A Mountain Too High? PART ONE


I’d always thought not much could beat turning up unannounced on someone’s doorstep for shock value, until I turned up unannounced on someone’s doorstep to hear that they were dead. It’s definitely the higher card of the two. I’d like to play it myself some day, but turning up unannounced is somehow not so fashionable these days, so I’m going to have to cultivate a few of those friendships if there’s to be any chance of me turning the tables on someone in such a shocking way.

I met Lili in San Francisco. I was attending a minerals conference, gold, diamonds, precious stones, that kind of thing, for an offshore diamond mining company who had sponsored the Africa focussed wildlife conservation charity I was working for at the time, and I’d got her contact details off a friend who’d met her in Sudan. We agreed to meet in Golden Gate Park, at some suitable rendezvous point, and I guess she laid down the gauntlet when she arrived at a fair lick on roller-blades and pulled a handy T-stop that came to a halt close enough for her to straighten up and shake my hand. She was all blonde bombshell then.

Luckily I’d left my rollerblades at home, or I’d have been badly shown up. I only discovered later that Lili had been a competitive junior ice skater. And I was soon to discover that she had a few other strings to her sporting bow, it can’t have been more than half an hour into our fist meeting when she told me she was climbing Aconcagua, the highest peak in South America at 22,841 feet, during the next seasonal climbing window; that was all great, but then she asked me if I’d care to join her.

I couldn’t see what I could say but yes, as long as it wasn’t a technical climb and I could get the time off from charity work, and she closed the door on that reservation by offering to sponsor me to do the climb by making a small donation from her environmental foundation to Save The Rhino if I got to the top. My mountain climbing CV didn’t extend beyond Kilimanjaro, for the Rhino again, which had a walking route to the 19,341 summit; so I knew it wasn’t so much the climb but the altitude, and altitude sickness to look out for, and I’d gone alright on Kilimanjaro. I had the basics from that expedition, things like sleeping bag, crampons, boots. Lili agreed to bring the cooking stuff, maps, and anything else that we’d need, she’d be the guide, all I had to do was turn up with my equipment at the appointed hour, what could possibly go wrong?

We planned to take the Vacas Valley route

I first met him at the hotel I was told to arrive at in Mendoza, the town a short bus ride away from the beginning of the climb. I’d had a heavy pre-climb preparation, a couple of training walks up Table Mountain where I was doing six months Rhino related work, before the flight from Cape Town to Buenos Aires, with an unfortunate stopover in Jo’burg, where I danced and partied all night long to condition leg muscles, and test out an energy booster called white mischief my friend said he’d bought off a witch doctor who claimed Princess Diana was one of his patients.

I was still feeling the effects when I bumped into Sam in the corridor outside Lili’s room, and Lili introduced this hitherto unannounced addition to our climb, who she’d met at some environmental conference. He was saving Dolphins, his surname was Labudde he was a Sean Penn activist type with a video camera glued to his hand, but what the hell. She’d asked me 45 minutes after meeting me, I was game, I was saving Rhinos, so why couldn’t she ask him the same way? And if I couldn’t cope with the little surprise, who was I?

There was no danger of love triangulation as far as I was concerned, I wasn’t interested in Lili, and she wasn’t interested in me, or I wouldn’t have gone near a 22,000 foot mountain, I’d rather have booked a romantic week at Mike’s Camp in Kiwayu for an alternative beach holiday. We had met and unconsciously decided never to couple. Our relationship was competitive. But things didn’t seem so clear cut where Sam was concerned and although Lili was professional doing the equipment checks and document checks, I could tell there was something more than sponsorship and a gauntlet in their awkward exchanges, that the previous night and perhaps more spent together might explain. But there was no time to dwell on the implications, or even have an Argentinian steak and a night’s rest, it was straight into the bus and onto the unforgiving mountain for me!

Disney’s Aconcagua – ‘Don’t mess with the mountain’

Two weeks later we were back in the same spot, a small cafe restaurant at the start of the valley which led to the route we took up Aconcagua. The climb hadn’t unfolded as expected, and I was sitting across the table from a very emotional Lili having walked 30 miles out from base camp that day, a day after I’d summited on my own. Sam, who’d also made it to the top on his own, in rather different circumstances than me, was nowhere to be seen. Lili, by far the most experienced and hardened climber, had missed out.

After she’d given me what for, she turned her attention to Sam. Sam owed her USD 400, and she was angry enough to want it back. And I hardly need add this had nothing to do with money, which isn’t always the case. Suitably chastened by the tongue lashing, and exhausted but keen to make amends for having failed to prevent her Sam induced self-destruction on the mountain, I asked if she had any leverage. And it turned out she had Sam’s video camera, for some reason he’d left it in one of her bags, so I was confident we could expect to see him again when we arrived at the hotel. He and his video camera had been inseparable on the climb.

Sam’s Meteor

After checking that Lili wanted to go all the way on this one before I offered my unconditional support, I said I’d back her up, and we hatched a plan. But it was still a shock when Sam was standing on the pavement as the bus pulled in outside the hotel, looking refreshed and battle ready, and went straight for the bag where he’d left his video camera. How lucky we’d prepared; when he then asked for the camera directly, which was in her carry bag, she directly refused him. And nor did she buckle when he arrived at our hotel the next day for a pre-arranged poolside meeting with his ice pick, which he must have hoped to use to climb the icewall Lili had become towards him. The ice pick was hooked into the sunbrella spokes over our table to formally open the meeting, where it swung menacingly during the mercifully brief but frosty exchanges, and then unhooked on the heel turn to close the meeting with an actors flourish that Penn himself couldn’t have improved on. This was an icewall he could get no grip on, let alone climb. We both laughed nervously to release the unbearable tension after he’d gone.

Lili’s Icewall

The USD 400 wasn’t forthcoming, the video camera stayed hidden in the carry bag in Lili’s room, I thought that was the last I’d see of Sam Labudde, and relaxed for the first time in two weeks, went for my Argentinian steak in Argentina, and slept for 24 hours. So I was groggy when I eventually made it down to the hotel bar the following day, and totally unprepared for Sam’s arrival, never mind his offer of a beer, during which he told me how much he’d enjoyed my company and the experience, or nice words to that effect, thanked me, told me I was a good man, handed me a letter from his jacket pocket, shook my hand warmly, and left.

And that, I knew, was the last time I’d ever see him, at least on that climb!

The letter had my name on it, scrawled in a spidery writing. If the visit had caught me by surprise, the contents completely floored me. He’d obviously been so engrossed in his own drama, and the delusions that every person can suffer from at high altitude, that he failed to realise I’d spent most of the two weeks in a dreadful do or die battle with the mountain myself. He couldn’t have known what a huge mental effort it had taken when they both left me at the desolate top camp alone, to take on the unknown unknown, and strike on to a successful summit. If it hadn’t been for a mountain rescue team arriving when they left to collect dead bodies with a positive weather forecast, I’d have thrown in the towel. And how could I have known, clinging onto life, as it felt every day after base camp, by my fingernails, that he could ever have thought me capable of plotting or executing a dastardly cuckold on him while his back was turned at minus 30 degrees?

Well, back closer to sea level he must have come to his senses, the letter exonerated me of that particular crime, but just the mention of the word came as the biggest shock of all to me. How wrong could he have been? What state of mind was he in? And in a flash I saw a whole dimension to the climb I hadn’t seen before, an explanation for the tension that added to my sense of vulnerability, Sam’s tortured demeanour and furious assault on the summit alone before we were ready, Lili’s self-destructive attempt to go with him, her failure to summit, and subsequent fury. And many other events that can’t be recorded here, but wouldn’t be out of place in a movie starring Sean Penn. I should get on and write the film script, and send it to Oliver Stone, or Rolling Stone. What’s El Chappo got on this drama? I have since heard the cuckold described as ‘the nuclear bomb of the emotions’, about the very last thing thing you want ticking away in the mind of a man accompanying you on a climb up as unforgiving a mountain as Aconcagua. At least he was able to use the atomic fission to propel himself to the summit.

Lili and I went our separate ways, and I continued to see her wherever she lived, latterly just outside New Paltz in upstate New York, in the way described; sometimes I’d ring from nearby, other times I’d just drop in, we’d go at each other in a quite healthy way about politics, art, relationships, charity, the usual stuff, but we never again talked about Sam, or Aconcagua, except once when she was filing slides when I was around and the video camera was suddenly in her hand again, but with a laugh and by mutual consent quickly put back in the storage box it came from. Neither of us was ready to confront the contents.

It was hard for Lili, the climb was a watershed moment for her, up until that point her strength and competitive nature had helped her succeed in all the outdoor adventures she’d embarked on. So it was also hard for me to share with her the wonderful gift the climb had crystallised in me, the ability to survive against the odds and summit, even when left to complete the last section alone. How often in my life have I metaphorically been there, and gone to the end or beyond without hesitation, come what may? At least I’ll never die wondering.

But as I rework this memory into some kind of response to her death, I notice something else that might explain why we were never able to talk and laugh about the whole experience, which I’d always put down to her failure to summit. Sam and Lili might have made an ideal couple. They both loved environmental activism, they were both film-makers, they both loved adventure, they had the same political outlook. All shared aims and agendas that were similar but not too similar. And the big difference was a potential positive, Lili had funds and a foundation, Sam hadn’t, they could have complemented each other’s noble environmental efforts.

Now I’m pretty clear looking back that Sam had fallen in love with Lili, and that Lili was very keen on Sam, and I wonder if she hadn’t thought of me, in those new circumstances after the conference where she met him, as a potential mountain chaperone, but failed to brief me fully in the moments we had to ourselves before the climb. Then during the climb Sam mistook chaperone-in-waiting for cuckold. After the climb, when I was officially shoehorned into the chaperone role as the relationship decommissioner, he saw what he wrote in the letter, too late.

Each of us found ourselves in life threatening circumstances during that climb, sometimes together, sometimes alone. What we went through would have been dangerous on a short country hike in the beautiful country around New Paltz, let alone on a mountain like Aconcagua; a dark, brooding, jealous, spiteful presence that demanded full attention and often, as happened to another party on the mountain when we were there, the ultimate sacrifice.

My official climb journal says Lili succumbed to mountain sickness in her futile attempt to contain Sam, but she suffered from much more than that, and on at least one occasion could have lost her life, but was rescued by Sam. And all that is tied into the scarcely believable time we spent on the mountain together.

In the end, and judging by outcomes Lili never found her perfect beau, perhaps Aconcagua deprived her of what she yearned for more than anything else; the love of a man she respected for his courage, strength and originality in environmental activism, who loved and respected her the same way. You wonder if Madonna herself has suffered from the same syndrome with Sean Penn, a classic street fighter activist type himself. No amount of Guy Ritchie or Johnny Roberts, as husband or friend, can ever rub enough laid back British balm into a wound of passion generated by two forces of nature. When a meteor meets an icewall.

Was there regret? Sam and I summited, Lili didn’t. Aconcagua 2, Cupid 0. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. The platonic love hate relationship Lili and I incubated during the mountain drama hatched outside saving or caring or depending into a free spirited bird of paradise that no one else, including either of us, ever captured. I saw the bird when I asked myself why Lili never told me she was ill with cancer. And I know it would have been with her when she died as guardian and guide, just like it will be with me, as long as I honor its presence in song and eulogy.

It was less a case of a mountain too far, and more of mountain maketh man, and taketh love. And what, but the right send off and song, can ever replace that? Some people give, and continue to give, after they’ve gone. And others take in the same vein. The path to the summit appears, Marvin and Tammi, when there ain’t no mountain high enough to get in her way.

RIP Lilly, see you on the other side!

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