I met Bryan Beard in the fall of 1979, in White Rock, B.C., answering a note pinned to a laundromat notice board, looking for rock climbing partners. We hit it off immediately, bouldering on the legendary white rock, a glacial erratic deposited at Semiahmoo Beach 11,000 to 25,000 years ago, during the retreat of the last ice age. Coast Salish native legend has it hurled from Vancouver Island by the son of a sea god, to mark the spot where he and his princess would make their home.
Trips to Squamish’s granite cliffs followed, where we climbed the classics and pioneered several new routes on the adjacent Little Smoke Bluffs.
We also explored the mysteries of humanity, over endless cups of tea in city cafés and under the star-studded roof of the sky, in the great cathedrals of the mountains — on one memorable occasion sitting out a winter storm in a damp cave with a hungry rat and a copy of Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard for company, which we read to one-another by the flickering light of a candle-lantern.
Bryan was, besides an extraordinarily gifted athlete, photographer, musician — master of every pursuit he set his keen curiosity upon — susceptible to spiritual hucksterism.
This incongruence in Bryan’s otherwise brilliant powers of reason first came to my attention in 1982, when my buddy began inserting into our conversations his fascination with one Benjamin Creme, who had launched a worldwide advertising campaign announcing the imminent Second Coming — to occur, in fact, on Monday, 21 June 1982, and that Christ, AKA “Maitreya,” was holed up in … East London.
As a confirmed atheist, albeit intimately familiar with the occult philosophy fad that permeated my generation, I was gobsmacked by what I considered Bryan’s credulity. It led to a schism of sorts, though we worked side-by-side at Mountain Equipment Co-op (a job I’d recommended him for). Our joined-at-the-hip friendship became arms-length.
With Creme’s appointed date for the “Reemergence” at hand, Bryan took a leave of absence from the Co-op, retreating to a tent in the woods, below the towering Grand Wall of the Squamish Chief. I visited him there on June 8. We happily climbed several routes together at the Smoke Bluffs, where I’d been developing an area dubbed Octopus’s Garden.
Bryan was a lifelong “seeker of truth.” At 15, he left England for India, with £50 in his pocket. When the money ran out, he appealed to the Canadian Consulate, who bought the footloose youth a plane ticket back to his birthplace, New Brunswick.
In the UK, estranged from his father, he’d been living with a married couple in Wales (I met the female member of the ménage, when she visited Canada, in 1980) I’ve gathered since, through another woman who, stumbling upon my account of our epic on Shannon Falls, contacted me by e-mail from England, that the relationship was fraught with emotional complexity.
At the time, Bryan had taken up rock climbing, exhibiting precocious talent at renowned climbing areas like Llanberis Pass and Clogwyn Du’r Arddu. By the time I met him, Bryan’s rock-climbing skills were match for the cutting-edge routes of the day, represented by (NA) technical grades of 5.11-12. He was kind enough to drag me up some of these finger-lacerating classics, during our Squamish adventures.
In 1983, Bryan set his laser-like sights on ocean kayaking. He built a kayak from scratch, studied navigation, and set out to traverse the Inside Passage. I photographed his departure from Vancouver’s Jericho Beach, celebrated with a champagne shower of his little craft, soon to be tossed by ocean waves.
As the eighties progressed, we saw less and less of one-another. Back from his kayaking odyssey, Bryan settled back in Vancouver’s Kitsilano neighbourhood, with a new girlfriend. A new chapter had begun. On the other hand, when we did meet up, he confessed to deepening personal distress. His father had recently died, leaving him a modest inheritance, which he was depleting on counselling. I asked him what form his mental aberrations took. He replied that, for instance, at that moment he was convinced that I was the Devil incarnate.
It may well be that I’m more Beelzebub than St. Bernard, but I was nevertheless shocked that a man to whom I had once entrusted my life now viewed me as the Prince of Darkness.
I’m no stranger myself to depression — it is possibly the destiny of the romantic and the realist, outlooks which can and often do coexist. The realist sees the chaos of the world unadorned, yet the romantic longs for transcendence, perhaps for atonement, for union with the divine beauty of nature.
Brian honoured the environment by donating his climbing skills to the conservation cause, rappelling with Greenpeace banners from dioxin-belching smokestacks and pounding the pavement with donation boxes.
By 1992, when I fled the tarnished jewel-by-the-sea of Vancouver for Vancouver Island, Bryan had already retreated to the more-remote Hornby Island, where he took up large-format photography, fine-woodworking, and started a family. My wife and I visited him there, in April 1992. Recently separated from his partner, he occupied a small cottage, shadowed by the forest. All seemed convivial. Over at his former family-home, we babysat the kids while his ex-partner had a night out. Bryan showed me the exquisite darkroom he had built from scratch, complete with custom-moulded sink and Besseler 4X5 enlarger, now all but off-limits.
Lost & found
The exact chronology escapes me, but I recall there was a sojourn in the Rockies, to Canmore, where he worked in a camera store.
In 1998, he visited us. We sat up all night, talking like we always did: exploring and challenging one-another’s deepest philosophical questions. We had an uncanny ability to anticipate one-another’s thoughts, finishing one-another’s sentences to peels of laughter. He’d recently returned, at 42, to free-climb Squamish’s Grand Wall. He’d swung a job back at MEC’s Vancouver headquarters, learning their computer system, a job I had no doubt he’d master quickly. He had a new girlfriend.
I often felt the instinct to phone the Co-op, to see how he was doing, but didn’t follow through. My life was complicated … another bankruptcy on the horizon.
One summer day, in 2000, I sat at a picnic table on the beach. I was contributing to a “Water Day” educational conference, organized by my sister. One of the presenters was a poet, from Hornby Island. It’s a small community (30 km2, pop. around 950) Did he know Bryan Beard?
“You mean Bryan who committed suicide?”
It took me some time to gather my wits and longer to piece together from mutual friends what had led to the tragedy. Once again, it seemed, Bryan’s longing for deliverance from the corruptions of life had led him not to paradise, but to unbearable disappointment and, ultimately, death.
He had followed another spiritual charlatan, John de Ruiter, to Edmonton, Alberta, where the mystic’s “staring contests” and banal platitudes evidently still lead the gullible to epiphany.
The guru’s well-publicized and all-too-human failings evidently precipitated my unstable friend’s final collapse of will. He flung himself from a bridge, on a freezing January night, into the icy North Saskatchewan River.
During my quest to understand Bryan’s final days, I came across the following story, part of the diary of another dispirited de Ruiter acolyte:
“In the year 1999, when I met John de Ruiter, another follower called Brian, [sic] who moved to Edmonton from Vancouver, a blond long hair and good looking guy, who was in distress and depression, committed suicide .… He moved to Edmonton in hope of finding help from John. I remember when Brian [sic] once told me, in the old meeting building, that he was loving John but he was not receiving the support or balance he was hoping for. After he lived a few months in Edmonton, I received the news he committed suicide. I heard he threw himself from a Bridge [sic] into freezing waters.”
We use the term life-line to describe the act of rescuing people in distress. In climbing, the member of the team who is pushing out the route is protected by a “belay” — a solid anchor from which the belayer protects, via the rope, the progress of the lead-climber.
The rope might telegraph more subtle signals, of trust, security, even love. When these physical and psychological qualities are absent, then the rope can become a burden, even a danger.
Can Bryan’s fate be laid at the feet of John de Ruiter? In other accounts of the Edmonton cult, my friend was described as “a B.C. man with pre-existing mental health issues.” Perhaps some other stressor would have led to the same tragic end. But, to my mind, people who build cults, based on the exploitation of human frailty, are demons incarnate.
In 1988, drowning in depression arising from failure in love and in work, I phoned Bryan from Toronto. What should I do?
“Come home,” he said simply — a solution so blatantly obvious and wise that I felt foolish for wasting his time.
A week later, having departed the frozen streets of Toronto by train, I smelled the sea breeze wafting up the Fraser Canyon from the coast. My destiny lay not in the advertising houses of Toronto, but on the shores of the Pacific. I took an ocean kayaking course and began guiding trips around Vancouver Island, leading to my move away from the Mainland.
“I sensed that this raw place and, in fact, the whole of this starkly beautiful world was utterly indifferent to our existence. Freed from the projections of our ego, we are able to take full responsibility for our own survival and to see the terrible beauty of our planet unfiltered.”
Today marks the 36th anniversary of our death-defying climb of frozen Shannon Falls, and this month marks Bryan’s leap into the unknown, 20-years-later. There came a terrifying moment on that ice-climb when I realized we had climbed into a trap of our own making — or mine, since I was ostensibly the leader. Retreat was out of the question and advancing would likely lead to disaster. Fear clawed at my guts. Then, a sort of existential clarity emerged: I perceived that we were utterly alone, and no force on earth or in heaven could extricate us from our predicament. Freed from ego, I faced the fact that there was no room for error or wishful thinking, if we were to see tomorrow. For all the use the rope was at this point — if one of us fell, we’d drag the other to his death — we might as well have disposed of its burden. We chose to maintain it as a kind of unspoken bond, a promise to survive.
To this day, when I recall a great friendship that outlived youthful bravado among the unforgiving mountains, I am left to ask the unanswerable question: Bryan, why didn’t you call me; why didn’t you come home?