Bryn Carlyle Norman was born in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains on Oct. 5, 1982, the only child of Alex and Judy, adventurers who lived just outside Cochrane, Alta. Alex, a photographer, farmer and tennis pro, first met Judy in a climbing hut in northern New England when his future wife was 17. He was decades older and wasn’t impressed at the time. “I remember Alex thinking of her as a bratty, mouthy kid,” says long-time friend Steven de Keijzer. But the two stayed in touch and, after Judy’s first husband died, they started dating. They eventually moved together to Alberta where Judy worked as a lawyer and their daughter was born.
Though her first name was Bryn, no one ever called her anything but Carlyle, a name her parents chose in honour of the Scottish historian and writer Thomas Carlyle. “They knew that she was going to have a hard life,” says Steven. With a sixtysomething dad and a busy mom, Alex and Judy thought she’d need a strong name to become a strong person.
Almost from the time she could walk, Carlyle was wandering off in her own direction. As a young girl, she faced a long uphill hike every day from the school bus home. Once, convinced she knew a faster route, she set off through the fields, over barbed wire fences and down into a gully in search of a shortcut. “Alex was just so proud of her for doing that,” Steven says. She also refused to wear a bike helmet. Not because of how it looked—her helmet was a very cool shade of neon green—“but because when I put that helmet on I felt like some element of my freedom was being taken away,” she wrote as an adult.
Even after Carlyle was born, Judy and Alex remained serious climbers. When Carlyle was six, they were hiking near Lake Louise, Alta., when Judy fell. “It wasn’t a technical climb or anything,” Steven says. “It was just one of those accidents.” Judy died as a result of her injuries, leaving Carlyle and Alex alone.
When Carlyle was nine, three years to the month after her mother died, Alex crashed his bike on a hill near Calgary’s Glenmore Reservoir. The blow knocked him into a coma and he died days later. With no living relatives, Carlyle was sent to live with family friends in Ontario. There, she struggled. Away from the community that raised her, Carlyle retreated into herself. A few years later, Steve’s old friends Denny Poley and Marc Langlois became her legal guardians and brought her back west.
As a teenager in Calgary, Carlyle thrived. She excelled at basketball and mountain biking and spent weekends and summers in the mountains, climbing and exploring with Steven and his wife, Marni Virtue. After graduating from Calgary’s Bowness High School, she took off on the first of many solo trips abroad. She was only 17 and didn’t have much of a plan, just a bike and a ticket to New Zealand. “That scared the hell out of me,” says Denny. But it was typical Carlyle. “She wanted the rawness of life,” Denny says. “She didn’t want it easy.”
When she returned home, Carlyle enrolled at the University of Calgary, where she would later earn a degree in philosophy. In her 20s, she bounced back and forth between Calgary and nearby Canmore. She taught yoga, worked on her writing and immersed herself deeper and deeper in the local climbing scene. She wasn’t all serious. “She loved to break out a bottle of scotch and have drinks with friends,” Steven says. But climbing became more and more the focus of her life.
Last October, Carlyle and a friend got stranded on a climb. For three nights they slept on a stash of old socks and garbage. Carlyle later wrote about the experience on her blog. It would have been nice to have a radio, she wrote, but it “makes for a better story when you live through three nights with Powerbar wrappers for a pillow!”
On Jan. 15, 2012, Carlyle was scaling a peak in Patagonia in Argentina when she was knocked unconscious by falling rocks. Her climbing partner, Cian Brinker, stayed with her for hours before going for help. But by the time a helicopter got close enough to see her, she’d woken up and, likely in a daze, unstrapped herself and wandered away. Rescuers found her body six days later in a crevice on the base of the mountain’s east face. Carlyle was 29 years old.