Here they are: the K2 cigarettes Matt brought back from Islamabad as a souvenir and a thank-you for sending him to Pakistan on no notice. They’re on my bookshelf at home, sitting next to some travelogues—Shackleton’s South, Thesiger’s Arabian Sands, Bonatti’s The Mountains of My Life—books I’m certain he’d approve of, or at least have an opinion about. Holding the cigarettes now, I can see Matt’s expectant face. He’d tossed the pack softly in my direction. Then he waited for me to get a closer look and grin back. And of course, I laughed. Laughed in the embarrassed way you do when you shouldn’t be laughing. It was August 2008, and we’d just been discussing his hospital bed interview with one of the few survivors of a climbing disaster on K2, the world’s second-tallest mountain. We were trying to figure out precisely how the climber’s partners had died for an article I’d assigned Matt for Men’s Journal, where I was then the editor. It was a thrilling story, but sad, too. So he broke the grim mood with the official cancer stick of this killing peak.
Tuesday made it one month since I received the gutting news that Matt—Matthew Power—had died of heatstroke while hiking in Uganda. He was 39. Like many of his friends, I couldn’t believe it. Still can’t. Matt seemed too experienced a traveler to ever become mortally depleted. He had the skill set of a war correspondent, even though he was drawn more to misfits and vulnerable communities than to soldiers and armed conflict. Over the 10 years I knew him, he’d been deep in the Amazon; climbed Mt. Kenya; and joined a “risk-prone eccentric” hunting a tree kangaroo on the remote Pacific island of New Britain. Recently he’d embedded with Doctors Without Borders in South Sudan. Together we’d parsed the seemingly minor decisions that can precipitate bad outcomes in the wilderness—with those K2 climbers; with Chris McCandless, the idealist who starves to death in Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild (a book Matt loved, and loved to debate); and in numerous other incidents we’d considered but decided against pursuing as stories. Before he departed, Matt posted a snapshot on Facebook of a toothbrush and the serrated knife he’d used to cut it in half—to save on pack weight. He knew what he was getting himself into.