Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Chaitanya Sathe | April 4, 1984–August 24, 2019

Group selfie on Mt. Hood.
by Maureen O'Hagan

At first, it seemed incongruous: a man, dressed mostly in white, sitting in the back of the Holman Auditorium, smiling. The rest of the crowd was grim-faced, here to remember their friend and fellow Mazama, Chaitanya Sathe, who had died in a hiking accident on Aug. 24. Yet this man in white was Chaitanya’s father. And here he was smiling as he sat through dozens of photos of his son on mountaintops. He smiled when mourners approached to say, “I’m so sorry you lost your son.”

For a moment, Ramesha Sathe would stop smiling. “Don’t be sorry!” he would exclaim. He gestured up towards the screen, at the slides showing Chaitanya smiling, too. Here’s Chaitanya smiling at the top of Mt. Hood. There he is smiling in Ouray. He’s smiling on Three Fingered Jack. And in the Grand Canyon. And on Broken Top, Mt. Adams, Mt. Rainier. The list goes on. As Ramesha Sathe could see, his son’s life in the mountains was a good one.

ICS Photo by Justin Colquhoun.
“I think he just felt really alive and felt like he belonged there,” Chaitanya’s girlfriend Kaitlin Rupert said. “For him, the mountains weren’t something to conquer. He would tell me he loved the mountains, he felt like they loved him, and they’d been very kind to him.”

It felt, in some ways, that these weekends in the mountains—weekend after weekend after weekend—were getting him closer to his spiritual goals, she said. He’d return from each climb and thank the mountain gods for letting his group pass.

He took BCEP in 2015 and applied to dozens of climbs afterwards, getting mostly rejections. He struggled, at first, to find climbing partners. Chaitanya was an introvert who confided in friends that he felt socially awkward. And yet to climb, you need partners. “He forced himself out of his own comfort zone,” said his friend and climbing partner, Ryan Gwillim.

He was both safety-conscious and studious. When Chaitanya joined his first Hood climb led by Rico Micallef, he was slow, but told Rico he dreamed of climbing Rainier. “I can tell you right now, that is not a Rainier pace,” Rico told him. “Chai took it to heart.”

He worked on strength, speed, skills. He was always asking questions: What can I do? What can I learn? What do you think of this? Why don’t we do it this way? By the time they climbed the Devil’s Kitchen Headwall last winter, Rico said, “he took great pleasure in smoking my ass to the top.”
He wasn’t just getting faster during this period; he also seemed to be growing more vibrant, Kaitlin and Ryan agreed.

Kaitlin Rupert and Chai.
Chaitanya was more than a climber, of course. He was a math nerd, a computer geek, a native of India who went to Illinois for a PhD and landed in 2014 at Intel, where he made many friends. He worked as an optical proximity correction engineer, a job that entails identifying patterns and compensating for image distortions that occur when printing elements of electronic circuits that are infinitesimally small.

In other words, he was smart as all get-out.  In his apartment, Ryan said, there must have been 1,500 books, mostly math and mountaineering. Chaitanya had a full-sized easel set up with paper to scribble on—Sanskrit, high-level math problems, stuff that no one else could understand. He’d work through a problem, tear off a sheet, crumble it up and toss it in the corner, moving onto the next problem and the next. “He’d do this for fun,” Ryan marveled.

Chaitanya wasn’t the sort of person who’d hide his true self to please others. There was an authenticity and honesty about him that drew people in. Even if, sometimes, it meant he told people things they didn’t necessarily want to hear.

Chai in his element on Mt. Hood.
His Hindu faith played a big role in his life. “His spiritual beliefs were such that he didn’t want to hurt anything,” Kaitlin said. “Part of that involved being as open and honest as possible because he felt it was hurtful to lie to somebody and not be authentic.” She valued this kind of honesty, and his willingness to share what he learned, too.

He would tell Kaitlin that we are not our bodies, that there is no permanence. She supposes now that’s what his father was thinking as he sat in the back of the auditorium, smiling at all his son had done in this life.

The morning he died, Chaitanya and Ryan were walking down to the Lower Gorge at Smith Rock. Ryan said he didn’t see his friend trip, didn’t hear a grunt or a yelp. Ryan said some people have wondered why they weren’t tied in, but if you’ve used this trail, you know it’s not a place where people commonly rope up.

“This was just a freak accident,” Rico said after he’d seen the place where Chaitanya fell. “We’ve all slipped on these kinds of trails, and 98 percent of the time, these slips are no big deal.”
To him, that makes the loss all the more upsetting. Sometimes, climbing accidents offer lessons. But what could be learned from this? Take 3rd and 4th class approaches even more seriously? That’s important, but it didn’t feel like enough.

Photo: Phil Lamb.
For Kaitlin, the fact that this was just a freak accident offers a bit of solace. There are no recriminations, there is no blame, no second-guessing, no what-if’s.

“It’s possible it was just a really beautiful day,” she said, “and he was looking up at the clouds.”

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