Tag Archives: Alpine Climbing

The Hammerhead Mentality

Hammerhead (ham-er-hed) n. 1. the part of a carpentry tool used to drive nails 2. any tool’s feature designed to impact an object 3. metaphysically, an implement used to achieve the wielder’s intent through main force 4. (slang, common parlance) any person with a modus operandi analogous to that of the tool, usually expressing the speaker’s contempt 5. (slang, among climbers) any person with a modus operandi analogous to that of the tool, usually expressing the speaker’s admiration and horror.
A hammer has a sort of minimalist beauty. It is clean. It has a singular answer to all challenges. It cannot – it will not – be mistaken for something which it is not. The beauty of the hammerhead mentality is the same. It forges a pure, guileless path in the world. It wakes each morning without ulterior motive; it pounds through each day without ulterior motive.
The psychological dynamic at issue has always been part of the human repertoire. The most famous, historical hammerhead was Alexander the Great. I’ve heard people question why anyone would ever follow such a jackass, as the blustering fool marched his army across Asia Minor to no good end. He wasn’t a blustering fool though, he was a hammerhead and I’m sure his men caught a serious case of Special-Sense-of-Purpose from him. Sure, he didn’t need to conquer India. He was simply out conquering, and India was next. Likewise, cutting the Gordian knot wasn’t a clever, if arrogant, statement or “out of the box” thinking; it was a natural hammerhead move. At the end, nobody was worried about that damned ox-cart anymore, and they could all get on with the conquest.
In fable, Aesop’s grasshopper, from The Ant and the Grasshopper, is a hammerhead. But only in a certain version of the fable – the one where the grasshopper is not a dissolute slob, the one where he’s just really, really into dancing and singing. It’s the version of the grasshopper with which we can sympathize. It’s the version which exposes the potential meanness of the ant’s viewpoint.
Their noble clarity is why we climb with hammerheads, why we train with them, and why we stick around to pick up the pieces. Because the unaided exponent of the hammerhead mentality is doomed from the start. Nature is bigger than us, and that’s a fact. Some routes will not go. There is a limit to strength, reach, and flexibility. A person can only go without sleep, food and water for so long. You can’t always just push through.
It’s a flaw as well as a merit of the hammerhead mentality that its hold is unwavering by nature, on the outside and on the inside. Once the hammerhead is engaged, it’s too late. The focus takes over and won’t let go, even in the face of impending doom. Nevertheless, we need the hammerhead mentality. At the very least, we have some unique lessons to learn from observing it in action.
The hammerheads have two things to teach the world. The first thing is: they show us how lucky we all really are. We are much more in command of most situations than we imagine, and we shouldn’t always act so surprised about it. If we just set aside our doubts and fears, we could often do more than we imagine. The odds are naturally in our favor.
As climbers, for instance, our eyes are drawn first to the peaks rather than the smooth rock faces. Our digits are shaped to hook over edges and close around corners. The knobby bits at the bottoms of our brains are really good at keeping us in balance. Our fingertips have little ridges on them. The game is rigged in our favor. We just need to know how far we can push our luck, and of course, that’s the problem for hammerheads.
They need to direct themselves at manageable projects. They can’t be allowed to build up too much momentum. In short, they need help, by means of another behavioral model to back them up and good counsel. They need ants. Not the nasty little ants in the bad version of Aesop’s fable, just waiting to say, “told you so,” and slam the door in the grasshopper’s face. They need the clever ants, the ones with some tricks up their sleeves, who can appreciate the merits of the hammerhead mentality and are prepared to compensate for its flaws. This isn’t pure charity on the ants’ part either.
Focus is a necessary virtue, despite the requisite sacrifices. A person fixated on the summit, the anchor chains or the next hold has abandoned their self-control in order to push through. On occasion though, nothing else suffices. We all can – indeed we must – slip into the hammerhead mentality from time to time for good and ill, even if it’s not our policy. That’s the hammerheads’ second lesson. Even a good ant may need an ant in their own head now and again, if not a doppelganger at the other end of the rope. Being the ant at the other end of the rope is just good practice.

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The Art of Losing


So, I had plenty of excuses from the start, which is good. The logistics alone were ambitious. Just getting everything in the car would be hard. We had to fit two dogs, a sled, climbing packs, boots, skis and three people into a compact station wagon. If we cleared that first barrier, we then had to drive the better part of three hours, with a nervous Husky and a Malamute prone to motion sickness crammed in the rear compartment. The concentrated dog breath alone might justify turning around. We had plenty of reasons to fail, but the boys were motivated to go and, more importantly, didn’t know any better. No savvy adults would have consented to the endeavor.


The whole plan was to drive to Ten Sleep Canyon, ski and dog sled 3.5 miles down the fire road on the South side of the canyon to the frozen waterfall on Leigh Creek, climb, and come back. I looked at it as a climbing trip, which is how I rationalized even getting started. You see, no climbing trip can be taken as a given. It’s all provisional – if the weather, if the conditions, if the time, if the guidebook author is not a pathological liar, etc. Unlike some punk-ass managers and motivational speakers who say that planning for failure is planning to fail, climbers assume failure from the start of the expedition. Sure, we count out grams of food, lay out the gear, go through the pack again and again, and memorize route topos, but we also carry along our headlamps, space blankets and stoves. If the outcome of a trip was a foregone conclusion, we would probably stay home and watch a romantic comedy. The principle holds on the level of the meta-trip as well. In the words of my friend Andy, “Always bring all your gear,” on a climbing road trip.

The trick to making it all seem worthwhile is to declare victory early and often. Fitting the gear and the dogs in the car, we win. Arriving at the parking lot with a car free of dog puke, we win. Getting the sled assembled without any missing parts, we win. There is an art to winning the climbing game. There is a very similar art to losing it, too. You want to have a good look before you back off, and know just what you are looking for. You want to know just how thin the ice can be before you won’t risk it. You want to know just how late it can be before you need to turn around. You also want to be able to look for reasons to ignore your metrics. You want to be able to see that the weather man was wrong about the high pressure system or listen to last night’s burrito festering in your guts right at the start of the route.

For us, the snow conditions were the reason. As it crested the Southern rim of the canyon, the sun beat fluffy snowfall from the previous three days into mashed potatoes. By the time we’d gone half way, the dogs had stopped twice and their tongues were slapping their paws as they plodded along. The oldest kid was leaning on the sled handle. We were still on schedule, however.

“We’re just about half-way,” I noted, “Do you want to keep going?”

“Yes!” the older boy snapped.

This is the hammerhead mentality: “I pound on things, and that’s it. Now shut up and show me the next nail.”

It takes a few swings to deflect a hammerhead’s intention. After ten more minutes and a small hill, I asked again.

“Do you want to keep going? We have all this to reverse…”

“No,” he admitted, “Goddamit!”

He was mad at me and the dogs and himself. I assured him though, that we would be back in the next couple of weeks, without the dogs, for a meta-swing, and he was happy again. That is the final piece to the art of losing at climbing – the art of losing without losing. The game is over when you say so. You can always change the rules and call for another period.


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Dear Ueli,

You know what this is about. It’s what everything has been about for – how long has it been – ever? I mean the little dust-up on Everest. Let me reassure you, I am writing as a great admirer and friendly correspondent. You are living the dream, and showing all us amateur climbers how to do it. We are all limited by what we think is possible, and you have made a career of crushing the limits. So I am not a critic, but I do have a concern.

I’m not so worried about the actual events on the Lhotse face. I don’t know shit about Sherpas or their culture, but I am a field observer of human psychology, as a hobby and in my job, and here is how it looks. It appears that the Sherpa crew on the face was pissed because you guys passed them and may have knocked a bit of ice down. As climbers, we know how frustrating it can be to have a stronger team pass us. We accept it as part of the game, though. It’s the same with ice fall; even the best climber is going to knock a little ice down, no matter how careful he or she is trying to be. However, the reaction you got didn’t come from climbers, did it? It came from technicians trying to get a job done.

I’ve tasted that flavor of hostile indignation before. The first time was from a Chicago cop. I used to run a route that took me past a housing project. Rain or shine, I did that run for a year and a half, until the cop stopped me. He didn’t yell or throw rocks at me, but he made it clear that I was not to run the route past the project anymore. Unpleasant legal consequences would follow, he implied, if I did not comply. Before my encounter with the cop in Chicago, I had the naïve idea that laws and cops were there to keep the peace and let the citizens get on with their business. Afterwards, I understood that laws and cops were there to prevent trouble for cops and the legal system. Seems like the situation is the same with the fixed lines on Everest and the people associated with them.

These people – the functionaries of the Big Expeditions to the Classic Routes on the Big Mountains – have a different view of risk than climbers. A climber’s view of risk is like a card player’s. He pushes the chips to the middle of the table and then does his best to get them back. These other people do their best not to have to play the game. Who can blame them? They have a job to do.

Which brings me to my concern. What do you want with mountaineering anyway? We all know that mountaineering is for those who can’t do anything else. Hell, in fifteen years or so, I know I’ll be trading in my tools for a piolet and begging my kids to drag me up some god-forsaken volcano (assuming I live that long). Of course, on Everest you were after the West Ridge, which is not a mountaineer’s route. No doubt you were motivated in part by the tale of the route’s first ascent. I have heard Tom Hornbein talk about the original climb. Even back then, he and Willie Unsoeld had to fight the mountaineering expedition mentality to get to their climb. That mentality is institutionalized now in the environs of all the prominent peaks, high and low. Did you hope to escape it in this day and age on the most prominent peak of them all?

I know you have a job to do too, and you are beholden to the weasels in marketing because of it. However, you shouldn’t feel compelled to stoop to mountaineering. You must realize that the weasels in marketing would rather not have you around. They would prefer an endless parade of reality TV celebrities coming off the summit of the world’s highest. Those wankers come much cheaper and are easier to liquidate. The climbing community would recognize the significance of a West Ridge ascent, but the rest of the world would see only the summit of Everest, and they would be glad that you had finally got there, after all your preliminary fiddling in the Alps.

You ratify the popular perception by adding an Everest summit to your resume, and in the process, you increase the value of wanker stock. To us climbers, you represent the consummate talent and discipline required to push the chips to the middle and reliably pull them back. To the summit industry, you represent recklessness bordering on assholery, by playing your game in their workspace. Even worse, when their stock goes up, yours goes down. As the notoriety of the high summit grows, lending credence to the wankers’ claim (explicit or implicit) that the high summit is the Grand Prize of climbing, the significance of soloing the North Face of the Eiger in a few hours, shrinks.

Don’t get me wrong, an artist like you should do what moves him without listening to anybody else, especially a duffer like me, and if you are moved to go back to climb the West Ridge of Everest, you should. Furthermore, you have nothing to be sorry for regarding the fight with the rope-techs on the Lhotse face. I’ve read all the anti-imperialist narrative and social justice analysis regurgitated in response to this incident. Sherpas attacking a bitchy client is a revolution. Sherpas attacking an independent team of climbers is just a good, old-fashioned turf war. So, I think there’s nothing to stop you from going back in principle, but please consider before you do: Is it good for business?

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Oughto Elimination

CIMG4053“I ought to be able to climb this,” I thought.

My partner agreed. “You got it, man,” he called from the belay.

Of course, the problem was that I didn’t have it. If the helpful blob of ice for my left foot had been there instead of the mushy snow that was, I would have had it. If the sun had not already melted loose the key chunk of ice above my head, I would have had it. If there were a foot hold above the little bump of granite which supported one point of my right crampon, I would have had it.

I pulled sideways on the quarter-inch, diagonal edge which provided the only purchase for the picks of my ice tools on the overhang which I was trying to exit. The ice having proven useless, I tried to clear it from the rock and then ratcheted my way up, fishing for an edge to latch onto with my left tool. Before I found one, my right foot popped off the little bump. My knee took up the counter-pressure before the pick of my right tool popped off the rock.

Pleasantly surprised to find myself still attached to the route, I lowered gently back onto the little bump. Ambition drove me up one more time, with predictable results.

“Not gonna happen today,” I said, “I’m coming down.”


That attempt was my third on the route. We rappelled the three pitches below and descended avalanche debris to the floor of the cirque. As we coiled the ropes, a few tons of wet snow rumbled down a ledge system beside our abandoned line of ascent. We walked back to camp in silence, crawled into the tent and took our boots off.

“Well,” I offered, “we could always go climb at the Tower.”


Few who climb remember the moment they started. The best most of us can do is to recall a time when we realized that we were climbers, but we were well into it by then. It sprouted as an inspiration regardless of the seed. As we acted on the landscape though, it changed our notions of what we could do and what we wanted to do. Aspiration took over from inspiration.

For most of us, ambition came close behind. Everybody’s had a list or project take possession of them for a stretch. In the worst case, our projects frustrated us, wore us down and made us quit, even if we finished them. In the best case, by the time we achieved our ambitions (or at last abandoned them), they had changed us so that the climbs to which we devoted ourselves no longer seemed so hard or so desirable as the routes we had discovered along the way.

Two Winters ago, an old man began to frequent our local ice climbing crag. He was a person of some renown, with many first ascents to his name in the ranges of North America. But, he had never climbed the waterfalls in the South Fork Valley of the Shoshone. He was training for the Valley’s steep cascades with miles of rolling ice between them, by climbing at the little cave we had nicknamed “forty feet of fun”.

His equipment was antiquated, but he wielded it with an ingrained ability reflecting many years of focused movement over ice and snow.  Still, he was slow and the length of his reach and the height of his steps betrayed the effects of 70 years of mountain travel on joints and tendons. He must have known what he was doing, so he must have known that his chances of getting up any of the climbs in the South Fork were extremely slim.

Finally, I had to ask, “What do you plan to climb in the Valley?”

“I don’t know,” he said, “I’m just going to go and see.”

A puzzled smirk spread over his face as he spoke, and I began to suspect. I’d felt the same expression of bemusement on my own face on occasion, after pulling a hard crux, usually on a “project”, when I couldn’t recall the moves involved or even how hard they felt. Then I would walk around for the rest of the day with the fading suspicion that maybe I didn’t climb it, maybe I fell off and even died, but had lost the capacity to notice in the process. Maybe the old guy felt that way all the time now; I didn’t ask about it or anything else, and I never found out how his trip turned out.


Back in the tent, both of us stared at the nylon floor for a few moments.

Then my partner lifted his head and replied, “You know, climbing at Devils Tower has been on my list for a long time.”

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The Dry Cat Food Paradox

So close, yet so far...the Tetons

So close, yet so far…the Tetons

I’ve recently had the privilege of attending a continuing education conference in Jackson, Wyoming. As a climber who thinks of himself as primarily an alpinist headed to the Tetons, I should have felt like the proverbial cat who ate the canary. Instead, I left my gear in the basement. It wouldn’t have fit in the car with all the ski equipment and clothes anyway (the whole family of four was signed up for the trip). It wouldn’t have done me any good even if it did fit. Four months out of the year, those mountains are shut down due to a horrendous snowpack. When conditions allow, the climbing is still high up and far back.

It turns out that it is almost as hard for a climber to subsist on Teton routes as it is for a cat to live on hunted birds. Signs of compensation for these difficulties were everywhere in Jackson. Right around the corner from the conference center, was a sign for the “Teton Ice Park”. When the first morning of lectures ended, I walked up to take a look. What I saw was the result of  a noble effort, but one obviously born of desperation. An enterprising guide service had run a few hoses over a 40 ft. retaining wall to produce about five, moderately-angled chunks of ice. The ice park rented gear, but I decided to utilize a different compensatory facility – the climbing gym just outside of town. It turned out to be quite nice.


Back in the conference center that evening, I was mulling over the dissonance of indoor climbing in the Tetons when the next set of lectures began. Maybe I should have been paying better attention to the speakers. However, it was a series about nutrition, and though the subject is interesting, the hard science behind it could be covered in about fifteen minutes rather than the three hours allotted  As I considered my Teton climbing experience, I kept coming back to the viewpoint which kept me in the Black Hills for all these years: alpine climbing is more about training than actually climbing. Adaptation to harder routes in the mountains paradoxically required less time climbing mountains. Living in a place like Jackson resulted in strong legs and weak skills. Unless a climber availed himself of  an artificial training facility, the volume of technical climbing needed to improve was just not accessible, at least to anyone with a job. My mind wandered back to the lecturer. He was talking about the Paleo Diet and I found it strangely relevant to the contradictions involved in trying to be a good alpine climber.

Guide service storefront.

Guide service storefront.

This diet is supposed represent our nutritional heritage. It encompasses the type and mix of foodstuffs our hunter-gatherer ancestors adapted to eat. Therefore, runs the logic of the diet’s proponents, it is the mix of foods that we ought to eat to  maximize our health and longevity. On the menu is lots of meat and a few plants. Grains and legumes are out. We should eat more like cats than cows, the speaker admonished. To back up his assertion, he flashed a slide on the screen with a picture of a cat at the top and a chart favorably comparing the body compositions of hunter-gatherers with those of cats.

The picture looked a little like my cat, but my cat thrives on dry cat food. I say “thrives”, because I have a dietary comparison-state for her. She was a stray who showed up in our garage when the weather got cold. Before coming to live in our house, she had, in fact, been subsisting on the cat version of the Paleo Diet – fresh, free-range mouse and bird meat. She wasn’t doing so well. She was thin and listless. After a few weeks living inside and dining on kibbles, however, she was tearing around the house like a maniac, destroying rolls of toilet paper and climbing the curtains.

Here are the first four ingredients listed on her cat food label: chicken by-product meal, corn grits, chicken fat, tuna, brewer’s rice. One would expect a wild cat to catch birds, but I doubt one ever took down a tuna, much less an ear of corn or rice. Still, a cat’s ability to live a long and active life eating nothing but rock-hard brown morsels shouldn’t surprise us. Evolution makes the most  of things, not necessarily the best of things. Wild cats developed the capacity to survive on mice and birds. Cats are therefore well suited to that diet. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a diet better suited to cats. Perhaps humans are much the same.

A subsequent  slide showed a Kung! tribesman butchering an antelope with a stone tool, and then a chart with cholesterol levels and heart disease rates demonstrating the sterling health of various modern hunter-gatherers. Unfortunately, the health data for the Tarahumara, a group of indigenous people living in Mexico and renowned for their feats of long-distance running, look just as good. The Tarahumara subsist primarily on corn, beans, chiles, and beer.The answer to this dietary conundrum is not found in the diet, but what comes with the diet. Both the Kung! and the Tarahumara are incredibly active, and they do not suffer from surplus. The Paleo diet is not the answer to our health problems. No such simple answer exists.

Of course, there are limits imposed by natural adaptation and on artificial adaptation. Artificial answers are also incomplete. To be a good alpinist, one must climb a certain number of big routes in the mountains. But plate after plate of summits will limit a climber’s potential in the end. Though it isn’t complete in itself, some artifice is required as well. Likewise, when my cat came to live in the house, she didn’t just get dry food, she got a warm, stress-free place to sleep, immunizations, and anti-parasitic medicine. I’m sure she would not be so healthy if we limited our involvement with her to setting out a plate of kibbles on the driveway.

Of the billions of humans alive now, most are suffering from the short-comings of an agricultural, and subsequently an industrial, society and a few are suffering from its excesses. As the most realize the economic, social and technological benefits which drove the move to agriculture in the first place, they no longer get the grace period which the few enjoyed. The harms of excess come right along with the initial development. We can’t simply go back, though. Solutions will require some artifice, and may have an unsatisfying appearance – less like grass-fed beef  and more like a bowl of dry cat food or an indoor climbing gym in the Tetons.

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Weird Seasonal Activities

It’s time to be mixed up. A little good-humored anarchy prepares us for the fearful chaos of winter climbing.

This isn’t mixed climbing, where one foot is on rock and the other is on ice. This is climbing rock with ice tools.

Without crags developed for climbing with tools and crampons, it would be nearly impossible to be an ice climber living in the Black Hills. Being an alpine climber would  be entirely impossible. But with our specialized crags, when the waterfalls finally freeze in Cody and the faces and gullies ice up in the Big Horns, Tetons and Canadian Rockies, our strength and balance are tuned up and with a few swings of the ice tools to knock the rust off, we are back in the game.

Now,we just wait for the cold.


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In the climbing culture , there is an ongoing dispute about who is a “real climber”, who is a poser, and how the two may be differentiated. The distinction between real climbers and posers is stark in some cases. Most of the folks on reality TV shows about Everest expeditions are posers. Most of the suburbanites dangling from top-ropes at the climbing gym are posers. Yet, even these most benighted dabblers are at constant risk of becoming real climbers.  The only thing separating them from real climbers is commitment, and even in the gym or on the snow slope, given time, a moment of commitment will come. Then, provided they don’t simply turn away, the basest poser may get real.

The addiction to commitment is what distinguishes all real climbers. Addiction is normal for humans. By the broadest definition, we are addicted to all sorts of pleasant things, from food to companionship. We are not normally addicted to unpleasant things, like commitment. We tend to see people’s repeated forays into piercing or swimming in frozen lakes as borderline pathological. Nevertheless, some folks are addicted to these things too, and the climber’s addiction to commitment belongs in the same category.

Now, religious types and other defenders of the social order may object to the characterization of commitment as unpleasantness. They are wrong, of course. Commitment presumes change and uncertainty. The psychology literature is clear on the effect of change and uncertainty on a person’s stress level, and the effect is not salutary. What makes commitment in climbing addictive is the same thing that makes other unpleasant things addictive: commitment moves us toward reconciliation of our core contradiction.

The sense that we are conscious undergirds everything we think and do. Many definitions of this essential quality exist, with some of those definitions occupying volumes of text. A simple, adequate definition is possible though. Consciousness is the perception of identity. We say we are conscious when we perceive ourselves as distinct from other perceptual objects. But we can never directly experience our identity, we can only perceive it as we perceive other things inside and outside of us. As we gain experience, we see our identity change, not spontaneously, but by means of interaction with other perceptual objects. We begin to suspect that our identity is contingent on history and relations with other objects, while our consciousness still tells us that our identity is necessarily independent. We have a central contradiction growing in us from the moment we first see ourselves.

Seeking out unpleasant experiences is rebellion against our core contradiction. When we hurt ourselves a little bit, we deny the preciousness of identity, and so relieve a little bit of the tension between what we actually experience and what our consciousness is telling us we experience. The more so when we make a commitment, especially in climbing. To commit to a difficult move or a difficult climb, we have to write off our future and make a dispassionate assessment of our past and the capabilities which our history reflects. We are committing to the climb, and also committing to the notion that our identity is not independent, precious or permanent. The resolution of our essential tension has nothing to do with wholesome exercise or achievement, but it lurks just behind those inviting, pleasant aspects of climbing, waiting to snare the unwary poser and make them a real climber.

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Climbing is generally misunderstood. The sport’s diversity alone makes it opaque. The motivations of mountaineers, sport climbers, boulderers, alpinists and aid climbers are inherently heterogeneous solely based on the nature of the climbing discipline each group pursues. Add to that inherent diversity the large number of  dilettantes and duffers which climbing attracts; participants who themselves do not appreciate all the possible benefits and dangers the sport offers. Little wonder the public sees climbing as a sort of gray soup with a troubling  aroma, which would be a puzzling thing to sample voluntarily.

Among the various disciplines in climbing, soloing is the hardest to understand. Abandoning all safety equipment save one’s own body and adjunctive tools may appear foolish, bold, transcendent, or egotistical depending on the observer. It is a challenging taste for climbers and non-climbers alike.

To be clear, soloing means intentionally trying something hard without a rope, not accidentally venturing into a climb or die situation. Everyone has one or two of those in their closet. Nor does it mean dispensing with protection on ground one dominates. Purposefully entering a situation in doubt with the understanding that there will be no salvation takes something different and gives something different than those incidental circumstances.  Much, perhaps most, of the climbing community disavows it. But the truth is, most who participate in the sport have pursued it at some point. That’s logical, since soloing is the only reproducible means of achieving one of the unique benefits of climbing: self-destruction.

We all harbor the urge. Who hasn’t felt the fleeting impulse to steer into a bridge abutment or fought the pull of the abyss while looking over the edge of a precipice? This impulse to rebel against the rules of self-control is quite reasonable. After all, our identity is just a convention. It is a yoke imposed by the thin layer of cells covering our brains on all the structures beneath. To have any hope of success, the self must be founded on a tyrannical belief in its own preciousness, only then does it have the strength to make the rest submit to the restrictions inherent in its own preservation.

This product of the cortex is illusory. Ever since we became aware, we have tried to wipe away the limits which the illusion imposes. Our religious history is a chronicle of such efforts and their failures. We have a messiah who cried out for himself from the cross. We have scores of Bodhisattvas, but no more Buddhas. Rather than unshackling us from our identity, religion has settled for turning the self against its own weaknesses, but the project of making us “good” has  always been play-acting. Our consistent hypocrisy shows what a poor compromise it’s been. We were fools to think we could shake our identities in the presence of others. The only place to remove the self is in isolation, where it has no hope of salvation from outside.

I have done a few solo climbs, but most were on the soft side. They were climbs I had done before with a rope or technically in little doubt. A couple have been for real, though, and the Black Ice Couloir was the realest of those. The route is not particularly hard from a technical standpoint. However, it is an alpine climb with attendant difficulties, including loose rock and variable ice conditions. At the time I climbed it, it was only a couple of grades below what I had ever climbed in the mountains and I was equipped with straight shaft tools, plastic boots and Foot Fang crampons. I wasn’t set to dominate the terrain.

I hiked up Valhalla Canyon the afternoon before the climb and tucked myself under a rock for the night. Several times on the walk up, I changed my mind. Immobility, nightfall and the confines of the bivy sack did nothing to ease the turmoil. Through the night I picked away at my fears with my ambition until both were in tatters. At about 2 AM, there was nothing left but the decision to climb. I sat quiet for two more hours, waiting for the alarm.

I moved up the first icefield by headlamp, and climbed a short, steep chimney on the right side of the headwall. A section of easy climbing passed quickly and I arrived at the second icefield with the light of day. Up to that point, I had felt calm, almost empty, but as I moved onto the ramp above the icefield, an intense focus and motivation took hold. Every move was perfect. A bolt of lightning couldn’t strike me from the rock. The traverse across the third icefield and the climb up the final gully seemed to pass in no time. The short mixed section where the ice ended felt so secure I wished it could go on forever.

Back in the sun, I made my way down to the lower saddle, lay down on the tundra and went to sleep. When I woke, I set off down Garnet Canyon and on to a path of destruction in the world beyond. I tried to bring that sense of perfection and unitary movement with me, to recreate it in the populated world. Of course, it stayed in the mountains, but the expectation was a portable hazard. A hard object, it battered everything softer than itself.

People and their things cannot reproduce the rewards of soloing, despite humans’ capacity to have those experiences for themselves. The preparatory tear-down itself precludes it. Doing that to yourself is illuminating; doing it to somebody else is just plain nasty. Besides, perfect things are transitory by nature. Held closed in memory or kept as principle, they turn rancid, however gently they are tended.

I haven’t done any more solos. Perhaps someday I will again, when I’m no longer wrapped up with other people or when I’ve honed my schizophrenia to an edge sharp enough to cleanly divide climbing from everything else. Until then, I’ll use a rope to protect me from falls and dangerous expectations.

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Republican politicians be talkin’ bout risk:

Dependency is death to initiative, to risk-taking and opportunity. It’s time to stop the spread of government dependency and fight it like the poison it is.”                                – Mitt Romney

I’d like to extend an open invitation to Mitt, to go climb the East Ridge of Edith Cavell with me.

Now, I am rich in climbing skills compared to Mitt. Still, I expect him to be true to his convictions and simul-solo it with me. No matter how he begs, I promise not to poison him with dependency on the rope. Naahhh…

I’m not in it to demonstrate my superiority; there’s always somebody better. I’m not in it to tag summits or tick off numbers, those are empty pursuits and they denigrate the game. I’m in it to climb the hell out of everything I possibly can, and sometimes, that takes a rope, especially if you are going to take risks. It also takes a partner that’s got your back, even if you screw up.

So, I’ll throw the rope down when it gets to be too much. I’ll even bail if you can’t take the exposure, Mitt. I won’t sneer or otherwise be nasty about it either. I’ll do all those things because I value the society that the rope entails and because I am not a Republican politician. You don’t have to be either; I believe it’s not too late.

Oh, and if you feel like you aren’t up to it physically, Paul Ryan has made that same sort of statement, why don’t you send him in your stead. That little bitch is supposed to be in shape, isn’t he? I believe it may be too late for him, though – too much Ayn Rand.  That shit is poison.

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Spray and Beta : Climbing Social Media

In college freshman English, we had to read Beowulf. The assignment was onerous for most of my classmates, but one woman seemed to suffer above all. She sighed and rolled her eyes through every class discussion; I expected a convulsion at any moment.

And finally, it came. During a passage where the hero holds forth about what he’s going to do to Grendel’s mama, she burst out, “You know, that’s what I hate about Beowulf. He’s constantly bragging and showing off. In fact that’s all this whole story has been about. It is the shallowest thing I’ve ever read!”

I was dumbfounded. “No,” I offered,” it’s not bragging, it’s a kind of oath. He says all those things, in front of those people, there’s no way he can come back empty-handed.”

Beowulf’s soliloquy was Spray. Even back then, when I was a measly scrambler armed with a piolet, the climber inside me recognized it. Since the beginning, when climbers have encountered other climbers, they have sprayed about what they did and what they were going to do. From Cham, to Sheffield, to Camp 4, if you talked smack to those in the know, when you sobered up the next day, you had to fulfill your destiny.

My brother used to yell at the TV. He had all kinds of advice for the Dallas Cowboys’ offensive squad. He really did know something about football and often the coaches would actually do what he yelled at them. Nevermind he had never played football. And, he was 12 years old. But he didn’t seriously think he was advising the team. The tirade was just a means of vicarious participation. In climbing terms, it was Beta.

Spray and Beta are not such bad things in person. You can see the sprayer getting wound up to do something. The Beta, though it can be a little much, has an encouraging tone. However, Spray and Beta shifted to the internet, stripped of tone and context, come across like bragging and showing off, and the result is the shallowest thing you’ve ever read: climbing social media.

Of course, few things are all bad. The four main climbing sites, (Mountain Project, Rockclimbing.com, Summitpost, and Supertopo), have some great photos, gear reviews and  trip reports. In other words, with some editing they’d make decent online magazines. The problem is, they don’t have a good editing process and they don’t want to just be magazines, they want to be guidebooks and chatrooms as well.

The community content guidebook is a guaranteed failure. A good guidebook gives the reader a sense of the area, provides inspiration and gives enough specific information to get a climber up the routes without sucking the adventure out of it. To effectively accomplish those tasks, the guidebook needs the unity of purpose a single author/editor provides. Otherwise, it ends up a pile of puke – you can sort out a few savory bits, but they are partially digested and tainted by the mix.

A chatroom might seem like the ideal internet venue for climber Spray, but think back to Beowulf for a moment. When he stood up to Spray, the audience could see his scars, his sword, and the crazy in his eyes, and he could see that they were not much different. Participants in an online forum are just lines of type with silly pictures next to them. The people behind the words may be anchored to their chairs, a wide load in their khakis, a coke and a sandwich their only comrades. In such circumstances, Spray inevitably devolves to wanking.

So, save yourself the trouble and buy a reputable guidebook if you want to go climb in a new area. And if you want to look online for information or inspiration, stick to regional sites like Gravsports or Montanaice.

 But for those who love bad movies, Twinkies and True Stories of the Highway Patrol and can’t help but lurk – I mean look (and I’ll confess to all of  that), here’s a quick rundown of your climbing social media choices:

Supertopo: Cali-centric with some (intentionally) amusing forum topics and good gear reviews. Typical user may have some difficulty urinating, may also be a member of Mountain Project. Mostly about rock climbing.






Summitpost: Cosmopolitan, with the best fund of information. Typical user is chronically constipated, may also be a member of  14er’s.com and eHarmony. Mostly about mountaineering.






Rockclimbing.com: Some interesting and (unintentionally) amusing forum topics. Typical user sleeps in a bed that has a canopy or is shaped like a race car, may also be a member of Access Fund and Explorer Scouts. Mostly about what the name says, more sport than trad.





Mountain Project: Colorado-centric with great photos. Typical user owns a letter jacket and loves to give nuggies, may also be a member of Supertopo or Summitpost and a porn site. Mostly about trad climbing.

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