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.