The Death of Jeff Lakes


Cameron McPherson Smith

February 1996

I did not know Jeff Lakes. I have a good memory for names, though, and when I read that heÕd died on K2 I immediately remembered a striking photo IÕd seen of him climbing in Peru with Kitty Calhoun-Grissom. The pair had tackled a remote, unclimbed alpine wall in the mid-80Õs, and the photo showed Lakes leading a steep wall of rime ice. The photo was grainy and poorly focused, obviously shot by Kitty while she was belaying, and it was therefore in great contrast to the staged photos weÕre so accustomed to seeing, productions involving a paid photographer jumaring next to the climber. KittyÕs half-baked, fuzzy and crooked photo has more meaning to me -- as a real document of climbing -- than a stack of glossy magazine shots, and I think thatÕs why the picture stays in my mind.

When I read how Jeff had died, I was in shock, also thinking of the other climbers: Rob Slater, Alison Hargreaves and the two Spaniards. The number of people wiped out in that one storm stunned me. The disaster occupied my mind for a few days. Slowly, for some reason, my thoughts turned particularly to Jeff Lakes. The portrait photo of Lakes in Climbing magazine showed a slim man in his mid-thirties, fair-haired, with a slight smile and a sparse moustache. His eyes were vaguely distracted, but penetrating nonetheless. Maybe I focused on Jeff Lakes because I felt, from the vibes I got from that picture alone, that I was something like him. He appears sensitive, intelligent, confident and competent. I feel I am these things. Lakes was also unmarried, and as a perrenial loner, this hit home as well, because I trade women for climbing. I tell myself that this is what I do, but itÕs just as likely that my passion for climbing requires so much time and effort that I cannot give women what they need, and they turn away because they sense this. Either way, the effect is the same: a general feeling of lonliness, but with a handful of trusted climbing partners who I know to be the truest friends of all.

The circumstances of JeffÕs death were also particularly striking to me, and these are clear in my mind. After reaching the summit, Jeff descended alone through rapidly deteriorating weather. I can imagine him alone on the slopes leading to the high camp, carefully picking a path down through rocks and snow, grabbing and rapelling on the occasional bit of fixed rope as the wind increased and visibility dropped dramatically. As he approached camp Jeff would have been horrified to find that the site had been avalanched. With nightfall just minutes away, and facing a complex descent in darkness, Jeff made the difficult choice to stay put for the night. He therefore endured what must have been a terrible night at over 8,000 meters, alone, wondering about the avalanche and what had happened to all the other climbers he knew were attmpting to descend from the summit in a viscious storm.

During that night Jeff would have been awakened by a terrible roar, and then a nightmarish explosion of wind and snow, blinding and freezing him in his makeshift tent. An avalanche swept over his ledge. Lakes managed to dig his way free of the snow, but he had now lost his ice axe, as well as his crampons. No climber could now deny that he was in the gravest situation -- imagine losing your crampons and axe on your local mountain, much less near the top of K2, the most dangerous mountain on the planet.

Still, all climbers will also tell you that Jeff now did what was necessary: he began to descend towards camps III and II, thousands of meters below. Throughout the day, in clearing but unsettled weather, he slowly made his way down. I can imagine his state of mind, perhaps: exhausted, depressed by the avalanches, cursing himself for not securing his axe and crampons, wondering where the others were, but forcing himeslf not to think about them too much because he had one mission on his mind - to reach the low camp, to escape the elevation and the cold and the wind and poor weather, to find a warm tent, food and water. Lakes would have been in a survival mode, something IÕve only really experienced twice, in which everything is focused on getting out of the situation you have put yourself into.

Anyone who knows anything about mountaineering, about how tired you get, how hard it is to carry on, how it is self-destructive and self-affirming at the same time, knows that when Jeff walked in to Camp II, having successfully downclimbed terrible terrain without crampons or an axe, he would have been supremely elated. Just to think of how ALIVE he must have felt, at having held it all together against what must be called astronomical odds, brings me to tears. Jeff Lakes must have cried at the sight of the tents, the zipper opening as someone heard him cry out for help as he stumbled the last few feet towards the colored nylon domes in the white snow. I feel his elation and his horror, now, as I write, I know what Jeff Lakes was experiencing. I know what it is to be plunged into a deadly storm, and to emerge alive...I know that Jeff LakesÕ life was entirely distilled in those precious moments when he was helped, crawling, into the tent by fellow mountaineers.

The climbers who took Jeff in say they were amazed, stunned that anyone had survived the storm. They had assumed that all had been killed in the avalanches and 180-mile per hour winds. One climber said that Jeff was Ôincredibly glad to be aliveÕ, elated at having summited and successfully descended. Though he was worn down, Jeff apparently showed no distressing symptoms as he went to sleep that night. I know what it was like in the cramped tent that night; the quiet roar of the stove, the sounds of nylon and velcro and zippers that are so familiar to after all these years, the grains of sand blowing against the tent, and the drained feeling, the soothing mental and physical silence as one falls to sleep, exhausted, elated. You are weary and with eyelids drooping, but you are at the height of passion, the pinnacle of life for that moment, because you have succeeded, you have survived. That is the feeling I live for, those few priceless moments when the universe seems to give your minute spark of life some measure of recognition. You have done something that MEANS something, if only in your own mind.

In the morning the other climbers were horrified to find Lakes dead in his sleeping bag. What killed him -- heart failure due to altitude-thickened blood, pulmonary or cerebral edema, simple exhaustion -- is somewhat irrelevant. What is important to me is the way that Jeff left our reality; on top of the world. Jeff Lakes went to sleep knowing that he had survived, that he was an excellent alpinist as proved by his amazing ascent and descent. Maybe he thought of future climbs, maybe he thought of taking it easy for a while, maybe he thought of just getting to Base Camp and recuperating. Whatever the case, we have in the words of the other climbers a window into the closing moments of thought in one manÕs life: ŌJeff was incredibly happy to be alive...Ķ. Jeff must have laid down KNOWING that he had done somthing extraordinary.

So many people die with regret -- regrets for things they have done or have not done. I think about death a lot, simply because it is so common in our society to report it, to investigate the circumstances. I hope that when I die, when life is extinguished, cell by cell, from my flesh, my bones, my hair and teeth and eyes, that I will be able to look on my life without regret. I want to die with the same delirious elation that Jeff Lakes must have felt at some time that night before he fell asleep.

Jeff LakesÕ death is a personal story for me, a symbol of sorts which has established itself in a central position in my mental cosmos. Jeff Lakes means everything to me. When we die we continue on, of course, our identities trasferred to the arrangements of neurons which make up other peoplesÕ memories of us, the stories they tell about us. Some of us are transferred to many people, through mass media, letters, stories and songs. Jeff Lakes, his reality, his true life, has been transmitted to me through print and photographs, and the memories of other people. Jeff is a part of me, now. When I look in the mirror, a part of Jeff Lakes looks back at me through my own eyes. One aspect of his life has ended, while another is now alive in my soul, my pumping blood and sparking nerve cells. I think about him, I seek more information about him. What I am saying is that Jeff is in a very real way still alive -- tranferred to my mind and the body which sustains and lives with the mind in the greatest mystery of unity or duality that humans have yet pondered. There are many other people who knew Jeff and in their minds he is yet more alive and vibrant.

JeffÕs death showed me that in climbing I am perhaps seeking my own sort of immortality. The thought of children simply does not fit with my goals and desires in life, and so I use the climbing community as something of a surrogate family, a living pool that I may be remembered in, that my life and personality might survive in for some time: this makes sense considering that above all I am a living thing, and that the primary instinct of living, replicating things is to survive and replicate. Our genes have one function: to produce bodies which are capable of transmitting yet more copies of our genes. In this way, I understand my desire not to be forgotten, deleted, erased, as something central to my nature. My stake in my life in climbing is no less than other peoplesÕ stake in their children, their hopes and fears for their offspring. I want to be remembered, and in the climbing world, this can happen. This is why I take developments in climbing so personally: this is why I cannot turn the other way when I see the sorry state of some aspects of our sport, like rap-bolting, over-use of pitons and sport climbing. I am a part of this, and I will fight the current trend that climbing is just another thing to do for a few years and then quit, like roller-blading or bungee-jumping. IÕm in this for the long haul.

In climbing and other adventures I will look, in the future, to the memory of Jeff Lakes, to the real embodiment of Jeff Lakes in my own brain cells, for something that I need. It may be that I need hope, or sadness, or inspiration -- whatever it is, in some way I now know that Jeff LakesÕ life, and the death that brought his life to my attention, will carried on by me, and that I will never forget him, this human I never met.