Chris Weidner: A life of gratitude, a death of beauty
Legendary climber Chip Chace passes on
By Chris Weidner
It's unusually chilly for Oct. 7 as I switchback up Fourmile Canyon to Chip Chace's house. Through the rainy windshield, cottonwoods are turning yellow.
For the last few weeks Chace, a venerated doctor of Chinese medicine, has suffered restless nights, often in agonizing, almost unbearable pain. Driving the final miles I realize I'm nervous — acutely aware this will be the last time I ever see him.
I'm also grateful that, among his countless friends, students, mentees and colleagues, he has made time to see me; he doesn't have much of it left.
We sit together in his small cabin adjacent to the house he shares with Monika, his wife of 30 years, and their dog, Djinee.
"This is my home," he tells me, pointing to a photo he took in July of a utopian valley in Wyoming's Wind River range, where granite walls tower above lakes and wildflowers. Now 60, Chace has climbed in Titcomb Basin nearly every year since he was 20, and has rope-soloed every major feature there.
"It's the most beautiful place I've ever been," he says.
Chace recounts how he ended up there this summer: how he had just returned early from his second solo trip to Baffin Island in northeastern Canada. How after a punishing, multi-day approach he discovered his climbing gear cache had been stolen. How he was forced to bail, and how he suffered an overwhelming exhaustion he couldn't explain.
Back in the U.S. with extra time, Chace detoured to Titcomb Basin where he soloed Mount Helen, Titcomb's biggest climbing objective.
"It was a 17-hour moment of grace," he says softly. "The rock was perfect. It was just this bluebird day, Chris. It was like, 'Yeah, this is why I do this. This is why I'm going to continue doing this until I can't anymore.'"
"And then ..." he pauses. "I can't anymore."
Immediately following his trip, Chace learned he was dying of pancreatic cancer.
"That's the last thing I'll ever climb," he says smiling wistfully, glassy-eyed. "It was just this amazing experience, this last gift of the mountains."
After his first trip to Baffin Island last summer, Chace told me all of his climbing and rope-soloing — what he calls his "practice of the wild" — his mental training, his Zen practice ... everything had been preparing him for his dream climb: Mount Aasgard.
"From the moment I decided to go to Baffin to the time I went to Baffin everything became brighter for me," he says. "Because it was like, you very well might get killed."
Chace faced extreme isolation, a brutal climate, sketchy river crossings, crevasse hazard and hungry polar bears. And that's before the climbing began.
"We all know we're going to die," he continues, "but when you know you might die at some particular time, it amplifies it. You live in gratitude for every moment you have. That's what the practice of the wild is in its essence: it's a practice of gratitude."
Days earlier Chace was lying on a gurney in Urgent Care, "in this sea of pain," he says. "I was screaming, sobbing 'thank you!' I was practicing 'thank you,' surrendering to the 'thank you' of it. And Monika is on the gurney with me, spooned up against me, holding me.
"It's how I want my death to be. I want to go into it with that openness and that gratitude Chris, that gratitude."
So now in his room, during a respite from the racking pain, he understands that his Baffin experience — that "extended flow state" he describes as stretching beyond both ends of his trip, into his past and into his future — was his final preparation.
"I thought Baffin was the big thing," he says. "This is the big thing." His cancer, his approaching death. "In a very real way Baffin was a trainer for this."
On Nov. 3, surrounded by eight of his closest friends, Chace passed away peacefully at home.
"He died in a really beautiful way because of the people there," said Roger Briggs, Chace's climbing partner and close friend of 33 years. "And they were there because of the life he had lived.
"There was so much love."
Contact Chris Weidner at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Instagram: @christopherweidner and Twitter: @cweidner8