Faith, and Gravity

Climbing above gear is climbing into darkness, launching out on trust and faith, accepting chaos as inevitable. It is embracing the unknown, holding it close and living within it. Every once in a while, however, no matter how strong your trust, gravity comes roaring in, and in its wake faith can slip like sand through your fingers.

I first saw Mean Streak last December on my way to climb Fafnir. The Streak is an early season ribbon of ice plastered in a corner that dead-ends at a roof. The Mean begins after the climb steps left into a corner of shattered rock into sustained mixed terrain. The route continues to the top of the cliff, but the first pitch is recognized as the prize. Last December it called to me and I got on it once, late enough that the ice had dried and turned fractious. It took me an hour to reach the mixed terrain, and the rock was glazed in ice. Cams were useless so I lowered, determined to come back sometime soon.

“Soon” turned out to be a year later. It turned out to be today.

I met my climbing partner Pat in the Cannon parking lot at 8:30 a.m. The mountain was awash in clouds and the snow was falling hard. Ours were the only cars there. We shook hands, packed bags and started walking in, both excited for a day of climbing. I didn’t know, however, just how exciting a day it would be.

It started out well. Pat and I had never climbed together, so we chatted on the walk in and as we racked up. I started up the route with a smile on my face, trusting the climb would go.

The first swing into the ice, however, proved worrisome. It was dry, cracking, exploding with every swing. Mean Streak forms early, but it doesn’t recover well. In the last week or two it had seen several ascents, and there was little water running to refill the damage. I started up the shoulder-width strip of ice placing screw after screw, determined not to deck should I fall. These conditions make it hard to accept fate and fall upwards, I thought as every swing expanded the spiderwebs. Trust? Faith? On this?

But somehow I found them both. I bobbled a screw that didn’t bite enough into the ice and dropped it to the ground, but instead of seeing that as sign I was in over my head I just fired in a sharper one. Foot placements appeared one after another, and I worked my way around the fragile ice to good stuff that bit my picks. THUNK. THUNK. I slowly rose up the column, and soon I was launching out into the mixed terrain.

Mean Streak is not like The Mercy or Baghdad. It is vertical, with lots of hooking on flakes held in place by other flakes. After the ice ended the largest piece of gear I got was a red Alien. I placed several tiny HB offsets, the kind I prefer never to test on Cathedral in summer. But that’s all there was, so I slowly picked my way upward, searching for gear, testing placements, working my crampons and releasing myself from the tug of gravity, the weight of fear. I submitted to the process, falling upwards, relying on trust and faith.

That description is not an abstraction — about halfway up the corner the cracks evaporate and the turf dwindles. There was only one small hook on a shelf that looked friable, and not much for feet to spread the load. Oh well, I thought, looking at the two small cams at my knee, I’m not sure where the next good hook is, but I won’t find it hanging here. With that I cut the cord, floating upward on holds that shouldn’t have held my weight, holding close the chaos and lack of control, embracing it as I floated higher. My feet cut and my legs swung out from the cliff, my tools each on tenuous placements. I could see my gear below me, but I was strangely calm. Faith, I thought, trust that what you need will show up.

And it did. I found a decent hook, then one move higher a good one, then good feet. My cams were now way below me, but I had a handjam and more gear. Faith revealed what I needed. I kept climbing.

I stood on top of a spike and looked up at the next section. There was a fixed spectre about six feet out of reach, and between me and it a series of haggard flakes. I pounded in a pin, made a move upward and sunk a tiny offset. That won’t hold me, I thought, but it fits, and as long as we’re running on faith… I launched out into the flakes, determined to keep floating upwards, buoyed by my trust in the chaos. I hooked a flake, worked my way up a crack, and then put a tool over a horn. I rearranged my feet, lifting them up high, getting them into position for a big move, when suddenly a piece of rock flashed in front of my face. That’s the horn I was on, I thought, my body already falling sideways, parallel with the ground. “JESUS!” I screamed as my hip glanced off the spike I had stood on minutes before. I was more than 120 feet up, with at least as much rope out plus slack in the system. I sailed through the air past the terrain I’d just floated up on faith. Pat, who had been hunkered down against the cold for a long belay, clamped on the ropes with my scream. I came to a halt near a pair of cams I’d placed 30 minutes before.

The offset nut that caught me.

“HOLY SHIT,” I yelled, my feet scraping against the rock, “THAT WAS INSANE!” Both my tools were still in my hands, and despite grazing the cliff as I fell nothing seemed hurt. “I guess I’m going back up,” I said, leaning into the corner. I sunk my picks back into turf I’d led minutes before, this time toproping off a number 4 HB offset. When I reached the nut I stood and stared at it. It was well-placed, but testing it with a fall seemed crazy. How had it held? I looked at the loose flakes above me, my trust wavering. I don’t want to risk that fall again, I thought, but I knew if I didn’t my trust and faith would evaporate. Falling isn’t the same as failure, but not getting back on would be.

So I scraped my tools back up into the loose rock, working my way up the crack to the remnants of the horn I’d just torn off, balancing hooks in rattly flakes. A couple foot moves got my pick onto another edge, my waist high above the nut, and suddenly I was at the spectre hooking in a crack, sinking a nut into a slot. Almost there, I thought, almost there. I’d fallen, but failure would have to wait for another day.

What do trust and faith offer? Perhaps they let us float rather than fight through that which is possible. They cannot save us from falling. I climbed well today, with purity and grace, with faith and trust, and still I fell. Faith alone cannot keep us afloat; gravity is like time — unwavering, constant, able to tear down mountains. We have too little control of the world around us to hope faith can counteract it. But if we can hold it close and swallow it whole it can deliver us from the fear of gravity, the fear of falling. Falling, in climbing and in life, is always a possibility. In some instances it too may even be inevitable. If that is the case no amount of trust or faith can divert it, but making every move in fear, without faith, without trust, turns a possible fall into an inevitable one. There are no inevitable successes, but without trust failure earns inevitability.

In the air or on the ground I am learning to trust radically and embrace faith recklessly, even when falling, when getting hurt, when hitting the ground is a real possibility. I am pushing the fear of what could go wrong out, in hopes of creating the possibility things could go right. And I’m climbing on. Success isn’t inevitable, but through faith I hope it becomes possible. So far it has been working on the cliff. I’m not sure how it’s going here on earth.

And if I fall? I’ll get back on and start climbing again, just like today. Falling is no reason to give up on faith. That would turn falling into failing.

[Author’s note: I learned I was actually climbing a variation to Mean Streak when I whipped. Mean Streak cuts right onto the slab at the spike I was standing on. I was on a variation that meets up with the Pilaf crack instead.]


Flights Over Baghdad

Climbing out above gear is climbing into darkness. It is climbing out of control, climbing into fear. It is something I’ve never been great at, but in recent weeks and months life on the ground has been at least as out of control as anything I get tied in for. At least roped up I know which direction to go.

I went out yesterday with my friend Bayard for a soggy day of mixed climbing on a longterm mixed project I dubbed Baghdad Holiday. Baghdad is a crack to an icicle, a trad-protected mixed line I found four winters ago. I started working it back then, but placing gear through M8+/M9 — including two roofs — proved more than I could handle. I was never able to link everything while slamming in gear. I’d climbed it with everything pre-placed, but plugging pieces I couldn’t make it go.

But yesterday was different. First off, I’m not sure how much lighter I am these day (I don’t have a scale), but life turbulence is a powerful diet. In the last two months I’ve lost enough weight that not only are most of my pants to big, so are my belts. I’m not a big man to begin with (5 foot 7, less than 150 pounds), but even size small has begun looking baggy. Dropping 10 percent of your bodyweight has a way of making it easier to hold onto ice tools. Combine that with a feeling that life on the ground is far more uncertain than anything on route, and you’re going places. Fear isn’t such a big factor if lowering does nothing to reduce it. That fact has become my secret weapon lately, first on Skywalker, then on The Mercy, and yesterday on Baghdad Holiday.

I fired the first crux slinging nuts and cams as I went, then launched into the sketchy central section and then powered through the upper roof. The last six feet had limited gear, and my feet cut as I was hanging from a steinpull 75 feet up. Somehow I stayed calm and reeled it back in, something I’ve never been particularly strong at. I clipped the chains and let out a shriek. TRIUMPH, after four years of work. It was a second act to The Mercy, I was climbing as close to the edge as possible. Only this time there were no bolts.

This is not how I normally climb. I bring a logical, engineering-type approach to the vertical world, particularly when the going gets difficult. I once led Dropline placing 13 screws, and I took 45 minutes to climb Within Reason. I spend forever rigging protection and considering consequences. On route I do more thinking than feeling, and letting go to climb is not in my nature.

Lately, however, the old strategy is out the door. There is a whole world of things I’ve learned I cannot control in recent weeks, and all the sudden the consequences of life on the ground seem more serious than those in the air. Losing control high above a cam feels far more controlled than losing control with both feet on the ground.

Now that I know that, logic as a strategy goes is the window. Faith suddenly starts to play a much more central role. The gear will show up, the hook will hold. It has to. It just has to.

And if I’m wrong up there, all that happens is I fall. It’s not that simple back on earth.

[Author’s Note: The awesome photo of me on the start of Baghdad is by Anne Skidmore. She took it several years ago when I first started working this thing out. It’s worth checking out her blog.]


Josh Hurst on The Mercy.

MERCY is a loaded word. It is a plea for when THE PAIN MUST STOP, a whisper akin to folding. It is submission, collapse, accepting defeat.

But it is also benevolence, forgiveness and grace. It just depends which side of MERCY you are on.

At 7:15 this morning I met Ryan Stefiuk at the base of Cathedral for a pre-work climbing session. It was nearly 40 degrees and the sun was barely up. Melting snow was streaming down the cliff, but where we were headed we weren’t worried about the state of the ice. The Cathedral Cave has over the last five years become one of my favorite sanctuaries. It’s sheltered no matter the weather, and it has a handful of longterm projects that keep me coming back season after season. One of those is The Mercy.

The first time I saw someone climb The Mercy was probably five years ago, I was living in Portland at the time, as was my good friend Josh. I’d taken a bit of a break from climbing but was coming back to it with a passion, and Josh was looking for partners to go mixed climbing. Despite a lack of experience I agreed, and soon we were making weekly trips to the Cave.

Now, mixed is a bit of a misnomer for the Cave. There isn’t really any ice to climb, so really it’s just drytooling, but to someone who was used to Dracula and Pegasus the Cave was like visiting the ocean floor. The closest thing to mixed I’d done was four moves on The Black Dike. This was a whole other level.

I started working The Devil Made Me Dog It that year, the start to the much harder Work of the Devil, which continues past The Devil‘s chains to the lip and Cathedral Direct. Josh, meanwhile, was working The Mercy, an impossible looking line through rotten rock, and an extension that took it to the lip as well. “That is impossible,” I thought as I watched him work his way out the roof, his feet cutting back and forth in wild arcs. “No one can hold on that long.”

But Josh did. Somehow he managed to follow our friend Jim’s sage advice on how to succeed in climbing: “Just don’t let go.” I watched his elegant dance of steel against stone and I knew I was watching the impossible. It was a humbling experience as I worked my way out the four bolts of The Devil.

Today, five years later, I tied into my harness with my own draws dotting the ocean floor. Ryan looked at me. “Knot good?” he said. I looked down. “All set,” I said. “Go get it,” he replied.

I left the ground breathing deep, thinking back to my solos a few days before. “Forget the climbing,” I thought, “just listen to your breath.” My tools slotted into hook after hook as I made my way to the first bolt. “Smooth,” I thought, “just breathe.”

The first few moves on The Mercy are the same as The Devil, moves I’ve done literally 100 times. I reached the third bolt, a high clip, and pulled air to the bottom of my lungs. “OK,” I thought, “just climb.”

I lunged for the first slopey edge knowing the technical crux was connecting the next five moves. I pulled my feet high and exhaled, forcing the routemap in my mind out of my head. “Breathe,” I thought, “breathe.” I swung left into a steinpull, then back right onto an edge and then up to the good hook that marked the transition into the steep climbing. “Breathe,” I thought, ignoring the fact that I’d passed the technical crux and now just had to hang on.

But as I started moving left my feet cut, ripping out pebbles of rotten granite. I squeezed my tools as my body twisted, fighting gravity to get my crampons back on the rock. “You got it!” Ryan shouted. I wasn’t so sure. I could feel my grip failing and my hands uncurling from my tools. I kicked my feet up hard, pressing them into the rock and pulling my hips in. “BREATHE,” I thought, half closing my eyes, trying to fight my failing hands, the fall, the rock around me. “Breathe.”

I pushed my hips even closer to the rock and leaned my shoulders out, methodically shaking one hand, then the other, struggling with every ounce of strength left in me. If either foot cut again I wouldn’t have the strength to hold on. I felt myself losing the fight, I felt myself letting go. Mercy, I thought. I give up. I can’t feel my hands. I submit, I give in. Mercy.

I pulled in one last breath and exhaled, my hands deteriorating. As the air left my body I gave in. I gave up caring whether I summited or failed, whether I topped out or fell. I gave up thinking about the climb. I gave up thinking. I opened my eyes, my mind blank, and twisted my shoulders. My hips followed in tight rotation, and I started moving upward. MERCY, I thought, giving in to whatever the route offered. My breath came slow and steady, my tools gliding between hooks. My feet swung side to side in wild arcs, and I clipped bolts with failing hands. MERCY, I thought, move after move. Mercy. I submit. I give up.

I clipped the chains with my left hand as my right unwrapped from the pommel. The rope fell into the carabiner just in time for my left to grab the upper grip. One second longer and I would have launched into space, but instead I rearranged my feet and looked down at Ryan. “You can take,” I said, unsure of what just happened. Mercy, I thought as I collapsed into the rope. MERCY.

Evening celebration.

Never Stay Home

At 11 a.m. this morning my (non-climbing) plans for the day fell apart. I suddenly had five hours of daylight but no objective or partner. “Perfect,” I thought, “a chance to wrestle with the art of climbing firsthand. An opportunity to forgo a rope in search of focus, to see what I can learn from the experience.”

Three hours later and 200 feet off the ground, the ice reared cold and ruthless in my face. One pick felt rattly, the other was surrounded by white, fractured ice. My feet were good, but a bulge forced me off balance “What the fuck am I doing?” I thought as my hands started to ache. “I’m no soloist. This shit will get me killed.”

It is a blessing to live 15 minutes from the ice. I went to college in Portland in my mid-twenties, and I used to watch the weather like a hawk all week. It didn’t really matter, I had to work at IME regardless of the conditions, but I wanted to know whether I was climbing rock, ice, drytooling, aiding or skiing. There is always something to climb, the question is if you are open to discovering it.

When I pulled into Frankenstein’s parking lot at 1 p.m. there were four cars. Snow piled on their windshields, fostering a deserted feel. I parked, amazed at the emptiness, and shouldered my backpack. I had sent out a handful of text messages to see if I could muster a partner, but trying for a same-day session as noon approaches is like whale hunting in the Great Lakes. Instead I threw 30 meters of rope, three screws and a handful of slings alongside my harness, helmet, crampons and tools in a pack. It felt light as I left the parking lot. I hoped that lightness would persist on the ice.

There were no footprints on the railroad tracks that lead to the cliff, but the snow had only recently begun falling. As I passed the Amphitheater, however, it was silent. So was the Trestle, then Walk and Lost in the Forest. No one was anywhere. Low clouds swirled around the snow, muting my footsteps. I felt alone, and I welcomed the feeling.

As I walked up to Standard Route I heard the first sign other climbers. Two stood a pitch up in a sheltered cave. The distinctive voice of Mark Synnott drifted downward.

“Mark?” I shouted.

“Yeah,” he shouted back.

“Erik,” I said.

“Hey man,” he said. “There’s no one here. And it’s GOOD!”

I smiled and dropped my pack to the ground. I slid on my harness, racked my three screws, stepped into my crampons and buckled my helmet. I’d been up Standard dozens of times before, with clients, friends and partners, but never without a belay. This was a chance to wipe away the haze.

The first swing felt like butter. The ice was moist, oozing. The tools bit inches in with every swing, and my newly-sharpened crampons sliced through the cold. Thunk. Thunk. Kick. Kick. This was different than grade two. The terrain wasn’t steep, but there was no mistaking this for a jog. I honed in on my feet. Thunk. Thunk. KICK. KICK. I examined the ice for weaknesses, looking for any depression or bulge. Thunk. Thunk. KICK. KICK. I moved right to avoid wet ice, opting instead for steeper terrain. Thunk. Thunk. KICK. KICK. I drifted upwards, barely noticing where I was on the route, engrossed in the ice, in the way it swallowed the points of my tools and crampons. Thunk. Thunk. KICK. KICK. Soon I was even with the cave. I stood flatfooted on a shelf for a moment to let the blood back into my fingers, my tools sunk into the ice and tethered to my harness. After a dozen breaths, however, it was time to continue upwards.

The ice was steeper above, and I could feel the weight building in my stomach. My brain began to spin as the clouds crowded around me. “This is stupid,” I thought. “Why am I doing this? Plug in a screw and rappel.” But I didn’t. I tried to ignore my mind, listening instead to the sound of my tools. Thunk. Thunk. KICK. KICK. I took in a breath and let it out, still examining the ice for weakness. My mind screamed at me, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” The ice was getting steeper. It was fully in my face. Thunk. Thunk. KICK. KICK. “WHAT ARE YOU DOING? THIS IS MADNESS!” But the ice was soft and responsive, welcoming my tools with each swing, swallowing my frontpoints whole. I listened to my breath, deep and regular, shutting out the pleas inside my head to stop, to PLEASE GO DOWN. I let go, falling upward, out of control and yet completely composed. I popped up over the final bulge to Mark smiling in the snow.

“What a day,” he said. “Can you believe no one’s here?”

“No,” I said. “It’s perfect.”

I’m not a soloist. I am not a climber. I am a person, a human, a man. It is a simple definition, free of judgement. In my head, however, I am not a soloist. Nevermind that I have soloed every gully in Huntington, the pillars on Cathedral’s North End, Pinnacle Buttress and Parasol Gully numerous times. We close ourselves off to possibilities, and then we live within the walls we erect. We call ourselves sport climbers or ice climbers or alpine climbers, when we aren’t even climbers. We are people. We are all the same, and we are all uniquely different. And any one of us can blow our own minds at any moment, simply by doing something we have told ourselves 1,000 times before we can’t do.


Where does this end? I’m not sure. On the descent I walked up to Dracula, which is significantly harder than Standard Route. It is another route I’ve guided and climbed dozens of times, and as I looked at it I thought, I knew, “I could climb that.”

But I didn’t. It was thin and beautiful (I’m not sure how much good a rope would do in sections anyway), but it didn’t feel like the day to make that leap. Instead I scrambled around the base of Coffin, a route I’ve never climbed.

This whole thing is an interesting game. The mind is an interesting thing. With a belay I’ve calmly led unprotectable pitches that last an entire ropelength, yet I’ve never thought I was soloing. I’ve soloed thousands of feet of ice in a day, and I’ve never called myself a soloist. Today I decided to eschew the label and simply explore my fear. In doing so I discovered focus. Embracing the unknown is beautiful, if for no other reason than you realize YOU ARE THERE. The fog isn’t a problem 200 feet out.

Where is the line between self-discovery and recklessness? I’m not sure. I know a rack of screws and 30 meters of rope help me keep my distance from that edge. I also know when the ice gets vertical (a.k.a. Dropline) I don’t need to be unroped to explore my fear. I’m delving into this idea of embracing fear and relinquishing control everywhere, not just on ice. It’s happening right now — opening my writing up to include a window into my thoughts and emotions is another kind of fear, one free of a gravitational component but paralyzing just the same. Another is swimming with my eyes open in murky water (don’t ask). Will I hide from those, the way my mind today begged me to shield myself from continuing upward unroped?

You can guess the answer to that.


Have you ever seen in technicolor?

Has beauty ever shined so brilliant you had to avert your eyes? Have you felt the wind with every hair, felt every bead of sweat as it trails across your skin? Did you sit in wonder at being alive?
Maybe. Maybe once, twice, a handful of times. The world clicks into slow motion, and every sensation becomes fireworks.
That is life without a rope. That is the briefest of moments above gear.
Today was an amazing day. Today was a day of seven pitches, and yet we spent more time driving than climbing. Today was a day to remember.
Why? Because there were no fireworks, and yet I saw as clearly as ever before.
My climbing partner Scott met me at 9 a.m. this morning. We piled the car with gear and launched into a one day roadtrip. We had an itinerary: Parasol Gully in Dixville Notch and then over to Baghdad Holiday, a longterm mixed project. Parasol would offer a fun bit of aerobic exercise. Baghdad would supply a pump.

It’s nearly a two hour drive from the Mount Washington Valley to Dixville Notch, but good conversation made the trip go quickly. Soon we were parked in a pullout looking up at Parasol‘s two pitches of moderate ice. There was a party of three on the second section (Quebecois according to their license plate), and another party pulled in behind us (Quebecois as well) as we pulled our boots on. Ordinarily such numbers would be a crowd, but we weren’t bringing much with us. I had a backpack with crampons, a puffy jacket, a small water bottle, my helmet and tools, and Scott wore all his gear and carried his tools and crampons. This mission was about moving fast, we’d decided, not technical challenge. The ropes would stay in the car.

It didn’t take long to get to the base, five minutes or so of tromping uphill. Falling shards of ice reminded us of the party above. We pulled on crampons, donned helmets, unsheathed tools and began climbing. Thunk. Thunk. Kick. Kick. Thunk. Thunk. Kick. Kick. The rhythm was mesmerizing and the pace was swift. I looked down from time to time as Scott followed, but mostly I just pushed upward, entranced by the methodical movement and the ice. Thunk. Thunk. Kick. Kick. Soon we were running into the tail end of the first party. A pair of followers greeted us and graciously let us pass. Thunk. Thunk. Kick. Kick. I popped out at the summit, passing the leader, and moments later Scott was past him too.

“That was fun,” I said. Scott grinned and we started back down.

The problem, however, is the descent trail for Parasol Gully leads right past the base of the route. Scott and I got down, looked at each other, and began climbing again without a word. Thunk. Thunk. Kick. Kick. Thunk. Thunk. Kick. Kick. The second party was now on route, but we travelled delicately and stayed out of their way. Soloing the 300 feet of grade two terrain probably took between five and seven minutes. The ice flowed downward under our picks. On the summit we said a brief hello to members of both parties and continued down the descent trail.
When we got to the base we decided to go one more time. Thunk. Thunk. Kick. Kick. One party was rapping, but otherwise the route was clear. Thunk. Thunk. Kick. Kick. I sped skyward, confident and familiar with each movement.
And then my foot cut.
I had a tool in, and my other foot was solid, but there is no denying what happened — my crampon sheered out following an imprecise placement. I stutter-stepped downwards two feet. What had begun as a trance-like solo deserving my full attention had in two ascents become a routine jog, a chance to let my mind wander, something unworthy of 100 percent focus. I sat for a moment with the realization that it was not the climb that had changed, but me and my perception of it. Then I re-placed my crampon and continued upward.
We topped out and passed the second party for the second time as they recoiled their ropes. For the third and final time we made the descent, this time continuing past the ice to the road.

“Huh,” I said once we were in the car driving south.

“What?” Scott said.
“Did you see my foot cut?”
“Yeah. Mine did too lower down.”
“I lost focus,” I said. “That sort of thing could get us killed.”
But the thing is, we lose focus all the time. How many times when you are driving down the road do you realize you just spaced the last five miles? Or how often have you wasted an afternoon clicking through websites or TV channels without ever really looking at or for anything?
It’s the same thing. We get wrapped up in our habits, in our patterns, in knowing exactly what we are doing, and we lose focus. We park in the same spot each day, visit the same restaurants, cook the same meals and climb at the same crags. We buy the same deodorant, brush with the same toothpaste and go to the same hairstylist (or barber). We figure out what works for us, and we stick to it. We become slaves of our patterns until they kill us or fritter away our time on Earth.

And even in those instances we stretch outside those patterns in search of focus, it only takes three laps to lose it. Almost instantly we go back to the old mindset, to thinking we know what it is we are doing, saying, feeling and how we are living, closing ourselves off the the possibility of something greater.

I am not a soloist, but I more and more see the appeal, because soloing, like climbing hard above gear, is an antidote to the fog. Soloing grade two ice allows you to put your mind to sleep, but soloing grade five does not. Every instant your are ropeless in the vertical realm requires hyper-focus, and the world screams into technicolor. It is a way to clear the cobwebs, to embrace SEEING THINGS AS THEY TRULY ARE, if even for a fleeting moment.

But inevitably even grade five solos end — as they should — and the fog filters back in. The question is how to bring that focus, that presence, that awareness of life, death and beauty, back with us to Earth each time we return. We climb in search of clarity, even if it is ephemeral, but how, after we’ve landed back on solid ground, can we rediscover and retain that focus?

I don’t know. So look for me near the sky.

Climbing as Art

Each time I launch out past a screw or above a bolt, I pause, and as my harness goes above the gear a weight builds in my stomach. It pulls with twice the force of gravity, and with each move upward it tugs harder. Letting go, embracing the chaos, is not in my nature, but after more than a decade climbing I’m learning to acquiesce, to give in to the art.

I am not a soloist. I have never been a soloist. I’ll climb a handful of ice routes without a rope, like the gullies in Huntington and on Mount Webster, but none of the routes require being on my hands. On rock it’s the same — the only route I’ve ever climbed ropeless is Huntington Ravine’s Pinnacle Buttress. All my solos allow me to stay on my feet. That keeps me cool, keeps me from feeling out of control, keeps that weight in my stomach from overwhelming me.

But what is climbing? To me it is about partners, and it is about pushing my limits. It is about stepping outside my comfort zone. It is about embracing that weight in my stomach and climbing on despite it. It is about embracing a lack of control and launching despite it. But doing that doesn’t come natural.

The most glaring example of this happened last year, when I was working Sanctuary, a classic sport climb in the Cathedral Cave. My friend Pat asked if I was interested in taking a day to do some trad climbing. He wanted to check out Budapest, a classic Cathedral 11+ fingercrack. Sanctuary is 13b, and I had it wired. I was one-hanging it, so I knew I had power to spare. Budapest, I thought, would be a fun route to apply my sport climbing fitness to.

The only problem was I had developed route-specific climbing strength. I had power to spare, but only if I had the moves hardwired into my frontal cortex. Embracing the unknown, the lack of control, was not on the menu. I got into the crux of Budapest and battled for 30 minutes, but I was unwilling to climb into the ether. I hung on the gear because it was easier to let go with my hands than let my with my head.

That struggle continues today. When the ice gets steep or the holds turn thin I start thinking, reconsidering and processing. The end result is I overgrip, underperform and climb below my potential. Whether on trad or sport, ice or alpine, the hardest thing is to embrace the unknown, to continue upward regardless, to relax and embrace a lack of control, a lack of understanding. I am an engineer by nature, not an artist.

My regular climbing partner Michael Wejchert, meanwhile, is an artist. The mountains are his canvas, and routes, often solo, are his paints. A month ago on the way to Shagg Crag we got into a long discussion about what climbing is, and he pitched his Climbing as Art argument. I didn’t get it. I didn’t hear it. I was talking about safety and ensuring I am never risking death unnecessarily, while he talk about painting his masterpiece in granite, snow and ice. We were in the same car, but we were worlds apart.

Now, though, I see it. As I think about embracing the unknown, of cutting the tether that ties me to the ground, I get it. The art isn’t about unnecessary risk, it’s about embracing the unknown and seeing where it takes you. It is about swallowing that which scares you. It’s about squeezing that weight in your stomach and holding it close until it evaporates. It’s about cutting your ties to Earth and seeing where that leads you.

It doesn’t have to be solo — for me every time I launch above a bolt or a screw I face the chaos, and I get another chance to paint. Every onsight attempt is a brushstroke, a lesson in accepting the unknown. The point isn’t to summit, it’s to embrace the entropy and keep moving upward. Every ice route, screws or no, is a chance to renew my commitment to swallow disorder, to find the art. Even if at heart you think you are an engineer.

A Matter of Physics

Drytooling is just what it sounds like — fun and worth doing, but not as good as the real thing.

One of the benefits of living and working in the Mount Washington Valley is even when weekday is synonymous with workday it doesn’t mean climbing is limited to weekends. I have a habit of luring partners in for dawn patrol sessions, only rather than skiing we make morning ascents of Repentance, Remission, Super Goofers or The Roof. In the summer it’s the opposite — cut out of work at 3:30 or 4 p.m. and spend the evening cragging on Cathedral. It’s a great program, and it keeps me sane Monday through Friday.

This time of year, however, the only ice is up high and the rock is too cold to grab hold of before noon. The only options are an early morning sprint up into Huntington, or an a.m. session in the Cathedral Cave.

Some deride the Cave as wet, dirty, chipped and glued. I, however, love it. It contains several projects that have been multi-year efforts for me, and it provides a consistent gauge against which I can measure my climbing. In summer Sanctuary, the obvious bolted prow, provides me hours of entertainment. In the winter, however, it’s The Devil and The Mercy that keep drawing me back.

The Devil is the old standby — I could do the first section with my eyes closed, but The Mercy is the prouder line. The crux is three bolts up, with big moves on poor hooks past two more bolts. From there the hooks get more positive, but the climbing gets super-steep. It is exactly the loose-footed monkey-hanging that makes mixed climbing fun, only there isn’t enough ice on it to call it mixed climbing.

So I call it drytooling, and I have a blast doing it.

This morning I met Scott and Peter out there, and I started right up The Mercy. It’s been two years since I was on it, so I had to re-assess what I was getting into. On the first burn I spent too much time climbing and not enough time resting, and my warming up burn wound up sapping most of my juice. Scott and Peter each took quick runs on The Devil, and in minutes it was my turn again to jump on the sharp end.

Keep in mind, this is all at 7:40 a.m. or so. I have to be to work by 9. Peter is meeting clients at 8:30. Scott is the only one with the day off, but he was out late the night before with his wife. This was not a leisurely day at the crag, this was about building a pump.

I took my second burn, and the crux still had me confused. I took in the middle and tried to suss something out that would work. Hanging from a tool caught in a wobbly notch, I scraped around for the next placement. With both feet pressed out right I made a long reach to a torque crack that seemed to do the job. One more move got me to the fifth bolt, a small hook/steinpull that ushers in the steep climbing to the chains. The next three bolts went quick, and then I was clipping into the anchor.

I lowered to the ground surprised to have reached the anchor. One hang was the best I’d ever done, and though my arms were spent I knew it was within reach. The next go I just needed to see if I could get through the crux, I figured, and then when I came back fresh it would go.

Twenty minutes later I was roping up again, feeling even more spent but still psyched. I sprinted up the first three bolts and launched into the crux, floating upwards despite desperate hooks. I clipped the fifth bolt and realized I still felt strong. “This could go right now,” I thought. I leaned back on the steinpull and reached high for the next hook when suddenly I heard the scrape of metal and felt myself ejecting.

I was falling sideways, the full force of my steinpull adding to my acceleration. In a second the rope came tight, halting my waist, but my head, chest, arms, legs and tools kept falling. I felt a crack in my ribs as my body folded on itself. I was spinning sideways, hurting but laughing. There would be no send today.

I lowered to the ground, laughing, rubbing my side and shaking my head. “It’ll go,” I said, “but not today.”

The Mercy, it seems, and simple physics both wanted me to drytool for one more day.

Only in Words

It’s funny, I wrote yesterday’s reasons post as an afterthought, a followup after reading Michael’s blog and noticing how much of his writing centered around his emotions and his partnerships. I have never been someone who writes about myself. In my job as a newspaper reporter and editor I write hundreds of stories a year, but I have never considered myself a writer. People call me one and I respond, “I’m a reporter, not a writer. Writers include themselves in their stories. I report and do my best to stay out of it.”

But not last night. After reading a couple of Michael’s posts I wanted to celebrate that which makes climbing special — the people. I was doing it for myself, but when I finished I wanted to make sure those people — my reasons, my astronauts — knew what they do for me. So I posted it to Facebook and tagged each of them.
And over the next 24 hours this blog (which I started yesterday after discovering my previous outdoor blog was blocked) reached 1,700 pageviews. I don’t think I’ve written anything in five years of reporting that has generated that much attention.
And in addition to the traffic there have been the individual responses. I’ve had climbing partners call to tell me the piece spoke to them, others write to say they understand, and some text to say thank you. One friend whose wife died of cancer on Friday said I’d captured his life and emotions beautifully, probably the most humbling compliment I’ve ever received. I didn’t set out to tell anyone’s story but my own, and somehow I wound up telling everyone’s.
I’d like to say I will do it again, page after page, on this blog, but if I said that I’d be lying. My next post will probably be about sharpening crampons or something, not anything worth reading. But I gained a lesson. I was right, reporting isn’t the same as writing; writing is more valuable. Writing has the ability to move people, to give others the same protection and guidance my astronauts give me. It is the company of close friends, a solid cam, a crucial stein pull. I’m done telling people, “I just report, I stay out of my stories.” There appears to be more than one way to get to the moon, and I’m going by any means necessary.

Reasons to Climb

Reasons to Climb

I’ve been writing bullshit about climbing for years.

I write about handjams, pick placements and descents, about hauling and bivying, rope recommendations and runouts. The truth is it’s all bullshit.

I don’t climb for the summit or the send. Those are just excuses. The reasons I climb are Scott, Ryan, Peter, Michael and Paul. Josh and Juliet, Paul and Sasha and Jim. Katie and Majka and Jay. Pat, Jack, Adam, Silas, Ray, Elliot, Bayard, Eric, Brent and Jay. Chuck, Michael, Chris and others. People I forgot, others I don’t even know, names I don’t recall. Those are the reasons I climb.

I have been swimming upstream for months now, struggling against something I’m not even sure I fully have my hands around. It catches me at home, at work and in the car and takes me down. It knocks me off my feet and leaves me screaming, crying. In a moment it can rip me ragged, but when I get to Shagg, Shell, Cathedral or Cannon with one of my reasons none of it matters.

Yesterday was that way. Friday night I didn’t sleep. I ate consistently last week for the first time in a month, but that ended Thursday night. I met Ryan and Michael in a parking lot in Jackson at 7 a.m. Saturday. Ryan left Western Massachusetts at 4 a.m. to join Michael and I without asking us to delay our start. I offered, but he said no.

The two of them piled into my car, and we rolled uphill to Pinkham Notch. On the way up we joked, but once we started up the Tuckerman Ravine Trail I began talking. As we hiked I unloaded my pain, frustration and exhaustion. They just listened. We hiked fast, passing party after party. At times I didn’t want to keep talking, but I couldn’t stop. I kept at it until we got to the ravine, at which point I had to sit down. I felt like I’d lost a quart of blood. The weather matched my mood.

When we got to the base of the route I asked if I could lead the first two pitches. I wanted to warm up on the first pitch and then be fresh for a shot at the crux. Neither Ryan or Michael hesitated: Of course, they said.

I never stopped to belay. I had enough rope at the top of the first section to launch into the crux, and I took it. I had an outlet, and I was blasting for the moon.

The rest of the day went smoothly. Michael took the next pitch, then Ryan got the third, and we topped out around 2 p.m. We packed our gear, stripped off our crampons and walked down. I walked silently, knowing with each step I was closer to re-entering orbit. Ryan and Michael carried the conversation, allowing me to drift inside my head.

When we drove back into Jackson they invited me to dinner, but I declined. I’d had enough for one day. I needed to get home and brace myself for whatever was coming next.

A few hours later I got a text from Michael: “Proud work today. Killed it.”

I didn’t feel like I killed it. I felt like I got up, stepped out of bed and start falling. I fell all day, and I was getting ready to crawl back under the covers when his text arrived, sleep serving as my only net. I’m not crushing, I thought, I’m getting crushed.

But every few days I meet one of my reasons for climbing, and I stop falling and start flying. With Scott and Peter as copilots I get to crush, if only for a few minutes on Wednesday morning in the Cathedral Cave. With Paul I get to launch off the bouldering pad into the stratosphere, even if I never make it past the rock gym rafters.

Climbing is not about summits or redpoints, it’s about partners. It’s about sharing a rope with someone who can save your life. And that isn’t limited to when you are in the mountains.

We are astronauts, Peter says, and we are going to the moon. Thank you Peter, Scott, Ryan, Michael and Paul, for shepherding me. Without you I’d have missed my target. Alone I’d be lost in space.

[Author’s note: Peter reminded me that his references to astronauts and the moon were originally coined by Colby Coombs, the founder of the Alaska Mountaineering School.]

Pins, Stein Pulls and Scottish Conditions

Ryan Stefiuk high on SKYWALKER.

Yesterday, a month and two days after I got out for my first day of ice climbing this season, I went out for a second day. This time instead of heading over to Cannon for my yearly stab at getting the first seasonal ascent of the Black Dike, I was after an actual first ascent.

Just to the right of Pinnacle Gully in Huntington Ravine is a massive buttress of rock. It separates Pinnacle from Central Gully, and it is therefore known as the Central Buttress. It has a handful of rock lines up it, including two that are doable in winter — Mechanic’s Route and Cloudwalker. Last year, however, I saw another line I was psyched to try, and yesterday I lured two of my favorite climbing partners, Ryan Stefiuk and Michael Wejchert, out to try it.

The line basically starts right at the base of Pinnacle Gully, but instead of heading up the gully you march straight up the steepest line Central Buttress offers. Much of it is slabby and poorly protected, and often there is just a veneer of ice and snow. It is a mixed route similar to those rime-ice covered rock routes they are famous for climbing in Scotland — desperate and possibly dangerous but more fun than it is risky.

The first pitch has a section that is vertical with a little roof in the middle. It has a three-inch crack in the back, and when you’re on it everything feels overhung. I’d been up to look at it last year around this time twice, and I’d been shut down both times. This time, I determined, was going to be different.

Michael Wejchert at the base of
SKYWALKER preparing to launch.

Michael, Ryan and I got to the base amid stiff winds, rain, sleet and snow — again, ideal Scottish conditions. It was a Saturday, but there was no one on Pinnacle Gully. We smiled at each other, joked, and then started to get dressed for a trip to the moon.

A friend of mine described winter climbing that way: a trip to outer space. He’s a guide, and he heard another guide describe guides as astronauts. “You’re going to the moon out there,” the guide said. Yesterday I couldn’t agree more.

I launched up the first section of iced slab with no pro, but the ice was thick enough I didn’t care. I got one screw about 20 feet before the crack, and then I found myself staring up at it.

I placed a hex in the bottom and started jamming with a gloved hand. Pretty soon I was 10 feet up, my hands buried in the crack searching for feet. I kept finding gear, and even though the climbing was desperate I couldn’t think of an excuse to stop. A stein pull led to a turf shot, which led to a sideways hook which led to a flake. I got a cam and then pounded in a small pin; I jacked my feet up and kept going.

It just all seemed to work. I knew the hooks would appear, and they did. I knew the gear would hold if I had to trust it, and it did. I launched into outer space, and I found I could breathe.

At the top of pitch one.

Ryan and Michael followed, making their way up to the first belay. By now there was a party starting up Pinnacle, but no one was following us. Michael took the next pitch, launching off onto snow-covered slab without a piece of protection in sight.

The snow and ice, however, just seemed to be working in our favor. The turf sticks all held, and every once in a while a shallow crack showed up. Michael only got partially-driven pitons, but they were enough to keep him going. He picked his way up the slab, into a groove, onto a shelf, around the ridge and into some ice, eventually landing at a good belay stance.

The top of pitch two.

Ryan was then up for the final pitch, which attacked a gendarme that looked like it might put up a fight. He pounded in a crappy pin right off the belay and then just started paddling uphill, never slowing down. The terrain kept opening up for him, swallowing his picks and his gear, allowing him to meander up what had minutes before looked unsurmountable.
Michael and I quickly followed. The temperatures were now warm enough that we could hear ice falling. Every one of our turf shots and ice sticks held true, however, and we scampered up in Ryan’s tracks.

We found two old pins on the upper pitches, so we don’t believe we climbed an entirely new route, but the initial pitch, which we were guessing was M6 or M6+, didn’t have any scratches. We are pretty certain that is new terrain.

Either way, however, it was new to us, and it was good enough we think it should have a name. We dubbed it SKYWALKER because of its proximity to Cloudwalker.

And because every moon mission needs an appropriate name. And astronauts.

Ryan on pitch three.