Vale, Stuart Hollaway and Dale Thistlethwaite
Last New Year’s Eve, I spent the final hours of 2015 watching the sun sink from a warm deck in someone’s backyard. For the first time in years, I was celebrating the year’s end in the company of friends.
It was a small gathering of about 18 people, at a homely house in the suburbs. The garden was planted in vegetables and herbs; and outside the house, hanging pot plants rustled in the hot summer wind. Dinner was a pot luck. Food – oven-baked mushrooms and cheese, big bowls of quinoa salad, barbecued meats and haloumi – loaded the wooden table. We all sat around it on mismatched chairs – laughing, talking, eating. The sun was hot, yes, but this was the most warmth I’d felt in a long while.
As we filled our bellies and basked in the last, slanting light, I remember thinking about who was missing from the group, wondering what our friends Stu and Dale were up to. I remember thinking that when they returned from their mountaineering trip to New Zealand, I would introduce them to my three-month-old daughter. I remember thinking I should have done it sooner, but the ‘black dog’ had gotten the better of me.
A couple of days later, my phone rang. It was my friend Aaron:
“I have some bad news.”
It was not the first time I’d received such a phone call. The last was in 2010, when my friend ‘Egg’ died climbing Mount Aspiring in New Zealand. Death is a natural part of life, but that doesn’t make saying goodbye – or not getting to say goodbye – any easier.
Stu and Dale were last heard from on Tuesday 28 December 2015. They made a radio call while climbing Mount Silberhorn in New Zealand’s Southern Alps. Four days later their bodies were recovered from the steep upper slopes of the mountain. They had died in a fall.
The memorial service held at Wesley College (the school Stu worked at) was formal, but touching. Frustratingly it didn’t give me the closure that I’d hoped for – I’d brought my daughter to the service and spent much of the time worrying about whether or not she would fall asleep and what time I should feed her. I was totally distracted, and even the lively gathering afterwards, held at the Melbourne University Mountaineering Club clubrooms, slid by in the background.
I felt as though I didn’t really attend. The whole experience of losing them was surreal. Their deaths felt fabricated – like one big, horrible joke.
I grappled with this feeling for months.
I couldn’t sleep. I lay awake, staring into the darkness. I wondered what they were thinking in their final moments. I wondered if they knew it was the end. I imagined what they were wearing: likely Stu’s bright orange synthetic jacket and orange helmet with his GoPro camera stuck to the top like a raised feather. Their faces, missing the rouge of life.
At night, as soon as I shut my eyes, my daughter would wake. I’d shuffle into her room, pull her from her cot, and cradle her warm body against mine, feeding and rocking while my thoughts danced around the room.
I started getting pain in my jaw.
I needed to do something to help my grief manifest in a different way. So I settled on putting together an anthology of the best articles they wrote for The Mountaineer (magazine of Melbourne University Mountaineering Club) and The Climber (magazine of New Zealand Alpine Club).
I started in February and now it is July. Because I have a child I had to work on it in the night, bleary-eyed and worn down from the needs of a young baby. The actual anthology part didn’t take long to put together, but the introduction I wrote took hours and hours in my freezing study, staring at a blank computer screen, blowing my nose all over the keyboard, producing five words before calling it a session, sipping tea at the desk and thinking. I wanted to do them justice. To tell the world what it had lost.
For months I tweaked it and tweaked it. I re-read my introduction. I cut long sections and wrote entire new ones. I thought and thought, circling the project like a shark – nibbling, but not committing.
One day, it hit me. I realised that at some point, I had to let it go.
That night I imagined Stu, reassuring me:
“It’s all right, Chelsea. You can let us go.”
At the end, I realised that this anthology was about more than Stu and Dale’s deaths. Yes, there was an undercurrent of themes such as death, the fragility of life, the terror of fickle peaks. But also there was much beauty, awe, wonder and fulfilment. This is not a book about their deaths. It is a book about how they lived.
Available with permission from the Thistlethwaite and Hollaway families.