Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Searching for Matthew Greene

I thought about him often as the first snows began to fall, the soft, cold flowers of winter drifting down from a grey, imposing sky.  They fell with an innocent laziness, no purpose or agenda, merely frozen water driven by wind and gravity.  The snow clung to the edges first, the crevices, shunning the smooth open faces.  The chilled needles of the pines up high were ready, the trees' sap already long retreated into their cores.  The summits of the high peaks lay cloaked in heavy cloud, the rocks and crags catching frost feathers and ice.  The pikas and marmots had given up for the season, driven into burrows deep in the hard jumbled talus, the pale granite, the dark tortured splinters of metamorphic rubble.  Save for a few tough, masochistic souls, the Sierras were vacant, the hikers and tourists and mountaineers mostly content to stay where the snow is scarce, the sun warmer.  There's a fireplace, a friend, a lover, a glass of wine.  Why go up there?  Matthew was up there.  He's up there still.  He never came down, but he stays with me, creeping into my thoughts, a breeze off the ridge above, a smile I can't quite place, eyes that look back at me with a certain knowing.  I understand those eyes, that smile.  Matthew Greene and I have never met, but I know him just the same.

No doubt Matthew was frustrated.  His faithful Subaru, after so many trips, had blown a head gasket.  Marooned in Mammoth Lakes?  He left the car at a shop and stayed at the Shady Rest Campground near town, paying day to day in anticipation of getting back into the mountains, the peaks and spires that filled the skyline around the remote ski town.  He was itching to get back up there.  On July 16th, 2013, Matthew called his father and sent a text to a friend.  It was the last anyone would hear from him.

Days passed.  His car was fixed.  Friends and family wondered where he was.  We still don't know.  Matthew loaded up his pack, took his hiking gear, left his remaining equipment at the campground, and vanished into the backcountry.  A strong man, almost forty years old, he was no stranger to adventure and long distance travel.  Friends say that thirty miles of hiking in a day wouldn't worry him.  He was as strong as he would ever be.  The mountains were warm, the sun high in the summer sky.  As far as anyone can tell, he hiked into the rugged Ritter Range, a wild fractured saw blade of dark peaks, spires, and needles of often loose and unforgiving volcanic rock.  We can imagine his quickening stride, the pack settling onto his hips and shoulders, the creak of the straps, dust rising up from his boots on the trail.  He was tall and lean, almost six feet, one hundred and fifty five pounds of energy and forward motion.  A brilliant smile spread across his strong face, intense blue eyes scanning the trail ahead, the high country of his intense longing.

This is how I like to think of him, alive, humming with the thrill of adventure, the pounding emotions that draw us to wild places.  I know Matthew Greene.  I am Matthew Greene.  I've lived those same moments when nothing in the world was more important, more exciting than lifting the pack onto my back and seeing what lay beyond that next ridge, climbing exposed ridges, vertical walls, heart in my throat, afraid sometimes, but using that fear, working with it to find those still points within, moving inward to discover, above, a sense of calm, a feeling that everything suddenly makes sense, that up there, in the thin air and sharp stone that not a single moment has been wasted.

In my early twenties, my right knee still recovering from a pulled tendon, I packed up my classic 1972 white Plymouth Valiant, the small block V8 model, and left the coast of California, bound for the High Sierra, alone.  The big engine rumbled across the miles, the hot August air of the Great Central Valley blowing in through the windows.  I don't recall if I told my parents where I was going.  All that mattered to me was that I was going.  The high country had me in an unbreakable tractor beam, and I went.  For this mission, the mightiest range, the Palisades, called the loudest.  I hadn't climbed many of the 14,000 ft. peaks of the Sierra, so Mt. Sill was on the agenda, perhaps some others.  I had days of food.  Even with the wounded knee, I was strong, having built up a solid base of extreme hill running, climbing, cycling.  I knew I'd make it through, somehow.

At the trailhead, I hoisted the massive load and hiked up into the dreams of my youth, the Romantic narrative that all mountaineers craft for themselves.  We are the heroes of our own stories, Lord Byrons with ice axes and a taste for steep rock, too easily forgetting the debt we owe to others, the family and loved ones whose hearts we carry with our own.  My parents, my brother and sister, the friends back on the coast, they were stuffed in my pack, too, though I couldn't be bothered to recognize it at the time.  What mattered was up there, and I was young and full of fire and joy and wonder.

Two days later, I crawled from my tent beside the glacier and looked up at the stars back lighting the tremendous crest of peaks above me--Mt. Sill, North Palisade, Mt. Winchell.  Oh, this was the real thing, the drug I'd come for: Fearsome ice gullies, soaring buttresses, fields of talus, a world so beautiful and different from the sidewalks and ballparks of my suburban childhood that I had to know it more intimately.  A vicarious knowledge would never suffice.  I pulled a headlamp over a knit cap, switched on the small, feeble beam, and set out over the frozen snow as the skyline paled to the east.  I carried a helmet, crampons on my pack, an ice axe dangling from one hand until the slope steepened, a small diameter rope for my escape down the steep summit rocks.  Nowhere in the basin, on the peaks, for as far as I could see was another human soul.

Before long I climbed onto the shoulder below the north couloir and into the full morning sun.  Fortunately, the snow was just soft enough to kick steps, so the crampons stayed on the pack.  Breathing hard now, at over 13,000 ft and climbing, I worked on settling into a rhythm, the steady kicking of steps and moving the ice axe.  The snow ramp steepened up into the heart of the mountain, of what mattered most.  A shadowed headwall of broken stone capped the gully.  By 8AM, I stopped to catch my breath at the top of the couloir.  Below, a thousand feet of snow swept out and down to bone-breaking rocks.  No place to slip or lose heart.  Above, a vertical maze of fragmented granite led to a small notch from which I could gain the summit.  The climbing wasn't difficult, but it was steep, the consequences of a mistake absolutely fatal.

I changed into rock shoes and left the heavy mountain boots at the base of the vertical climbing.  With a deep breath, muttering "Don't screw this up!" I set off, grabbing the big holds, avoiding the slippery ice holding some of them to the mountain.  I danced confidently from hold to hold, testing everything that looked suspicious.  Could this one pull?  That one's junk.  Ah, this one is good.  And on and on.  Easy, really.  In only a few minutes, I was at the notch.  I stashed the rope, and lit out for the summit, grabbing fistfuls of granite, moving quickly, almost running.  I couldn't stop myself.  Everywhere around me plunged vast chasms of air and light, most of the peaks below me.  I was a bird, a hawk, a falcon set free.  These movements, this summit were everything.

And then it was done.  I stood on the top of Mt. Sill.  I had no illusions about this being a climb for the record books, but looking out over the Sierra, a scattering of clouds painting shadows across the deep furrows of glacier scoured granite, I connected with something bigger, deeper, older than my small life, and in this connection was more than I had been.  Some might call it God, but I didn't have a name for it.  It just was.  It was light and air and power and the promise of my youth.

I sat for a time on the summit blocks, watched the clouds drift above, and eventually made my way back to the notch.  Carefully, I put a sling over a stout horn of rock, slipped the rope through, and smoothly lowered myself back to my boots.  All that remained was some simple down climbing and sliding of the snow gully.  Well before noon, I was back at my camp, the small stream, shelves and slabs of white granite surrounding the tent.

I had done it.  I would live to hike out, drive back to my home, hug my parents, continue with my college courses, earn a couple of degrees, get married...the long chain of challenges, events, triumphs and tragedies that stretched out into the future because I came back from my solo climb of Mt. Sill.  Matthew Greene had a future, too, family and friends expecting his return.  Dean Rosnau, a climber and search and rescue expert in the Mammoth area, learned as we did about Matthew's disappearance and took it upon himself to mount a number of searches in the Ritter Range, going out with a few friends and scouring the peaks he sees almost daily.  Dean exchanged messages often with Matthew's father, Bob, who lived back in Pennsylvania.  As a father himself, Dean knew he had to help find the missing son.  Bob wanted to help in the search, and Dean could feel the man's pain and need to be out in the mountains, working to bring his boy home. But Dean knew how difficult such work could be and told the 67 year old what he would be facing.  As Dean put it, "I threw EVERYTHING at him to talk him out of it. This was the beginning of my discovery of who Bob Greene is…and what a father does for a son."

What followed are scenes of aching poignancy that we can only imagine.   Bob Greene took one of his son's packs, loaded it up with forty five pounds of whatever he could find, and stepped out into the Pennsylvania countryside.  Out of shape, the bulk of the pack bearing down on him like the weight of his loss, Bob Greene walked roads and hills and trails through a hard eastern winter, the force of raw emotion propelling him forward.  Day after day he went out, bent under the weight, and didn't break.  He grew tough and strong and more determined with each mile.  In the spring of the next year, he rented a condo in Mammoth and continued his training as the snow retreated from the high country.  When the time was right, Dean and Bob began a series of treks into the Ritter Range.  They didn't find Matthew.  With his strength and drive, the man could be almost anywhere, but Bob Greene was able to touch the mountains that touched his son, to hike in his footsteps.  There must be some solace in that.

The wheel of summer turns now, heating the rocks where marmots and pikas lounge in the sun.  The good days stack up one after another, but even now the angle of the light has begun to change, and it looks as if another year will pass with no signs of Matthew Greene.  He's up there, of course, waiting, patient.  Perhaps he doesn't want to be found, or perhaps being found is missing the point.  Matthew Greene is part of those mountains now, and he's never coming out, whether they find his body or not.  But we can find his spirit if we choose.  We need only look up to the crest, watch the rocky summits rake the clouds, listen to the creeks bounding down the cliffs, hear the Clark's nutcrackers complain in the pines, turn our faces up to the sun and feel the warmth of another day in the High Sierra.

Matthew Greene:

Climb on, brother.  You were meant for the mountains.

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