On the 11th January 2018, I received the following message:
“This afternoon, we had the worst news a parent can have: Our beautiful Montana son, Billy, was found dead in his home by his girlfriend. Words cannot express our great sadness and we simply ask for prayers for God’s saving grace and peace in our hearts. Thank you.”
To say I was shocked by this news is one hell of an understatement. Bill Winters was a young man with a lot going for him, and his death is both puzzling and crushing. The circumstances surrounding his departure from this world are still shrouded in mystery as far as I know, but those circumstances hardly matter – Bill is gone, and he’s not coming back.
2017 claimed many of the best and brightest in the climbing world. Some had lived long and fruitful lives, like Royal Robbins and Fred Beckey, yet others including Ueli Steck and Hayden Kennedy were taken well before their time. Yes, perhaps it’s true that they departed before they had realised their full potential, but even still, our community is richer for them having lived.
And so it was with Bill. We pity the loss of what might have been, but we are grateful for what we were allowed to share. Bill and I spoke infrequently in recent years, separated by 8000 indifferent miles and the even vaster trajectory of two very different lives, but for a few years I would guess that I knew him perhaps better than most.
History tells us of the bonds formed between men in times of crisis, particularly during war. The brotherhood forged on the fatal shores of Gallipoli and Normandy has become central to the souls of our nations. But it wasn’t until after I left the Army that I experienced such a connection, one borne from mutual support in times of hardship and trial. The howling winds of Patagonia and Alaska solidified the friendship that Bill shared with myself and others during our many adventures, a friendship that could not fail to endure.
Bill was a natural athlete, the kind of guy you envy for his excessive endowment of raw talent. He was strong. He had endurance. He picked up skills quickly. Altitude didn’t touch him. He could carry prodigious loads of gear. But probably his finest skill was his ability to suffer (see also: mountaineering) and to maintain his sense of humour in even the hardest situations. We called him “The Billdozer” for his ability to charge unerringly through the most horrific jungle, or “The Moraine Cheetah” when he joked that the only way he’d be able to increase his pace through the jumbled, chaotic maze of glacial detritus was to take cocaine. His greatest talent was simply an indefatigable reserve of relentless energy.
But Bill didn’t have everything figured out. If there was a fault in him, it was that he lacked focus. When I met with Bill in Montana in 2015, it seemed like his compass was wavering. He wasn’t unhappy, per se, but he appeared listless and unsure as to the direction his life was taking. It was an uncomfortable situation to witness.
But he was immediately re-energised by our following expedition, an attempt at Denali’s West Buttress in June that year. Even though we were unsuccessful in that attempt, it was a matter of weather and circumstance that chased us from High Camp and closed our summit bid – I have no doubt that Bill and the rest of the team were capable of the task had conditions proved more favourable. To witness this instantaneous spike in enthusiasm proved to me that Bill was in desperate need of more adventure in his life. For whatever reason, he was trying to settle into what some folks would consider a more “normal” lifestyle, and it wasn’t working out well for him – square peg, round hole and all that.
But Bill had big dreams, and I figured he would achieve them in time. His ambition was colossal, but it was a blunt instrument. Given time, I knew that it could be chiselled to a fine point, and at such time would become a mighty weapon indeed. Bill was young. He had plenty of time. At least that’s what I thought.
The size of Bill’s ambition was exceeded only by the size of his heart. His generosity came freely without thought of reward, and his psych was only improved by sharing it with others. He was a thoughtful and intelligent man, and despite these gifts, he didn’t take himself too seriously. He was a good dude.
Experience has shown me that it will take me years to unpack what this event truly means to me, but for now my thoughts are with his family and friends around the world. I guess if we can learn one thing from his passing, it’s this – don’t hit the pause button on living your dream.
Or, as Bill liked to say, “Go big or go home.”
Ryan Siacci, Esq.