I don't believe in God, but I love the beauty and, especially, the mystery of the universe. That's what keeps me returning to wild places. It's what is at the root of my lifelong interest in adventure.
So it won't come as much of a surprise to you that my career, if it can be called such a thing, has been spent in the outdoor industry. I've worked for, and still work for, outdoor gear brands, helping them be true. That is how I found myself becoming friends with one of the world's greatest adventurers. You may have heard of him - Goran Kropp. In 1996, Goran got on his bike and rode, with all his gear and food, to Katmandu. From there he carried everything to Everest base camp, by himself. He then made three attempts at the summit, twice falling short by just a few hundred feet. Why? Because he had set himself a turnaround time of 2 o'clock so he'd be down before the afternoon storms blew in. On his 3rd attempt he made the summit. A video of Goran coming back into base camp is difficult to watch. A skeleton stumbles to a halt. That year many did not return to base camp.
But he wasn't done yet. He carried his gear back to Katmandu, jumped on his bike and cycled back to Sweden. Within the outdoor world he rapidly became a star. After he had gone on a series of speaking tours, Outside Magazine proclaimed him the world's most entertaining adventurer.
That's when I got to know him. We worked together for Helly Hansen and in July of 2002, along with an international group of journalists, climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa. At this point he had become a legend in the climbing community. But for me he is legendary for his humanity. If you met him at one of his shows and then saw him again a year later, he'd remember your name and what you were doing. He was bigger than life and simultaneously utterly humble and approachable. In short, people instantly loved him, and so did I.
Goran and his fiance, fellow adventurer Renata Chlumska, had moved to Issaquah, Washington. Goran had been attacked by the Swedish press for shooting a charging polar bear on a trip to the North Pole and he had decided to leave Sweden for a while. So he was living very close and we had a love of adventure in common. One day, he called to ask if I wanted to go rock climbing in Vantage, along the Columbia River. I was in my canoe when I took the call, paddling on glassy water. I told him I couldn't make it; maybe next time.
The next several weeks...months, really...are a blur. Goran fell to his death, landing next to his belayer, Erden. His fiance, Renata, was guiding a group of people to Everest basecamp. I couldn't allow her to hear this news from a stranger or read it in a newspaper. I called a mutual friend who knew Nepal well and after some wrangling a runner was sent to Namche Bazaar with a simple message, "call Kaj."
The phone rang at 2 am Seattle time, Renata's strong voice on the other end. This conversation is, almost certainly, the blackest moment of my life.
Two months later, in November, I'm sitting at a kitchen table in Sweden at 1:00 in the morning with Erden (in a few hours we would attend a memorial for Goran). Outside, snow covered the grass and the trees. We were drinking some sort of Swedish fire water and talking about our fallen friend, bleary eyed from jet lag and grief, voices hushed. And suddenly, we were not alone. Into the kitchen a single butterfly winged its way to us and landed on the table, then on the wall. As I recall the moment, our grief was briefly lifted and our striving for peace rewarded.
In the morning we asked our host about the November butterflies of Sweden. No, he said. There are no butterflies in November.
I don't believe in God, but I love the beauty and, especially, the mystery of the universe.