By Jon Corbet
As the oldest of Barry’s children, I am the only one who remembers him walking. With effort I can call up a hike together on Snow King Mountain: As a young boy I was making the obligatory complaints about being tired, and as a Wyoming boy I was carrying the obligatory toy rifle. I got the obligatory answer about how getting tired meant I was getting stronger, but I was not particularly convinced. As a parent myself, now, I’ve done the same conversation from the other side. It’s surprising how like our parents we become.
I still remember being taken aside and told that there had been a terrible accident. And I remember, sometime later, seeing what had become of my father’s life. It had never occurred to me that such things could happen. I kept waiting for him to get better; it was my introduction to the idea that, sometimes, people simply don’t get better.
The coverage of my father’s death dwells on what people found impressive in his life: Everest, Antarctica, Corbet’s Couloir, Jackson Hole Mountain Guides, mysterious expeditions for secretive government agencies, ski movies, etc. To a child of Barry’s, however, that stuff falls into the distant past; it’s like those pictures of your parents as small children. You accept their reality, but they are still hard to connect with the parents you have always known. The father we knew used a wheelchair; it was like saying that he had dark hair.
After all, I was 2 years old when he climbed Everest.
We all learn things from our parents–often things they never intended to teach. For our young lives, our father was a lesson on what you can do if you let nothing stop you. Those who would climb high, dangerous mountains cannot allow themselves to be easily deterred by difficulties encountered on the way. But those who would live a full life after disability takes away much that they loved to do must exhibit more fortitude than the most extreme of climbers. There is no base camp to return to when things get tough.
So, even as a child, I was impressed when my father moved to a house in the mountains–at the end of a long, uphill, dirt driveway, even. Conventional wisdom said that no paraplegic could survive, by himself, in such an isolated location. And indeed there were challenges. One snowy day, the transmission fell out of his car in that driveway, and he had to drag himself to the top, through the snow, pushing his chair ahead of him. All he would say of the incident, later, was “I almost didn’t make it.”