November 24, 2020

Climbing Mont Blanc for Mason Gaddis

A photo of Mason Gaddis sits on the summit of Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the Alps. Mason took his own life a year ago on Sept. 28, 2010. His best friend, Zach Lovell, sophomore audio production major, climbed the mountain in honor of Gaddis. PHOTO CONTRIBUTED BY ZACH LOVELL

Zach Lovell packed his bag the night before he set out to climb Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the Alps.

Ropes. Crampons. Karabiners.

Then, he carefully placed a picture of his best friend on top.

“Well Mason, I’ll see you at the top,” he said.

Best friends Lovell and Gaddis shared many dreams together during their five-year friendship. One of their biggest was to climb the mountains of the world.

Before they could live out this dream, Mason took his own life a year ago — on  Sept. 28, 2010. Mason, an audio production major, was 19.

Lovell is keeping their dream alive.

Lovell climbed Mont Blanc on Sept. 3, honoring Mason and the one-year anniversary of his death. Mason was there in Lovell’s bag and in spirit.

“Mont Blanc was a way of me saying ‘Thank you’ to Mason for everything that his friendship brought to my life,” Lovell said.

Desired Adventures

Mason always wanted to climb mountains someday, like his father Ron Gaddis, Webster biology and nursing professor. While living in Germany for three years, Ron Gaddis climbed many European mountains, including Mont Blanc.

Zach Lovell kneels next to the picture of his best friend, Mason Gaddis, on the top of Mont Blanc. PHOTO CONTRIBUTED BY ZACH LOVELL

As a child, Mason would go through his father’s mountaineering equipment; the ropes, crampons and karabiners. Ron Gaddis would tell his son stories of his adventures.

In high school, Mason and Lovell decided they wanted mountaineering adventures of their own.

They climbed the cliffs of Castlewood State Park in Ballwin, Mo., two to three times a week, for hours at a time. There, they dreamed about the mountains in their future and the adventures they would share.

Ron Gaddis remembers his son loving the feeling of being on top of the world.

As a roadie for one of Mason’s bands in high school, Ron Gaddis watched his son play the bass guitar on stage.

Ron Gaddis, Mason and Lovell shared a passion for music. On a few occasions, they jammed together. But most of the time, Mason and Lovell would play in Ron Gaddis’ basement.

“I would be sitting in my office right above the basement where they would play their music,” Ron Gaddis said. “I’d find myself tapping my foot thinking, ‘Wow, that’s really good.’ It wasn’t obnoxious noise. It was music.”

In June 2010, Lovell and Mason formed a band, “Sleeping in Cars.”

The picture in Lovell’s bag was taken a year ago at Fubar, a rock bar. Mason was holding his six-string guitar before a “Sleeping in Cars” show, smiling at the camera.

Memories of Mason

Memories of Mason and their dreams kept resurfacing in Lovell’s mind. A month before leaving for Geneva, Lovell decided to carry out their plans.

To him, there was no better way to honor his best friend and the first anniversary of his death. Before he left for Geneva, Lovell dropped a note off in Ron Gaddis’ mailbox.

In the note, he explained to Ron Gaddis the memorial he would give to Mason — over 15,000 feet above sea level. Because Ron Gaddis climbed Mont Blanc himself, he knew of its dangers. He also knew there was nothing he could say to discourage Lovell.

Ron Gaddis said Mason and Lovell were similar in that when they said they’re going to do something, they’d do it.

“What a testament to the relationship between he and my son,” Ron Gaddis said. “What greater honor can somebody do for someone else? Mason was grateful to have Zach.”

ach Lovell shows off his mountaineering equipment the night before the climb. PHOTO BY BRITTANY RUESS

The Climb Ahead

In Geneva, Lovell met a Netherlands student named Johan Verbeek Wolthuys during the study abroad orientation.

They started talking, and before Lovell could even mention his Mont Blanc plans, Johan expressed his love for outdoor sports. Lovell’s heart jumped.

He then told Johan his plan and invited him along. Wolthuys accepted.

Later that night, Johan and Lovell discussed the route Lovell chose. Lovell did not reveal the purpose of the climb.

The next three weeks were dedicated to conditioning. Lovell and Wolthuys hiked the Geneva hills, climbed Mount Saleve for practice and swam against a iver’s current.

While hanging out on the dock, Lovell, Wolthuys and their friends talked about their families.

Wolthuys revealed his mother committed suicide when he was six. Mason came to Lovell’s mind.

Wolthuys then apologized for bringing down the group’s mood, but Lovell told him not to apologize. He knew exactly how Wolthuys felt.

Only moments later he told Wolthuys about Mason and his death.

The loss of loved ones by suicide bonded them, but Lovell still waited to tell Wolthuys the purpose of the climb. Days passed and they continued planning.

Then, Lovell finally revealed his reason for climbing Mont Blanc. To Lovell, there were three climbers — himself, Wolthuys and Mason Gaddis.

“I didn’t want Johan to feel like he was becoming a different part of this,” Lovell said. “I wanted him to know this is why I’m doing this. I didn’t want him to feel like he was replacing Mason.”

On Sept. 1, Lovell and Wolthuys arrived in the Chamonix Valley in France, Mont Blanc’s mountain town.

Lovell bought equipment for two and they stayed at the El Paso Hostel for the night.

The excitement of the climb kept them from sleeping. Lovell’s bag sat packed, a picture of Mason Gaddis tucked inside.

The next morning, Lovell and Wolthuys traveled on a cable car, then tram to their 7,000-foot climbing starting point.

As they approached, Lovell thought of Mason.

“I had thought that if September 28 didn’t happen, Mason would be next to us, not in my backpack,” Lovell said. “But it didn’t last long because it doesn’t do well to dwell on what I cannot change. My heart quickly reminded me that this climb I do in glad remembrance.”

With ropes and ice axes strapped to their backs, they looked at each other and took a breath.

Here we go.

After reaching 10,000 feet, the two faced one of Mont Blanc’s biggest challenges — the Grand Couloir, a 2,000-foot rock face. Covered in loose rock, the ground is unstable and difficult to climb.

They stayed the night at the Gouter Hut and practiced walking on their crampons as the sun set. At 12,500 feet above sea level, they went to sleep. Mason Gaddis was still tucked away in Lovell’s backpack.

Their alarms woke them at 1 a.m. The night sky was black.

They put on harnesses and roped themselves to one another for glacier climbing. The only lights leading them were their headlamps and the stars above.

In the Summit’s Snow

Lovell stands on the top of Mont Blanc with friend and Netherlands student Johan Verbeek Wolthuys. PHOTO CONTRIBUTED BY ZACH LOVELL

Lovell and Wolthuys still felt strong as they crossed the “Col du Done” at 14,700 feet. So, they continued on their adventure.

Lovell and Wolthuys arrived at the bottom of the summit’s ridge. The sun-lit route steepened sharply and the air grew thin with 50 percent less oxygen. After climbing one ridge, another would appear.

“I think Johan and I were thinking of (Mason and Johan’s mom) waiting on the other side, looking out for us,” Lovell said. “The next thing getting us through was determination that, for me, was fueled with fulfilling a dream for a friend. Because Mason was my reason (for climbing) is why I felt him most there.”

The -10 degree chill stung their faces.

Just a few more steps.

Finally at 7:15 a.m., 15,782 feet above sea level, Lovell, Wolthuys and Mason reached the top of Mont Blanc. Lovell reached inside his bag for Mason’s picture and pulled it from the top. He tucked it in the summit’s snow.

“We made it, Mason.”

The feeling, Lovell said, was similar to what he felt as he knelt down in front of Mason Gaddis’ ashes at his burial site. This moment, though, was not full of sadness and grief.

“On the top of Mont Blanc I experienced the memories he and I had together, not just of climbing, but those memories that are treasures to our friendship,” Lovell said. “The climb was a way of bringing a person back to life, and forever I will remember feeling him there in the snow next to me as I put his picture on the top of Mont Blanc.”

He felt a weight lift off his chest.

After 45 minutes on the summit, Lovell started down the mountain. He left the photograph tucked in the summit’s snow.

Lovell said although he has generally accepted Mason’s death, only certain things can be healed by Sept. 28, the day Mason died.

After an exhausting trip down, they reached the Chamonix Valley on Sept. 4.

Four days later, Lovell documented his experience in a blog.

He then posted a note to Mason on his memorial Facebook page.

This is what he wrote:

“Mason, I haven’t posted on this page at all since it was created; I think I was waiting or wanting more than words to describe all the memories and the meaning you’ve had in my life. As a fantastic friend and a brother to me (as you were to many) you’ve been in my life even after last September.

Through much of our 5 years I saw you almost every day, as we grew up into the people we were going to be. And in that precious time of life, our friendship was there to help shape me into the image and the person that I am today, for whatever it may be.

It begins to get difficult to think of you in sadness, for you lived for so much more.
So in the honor of your memory, I climbed with you on my back to the top of the Alps like we’ve always dreamed, where a picture of your smiling face remains on the summit of Mont Blanc.

And I’ve only just realized, in a literal sense, you are indeed ‘smiling down at us.’
The link below tells the story of our climb.

Love you, Mason. And, thank you for so much.”

Lovell said there are more mountains in his future, and on each climb he will bring a picture of Mason Gaddis.

Back at home

While Lovell ended his climb in Geneva, a secretary in a dean’s office at Webster informed Ron Gaddis about Lovell’s blog.

Ron Gaddis went online and started to read the blog. He cried as he read the entries. Eventually Ron scrolled down to the photo posted of Mason’s picture in the snow.

“Well Mason, you’re finally on top of the world, bud.”

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