The Flute

This one’s a reprint, but I can’t think of a better way to re-say it. It first ran this summer, on a site we used to do called the Alpine Briefs. Time slips away, time is precious, and I can’t keep up. I’m about to head to Cody, Wyoming, with my friend Justin, who’s on a big road-trip from Whitefish, and then to Bozeman to hang with old friends, including some of my first climbing partners. Such things are important, I think. More important than the work that’s piling up right now (I’ll try to pre-load a couple of blog posts, though – I know we’re falling behind in the margarita department).

Jonny Copp, one year old, with a holy man in India. Painting by Janet Guenther, from a photo by Jonny's parents.

I can’t stop thinking about Jonny. Maybe this evokes the cliché “can’t let him go,” which may be true – I know I’ve already mentioned how his loss shook me, and I still have a picture of him sitting here by my desk. Been meaning to put it somewhere since the memorial in July, but can’t bring myself to do it. I like having him here, I like looking at him, talking to him. I have Janet’s incredible painting of Jonny on my wall, and it moves me in ways I can’t describe – thank you, Janet.

He’s gone, I know. They say time heals, but I don’t ever want a day to come when I no longer miss him.

On our Alaska trip in 2003, Jonny gave me a book called The Crossing, by Cormac McCarthy – I’d never read any of his work before, and he’s become my favorite author. There’s this passage on p. 288 that I can’t forget. But that’s OK, I don’t want to. The main character, a young boy wandering through Mexico, had come across an old sepulturero, a person who works with burials.

“It was the nature of his profession that his experience with death should be greater than for most and he said that while it was true that time heals bereavement it does so only at the cost of the slow extinction of those loved ones from the heart’s memory which is the sole place of their abode then or now. Faces fade, voices dim. Seize them back, whispered the sepulturero. Speak with them. Call their names. Do this and do not let sorrow die for it is the sweetening of every gift.”

Here’s that reprint:


Of all my friends who live their lives, I never thought that he would die. And even if he did, he would surely rise like a Phoenix and keep on living.

We last climbed together last summer—life gets busy, I guess—and not much had changed, with our usual late-start junk show reminiscent of past airport and random travel fiascos. By mid-morning we stood in the Chasm Lake Cirque.

“What should we climb?”

“Maybe something up there? We’ll figure it out,” came Jonny’s characteristic reply.

Strong as hell. Good at everything. Wild eyes that burned with life. A mystic who embraced the unknown and unknowable. The best hugs. Huge, toothy grin. Without a doubt the partner you wanted if—when—shit hit the fan. He’d just laugh. The greatest laugh. He had an unrelenting optimism. “Nah, I think it’ll work out!” seemed the most common phrase when we climbed (notwithstanding our endless stream of inside jokes)—and it usually did work out.

Seems that some partners give this unspoken gift that, just by being with them, somehow makes you better than you thought you could be. And then, sometime before you even really know it, you begin believing in yourself.

As we racked up among wildflowers, I saw what looked like a weatherworn dowel hanging from his harness.

“Dude, what in the hell is that?”

“It’s a flute!” he said, and kicked steps up the snow toward the wall.

Oh, well, of course.

I tried my best to mock the hippie flute, but I got quiet when the crux randomly came on my lead. This is too hard for me, I thought. But I knew he’d tell me to try, and I knew he’d be right. Toward the top of the pitch, as notes drifted upward from the belay, without even realizing it I danced.

Now he’s gone. They are gone. Some things are too big, too powerful and there is no Santa Claus.

Later we console ourselves with talk of inspiration and memories, and how the ones we lost wouldn’t want us to be sad. We whisper wistful “if onlys,” but it remains undeniable that the risks were part of the person, as all of our experiences make us who we are—that the close calls and willingness to go came with the love and laughter and joy and inspiration, and you can not go back and remove one component from an integral whole. It was him. All of it.

Higher, he saw a chossy corner: “Let’s head up that!” We’d find another way to return to our packs—it’d all work out.

Now I struggle to believe that everything will all work out, but I guess it has to, somehow.

Last week I returned to the cirque. While kicking steps up the suncupped snow as firey alpenglow bathed the rock, I stopped. I looked everywhere, studying the air and the wind and the rock, and though Jonny didn’t rise from the ashes, I still heard the sounds of his flute.

Jonny Copp playing his flute in the Chasm Lake Cirque, summer 2008.

8 thoughts on “The Flute

  1. Oh Kelly, This is one of the most beautiful and heartfelt stories I’ve read about Jonny. I drank in every word & feeling you so eloquently wrote. I especially liked and can relate to the quote by Cormac McCarthy,….”Seize them back,..speak with them,…call their names. Do this and do not let sorrow die, for it is the sweetening of every gift”. Well,…your writing is a gift,….and I am very grateful.
    Thank you dear Kelly.

    • Thank you, Phyllis, and John, for all that you gave us with Jonny. Kristo and I so loved the night at your house in October, seeing the photo albums, hearing the stories, it’s like it all made sense and I keep thinking about all you gave him — his wonderful spirit, his smile, his laugh, I could see everything in you and John, and in what you gave him, and gave all of us. I’ve sometimes wondered what makes people who they are, and with Jonny, now I know. Thank you.

      I look forward to seeing you and John again soon, and will hopefully see Aimee in a couple of weeks. Take good care, Kelly

  2. Thanks for reposting that. I remember reading that on the Alpine Briefs and being struck by the simplicity and power of the piece. Like you say in The Peach, Jonny was my hero, and heroes don’t die.

  3. You pirate. You’ve stolen my entire afternoon and you have made me truly wish I had known and better climbed with J. Copp. I’ll never forget the day I learned they were in trouble. At the time I thought alpine climbers were effin idiots but then so was I. I had been climbing for 3 months and hadn’t a clue. Since then I’ve learned so much, completely changed my opinion after paying someone to kick my own @$$ for being such an arrogant jerk and well… I really miss the guy. I’ve read so much on he and Micah and Wade. But people all say the same on Copp. He was a giant in too many ways.

    Well Kelly. You’ve earned a fan today … though I do not drink. I’m a huge fan now. Your BLOG is packed with BS and solid information two things that must be in equal measure so that entertainment *is* enlightenment.

    I have a heavy heart though. Keep it up and know that others are pulling for you too. Climbers are burley and loyal. We stick together and right now I wish I could help in some way but my life looks a lot like your leg. It’s busted up.

    Take care!

  4. thanks much, Rex. yes, it’s all true about how incredible jonny was. ya know how sometimes it’s like “the book is better than the move”? meaning, you hear these things about someone, or you look up to them because of the climbs they’ve done, but in-person it’s a letdown. complete opposite with jonny. he did so many inspiring climbs, but even moreso was the person. one of a kind.

    love your spot-on analysis with equal parts BS and solid info. though i hadn’t thought of it in that way, it’s kind of what i’m shooting for. the BS parts are especially fun and cater to one of my life’s specialties: goofing off.

    again, thank you, and my best to you. take care,

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