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.