Looking into the Abyss

Kilimanjaro Glacier at the Summit

"Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you." -Friedrich Nietzsche

Josh had a grin like the sun and an outsized sense of humor to match his huge frame and the strength of his bear hugs. He was from Michigan but he was back for a second winter in Southern California, living in his van in the parking lot and still missing the notorious van-adapted cat who had come with him the year before. The cat had met a tragic end. We didn’t talk about it.

When he said he was headed back to Michigan for a few weeks, I didn’t understand why he was going home for so long. It bothered me. The temperatures in Michigan were well below freezing; most people didn’t even want to go to the grocery store, let alone jump. And Josh needed to jump.

“Don’t stay in Michigan for two weeks! You’re going to go stir crazy. Don’t go climbing something and freeze before you get to the top.”

Days later, he died on a solo BASE jump from an antenna.

Once I had collected his wingsuits and gear from the team room, I continued attacking things I could control. I booked a hotel room for his brother and mother, made T-shirts with his image on them, and planned a memorial day. I made a card for his family and hugged people while asking them to write something in it. I cleaned and reorganized and color-coded.

The abyss can’t get you while you’re wielding a label-making machine and a vacuum.

It wasn’t until April that I had the first visions, after Jessica died. I was too emotionally exhausted to design a memorial logo or even to write anything meaningful. And then, as the days passed, I got upset and angry that no one else had done these things. Other dead friends of her stature in the sport, including her closest teammate, had a logo of their names or initials appearing on T-shirts, helmet stickers, and Facebook profile pictures.

What? You’ve never had death-logo FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out)? Don’t even get me started on body-identification FOMO and corpse-retrieval FOMO.

The first set of visions is about my body breaking.

I am standing on the edge of a cliff. There is a slight breeze; the air is clean. I run and leap, the thrill of that weightless moment transitioning to acceleration. I accelerate until I hit the ground, and my body shatters on the rocks. I see it break, from above.

By summer, the pace of deaths intensify, as expected when the European BASE jumping season gets underway. At the end of July, two friends die in separate incidents in different countries on the same day.

In December, when I finally slow down, I have a new vision.

I’m standing in a neutral place with no background. I grab my own head and wrench it off my body, throwing it. My head is the pin of the grenade. As I walk away, my body explodes in a burst of blood. Then, my body comes back together, I keep walking, and I methodically do it again.

I don’t want to die. Gruesome as they sound, the visions are not about a death wish. That much I know. I describe them to someone I trust, wondering aloud whether the second one is an escalation, trying to make sense of it.  

Smiling at me sideways she says, “Oh no, that’s progress with whatever this is about. You go from letting gravity break you to ripping your own head off? That’s kind of empowering.”

We laugh so hard, I can’t stop the tears.