Cover image for A mountain too far : a father's search for meaning in the climbing death of his son
A mountain too far : a father's search for meaning in the climbing death of his son
Purnell, Karl H.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Far Hills, N.J. : New Horizon Press, [2001]

Physical Description:
xvi, 298 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 24 cm
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GV199.92.P87 P87 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf
GV199.92.P87 P87 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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When his son Chris is killed in an avalanche, Karl Purnell is shattered. He decides to retrace his son's climbs from the rock walls of Yosemite National Park to the French Alps and up to the Himalayan mountains.

Author Notes

Karl H. Purnell is a prize-winning newspaper editor & former Vietnam War correspondent whose articles have appeared in many magazines & newspapers. A graduate of Harvard University with a degree in English Literature, he is also a playwright whose plays about the Civil War have been produced in theaters throughout the United States. He currently resides in Mifflinburg, Pennsylvania.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Purnell told his children when they were young that "if you want to know about the wolves, you have to howl with the wolves." After the tragic climbing accident that claimed the life of his 28-year-old son, Chris, he decided to follow his own counsel to gain insight and understand his son's passion for climbing and mountaineering. He set out to follow Chris\q footsteps--literally--from learning to rock climb at Yosemite National Park and the Shawangunks to hiking in the Alps to attempting to reach the summit of Pisang Peak in Nepal (something his son was not able to accomplish). Strangers impart gems of wisdom about the sport and the grieving process, which will inspire all who share similar experiences. Especially poignant are the occasions when events trigger memories of Purnell's experiences as a correspondent during the Vietnam War. Readers will appreciate his willingness to share his personal, spiritual journey of healing and peace. --Brenda Barrera

Publisher's Weekly Review

Any parent will find it hard to read former newspaper reporter Purnell's detailed account of a two-year quest to understand his 28-year-old son Chris's sudden death. Chris, an obsessive climber, died in Canada in an ice-climbing accident. At first racked by anger, Purnell becomes "obsessed with finding out just who Chris was, to know his secrets and why he chose to climb." Developing his own climbing skills, the 65-year-old author visits some of his son's favorite regions, climbing in Yosemite, the French Alps and then finally the Himalayas, where, twice trying to scale mountains that Chris also attempted to climb, he achieves a sort of closure. The first part of Purnell's narrative is somewhat stiff, as he apparently tries to separate the story from his clearly overwhelming emotions. However, in the second half, Purnell includes Chris's own journal entries about life and climbing. As he begins to understand Chris's life of "fervor and commitment," Purnell gains some painful insight: that serious climbers usually have "a childhood filled with family trauma" in Chris's case, his parents' acrimonious divorce and that perhaps he is "wrong in refusing to accept Chris's absence." Purnell ultimately decides that perhaps his "need to climb a mountain to know [his] son was misplaced," but he achieves something else: he pays tribute to Chris's energy and to the pain that a child's death can cause a parent, without descending into maudlin bathos. (Apr.) Forecast: Any parent grieving the loss of a child might be drawn to this clear-minded, loving and unsentimental book. Additionally, given the current popularity of (often dangerous) outdoor sports, Purnell's attempts to make sense of their psychological meaning could help generate word of mouth. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

The author, a journalist, novelist, and playwright, suffered the loss of his oldest son in a climbing accident. He was devastated and angry, particularly because he regards such dangerous activities as rock climbing as both foolish and selfish; they not only endanger the participant but affect his or her family. The author traveled to Canada, where his son died, and to the Alps and Himalayas, where he climbed; he also studied Tibetan culture and learned to climb to try to understand why his son felt the need to do it. Through his efforts, he was able to reach some sort of peace and understanding. Some of the details Purnell gives on rock climbing will appeal only to the committed and could have been shortened, but overall this very moving and articulate work is recommended for public and academic libraries. George M. Jenks, Bucknell Univ., Lewisburg, PA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One To the Woods, To the Mountains For the thing which I greatly feared is come upon me and that which I was afraid of is come to me. Job 3:25 A cold wind is blowing across the Connecticut shoreline on this rainy New Year's Day. As drops of water splatter against the windows of my study and trickle slowly down the glistening panes, I lean back in my leather reading chair and watch the dim light of late afternoon disappear against the dark waters of Long Island Sound.        I wonder if it's raining in Portland. Chris should be there by now. I assume that he's finished with a holiday ice climbing expedition in Banff National Park, and that he's even completed the long drive from Canada to Oregon in time to start his new job, which was slated to begin right after New Year's Day, January 2, 1997.        Throughout the holidays, I tried not to think about him and what he was doing. A trip to North Carolina, where I spent Christmas with his younger brother, Justin, had helped to distract me from the worry which always consumed me when I knew Chris was mountain climbing. Now I'm home again and relieved to think that my twenty-eight-year-old son is safely back in his new apartment and getting ready for work as a computer specialist analyzing satellite data for the United States Forestry Department.        He has lobbied long and hard for special conditions at this new job and I know that he intends it to be a stepping stone to the kind of life he is determined to live. During a phone conversation I had with him before Christmas, he said that they would be allowing him to work several months in succession and then take a few months off. He plans to use these breaks for climbing and also to explore alternative career possibilities. The importance of leading a meaningful existence is critical to him. It is no accident that Chris often refers to Henry David Thoreau's words: I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach and not, when I come to die, discover that I had not lived.        I suspect that Chris has turned to climbing mountains for the same reason Thoreau went to the woods, although this is an issue we rarely discuss. I never like to be reminded of his climbing exploits which I fear, so we talk about other things, like his work, his girlfriend, the confusion he is feeling about his career and his determination to somehow balance the contradiction of having a successful job while living a simple and harmonious existence devoid of unnecessary possessions.        Like any close friends, we also discuss what I'm doing, how I feel about life and what my own aspirations are. Chris is a perceptive and sympathetic listener. He knows me better than anyone I have ever met.        So now, with darkness closing in and the rain still drumming against the roof, I'm wishing that I had his new phone number so I could call and talk to him. However, I don't know if he has a phone yet or even where he's living. He might be staying with friends. I realize the only way I can talk to him this afternoon is if he calls me.        His Christmas letter is somewhere on my desk. I shuffle through some papers and begin to read it again: I have to go back to work soon. My new job will start around Jan. 6. I think I'm looking forward to it, at least to the change of scenery that Portland will provide. But my climbing isn't over just yet. In several days, I'm going up to Banff National Park in the Canadian Rockies by Lake Louise. There, friends and I will split a motel room or something and then spend two weeks climbing the ice of the plentiful frozen waterfalls in the area. I'm psyched and scared. One of the shortcomings of living as I have been is the infrequent contact with family and old friends. I think about you all often and hope life is treating you well. I miss you all. Peace, love, regards. Happy Holidays. Chris        Suddenly, my reading is interrupted by the shrill clatter of the white phone sitting on my book-cluttered desk. I pick up the receiver hoping that it's Chris calling me. It isn't.        Christopher's mother is calling from her home in North Carolina. Instantly, I'm wary. Our divorce took place more than two decades ago. Only the most serious emergency could bring a telephone call from my former wife, and mother of my three children. It's the dreaded message that threatens all parents from the moment their child is born.        "Something terrible has happened," Janey announces. Then she says the word "Christopher" and instantly I know she's calling with bad news. The human brain is still superior to the fastest microchip and in that split second between hearing my son's name and the rest of the sentence, my decade-long fear of his love for climbing mountains flashes through my consciousness.        The blunt announcement that would instantly change my life and forever justify years of worry and concern for his safety filters through the phone.        "Christopher is dead!" she exclaims.        "No!" I scream into the phone. "No!"        "The park police called from Banff where he was ice climbing," Janey says. "There was an accident."        "No! He phoned me before Christmas and said he would be back at his new job by now," I interrupt in a desperate effort to stanch the bad news by silencing the messenger. Then the fateful words "avalanche," "hospital," "three hours of emergency surgery" sear through my brain. Again, I shout, "No!"        As Janey continues, a slim thread of denial, even hope, suddenly creeps through my dazed thoughts. She has to be wrong. This could not have happened to our twenty-eight-year-old son. Chris is a superbly conditioned athlete who climbs with care and intelligence as well as courage. He has already spent a year in the Himalayas and a year in the French Alps while he was still in school. He has reached the summit of America's highest and most difficult mountains, including Mt. McKinley and Yosemite's El Capitan.        Janey's voice intrudes upon my stubborn refusal to accept her announcement. "He's been taken to a funeral home in British Columbia."        The words "funeral home" ricochet through my mind. Janey is describing an event that really did happen. There's no mistake. Chris is gone forever.        Instead of receiving a New Year's phone call from my fun-loving, adventurous son and enjoying a long conversation with him this afternoon, I would now have to make plane reservations for a trip to Canada in order to undertake the grim job of packing up his belongings, disposing of his small pickup truck, making arrangements for a cremation and deciding with his mother how we should conduct a memorial service.        After assuring Janey that I will call her back in the morning, I put down the phone and gaze at the dreary downpour outside the window. "Chris, why did you have to do this to me?" I shout angrily. Then, stung by the selfishness of this thought, I open the door and step outside into the freezing rain as if the cold wetness will shock not only my body, but my precept of reality.        As the icy drops of water mix with the warm tears on my face, I realize the enormity of my mistake in thinking this would never happen. In recent months, I had come to accept the false premise that Chris would be protected from a climbing catastrophe, because fatal accidents happen only to other people. Tragedies, I assumed, strike only those unfortunate or unskilled climbers one sees on television or reads about in the newspapers. Hope, plus the absence of any other comforting choice, had convinced me that avalanches, storms or falling rocks bring death to unknown and distant men and women who simply run out of luck. I gradually had come to believe in a personal immunity from the kinds of disasters and losses that happen so unexpectedly and undeservingly to other fathers and mothers. This, of course, I know now was a huge mistake. Now, I am thrust face to face with the reality that no parent is immune from this kind of loss.        Returning to the warmth of the house, I'm startled by the phone ringing again. Hope is rekindled. Perhaps it is all a mistake and Janey is calling back to say that it wasn't Chris but someone else who died in the avalanche. Maybe an error in identification has been made. I pick up the receiver and respond to the sympathetic and consoling voice of a good friend who has already heard what happened. It's the first of many calls I'll receive during the next few days. They're difficult for me as well as the callers. And yet they help ... a little bit although I don't know exactly how to react.        There are so many important events in our lives for which we have no preparation, no training, no knowledge. How does one choose a lifetime career? What kind of man or woman makes the best husband or wife? How do we know if we've fallen in love for the right reasons or if we're in love at all? Which are the best rules for bringing up children? Make a mistake on any one of these and your whole life can be changed, perhaps even ruined. Yet, no required curriculum, no 101 survey courses ever covered those topics during my days in college and I don't think they do now. Psychologists and social researchers know a lot about these issues, but rarely are they taught either in school or at home. We're pretty much left on our own to figure out the solutions as best we can to some of the most basic problems of life. Now the question arises: what does a man like me do about the sudden loss of a child? Suddenly, I'm faced with Chris's fatal fall from the side of a mountain and I have no idea what to think or what to do. I was never taught how to deal with the early and unexpected death of a child. Should I be angry or bitter? Who's to blame for this? Is it my fault? If so, what did I do wrong? These kinds of questions gather momentum, but no answers follow. After all, this wasn't supposed to happen.        It occurs to me that I do not know how to grieve for my son. I retreat to the solitude of my study and spend the rest of the long night wishing it would all go away, wishing that I could awaken from this nightmare.        The following two days pass slowly in a painful daze of tears, denial, anger and guilt as I make plans for the trip to Canada where Chris made his last climb.        Still numb, I take the train to New York and catch a bus to Kennedy Airport where I've booked a flight to Calgary, Alberta. There I'll meet my former wife and we'll rent a car for the one hour drive to Banff National Park. Fortunately, our second son, Justin, will also join us.        Soon I'm on the plane, filled with dread toward this unwanted mission. Yet, as the aircraft gains altitude and starts to drone across the country, I begin to find some comfort in recalling what it was like to spend time with Chris when he was a small child and how proud I was of him as he grew older and developed into someone I admired and loved so completely.        There was no doubt that he made unusual choices. His contrarian tendencies were evident at an early age.        Once, when he was six years old, I took Chris ice skating at Rockefeller Center in New York City. He was a pretty good skater by then and he could hardly wait for me to lace up his skates that cold December afternoon. As he pushed out onto the ice, I retreated to a small restaurant next to the rink. However, I had no more taken a seat when I looked out the window and saw Chris skating clockwise directly into the oncoming crowd, almost knocking down several people who failed to get out of his way. Quickly, I raced outside and stepped onto the ice.        Before I could say a word, he glided up to me and shouted: "Papa, these people are all skating the wrong way."        The incident became a long-playing joke with us and through the years, whenever Chris complained unjustifiably about the actions of other people, I would remind him of the incident at Rockefeller Center: "Well, Chris, they must all be skating the wrong way." My thoughts turn to how he liked to race mountain bikes on the weekends and go on climbing expeditions with his old Nissan pickup truck whenever he could get time off from his job. How he wanted to live with a minimum of material possessions.        We are landing at Salt Lake City. There I board a connecting flight to Calgary. On the flight I'm seated next to a plump, middle-aged woman in jeans with short curls of gray hair covering her head like a thick wool hat. She immediately begins chatting about her planned visit to a newly married daughter in Canada.        She goes on to say her daughter lives in this small town outside of Calgary where her husband claims to be looking for work. "But they've been there for almost two years and he still doesn't have a job," she observes with obvious disdain for her son-in-law. I listen for a while as she continues talking, not sure whether to feel sorry for her or for the poor guy who would have to suffer this woman's presence during the next two weeks.        Suddenly, she turns to me. "What brings you to Canada? Business or pleasure?        The question is like a sharp slap across the face. For the first time since hearing about the accident, I'm faced with the prospect of explaining to a stranger what happened to Chris. I find I'm not ready for that. Denial runs deep. The words "killed" or "died" are impossible for me to say. I put off answering.        "Neither one really. I ... ah ... I ... have to meet some people in Calgary," I stammer.        "Oh, a big secret, huh?" she asks in a tone that suggests I must be on some kind of illicit mission.        "No. Not that. It's ... ah ...," I begin again, trying to determine if I should say I'm on a skiing trip and be done with it.        "Nobody goes all the way to Calgary in the middle of the winter unless they have a pretty good reason," she interrupts in an authoritative, no-disagreement tone of voice that convinces me to pity the son-in-law who is going to have to endure her visit.        I hit on an answer that is not a lie. "I have to meet with my ex-wife," I say.        She nods with understanding. "Oh, one of them meetings, huh?"        Fortunately, the stewardess arrives with an offer of various drinks and because my answers are so curt the woman figures I'm not worth any more conversation. She orders a Coke, gulps it down and then leans back against the headrest and goes to sleep. I know she must think I'm rude, but I haven't the energy for courtesy. All I can think of is my son. At last I'm free to escape into the sea of memories which is awaiting me. Waves of conversation fill my head, particularly the ones about the dangers of climbing Chris and I had when he was still in college.        One took place at the end of a cold spring day in early March after Chris finally persuaded me to take a rock climbing lesson when he was a sophomore at Penn State University.        On that windy, freezing morning, I climbed the steps to his disheveled dormitory room where I helped him pack his climbing gear and carry it to my car. Soon we were driving through the bleak central Pennsylvania countryside to a nearby stone quarry, laughing and joking about my inability to believe anyone could enjoy hanging from a limestone wall on such a miserable day.        "I've been looking forward to this for a long time. This is really going to be a lot of fun," I joked sarcastically as we unloaded his equipment from the car.        Chris laughed. "Now just be patient. You'll like this once we're there and you get the feeling of what rock climbing is all about," he promised.        "Maybe I can stay overnight in your room, if you can clear a space for me and we can come back tomorrow," I answered.        Chris parried my thrust at the condition of his room by taking a shot at my age. "That would be great, Papa, if you're not too tired and sore from getting a little exercise."        The score was even. By the time we reached the bottom of the quarry wall, we were both talking and laughing in an easy camaraderie that only the closest of friends can achieve.        After fitting me with a waist harness, Chris quickly climbed to the summit of the seventy-five-foot wall and anchored the rope around a tree growing on the top. Then he threw the rope over the cliff and rappelled down the wall with the prideful skill of a son showing off to a father who, despite a reluctance to admit it, could not avoid being impressed.        "Now, tighten this waist harness and I'll hook you up to the belay. Then you can start up and even if you slip, I can brake the rope and keep you from falling," he instructed.        I did what I was told and soon I was edging my way up the cold limestone as the wind howled along the top of the cliff. After a few minutes of total discomfort during which I managed to scrape a leg and almost dislocate two fingers while pulling myself upwards on a small protrusion of stone, I called to Chris who was holding the rope at the bottom: "Hey, Chris, this is really terrific. How come you never told me how much fun rock climbing can be?"        I could hear him forcing a laugh, although I suspect that he was also shaking his head in disapproval of a father who could not get "psyched" over the thrills of crawling up a jagged limestone cliff on a cold, blustery day.        We climbed for several hours and when it was finally time to gather up the equipment and head for home I invited Chris to dinner at The Tavern, a nice restaurant in downtown State College where we could have some wine, a hearty meal and get warm. "Chris, I want to have a serious talk with you," I said after we ordered dinner.        He knew what was coming. "About climbing?" he asked.        "Yes. I know you're good at it and I realize you try to climb safely, but it's still dangerous. One small quirk of fate like a falling rock, a wrong step or even a sudden storm can be fatal. Almost any little mistake that happens in a situation like that can lead to disaster. There are so many ways you can be hurt," I said.        "Everything is dangerous. It's dangerous to drive a car," he replied.        "Yes, but we need to do that. We don't need to climb mountains," I answered.        "Do you know how much climbing means to me?" he asked.        "Do you know how much you mean to me?" I persisted. "But it's my life," he said.        I tried to convince him it was also mine and everyone else's who loved him. He would not agree and I soon realized there was nothing I could say that would make him quit climbing mountains. I tried to move the conversation into a lighter vein by telling him I didn't want to spend the rest of my life wheeling him in and out of men's rooms or feeding him baby food from a jar. We both laughed and by the time the soup arrived we had switched the conversation to his plans for spending his junior year abroad.        I flash to the present moment thinking now the price is being exacted for merely holding such a prideful conversation. As the plane drones on toward Canada, guilt washes over me and I wish I had done more than just talk that evening. The problem is, I think, I don't know what more I could have done, what could have been . And then as the past once again pushes the present aside I return to my memories. Copyright © 2001 Karl H. Purnell. All rights reserved.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgmentsp. xi
Introductionp. xiii
1 To the Woods, To the Mountainsp. 1
2 Indestructible Bondsp. 13
3 Howl with the Wolvesp. 29
4 Fatal Premonitionp. 45
5 The Valley of Edenp. 63
6 Basic Lessonsp. 77
7 The Inner Voicep. 89
8 Signs of the Zodiacp. 107
9 Struggling for a Toeholdp. 135
10 Relentless Sorrowp. 149
11 Glistening Peaks, Twisting Trailsp. 169
12 Star-Crossed Encountersp. 187
13 Death-Defying Thrillsp. 205
14 A Heavy Packp. 219
15 To the Summitp. 233
16 "Ah So"p. 249
17 The Final Messagep. 261
18 Reunionp. 281
Epiloguep. 295
Glossaryp. 297