Tragedy in Baffin Bay – Outside Online


Mike and I became best friends at Laramie High School, where we were on the swim team together. He had shaggy red hair, a deep chest, and an uncommon fondness for mischief. He was a prankster, the kind of guy who would secretly spoon grape jelly into your goggles. At swim practice in winter, he would dash outside barefoot in nothing but his Speedo, pack snowballs, and then race indoors, hurling them at swimmers in the pool. When retribution arrived and he was dragged from the hot showers out to a snowbank, he was delighted.

Mike had a mouth on him. In PE, during swim class, he would taunt football players until they were frothing like Saint Bernards. Maladroits! Miscreants!” he’d yell from the water, until one of them waded out to kill him. Mike would stay just out of reach, bouncing backwards, splashing the kid in the face until they were both in the deep end. He would then allow the enraged hulk to hold him under for as long as he could. After which, Mike would pop to the surface like a cork and crawl on top of the guy’s head.

For this and other infractions, our gym teacher and swimming coach, Layne Kopischka, made Mike tread water below the diving board with his arms over his head. Doing that is painfully hard, but it didn’t appear to bother Mike. He’d wave at everyone as though he were in a parade, having a great time. Coach would ignore him and go back to his office.

We reveled in the truth of climbing, the fact that you really did hold your partner’s life in your hands. Nothing else we tried seemed as serious.

Coach Kopischka—handsome, dark-haired, tight-lipped—led the Laramie High School swim team to 18 championship seasons, with a total of 418 wins, 18 losses, and two ties. Every afternoon, walking up and down the pool, he relentlessly, almost wordlessly, drove us to swim faster, try harder. We swam until we were so spent that we sank—300, 400 laps. It was outrageous, but we did it for Coach. He steadfastly believed in us, so we believed in ourselves. He was the only adult I met as a teenager who was willing to do himself whatever he ordered you to do.

It was Coach who taught Mike and me how to climb, changing our lives. Before dawn, in the chilly months of September and October, he drove a busload of us up to Vedauwoo, an outcropping of granite domes about 20 miles east of Laramie. The first day of class, as we shivered and waited for the sun to warm the rock, he laid it out.

“Rock climbing is not a game,” he said. “Ball sports are games. Football, basketball, volleyball. If you do something stupid and sprain an ankle or twist a knee, you’re carried off to applause and patched up. Mistakes are inconsequential in games.” He looked at us without expression and we nodded.

“Do something stupid climbing, make a mistake, and you can kill yourself that fast!” He snapped his fingers for effect. “Worse, you can kill somebody else. Your partner. Your best friend.”

Coach was tolerant of joking around in the pool, but he was all business on the rock. He forced us to practice basic skills—belaying, knots, body position, edging, hand jams, footwork—over and over. As I struggled halfway up some stone cliff, he would shout, “It’s balance, not brawn, Jenkins!”

During those early lessons, we didn’t have harnesses or rock shoes or chalk—we climbed in stiff leather hiking boots and used a hip belay. Whining was forbidden. If you allowed your fear to show, Coach would shout “Courtesy slack!”—like a referee calling a foul—and the belayer would feed out extra rope, which meant you could take a longer fall. This taught us to suck it up, no matter if your knees were trembling uncontrollably, a condition we called Elvis Leg.

Mike and I took to rock climbing fast. We were fit and fearless. We reveled in the severe truth of the sport, the fact that you really did hold your partner’s life in your hands. Nothing else we tried seemed as serious.

Within weeks, we pooled our money and bought a rope, climbing gear, and rigid-soled climbing shoes. We drove out to Vedauwoo every weekend in a mint green Rambler that belonged to Mike’s grandpa. We had no guidebook, no limits. We were adolescents set free in the world, zealously committed to climbing as only adolescents can be.

I tried to climb like Coach—calm and methodical—but inevitably defaulted to muscling everything. Mike was wild and swashbuckling; he was not afraid of falling or getting bloody. He talked like a pirate and mocked his own fear, even when he was high off the deck, clinging to a featureless wall.

At this time in our lives, climbing was not just an opportunity to use our bodies and minds, but an act of rebellion. On Saturdays and Sundays, when most American males were stuffing their faces and watching football, Mike and I were up in Vedauwoo, sunshine or snowstorm, giving each other shit, verbally pushing and physically pulling each other up harder and harder climbs. We often got home long after dark.

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