Last month my friend Dustin came out to shoot video of our Diagonal ascent, and I talked to him a bit as we suited up. He turned the climb and the discussion into a video:
There’s something restorative about plastic.
Ice climbing has been difficult in recent weeks — first temperatures rocketed to near 60, then they swung 70 degrees in the other direction. I get a few pitches in each weekend, but weekday sessions have either been unavailable or unsafe. Soloing moderate ice before work had been a grounding ritual in recent months, but my practice has been forced to the wayside by the weather. Enter plastic.
For the last three weeks I’ve skirted south after work for indoor sessions at the Maine Rock Gym. The MRG is the first place I went climbing 14 years ago. It’s where I learned to belay, where I climbed my first 5.9, then 5.10, back when I believed gym routes corresponded with climbing outside. It’s where I built fitness during college before ice season, where I trained cravasse techniques before Rainier and prepared for trips to Yosemite and the Southeast. It’s where I stopped off for a workout when my dad had cancer and I was driving back and forth to see him twice a week. It’s where I met and first became captivated by my wife (Josh — you were there). To call it a special place would be underselling it — home is a more apt description. It isn’t fancy — there is no lead wall and the whole place is coated in chalk — but it’s comfortable as an old tee shirt. I can’t walk in without facing a wall of smiles and shaking hands with a dozen people — Chuck, Dennis, Joe, Rebecca, Michael, Rajiv, Jamie, Nick, Dave, Hasan, Eli, PC, Brian, Ben, Dominic, Hazel, Jim, Ran, Brian, Chuck, Jody, Andrew and more. And every visit makes me smile. Every session is hanging out with old friends, even when (like last week) I’ve just met them. Even when I’m there all alone. I don’t care if I’m falling off everything or crushing, the atmosphere doesn’t change. It’s always warm, always welcoming.
I was describing my fondness for the MRG to some friends the other day, and I compared it to most people’s college outing club wall. My friend Janet’s eyes lit up. “That’s the Dover Rock Gym for me,” she said, a warm smile spreading across her face. It was clear she knew the feeling I felt every time I turn onto Marginal Way and throw on my blinker.
I don’t really have more to say than that, I mostly just want to thank the people I run into there day after day, week after week, month after month and year after year. Thank you for being the people they are. As much as my past experiences at the MRG make it feel like home, so do you. Thank you.
It’s Monday. The weekend is over. My boots, gloves, screws and ropes are all hung to dry, and I’m at work. I’m sitting in front of my computer, recovering from the weekend, wondering if I made the right call. The climbing is over, but it’s weight still hangs over my head. Physically I’m at my desk, but in my mind I’m staring up at a blood-splattered column, a screw at my feet, horizontal cracks both above and below me, wondering: “Up or down? Up or down?”
A week ago Peter and I made a pilgrimage to Grafton Notch to fire Hackett-Tremblay, a stellar grade 5 that rarely appears. I was all set to climb the first pitch when a chunk of ice slammed into my helmet, transforming my lead head from a galvanized piece of steel into a spongey mess. After a brief attempt I turned the sharp end to Peter, and he did what he does best — went to the top.
I didn’t blame myself for backing off — that chunk of ice hit me pretty hard — but I wanted another shot at H-T. I knew it would go, I just needed to be there 100 percent, no excuses, to reach the top.
So Sunday I went back. Scott and I piled into the car at 7:45 a.m., and we made the same pilgrimage I’d made a week before. We parked in the same spot, and booted up the same trail, and at 10 a.m. I found myself racking up at the base of the route I’d seconded a week ago.
But lots of things were different this time. First off, the week before it had been 30 degrees. This time it was closer to 10. Last week the route was running with water. This week there wasn’t a drip. Last week the ice was soft and forgiving. This week it was glistening and bulletproof. But I still wanted my shot, a chance to prove myself against the ice. I racked and roped up, tightened my boots and readied my head. “You know what you’re in for,” I thought. “Just breathe, just climb, and this will go.”
One swing into the ice, however, rattled my resolve. My tool made a CLUNK as it swung into the curtain. The ice, detached from the rock by the warm weather, had not reattached with the cold, it had just stiffened and turned brittle. I moved up, down and side to side trying to find good ice, but every tool placement sliced to the air behind the curtain.
“I don’t like that sound,” I shouted down to Scott.
“Me either,” he shouted back.
But I was committed. I wanted the send. I didn’t like where I was, but I wanted the top. Doubt began creeping in, but I pushed it aside. I took a breath, entrenched in my belief that UP was my direction, kicked in my feet and started climbing. A handful of moves got me to good ice, and then I was at a shelf staring at the base of a column, the true crux. I wound in a screw, then a second, hooked my tool into the back of the column just below a quarter-inch horizontal crack clear through the pillar, and made an awkward mantle. Standing on the shelf I could see a gap of several inches behind the pillar, space that wasn’t supposed to be there. The black rock and the warm sun a week earlier had cooked away the bonds, and now the column was just hanging.
Or was it? I swung into it about six feet up and felt it vibrate. I looked up and saw a second horizontal crack about a foot above my tool, again almost a quarter-inch wide. I tugged on the placement, and the column groaned. The screw in the shelf at my feet was solid, but I knew with slack and momentum I would reach the ledge below if I fell. It wasn’t a question — the next few moves were akin to soloing. I looked around. The ice above looked better, like it would take a screw, like if I could get there I would be set. I knew from my ascent the week before this was the section most detached, the riskiest. The next six feet were the key to the route. I thought back to Peter, who reached up and placed a high screw from this same stance. I couldn’t do that, however — all I would be doing is attaching myself to the detached, groaning column. If it came off I’m be anchoring myself to a bull, and I had better be ready to ride it. No way. I looked back at my feet. The ice was smeared with a deep red-brown the color of rust that melted pockets into the column. “Blood,” I thought. “Someone had worse luck than me in the last week.” I looked back up. I would have to make two, maybe three moves on the column to get tools in the good ice. If it popped with me on it I would break. It wasn’t hard for me to decide. “Down,” I said aloud. “I’m coming down.”
That didn’t just happen yesterday, it happened right now, in my head. In my mind it just played out again, as it did on the drive home, as it did in bed last night. I wonder to myself if the column would have held me, if I made the “right” decision, if I somehow let myself down by backing off. Did I fail myself? Could I have made it past there? Could I have taken that key and used it to unlock the climb? It’s Monday, and I am carrying with me the weight of my “failure.”
Failure — a term only I use to describe my decision — is harsh, a judgement, one that hurts only me, one that calls into question my value as a person as well as my value as a “climber.” It is a foolish view, one without value, one that does injury to both myself and my climbing, and yet I have trouble letting it go. Every day I struggle to live in the moment, to not carry my decisions with me. In this instance my only “failure” is not embracing my decision to descend.
What is living in the moment? It is being present ALWAYS, knowing there is no future and no past, only NOW. Tomorrow will never get here. Yesterday can never change. Today, right now, this moment, is the only one we have. I can’t go back and change my decision, and therefore there is no use thinking about it. There is no “right” and no “wrong,” only actions and consequences. Time cannot be saved, it can only be spent, and living in the past is spending time poorly. How do I let go of that? How do I embrace my decisions, trust it was the “right” one and move on? I’m not sure. I’m learning. It’s the reason I’ve enjoyed soloing lately — it requires presence in a way most other things don’t. It requires ignoring the world around me, trusting myself, shutting of my mind and just being. Thinking is enemy of now. Fear of consequences, judgements of past actions, rehashing and reevaluating — those are the things that keep us from experiencing this moment. This one. Here. Now. NOW.
How do we stop thinking? I do it through embracing fear, and not just fear of heights. Fear of rejection, fear of embarrassment, fear of emotional pain — all of those do the same thing for me as climbing. I stop thinking by doing whatever the thing I think I don’t want to be doing is. Embracing that thing creates stress and forces me to face fear, and in that moment I am present.
How do I do that everyday? Easy: I don’t. I forget. I fall back into habits. I get comfortable. I start to drift from my practice, from my embrace of the unknown. I drifted on Sunday when I stood on that ledge thinking of “all the things that could go wrong” rather than opening myself to the experience and accepting whatever challenges (opportunities) I found. And I have been drifting since with every rehash of my decision, every replay of that moment in my mind. Could I have made it up? Could that column have held? Who cares. I opted not to test it. That is what happened. Let that choice be.
“If we were to put our minds to one powerful wisdom method and work with it directly, there is a real possibility we would become enlightened. Our minds, however, are riddled with confusion and doubt. I sometimes think that doubt is an even greater block to human evolution than is desire or attachment. Our society promotes cleverness instead of wisdom, and celebrates the most superficial, harsh, and least useful aspects of our intelligence. We have become so falsely ‘sophisticated’ and neurotic that we take doubt itself for truth, and the doubt that is nothing more than ego’s desperate attempt to defend itself from wisdom is deified as the goal and fruit of true knowledge.”
– Sogyal Rinpoche
I seek out fear in an effort to find enlightenment, knowledge, emptiness and personal growth. Those things are elusive, but I am not failing on that journey. The path is not clear. But in recognizing that I strayed I have moved a little closer to the light. It is still the early morning, the first rays of sun are peaking. Full brightness is on its way, just keep your eyes open.
My day job is working as a reporter and news editor for the Conway Daily Sun, the daily newspaper that covers the Mount Washington Valley. Most of the time my job has little to do with climbing, but on Thursday an avalanche caught 12 climbers on Mount Washington. Nine of them slid, and three took the full ride. The story I wrote Friday is here, and it’s worth reading. It is NOT the full story (no news story ever is), but it was as much as I could throw together before deadline. I wrote a followup today, and it should be out in a few hours. I’ll put that up here as well as soon as it is. In the meantime, stay safe out there.
Update: Here is the followup article, as well as a writeup from the U.S. Forest Service Snow Rangers.
Some days plans just don’t work out.
Peter and I met at 8 a.m. this morning in a grocery store parking lot. He tossed his pack in my car, and we started the hour and a half drive from Glen to Grafton Notch. A friend had let it slip that Hackett-Tremblay, a classic grade 5 that makes rare appearances, was in. The ice in the Mount Washington Valley was looking haggard so we were skeptical, but we figured it was worth a shot. 60 miles later we saw it: a dribble of yellow ice spilling down 200 feet of rock. Perfect. Time to go ice climbing.
We tumbled out of the car, packed our bags and started up. It was barely freezing as we followed a snowshoe track up the side of the mountain. Eventually we split off toward the cliff, with Peter leading through the boulders and trees. I was close behind, excited to get back on ice after a week or more of scratching rock.
Huge chunks of ice dotted the base. This was not the place to hang out on a warm, sunny day. The cold temperatures the night before consoled us, but it was clear large sections of ice down low were delaminated. The black rock behind the ice was ready to capture the sun’s rays, so we weren’t disappointed to see the blue sky gathering clouds.
We dropped packs and started sorting gear. I wanted the first pitch, which looked scary but straight-forward. I figured Peter could easily manage the upper columns and curtains, which from the road looked more like grade 6. I started racking screws on my harness as Peter flaked the rope. I breathed deep, knowing the pitch would go only if I was fully committed.
Sometimes you never see it coming, the thing that knocks your plans clear off the tracks. Sometimes you are moving forward perfectly, doing exactly what you should, and still there it is — BAM! — slamming into you, tossing you off balance, derailing you completely.
I was arranging the rock rack when something rocketed past my head. It made a whizzing sound as it passed my ear and exploded into the snow. A second later I heard another, then another — ice, let loose from 200 feet above, slicing the air inches away. I stood up straight and froze. For a moment my neck arched — I considered looking up to see what was coming next — but my body overruled the reflex. I kept my face down and pulled in under my helmet, standing still and straight as an arrow, trying to hide every inch of me underneath the three-quarters-of-an-inch of foam on my head, my only protection. Chunks of ice slammed into the snow all around me. I pulled my shoulders in, desperately trying get everything under my shell, like a turtle on the highway feeling cars rocket past in both directions. Then… CRACK! A piece of ice somewhere between the size of a golfball and a baseball glanced off the center of my helmet. My neck snapped back, but I stayed standing. I kept straight as possible, my head ringing. My body swayed gently back and forth as a final hail of frozen shrapnel splashed around me. Then it was over.
“You OK?” Peter said from 40 feet away. The ice bouncing off my helmet was the first indication he had anything was up. I felt like I’d withstood a half-hour assault, but it was probably less than 10 seconds. “Yeah,” I said, grabbing my stuff and moving behind a nearby rock for the illusion of shelter it offered. “I’m good.”
But I wasn’t. My neck hurt a little, but what really suffered was something more foundational: my commitment. That bullseye shot not only spiked me, it ricochet through the part of me that had what it took to fire steep delaminated ice. I didn’t know it yet, but in cracking my helmet (which it did, barely) the ice knocked away my confidence, my knowledge that this pitch will go. It slammed me into a place of self-doubt. Suddenly I kept seeing everything that could go wrong, knowing if I tried to LAUNCH, it all would go wrong.
But I wasn’t ready to admit it. I tied in, grabbed my tools and started up. Even the first step was arduous. Every swing felt terrible, and the ice sounded more hollow than it was. I got up to where things got steep, and even good sticks felt insecure. “What am I doing?” I thought, looking up at the umbrellas far above. They must have weighed 500 pounds. “One of those won’t snap your neck back, it’ll kill you.” And with every passing second I knew it was about to. I made a few half-hearted moves up, then down, then up, then all the way down. I looked back at Peter. “You’re up,” I said. “I don’t have this.”
The ice was OK. Peter, as usual, fired it. There were delaminated sections, and above the first steep section he knocked down a good portion of a column, but all in all it was reasonable climbing. It was the sort of thing on a good day I would have sung my way up. But not today. My plans didn’t come together they way I meant for them to. As Peter climbed, the clouds descended. Soon the wind was whipping, and snow was wiping across the face in horizontal sheets. Peter built a belay below and to the side of one of the daggers as it poured roughly a gallon of water per hour. When I got to there I pulled on my Das parka and told him get to the top. He obliged, working his way up awkward formations with finesse. By the time I started climbing again all four layers below my Das were soaked. The wind howled as I worked my way up the cave and out onto the column. With every gust I watched the dagger above me sway and moan. I yanked gear out as fast as I could, trying to traverse out from below it, sure I would die if it let loose. I still had my Das on, but water was oozing down my left side. My hands were frozen into claws. Carabiner gates refused to open. It was not ideal conditions. I wanted to be done, to be down, to go home.
But I kept going. I worked my way up through the cave and popped out onto the column, where finally nothing was dangling above me and the sticks came easier. I kept going, and as I moved upwards I started to feel my hands again. I started to remember why I wanted to be there.
Sometimes plans get fucked. Somedays shit just goes wrong. Today, one of those days. It sucks. Its hurts. It makes you want to go down, go home, to put away the gear and call it a season. But I didn’t start out this morning to go home. I started out this morning with a mission, and although chunks of ice seemed to be flying at my head all day long I kept moving forward. When a piece knocks you over, that’s when you have to decide what’s next. Today, I kept going. I’m not sure that’s always the best plan, but it was what I stuck with today. Maybe next time I’m out there will be less ice falling my way.
|Replace? It may be time…|
Epilogue: By the time we topped out the wind had died down and the sun was back out. The day had swung from beautiful to ferocious back to tranquil. I’m glad I kept going up, and I was even happier to have a toprope. Hopefully a few days off will restore my psych, confidence and commitment.
This week has been rough on the ice. Temperatures topped 50 degrees on Monday and Tuesday, detaching some routes and sending others to the ground. On an underwhelming Baghdad/Mercy session last Saturday I watched massive chunks tumble off the Modor Wall. Instead of a morning session Wednesday I hit the Maine Rock Gym in Portland Tuesday night — it seemed a better use of time and training. I had thoughts of climbing before work Thursday or Friday, but a meteoric swing in temperatures made going outside seem foolhardy. It wasn’t until today climbing plans actually came together, and they didn’t have much to do with ice. Michael, Bayard and I wandered over to Tohko Crag this morning for a handful burns drytooling through a horizontal roof. It was low key, with lots of clipping and whipping on bolts. The ice was out, so we just took (or fell) at (or before) the last bolt.
For a warm January day, today was just about perfect. It was low commitment climbing, both warm and relaxing. We didn’t even have to change out of our fruitboots for belays. There were dropped tools, a tumbling fall or two, and a classic moment where half of our six collective ice tools sat climber-less in the final moves of an M8+.
These are the days I strive for. They are, in a sense, the best kind of climbing days. They aren’t about the send — today no one sent anything at all — they are about hanging out, laughing, telling old stories and making new ones. They are about making plans for future trips and hearing about past adventures. They are about the climbing, but the climbing could as easily be gardening, poker or baking cookies.
Bayard put it well today: When he thinks of climbing, he said, he thinks of a handful of brief moments on the rock or ice that were truly spectacular, but for the most part it is the moments surrounding those moments he remembers. The “climbing” is really about the time spent hanging out, relaxing and joking with friends and partners that keeps drawing him back.
I think back to my ascent of The Nose this May with Ryan, where my head (and my hands) never felt up to the task. The climbing was terrible, but the trip was amazing. Ryan made it worth the suffering. Or six years ago when Scott and I climbed Liberty Ridge on Mount Rainier. We got caught in snowstorm halfway up the ridge at Thumb Rock. The next day the mountain was coated in more than a foot of fresh windslab, but we went up anyway. We started probably five or six avalanches, each crashing down the Willis Wall to the carbon glacier below. By the end of the climb my feet were hamburger and Scott’s toes were frostbit, but it was an awesome trip nonetheless. We spent the final days camped on the beach on Bainbridge Island across from Seattle trying to dry out and fatten up.
For the last month or so I’ve been focused on the climbing. The routes themselves have given me brief moments of respite as other parts of my life sputter and spin. My astronauts have been there to guide me, but it was embracing the chaos and holding close my fear that grounded me. I was at home on the sharp end launching for the stars, not smiling at the base telling jokes. The change in weather, however, coincided with a shift inside me. My lead head is taking a break alongside the ice conditions. I was more interested in clipping bolts at a warm, sunny crag than climbing hard above gear today, and luckily the weather cooperated. I’ve even found myself hatching sport climbing plans for Kentucky, Mexico or Spain. Somehow the season for mixed climbing on Cannon has woven itself into overhanging sandstone. Maybe it’s all the sunshine and warm weather…
The beauty of climbing is it isn’t either/or. Today there was talk of Alaska, Zion and the Red River Gorge. Climbing is all three and more. And most of my partners would be game for any of them. They’re all about falling upwards among friends, about accepting and embracing the challenges in front of you. They are all about living, the verb, not the adjective.
It’s funny, however, how easily we lose grip of “living,” the verb. It quickly just becomes part of “life,” a noun. The other day my wife and I went out for an afternoon ice session at one of her favorite spots. We got there at about 1 p.m., and I ran up the grade 3+ flow. As I started up I looked at her. I swung in a tool. “This is absurd,” I said.
“What?” she said, looking up at me.
“This,” I said. “Climbing frozen water with ice tools and sharp objects strapped to our feet. It’s ridiculous.”
“Yeah,” she said, smiling. “It is.”
After more than 100 climbing days this year, the vertical at times seems unremarkable to me. It had, for a time, become ordinary. But people weren’t built for this. We weren’t meant to live in a vertical world. Every day out, whether alone or with friends, is spectacular. Every moment in climbing is special, and “climbing” is just another way of spelling “living.” Time cannot be saved, the clock is always running. Time can only be spent, so spend it wisely. Spend it smiling, laughing, joking with friends and partners, at the crag, around the poker table or anywhere else friends can gather. When your head checks in, LAUNCH. When it checks out, stick to the bolts or stay home and find a more precious use of your time. Don’t fight where you’re at, embrace it. If it’s warm, don’t just blindly head for the ice. Look at your options and move with conditions. Flow. Find what works TODAY, and do that. Because tomorrow is a day that never gets here.
Soloing is stupid, illogical and a good way to kill yourself. Period. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. I’ve been wrestling with it lately as a path to embracing life too, but that doesn’t change the truth of my first statement. Soloing is a new thing for me, something that has some of my friends and partners concerned. I’m tempted not even to write about it out of concern such efforts will glorify it, but since I am trying to be excruciatingly honest on SOG I have opted to talk about it.
I know worry, the feeling of concern, others feel about me. One of my favorite climbing partners and best friends, Michael Wejchert, has been soloing since before I thought it might have redeeming value. He soloed The Black Dike the day after I made the first ascent of the season, at a time when it was so thin I was scared climbing roped. And last year he soloed Fafnir days after I did it with a partner in conditions that constantly kept me guessing. I don’t want to lose a friend, and I’ve often wondered if his decision to climb without a rope is a good one.
But in recent weeks I’ve begun to understand the value in it. I’ve stopped second guessing so much. I still will always worry about him when he’s out there, but I’ve begun to get it a little bit.
And today he let me in a little more. He wrote a blog post on his blog, Far North Climbing, that I think every SOG fan should read. My reasons for soloing are my own, and here is another set, told with honesty. Excruciating honesty, from the heart. The only kind there is.
One of the coolest things about writing this blog is the responses. I get a few comments, but more and more I’m getting emails, texts and Facebook messages from people who connect with the stories. This is a platform where I can get my thoughts out, but it is also an avenue for people to reach out. From the first day I’ve heard from people, some I’ve never met, some I know and have never been close to, some I’ve been close to but never that close. Most gratifying, however, have been the notes from friends and climbing partners I haven’t kept up with as well as I should — Matt, Jay, Griffin, Rachel, Pat and others.
Last night one of those partners reached out. She said she was enjoying my writing as well as following my climbing. It was a nice note, it made me smile. At the bottom was a link to something — an essay I’d written more than a decade ago as 19-year-old kid. It was 2001, and I yearned to be a climber. I’d thruhiked the Appalachian Trial the year before, and a few months later I bailed on my first attempt at college. That winter I led my first ice climb, Elephant Head Gully. I’m not sure I placed a decent piece. I was hanging my way up 5.9, and my rack was more nuts than cams. I was arrogant and driven (far more so than now), determined to become an alpinist and disappointed I wasn’t one yet. I was in the midst of my second stab at college (also destined to fail) in Colorado when I wrote the essay for a class. I sent it to her on April 23.
Far above my last piece of protection I reached for a hold. My hand landed on a flake, square and sharp. The day was cool, and the wind worked to push me across the rock face. I made several more moves, feeling confident, advancing higher. Looking above I saw a large roof; if I continued on my present course I would have to climb through it. I reached forward, grabbing another handhold. There was a grinding sound, and the rock shifted. I felt the blood drain from my face as a knot of fear grew in my stomach. I was going to fall.
I awoke with a start. It was dark; the blinds blocked out the streetlight I knew was outside the window. My girlfriend put her hand on my shoulder and asked if I was all right. “My god, I was scared,” I said.
She knew what I was talking about. We had been climbing earlier in the day. It had been cool, cold enough to snow. The wind had whipped the ropes. This was not good climbing weather, not a time to be outside. It was a time for movies and hot cocoa. It was a time for sitting next to the woodstove and playing poker. But we only had a week to climb. A week before she would be going home to Boston. So we climbed.
We had spent thirty minutes driving washed out dirt roads to the 400-foot face, and 20 minutes lugging our climbing gear straight up hill to the base of the cliff. Tied in, doubled back, locked, helmets on, and ready to go. I began climbing, and shot up the first 40 feet to a right-facing dihedral. I placed a piece of protection and continued upward. Following the dihedral for the next 60 feet, situating myself directly below a large roof. I looked up, trying to remember the route description: “Take crack to right of large roof.” Or was it left? Either way, I would have to get to the roof before making any decisions. I reached up, grabbing a handhold. I felt the individual grains digging into my hand. I moved past it, onto a small ledge. I began the upward traverse across to the bottom of the roof and reached out, grabbing a flake. I heard the grinding of two rough surfaces, the sound of a car bottoming on a speed bump. I felt my center of gravity shift, and my head swung back. I shot my other hand forward, groping for a piece of granite to hold onto, a desperate attempt to stabilize myself. Thoughts flashed through my head: from my protection, to my belayer, to the rope, to the zipper effect, to the rock quality, to the strength ratings of gear, to the value of a single human life. I prepared to die.
I may have screamed, I may have cried; this moment, I have discovered, I will never remember. But I will never forget.
The moment passed. I did not fall. I found my other handhold and stabilized myself. I cringed, then I told a joke to my girlfriend 100 feet below. The climbing continued, until halfway up snow and high winds forced us to retreat. The day was over, it was time to head home.
The story could have ended there. I could have gone home and never thought about that aborted ascent again. But fear is too deeply rooted in the human mind, the survival instinct too powerful a force. I relived the climb, the day, as I fell asleep. Everything was a little better in the dream than it had been in real life: the sun warmer, the wind calm, the climbing easier. My mind was setting me up. My subconscious was going to teach me something about climbing, something I was never consciously going to accept. If I was not going to quit climbing after the events of the day, my brain decided, I would get more convincing that night. I climbed. I reached for the handhold. It moved. And I fell.
“Remember this,” my mind said.
Almost 12 years have passed since I wrote that piece. It was just a paper for a class, at the time I never would have guessed I’d make a living in words. I didn’t remember that day, but as I read the essay it came flooding back. I remember the cliff — Davis Face outside Buena Vista. We were climbing on the right side. I found an old slung hex buried in the crack. We had a borrowed Honda CRV. It was red. I remember the sound of the rock grinding, the feeling of losing my balance, the thought that I was going to die. And I remember shaking awake that night, airborne in the darkness.
I don’t have much more to add, other than, “What a decade.” And thanks to everyone who has (or is going to) reached out.
[Author’s Note: I did do some editing on the original piece. I figure I’m entitled, it is my essay…]
Fear is a funny thing. Run from it and it is always at your back, embrace it and its capacity to overwhelm you evaporates. Like darkness each morning, it can be pushed aside by the light. But as the sun rises in one place, darkness falls somewhere else. Face fear once, twice, a thousand times, and it inevitably crops up. We have a choice: keep facing our fears again and again forever, or try to run and hide from them for just as long.
This morning I got up before sunrise. My bag was already packed, tools strapped to the outside. I pulled on my Capilene, ate a small breakfast and jumped in the car. The road was coated in snow as I pulled onto Route 302.
About a month ago I soloed Standard Route at Frankenstein for the first time. It was an amazing experience, a moment where I embraced the fear of being ropeless and kept going. My brain screamed “NO” the whole way, and yet I continued upward, rejecting logic and letting trust and faith guide me.
Now, weeks later, the fear of being ropeless on Standard has dissipated. A week or two ago I ran up it again, this time before work. That time the tether anchoring me to the ground tugged but never grew taught. I was able to climb in control the entire time. The fear was gone, at least on Standard.
But there is always a bigger monster around the corner. As I drove to Frankenstein this morning I knew Standard was just the warm up. My fear, my test, was named Dracula.
The idea of soloing Dracula, the classic grade 4 at Frankenstein, first popped into my head on the descent from that first Standard solo. It wasn’t in yet, but as I walked past I knew in my heart it would go. This morning I went to Frankenstein determined to embrace that knowledge.
I got to the parking lot before the plows. It was still dark when I started walking down the railroad tracks. It was warm, above freezing, but I was dressed light enough I had to walk fast to stay warm. I followed deer prints in the fresh snow to the ice.
I got to the base of Standard and dropped my pack. The snow and ice above me glowed an eerie blue. I pulled on my harness, racked up and tethered into my tools in the pre-dawn light. I sighted the straightest, bluest line and started climbing. Standard flowed beneath my picks, an old friend accustomed to sitting together in silence. The first oranges and reds of morning sparked to the south. I snapped a few pictures as I climbed, but mostly I just cleared my head and concentrated on floating. “Breathe,” I thought time and time again. “Breathe.” In less than 10 minutes I reached the top and was walking back down.
The descent from Standard makes it easy to consider a second act. Most days I don’t have time to consider such things before work, but this morning I’d started early. Dracula looked soft, forgiving and beautiful. I walked to the base and stared up at it. I knew it would go. I took a sip of water, ate a snack, pulled on a dry pair of gloves from inside my jacket and swung a pick into the column. The ice was wet, pliable, perfect. I swung in the other tool. “This will go,” I thought, and I began climbing.
The first steep section went quick, a handful of moves up to a ramp. From there I kept going, swinging and kicking into dryer conditions. The ice was an open book as it flowed down a corner, so I stemmed my way skyward.
About halfway up, though, doubt crept in. My feet felt too wide. I was off balance, and the ice cracked more than I liked. I glanced down. A fall would break my legs and maybe my back. I’d bounce off the ramp, shoot out over the first column, hit the base and then tumble down the approach gully. I could see myself dying. “Shit,” I thought, “I don’t want that. Why am I here? This is stupid.” The terrestrial tether suddenly felt stretched to the limit. I prepared to climb down.
But I knew — KNEW — I could climb it. I’ve climbed Dracula countless times and never fallen. That doesn’t mean I never will, but I knew at that moment the thing holding me back wasn’t my strength or my skill, it was my head. The thing holding me back was me. I worked my way down, out of the corner and back to the ramp. I found a stance and buried my tools in the ice. I pulled off my gloves and tightened the laces on my right boot, took a deep breath, then another. “OK,” I thought, “you know the consequences. There is no logic to going upwards. None.” I switched feet and tightened the laces on the left boot. “Keep going and you could die.” I thought. “Just go down. The ground is safe.” I looked at my tools, drops of water glazing the orange paint, and then raised my eyes up. There were miles of steep ice above me. I looked at the sky, then down at the ground, and I felt a wall inside me crumble.
“That is wrong,” I thought, knowing in that instant I would continue climbing. “The ground isn’t safe. You think it is, but you may die there too. I might crash my car on the drive to work, or die of a heart attack at my desk, or get cancer. In fact, if I spend my entire life on the ground, it is inevitably where I’ll die. Going up isn’t about dying, going up is about living.” I swung my pick into the corner and started for the trees.
Every day we arrive at work on time, or make it to school, or meet a partner at the crag, we are fooling ourselves. We think because we made plans we were in control, that things worked out the way they did because we decided they would work that way. We’re wrong. We trick ourselves into believing we live in control, into believing that tomorrow will come just as today did, particularly if we avoid risk, never realizing the world can blow our plans off course at any moment. In a second we could die of a blood clot, or wind up shot dead in a movie theater. When it doesn’t happen each day we start thinking it won’t. We forget life is random, fleeting and final. We make plans for the future — a week, a month, a year, 30 years — thinking, KNOWING, we’ll be here to enjoy it. We walk through the world sure our lives will work out, wrapped in our own ignorance.
And we are wrong. I may die today. I may die as I write this, or tomorrow, or the next day. Life doesn’t wait and it isn’t guaranteed. It shows up wherever we make it, however we make it, whether on the ground or in the air. We will die someplace, that is the only guarantee. Darkness, fear may keep us from embracing LIFE, but it does nothing to stave off death. It rolls towards us nonetheless. The ground is not safety, and the route is not danger. They are simply the ground, and the route. There is risk in both, in all.
So I embraced the risk before me. “Breathe,” I thought as I moved up the final headwall. “Breathe.” It was the same thought I’d let fill my mind for the last 40 feet, the same thought I kept to the summit. It was my mantra, the thought that kept me in the moment, that pushed the fear of falling out, the fear of death out, the fear of failure and everything else out. I let the thought wash over me, let it carry me over the ice. It filled my mind, leaving my hands and feet to do the climbing they are so accustomed to. “Breathe,” I thought as I crested the ice and swung into turf. “Breathe,” I thought when I reached the trees.
I stood in the snow and let out a long, slow breath. “Today I lived,” I thought, rather than just survived. I smiled, clipped my tools to my harness and started the walk down.
Light is always looking for darkness. Allow it into one more place. And one more place. And one more place.