Wednesday, October 22, 2014

A Tale of Two Trips

Chapter One: The Alaska Range



Freddie Wilkinson about to drop into the Peters Glacier, June 2014


At 14,000 feet on Denali, Dana "Maddog" Drummond, Freddie Wilkinson, and myself sauntered over to the ranger tent in our big down jackets and booties.  We slid around in the fresh snow and the walk over was tiring.  On the way, we passed Steve House's camp.  He was here with a bunch of kids my age.  They were learning how to be incredible alpinists and getting advice from Steve on how to be great.  But by the time we settled in to the ranger tent with the Denali Rescue Volunteers, I had gotten plenty of advice of my own.
"Michaelchuck," said Maddog, "You no longer have a girlfriend."



Flying in.


"My god!" said Sam Piper, a chiseled rescue volunteer and member of Yosemite Search and Rescue. "You came up here and left your girlfriend alone in the YOSAR campsite?"
"You no longer have a girlfriend," Freddie chimed in, "I have seen it happen hundreds of times, Michael.  Trust me."




Me, Maddog, and Freddie in the "Safety Zone:" the number one hub for hot gossip on Denali.

Freddie solos past some Denali suitors on the fixed lines.


All I wanted was to go rock climbing with my girlfriend in Newfoundland later that fall, but as I had no girlfriend anymore, she climbing Half-Dome and getting romantic dinner in the YOSAR campsite from some other chiseled rescuer, this seemed unlikely.  I was in dire straits.  I had come up to Denali with Freddie and Maddog.  Long before I met these two, I had heard of their legendary exploits, climbing big traverses they gave names like "Care Bear."  Reading the American Alpine Journal in my college dorm room, I imagined these names.  Freddie sounded like a kid, and Maddog sounded very scary.  It was intimidating to be on a trip with them.  

All spring long, we waited in our tent at 14,000 feet.  The guides hunkered down, the alpine mentors were being mentored, Killian Jornet and his group of Europeans were buffing their tights for speed ascents, and the Denali Rescue Volunteers were skiing laps and checking in with Yosemite to make certain my girlfriend was getting California plates with her new man-friend.  Freddie, meanwhile, was a man possessed.  He had envisioned a brilliant traverse of the Alaska range and the weather was terrible.  Maddog was chomping at the bit, too.    These two were incredible endurance athletes.  And me?  I had no idea what I was doing here, surrounded by Mountain Hardwear stuff, about to traverse mountains I had forgotten the names of.  

In the tent, Maddog and I read the book Shogun and pretended like we were in feudal Japan.  Freddie listened to an NPR series about the Mongol hoards.  From his demented cackles, I could tell Freddie was pretending to murder and pillage Maddog-san and Michael-san, over on the other side of the tent in imaginary feudal Asia.  On it went.

Later on in the trip, we thought that maybe the three of us would like to sit in the same position in a different tent and maybe ski and walk out of the Alaska Range.  It was a perverted part of the original traverse plan.  Freddie looked like the Confederate General Pickett at Gettysburg if General Pickett had been told his eponymous, suicidal charge had been cancelled.

We skied down to base camp.  Maddog and Freddie were finding out I was a terrible skier.  I am used to being dead weight on expeditions and at home though.  I was content.  


Freddie and Maddog in a whiteout on the ridge line of Kahiltna Dome.  We bivied here.



Dana playing with his salami ration during aforementioned bivy.
A day later, we broke through the clouds by descending Kahiltna dome and started skiing towards the tundra, just us three, Denali's massive north walls echoing our shouts through the clouds.  We did not have so much food but we had enough.  After a long first day, we broke through the moraines, up and over passes, onto hummocks of grass, and slid onto another glacier.  We were alone still.  We set up the tent on some rocks that night in thick fog and hoped to make it to the road, 23 miles away, the next day.  




Dana, Freddie, and a rubber chicken on the summit of Kahiltna Dome, about to drop into the Peters Basin and traverse out of the Alaska Range.

Dana on the ridge of Kahiltna Dome, the Peters in the background.  Some of the best visibility we had had in weeks.


This was Maddog's way of waking us up in the morning.  He is strong enough to one-arm me, Freddie, and a MHW EV3.  NO PROBLEMS.



Out was the way to go even though we each had only a few bars of food and one coffee package each.  I swore at my skis and felt a little ashamed that morning but soon enough we were on to the tundra, 20 miles from the road, and all it would be was a 20 mile walk in freezing rain.  



Hiking up and over towards the Muldrow Glacier.  It felt nice to be on greenery.


Looking back to where the Alaska range would be, the last day.


We were tired and our feet hurt.  My back hurt more than anything.  Freddie and I kept yelling to the grizzly bears. 

"DON'T hurt ME, Mr. BEAR!!!" 

Maddog did not seem to feel tired and he simply walked towards the road, happy as a clam.

We crossed the McKinley river at night which was a little scary and limped to Wonder Lake.

Boots wet, eyes wild, I flew back to Boston.  My girlfriend Alexa didn't break up with me right away, and instead we went to the beach.  My feet were sore from my boots and I was pale and skinny except for my face.  I kept looking around for anyone who looked like YOSAR but saw none.  It would be good to go to Newfoundland with her in the fall.  Maybe we could even share a tent like I had with Freddie and Maddog.  That, I assured myself, would be swell.



Chapter Two: Jabo



The South Coast of Newfoundland.

"It is time to man up, Michael."  I did not want to man up.  I was in Newfoundland finally on the last pitch of Leviathan, a 10 pitch rock route.  Down in camp, I could see Bayard Russell and Sam Bendroth drinking beer.  And Alexa was sitting here, taking the rack, about to take the 5.12 exit instead of the 5.9 one despite the fact we only had an ounce of daylight left.  


Bayard, gesticulating, Bayard-style.


Goddamn it!  I thought to myself.  I wish she had left me for YOSAR.  Then I would be drunk with Bayard and Sam right now, instead of at a hanging belay in the dusk light.

"Go get 'em babe!" I cheered.  

The trip, it must be admitted, had been going well.  Newfoundland is an incredible place.    The weather was great, and we were all having a great time; after three ferry rides and a 12 hour drive, Alexa, Bayard, Sam and I set up camp beneath Blow Me Down cliff, or, Jabo, as the Newfies call it.  Right on the ocean, in the sun, was the place to be.  



The South Coast of Newfoundland.

Getting dropped off at dusk beneath the cliff.


The south coast of Newfoundland is so beautiful it makes me ache to think of it now.  There is granite and this granite crashes against the Atlantic.  On top of the cliffs small scrubby vegetation survives somehow and in the bays and coves are two or three brightly painted fishing villages accessible only by boat.  The people who live here spend their lives hunting moose and ptarmigan across the granite but more importantly they live by the sea, some seem to live on the sea, and this wonderful clash of rock and ocean is their home.  



"Life beneath Jabo was difficult."

Life beneath Jabo was difficult.  With only so much beer and so much coffee, a scant few films loaded on my iPhone, not to mention being stuck in a tent with Alexa, it was all pretty tough.  Alpinists must endure, however, and we set our sights on Leviathan, Joe Terravecchia's classic route here.

Sammy Bendroth of the sea.
Alexa Siegel is a terrifying woman to be in love with.  One time I read an article about men climbing with women and a lot of what they said did not apply to me.  I have become used to falling off Alexa's warm-ups, having her learn things like ice climbing in a few short months (took me years), wobbling my way down ski trails after her, and silently pleading she'll take the next difficult pitch.  Sometimes to redeem myself I make coffee, as her weakness seems to be an inability to wake up.  

But in camp, coffee was running out, and Siegel was taking the rack.  Quivering with fear, I handed her the quickdraws and put on another layer.  Bayard and Sam, having already sent, whooped in our still-sunny base camp.  I ignored them.  We were about sixty feet from the top of Jabo.  Still, sixty 5.12 feet is hard.  

Alexa struggled, so I paid attention as I am unused to watching her struggle.  There were still shards of daylight left.  Finally, she called down.  I yarded through the crux, pulling on quick draws with all my might.  We scampered up, towards the descent, and down we went in the darkening sky.  



Alexa leads a 5.10 pitch on Jabo.


Alexa following a 5.11 pitch on Leviathan.

Okay okay an annoying couple photo but the other summit photo is two smelly dudes and a rubber chicken so it all evens out.

Alexa hiking down in the evening.


We did some other climbs there, on the ocean.  Sam and Bayard bolted a new route until the bolts ran out, and we went home.  We spent a night in Francois, one of the tiny fishing villages, where there are no cars.  It was perfectly chilly and our new fisherman friends brought us moose meat, pie, breakfast.  We slept on the boat which smelled like diesel and were on our way.  


Sam's van got a flat tire.  It was Newfoundland's final, ensnaring, goodbye.  Poor Bayard forgot to tighten the lug nuts all the way and when we were back on the road, the van stuttered like an Iroquois helicopter bearing down on a Landing Zone.  We limped towards the ferry and back down to the lower 48, happy for now.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

On Ropes


To to punk who pulled the fixed rope on Lions Head on Saturday, March 1st, 2014,
I know who you are and I'm calling you out. That rope was fixed by one of our guides so that general public and guided parties alike could use it for the day. This fixed rope was intended to assist people in moving through an area of the trail prone to traffic jams subsequently speeding up a sometimes rather slow process. Your removal of this rope meant that they did not have a resource to utilize that they expected to be in place for their return trip down the mountain. The next time you let your ego and ideals get in the way of other individuals working on the mountain, think about how your actions are affecting others and not just your petty self. Please come out to the Tetons with intent on cutting the fixed rope up to the Lower Saddle. If you want to share your thoughts on this matter, please call me at 860-460-4100 or swing by personally to 25 Spring Hill Loop, Bartlett, NH.

-Keith Sidle

I ran into this on Facebook yesterday evening when I got back from a Presidential Range Traverse.  There were a lot of comments, some just saying "kick his ass," but some well-thought out arguments from both sides of the coin.  

I am the punk who pulled the fixed rope on Lions Head on Saturday, March 1rst, 2014.  In true "punk" fashion, I didn't just pull it.  I cut it into little pieces, stuffed it into my pack, and tied one piece on the outside so if anyone had any questions that day on the mountain they'd know who the culprit was.  I admit there was a smack of egotism in tying the remaining bit of rope to my pack.  The owner of the rope called me out on cutting it and I gave him my name and my employer.  At no point did I attempt to hide in any shadows.  

I also readily admit that while I premeditated my action, the idea that the rope was someone's (as opposed to a guide service's) property never crossed my insular head.  I feel terrible about this; and now realize I have certainly not thought the whole thing through.  It's always a pleasure to see Keith out guiding; he greets me and others with a stout handshake or a commiserating smile, and I am sorry to lose his respect, if indeed I ever had it, because I think he's a good guide, and guy, to boot.  His point about my being petty is true.  A gentleman would have politely phoned, inquired, done research, and I did none of those things.  For that I am sorry and responsible.  I was angry at seeing a new fixed rope (perhaps I'm not the only one taking it down?  This was my first time…) every time I took clients up the Lions Head trail.  I didn't know who the rope belonged to and I didn't care; multiple guiding services put them up and as many take them down.  If Keith calls me out on that, I have no defense.  He's right.  I did to the rope what I do with unauthorized Cairns.  I destroyed it.  

My own opinions on fixed ropes are that of any other, ego-driven, idealistic climber.  I think they're cheating.  I also think they're trash.  While I realize on a mountain with full snow-cat access, a restaurant on top, massive cairns, two cabins, buckets of shit left from outhouses, a full-service hut, a cog railway, and a weather station, this may seem like an absurd notion, I suppose we must pick our battles.  For whatever reason the fixed rope continually re-appearing on the crux step of Lions Head has always irked me.  

Why are guides allowed to put up lines on a trail officially maintained by someone else?  Certainly, in due time, a wooden ladder will be built, a via-ferratta will be bolted in, the trail will again be re-routed, or  the snow rangers will fine me and tell me to stop and I will have officially lost, but until that time how dare we, as climbing guides in the Whites, leave our shit on a mountain?  Certainly it speeds the process up of people getting back down and from a practical standpoint I'd love to get back to the pub as much as the next fellow.  But we all signed up for this job; we're all making money taking people up Lion's Head, an obviously crowded and crazy venue.  Let's live with that responsibility, and at least have the pride to do it right, even if it takes a little longer.  We don't leave our top-ropes up on the Thin Air Face because we're coming back the next day and it would be easy, do we?    

It's our job to give competent instruction and by the time we reach the steeps on Lions Head with clients hopefully we've gone over enough to have our clients adequately climb the step using proper technique.  It always gives me joy to watch beginner climbers get up and down without a rope.  It bolsters the power of instruction, which should be a guide's job.  It's insulting to the client to simply fix a rope and say: "You're all going to need this."

Leaving a rope up affects everyone's day.  People go up Washington, with guides or alone, to experience the mountains, not to have a single individual or guiding service dictate how everyone else experiences a trail.  That's not fair to anyone.  A rope changes the demeanor of a hiking trail and it's not our place to do so.  We may cry "Everest, Denali, Rainer," as great examples of mountains bristling with fixed lines, but again, those mountains have true death potential.  They're not 6,000 foot peaks with a section below tree-line that's a little tricky.  

From a safety aspect, the fixed rope does little more than offer false security; you're grabbing on to an axe with one hand and a 10 mm rope with the other with no real belay.  Most Washington ascentionists, I've noticed, do this in mittens.  How does that offer safety?  It's still a bottleneck, people still struggle with the section, and people still get hurt.  

That steep section also acts as a great "you must be this tall to ride" bit of trail.  It's a good bet the people unprepared to tackle a few feet of tricky rock without the fixed line are the same people who will be unprepared for a storm, late getting down, and will ultimately risk themselves and others.  I'm sorry, kids, but it's mountain climbing; we're lying to ourselves if we say anyone can do it.  Learning to treat the day as an experience, not a goal, is something I always try to impart and I think it's pretty important to cull the "get to the top no matter what" demeanor in folks.  Probably that's just my ego-driven, holier-than-thou idealism getting in the way again, though.   

As guides, we all carry a little bit of rope to help people through this section should they absolutely need it.  This goes back on or in the pack and isn't left to mar the way for everyone else.  It's work, I know, to belay three or four clients down safely but again, guiding is a job.  This job isn't always as fun or rewarding as other times, but let's just suck it up and do it, shall we?  As for screwing the guide who placed it as a safety measure; he had a short-rope affixed to his pack when I talked to him and I'm sure he was able to use that to get his clients down safely if they needed it.


My friend Johannes was right when he mentioned in a Facebook comment that I should have returned the rope somewhere.  This is what I'll do next time.  It was childish of me to do what I did and I understand everyone's anger but I also feel strongly the rope on Lions Head is a gateway drug into laziness with other areas of this profession.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Mountain Guides From The Way Back...




Used the term "short rope" to imply that one had cut one's client free with a fucking knife and now the rope was a little…shorter.

Would oftentimes carry up a hammer and anvil partway up the route and teach a client the time honored tradition of making one's own pitons.  Thus began a typical "learn to lead" clinic.  

Used Gri-Gris hand-carved from Whale bone.

Used to take clients up the Matterhorn, lower them to the ground in a single pitch, with a hemp rope, then jog down the backside, solo a lap up again, and drink beer in the parking lot  next to their carriages until the fucking cops showed up.

Didn't know what AMGA or IFMGA meant.  In fact, no mountain guide could spell, read or write.  Literature was still only like, 50 years old, and a dark art at that.

Knew that Edward Whymper was the worst goddamn tipper in the Alps.  

Thought carabiners were cheating.

Set up 3:1 hauling systems with the assistance of Clydesdale horses.  That they trained.  

Traditionally did not speak for the entire day.  Learning was achieved by doing, or not achieved at all.

Had entirely different and filthy connotations for the word "Base Layer."


Thought that Self Rescue was a support group for alcoholic guides.  Which it was.  No respectable guide was a member.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Little Expedition That Could.

Jon Garlough at home leading a new route way back there.



Jon Garlough was a Chino.  In fact, far as we could tell, Garlough was the Last of the Chinos; a dying breed of mountain men hell-bent on climbing every scrap of available granite hitherto untouched in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.  He first told me about some new ice lines out near the Captain during the dog days of summer, when cold, clean snow seemed wonderful.  They were tucked in a little north-facing nook I took to calling the Cabin Boy.

"These lines are classic, dude."

Elliot Gaddy and I were sick of being on the JV team.  We were sick of hearing about cool climbs by our friends and never getting in on the action.  Damn sick and tired of being tossed around in the Alaska Range, of being relegated to belay duty on tricky first ascents at home, sick of failing.  We didn't want to clean the proverbial lockers of the Bayard Russells and the Peter Doucettes of the North Country anymore.  We wanted in on the big leagues, even if it meant signing a deal with the devil, or in this case, The Last of the Chinos.

So we stole some skis, some sleds, and placed them smack dab in the living room of the house I was watching, made three quart-sized manhattans, and hatched a plan to get off that wretched JV team once and for all.  We'd climb the ice next to the Captain.  We faced a seven-mile ski and bushwhack in on the Sawyer River Road.  From there we'd attack the routes on the left-facing, unclimbed cliff.  We had no idea how big they were.  We didn't care.  We'd be out for two days.  It was the little expedition that could.

"New routes."

Sometimes skiing at night is better with PBR.


Garlough showed us photos again and we packed a massive rack.  We got ready to go.  Elliot stalled for a while.  That bastard.  He stalled us because of the brakes on his car, which is a good reason I guess, but ultimately we ended up leaving at night, sans Gaddy.  Jonathan and I drank a beer at around 6 p.m. and skied in.  It took some time.  We set up camp.  It was late.  In the morning we heard Elliot's bindings thunking against his skis and then after we had breakfast we bushwhacked the rest of the way in and climbed a new route.  Jonathan had the approach dialed even in the winter.

Elliot, despite his late arrival, won the rock paper scissors match.  He smiled at me and headed up a grade 5 smear that looked like Positive Thinking.  It was snowing a ton, just really snowing.


Elliot and Jon.  The approach was gorgeous actually now that I think about it.
Actually now that I think about it the approach was really bad.


That bastard.  I'm going to short rope him.  I'm taking that smug bastard off belay.  I hate him.  How long is he going to take?

Only I didn't say that.

"You are doing GREAT.  You are a very fast and good ice climber!  I am glad you won this pitch!  You deserve it!"


About to lose the RPS for...

Kind of a plum line.

The Captain is the cliff behind Elliot.

Last of the Chinos.


It was late after the long ski and bushwhack so we stashed our gear and hiked out and I started to feel a little sick.  At camp we ate some dinner and drank a little bit of whiskey and then went to bed.


The ski back to camp was gorgeous now that I think about it.

Our skin track was still down from the day before and we made good time.  I felt like death.  I was sick.  I led a grade 5 to the left of Elliot's.  The ice was brittle, as the Cabin Boy crag is North facing.  Today was clear anyways.  We felt like we were on an expedition because our gloves were cold and I had not camped with Elliot since Alaska when we were in the same poorly designed tent.



You'll have to ask the Last of the Chinos what the hell he's doing with his eyes.  Fuckin' weird.  

Garlough led a great grade 3-4 route to the left of ours.  He's relatively new to ice climbing, but he pulls like the Borax Mule Team on rock, so it wasn't too hard for him.  Elliot and I watched, impressed, as he calmly dispatched with this new medium 7 long miles from an ambulance.

How often do you get to climb new pure ice in New Hampshire?

We skied out, all the way.  I had trouble keeping up.  Next morning Jon and I guided the first day of a mountaineering course.  I could barely stand.  I called Brad White and cancelled the next two days, which he graciously accepted.  I did not leave bed for a long time.

The climbs aren't standard setting, long, and no one will ever repeat them due to the approach, but we knew that going in.  Sometimes you need a nice excuse to camp out.



Garlough late-day sending.


El Gaddro.

Cumbre!






Monday, January 6, 2014

The Indomitable Ed Ward

Ed was one of the first people I went climbing with, along with Matt Hale and my dad in the Gunks.  He remains one of my total heroes.  And while this will piss him off and embarrass him, I had to put it up anyways.  Matt scanned some of Dave Roberts' old photos of Ed in Alaska, so I'm grateful to both of them.  


Ed looks happy late on July 19, 1974, as he stands near the summit of Mt. Dickey  Photo Credit Galen Rowell
           

             I did not know Ed Ward was a great climber until I was older.  When I was young he was a family friend and lived in an old farmhouse outside of Northampton, Massachusetts.  I was a year younger than Ed’s son Caley so in the wintertime we would go cross country skiing, Caley and I coursing around the New England woods.  When we got back to the lodge after our skiing lesson my father and Ed would be waiting there.  Ed said nothing about spending time in the Alaska Range or the Yukon, around the mountains that would somehow come to shape me, and at the time I hardly cared.  I wonder now if the snow brought him back to those places, as it does for me every winter.
            For Ed, though, the ice and snow was just a way to get to rock.  It always seems, in others’ retelling of these adventures, that Ed was the silent, secret arrow in the quiver, not taking a lead so much as catapulting towards it.  Even today, he is sinew and unyielding presence on a piece of rock. 
            Climbers like David Roberts, Galen Rowell, and Jon Krakauer fired Ed towards the granite spires of Alaska.  I love the photos of all these climbs.
            “I’m the one wearing red socks,” he said sheepishly once during a slideshow on Mount Dickey: as if the socks betrayed the smallest hint of showiness.   They were hard to see for all the snow and fog, but there the socks were, on legs churning permanently upwards.  Ed in a bivouac sack halfway up the route, fully committed to the biggest alpine climb of his life.  A wry smile through a frosted beard.  No signs of a desire to go down. 
            Almost forty years later, Freddie Wilkinson and Renan Ozturk ascended Ed, Dave, and Galen’s climb on Mount Dickey.  It took perfect conditions and Alex Honnold to whittle the route’s time down to a single, 18 hour day. 

            Ed is from Minnesota, where he stole chickens as a kid.  He joined the armed forces and went to Vietnam early on in the conflict.  Like others in his generation, he was among the first of the disheartened.  Climbing was not something you could discern in the culture yet.  There were no massive REI’s and Eastern Mountain Sports’ in shopping malls around the United States.  Climbers like Gary Hemming blew their brains out after too much LSD.  Yvon Chouinard made his own pitons.  Meanwhile, Ed snuck off to unclimbed peaks and hammered Chouinard's pitons home.  Regular people must have thought them hippies.  Hippies must have thought them too intense.     
           
This summer I went on a climbing trip to California with my father.  Amongst a smattering of friends were Ed, Matt Hale and David Roberts, the old cronies, who have united every year to climb again. 
I was off of Mount Deborah, in the Hayes Range of Alaska, where it had been too cold for us to justify climbing.  Dave was sympathetic, but Ed just laughed.  It was clear he would have kept going. 


  
Three-fifths of the way up the southeast face of Mt. Dickey, in a gathering storm, Ed ponders the big question - do we go for the summit, or rap off and lose any chance of climbing our route? Photo credit: David Roberts




One morning, Ed and I snuck off early.  He was 69.  I taped my ankle because I had sprained it the week before.  Ed brought me some strong coffee.  By four in the morning we were driving towards Tuolumne.  We had enjoyed adventures together since I was an infant but I had never done too much big climbing with him.  It was 28 degrees when we left the parking lot, but it hardly mattered.  The climb was the regular route on Fairview Dome, a 5.9 that Ed eventually agreed on doing instead of a harder route because of the temperature.  We hiked slowly in the predawn.  I was grumpy about the time and the cold.  Ed, for all his age, did not care and when we got to where the rock swept upwards he simply started up.  His knees did not work, but there was a point where the angle of the rock dictated a shift from hiking to climbing.  Here, Ed reclined comfortably into the activity he had wrangled into mastery long ago. 
We shivered at belays.  It cannot have been as bad as most of his Alaskan trips.  A toughness exists in the marrow of his bones and I realized that for Ed retreat was simply a temporary inconvenience.  For his whole life, he has looked up.


Ed leads the crux 16th pitch on the first ascent of Shot Tower, Arrigetch Peaks, just before midnight on June 22, 1971.  Photo credit: David Roberts

Ed, says Dave, never wrote a single word about his climbs, so most climbers don’t know him.  It isn’t false modesty, though, or anything quite so petty.  I get the sense, looking at his gnarled joints, that for Ed, writing would simply have taken too much time away from climbing to do any good. 
             Unlike his longtime friend Dave, probably the most weighty American authority on the history of alpinism, Ed remains stoutly indifferent.  In the early 1970’s, Ed and Jon Krakauer, his protégée, completed an ascent of Repentance, then the most difficult ice climb on the East Coast. 
            “Ed,” I cajoled, “That must have been an incredibly early repeat!  Does anybody know about this?”
            He looked at me as if I were crazy.  Then he shrugged and went back to flipping through the guidebook, searching for a climb he hadn’t yet done.

            Ed had not lost too much of his stride since Mount Dickey.  He and I switched leads up Fairview Dome.  He did not place much gear but I was never worried.
            “I don’t fall leading” he once told me. 
            We were faster than most parties, but at the end of the day a Swiss guide I recognized from my time in Patagonia passed us.  We exchanged pleasantries; friends we both knew, remembering drunken nights in Argentina.
            “The man leading will be 70 in two months,” I told him.  The guide shook his head, bewildered.

            “I think that guy thought I was old or something,” said Ed as we snaked our way up the California granite, “He was very impressed when he passed me for some reason.”  The dome again eased off, cresting towards the summit.  It was past noon, and Tuolumne stood before us.  I was happy with our ascent. 
            “Next time, we’ll have to do something harder.”  I had not yet coiled the rope.  Ed’s mind was already flipping through the guidebook. 

            I visited my parents some months ago.  When it was time to leave my mother tried to stuff pie after pie into the car, while my father chopped up steak for me to eat at breakfast-time.  I hustled in and out of the mudroom with random loads.  On one trip, my foot thudded against something metallic, and I heard the familiar jangle of pitons, a sound that brought me back to the icy cliffs of my life. 
            “Michael, I almost forgot,” said my mother.  “Ed left you all of his old pins.  Will you use them?”  The pitons were all stamped with the original “Chouinard Equipment” logo.  Ed, having given up winter climbing years ago, had little use for them.  I told her I would—little has changed about pitons in forty years—and put them aside with the rest of my winter climbing gear.  As for the rest of his rack?  I suspect Ed Ward will need it for a very long time.




Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Learning Curve.



January, 2005:

Joel Irby's Jeep Wrangler crawled through Denver traffic.  I was with Dave Hoven and Joel and I was wild-eyed.  These guys were real climbers.  Two days earlier, I had "proven" myself by following Hully Gully, a single pitch WI4 outside of Colorado Springs, where I was a freshman at Colorado College.  That night, I had gotten a call asking if I wanted to climb in Rocky Mountain National Park with Dave, Joel, and Joe Forrester: all Juniors at CC.  They were gods to me.  Joe had just broken his back on the South Face of Acongogua, and Joel hiked out across the crevasse-ridden glacier and plucked Joe off the mountain with a helicopter.

Joe Forrester eating my last food on the only Fischers aid climb we ever did together.




Me, age 18, Alexander's Chimney.  Actually, I still use those mitts.


The plan was to meet Joe up at Chasm lake that night and climb Alexander's Chimney.  I had no clue what I was getting into, or how long it would take before I became a competent climber.  I just knew that the "MountainProject" photos of the route looked a lot like the pictures in Mark Twight's Extreme Alpinism, which was already getting read to shreds in my dorm room.  As we started hiking, I fell farther and farther behind, and as we got to treeline, somewhere around midnight, I could barely see Dave and Joel's headlamps, weaving their way through the talus.  This was my first trip to the Park.  It was my first time in real mountains, too.  As the headlamps crept further and further away, my visions of alpine mastery flickered away, and alone, in the january cold, I realized how far I had to go.

That night, I shivered next to Dave in a three-season tent, wearing my mittens as booties and wrapping myself tightly in a Wild Things EP jacket and 40 degree summer bag.  I didn't sleep at all, and the next morning we made tracks towards the East face of Long's.  I watched Joel confidently lead the first pitch, and Dave try every option on the second one, but the deep, January snow repulsed us, and we hiked out, horribly dehydrated.  My 18-year-old excitement dwindled as I lurched back to the car, exhausted.  

It was the start of a great apprenticeship.


Joel Irby, Myself, and Dave Hoven on the lower weeping wall.  I am not smiling because I was 19 and scared out of my mind.


Over the years, I made many friends who were great climbers, and we worked our way through the grades, same as everybody else.  But they always laughed at climbing in Rocky Mountain National Park. 

"Dave and Joel and Michael are going to cuddle and bail again!"  They'd pack quickdraws and clip bolts at Shelf Road, or climb the immaculate granite in the South Platte.  But come noon on lots of fridays, I'd sprint into downtown Colorado Springs to buy GU and propane canisters, throw myself in Joel and Dave's Jeeps, and we'd hurtle towards objectives we had no business getting on: Vanquished, Alexander's Chimney, the Smear of Fear, Womb with a View, Brain Freeze.  We were kids.  Older climbers must have scoffed, though we rarely ran into them.  (Real climbers knew that conditions actually mattered.)  Apart from a solo ascent of Martha, (5.6, WI2) my freshman year, and a 21-hour epic of another WI2, Dreamweaver, and surviving broken bones and atrocious storms, I had a zero percent success rate in the Park.  The grades were absurd: impossibilities for a scrawny kid from Connecticut.  The Smear?  5.10 WI5+?  Thin ice, six miles from the road?  It was practically a running joke in the campus climbing community.

Vanquished, the ethereal smear deep in the backcountry, always seemed like the ultimate alpine test-piece in Colorado.  It only formed every five years or so, in those rare, clouded springs.  I spent hours drooling over the dog-eared photo in Jack Roberts' guidebook.  



Dave eating a Taco Bell snack for breakfast after a bivy.  We used to always get Taco Bell but one day I got food poisoning.







Meanwhile, Dave and Joel and I (Joe had given himself to his first mistress: Cutler Sandstone aid climbing), kept ice climbing around Colorado and the Canadian Rockies.  I led my first WI4 pitch (on Polar Circus), and eventually clawed up some M6, and WI5's.  Under their careful tutelage, I was in danger of becoming a competent climber.  In the evenings, we'd get drunk, cause trouble, and rave about the alpine routes we'd climb.  And always, Rocky Mountain National Park lay under heaps of snow, three hours to the North.  



"A couple of punk kids."  Joel and I, 2006 or so.

We kept at it, for whatever reason.  I learned how to pack light, to only spend a day up there.  I got a pair of real ice boots, and crampons that didn't fall off every second time I kicked.  I learned to sharpen my picks, to wait, to check the weather, to be flexible and bend myself to the conditions, not the other way around.

My senior year, I manipulated days of class like chess pieces and sacrificed a lot of them.  In a week, Chris Alstrin and I climbed the Smear of Fear (Chris' lead blew my mind.  Still does.), Joel and our close friend Kevin Brumbach (now an absolute winter maniac living in Bozeman) and I climbed Alexander's Chimney (finally), and I soloed All Mixed Up.  When I explained the nature of these routes to my very angry English professor, he relented, told me to write my thesis on alpinism, and confided I probably learned more in those three days than most of his students learned his whole month-long seminar.




Chris Alstrin, who was 28 and worked in the CC AV department at the time, leading the crux on the Smear of Fear.  We skipped class/work and nabbed it.  October, 2007.

Me leading on the Smear, 2007.  Leashless tools, finally, and my first softshell jacket!  


Kevin Brumbach later that same week on Alexander's Chimney.

March, 2008

Joel and I rappelled off the Ames Ice Hose, the classic ice route in Colorado, pleased with ourselves.  I was finally getting somewhere.  Dave and Joe were gone by that point, having graduated two years before, but Joel stuck around the Springs to climb and my senior year we snuck out whenever his construction job would allow.  As the months and years went on, I went from being an ardent student to a peer and we had started swapping leads.

"That was the last of the season!"

I was ecstatic.  Through years, and determination, we had ticked off almost every route on our Colorado list.  

"Yaa," Joel responded in his Oklahoma drawl.  "Unless Vanquished comes in."  We laughed.  Vanquished never came in.  

Vanquished, June, 2008.  Just climbable.
June, 2008

In May I graduated and soloed Dreamweaver in five hours, car to car.  It was freezing and windy, and the Park seemed to have come full circle for me.  I vowed to quit alpine climbing and I drove West to hang out with my girlfriend in Southern California.  For a short while, I convinced myself I would be happy rock climbing and surfing.  I'd get a teaching job and we'd etch out life after college.  Then, I threw my back out and was bedridden for days.  A kooky SoCal doctor, friends of her parents, prescribed me a quiver of muscle relaxants and painkillers.  I drove back to Colorado, sleeping one night on a rigid picnic table in Arizona while my back spasmed in the 100 degree heat.

It was 90 Fahrenheit when I got to Boulder.  I could barely walk, but for some reason I convinced myself to take a hike in my favorite place, so I drove up to Estes.  I lurched up the trail with trekking poles, and found myself, nearly by accident, at the base of Powell Peak.  To this day I don't know why I decided to do this.  I wasn't sure if it was the European muscle relaxants or the altitude, but I could have sworn that white stuff was Vanquished.  I snapped some photos and limped down the trail, giddy, muttering to myself.  I must have passed hikers who thought I was crazy.  

Joel was in Boulder.  By chance.  By chance, he had the day after tomorrow off.  I shuffled around my friend's house with a mill bastard file for a day, unable to sleep.  Would it hold?  Would it melt in the heat?  One more ice climb…

Kelly Cordes and Steve Su had climbed it.  So had Jack Roberts and Dougald MacDonald.  Real climbers.  Vanquished, in June?  It still seemed surreal.


Joel starting up.
Me on one of the entry pitches.  I am wearing a Grivel helmet in an attempt to look like Steve House.


Joel and I packed our bags and started hiking at three a.m.  By the time we reached the base, a party was halfway up, and a party was waiting behind us.  The blogs had done their work.  The men were irritated to share the route they'd waited to climb for 20 years with two punk kids, but the park had become ours, too, and I smiled as Joel cruised the opening mixed pitch, quieting their criticisms.  We were not going down today.  Now, years later, as I write this, I remember that moment and it makes me supremely happy: Joel weaving his way up the gorgeous corner, placing perfect rock gear and front pointing amazing, vertical neve.  The last pitch, over a little roof, had thwarted previous parties, but we had to finish the route.  My crampons scraped around and I clawed my way upwards, relying on everything I had ever learned from all my climbing partners.  



Joel on the amazing middle pitches.

We rappelled to the talus with our single line, building anchors as the day wore on.  I could barely shoulder my pack with my hurt back, but I popped another painkiller and we stumbled, once more, down to Estes.  It was the last time I climbed in the Park.  

Later, Joel and I climbed the Moose's Tooth and Mount Wake, as things continued to click.  Still, Vanquished was our greatest climb.  I moved to New England and Joel stopped winter climbing as much, but I still remember that one.  I always will.  Sure, I had gotten my diploma a few weeks earlier, but Vanquished will always be my graduation.