I'll never forget the day it happened, though I've hardly told a soul of it in 15 years.
About six of us from the 1996 National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) climbing trip into Wyoming's Wind River Range decided, after a hard hike into the backcountry, to slack off camp chores for an hour, head over to a nearby crag and do a little scaling, maybe some rappelling. It was a hot mid-August afternoon two weeks into the trip and one of my three NOLS instructors, Bean Bowers -- bad-ass, wise-cracking and always over-caffeinated -- chose me to belay him while he climbed. No problem, I said to myself. Though he was scrubby, unshaven, two years older and relatively intimidating on a mountain, this 20-year-old Northwestern kid fresh from a Hill internship in DC, thought if I could handle the press office of a well-known Senator, I could handle Bean Bowers.
Everything started off fine. The knots were tight. I had my brake hand firmly on my hip and with every vertical step Bean took, let out just enough slack to keep him suspended in midair, should his fingers miss their spot by an inch or perhaps a piece of rock chip off in his hand. Then Bean decided to rappel down. He warned me he was coming, a bit harder and faster than I thought, but he was coming. I let him, and the rope started to burn, so I let go of it. Before I could look up to see him tumbling down, Bean landed with a thud, on his back, from what seemed like 50 feet in the sky. He miraculously got up, came over to where I stood and started yelling at me -- the only natural thing to do. I dropped the rope and ran back to camp. Bean was fine. Still, I had let him fall -- and committed the cardinal sin of climbing.
Bean was quick to forgive and forget. Almost as soon as I crawled into my tent and into myself, swearing I would never touch another piece of climbing rope, Bean returned to our outpost and tried to talk me off my own ledge. It was his fault, he said. He shouldn't have gone so fast. Would I just come out and talk it over with him? I refused, humiliated and ashamed that I even had the chutzpah to belay Bean, let alone allow him to fall on my watch. I went to bed as soon as the sun went down that night and resolved to spend the remaining 10 days on our trip as obvious as a pack against a tent.
Bean had other plans. The next morning, I felt a shaking on my sleeping bag, then heard my name and the order to wake up. I opened one eye and saw Bean in the grey mountain haze. "We're going climbing," he said. Before I could say "no fucking way," Bean had me surrounded by one of the other NOLS guides, Alex, and a day pack on my back. We silently set off for another 5.3 or 5.4 grade climb about an hour away, while the others tackled a 5.5 or 5.6 rock nearby.
Bean went up the mountain first, belayed by Alex, just to prove to me that he was okay. I belayed Alex at his own urging -- a move to practice my confidence building -- and Alex belayed me as I climbed. The three of us made our way, inch-by-craggy inch, up the rock face over the next three hours. Sometimes, my hand got caught in the granite, only to emerge red and bloody. At other points, my foot slipped and I fell hard against the rock. By the end of it, my scrapes and scratches had their first scabs, yet I emerged rock-worn and victorious on top. Bean belayed Alex down, then me. Then Alex took Bean off the mountain, so he could jump and bounce and shoot down the rope as free as he wanted. Bean was daring, but he wasn't stupid.
On July 11, 2011, Bean Bowers died of renal cancer that had metastasized to his brain and bones. He was 37, an accomplished climber and guide in Patagonia, in Pakistan and all over the Western United States. I hadn't seen him since my last night in Lander, Wyoming, after which I returned to school and embarked on my own steady climb through life.
Life is strange and it's short. Bean's life touched many people -- and though others might have held more sway in it, Bean's touched mine. For there are lots of people who will pick us up and dust us off after we have fallen, but only the truly brave pick themselves up, dust themselves off, give us another chance and tell us to keep on trying after we have failed them.
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