Tuesday, May 22, 2012

We Miss You

Vitaly Gorelik. It has been 100 days since he died of cardiac arrest on the flank of K2. I have dealt with death before, but something about this tragedy hit close to home. I was on break visiting a friend at MIT, watching an old Arnold Schwarzenegger movie and getting ready to head to bed, when I checked my email; "Vitaly died. Everyone is in shock. -Mom."
That's it. Just two sentences. No phone call, explanation or suggestions for coping, but then again, that's the way my family functions. 

My father climbed with "Vitalka" back when he lived in Russia. Both were from the same town in Siberia; my dad became a microbiologist, Vitaly got his Ph. D. in Chemical Kinetics and Applied Physics. My dad moved to the US, started a family and gave up siege-style expeditions after reaching the summit of Peak Pobeda (7439m) in 1995 and losing a good chunk of flesh to frostbite. Vitaly stayed in Russia and kept climbing. On the weekends I grew accustomed to hearing Vitaly's voice echoing across the kitchen table due to the miracle of live video chats. I admired Vitaly's parallel lives: a professor of physics and a professional mountaineer---he wasn't just a guy that climbed mountains. He was smart and he didn't waste his talents. 

Peak Pobeda in the Tien-Shan Mountains in Kyrgyzstan (7439 meters)

My dad has a sixth sense (even though he'll never admit it). I've asked him about ice-fall traverses and crevasse-evasion techniques, and all I've ever really gotten in response is, "You just know where they are. It's a feeling." Whenever I ask for advice, he's told me to listen to the instinct, which is why I remember when my dad was trying to convince Vitaly that maybe he should reconsider his upcoming expedition. I would normally attribute such concern to worries, but I know my dad. He's let me work up on the North Slope in the dead of winter, and didn't blink an eye when I told him I was going to the Himalayas alone. He never tried to convince me to rethink my plans, even when I said I'd be living on a glacier for 3 months or that I was planning to climb up to 20,000'. So when my dad says that maybe something should be called off, then one should be concerned. 
Vitaly has been on plenty of expeditions and was nominated for the Piolet d'Or for a 2009 route he climbed with Gleb Sokolov, and I'd never heard my dad try to talk him out of any of his fanatical ideas before---no matter how technical or crazy the route, until he heard of the proposed winter expedition to K2. 

I mean who else but the Russians or Poles would even dream up such an idea as to try and summit K2 in the dead of winter when temperatures barely hover above -40F? I remember the conversation. I was back in Seattle for winter break and saw my dad's head nodding a bit from side to side, which he always does while mulling over how to say something important.
 "Maybe you shouldn't go"---he said over Skype. My dad is a man of few words, and Vitaly laughed it off with his gruff Russian-accented barking laugh, but I knew he took it to heart even as he shared a picture of his new puppy to divert attention from the serious topic at hand. 

Why did I write about this? To never forget. I enjoy rock and ice climbing, but sometimes I forget that I can't control all the risks. People die. Not just people we read about in glossy-covered magazines. Close friends die. It's an unfortunate casualty of engaging in such a lifestyle. Vitaly, I spoke to you briefly on occasion, but you left a mark on my life: you will forever be in our family's mind.You were a brilliant physicist, a dear friend and an alpinist till the end. I admired you. You died on K2 in the winter---a true Siberian till the end. May you find peace on the mountain that took you away from our family and my dad. He misses you.

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