Tag Archives: ice climbing

Racing the End-Times

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I pirouetted around the man in the tiny atrium and past the slowly closing glass door. It was an unusual way to enter McDonald’s, so I thought at first that he gave me an odd glance in return for the odd maneuver. But as I joined the line, just before the end of breakfast service on Saturday morning, he looked at me again in the same way. Then I recognized him, as well.
“Hello,” I said, extending my hand.
“Hey,” he smiled, “here to climb?”
“Yep,” I replied, “Good to see you.”
“Likewise. What are you going to do?”
“Joy After Pain.”
“Oh,” he nodded, “That’s huge this year. Well, have fun. I’m shopping with the kids today, so…”
“I know how that is,” I said, “Good luck.”
He didn’t seem concerned about the time, but neither was I. We were coming home in the dark. We might as well live it up.
We ate our sausage and egg biscuits on the way out to the Valley.
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It had been cold in the Valley. Ice had formed back up on the North wall, and it would stay for the day, at least. It was cold, with temperatures in the teens. It even looked like Ovisight was accessible. We looked to the shade though, to the South wall of the Valley, where the ice would be old, cold and brittle. It was formed as well, though the base of our objective tapered ominously. We did not care. We had our decision, and we had the word, and the word was “huge”.
Two other cars sat in the pull-out across from the ranch’s mailbox. One party was visible on Moratorium.
We did not see tracks on the intermittent snowfields on the way to the wooded slopes below our objective, but we met the second party at the tree-line.
“We have guns,” the older fellow joked.
I wasn’t going to race them to the base of the climb. We were coming home in the dark, and there was room at the base to stand and wait if need be.
We walked with them for a ways, up the steep, left side of the drainage. Then, they broke right and fell slightly behind.
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I could not see them as we rounded the last, bulging shoulder of the streambed and saw the first pitch fully revealed. Still, I heard them, although I could not make out the words. The tone was plain enough: dismay and disgust. The base of the pitch was a thin, tapering pillar – translucent and gray. I wasn’t deterred. Somehow, “huge” had lodged in my mind, and it made the sight reassuring. The pillar looked well rooted, despite the fact that I could wrap one arm around its connection to the ice sheet below it.
Before I started up, I hit it with the side of my ice tool. It didn’t come crashing down and it produced a deep, resonant note. It would be fine, if I just didn’t hit it too hard, or at all. Fortunately, it had plenty of feature – blobs, divots and candles. I tapped and hooked for thirty feet up to the point where the ice attached to the cliff face and it was safe to place a screw.
The angle eased soon after, and the primary difficulty became the hard and brittle state of the medium.
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We anchored at the very end of the rope and climbed a deceptively steep and rotted pitch above. There was a short walk with a solo step and then a short, solid roped pitch.
We climbed another ice ramp and finally stood beneath the two-tiered, final pitch. It was four thirty in the evening.
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The next day, Mike’s breakfast sandwich would have its revenge, and the fish hatchery climb would melt out before we arrived. The pitch at Leigh Creek would seem too anticlimactic. We should grasp at every last foot of climbing, being practitioners of what is possibly a dying art. But we wouldn’t, because it would be art for us alone, and a ridiculous thing or a cheap thrill for the rest of the world. It must be right for us if it were to make sense at all.
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We would save the last pitch of Joy After Pain too. It was blue and intricate, and flowing with water – huge. And it was in the shade, so it would be there when the sun-side languished. We would come back to climb it in the light.

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The Discontented Future

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Broken pillars cluttered the slope. Winter had come to this. False starts, collapsing possibilities, and ruined glory lay across the span of weeks between the first snowfall and the now-inevitable warm-up. I loaded the Soloist and began to climb.
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My swing was still good. Over the preceding couple of seasons, I had passed a threshold. My technical skills no longer seemed to deteriorate over the long warm spells. My performance on ice now depended almost exclusively on psychology, and my psychology today was fueled by anger.
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Maybe this Winter was an aberration, but I suspected that it wasn’t. Things were changing; the climate was changing. I’d made a vow, back when rumors of soft and liquid Winters first circulated. When the day came that ice climbing ended, and I had no more use for my crampons, I’d clip them to my boots one more time and kick the nearest climate-change-denying Republican politician in the ass. I felt the time coming.
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The column of ice I’d chosen was forty five feet tall, and beginning to deteriorate. It was a bit of a risk, and a little silly. It was so short, and it was wet and manufactured. I could hear cars on the road down in the canyon. I had followed a tourist’s Yak-trax prints up the trail to get here. I knew that I would find a PVC pipe leaking water over the cliff band at the top of the ice. There was no wild beauty or uniqueness to be found here. The pillar’s existence was all that recommended it.
The bottom took a light touch. It was wet and brittle ice. It tolerated only one, gentle swing per placement. I weight tested each tool before committing to it. I placed the crampon points in little divots in the ice, rather than kicking the spikes into the column. I waited to place the first ice screw until I was well off the ground. I had picked the spot from below, and it turned out to be as good as I had expected.
The ice improved after the first piece of gear. Above a small roof, it took a full swing. My anger transformed, clarified in the movement. Another ice screw and a few more swings led to a different game on the thin steps of low-angle ice at the top. I grabbed a tree and stepped over the PVC pipe.
I fancied another lap then. I was done being angry. I knew that the anger arose from fear of loss, and a deeper fear of loss than the fear of losing cold seasons. It came from the fear that I might someday no longer be a climber and find myself looking at the world from the same viewpoint as those cramponned-boot-in-the-ass-deserving politicians. It was a fear that I was losing. As more days like today passed, I felt more and more certain that I would not habitually trade an ‘is’ for an ‘ought’. I would not stop paying attention. I would not find myself trading real days for fears of an imagined future and its glories at risk.
As the ice receded, I would move higher. I would take notice of the boulders that had been hidden under permanent snowfields. My tools would scratch more rock. At last, I would walk up glaciers covered with rubble, arthritic knees aching, tottering on my piolet, and feel no different than I did at the top of the little pillar today.
As I set up the rappel, words from a Howlin’ Wolf song began to run through my mind:

I have enjoyed things that kings and queens never have – things that kings and queens can’t never get. And they don’t even know about ’em.

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May be I was still a little angry. Yeah, fuck them, another lap.

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Here We Go

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It may not have been a Polar Vortex, but the lack of marketing didn’t make it any warmer. It was perfect. The climb opposite the Ten Sleep fish hatchery formed in such circumstances.
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What better way to begin the year than with a test of nerve and commitment rather than strength and skill?
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The temperature was in the teens, but in the sun, we could climb in a single layer.
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It was a race on tiptoes. The screws were melting out (I cleaned most of them by a simple pull on the way down). The ice was thin and poorly bonded. If I climbed it enough times over the seasons, the day would come when it cracked and slid under my pick.
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But that day did not come.
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It was a beautiful day.

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The Hammerhead Mentality

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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.
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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.
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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.
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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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New Moon

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“Do you want to do the top half?”, I asked.
“Yes!”, he insisted.
He was offended that I’d doubted his motivation. For him, this was the advantage of climbing with his dad: he needn’t feign disaffection.
“OK,” I replied.
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I kept my tone as flat as possible, but I had my doubts. I could dumb down the next 30 meters, but only to a point. The easiest line was still grade 4+ – vertical, more or less. He wasn’t too worried about whether or not he could get up it. He was not a child anymore, but he was not an adult yet, either. He still subscribed to the quaint notion that, whatever happened, dad would sort it out. Actually, he was right in the case at hand. I wouldn’t have suggested that he continue without a back-up plan in mind. I could manage things if he quit in the middle, but it would be a real pain in the ass.
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I placed quite a few screws on the way up, in part to keep him on the easiest line, in part to keep him out of the way if I had to come back down and sort it out should he fail. But he didn’t fail. He didn’t even make any whiney noises, only one curse at a slight slip. Besides that curse, the only sound from him was the measured, heavy breathing of the highly determined.
“Kind of overkill on the ice screws, dad,” he remarked at the top, “What is this climb called?”
“Leigh Creek,” I answered.
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He never asked about names or ratings last year. He’d exhibited some ambition. It was a sure sign of lycanthropy. I envied him in a way. I remembered the transformation well – the ravenous fixation on routes, the immunity to adversity, the anticipation of new phases building to the next big climb and its fearful, all-consuming fury.
I also remembered the frustrations of hiding an identity which others found strange, frightening and repulsive.
“What,” I asked family and friends, “you want to go to the beach in February? Well, that’s a very bad time for me. It’s the busy season at work and I’m likely to be so irritable as to be indisposed.”
“May? I’m scheduled to be in Canada in May,” I’d object, “and you’d hate to see what happens if I don’t make that appointment.”
“The city in August? With all those people?” I’d demur, “Could be a little, ah, dangerous at that time, I think. I tend to be in a bit of a ‘mood’ then. Best not.”
There was a downside, but for the afflicted there was no cure. I set up the ropes to descend. He stood by with a hint of a smile on his face and a hungry look in his eyes.
“Can we go to Cody next year?” he asked.
I looked him up and down. He was getting meaty. Soon he’d be heavy enough to belay me without a bottom anchor. I felt my lips creep back over my teeth.
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“Sure,” I said, “We’ve got this Summer to get through, but yeah, we’ll go to Cody next season, if you’re still up for it.”

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This Is Going to Feel a Little Weird

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No parking on any street. Fee area. Do not walk on the ski trail.
“This belongs to Charlie,” I thought, “and Charlie sure don’t surf.”
But Charlie owns the guys who write the tickets and pack the wheel boots. My friend Tim got a ticket the last time we were in Vail. I remember it because the fine made him swear – and he’s an orthopedic surgeon. I parked where the signs told me to park, and learned to hate Colorado just a little more. I’d come back to climb, though. I had to grudgingly admit that the climbing was good enough to make the Hippie/Richie Redneck ecosystem survivable.
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I had a little more hatin’ to do as we crossed the ski trail. I was a terrible skater, but I left better tracks than those, over drifts and deer tracks no less. They needed a little de-grooming. But then we got the nice boot packed trail to the Designator amphitheater. It was worth it. The Rigid Designator was a pitted, overhanging hook-fest up the middle, but had a nice line on the left.

Left side of the Designator

Left side of the Designator


Just before we finished our second lap on the climb, I got a call from my oldest son. Cell service at the base of the ice – another Colorado aberration.
“We’re done and we’re standing at the Hotel where the gondola starts and we’re cold. Come get us.”
He is still learning the new way of things.
“Take the shuttle back to our Hotel,” I replied, “You have the key and I have food for you in the room. Do you remember which bus to take and the room number?”
“Yeah,” he answered with renewed confidence, “OK.”
He is almost there; soon I will be wishing he really needed me again.
Firehouse area

Firehouse area


Rich was a very good sport about it all. We packed up after the second lap and headed back to town.
The next day we went to the Firehouse area for some easy ice and mixed. With the rope through the anchors, however, our eyes began to stray to the scratch marks below the roofs and smears of ice. We didn’t come to Vail to top-rope, but we did it anyway despite the damage to our arms. At least hanging out in a practice area gained us some information. Rifle was in, said the guide belaying down the way.
A sample of the Rifle photo-doc.

A sample of the Rifle photo-doc.


Rifle was a bit of a drive. It made me too nervous to leave the younger boy on his own while we were climbing over an hour away. Lucky for us, he had had enough snowboarding for the time being (When his legs get sore, he stops. We should probably bring him along more often.). He agreed to be our documentarian for the day.
Final Curtain, Rifle

Final Curtain, Rifle


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Preparing to climb Stone Free. I felt the route offered some good potential for action shots, but the photographer disagreed. Plus he was working on a new high score in Temple Run.

Preparing to climb Stone Free. I felt the route offered some good potential for action shots, but the photographer disagreed. Plus he was working on a new high score in Temple Run.


Having climbed out Rifle, we were back to the amphitheater for the big blow-out. Rich was set on the Fang. I had no interest. It was too damned wet. I wouldn’t be short of alternatives anyway. The lads had been busy while we were away. The last time I’d been standing behind the Fang, it had been easy to sort out the clip-ups on the cavern wall. Amphibian was the one on the right and the other one was Fatman and Robin. Now we had to ask the college kids who walked up behind us, which was which. Even so, I’m not sure what I climbed. I’d always wanted to do Seventh Tentacle, since I’d climbed Frigid Inseminator during my last visit. It was kind of a Robert Frost thing – “Two routes diverged on the crappy rock..” and I always wondered what the other one was like. Whatever it was, it was steep and led to the dry, left side of the hanging ice.

Up to that point, I’d remained unaffected by my single-parenthood. But the ice was brittle and my arms were tired from the day before. My swing was just sloppy enough to shatter large plates in the ice instead of driving the pick in cleanly. Normally, I’d need three ice screws to feel like the upper section was a sure thing. I was down to my last one with about twenty five feet to go.
Right after my wife died, I promised my boys that I would never voluntarily leave them. I could make no promises about objective hazards, but the subjective ones, I would avoid. I did have more screws, clipped to the rope below me. I down climbed to the last one which would prevent a ground-fall, pulled it, and climbed back up. I could feel the vibration of Rich’s teeth grinding, but he said nothing.
“Thanks for your patience,” I told him back on the ground.

The Fang

The Fang


We took a run at Amphibian a bit later, but we were too whipped to get past the fourth or fifth bolt. I think we were just not very motivated either. Things had changed all around since the last time we were on the route. Our practice crag at Whitewood now had climbing just as hard or even harder. I can’t say we were disappointed, just a little wistful. That’s the way it is with climbing. Nobody gets an olympic medal. Maybe you win a Golden Ice Axe someday, but the next morning some punk kid will hike your prize route and then retro bolt it. And the rest of the world honors your achievement even less than that punk kid. But that’s how it should be. We’d be back to climb Amphibian for the enjoyment rather than the achievement. I knew we’d be back because I still hadn’t climbed the route down the way, Octopussy, and I wouldn’t be a real mixed climber until I’d climbed Octopussy

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The Art of Losing

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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.

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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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So far, Sooo Good

Crazy Mountains from Mission Creek

Crazy Mountains from Mission Creek

It started during a warm spell in Montana.

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We almost got skunked.

Prospectors' abandoned equipment up Mission Creek - they got skunked.

Prospectors’ abandoned equipment up Mission Creek – they got skunked.

But not quite.

Das Ist Eis, Mission Creek, Montana

Das Ist Eis, Mission Creek, Montana

Then it got cold, and the South Fork went nuts.

Moonrise

Moonrise

Pillar of Pain

Pillar of Pain

Enjoying the Pain

Enjoying the Pain

At last! Scratch My Itchy. (Damn, I need to do some squats...)

At last! Scratch My Itchy. (Damn, I need to do some squats…)

Everything I always hoped. Must have walked up there twenty times before to find the pillar broken off.

Everything I always hoped. Must have walked up there twenty times before to find the pillar broken off.

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Success Is Just Another Word for Something Left to Lose

Sixty degrees was the forecast high temperature for the next day. Standing in the Hyalite parking area, we felt some bitterness at having squandered our forty degree day. A bit of information would be our only solace. We had just come down from having a look at the route, Zack Attack. There are some things in climbing for which I would risk serious injury or death. I could now declare: Zack Attack was not one of them. That’s all our best weather day would yield, and it was a brand of success, I suppose.
In our defense, it was very hard to judge the nature or condition of the first pitch from the road. So, first thing in the morning, we labored up the valley wall, bypassing the unformed steps of easy ice which would have made the approach entertaining in itself. When we arrived at the base of the climb, we saw that the reports of “all ice” were outdated. Several warm days had cleared the first short corner of its climbable adornment. The naked corner wasn’t much to look at – a collection of blocks and frozen turf. Except it wasn’t frozen. As I climbed up to have a look, my ice tools cut into the clumps of grass with light pressure from my wrists. Some of the blocks shifted ever so slightly under the crampon points.
As I looked up the route, the only obvious gear placements appeared to involve similar sets of blocks and flakes. The climbing didn’t look desperate, but the protection was illusory at best. In short, it was uninspiring. Besides, others were waiting by that time.
A team had come up to stand in line while I was scoping out the first pitch. Their persistence despite our priority and the look in the eye of the younger one made my decision even easier. I climbed down. Back on the snow platform, I let the guy with the look know what I’d seen. I knew he wouldn’t heed my assessment; this route obviously meant something to him. We watched the other for a bit before heading down.
He moved up to the first cam placement behind a flake, plugged in the gear and moved on, fifteen, then twenty feet to the next, similar opportunity. Eventually he found something which looked like it might hold a fall, just ten feet below the crux. He paused to think about his situation for several minutes and we took our leave. I knew what was coming and I didn’t want to stay and watch.
Like Lot’s wife though, we were compelled to look back as we picked our way down the slope, and he moved ten, then twenty feet above his last good protection. He was driven right by the difficulties of the route onto ground which the guidebook describes as “sporty”, shorthand for unprotectable. Now at least thirty feet out, he stood for an hour in one spot, searching for gear or another way forward. Finally accepting the fact that the nature of his situation was plain climb or die, he made the moves left and up, achieving easier ground atop the crumbly slabs.
For my part, I’m glad he made it and I didn’t. He has a story to tell now, and a good one. It will be the kind of story I was recalling as I frowned up at the blocks and dirty slabs from the start of the route, and I’ve enough of them, thank you.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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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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