Do you have a best friend? Like, a best best friend, as in “BFF” in all capital letters. This episode is about that kind of friend and what happens when the unthinkable happens.
This episode is brought to you by Deuter, Evo Hemp, and Dirtbag Climbers. Music by: “Jazzy Frenchy”, “Cute”, “Ukulele”, and “Funny Song” by bensound.com, “Ichill” by Kakurenbo, “Song Before Sunrise”, “Sad Marimba Planet”, “Morning Mist” by Lee Rosevere, “Light Thought var 2” by Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com), “Blossoming” and “Pives and Flarinet” by Podington Bear, and ”The Lounge” by Tagirijus.
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– Do you have a best friend? Like, a best best friend, as in “BFF” in all capital letters. And I’m not talking about your husband or your wife—no names, Sean. I mean, your BEST FRIEND. The person with no contract legally binding you two together, somebody who has that uncanny ability to read your mind before you even speak, the person you call when you find your forever person. You know, not the person who rats you out in high school and tells your mom you that were smoking pot (which was never proven and, again, no names. Tim.) Anyway, do you have a best friend like this?
If you do have a best friend like this, then you’re one of the lucky ones. Because there’s this weird phenomenon that happens when you reach adulthood where it just…sorta stops happening. Schedules compress, your priorities change, and most people have already established who their best friends are. And I know that there will always be “friends”. Like, you don’t just stop meeting new people and it’s totally possible to make friends at any age. But a lot of them are “situational friends”, or “not quite friends”. You see each other occasionally, maybe go to dinner once a month, and (since most people consider phone calls an act of aggression) you text, a lot. But they’re still not BFF’s in the all caps letters variety. This episode is about that kind of best friend.
(SKY YARDENI): I was his best man at his wedding and his wife, all morning, she got ready and—dress and makeup and hair and all that—and me and him went climbing the day of his wedding. Everyone told us that it’s a bad idea and yada yada, but we went and had a great time. No sends (laughs). Nothing spectacular. But it was just him and me outside climbing really hard. It was really great. And we got stuck in a traffic jam on the way back to his wedding (laughs). And so, we got to his house. Both of us were getting ready and he was all dressed with his really nice clean, white shirt and I was without my shirt on and we were in the kitchen. He was making coffee. And he was like, “Sky. You have a huge zit on your back. I have to pop it!”
And I was like, “Of course man! That’s what partnership is all about.” You know? Fuck yeah. And so, he pops it and this thing squirts in his eye and (huge laughter). Exactly. And we’re like, “Oh my god. That’s the best thing that could have happened.” Because what if it would have squirted on his clean white t-shirt, you know? Or his shirt? Yeah, I’ll never forget that moment because it’s such a genuine, authentic memory that I have of true friendship—of a funny, stupid moment that I’ll cherish it for the rest of my life.
(KK): You’re listening to For the Love of Climbing Podcast. This is not a climbing podcast. Well, sorta. This is a funny, sad, and somewhat uncomfortable podcast about choosing vulnerability and talking openly about our pain. This podcast is sponsored by Dirtbag Climbers. Here’s the show.
(SY): (deep breath) His name was Sela, which translates into “rock” in Hebrew. We’ve known each other for nine years. It was kind of like love at first sight. We met each other at the crag and there was a “click”. We had so much in common. We’re both therapists, we’re both huge climbing geeks, we’re both very warm and also big—and so we love to hug. Both of us are really into social justice and social change. And yeah, and we love to be outside and to be dirty and to sweat and to work hard and to have deep conversations. It was so natural and organic—the way that our friendship kind of evolved.
(KK): Sela and Sky weren’t childhood friends. They didn’t meet at birth, and they didn’t know each other their whole lives. But when they met, they just fit. Sela was warm and magnetic. This was not a “kind of friends” friendship. Sky and Sela met and instantly connected. And the rest of it? It’s history.
(SY): We noticed that we have a really good connection and we both enjoy each other’s company. So, we started doing weekends together, whole weekends and trips, and we started working projects together and pushing each other really hard. We had a really cool ritual that every time, each of us would drive back home from the crag: we would call each other up with the very detailed report of all the sends, all the attempts, all the everything. Everything. And to just let each other know how our climbing day was. ‘Cause it was really important for me to know, you know, how many time he fell on the crux and what went well, what didn’t go well. And same for him, too. We really celebrated each other’s accomplishments. We were just able to really celebrate each other without that competitiveness. I told him, “We’re here to be together and to push each other and to be in partnership—and that’s what really matters.”
I think it was one of the easiest things I’ve ever done in my life. Like I said, it was so natural and obviously climbing was the glue that brought us together and then, through that, our love for each other really grew and blossomed. The thing that is with Sela, he was never really injured. It was always me. I always had accidents. I always had injuries. And through those injuries (it was like six, eight, nine-month injuries) it was a really long time—like broken feet and torn pulleys and dislocated whatever—and that’s when the friendship also really endured.
(KK): When you’re injured, invitations to the crag inevitably become less frequent because if your friends are feeling healthy and strong, they’re probably going to go climbing. But it’s cool, you’ll see them on non-climbing days. Right?
(SY): And so, it was really beautiful to see that, yes—climbing is the main glue that brings us together—and just our friendship and our partnership and the love that we have for each other is stronger and bigger than just climbing.
(KK): It didn’t matter if Sky was injured or if life got busy. Sela and Sky were best friends, period. To the end. This was some full-on bromance, the highest level of friendship between two men. It was so immense that Sky even officiated Sela’s wedding.
(SY): The wedding itself—I helped officiate half of it because, in Israel, everything has to be with a rabbi and Judaism and yada yada, but I was like, “Ok. Scooch over dude, like, I’m taking over.” And I was able to facilitate a really beautiful ceremony: taking two climbing ropes and weaving it into the audience and having someone take the two rings and threading the rings through the rope. And basically, the whole community passes the rings while I talk about community and partnership, and partnership in climbing, and how strong it really is. Yeah, I was really honored to be able to do that for his wedding, especially because he’s my main climbing partner and also, to see him build a relationship with his wife, who is also his climbing partner. And just really be able to support him in that, and both of them, ‘cause I saw their relationship blossom and grow from the beginning.
(KK): Sky moved to the US but he and Sela remained best friends. Nothing changed, except for the distance. They would talk all of the time, give each other the same updates after they went climbing. Keeping each other in the loop was always really important to both of them. And on Sky’s birthday, Sela called him to talk for hours.
(SY): He was actually also on his way back from the crag with his wife and so we had a video chat. They were singing happy birthday to me. And, the day after he called me as well. There are not a lot of crags in Israel and there are a few under the radar crags that are being developed. He asked me which crag to go to and I told him where to go, but he’s dyslexic. And so, in northern Israel, two of the new crags are the Sheeps crag and the Goats crag. And I told him to go to the Goats and he forgot, and so he went to the Sheeps. And it’s very, very underdeveloped and when I got the call, I thought I knew where he was. I told everyone, “No. He was at the Goats crag.” And he went to the Sheeps. It made sense ‘cause he always got lost. He never (laughs) he had the worst memory.
I was at yoga at the climbing gym, and I stepped out and saw five missed calls from his wife and a message: “Call me when you can.” At the time, she was two and a half months pregnant and I was like, “Maybe something happened to the baby.” I was also the first person they told about the pregnancy—before their families, before everyone. They called it a womb name: “Triol”, which is a region in Austria which I sent them last year and that’s where he was conceived. And I thought something was wrong with Triol and then I saw another message from a mutual friend saying that there was an accident in northern Israel, and there’s rumors that it’s Sela, my friend, and that I’m really really sorry.
And I started to shake. And the only thing that was going through my mind is, “There’s no way that it’s possible ‘cause I was always the one with the bad luck. I was the one who got injured all the time. I was the one with all the accidents. You know, four years ago, I was on my way to climbing and he calls me up. He’s like, “Sky. Are you ok?” and I was like, “Of course I’m ok, dude. What’s wrong?” And he said that there was an accident at the crag that I was on my way to and he thought, with my luck, it was me. When I saw this message, I was like, “There’s no way that it’s him. It’s not his time.”
I called his wife and she seemed really relaxed. And I was like, “Shikma, what happened?” She got cut off so I couldn’t really understand what she was saying, but because she was in a relaxed voice, I was like, “Ok, whew. You know, nothing happened.” And then I heard the word “accident”. And then I was like, “Ok. Tell me exactly what happened.” She said that there was an accident and that Sela died. (deep breath) I collapsed on the ground and started crying and screaming. I couldn’t believe it, on one hand, and I visualized it—like, exactly what happened. And that visual is still in my mind to this day.
(KK): Sela and Shikma went to a really underdeveloped crag. Neither of them had been there before. That day, seemingly like any other, Sela got on a warm-up climb and at the third bolt, the huge piece of rock that he was on disconnected from the wall. The boulder fell, taking Sela with him and crushing him below.
(SY): Took search and rescue around forty, forty-five minutes to get there. She did compressions and CPR and she tried everything she could, but he died on the spot. It was one of the worst and most and painful moments and experiences I’ve ever been in in my life. And I’ve been I’ve been through two wars, participated in two wars, I’ve seen death, I’ve almost died too many times. And just the thought of him dying—it just broke my heart. Completely. After processing it for the past almost six months—it’s been almost six months—one of the things that I can’t let go of: knowing that if I was there, it wouldn’t have happened.
(KK): Here’s the thing: Sky does not blame Shikma, or Sela, or even himself. This was a blameless accident. But in his heart, Sky knew that if he had been there,
(SY): It wouldn’t have happened. I would have prevented it—not could have, would have prevented it. He was a really strong climber, a really strong sport climber. And he didn’t have the awareness of rock—loose rock, you know. Rope work, you know—all the systems. He knew how to train, he knew the sequences, he knew cruxes, he knew projecting, he knew—yeah, training regiments. And that’s what he loved. But yeah, knowing that I would have prevented it if I was there is something that I have to live with for the rest of my life, too.
You know, so many people say that it was his time, you know, and maybe if not in a climbing accident, then a car accident or anything else. I don’t know. I know I don’t have any control over anything like that. Yeah. The only answer I think that I am able to understand is that there is no such thing as “textbook grief”. Not about time, not about process, not about how it looks like or what comes up or healing or the ways of healing. I think that certainty—that there is no certainty—is the answer that I’m receiving and I’m trying to accept it. It’s not getting any easier.
(KK): Do you think that it will?
(SY): I think that it will. It’s something that I am trying to learn how to live with—his death. And I have hope, too.
(KK): Loss is losing a million little pieces of that person, in a million different ways. And you not only grieve for the loss of someone, but also for the world that they leave behind. Sela left behind his wife and unborn child, “Triol”, who was due in four and a half weeks.
(SY): And a big hole in my heart that I’m not gonna even to try and replace ’cause that’s impossible. And he left such a huge heritage of love and support and caring and doing really, really, really meaningful work in this world and genuinely making it a better place. He was a leader in every way possible and charismatic, in a really humble and beautiful way, and very gentle, even though he was humungous—he had the biggest biceps I’ve ever seen! Always drooled on them (laughs).
Yeah, everyone wanted to be around him—all the people that I worked with, all of our community. He was a rock. You know, his name—it’s not by accident that his name is “Sela”. He was a rock in every way possible. Everyone in the climbing community knew him. He was consistent. He was there, all the time. While I was traveling and in between injuries—he was always there. Waiting for me or being there for everyone else. And it also showed in the amount of people that came to the funeral. It was packed. It was insane how many people came.
(KK): Sky flew from the US back to Israel the night before the funeral and went to see Shikma the next morning.
(SY): I went to his kibbutz and I met his wife there. And we went on a long walk and she had asked me to write something.
(KK): What did you write? Do you remember?
(SY): How much he meant to me—in every way possible, in every part of my life. I wrote about who he was, to share with people my perspective of him because I was the closest person in his life for a really long time. No one knew him like I knew him. Not even his wife, not even his family. And so, just to share a bit with, I don’t know, fifteen hundred people who came to the funeral, about the way that I saw him and how I experienced him and just the beautiful wonderful man that he was.
(KK): Sela’s funeral wasn’t conventional at all. There was music, The Killers, some Pink Floyd, and a ton of people. Fifteen hundred people, to be exact. I don’t even know that I know fifteen hundred people.
In Judaism, there is a ritual called Shiva (did I say it right?)
(KK): which means you sit and mourn for seven days. Traditionally, there are five stages of mourning in Judaism. Shiva is considered the third stage of mourning, and after the funeral was over, The Killers were done playing, Sky came and sat Shiva for two weeks with Shikma.
(SY): And the whole family and community come and support, and so I was with her for those whole seven days. Also, I didn’t have anywhere else to go. I came to be with her and to try to grieve and process this whole shit show myself. And it was complicated. You know? We went to two ultrasounds and that was really confusing. Easily, I found myself in his shoes. You know, taking his wife to an ultrasound and standing next to her and holding her hand and seeing a heartbeat. So many emotions came up—for her, for me. And I’m also not this child’s father. And it was just really complicated. Not knowing if I needed to move back to help her out. You know, I can be as supportive as I can and share with this child about his father—be a loving, supportive human being in his life—and I’m not his father. I’m not his father—and what am I? Like, what role do I play in this? So, that was really complicated for me, too.
(KK): Sky eventually had to figure out what his role could be. I mean, he lived on the other side of the world. It was complicated. Taking on this role—it wasn’t in his religion, and it wasn’t out of obligation.
(SY): But there is just something that I’m not really able to describe about the fabric of true partnership, especially in climbing, for me. And how strong it is and how incredible the ties between two people, not only being tied into the same rope, just sharing those experiences and you know, the highest amount of trust and the lowest lows and everything in between. And, in that partnership and relationship, I would do anything for him—also move back to Israel and raise his child. Yeah. We showed up in each other’s lives. Like, we really, really showed up.
(KK): I just got a tingle when you said that.
(SY): So, what was really interesting is that a ton of climbers came to the funeral. So many people came and showed love and support to Sela and just the whole community—‘cause that’s when it also really counts and matters, you know? And the Shiva is different. Shiva is more homey—people sit down and really have conversations. And I noticed that there was a huge discrepancy between the amount of climbers that came to the funeral and the amount of climbers that came to the Shiva. And I was wondering where that is coming from. My thoughts were that this accident—this death—touched so many climbers in so many different ways. Not only of personal grief in mourning and trauma, but also…something is missing in the community, or this could have happened to me or a loved one. Because we all climb—all the fucking time. You know? We do this all the time. It could happen to any one of us, at any time. And so, I think it touched home to a lot of people, and not a lot of people really knew how to express it or what to with all of these feelings and emotions.
People know how to show up and be present, but not necessarily express it and talk about it. Two weeks after the funeral, me and his wife had organized a climbing event in his memory. So, we cleaned up our favorite crag and a lot of people showed up. And it was just a really great day to be out and a lot of people were climbing and just having picnics and being together and yeah, and sharing that space together was really great.
Towards the end, I had a feeling that something’s missing, so, I gathered everyone and we sat in a big circle. We’re like seventy climbers. And I started in saying that these past two weeks were pretty much hell for me—couldn’t imagine anything worse, and really painful and complicated and really hard. Yeah, so, just opened it up to being vulnerable, ‘cause I was sure that I wasn’t the only one. Yes, he was my climbing partner and yes, this incident touched so many people in so many different ways. I just invited whoever wanted to talk to talk, to just share and experience a memory, a feeling—whatever. And, wow. We couldn’t stop them. It was like an hour and a half of just people sharing so many wonderful things, and so many really painful things, too, and seeing the importance of being in community. Because a lot of people experience grief. A lot of people experience trauma. And, for me, because climbing is such a big part of my life, there is something unique that I share with other climbers that I feel like only they could really understand. Yeah, ‘cause people just wanted a place to do something with all of these things that have been building up inside and no one really knew what to do and how to do it. And it was like (deep exhale): a synchronized sigh of seventy people. And so needed, so needed.
(KK): If you’re anything like me, then you probably spend a lot of time avoiding things like people you went to high school with or maybe coughing children. And it’s not because I don’t really love awkward encounters or kids, but I’m all about avoiding unpleasant situations and the feelings that come with them. We do this with grief, too.
(SY): I’m having a really hard time. These past six months have been really shitty. I don’t have “grieving” on my forehead, right? And people forget or I don’t always show everything that’s going on. And also, I’m not grieving twenty-four, seven. And also, grief is so unsexy to talk about. It really is! It is really, really hard to talk about it. It’s really hard to be in the presence of. I’ve had really good friends that have been avoiding me for the past six months because they just don’t know how to be around me—and I totally get it. Why not put a bandage on it and let’s continue living our lives? But it doesn’t work like that. You know, I go to sleep every night with this and I wake up every morning with this and it’s not going away.
Sometimes, all I need is a hug. You know? All I need is: “Let’s go on a walk outside in silence.” Grief can look like so many things and also, support can look like so many things, too. This can’t be fixed and there’s no expectation for it to be fixed, by anyone or by myself. And I just need to learn how to live my life with this now, with the sadness and the pain—and also, with the beauty and excitement and passion and fulfillment that life brings. Because life is colorful. And it has the dark moments and it has the really light moments. It is an inseparable part of it.
(KK): Sky doesn’t seem angry at climbing—like I think a lot of us might feel really angry with climbing if we lost our best friend. But Sky’s passion and love for climbing have only grown, and the more we talked, the more I saw this reflected in his words. His relationship with climbing went through this strange evolution, from hobby to lifestyle to community and identity. It’s hard to detach from that, and even though climbing is what took Sela away, Sky remembers how many things it did add to his life. It shaped how he sees this world.
(SY): How I see this world and how I see my life in others, and yeah, just climbing is the shit. And it’s going to change for me a million more times, as it did in the past, and that evolution is healthy as long as I’m connected to my intention: “Why I am doing it?” Am I doing it to avoid and to run away and to escape? Am I doing it to push my limits, my mental and physical and emotional? Am I doing it to go on adventures and to explore and to meet new people and new places in the world? Am I doing it to connect in different ways to my soul and to my spirit and to nature? There’s so many different intentions, but as long as I’m connected to my intention, I hope to do it for the rest of my life. And yeah, there’s a lot of risk. And it’s also really healing, for me. Being in nature is healing. Being with good friends is healing. Going on adventures is healing. Standing on a summit is healing. For me, it gives so much taste of life—and it doesn’t always taste good. But there’s a lot of richness.
(KK): Mourning is a cyclical thing. It’s not linear—you don’t just get from point A to point B and magically show up on the other side of it, a stronger, better person. You have good days, and you have bad ones. But, the bad days? The shitty moments—they pass. And you do eventually get to the other side of things, and you continue to love the world that they leave you with.
Sela and Sky’s story is proof that we can be just as fragile as we are strong. This episode is about best friends and healing, and it’s a reminder that grief happens, but so does joy.
(FEMALE VOICE): In French, love is “l’amour” and loss is “la perte”.
(MALE VOICE): Ádaraya. Maranaya.
(FEMALE VOICE): L’amore. La perdita.
(FEMALE VOICE): The word for love in Hindi is “pyar” and the word for loss in Hindi is “khona”.
(FEMALE VOICE): Liebe. Verlust. That’s German.
Kjærlighet. Tap. That’s Norwegian.
Yubit. Poterya. That was Russian.
Ljubav. Gubitak. That’s Serbian.
(FEMALE VOICE): Cinta. Kehilangan.
(FEMALE VOICE): Miłość. Strata.
(FEMALE VOICE): Loss: “shīlì”. Love: “ài”.
(MALE VOICE): Szeretet. Veszteség.
(FEMALE VOICE): Ljubezen. Izguba.
(FEMALE VOICE): Ài. Tòng.
(FEMALE VOICE): “The Hebrew word for love is “ahava”
(MALE VOICE): And the word for loss is “tsa’ar”.
(KK): No matter what language, love and loss are universally known. Everybody experiences them, and never in the same way. Grief is not the price that we pay for love, but a reminder that even though it’s bittersweet, they sometimes go hand in hand. And that’s kind of like life, right? We need the dark and the light, the sweet and the bitter—and may our lives be all the richer for it.
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