For those who received news from Niels Tietze,
the emails were loaded, free flowing songs, beating with alliteration, Nielsesque neologisms, and mealy metaphors that would make a contortionist wince. Sometimes we wrote emails, sometimes phone calls, and no matter the medium, it seemed like Niels was also on the verge of making a choice, of shattering the usual flashes of doldrums with the option to wander, to volunteer, to learn, and to climb. When he was not weighing the consequences of falling in love, or colonized by his desire to follow in his father’s medicine-footsteps, he was likely on a rock, consumed by the infectious trials of what humans are and are not capable of doing in the vertical realm.
“You know me, a little bit of adventure here and there to keep the edges of reality slightly more spiced. Like mitmita (Ethiopian spicy pepper paste) on the outer rim of injera (Ethiopian fermented flatbread).”
Although Niels and I grew up in the Wasatch, separated by a short distance, our friendship was not born until I moved to Ethiopia. He found me through a blog post and arrived in the summer of 2012 looking for some climbing fun after volunteering on a high-volume cataract surgery project in rural Tigray. During those seven days with Niels, I felt more alive than ever. He engineered the onsight adventure of three possibly unclimbed towers in the Ethiopian desert with us, a group of three random, not-very-good climbers and a small dog. We all admired him, his nonchalant approach to these very frightening tasks. We were convinced he was indestructible. The only fear I saw was when fist-sized rocks came raining down, and Niels desperately asked us why locals were trying to kill us. We lived in Ethiopia and saw it as normal behavior; we told him it was part of their culture, an explanation he would not accept.
“Only one incident of rocks being thrown at my head for cultural misinterpretation. Not bad.”
Just a few weeks after that wild trip, he lost his older brother, Eric, who died in the mountains. I felt bad for Niels, especially because he had already lost his other brother, Kyle, two years before. No doubt, these spells of mourning and loss shaped him. Still, he never became bitter. Solitary? Perhaps. He once wrote me saying that he starts and ends his days alone, on a horse. I can’t imagine he wanted it any other way. Up to then, the life he had led on the sides of enormous cliffs in Yosemite and Utah, coupled with the death of his nearest and dearest, turned him more into a philosopher than a celebrity rock climber. The next winter, we strapped on boards and hiked up the Wasatch. We sipped on tea and mapped humanity’s blunders and beauty. I told him how I was considering devoting my life to a Chilean love interest. He loved the love, all heart.
“Somewhere beyond all the bullshit is just authentic, amazing folks, but it remains burdensome to wade through the desert of humanity to find that oasis.”
We shared Ethiopia, and we shared love for its distance from the place we grew up, the places he jokingly called Utardia and Salty Load. He introduced me to James Garrett, who became a bit of a spiritual guide for a sport-climbing basalt wall I had initiated in Addis Ababa, as a fun project to bring less-precarious forms of climbing to Ethiopia. Niels came back for more cataract camps, and he came back to climb more Ethiopian rock. With another Ethiopia-based friend, he climbed a strange tower formation on the road to Gondar. He carried small amounts of his brothers’ ashes, each tightly wrapped in a bandana. From the top, he saw Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile. He said he wanted to bring Eric and Kyle back to the place where humanity first began its great migration, and into the source of one of the world’s greatest rivers, and unfurled the ashes in the wind. Niels was arrested when they got down, but only so the police could hear the adventure in first-person and take photos with Niels.
“Feel free to be amazed. There are many who eventually get fooled into believing their own legend.”
Niels inspired trust. He exuded the affection of a lovable wombat, yet he was as patient as a rattler sunning on a ledge. His empathy permeated every conversation, from the deep to the superficial. He listened and knew to tune out distractions. He countered and delved into perspectives you hadn’t thought of yet. We often end up using the word real to describe these types of friends. Perhaps real is how we want to differentiate what we deem authentic from the rest of our noisy lives and the relentless performance. Niels once told me that all societies wear masks, and that Americans were specialized in constantly doing things just to prove they can. Maybe this explains his disdain for Instagram and social media, little more than a performer’s stage, a parade of fine physiques engaged in the ungraceful dance to win contests of sponsorship, likes, and popularity. Do we have to continually prove to ourselves that we exist?
“I got dropped from a big climbing trip to the Chilean Patagonia for not being famous and pretty enough. There are all kinds of hilarity surrounding the growing number of climbing expeditions these years. Where are those in pursuit of total adventure? Seems a rare breed to me.”
He once crashed on the floor of my apartment in Addis Ababa for a week. By then I had a wife, a baby, and a plan that required one to translate thought into the future tense, so to say. So we talked a lot about his life, what constituted responsible decisions on a tightrope tethered between family, occupation, and his passion. There was talk he could become an in-country manager for the cataract camps. But to do that, he would have to leave his family back in Salt Lake, and then he confessed how much he truly loved Utah. He definitely wanted to be closer to his parents, but I also suspect he did not want to be ‘trapped’ in a country where the sandstone disintegrated in your hands.
“Have you heard the German term Zugunruhe? Migration Restlessness. The stirring before moving. The uneasy energy that walks in the wake of long starvations or a gradual loss of vitality. The thing that causes us to pick up and move towards a horizon even if the promises are unfounded and potentially dangerous. What is this instinct that makes movement even when the tank is on empty? Why not hunker down and wait to see if it gets better.”
No document could do his life justice. There is so much about Niels that I could never know or see, and now never will. Never been to Yosemite, I’m not a so-called monkey, and only know the pro climbing world through videos and magazine articles. Before I moved to Colombia, we climbed one last time, a route of multipitch quartzite just outside of Ogden. We mostly simul-climbed, and he let me lead. I had just become owner of a small lot in Moab, and was already visualizing Niels popping by to play with my daughters and test his latest kai-wot recipe (typical Ethiopian dish) in my future kitchen. Then in 2016, I lost my older brother to a heart attack and flew back to my family in Utah. I checked with Niels to see if we could get together. From the desert, he wrote to me that which he, most of all, understood.
“How you walk with him in your heart and thoughts is how he lives on. After it’s said and done, all life is a memory, our bodies merely the vessels, the instruments for the song.