Gustavo Brillembourg, 1957-1993

Publication Year: 1994.



Gustavo Brillembourg was climbing the Northeast Buttress of Higher Cathedral Rock in the Yosemite on September 28. Having climbed the major difficulties of the route, Gustavo was leading the next to the last pitch when, out of sight of his partner, he fell, pulling out his protection, to a point just below his belayer. Still conscious, Gustavo and his friend struggled to a ledge, where two hours later he died.

Gustavo was born in Caracas, Venezuela. He attended Milton Academy, where I first knew him as a wonderfully bright, enthusiastic early teen-ager, interested in everything. He took to rock-climbing and was naturally talented from the beginning on rock and later on ice. He was a skilled wrestler, winning the Massachusetts state wrestling championship. He was a gifted student; I remember teaching him in an advanced Spanish literature class in which he often pointed out to me many of the finer points that I might well have missed. He was already writing and even publishing poetry at that time. He had a deep interest in people. Being a member of a prominent Venezuelan family, he knew that it would be difficult for him in Venezuela to get to know at first hand how the less fortunate Latin Americans lived. At the end of his last year of school, he spent two months with a Peruvian family in the Cordillera Blanca, sleeping as they slept, eating their food, working in the fields by day and becoming a member of the family. He later returned to Peru as leader of an expedition to Chinchey.

Gustavo graduated cum laude from Harvard College in 1979 and from Georgetown University Law School in 1984, where he was an editor of the Law

Review. He was a highly respected tax lawyer in the New York firm of Davis, Polk and Wardwell. Colleagues admired the intensity and skill with which he attacked his professional work and that was also evident by his enthusiasm for his intellectual pursuits and his love of mountaineering and the outdoors.

He is survived by his wife Fredrika Rhodie Brillembourg, a mezzo-soprano of note, whom he married in 1986, a two-year-old son Gustavo José, his parents Alfredo and Clara Brillembourg of Caracas, a sister and three brothers.

I could go on deploring the demise of this renaissance man, but it is better to close with a poem that he wrote after the death of one of his mountaineering friends, which could actually indeed be his own obituary.

The Fall

I sat watching. And the sun

bore down on us with fingers that reached

and kneaded. The snow lay flat:

a grain that stretched hesitant, immaculate,

that burned my eyes.

Below was the slope that lay waiting, as if sheer, unduly treacherous it wound down among snow towers and gaping holes.

We were fleeing. As if horrified. As if tired.

I was second to last.

The others had gone. The wind settled spindrift that spun around us in furious motion. Motion that churned in unison with the beating of the sun, the shrill air that wrapped around us, the drops of sweat that passed my nose.

He and I talked, we talked

in breaks and jerks like men on construction.

Lulls that hovered silent, withstanding the heat.

We talked of flat places, his eyes

remained shrouded behind his goggles. I moved

when it was mine to move, down the slope, a vertical rhythm, the movement of survival.

The movement that drew me home, the movement of security the drawing of flesh.

He watched me from above, happy with his thoughts. I felt he loved I felt he knew a joy, behind those goggles.

I felt he didn’t need this motion, escape that touched only lonely hearts, and

I knew the mountain was his.

His sitting seemed to weigh him down, a part

of this place like a rock, integral;

and as I watched, I felt he

would never leave the calling of the winds,

the brilliance of the day, the falling of endless dusks like rubies, his wealth, the mother mountain.

I moved behind one tower,

then another. And if rapidity were to blame

I wanted the flat.

The final corner came as I looked beyond the cornices, the ridge we had climbed.

I could see where we had once stood, and it seemed I knew the mountain as a whole.

I descended onto the flat of the glacier.

Far above moved a dot.

It seemed to huddle, in a blur

shining like a satellite, or machine

as it started down the icefall—a distant thing

tied to ropes that angled through towers that murmured,

that sung. I wanted to see his eyes searching in the fault.

I could feel his calm

as he dropped silent in his vertical world, enveloped in thought, surrounded

by snow. Once he looked up and paused.

Twice he went out of sight, the shoulder

of the mountain looming above, and pressing

its spiral weight down,

down he moved and the buzzing in our ears

grew louder. I was looking away when he was close enough to shout.

I was looking down when the anchor ripped under his weight. I was looking down when he fell in his serenity.

Static towers were jostled; in one crumbling motion the slope fell like a standing maze of dominoes, that pressed as the rope jerked my searching eyes to the slope, and my ears to the rumbling above,

and my legs stood fixed as I yelled.

And I knew I wanted those eyes to come down laughing

the half moon brilliance of his ease behind those goggles.

I imagined horror, a turning, a spinning with hands

clawing for stability as the world moved— a pounding in his chest as he fought, as I screamed, I screamed and he came down a mass of ice and white and the snow hovered over the area like a cloud.

The place was still. I searched for those eyes, that brilliance. I tore at the snow, the blocks, the jumble. I listened for a voice.

I sat desperate in the snow.

And the mountain was his. And an ocean had sprung up between us, and I wanted to hold him, to talk of movements, of flat places as only a few hours ago.

And I cried.

Gustavo Brillembourg

H. Adams Carter