Here in the White Mountains of New Hampshire this morning, I can look over the edge of my laptop’s screen, and there’s snow on the peaks of Mount Adams and Mount Madison. Today, though, I’m occupied planning a summer of trail running around the Swiss Alps, including a number of trail races and, with my friends, co-leading two great tours.
Busy with these details, my mind still keeps returning to Chris Longbottom. Chris, one of the really enthusiastic voices when I first started focusing on trail running in the Alps, is gone– swept away in an avalanche on February 9th, in the Valais. He died not far from the hotel he recently purchased in the village of Trient, high on the border with France. Chris had big plans for the place, but serendipity can be tragic, and now those of us who counted him as a friend are left with the unanswerable existential questions that live at the heart of our adventurous lives.
I can’t write about Chris, without letting anyone who might cross this remembrance know that he was one of the really great trail runners in his part of Switzerland. A six-time runner of the UTMB, Chris had competed in nearly every trail race in this part of the Alps, with strong times that showed he was diligent and focused, with no lack of natural abilities. But, mostly, he was enthusiastic, and it was infectious. Several years ago, when my interest in mountain running was just a budding addiction, I sat down in a Champéry café with Chris and opened up a map of the region. The areas shown stretched from Lake Geneva to Saas Fee—a wide swath of Switzerland’s most rugged terrain. The map was a red cobweb of routes—literally, a thousand or more kilometers of trails, with a head-spinning amount of vertical. Together, we were eyeing the map for clues to great trail runs. I asked the novice’s question, “So, how many of these have you run?” Chris returned a blank stare, like the question didn’t compute. “I’ve run them all.” It was a memorable moment. I knew I was dealing with someone more than a bit out of the ordinary.
Chris was strong, and his British roots meant that he was typically understated. Late last winter, I met him in Champery. Up the Rue du Village, I saw his sturdy 6-foot-4 frame coming towards me in the distance. But, the gait was all wrong. He was practically hopping on one foot. “What happened?” It looked painful. “Nothing much. Hit a bit of an icy patch on an early season run. Went for a bit of a slide.” I imagined him tumbling down the Grand Combin, brushing off the mud, and shaking his head in disgust at all that lost vertical.
In Sebastian Unger’s book, The Perfect Storm, there’s the story of a rescue swimmer who is dropped from a helicopter into 100-foot-high waves, during an heroic rescue attempt. He was one of the strongest swimmers the Coast Guard had ever known. And, somehow, he just… vanished. His fellow rescuers simply assumed he would eventually find his way to the shore, shake himself off, and ask for a ride home. That he’s gone, seems somehow incomprehensible. The world wasn’t suppose to work this way.
That’s exactly the way I feel about Chris. I expect him to dig himself out somewhere, shake himself off, and ask for a beer. I know it’s not going to happen, of course. The Valais has lost one of those rare, larger-than-life characters and one of its most enthusiastic mountain runners. As I go on with planning a summer of activities on the trails Chris loved, I do so with him never far from my mind. Our time here is short, and sometimes shorter than we’d ever imagine. There’s not a lot of solace to be found in such a sudden, traumatic loss, but I take some comfort knowing that Chris packed more than a lifetime of adventures into his all-too-short stay.
“The wonder of the world, the beauty and the power, the shapes of things, their colours, lights, and shades; these I saw. Look ye also while life lasts.” – From a plaque on the mantel at the home of Olaus and Mardy Murie’s home, originally seen on a gravestone in Cumberland, England.