He Watched His Father Fall and Die Rock Climbing

He Watched His Father Fall and Die Rock Climbing

This feature is from the 2022 print issue of Ascent, where it appears under the title “The Longest day.”

The dog days of August 1974 had found us at our local crag. Perched on the border of Minnesota and Wisconsin, Taylors Falls is a narrow gorge of billion-year-old basalt, 40-foot cliffs carved 10,000 years ago by the meltwaters of retreating glaciers. The gorge hosts over a hundred trad- and sport-climbing routes. Relatively flat ground above the cliffs offers quick access, and while some cliffs drop directly into the water, others are reached by climbers’ trails along broken rocks at their bases. Jim and I had descended off the cliff top via a climbers’ trail skirting the rock, while Dad stayed up top to set up an anchor for a toprope and rappel.

Our reverie was broken by a scream. I looked up—to see a silhouette, backlit by the sun, crashing through tree branches. WHOOMP! A body landed at our feet. A groan. A shudder. A rattling noise from deep within. Blood dripping from the mouth. Then silence so profound it still echoes in my brain after 48 years.

My father. Blank eyes staring at the sky …  his chest still. I couldn’t touch him. I couldn’t scream—mouth dry. Or cry—too shocked.

What had happened? I ran up to the top of the cliff and across to the anchor. There was the white sling, attached to the tree. The sling lay draped over the cliff: two lengths neatly laid out over the lip, but unconnected. The rope, carabiners, and climber gone. A piece of yellow tape had torn in half; its remnants covered each end of the sling where the toprope’s anchor point should have been. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing: the webbing cut cleanly in two, a defect or splice hidden by tape, the kind of tape climbers use to mark their gear. An accident waiting for a small amount of force, a good tug … or body weight. A trigger to pull, separate, fail.

This is a story about that day and the aftermath: denial, loss, depression; alcohol and drug abuse. Looking back, I see a pattern of self-destruction, perhaps attempts to sabotage my life. Writing about it all these years later is about redemption and healing.

The author’s father, David Markusen, balanced on the summit of Marmolada with Bugaboo Spire in the background, August 1974—two weeks before his death. (Photo: Steve Markusen)

That August morning, we’d driven to Taylors Falls from the family home in Minneapolis. On the 70-minute drive we talked about climbing, college, and cars. My brother had both a motorcycle and a Porsche. Jim was 26 years old, a college professor in Canada. My father, David, 57, was an engineer for Honeywell. I was 20 and a rising junior at Colorado State University. It was rare for the three of us to be together rock climbing. My dad and brother had done several alpine routes in the Cascades and the Canadian Rockies, but I had been too young at the time to join them. By the time my dad and I started rock climbing together, Jim had left home.

We’d started our climbing day two hours earlier on the cliffs of the Minnesota side of the Saint Croix. Dad had pulled a 30-foot length of brand-new one-inch tubular webbing from his pack. He wrapped it around a tree, tied the ends with a water knot, placed two carabiners on the sling—opposing gates—and attached the climbing rope.

We hiked down the climbers’ trail to the base of the wall. I tied into the rope.

My brother, gazing up at a series of small cracks crisscrossing the 40-foot vertical face, said, “That looks hard.”

Dad said, “Steve can do it. He’s become quite the climber.”

I swelled with pride, finally able to do something that my older brother couldn’t.

Dad readied himself and said, “On belay.”

I replied, “Climbing.”


My throat was soon dry from breathing hard. I jammed my fingers into a fissure, pulled up, sweaty hands gripping slippery basalt. My feet in mountain boots, legs shaking, I struggled to find purchase on the small holds. As Dad and Jim watched, I slowly scratched to the top, pulled over the edge, and lay there panting.

After catching my breath, I yelled, “Does anyone else want to climb?”

My brother called up, “No, it’s too hot. Let’s go over to the Wisconsin side. It’s shady over there.”

I untied, unclipped the rope, and tossed it down. Grabbed the anchor gear and scrambled around the cliff to the base. The chance occurrence of walking down instead of lowering off that sling anchor saved my life.

We sat together in the shade at the base of the climb, chatting and packing our gear; we were relaxed and happy. In two weeks, I would be back in college in Fort Collins. It had been a great summer: I’d spent June and July working, climbing, and hiking in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. In late July, I met up with my dad in British Columbia, the Canadian Rockies. Joining another group of climbers from Minnesota, we hiked up to the Kain Hut in the Bugaboo Range. I was in awe of the tall gray granite spires guarded by massive blue icefields and white glaciers. That week, I ticked off a list of Bugaboo classics: Kain Route on Bugaboo Spire; Snowpatch Route on Snowpatch; and my first alpine solo, the West Ridge of Pigeon. My dad hiked the glaciers and, with a friend, climbed Marmolada—a dog-toothed spire rising from the Bugaboo Glacier. Each evening, sometimes after dark, I stepped into the hut to see my father’s warm smile. He was proud of me. Selfishly, I focused on big routes outside his comfort zone and did not climb with him. I missed my last chance.

My dad had taken up climbing in his 40s. One of his coworkers was from Germany and had climbed in the Alps. In 1962, when Dad was 45, the two climbed Mount Rainier. Mountaineering was my father’s focus, but in the late 1960s, he took up rock climbing. Small, wiry, and strong, he was a natural.

I believe he started rock climbing because I showed an interest in it during a family trip to the Canadian Rockies. He also knew I was getting into trouble. I was caught shoplifting, and he had to pick me up at the police station. My mom caught me smoking pot at home. I was running with the wrong kids, and my grades suffered.

Instead of showing anger or disappointment, Dad offered an alternative. I loved climbing, attracted to the challenge, the risk, and the practitioners’ bohemian attitude. My dad took me to the Canadian Rockies, and we climbed with the legendary Hans Gmoser, the founder of Canadian Mountain Holidays. In 1969, we climbed the Grand Teton with Herb Swedlund, an Exum guide. Dad and I were partners. I found myself; I behaved myself. Well, sort of—I at least stayed out of trouble, graduated from high school, and made it into college. My father was my hero.

I was caught shoplifting, and he had to pick me up at the police station. My mom caught me smoking pot at home. I was running with the wrong kids, and my grades suffered.

On the Minnesota Strip that day, the three of us packed up, hiked back to the car, and drove over to the Wisconsin side to try some easier climbs in the shade. We reached some cliffs directly above the dark water. Jim and I scrambled down to the base on the jumble of rocks separating the water from the cliff, where we hung out, waiting. My dad tied the sling, the same one we had used earlier, around a tree with the loop extending over the cliff edge. He clipped the rope to the sling and heaved the rope over the cliff, preparing to rappel. When he weighted the rope, the webbing loop—spliced together as it was—must have failed, sending him straight to the ground.

After inspecting the anchor and webbing, I hiked back down to my brother. Within minutes we were joined by others. I don’t know how they’d been alerted; I was dazed, in shock. The sheriff arrived by motorboat. He and others put my dad on a stretcher, loaded him into the boat, and took him to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead. The sheriff gathered the rope, carabiners, and sling as evidence, and asked questions. My brother took charge. We got in our car and drove off, a silent 70-minute drive. It was the longest drive and the longest day of my life. Three drove to go climb, and only two drove home.

Arriving at the house, we found our mother in the backyard relaxing in the late-afternoon sun. We had to tell her that her husband had just died. My brother did the talking. Her eyes widened, her lips narrowed, body tightened. She was shocked, but there was no emotional outburst. Disappearing into the house, she busied herself—doing what, I don’t remember. I do remember there were no words of comfort, no hugs for her sons.

I didn’t get along well with my mother; I always felt she was disappointed I wasn’t the well-groomed Catholic boy she’d expected. I couldn’t wait to get out of the house, that day and others. I felt sadness, pain, and guilt, but had no tears. Why him and not me? It’s a question I still ask.

I found my way to a friend’s house and got a bottle of scotch—for numbness. I drank away the pain every night until the funeral five days later, learning at a young age that alcohol is good at obfuscating reality. A week later, I would be back in Colorado at school. No counseling, no therapy; just the bottle and my trauma.

My sister, eight years older, flew home for the funeral. She and my brother gave eulogies. I did not. People tried to talk to me. I nodded and pretended to listen. One man came up to me and said he’d lost his son in a climbing accident at Taylors Falls. I couldn’t say anything. To this day, I feel terrible about not engaging with him.

I found my way to a friend’s house and got a bottle of scotch—for numbness. I drank away the pain every night until the funeral five days later, learning at a young age that alcohol is good at obfuscating reality.

The nightmares began several weeks later, in Colorado. In them, my dad was back, walking, talking, and breathing. But his color wasn’t right: It was a deathly pallor. His movements were clumsy; he was talking to me, but never making eye contact. The dreams were so real I would wake in a sweat thinking Dad was still alive. I told a few close friends, but mostly kept quiet about the dreams. I felt alone, angry, guilty; in pain, trying to grieve, but not knowing how. I blocked the grief by living. Suck it up, get tough, study, party, bike, ski, hike, play handball and soccer.

That winter, I threw myself into backcountry skiing. On long wooden skis and three-pin bindings, in leather boots, friends and I skied far beyond the resort boundaries. From the Rawah Wilderness of northern Colorado to the southern San Juans, backcountry skiing was my therapy. Clad in nylon parkas, wool pants, hats, and gloves, we battled deep snow and cold, blasting wind. We mastered the telemark turn, leaving tracks between trees, down bowls, and in chutes where few, if any, had ventured. We screamed, shouted, and laughed, slicing through powder bathed in sunshine erupting from blue skies; always on the edge between a heroic run and an ignominious face plant. Slowly I healed—or so I thought.

The accident was my secret … hidden, especially from climbers. I feared they would think I was sketchy, that somehow I’d caused my father’s death. Any time the hurt surfaced, I sought drugs and alcohol. I went skiing and climbing with my brother, always without talking about that day. In all these years, we still have not spoken about it.

The author on the summit of Denali, via a ski traverse climbing the Muldrow Route and descending the West Buttress. A perfect, windless day, May 15, 1976; it was 21 months after the accident. (Photo: Steve Markusen)

Nine months after the accident, I stood on a tiny ledge halfway up the Bastille Crack, Eldorado Canyon; you could lean over and spit, and it would land on the road 165 feet below. Imposing maroon and tan walls echoed with the roar of spring runoff cascading down South Boulder Creek. It was May 1975, and a gorgeous day, perfect for skipping class.

My buddy Mike Finsterwald had led the route’s first crux, an awkward layback into an insecure crack, and then continued, stretching the rope to link into perfect hand jams. I followed. At the belay, Mike handed me the rack: nuts, slings, and carabiners. He was one of the few who knew about the accident. I hesitated, not having expected to lead. Fear. Panic. An image from another beautiful day.

Looking up, I faced 50 feet of weird, vertical Eldo climbing. I looked behind: nothing but air. The roar of the creek filled my head.

Mike said, “You can do this.”

Taking a deep breath, I stepped up. Stopped. Pulled a nut from my gear sling, slotted it in a crack, and moved up. I looked down. Mike and the ledge were below, the ground more distant, the exposure greater. I fought back the fear clawing at my brain, trying desperately to relax. I climbed for what felt like a lifetime, and then the angle eased. Pulling onto a sloping ledge, I collapsed, overcome with emotion and relief. After 10 months, the tears finally came; the dam had burst. Two hundred feet off the ground, a tiny figure sobbed.

Twelve months later, Mike, five other buddies, and I would stand on the summit of Denali, the highest point in North America. I felt that Dad would again have been proud of me. Over the next 33 years, I did increasingly difficult rock, ice, and alpine climbs: big walls in Yosemite and Zion; alpine routes in Colorado and Wyoming; desert towers in Utah; frozen waterfalls in Telluride. Was I trying to prove something? Escape from the guilt? I look back on my life and clearly see a pattern of reckless behavior—and not just in climbing. Yet I always survived, always recovered. And if I thought too much, there was always alcohol.

Lakewood Cemetery, Minneapolis, July 2008. A soft breeze skips across the lake, over tidy lawns, through massive burr oaks and sugar maples casting protective shadows over silent graves. The headstone before me reads, “David Lee Markusen, 1917 – 1974, Climbs Peaks, Sings Silly Songs; Jeanne Roell Markusen 1919 – 2007, Marvels at the Wildflowers.” Dad donated his body to the University of Minnesota. The remains were cremated, but no one from our family ever picked up the ashes. When my mother died, my sister had a gravestone made with both their names. Her ashes are here. His are not, but his spirit finally has a home.

For a long time, I was angry at our local climbing shop and the manufacturer of that sling. How could they sell something so critical to safety with a piece of tape covering a defect or splice? Maybe it had been two ends taped together to complete the spool of webbing. My mother hired a lawyer, but we didn’t pursue a lawsuit. The anger fades with time, a pointless, negative emotion: Let it go and move on.

The pain of loss never goes away. The trauma heals, but the emotional scar remains. I can control my feelings. I choose to be happy or angry. I am lucky to have had my father for 20 years. He was funny, patient, kind, quiet, and quick to laugh. In his simple way, he changed my life—for the better. When I think of him in that light, the pain slips into shadow.

For years, I was consumed by guilt: It should have been me weighting that sling earlier in the day. Or I should have stayed up top with my father to check his anchor and rappel setup. Or, if I had been a good kid, he wouldn’t have had to go rock climbing with me. Years after his death, my mother told me Dad took up rock climbing only because I was getting into trouble. Yet I also know my father would have died to protect me, as I would later do anything for my own children. He climbed for me but also because he was an adventurer and a romantic—like me. The sling and anchor were his responsibility. I knew even then not to trust one anchor point. Dad, an aerospace engineer, would have known, too.

I was running with the wrong kids, and my grades suffered. Instead of showing anger or disappointment, Dad offered an alternative. I loved climbing, attracted to the challenge, the risk, and the practitioners’ bohemian attitude.

His spirit lives on in all my crazy, sometimes epic, and outrageously fun adventures: climbing, backcountry skiing, off-trail backpacking, paragliding. His spirit lives on in my children.

A psychological theory known as the Adversity Hypothesis posits that resilience is learned from facing and overcoming hardship. Over the last seven years, I have overcome a near-fatal climbing accident (I fell onto a ledge while soloing the Grand Teton), alcohol addiction, divorce, and business failure. I took shortcuts with an investment fund I managed, and that led to a six-year fight with the federal government, a felony conviction, and eight months in federal prison. My reckless behavior finally blew up my life. Funny—today, I am more at peace and happier than ever. No more regrets. No more shutting the door on the past.

In high school, before the accident, I totaled the family car. No drinking or drugs, just driving too fast and not paying attention. Dad listened as I stumbled through an explanation. I was consumed by guilt and my failure to act responsibly. He grounded me for a month. He also hugged me and said, “What matters is that you and your friends are OK. Everyone fails. It is how you come back from failure that shows your true character.” I think he would still be proud of me.

Steve Markusen (see his blog at crooked-thumb.com) is a climber, cyclist, backcountry skier, personal trainer, and nutrition coach. He wrote this story during his eight months in the Duluth Federal Prison Camp.