With the heaviest of hearts we bid farewell to Neil Mackenzie. He passed in a tragic mountaineering accident along with Stephanie Grothe and Elena Cernicka, falling, roped-up, down the entirety of the Central Couloir on Joffre Peak. The true circumstances of their demise will never be known and I will not speculate or draw lessons on their actions. I am sure their decisions were sound and that they proceeded with utmost safety.
I did not know Steph or Elena that well, but Neil was one of my closest friends. Oh, how crushing it is to say “was”. His audacious delusional optimism is unmatched and is what bonded us so tightly. I could not personally come up with an idea daft enough, that he would not get psyched. Whatever plan or objective came up, the more obscure, ridiculous, far-fetched the better, he would be the first person I called. In every discipline. In our way-too-short-a-time together we’d gone rock and ice climbing, mountaineering, resort shredding, backcountry touring, canyoning, rafting, and drinking.
No trip together was of the ordinary. That will stand out forever. Going climbing in the sport climbing mecca of Skaha, we’d seek out the only dirty slimy trad climbs. Attempting to climb the semi-frozen Shannon Falls to have them literally fall on us. Plodding through waist-deep powder up the Triple Couloirs on Dragontail peak, all the while embracing the whipping spindrift and scratchy tool placements. Being too cheap to pay for resort skiing at Lake Louise and skinning up and around the side to poach. Biting off way more than we could chew trying to summit Currie and ski the Pencil in a day, then having Neil flown out by helicopter and the “day” lasting close to 35 hours. Sending a canyon first descent, accidentally, on just his second time canyoning, in a rainstorm, no less. And on just his first time rafting, tumbling through Hell’s Gate on the Fraser River on a homemade cataraft, which to this day remains the greatest wildest water I’d ever seen. Not to mention celebrating Robbie Burns day by playing cricket on a frozen lake and thinking of drinking white gas once all the whisky ran out. Just to name a few.
I am deeply saddened by how little time we’d actually spent together. A trip every weekend and a weekly night crushing pints at the pub is swell over a lifetime, but insignificant over only a year and a half. Even whilst dirtbagging it for a year on a different continent, we continued scheming. We had grand plans and grander ambitions. Everything from questionable weekend adventures, to buying a boat and starting a business together. And just like that – gone. In an instant it all collapsed.
I am at a loss for words. More so, I am in a very complicated state of denial. The tragedy happened the day I hiked in to climb in the remote valley of Cochamo and unplugged from the matrix. I came back 3 weeks later and was inundated with a barrage of emails of sorrow, sitting on my backpack in the middle of a shitty port of a shitty town in the middle of nowhere. All alone. I managed to call some friends back home on a shoddy internet connection, but by then they’d already had 3 weeks and the memorial to cope with the matter and drown away their sorrows. I was thus forced to catch up to their emotional state and missed the shock and grieving periods. Somehow, without having the chance to deal with it, cry in someone’s arms about it, or being surrounded by it, doesn’t make it real. Maybe it will only hit me that moment when I conceive another delirious plan and ring up my partner-in-crime to only hear a dialtone. I dread that moment.
People invariably suggest that “at least they died doing what they loved”. That’s bullshit. Let’s not sugar coat it. They are gone and that sucks. No matter how you cut it. No matter which fucking angle you look at it. It SUCKS. I will never get to adventure with Neil again and that blows my wickets. But will I stop adventuring – not a chance. The loss of life brings our whole discipline into question. What’s too far? What’s too high? What is too much risk? What reward is worth that risk? Everyone has their own limits and this accident should not affect them. They did not cross any line or push any boundaries and the climb relatively benign. It was a freak accident. That does not shake the foundations of what we do. The longer you are in the game, the more people you know who no longer are.
I will carry on Neil’s torch and proliferate his spirit. We coined MEGA-STOKE together and I will forever more charge into battle with that cry. As our friends gathered at the Phelix hut to give our fallen comrades a proper sendoff, I gave him my own by crashing through the waters of the Futelafeu. With every succeeding rapid, I yelled harder and louder. Every roaring wave brought back a different memory. The splashes hiding my tears. A strange emotional seesaw of two most opposing extremes. But mega-stoke will persevere, as they will in our hearts.
Adieu my friend, adieu. I’ll see you in hell.