Of all my friends who live their lives, I never thought that he would die. And even if he did, he would surely rise like a Phoenix and keep on living.

We last climbed together last summer—life gets busy, I guess—and not much had changed, with our usual late-start junk show reminiscent of past airport and random travel fiascos. By mid-morning we stood in the Chasm Lake Cirque.

“What should we climb?”

“Maybe something up there? We’ll figure it out,” came Jonny’s characteristic reply.

Strong as hell. Good at everything. Wild eyes that burned with life. A mystic who embraced the unknown and unknowable. The best hugs. Huge, toothy grin. Without a doubt the partner you wanted if—when—shit hit the fan. He’d just laugh. The greatest laugh. He had an unrelenting optimism. “Nah, I think it’ll work out!” seemed the most common phrase when we climbed (notwithstanding our endless stream of inside jokes)—and it usually did work out.

Seems that some partners give this unspoken gift that, just by being with them, somehow makes you better than you thought you could be. And then, sometime before you even really know it, you begin believing in yourself.

As we racked up among wildflowers, I saw what looked like a weatherworn dowel hanging from his harness.

“Dude, what in the hell is that?”

“It’s a flute!” he said, and kicked steps up the snow toward the wall.

Oh, well, of course.

I tried my best to mock the hippie flute, but I got quiet when the crux randomly came on my lead. This is too hard for me, I thought. But I knew he’d tell me to try, and I knew he’d be right. Toward the top of the pitch, as notes drifted upward from the belay, without even realizing it I danced.

Now he’s gone. They are gone. Some things are too big, too powerful and there is no Santa Claus.

Later we console ourselves with talk of inspiration and memories, and how the ones we lost wouldn’t want us to be sad. We whisper wistful “if onlys,” but it remains undeniable that the risks were part of the person, as all of our experiences make us who we are—that the close calls and willingness to go came with the love and laughter and joy and inspiration, and you can not go back and remove one component from an integral whole. It was him. All of it.

Higher, he saw a chossy corner: “Let’s head up that!” We’d find another way to return to our packs—it’d all work out.

Now I struggle to believe that everything will all work out, but I guess it has to, somehow.

Last week I returned to the cirque. While kicking steps up the suncupped snow as firey alpenglow bathed the rock, I stopped. I looked everywhere, studying the air and the wind and the rock, and though Jonny didn’t rise from the ashes, I still heard the sounds of his flute.

—Kelly Cordes

Jonny playing music

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