Chad Kellogg died in Patagonia on Valentine’s Day this year, at 42 years old. I didn’t know him very well, just through a handful of phone interviews and one very brief in-person meeting. If you heard anything about Chad, it was probably something about his attempts to break the speed record on Everest—that was the most attention-grabbing thing.
But he was a real climber, an all-around alpinist, and my impression of him was that he had an insanely high level of fitness gained through working harder than anyone out there. He sold all of his stuff and lived at the very edge of bankruptcy to continue to do what he loved: climbing. He did massive traverses and big climbs in the Cascades, put up new routes on big technical peaks in Patagonia, Alaska, Nepal, and China. He was a hero to lots of climbers for his work ethic, his enthusiasm, and his attitude.
I respected Chad, but didn’t know so much about him until he died, and his friends started to share stories about him—things he did, things he said, how he climbed in the mountains. I scrolled through a Tumblr page set up by his friends to collect memories of Chad, and I found one by his friend Mark Westman, who knew Chad for 17 years. My favorite part of Mark’s post was this sentence:
“When I catch myself in moments of negative self-talk or low self-image, Chad’s words of advice he once offered have always brought me back to center: ‘The story you tell yourself becomes your reality.’”
I wrote that one down. I doubt Chad would have ever have said so, but the story he kept living and telling himself over years, to me, seemed just short of a being a superhero. Speed record on Rainier. Speed record on Denali. Diagnosed with colon cancer. Beats it. First ascent on huge peak on this side of the globe. First ascent on that side of the globe. He wasn’t in climbing films or magazines, or ad campaigns—he just went out and did it, in some of the most amazing places in the world.
You might think he had almost nothing in common with John “Slomo” Kitchin, a 69-year-old man who skates the same stretch of boardwalk on San Diego’s Pacific Beach every day. Besides both following their respective bliss, I’d say they couldn’t have been less alike. Except last weekend, while watching the New York Times documentary on Slomo at the 5Point Film Festival, I heard him say this:
“Everybody has the capacity to dream up and believe anything he wants to. The shrinks, or the psychoanalysts, would call it a ‘personal delusional system,’ and you believe it because you choose to.”
Slomo left a successful medical career to devote himself more or less full-time to skating, or as he says, trying to get back to the state of mind he had when he was 11 years old, before he started the trajectory into the middle third of life, when everything got too serious. If you watch the film, you can see everyone on the Pacific Beach boardwalk react with joy to what they see as a man doing exactly what he wants with his life. I watch Slomo, and I’m a little envious of the simplicity of his bliss, and the courage it took for him to pursue it.
Both Chad and Slomo are/were living very unique lives of infectious enthusiasm, and both were clearly in charge of their own stories. Chad didn’t believe he was a general contractor; he believed he was a mountain climber. Slomo understood he had been working just for the material ends, and becoming, in his words, “an asshole”—and that’s not what he wanted to be, so he moved into a studio apartment and concentrated on skating on the boardwalk. It seems Chad and Slomo were kind of saying the same thing, that you are whoever you think you are, if you believe it. Maybe we should all take a step back and ask: what story am I telling myself?