Saturday, June 12, 2010

My Friend Monty

I have a friend named Monty. He's a few months older than me, and he's dead.

Not to be morbid, or anything like that, I just think Monty would appreciate putting that right out there first, a statement of basic fact. Today is June 13th. Today is Monty's 49th birthday and I'm going to write about Monty's life. Or, at least, a few small part of it. Monty had a lot of life.

I first "met" Monty Smith sometime in the late '80s or early '90s. I'm not really sure. We had both found something on what was then known as the "arpanet list of lists" called "Backstreets." In the late '80s, email mailing lists were still a bit exotic, so much so that there was actually a publication listing them all. "Backstreets" was a small list for fans of Bruce Springsteen, and we, plus a few other geeky die-hards, also found it.

Over time, it became apparent that, whatever energy anybody else on the list had, Monty matched it and then some. He put together a 7-tape collection called "Thundertracks," which seemingly had a live performance of every song ever performed. Then there was the "Sadder Eyes" collection, a multi-tape collection of just the middle section of "Backstreets," wherein Bruce at one time inserted an extended passage commonly referred to as "Sad Eyes." These were awesome collections, if only for the sheer magnitude of them, the imagination, and the execution. Trifles such as sound quality or best version, Monty might ignore, but when those tapes were done they were complete.

Not that Monty necessarily took himself too seriously. In 1993, when the list had seemingly become too large and reverential, Monty decided to challenge the religious fervor by referring to several of Bruce's most holy outtakes as "banal ditties." When challenged, he raised the stakes with one of my all-time favorite passages from that list, referring to This Hard Land:
... every time I hear it, the image I get in my mind is Bruce Springsteen in a Gene Autry outfit, atop his trusty steed, six-gun and guitar at his side, singing about Frankie and the lost cattle.
Many chains were yanked; appropriately, the folks that Monty ended up liking best were often exactly those who pushed back hardest. To this day, more than 17 years later, I can't hear that song without laughing at the image of the Gene Autry outfit and the six shooter.

Monty was gregarious. He wanted to know people and enjoyed being with people, and he always wanted people to know and enjoy being with each other. I met him in person for the first time in early 1995, when a business trip took him to Michigan. Once here, of course he introduced me to another huge fan who lived just a few miles away, and who remains a good friend to this day.

Monty's professional career was brief and brilliant. At Intel, he was a platform manager for the Pentium II and Pentium III chips. He once told me his job was essentially herding cats, but, as many of us can recall, those products were pretty successful. By the top of the boom, Monty was able to walk away from tech, having pocketed his salary and bonuses plus enough stock options so that he wouldn't have to work again in an office for a long, long time. To make money, he turned to more mundane things such as options trading, which he predictably worked in to a science over the next decade.

Monty Smith at the summit of Ama Dablam, with Everest in the background

Through all of this, Monty climbed mountains. He had started climbing as a teenager, and once freed from a desk job, had much more time to pursue it globally. He climbed Denali in 2002. In 2004 he scaled Ama Dablam, and the next year he climbed Shishapangma. As improving technology started to permit, he began sending back reports and images from his treks, including several harrowing near death experiences. For example, after summitting Shishapangma, he and his climbing partner returned to high camp to discover that a storm had wiped out their tent and supplies. leading to two nights at 25,000 feet and no protection. Here's how he described it; note his use of the word "fine":
Just a short note to announce Val and I reached the summit on Oct 11, but not without difficulties. Our tent was blown away from C3 when we returned, along with most our gear (as well as our hi-alt drugs).
The net effect was an unplanned snow cave bivy at 24,500ft, both cerebral and pulmonary edema without drugs, and frostbite on about 25 fingers and toes. But we're both back at ABC now and are fine.
It's bone-chilling cold at ABC right now, not to mention unpleasant typing with ungloved and frostbitten fingers.
Since most our gear was blown off the mountain, Cho Oyo is off. We'll be heading towards Lhasa tomorrow; pics and full details to follow shortly.
They survived in part by using gear abandoned by another climber who had perished. Monty ended up losing parts of two fingers. Always, he would send back spectacular pictures.

In 2008, he decided, with his climbing partner Val, to make an attempt on Mt. Everest. In his first blog post, he wrote, about the attempt, and his thoughts to himself and his family (wife Margaret and children from a prior marriage):
I fear being put in the position to make a life or death decision on a fallen climber. Will the hypoxia or summit fever cloud my judgment? To what extent will I risk my life to save someone who I believe is almost, or guaranteed to soon be dead? What if that person is me? What if it’s Val? Those thoughts haunt me.

Lastly, I'm worried for Margaret, Allie and Amy. What IF I don’t come back? Is taking greater risk in my life worth possibly taking their husband and father away?
Everest turned in to disaster for Monty when, on the day he was to summit, a severe uncontrolled nosebleed nearly took his life; instead, he needed a military helicopter to get him out alive. Was Monty disappointed? Sure. How did he show it? Well, this is part of what he wrote:
Wow. WOW! A helicopter ride from the upper Khumbu to Kathmandu is NOT TO BE MISSED. It didn’t quite make the whole ordeal worth it, but it sure was cool!
Monty might not always have "succeeded," but he never did anything less than 100%. This extended to how he treated others. If I ran a piddly little survey, I could count on Monty's full response, full of quotables. When Aaron and I started bike riding annually for the American Diabetes Association, Monty not only made the largest contribution, he made sure to send extra words of encouragment to my 8-year old son, whom he had never met. When my old Pentium II computer started reaching its limit, he sent my tech tricks to improve FSB speed, and then, for good measure, sent me a prototype P3 motherboard that he still had. And when I asked some friends if they had any Led Zeppelin snippets I could use to help a nephew who was learning guitar, he sent me the first 4 Led Zep albums. These acts were altogether typical.

In 2008, through a series of fortunate circumstances, I was able to work out a plan to make a 3-day visit to the Smith residence outside Portland. Before even getting to Monty's house, we had visited the Vista House at Crown Point, had hiked Multnomah Falls, and had nearly gone to a rock climb along I-84 (I politely declined the offer). The next morning, off to Mt. Hood. The whole drive up, Monty explaining to me what stock options were, how to work them, and being enthusiastically impressed that I seemed to be grasping it.

A few days after visiting with Monty, my then 7-year old daughter got me to do something that I had declined when with Monty: climb a rock wall (albeit not a natural one). When I told Monty about it, he responded:
Matt, Matt, Matt...
Oh, that's a slippery slope. Sure, you start with the small ones, but soon you're attracted to bigger and harder rocks. Then you take it outside, but even the thrills you get there aren't enough any more - you want to get higher!
You find there are people everywhere willing to supply your thrills. The rocks just keep getting bigger, and you're dragged down into a seamy subculture of rock users and are talking about cleaning the second pitch, and whether you should re-tie your nuts.
And soon enough, the local thrills don't cut it anymore - you're looking to travel and find yourself in rock hangouts like Red Rocks, Joshua, or coming back to Oregon to redpoint that overhanging 5.10 at Smith Rock.
Sure, it all feels fine now and you think you can control it - but the rocks keep calling you back.
Then he added:
I had a similar weekend, but on the real thing. I led climbs of Mt Washington and Three Finger Jack here in Oregon. Washington had about 300' of climbing to reach the summit pinnacle, but none of it more technical than what you're doing in that picture.
If I ever made it back to Portland, we were going to be climbing rocks.

In the months after I returned from Portland, I traded literally hundreds of messages with Monty. Mostly him trying to teach me the ins and outs of options strategy, and me hesitating to put it to use as my financial world collapsed in the crash. Also, here and there, he'd talk me off the proverbial ledge after my own anxieties seeped through, one time even sending me a picture of a woman he used to climb with (it was a nice picture). Of course, occasionally there'd be another spectacular rescue up on Mount Hood, something to remind me that literally hundreds of others were getting his full attention as well. I'm not really quite sure how he did it all, as he seemed to have time for everyone, and everything.

In January of this year, after one particularly detailed "tip" from Monty (which I'm guessing turned out well, though I haven't had the nerve to check yet), my focus shifted to Aaron's bar mitzvah, and I stopped responding for a while. By May I was ready to pick up again, and sent him a note asking if he was there (for me). Somewhat surprisingly, there was no immediate response. Finally, on June 4, Monty responded:
Sorry for the long silence – just got out of the hospital. Had a little choking incident that turned out pretty bad.

What recommendations are you looking at?
A few hours later, his customary large donation to our diabetes ride came in. All seemed well... yet... "a little choking incident"?? and, "turned out pretty bad"?? This, from the person who declared himself "fine" after nearly dying on Shishapangma? It took me two reads even to figure out he was talking about himself, but even with a hundred reads I'm afraid I wouldn't have figured out his reference. For all his devotion to what life had to offer, both for himself and particularly for others, he no longer wished to live his own life. The "little choking incident" was by his own hand, and "turned out pretty bad" was that he had almost succeeded in killing himself -- and would have, had Margaret and paramedics not saved him. Yet, once he got through telling me about his little incident, what he wanted to know was, how he could help.

The next day, as I was riding to earn the donation Monty had sent, Monty himself was going to a beautiful spot on the Washington side of Columbia Gorge. At least, I am told it's a beautiful spot. From there, he jumped off a cliff, and died.

I won't attempt to understand, really, what was in his head at that moment. How a person whose will to live was so powerful, whose devotion to everyone so strong, ultimately had just as strong a will to end it. I can't even speculate what might have been had my inquiry, "Can you advise me?," been sent just 24 hours earlier, as that would have been before that first attempt. What I do know is that, when a memorial service was held for Monty at a church in Portland, many hundreds of people showed up, all of whom had been touched by Monty's life. And I know that I will terribly miss his messages, friendship, advice, encouragement, and, despite what happened at his last moment, his joie de vivre.

Monty was active in Portland Mountain Rescue. A donation may be made at