Steep Bolts and Strong Partners

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.

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