“Live everyday as if it were your last because someday you’re going to be right. ” – Muhammad Ali
We don’t know when it will happen. I’ve seen it too many times, and many times it should have been me.
9 10 people, TJ was almost 11.
I saw his hand first, waving at me from between two large rocks, fluttering with the movement of water in a pool below a waterfall. It was easily overlooked.
His flesh was removed from his arm, his white bones mistaken for a bleached willow branch. The Missoula County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue thought it was and dismissed it.
But we were not the Sheriffs SAR and I recognized the white phalanges.
There he was. He used to be alive moving around and now he was there where we couldn’t see him, stuck between boulders in a pool below a waterfall, waving for us.
We used to jump from bridges in Illinois into rivers that were too shallow. I free-soloed climbing routes hundreds of feet tall in South Dakota, Wisconsin, Washington and Colorado. A car accident in 1988 almost killed my mother, sister and I, among too many other close calls; It doesn’t take much.
Nine months before his waving hand called to me, there were two more. A man and a woman, immersed in a preservative bath within stainless steel containers. Their platforms were cranked up, revealing their dissected bodies. We disassembled and reassembled every piece of them, a few times. They knew they would be there. They volunteered their bodies. But the guy was a smoker. If he knew we’d be all up in his ribcage he probably wouldn’t have been. It makes you ugly on the inside. Everything was tar black. If you smoke, you should quit. One day a kid is going to be playing with your liver and it should look good. Sexy Liver.
Five years prior I saw a dead guy on the River Neva in St Petersburg, Russia. It was a historic tour. On a boat. You know the kind. Very informative and historical. With a dead body. He was lying on his back on a dock. His skin was grey and wore a blue speedo. Maybe he drowned. Maybe he was drowned. Maybe he died sunbathing. I don’t know.
He had extra weight in the middle, a little hairy. There was a bird on his forehead. The tour guide did not mention it. In 1992 in Russia it was probably better not to mention things. I was 14 and it was the first dead body I had seen outside a funeral home.
There was another one. It was November, a few months after the guy in the waterfall. He was on his back and we saw boot tips breaching the freshly fallen snow, the body otherwise camouflaged under a white layer. He had fallen cleanly backward, 30 – 06 rifle to his side, after shooting a bullet through his own head.
There was no explanation, just his boots poking up through fresh snow, and a worried family at home.
A few weeks earlier we ran into a house. Firewood strewn about the clean living room floor where all of time and furniture shopping stopped in 1967. His wife sobbed.
“He just brought in this wood for the fireplace”
He was around 83 years old, buckled over on the floor on his right side. No sign of life. His large body resisted our compressions, so everyone was sweating from chest-pumping and defibrillating until he was declared dead 45 minutes later. The Attending made sure we all had sufficient CPR practice before calling it. It was the Hoover Dam of heart attacks. His poor wife. Took them by surprise.
A few years later there was the guy that got hit by a garbage truck in Chicago. Dead. And the guy in LA carrying chinese takeout at 10am – fell over on the sidewalk. Dead. The assistant climbing guide high school kid that sleep walked off the cliffs in Wisconsin while working with a friend of mine. Dead (I wasn’t there). And TJ Miller, the actor & comedian, who had a massive seizure on the upstairs floor in LA Food Show in Beverly Hills where I was eating lunch…he didn’t die but his manager thought I was trying to rob him because I knew who he was. I was actually helping prevent him from biting his tongue. He was close to death and I wondered if he saw the other side. (TJ, if you’re reading this, we should have that dinner we talked about at the premiere of “Gulliver’s Travels”. Email or tweet at me). And now that I think of it, Ryan Dunn whom I sat near at the premiere of “Jackass 3D”, went up in flames at 100mph. Gone, but I didn’t see that in person.)
Those dead ones were easy but waterfall guy wasn’t.
He died two months before I found him. We were on a recovery mission.
He was hiking to Lower Mission Falls off Highway 93 north of Missoula, Montana, July 4th weekend of 1996. He fell off the top. His friends didn’t see or hear it, but they knew it happened.
The water was raging. Search and Rescue was called in but the water made it impossible. So we were there again in late August to find the body. His family sat anxious at home in pain every night knowing he was out there, somewhere.
A recovery after two months in the mountains in the summer is unlikely. The body decays in rushing water and the bears, cougars, lions and scavengers want a quick meal.
But we found him, me and the other Western Montana Mountain Rescue Team member, Matt. We were trained in high-angle rescue. This was very high angle, beyond vertical in some places. The Sheriff’s SAR was with us.
This is not a river. This is a steep canyon flow blocked upstream by MIssion Falls, descending through successive pools into a steep narrow slot of water for 600 vertical feet until it eases out of the canyon into the wide river valley and Mission Reservoir 1,000 feet below.
We set 3 anchors and lowered a guy down to the pool.
The body belonging to the arm was human, but we had to prove it the right human. SAR tore cloth from his shorts and confirmed a descriptive match. We called in equipment.
“We need a doctor with his black bag and a spare up here”, which is code for body bags. They use code to avoid triggering news agencies of a death. They inform the family first, then announce to the press.
The helicopter dropped the body bags, some dry suits, 600 feet of static line and four bear-sized men. We set more anchors and safety lines across the lower edge of the pool to prevent our team from falling off.
We tried pulling the body out of the boulders using a z-drag with rope around his waist. The rope could floss through his body and mess things up, so we aborted for an alternative. The biggest guy lowered into the pool on a safety line held by me, stood up in waist-high water, reached down bear-hugging the body and pulled against hundreds of gallons of rushing water.
The body popped free and rose above the surface, upright, with the burly guy leaning back at full strength. The flesh of his left side – from fingertips to head top – was peeled away. Visible trauma caused instant death when he fell. Decay converted to stench penetrating the canyon. The stench unmistakably thick and uniquely human burned our noses.
We dry heaved.
The Sheriff guy handed me Vapo-Rub, which I put below my nose. Had the water not been so cold, the decay and stench would have been worse.
“We have to watch for bears now. They know this smell.” He said.
But I wasn’t watching for bears. Strange things happen when you’re there in remote wilderness with a dead body of a guy your age that could be you if your foot slipped on a waterfall. Your brain goes haywire. Your eyes do not want to see dead people. They do not want to believe in death. Your mind races for answers. I fixated on his boots. Vasque boots. In perfect condition, still laced onto his feet over his wool hiking socks. I kept thinking “those boots look brand new; my next boots will definitely be Vasque.” I said to Matt “look at those boots” to which he responded “it’s amazing; they’re like new”.
I couldn’t help but think about the morning he laced them up. Did he have a girlfriend? Had she spent the night? Did they argue? Was he happy? Did he have a feeling he would die that day? All of his worries were gone now, but ours were not. We had to get him out. People still cared. We cared.
His slacken, exposed jawbone clacked its teeth and the sound echoed off the canyon wall as the two guys wrestled him into the body bag; his legs flopped loosely, banging the boots around.
Matt and I secured the bag.
We loaded the bag into the net at the end of the tow-line. He was lifted away. The chopper blades cut the air in a thop-thop-thop, the water rushed over the boulders in a loud shhhhhhhhhhhhh, but we were silent and I hardly remember the sounds. We watched the chopper elevate and descend along the valley out of sight.
We looked at each other somber and relieved; exhausted.
We bushwacked to a clearing where the chopper put down a single skid and opened its doors. We were barely in when they lifted off.
We could see above the valley, peaks and as far to the West as was possible. It was beautiful. We dropped just above the reservoir at the temporary base.
We exchanged congratulations, offered condolences, declined counseling, and got on the road back to Missoula.
It was the the first-ever successful mission of the University of Montana’s Western Montana Mountain Rescue Team (the rifle suicide was the second successful recovery that year).
The veil of life is thin.
It is a small rock at the top of a waterfall. A speeding car from the opposite direction. A neurological problem that seizes our body. A thin rope protecting a fall. The unknowns we come across each day.
We do not wake up knowing the future.
We are vulnerable and one day we will die.
But not today – not right now. Right now we are alive, together. There are clouds moving over the Front Range and stars brightening in the night sky of Colorado. Waves lap at the shore in California. The sprinklers just went on in Portland. Another case shipped in Wisconsin. A soft-shell crab was eaten in Maryland, cancer treated in Florida and a mango slayed in Costa Rica.
Taste the air today, see the sun, feel your pillow and how the sheets are warm in the morning when you wake up. Climb a tree. A solid tree. This is life, and it is fragile. You are lucky.
Think of someone you are at odds with and wish them the best, if only in your mind. Feel the freedom you have to do so.
You can do anything today. I am going to start by drinking some coffee. It’s STUMPTOWN coffee from Oregon. You should try it.
I’ll be bugging TJ on twitter today. I’m glad he didn’t die. I think he’s glad too, but I’d like to have dinner and ask him. Maybe you can join us?