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The terrible twins of Hope and Fear

Forty-five years ago today, I died at the age of eighteen. I died because I had no hope of surviving as I plummeted head-first down the north face of the Triolet, the air roaring in my ears as gravity sucked me towards the lip of a monstrous ice-cliff and certain death on the glacier two thousand feet below. My one piece of protection must have failed, and there was no way Chris’s belay would hold. I was dead. We were both dead.

Three hundred feet is a long way to fall. It gives you time to think. They say that when you’re about to die, the whole of your life flashes through your head as if you’ve no more command over your thoughts than you do over your fate. But my thoughts were more conscious. Nearly half a century later those thoughts are as fresh and alive as they were during the blissful seconds of their existence. And yes, it was blissful.

The instant the ice shattered and cast me off, I knew I was dead. My body went over backwards. I went into free-fall, then I twisted around and faced into the ice slope as it came out to meet me. Then I was sliding. Accelerating. The roar of the mountain. The skin-shredding coldness of the ice against my bare forearms. The wild barking of my axes as they bounced on their leashes like maddened dogs. It would have been a heart-stopping spectacle, but I was at peace.

As soon as I knew I was dead, I felt no fear. Instead, there was a serene acceptance. I remember thinking, I’m dead at eighteen. Then I remembered my teenage friend on the other end of the two slender ropes who was about to follow me into the abyss. I silently said to him, sorry Chris.

But when the rope started to pull against my harness, fear rushed back in, for hand-in-hand with the hope that the rope would hold me came the fear that it might not. The tug at my harness became stronger, the ropes stretching to absorb the energy of my fall. As my speed decreased, my fear increased — fear of the sudden release that would signal our doom.

I don’t have to tell you that the belay held. Two warthog drive-ins tied off below their eyes because the ice was too hard to hammer them all the way in. They bent beyond re-use, but they held firm, and despite all the rules of probability and the rising death toll of young climbers who climbed out of their depth, we lived.

Every day of our lives since then has been a bonus. We’ve lived and loved, had children, and been leaders in our separate fields of expertise. Chris’s bonus days ended last year when he succumbed to cancer, his departure reminding me that to have escaped death is a temporary condition.

My fall showed me that when there is no hope, there is no fear, and the space that’s left becomes filled with a serene acceptance. It’s reassuring to know that this is what death holds for me. Without the hope of Heaven, there’s no fear of Hell.

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