Duncan Elliot 1964 - 2000

Every year, for the last 15 years, on this day, I remember Duncan Elliott

This guy.

20 July 2015: 15 years since Duncan died.

Duncan Elliott. He lived to be 36 years old and for almost a year I shared an office with this legendary beast, whilst starting my M.Sc. at the University of Cape Town. Nobody knew it was his last year. In fact, Duncan was preparing for a new chapter in a whole new phase of his life during that year. He’d accepted a position overseas and had planned to scale Huascarán1 before taking the new ‘desk job’.


The last thing he wrote on the blackboard of the office we shared was “Go for it, Bruce”, with a little stick figure scaling a series of jagged peaks. That stick figure was me, those peaks were my life… and Duncan was gone. Try googling “Duncan Elliot” now and nine or so hits down you’ll probably get the link to the UCT Physics department2 which contains his tribute… If you know what you’re looking for, you might find this accident report which hits home to me and I’m sure anyone who knew Duncan. He was hit by a serac and remained paralysed for two days before eventually passing away. “He” remains on that mountain - his body at least, and his soul (if we are to believe the mythology) preserved in the place of his choosing.

On days like these that I’m reminded that I’ve got limited time to be screwing around… I try to remember those last days of Duncan - how he focussed on that mission ahead of him with glee and seriousness alternatively; how he partied and confessed and prepared and prepared - all in his way of course. How he planned for Very Bad Things, handing me the keys to the office and his email3, asking me to keep an eye on Alison4

Now that facebook reminds us of our cretinous blabbering every day, it can be depressing to look into the past and see how it’s been wasted. It’s been 8 or 9 years apparently that I’ve been talking to the void and looking into the mirror of lost time that is facebook, I shudder… where has it all gone ? Sometimes I can reflect something else though:

Mostly, I reflect the need for having a bottle of Jack on hand to pay relevant and sufficient tribute to a great man.

I remind myself that no matter what, the time I’ve got left is limited. I could be working towards something, or I could just be working - a hamster on a wheel. When the end comes, what will remain of me ? What will I have scrawled on the board for whoever comes after me ?

We were warned, after Duncan, not to idolise him, and we didn’t. Duncan didn’t become perfection in death, and those who remember him still remember him, I think, in a way that would be commensurate with the man that he was: imperfect and intense. I was lucky to have had that bit of time in his glow reflected upon me thanks to the almost accidental co-location with him in that office5. Having his few personal belongings around me after we heard the news was a powerful, stinging experience.

I remember so very vaguely the real facts of that time, and inevitably I’ve replaced history with memories, which are are different at evey telling. I vaguely remember how he told Sahal and I (probably others too) that unless we were 100 % committted to research, the life of a physicist was not for us, that there were many other things to do with our life and not to take this path - study, sacrifice, stress, focus and almost exclusion from the “real world” - for granted. He had walked an unorthodox path to where he wanted to be and had left scars on his own life and that of others in the wake. Maybe it was just me, but I was convinced that there was no higher calling than to uncover the universe, and that sacrificing myself to this life would lead me to Physics Valhalla. It would be worth it, and besides, chicks dig scars.

“Not so, you twat”, said Duncs. Except for the scars bit.

Stop, I want to get off.

I tried being a physicist. I got a Ph.D. and did two postdocs. I worked at CERN. I had a hand in building, testing and starting ALICE, one of the LHC experiments.

For a brief period of time, I was a real scientist.

It was a tiny, almost insignificant contribution - but it was mine. I gave 6 years of my life from 2002 to 2008 almost entirely to that endeavour, trying to bring the focus, intensity and sense of mission that Duncan left me with to becoming “me, the physicist.”

Zeb, Mark, Sary - "real scientists"

Except… then what ?

I didn’t get to go out as a hero

Ya, except then I had to grow up and face reality.

Me the physicist faced up perhaps the first adult realisation of his life : he sucked as a physicist.

Ok, maybe “suck” is a bit harsh, but go find me a physicist who uses soft, gentle terms to describe anything - we’re not a particularly flowery, smooshy, soft, feathery bunch - kak is kak.

I worked hard and got half as much done as others around me.

That, in my mind, was stupid. I thought that physics was bigger than me, that I was not so significant and that given this, I should make way for others to do the job better than me.

And so I did, and they did… and I’m glad with the outcome.

Instead of doing and getting in the way, I would get out of the way and enable. I looked for a niche, perhaps found one, and got to work building something that would make others rock, while scratching a personal itch. I chose a big problem and slowly, slowly hacked away chunks of it with a whole bunch of others. No serac on my back, just a long, interminable, digital snow of work. Was this what I had changed careers for ? Was this what Duncan referring to when he suggested there was a bunch of other careers out there that would constitute a life well spent ? I cannot answer this question…

Now what ?

Well... now I'm a dad

Now what ? Well… now, I’m a dad (actually, doubledad !) and guess what - this is no longer about me. I am no longer the Brucie, I am the Duncan. It’s up to me now to scribble something on the board, to write inspiring emails, to leave the keys to the office to the person I share it with. I don’t want to be a hero to anyone, I just want to make sure I’m not scaling an infinite mountain; I want to make sure I’m actually getting something done instead of just flailing about. If I have to set a good example, I want to set it for the right people, for the right reasons.

So, every July 20th, I take a deep breath and try to put things into perspective. The same old questions are always there, and the fact that they don’t have satisfying answers, if anything, just makes them resonate louder.

  • What are you doing with your time, now that you know you have only so much left ?
  • What have you got to show for your busyness, now that you know what you’ve sacrificed being so busy ?
  • Look back - where have you come from ?
  • Look forward - do you want where you’re going ?

Duncan, at around 36 years old, was on the verge of a new path in life. Before he took it, before he went off to become Duncan the Physicist, he had to scale that mountain… or die trying. Whatever you think of him or crazy dudes like him, I dare you, reader, not to tip your hat to that motherfucker.

Me ? I decided that dying trying wasn’t such a hot idea, and accepted the long, boring road of …. life.

My Huascaràn

So, I had my turn and made my choices. These have taken me to all kinds of unexpected places and taught me all kinds of lessons, which is the story of my life so far. I won’t bore you with the details - for those, best find me here, bring a bottle of Jack, a pack of cards and a couple of hours of downtime - but those are no longer important.

The paths my life has taken have helped create the starting blocks for Federico and Costanza. They are my Huascaràn, my final journey, Cristina is my Perez. I put in the time preparing, as Duncan did, before this turn in my life. He put in hours in the gym and got into the best physical shape he could be in for what lay ahead - I sweated and suffered and strained and groaned too (turning into a dad is a metamorphasis that required a sight more than just a few hours in the gym !) We wanted this, and now we’re committed - out there in the wild, one step at a time.

I want to get off this mountain, as I’m sure Duncan did. I want to be defined and remembered by far more than one single act - as I’m sure Duncan had planned to do. “Get this one under my belt, then go be awesome on something else.” Yes, I want to carry on. Every July 20th, I remember Duncan, have a drink for him and try to keep his memory and life alive in some way… Yes, one way of doing that is to “Go For It”, as he wrote - but the best way would be to be able to get off the mountain, look back at it in the fading sun and think to myself “ya… klapped that one.”


  1. Image source :http://www.summitpost.org/huascaran-panorama-from-the-sw-from-the-refugio-with-the-sun-behind-sur/766962 

  2. The Physics Department dedicated the seminar room to the memory of Duncan Elliot 

  3. I was a small, insignificant part of Duncan’s life and am reminiscing here only on those things which involved me. If you’re reading this and have a Duncan story, please share if you feel like it. He had far more complex relationships with many people besides me. 

  4. Hi Alison. I’m sorry we lost touch. I feel bad, guilt and sad that we did, and I know it’s probably all my fault. 

  5. Just for the record, I don’t think he was too happy about that initially.