Finding a Life on the Edge

Finding a Life on the Edge

Two decades after mountaineer Bill Holland was lost in a fall, his daughter revisits his days on Mayflower Hill.

By Laurel Holland


 

Once a year my mother, Anne, flies out from her home in Walla Walla, Wash., to spend 10 days with me in New York. Her annual visit has become ritual since I moved to the city in 2007, and because it is our only uninterrupted time together every year, her trip goes mostly unplanned until she arrives. “It isn’t vacation if you have to plan!” Mom says.

But when she made her way east this May shortly after my 29th birthday, her trip had explicit purpose. It was my father’s 40th Colby reunion, and she and I would be attending in his stead to connect with the Class of 1972 and to celebrate the occasion.

In April 1989 my father, Bill Holland, was killed in an ice-climbing accident in Alberta, Canada. While attempting an unroped descent of the treacherous east face of Mt. Snow Dome in Jasper National Park, he fell through a cornice of ice and, it was believed, into a crevasse. A five-day storm system delayed initial rescue attempts, and by the time a search party could enter the area, the snowfall had been so significant that Parks Canada was eventually forced to abandon recovery efforts. 

I spent the greater part of my childhood wondering what had become of my father. The story was one I regurgitated to friends on the playground at school but one I could neither prove nor understand. I couldn’t fathom the enormity of the mountains that took him, couldn’t grasp the idea of “cornice” or “crevasse.” Because there was no body, there was, for me, no proof my father had perished. It was an impossible reality.

Against all reason or sense, part of me believed my father was out there and would eventually make his way back. When in August 2010 two hikers found him at the base of Snow Dome encased in a layer of ice and nearly a mile from the estimated site of his fall, it was hardly the homecoming I’d dreamed of for so long. But he’d made it. After 21 years he was finally home.

The recovery renewed a lifelong need to know my father. With what little artifacts I had—letters, journals, photographs—I’d spent much of my growing-up years Scotch-taping together a composite of him. I tried, often in vain, to comprehend who he was, what shaped him, what drove him to climb. Even after he was found, my search went on; there were still missing pieces and unanswered questions. When I learned of the Colby reunion last spring, I knew I’d find answers there, and maybe, if I were lucky, a part of him as well. 

Bill Holland '72 in his mountaineering days

Bill Holland ’72 in his mountaineering days. Inset: Holland as a high school senior.

Technically my father came from upper-middle-class East Coast stock. He attended Mercersburg Academy, summer camp in Maine, knew the comforts of a civilized and cultured life. But the mountains were where he became a man, and his heart was in the Rockies. As a burgeoning mountaineer in his errant post-college years, he spent a significant chunk of his 20s in western Canada studying its geology and obsessing over rock and ice climbing routes until he learned them by rote. By 1980 he had climbed nearly every peak in the Jasper area—Mt. Assiniboine, Popes Peak, Mt. Temple— and even made a successful ascent on Snow Dome in the late 1970s. The Canadian Rockies were the training ground for the formidable alpinist my father would become. And though he made his way back to the East in the early 1980s to start a life and a family, these mountains were in his blood.

All my life I have been told stories of my father’s incredible adventures in the outdoors. For as long as I can remember, I’ve known that climbing was his religion, the mountains were where things made sense. But as I grew up, I also learned the more uncomfortable truths about his flaws and the weighty internal struggles that made him so human. 

Despite his fierce intellect, my father almost categorically defined himself in external terms. He was a man who never led life dispassionately but whose strong compulsive edge dominated and directed him. Around the time of his accident, he had been diagnosed with severe manic depression, the most complicated case his psychiatrist had ever seen. From my own vivid memories, I recall a vivacious man who trained neurotically for bicycling races, who played the guitar until his fingers bled, who once deconstructed the engine of his silver Scirocco and spent two sleepless days putting it back together again. He was someone confounded by, if not morbidly fearful of, the everyday. “There’s got to be more to life than paying the mortgage,” he once remarked to his older brother, Tom. Compromise and balance were never his friends. 

My mother has often said that climbing was the great equalizer of my father’s condition. It forced him to focus acutely, whether on problem solving or survival, and brought with it an incredible high. The more he climbed, he discovered, the further he could distance himself from the suffocating nadir of depression. But at 39 his body was beginning to age. Due to prior bouts with frostbite and the extreme physical strain of climbing, his hands, feet, and spine were painfully deteriorating under the effects of early-onset arthritis. His rheumatologist had given him five to 10 years before he would be completely debilitated. For my father, this was a crisis of existential degree. He was losing foothold on the person he thought he was. 

My father, it seemed, was in perpetual search of himself. I knew his struggle with manic depression was part and parcel of his genetic fabric. But as I dug deeper, I wondered, too, if it wasn’t, at least in some measure, environmental—that this propensity to constantly question both himself and the world around him was spurred by experience. And so I turned to the past. 

The fall my father entered Colby—September 1968—marked the beginning of seismic shifts in the social and political landscape, in race and gender relations, and in academic methodology and the approach to higher learning. At Colby it was a year, albeit the last, when dormitories still had house mothers, when the house-sponsored panty raid was an annual event, and when acceptable classroom and dining hall attire—even in the winter in Maine—consisted of dresses and skirts for women, coats and ties for men. But, in the immortal lyrics then less than a decade old, the times, they were a-changin’. 

When I look at the photos of my father, the images of the preppy kid with a lacrosse stick and slicked-back haircut in the fall of 1968 hardly resemble the leather-clad, guitar-playing guy who appears in the 1972 Oracle. By the end of his sophomore year, my father had grown his hair long, and had begun taking apart a motorcycle in his room at the KDR house—much to the chagrin of his roommate, Mike Gibbons ’72.

As his time at Colby pressed on, the change continued to unfold. Anger over the Vietnam War and over the treatment of African-American students mounted on campus. The relationship between the student body and the administration soured, and by 1970 students were taking over college buildings and demanding action on the part of the administration. Compared to the preceding straight-laced, authority-respecting years, my father’s Colby was essentially run by its students. Woodstock, which he attended high and alone that famously rainy August weekend of 1969, was representative of everything he was and went through as a 20-something. It was a free and spirited time, one that encouraged my father, a sociology major and passionate antiwar activist, to think for himself and to challenge authority. But it was also a formative time, and, for him, the lack of academic structure in conjunction with the turmoil on campus yielded a profound struggle between settling for the everyday and wildly defying it. He was at constant odds with this polarity. 

 

Laurel Holland in New York City. Inset: Bill Holland encourages his daughter to climb.

Laurel Holland in New York City. Inset: Bill Holland encourages his daughter to climb. Large photo by Michael Paras

The weekend my mother and I spent at Colby this spring opened a door to my father’s past I didn’t know existed. We visited his old campus haunts—Woodman, KDR (now Williams), Lorimer Chapel, the living room of Mary Low—and met his former friends and colleagues, among them ’72 classmates Gibbons, John Koons, Clark Ruff, Lou Griffith,  Gary Petzold, Donna Power Stowe, Deborah Christensen Stewart, and Tina Murphy Serdjenian. From them came an array of blackmail-worthy stories—the time he pushed his desk out his second-story window of Woodman; the time he and a friend arranged for a back-alley purchase of drugs in downtown Waterville but were robbed by the dealers; the time he purchased a tanning lamp in preparation for a date but nearly gave himself second-degree burns. Everyone expressed a heartfelt fondness for the charismatic guy they called “The Dude.” 

As Professor Sandy Maisel recalled in his keynote address at the class dinner that weekend, 1972 was the year of the Watergate scandal, the year when the last American ground troops were withdrawn from Vietnam, and the year the Equal Rights Amendment ensuring equality of the sexes was passed by the U.S. Senate. In an exciting but tumultuous time, my father’s class at Colby had managed to find a sense of deep cohesion and solidarity. These were the people, I realized, who had been his family. 

A few weeks ago I was at the subway station at 14th Street and 8th Avenue waiting for the uptown A when I noticed someone had scribbled on one of the platform benches, COLLECT THE PARTS OF YOU THAT WENT AWAY. I thought about my father and how for 23 years I’d slowly been amassing the parts of him that had gone missing. Until this spring, I hadn’t appreciated how much his view of the world stemmed from his experience at Colby during a time of tremendous transformation and upheaval. My father, like so many of his classmates, was a product of his upbringing and of his time. If the mountains were his home, Colby was where he grew up. The reunion weekend in May gave me that piece of my father. A part of him has always been on Mayflower Hill, and so, by extension, will forever be a part of me. 

Laurel Holland is a writer and actor in New York City. She is currently writing a memoir about her father titled, Spindrift: The Memoir of a Climber’s Daughter. 

 
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