In the fall of 1998, I boarded a plane in Boston bound first for London, and then to Edinburgh, Scotland for graduate school at the University of Edinburgh. While an undergrad at the University of Maine, I lived and breathed the life of a typical male American college student: I played baseball, drank beer, chased women (mostly unsuccessfully), studied journalism with the hope that someday I'd be a baseball writer in the mold of Peter Gammons, criticized every jump shot taken by a Duke University basketball player, held my breath with every Paul Kariya wrist shot, hoped for another NCAA Hockey National Championship, and knew when specific anchors on ESPN were going to broadcast Sportscenter. This was my life, and I accepted it because that was what it seemed everyone else did. College for me up until that point was the next-step in the whole "going through the motions" process. I might have been the first in my family to go, but that didn't matter. College was the expected next step, and it took that step with little passion. To say it matter-of-factly, I did what people told me to do because that was what was expected of me.
In any case, when I settled into my dorm room in Edinburgh, I looked out of my window, saw the majestic Edinburgh Castle before me, rising up above the Prince's Street Gardens to the top of the Royal Mile and coughed. I looked below me and felt the fumes from the traffic on Nicolson Street burn my eyes and the back of my throat. Two days later, I moved across the hall and had a new view, that of Arthur's Seat, the legendary hill where King Arthur supposedly went in search of guidance before his defeat, and death, at the battle of Camlann (I later found the bouldering just below Arthur's Seat at Salisbury Crags to be quite enjoyable). This was partially what I had come for: to experience Scotland at it's core, to study new perspectives, to meet people from around the world, and to find myself. I didn't want to do any of this in a familiar environment, so went out and started making friends.
Unfortunately, most of the people I gravitated to were Americans. This isn't to say I was seeking to avoid Americans. I certainly wasn't. But I was seeking to avoid Americans who were not integrating themselves into their new surroundings. In order to keep myself from falling into a group of friends too early in the school-year, I sought out people from my program, European and International Politics, and found making friends difficult. As it turned out, I was the only American in my group. Some of the people I studied with were friendly, but most treated me either as a novelty (as in, do Americans really exist?) or an enemy (as in, take you and your CNN perspective back where you came from and leave us to discuss real wordly matters). It was difficult to make this adjustment. Not only did I have prove my worth intellectually, but socially as well. While we have our stereotypes, Europeans are far more nationalistic than Americans are. Racism exists in the U.S. only because we recognize it. In Europe, segregation is segregation, and people are expected to accept who they are. The Germans in my group, for instance, despite personally being left of center, were engaged in debates as though they were right-wing nationalists. Italian opinions were passed off because they came from "inefficient" experiences. Americans (i.e. - me) were dismissed for being, well, American. Even though I was neither fat nor stupid, clearly, in thier minds, I was.
Socially, things were not much better at first either. At parties, many of the Americans complained that no one would let them into conversations. Imagine a horseshoe of people talking and then closing into a tight circle as an American approached the group. "Don't let him in, don't let her in." You could see this attitude in their eyes. Canadians were also complaining about the Americans because the Europeans were doing the same thing to them, even though they weren't American. It took time, but a month into my stay there, I met three very close friends: Eric (Quebec), Kevin (Kensington, London) and Mat (Essex).
Eric became my friend in the politics department, as well as my chick-chasing companion (he got it WAY more than I did). We quickly became friends because he was originally from the next town over from an good friend of mine, just south of Quebec City. He helped to close the distance between Edinburgh and home because of our familiarity of the same city (I went to school at the University of Laval in Laval, Quebec - next city over from Quebec city - for a brief period) and, oddly the same person (we shared a mutual friend despite us not knowing each other before arriving in Edinburgh). Kevin, on the other hand, was a thin, lanky, young, smart kid who had just finished his undergrad at Cambridge University and was now working on his PhD in what he happily called, "sex and drugs." He lived next door me, moved in to his room in late December and accepted a "polite" invitation to grab a beer later in the day after he finished unpacking (I didn't ask because I wanted to grab a pint. I was doing it to be nice, but the bastard threw me a curveball and accepted anyway). Mat moved into the room that I was originally assigned to and didn't seem to have any problems with the fumes, or the view of the castle. A tall, thin Englishman, who couldn't out run his Essex accent, had quiet demeanor and apparent good looks drove the women crazy.
Anyway, a month after Kevin arrived at Churchill House, he popped into my room (and by "pop" I mean "without knocking") and interrupted Eric and I from playing a baseball game on my computer. I remember that day well. It was early January and Edinburgh was getting one of it's normal, afternoon rain fronts. The temperature was a solid 50-degrees and the pigeons wouldn't stop hanging around my windowsill.
"Don't you guys have reading that needs to be done in between semesters?" Kevin asked.
"Finished that last week," Eric said.
"Starting that tomorrow," I said.
"What are you playing? Baseball?" Kevin asked. "How lame is a game when you actually wear gloves? I guess I shoudn't be surprised considering your rugby players wear helmets and pads."
"Yap, yap, yap," Eric said using his hand as a way to illustrate what Kevin's mouth looked like when he spoke.
Kevin sighed, shook his head and frowned. "It must be great to be Americans," he said. "You can play games all day while the rest of the world has to get up and go to work."
"Hey," Eric said in his thick, Quebecois accent, "I'm Canadian."
"What's the difference," I asked Eric with a grin on my face. Not only was he Canadian, but, as I mentioned, he was from Quebec. The whole notion of identity was a confusing topic for him. That's why he was studying Nationalism.
"Not much," he replied, "except that we're nicer, people like us, we have health care, and Tim Hortons. Oh yeah, we can drink when we grow up too."
"Not sure why any of that is important," Kevin said. "No one likes the British, we're quite happy accepting that, we have health care as well...I have no idea what Tim Hortons is."
"You don't need to know," I said. I sensed that this conversation was going to go down a path I didn't want go down. Whenever American-bashing became the center of conversation, I always felt the need to shout out with a raised, clenched fist, "Economic SUPERPOWER!" This, however, was getting old and I was lately being accused of having a lack of creativity whenever I invoked my "painful truth" clause. I changed the conversation to something we all understood. "What's up? You thinking of dinner?"
"I could do dinner," Kevin said. "Come to think of it, I could do dinner just about any time," (It should be noted here that Kevin was 5'11" and 145 lbs. His metabolism could shift more food through his body than a macaroni and cheese machine at a Kraft factory) "but that's not why I came in here. I was talking with Mat last night and he said that he'd be willing to take us climbing somewhere if we wanted to go."
"Climbing?" I asked. "You mean, rock climbing?"
"I wasn't thinking of social climbing," he said.
"Huh," I said. I looked at Eric to see what he thought, and he looked back at me as if to say that he thought I was crazy to even consider going (I did get Eric to go climbing when he returned to Edinburgh for a conference a year later). I thought for a moment about what Kevin had suggested. Growing up in Bar Harbor, it was always a novelty to take a ride on the Park Loop Road to see the idiots going up the face of the Precipice on Mount Champlain. I remember hearing about people who had fallen and died in the 1980s. My uncle worked for the fire department, and was often one of the ambulance drivers who had to respond to the accidents in that section of the park. What he described to me wasn't pretty. Besides, my other uncle was a lobsterman, my grandfather was a lobsterman before he became an electrician, and sailing was my father's passion. Not to mention I'm a Pisces, I thought to myself. I was born on the water, not in the mountains.
I wasn't sure if I wanted to go, so I delayed having to make a decision by speaking of my last climbing experience. "I went climbing once," I said, "when I was eight years old, thereabouts. The YMCA summer camp took us to an area near Otter Cliffs, where the rock faces weren't too tall for young kids who had never been before. The guide set up a rope on what seemed to be a monstrous cliff (I've later realized that it was only about 10 feet tall), and I bragged to all the other kids and counselors that I had climbed Diamondhead in Hawaii when I was six. I had such a crush on one of the counselors, too. I think she thought I was a sweet kid until I started whining my head off when I actually tied in and started climbing. I didn't finish the route. I was so scared."
"That's something I'd expect from you," Kevin said. That didn't mean anything specific. He was just busting my balls for sake of doing so.
I had come to Edinburgh to expand my horizons, but that didn't mean that I wanted to see horizons from a different vantage point. "I don't have any gear. I can't go without gear."
"Mat's got it all."
Shit, I thought. Should've seen that coming. "I don't know what to do. As I said, I went once, I wimped out, I'm older now -"
"Mat will show us. He's getting his master's in outdoor recreation. He's studying to run camps and stuff like that. He's been climbing for years. I think he's even made a few first ascents in Greenland, though he said they were nothing spectacular."
"Huh," I said again. Should have thought of that too. I sighed, "When does he want to go?" I secretly hoped Mat could take us only on a specific day, a day that I had plans for, whatever day that was and whatever plans those were.
"Oh, Saturday," I said. "Can't go. I'm going to a Rugby World Cup match tomorrow. Scotland versus Uruguay. Sorry."
"No," Kevin said, "You're going to a World Cup match next week. And how do I know that? Because you got the tickets from me and we're going to together."
Fuck, I thought. I was committed. Kevin knew I was too much of a pushover to not go. "Ok," I said. "If he's got everything we need and will show us what to do, then I guess I'm there." I looked at Eric to see if he was still reluctant to go.
"You're actually going?" he said. "Wow, you are stupid."
I let Kevin set up the details and proceeded to kick the crap out of Eric at baseball, several times in a row, just to prove a point - whatever point that was.
That Saturday morning, Mat, knocked on my door and asked if I was ready to go.
"Where are we going again?" I asked, rubbing my eyes open.
"Rosyth Quarry," he said. "It's just on the other side of the Firth of Forth from here, about an hour if traffic is OK."
I looked at the clock and saw that it was eight-thirty. Because we were in Scotland in January, it was still dark out. The sun wouldn't rise for another hour anyway. I guess he wants to get there at sun-up, I thought and crawled out of bed. I checked the temperature and saw that it was a balmy 45-degrees F. Normal for southern Scotland, cold for climbing. There wasn't a cloud in the sky from what I could see. I hoped it would warm up soon, and that the rain would stay away.
We drove in Mat's small, utility-type van (we don't really have these here in the U.S. - they are like cars, but instead of a back seat or trunk, they have work benches where tools are hung and a floor that one can walk on if one needs to stand inside. The rear is covered with the same roof as the cab, and there is no separation barrier between the rear and the front cab of the car, making it all one, long vehicle). Kevin and I drew straws to see who would get the front seat and who would have to sit in the back. Kevin won, and I got to lie on Mat's cot in the middle of the rear of the car. How awkward was it lying on the cot? Let's just say that if Mat found the need to slam on the brakes then I would have flown like a rocket straight through his windshield.
The darkness over the Firth of Forth Bridge was just letting up. The sun was barely creeping up at this point, a sign that clouds would stay away for at least a few hours, giving us time to set up and climb without getting wet.
Walking up into Rosyth Quarry was interesting. The path leading up from the street is not particularly well-worn, and it winds it's way through over-grown hay-grass up a steep hill that slopes back down toward the highway (or the A90 for you Brits out there). One slip on the loose, and often wet, earth meant a tumble down into the fast moving traffic below. I was already nervous, and we hadn't even roped up yet.
When we stepped up into the field where the quarry sat, I recognized it's beauty instantly. The quarry was an awe-inspiring, U-shaped graffiti canvas with glittering broken glass illuminating the spots where one should not set down his rope. Mat, oblivious to the surrounding conditions, carefully scanned the wall, and looked for the perfect spot to set up before pointing at the shortest end of the wall.
"That's a 5-minus (5.4 in the U.S.), I think," he said as he walked to our left. The route itself was boxy, with two large platforms that one could easily stand on the climb up. Above the route was an old tree (I can't remember the species), that he wanted to set up he toprope with. He tossed his bag over his shoulder and scrambled up the route to the top, leaving me to wonder just how hard this was going to be. If he can run up that without a rope in less than a few seconds, then this shouldn't be so bad after all, I thought. He stayed at the top for about fifteen minutes while Kevin and I stretched and scoped the place out. Neither one of us felt the need to criticize the beauty of the place because neither had the wherewithal to realize if graffiti and glass were commonplace at climbing sites.
"Kind of hard to knock a place if you don't know how good it gets," I said.
"Must be a rough crowd," Kevin said.
Mat finally made his way down, but the rope was not set up from the top as he had said it would be. We asked him what was wrong, and he said that he wasn't confident in the tree's health to hold a fall. "I'm going to set up a few anchors in the crack and we can lead it instead. We'll walk off from the top. It's an easy enough climb. Besides, it will give you the incentive to climb the route rather than hang. What do you guys say?"
"Sounds fine to me," Kevin said. "As long as you show me what to do, I'm fine with that."
Kevin was always fine with everything. As long as he knew what to do, he was confident that he could do it. I was having a more difficult time with what Mat had said, so I asked, "What's lead mean?"
Mat laughed, though not very heartily (I think he was being polite), and explained that it meant clipping the rope as the climber goes up. "It's all good," he said. "You should be able to climb to any of these platforms and stand without the rope anyway. This is a pretty easy climb, and I'll place a lot of gear for you to clip. I really don't think you'll have a problem."
"Uh-huh," I said. What-ever.
As it turned out, neither he nor Kevin had a problem sending the route. Mat climbed it a second time with ease, showing us how to clip the rope as we went up. Kevin struggled a little bit more, but he mastered the art of laybacking (liebacking in the U.S., laybacking in the U.K. - Stemming in the U.S., bridging in the U.K. - Rappeling in the U.S., Abseiling in the U.K.) and that made it phenomenally easier for him to make it to the top. It was then my turn.
"Alright there Greg," Mat said as he pulled the rope once Kevin untied, "it looks like you're up." I gulped, but didn't show it. I had, after all, decided to do this and was committed to giving it a try. I tied into the rope and hauled myself up to the first platform. That was easy, I thought and clipped the first piece.
"Belay is on," Mat said. I had no idea what that meant, but I assumed that it was a good thing. The next section was where Kevin did his "layback" move that got him to the next platform. I grabbed the rock in several places, feeling for a hand hold, something that I could wrap my fingers around, but there was nothing.
"Take you time," Kevin said. "We've got all day."
"Don't listen to him, Greg," Mat said. "Just lay back like Kevin did and you'll find it pretty easy to get up there." I tried. I honestly tried, but I just couldn't find a way to make it work. I stood on that first platform for twenty minutes trying to figure it out, but nothing came to me. Mat encouraged me while Kevin chided me, but nothing was going to get me up that route, not that day anyway.
Finally, Mat described what he wanted me to do in detail, with great patience, and I followed his advice to the letter. Before I knew it, I was laying back and moving up the wall. I wasn't as graceful as Mat or Kevin, but I was doing it and that was all I needed. Mat was shouting encouragements each time I slid my hands up the flake.
"Go on, Greg" he said. "That's it. That's the way to do it. Move your next hand up, now your left foot out to the left. Good. Good. OK, take a rest. That's fine. You make this next move and I'll buy you a beer - NICE! Wow, that was almost worth two beers. I said almost, but I'll think about it. Way to go. OK, now put your right hand over your left, that's it. I said I'd think about it. Stop asking about beer, Greg. Pay attention. Just think of that girl you've got a crush on from the sixth floor. You're doing this for her. She's waiting for you at the top."
And she was, not literally of course, but in my mind I was working on a thing of beauty, something I could be proud of. It was a badge of honor to tackle my fears. Mat was great. I sat on that route for thirty minutes in total, and he patiently belayed me the entire 20 feet, never giving me crap for taking so much time (and, now that I think about it, never giving Kevin any crap for Kevin giving me crap). Anyway, I was basking in the glory of the sunshine. I was happy. The sun was shining down on me...and then it rained. The rain came out of nowhere, a cloud formed to the west opposite the sun in the east, and it poured down on top of us with such ferocity that I wondered if it was punishing us for assuming the sun would stay out all day.
Kevin grabbed Mat's rain fly, the one he had for his pack, and threw it over him for cover. Mat asked if I could finish the climb, grab the last two pieces of gear and walk down to the car from the top. It's fucking raining, I thought. But he had been nice enough to take us out, lend his gear, and wait while we pissed and moaned (mostly me) our way up the wall. I thought that this was the least I could do. Unlike Kevin, who had repeatedly berated me for not being quick enough, Mat understood what I was going through.
"Fear is in every climber," he said. "If it isn't then you're probably not taking the route seriously enough. Don't worry, everyone is like this at first. In fact, you've gone higher than most people who try climbing the first time. Most people never make it up to the top and quit, either out of fear of frustration." I learned later on that Mat was lying to me (I heard it from Mat, in fact). It was important to him that I feel comfortable and confident, relaxed and secure. I appreciated his tact, and always remembered to do the same with new climbers whom I introduced to the sport.
I reached up to the top of the ledge, felt around for a good hand-hold and, upon finding one, grabbed ahold and started to lift myself up when, unfortunately, so dearly unfortunately, I felt a rush of rainwater cascade over the side of the cliff, down my sleeve, down the top of my shirt and into my pants. I was soaked. I was pissed. I was dirty and I felt bad about not being able to get the rest of Mat's gear.
"Don't worry about it," he laughed from below. "Why don't you come down, we'll wait for the rain to pass and I'll go up and get it afterward." He lowered me and we joined Kevin under the rain fly until the rain stopped. Kevin wondered why I needed to take up so much room under the rain fly because I was already wet. I told him to fuck off. Mat just laughed. Our day was over. When the rain stopped, we picked up our stuff and headed back to the car. To make matters worse, because Kevin had won the front seat on the way up, I expected to have the front seat on the way back. Kevin had other ideas, however.
"You're all wet, Greg," he said. "Maybe I ought to ride in front just to keep his car dry." I didn't argue and climbed in the back, on the floor this time so that Mat's cot didn't get wet, too. We rode in silence until we hit the Forth Bridge again when Mat suggested that we go to a gym instead (Alien Rock - a FANTASTIC gym). He said that sometimes climbing inside made it easier to learn, and that it would be drier than outside.
"It's always a risk climbing outside in Scotland isn't it?" he asked. I grumpily agreed. I learned later that Mat didn't believe for a moment that I'd say "yes". He had been tossing the question around in his head for about ten minutes, wondering if I'd be too ticked off to even consider such an option. But that was Mat's demeanor. He was kind, he knew how treat people, he knew how to get the most out of people, and most importantly, his optimism and sheer joy of life rubbed off on other people. I don't know if he ever realized it, but it was incredibly difficult to decline an invitation of his. This isn't because he did fun things. Instead, it was more because he made a person feel welcome, regardless of the situation (and I can say this with all confidence because of an embarrassing incident that I had while climbing with he and Kevin in Switzerland. No, I won't be posting that story).
I was deflated, but Kevin was all for it and thus, I felt I should give climbing another chance. I had one stipulation -
"I need to shower first." They laughed. I didn't, but I showered, we grabbed lunch and went to the gym for the rest of the afternoon and evening. To say this quickly, I was hooked. From that day on, I climbed two to three days per week, both inside and out. Mat graduated a year ahead of me and took a job as an outdoor leader (he took rich kids on skiing and climbing trips) at Aiglon College in Chesiers, Switzerland. Kevin and I visited him for two weeks, eighteen months later in June, and he took us to several crags in the area and on our first multi-pitch climb. Then I graduated, and moved back to the United States. Kevin visited that September and we climbed in Acadia for about three weeks before he went back to finish his PhD. I moved to New Hampshire, and climbed there. I moved to Boston, and climbed there. I started a climbing group that soon become my core supply of partners. I've judged at the National Championships, I've become a route setter at the local gym and have been asked to be a reference on more than one occasion for climbing related job applications. Climbing not only became an important element in my life, it was the activity that I now predominantly participated in. Gone were the days of baseball, basketball, and journalism. I considered myself a climber, and I had Kevin and Mat to thank for that. Kevin for encouraging me to climb (and for being my main partner once Mat left for Switzerland), and Mat for opening my eyes.
A few years had passed and Kevin was now living in Australia, running one of the top science labs in his field. I envied his brain for a while, but I was really happy that he was making a name for himself. I hadn't seen him since he left Bar Harbor, just after I graduated from school. He was going to be in the U.S. for a couple of conferences, and needed a place to stay. It was nice to hang out with him again when he flew over. While we didn't go climbing, we shared plenty of good stories and got caught up with each other. I really wished that Mat was there so that the three of us could go out climbing somewhere, and Kevin and I could return the favor he had lent to us seven years earlier, by taking him climbing instead of the other way around.
While Kevin was in Boston, he had a job interview with a company who he hoped would hire him and send he, his wife, and his young son back to the U.K. to be closer to family. When I said good-bye to him at the airport, I joked that I'd be bribing the company he interviewed with to make him an offer to work in Boston instead.
"Then we can get Mat to come over and do whatever the hell it is he does these days," I said, "and go climbing."
"Let's work on getting you back to Scotland," he said with a smile. "Mat always wanted to take us to Glen Coe."
"OK," I said. "If you get the job in the U.K. then I'll come out there. If you get the job in Boston, then we've got to get him to come here."
"It's a deal," he said, and then he waved and turned around. I didn't watch him go through the airport doors because I wasn't sure I wanted to let the image of the three of us climbing together go. I smiled all the way home. I loved my new climbing group, but Kevin and Mat were my first partners, the ones who introduced me to climbing, and I wanted to return to those times. He hopped on his plane, took off, and a few days later I hopped on my own plane to Greece for vacation.
I came back from Greece late on a Friday and saw that there was a message on my machine from Kevin. I figured that there was only one reason why he'd be calling, to tell me that he had landed the job, and that it was, in fact, in Boston. I assumed this because if he had simply been offered the job, and was moving back to the U.K., that he'd e-mail me instead. No need for him to waste an international phone call unless it is important enough to call.
Because it was too late to call Australia, I called him the next day and jokingly said when he answered, "So you're coming back to Boston then? They made you an offer after all. It only cost me a couple of hundred bucks and two strippers. I guess they really are cash-strapped in the science world." There was a silence and I waited for him to say something, thinking that the silence was the lag time between Boston and Perth.
"I'm afraid that's not it," he said. "It's Mat."
"Is he coming to the U.S.?" I asked. Why wouldn't he call me instead? I wondered.
"No. He died, in Switzerland last weekend. He was apparently abseiling off a route when the boulder his rope was wrapped around dislodged. I don't know the details, but I think he fell about 250 feet. His partner came down after him and found him still breathing at the bottom, but he never recovered."
There wasn't much said between Kevin and I after that. I thanked him for calling me and thanked God for letting Kevin make that call. I took the rest of the week off from climbing, returning to the gym the following weekend. I wasn't afraid. I was sad, but I wasn't afraid. I climbed, took falls, and wished that the three of us had had that moment back in Rosyth Quarry. Just once, so I could thank him.
Mat Goodyear died on July, 19, 2006. He was born October 28, 1969 and was 36 years old.
You had a lot of friends, Mat. I hope you realize that you changed a lot of lives, always for the better. They few the flag at Old College in Edinburgh at half-mast in your memory. That's how many lives you touched.
They've come here to die.
Concealed Contentment is what I see.
Their tall pride
Shines from shadows
by Mat Goodyear