much) dirtbag climbers. Much to my relief, the charming bookstore, Townie Books, started to fill up shortly after the starting time.
I don’t need a huge audience for a presentation to be fulfilling, I just need an engaged one. My format is simple: I bring my favorite typewriter for a writing contest, I tell some stories, maybe read some poetry, and do a Q&A.
Coincidentally there were as many people from Durango as Crested Butte at the presentation, including two young climbers who are trail building this summer. They reflected on the stories we provide for their generation, as they are out adventuring and creating their own stories. That sentiment was perfect because we were celebrating hitting 20 volumes of The Climbing Zine. And, yes, a presentation in Durango is up next on the agenda, after a jaunt up to Lander, Wyo., for the International Climbers Festival. Stay tuned for details.
The day after the presentation, I attended the memorial for Dan. He died as most of my friends who died young have: adventuring in the mountains. Dan was not a close friend, yet he was a central pillar in our community, and even though it’s been over a year, I’m still crying tears for him. I am crying as I write these words.
The first two hours of the memorial was the most intense display of grief I’ve ever witnessed in my entire life. I don’t think I’ve ever cried so much, ever. Grown men and women weeping as they told their stories about him. Almost all the speakers said that Dan was their best friend. One person asked the audience to raise their hand if Dan was your best friend, and countless hands went up. I don’t know if I’m doing the majesty that was Dan Escalante justice with my words, but can you imagine the integrity of a human being who had dozens of people that called him their best friend?
Dan was a very loving human being, and he was always there for his friends and family. Our friend Jayson noted that grief is just the love that we felt for that human being. I had to focus on my breathing as the tears choked me up when he said that.
And there we were, brought together by Dan one last time. Near the end of the speakers, the most intense rainstorm I’ve witnessed in years broke out. We were at the I-Bar in Gunnison, an outdoor pavilion, and that storm almost drowned out all the other noise. Dan was such a good man that even Mother Nature was weeping uncontrollably. As so were we. It was a fitting tribute to a man who loved time in nature, away from the crowds.
Though there were hundreds in attendance, I knew there were many more that would have liked to be there, including my dear friend Greg, who lives in Thailand. A few days before the memorial we caught up on the phone – it was morning there, birds a chirpin’ in the background – and it was late night in Durango.
“It’s always the good ones who die young, isn’t it?” Greg reflected.
Damn if he isn’t right. When I reflect on the ones that I’ve lost to the mountains, it is those human beings who aren’t just talented athletes, but really good people. So many come to mind, especially Jeff Paffendorf and Bert Perry, who we lost last winter to an avalanche.
And what to make of all of this? For me, it encourages me to try to spread more love and be kind to more people; to close ones and strangers alike.
Our time here in these bodies is short. We are all flawed and imperfect. I know I am. That is why these rare gems like Dan Escalante are so hard to lose. They are one in a million. Beacons of light in a dark world. But just because we lose them, does not mean we lose that light. And we must try our best to embody that light and love in ourselves and for others.