I met him first at the University bouldering wall. I had been hanging about there for a couple of weeks hoping to be taken in by one of the elite climbers, or at least to be given some words of advice or encouragement. He was a natural leader, a teacher, the most vocal amongst them. He signified to me the intellectual alpinist, the libertine, the writer, the polymath. Eventually, it was him who came to me to show me the moves. From the seated position, crouched, arms extended, his hands out-turned in demonstration – as if orchestrating an invisible ensemble – he began to climb. He moved strongly, not gracefully, but full of confidence. He was not effete, like some of the others.
He was lean, good-looking, with a mop of dark curly hair. He wore thin-rimmed glasses. And he talked, a great deal – in a genial manner to all, and sometimes full of intensity. He told me that I was no good, that I needed training, but mainly I needed to go out and do some routes. He said, come back to me when you have done Tafelberg Frontal in the Cederberg. It was six pitches, and I needed the full fifty metre rope and I took two friends. It was harrowing. But it was doable. After the climb, six weeks later, I went back to him having done it. Then we were fast friends. He put me on lead on some of the classics on Table Mountain: Africa Crag, Jacob’s Ladder, Atlantic Crag. And then on to some of the tougher Cederberg climbs: Satisfaction Guaranteed, Omega.
He was an experimental physicist. We climbed with theoretical physicists. This was the beginning of the time of string theory. He said that he did not want to be a theoretical physicist and that he wanted to work at CERN. He had applied and there was a chance. He was a good friend. He never drank alcohol or went to clubs but on my birthday, he came to the restaurant and drank tequila shots with me, and danced, like a court jester, for fun. The girls laughed.
He loved women, and they loved him back. He had a way of talking about a friend of ours, who was quiet and tall and who had dark hair and a mystery to him. He liked to say of our friend that when he walked through the university campus, the women would follow him in his wake. But it was Duncan whose wake they were caught in, all of them. He was fearless and he was dramatic. He was larger than life in a practiced manner. He would say, I am going to have four daughters, and they will all be named with Italian names. Isabella, Gabriella, I do not recall the others. We always smiled when we saw the women hang on his words. We thought he was the most complete of all men we knew.
When we climbed, there were usually three of us. Me, Duncan, and our friend Adnan. Duncan had decided to give us names, out of respect for the history of alpinism, and for fun. I was Walter as in Walter Bonatti. Adnan was Gaston as in Gaston Rebuffat. And Duncan was Reinhold, as in Reinhold Messner. When we climbed these were the names we used. Gaston, he would shout from the top of a pitch, peaking his face over the edge, you’re on belay! Walter, put the anchors in. Or Walter, you’re on rope. Sometimes I would say, Reinhold, you’re on rope, but it was never the same as hearing it from him.
He had good, clean, positive energy. He would pore over topographical maps with inscrutable intent, as if between the altitudinal lines could be found some sort of oblique ontological meaning. In his head there existed the marriage of science and mythology. Alpinism was not a sport or a field of play, nor was it a hobby or even a set of ethical standards. For, as it was true for his heroes, the mountains were never the field of play. They were in fact the metaphysical instantiation of the insatiable spirits that compile themselves into what we call man’s search for meaning.
Some days he was not the same, he was gloomy. Some days you could not get hold of him. Sometime for a month or more. He would speak about going to Europe for tenure, or for a junior professorship, or for a lab position, and he would disappear for a while and then I would get a call and that same afternoon be on a rope with him again, or making the three-hour drive to the Cederberg.
At some point we had a kind of falling out. We were camped high in the Cederberg mountains, and we were cramped in the cave below the Sphinx, and it was cold, and I had failed on a hard climb on top-rope, and he was gloomy with me. What is the point of being here if you are not going to climb, he admonished. There was a girl camped with us who he heard had taken to religion, and he began to admonish her for her beliefs. She cried and we were all quiet. The air was completely still. After some time, I could hear her stop crying.
We did not speak for a while, Duncan and I, perhaps three months. Then he called on the phone to say he wanted to come over to introduce me to his new girlfriend. He came and we all sat together in the living room and he told me he was going to climb in Peru, the north face of Huascaran. I remember her sitting next to him, quiet and very pretty. After a while, when we had finished our coffee, he stood up to say goodbye and I thought perhaps this was his way to forgive me for failing on the climb, or perhaps it was his way to ask forgiveness for being unrelenting, but he never said the words.
We shook hands. He said, goodbye Walter, and then there was a prick of intensity in my chest for a moment. It was as if I knew it was the last time I would see him. He perished then a month later on that mountain in Peru. Objective danger, he would have called it. At his service later on, held at a church nearby the university, there were a thousand people. It was sad. The women were crying. He was, and remains still, one of the more perfect examples of the human spirit at its finest. He was not simply a great player on the metaphorical field of life. He was driven by something deeply internal, something intrinsic and innate, with which he constantly wrestled and which ultimately, made him what he was.