A Lost Pilgrim

A Lost Pilgrim
I woke up to frost on the windshield this morning. And this:

It’s coming. Soon the seasonal whitewash will creep into the valley, and the full wrath of winter will fall. Every year as that process begins my palms sweat: ice season is approaching. It’s time to fly.

Ice is different than rock. It’s fluid, ephemeral, repeating but not the same year to year. Routes have been known to come in once and never again. The moment to climb may be NOW, or never. There is beauty in that fleeting existence, something rare and perfect. Every October I yearn for a taste of that momentary perfection. It pulls at me, and like a moth I can’t help but stare into the light. Even before the last of the summer sunlight has forsaken south-facing crags, I’m out there scratching with steel.

My habit in recent years has been to follow that fixation to Cannon Cliff, the belly of the beast, for the annual early season ascent of The Black Dike. Last year my good friend Ryan and I climbed it on Election Day. The year before Peter and I climbed it in late October. It has become a ritual, something of an annual pilgrimage.

This year, however, the early season Silk Road seemed askew. The ritual had an unfamiliar weight to it. Instead of a celebration, a christening, it felt heavy, like a chore. It was holding me down.

The quest for The Dike has always been to me about the coming of winter. It was a chance to jump headlong into ice season even before the last of the leaves had fallen. And it is more than just that. In October/November The Black Dike is transformed. It is, for a few weeks, no longer a chossy rock climb, nor a moderate ice climb, but instead an alpine testpiece once again. For a brief moment it becomes the hardest ice route in the Northeast again. With only a few inches of ice it regains its fearsome reputation. Early season is a chance to inch a bit closer to The Dike of the early years. Will it go? Perhaps not, despite my war-cry. In October the mountain has a habit of snarling back.

But sometime between last year and this year I turned my pilgrimage, my personal Mecca, into a race. My ego transformed it from a chance to test what I could do in the vertical realm into a chance to see if I could beat other climbers. And the moment that happened I lost.

What did I lose? I lost the joy. I lost the drive to LAUNCH, to GO, to climb and to snarl back at the chaos. I lost the passion to see if I could survive amid the wind and the waves. I lost the wonder of the movement. I turned my pilgrimage into a march.

Thankfully, I have motivated friends. On Saturday I went into IME to drop something off. My friend Max was working behind the counter. He was all smiles, but he wouldn’t say why. That evening the explanation popped up on Facebook:

A smile crept across my face. I laughed and sent Max a text to congratulate him. He texted back, describing the climbing as mostly rock as thin but fun. I couldn’t help but imagine his smile as he crested, the latest disciple to join the pilgrimage.

And that was it. The spell was broken. Thanks to Max the competition was over, a competition no longer, and I was free to return to climbing for love of the challenge rather than ego. It was a precious moment, one I won’t soon forget. I am again looking forward to my early season dance, to placing cams and hexes in rotten, shattered rock, scratching my way skyward with a smile. Doubt can stay on the ground. So can ego. The competition is not among men, among climbers, among friends. The test is my own, to let go of such markers and just be. To find comfort in the uncomfortable. To be tested and survive. Max reminded me of that. He freed me from my own self-imposed burden. It is time again to launch, and there is no cargo space on this flight. See you among the stars.

40 Degree Limit

40 Degree Limit
Photo by Joe Klementovich

I can’t stay away: I was back in the Cathedral Cave Friday afternoon. It was 40 degrees and cloudy, but that hardly mattered. The Cave gets morning, not evening sun anyway. But I’m excited to visit my Sanctuary, a longterm project that now feels enticingly possible, so after warming up on the Cote Boulder I headed in.

I can’t say I was ever truly warm despite my warmup, but I was psyched enough for three goes. The dynamic start, which I’d been having trouble with the last two sessions, went first go, as did the crux, and then each time after. The cold rock quickly took its toll, however, and my fingers couldn’t tell if they were actually working after a long set of crimps. There was no send, but I was getting closer.

But the chains didn’t matter. As always, IT WAS AMAZING. It’s so cool to have a route so spectacular I’m excited to fall off it and keep falling off it. I feel tantalizingly close to sending, but I don’t care. I’m just looking forward to another session of linking the moves, of sustained movement so at my limit.

But what is my limit? Friday evening, despite the cold, Sanctuary felt doable. I made it through with one hang on the third burn. I’d climbed through the crimps and was into the endurance section when the cold caught up with my fingers. I took, but I got right back on and finished with strength to spare. It will happen.

The result has me looking forward to the next month, a month I’m usually scratching around for ice but this year might be spent warming rock shoes inside the puffy and fingers on my neck. With the limit so close, I just want to tap it, to press it gently to see if I can make it move.

And it will move, one way or the other. They, like everything else, are not static. They are fluid, cresting, crashing and receding like waves on the beach. Do not trust them. They don’t own you. They are not real. Limits are only waypoints, meant to be shattered. Arbitrary, ever changing, worth ignoring because knowing them is the only thing that wills them into existence. What if you didn’t know them? What if when they stared you in the face you laughed and jumped anyway? What would would happen? Would you fall? Maybe. But maybe you’d fly.


I brought my camera with me Friday and captured footage of the final burn. At the end I lean gently into my fear of falling…

The Point

The Point

The point is not the summit. The finish line is not the goal. They are arbitrary markers, endpoints that prove not to be endpoints once crossed. They are simply waypoints, in no way emblematic of the richness we seek, and sometimes find.

It’s a funny thing, climbing. It always seems like an achievement-oriented pursuit. Why climb mountains? “Because it’s there,” as the famous George Mallory quote goes. Because struggles were meant to be overcome. Because challenges were meant to be stood on top of, to be conquered.

I would take a different view. Challenges are not meant to be overcome. They are meant to embraced, swallowed whole, savored. They are meant to steep, to be allowed time to wreak havoc on our bodies and our souls, to test us to our limits and toss us over the edge. Our only “goal” is to survive. The summit is just a detail. Success is not the measure of success.

Photo by Joe Klementovich

Yesterday I threw myself at one of my longterm projects, a beautiful line in the Cathedral Cave called Sanctuary. It’s a line I’ve worked on and off for years, at (or beyond) my current limit but striking enough to keep coming back to. I never got on it last season, but the season before I spent a half-dozen days working out the moves. The season before that I spent as many days just figuring out the crux. I go there on days when the mist hangs low, when the rest of Cathedral is dripping and spent, days other people cancel their climbing plans. If the cliff is a church then the Cave is the first pew. It is where the sermon can be heard loudest, where Cathedral’s beating heart echos among the boulders.

In truth, there is no goal. Sanctuary is simply my excuse. It is a project, sure, but not one I yearn to finish. It is a way to explain why I keep coming back, why I never tire of visiting the heart of the monster. On cloudy days (summer or winter) you can find me there, harnessed and smiling, rope flaked at the base. Do I want to send the route? Yes, but that thirst is born of my ego. My pride wants to wear the ascent like a banner, but my heart is elsewhere. It does not want to send Sanctuary; it forever wants to be sending Sanctuary. Halfway up, as the clock ticks and my forearms burn, I am free. I am lost and swimming amid the chaos, living a moment that cannot afford to last. That is where my heart is. It is wandering in the mist, drinking in its secrets, not standing atop it.

Photo by Joe Klementovich

The beauty of that gift came back to me yesterday, after three burns that never reached the chains, as I descended to my car. My feet swept through the leaves as I walked. My biceps ached, my fingertips were raw, but I smiled. I would need to come back. The project wasn’t finished. There was at least one more day of sermons in my future. Her heartbeat would grace my ears again. How lucky I am.

The goal is not to stand on top. The point, if there is one, is to struggle. It is to hold on, and to hold on, and to hold, though every sinew in your body screams to let go. It is to wrestle chaos, to let it overtake you and then smile when it has both hands around your neck. It is to open your eyes while drowning so you feel every drop rushing into your lungs. There is no finish line. The summit isn’t even close to halfway.