I've just bought a new surfboard and lost a best mate. The board is a 6' 4'' c-wing quad from a friend and master shaper, Roger Hall at Surfline. Roger was one of the surfing mentors of my now very dusty youth, a visionary of shapes and techniques that has taken me more than 35 years immersion in the watery arts to fully realise. This is my second custom from him, to go with a super fun, old school, twin keel that keeps me company on smaller days.
Good things take time...but can also be lost in seconds. The mate was Jamie, a climbing god/surfing apprentice whose minor slip on the side of a mountain has had sickening, final consequences. A small wave of snow – no larger than the floorspace of a bedroom – carried him over the edge and down a gully that no one could recover from. Another good friend was with him at the time, and he watched helplessly as Jamie slipped from sight. The weight of this is still sinking in, and no doubt will be for longer than I care to think about.
The board turns up in the post. Clearly a work of art, I wonder momentarily whether it's more appropriate on the wall in our home rather than soon-to-be under my clumsy feet. Glueing a deck grip on seems sacrilege. The wax creates its own random and affecting patterns across the polished surface.
I took a phone call from Jamie's mother last night. It's been just over a month, and she's having trouble sleeping. 'I believe he's still here, in a place I can't quite reach but I feel his presence,' she said. I knew this was my time to be strong, but the tears felt so, so close. I tried to find the right words when there aren't any, to be able to soften the free fall she is experiencing; that we are all experiencing. Life just fucking sucks some times.
It's a Monday morning. Dark clouds are gathering inland, on the foothills, a precursor to rain according to the forecast. The wind is from the southwest, brisk through the trees in our garden. These days it seems my wife Shelley and I take a moment longer to hug before parting. She completed the hardest climb of her life with Jamie; I'd watched from below as they spidered up an unclimbed monstrosity of a mountain face, the rock like scales on the mountain's armor and loathe to allow passage. At a small snow shelf just below the summit, Jamie decided that they should descend.
Shelley can be prone to summit fever and, despite a storm approaching from the coast, she would have continued climbing. The rain hit that night – a nightmarish jumble of what if's shrouding my mind as they managed to get off the mountain just as thick cloud swallowed the last of dusk's warbled sheen. We were at least two days walk from the nearest road. I quietly thanked Jamie for making the right call.
The three of us often surfed together near our old Christchurch home in the days before the earthquakes, before sewerage flooded into the sea and turned it to a cesspool. Jamie took pleasure in telling me that his younger brother Sam was gifted in the ocean. He wanted to keep practicing, so he could get good enough to be able to share waves with his bro.
At first, Jamie and Shelley were similarly skilled at learning to surf. The shore break was not their friend. But Jamie's long arms hauled him out the back more often, and his athletic ability slowly adjusted. His ratio of successful takeoffs to wipeouts improved, and his 'poo stance' narrowed. But the wicked side to me enjoyed watching him occasionally cop a beating from set waves. I savored the irony of the situation, comparing it to being in the mountains when it would be Jamie cajoling me onto steeper faces despite me whinging that I was out of my depth.
Climbing was Jamie's passion but surfing was his release, he once told me. He liked that it didn't come easily, that he had to learn the way of the ocean just like he had learned the mountain path. That he was one of the country's best climbers didn't come into it, at least not to him.
With my new board and a heavy heart, I go in search of waves. The main southern coast has crosswinds, but there's just enough swell to bend into a secluded sandy beach brushed with steady offshores. The beach is empty, the way I wish my mind would be. I think about the other weekend when I returned to the mountains, to a place I had last climbed with Jamie. It was a similar time of year, and familiar fangs of ice squeezed between otherwise blank rock walls, steep frozen staircases that had let us climb that little bit closer to whatever it was we were seeking.
Now, I'm trying to distance my own perception of risk from the grief in my heart. Of course, I wonder at the worth of chasing dreams, especially when the cost can be so goddamned high. And how does it make me feel about my own climbing, about surfing, about life?
Any imagined symbolism between a new surfboard and a dead friend is tenuous at best. The new board and my ice axes are simply tools, taking me to places I couldn't otherwise reach. And the mountains? The sea? These are my dynamic, inspiring, and sometimes frightening pathways. I don't always get them, but I get needing to be among them. The quality of the wave or pureness of the climbing line doesn't matter, at least not always. Just knowing I have the opportunity....
First immersion always has a bite to it in these parts, but the wetsuit does what it's supposed to and I ease into the line-up. Only shoulder high, the waves hold a gentle, forgiving ambience that fits perfectly. I glide into an A-frame on my new board and slide to my feet. The sun reflects off the water around me, tiny slivers of intimate light. The carpet rides beautifully, without thought.
I guess my feelings have been compounded by recently losing another friend Marty to the mountains. Marty was considered a world class high altitude climber and guide. He died, with his only son Denali, high on the slopes of K2, the world's second highest mountain. Jamie and I had caught up for lunch not long after Marty and Denali's death, when I was up working in Christchurch. We talked about how it made us feel about our own climbing. Shelley and I had been busy planning a trip to Nepal to attempt an unclimbed mountain but, after Marty and Denali's death, we wondered whether our hearts were still in it. I remember Jamie saying that we 'just had to go', that we 'would regret it if we didn't'.
'Just be careful, Paul,' he added, 'you're good at that. You understand your limits.'
Jamie was killed a week after that conversation.
The waves do what they need to. I sit between sets and watch the water, the denim-blue of the sky and the effortless sweep of an albatross further out to sea. Ocean current carries me down the coast, towards another point. There, on the shore, a lone yellow-eyed-penguin stands and watches. No doubt he wants me to piss off so he can safely enter the water. I figure it's perhaps time to head in.
At Jamie's service, before a sea of light-shrouded faces, I spoke of my treasured friendship with him, how he inspired me to strive for things, even if I didn't think I'd reach them. Jamie always liked to challenge my ideas or way of thinking. I can see him prodding me now to come up with something positive. 'Come on Paul, all that thinking and writing you do. What's your intuition on this? Give us some insight.'
I don't really have any insight, but maybe an observation: When we lose someone close, like this, we fully realise what it was about them that we valued so highly. Yet in society we don't tend to do it so much, or express it, when they're alive. I never told Jamie how much I appreciated his company and friendship, how much I cared for his views and attitude to life. I mean, we had some pretty snuggly bivvies together – on cold, windswept mountainsides – but that's not quite the same.
Maybe it is, as Jamie so often illustrated to me, the case that actions are always stronger than words.