Tag Archives: South Fork of the Shoshone

One Word

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The pick bounced. I hadn’t dropped my elbow at the end of the swing. If the pitch had been steeper, the little tweak would have been unnecessary, and the stick would have been good. Because of things like the swing tweak, I never liked WI 4 as much as the steeper stuff. Sure, your forearms don’t burn, and all the gear placements are solid, but it somehow felt more insecure.

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I looked down at the teenager freezing in the drainage at the base of the climb. He was learning that hours and hours of playing Overwatch were not adequate preparation for climbing in the Valley, among other things.

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When he was 5 years old, I carried him up the last 1/3 of the gully to the Abbot Pass hut. That was the last time he had been in the real mountains, before this. He had surely forgotten the feeling of insufficiency in the face of the real mountains’ light and space, because he did not stand unsupported in it for long. A little house, lashed to the saddle between Mt. Victoria and Mt. LeFroy, had rescued him from the exposure.

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At the time, he pinged around the hut, euphoric, with tears from the gully climb still drying on his cheeks. From a kindergartener’s perspective, the whole thing was an adventure curated by his parent. His tired legs and cold hands served the story and, given the hut, were not real concerns after all.

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Subsequent experience had put mountain fairytales on the shelf. On this trip, he got the larger narrative that the child could not grasp. The cold was not a bit-player. No curator stood between you and the drop. Ambition and inspiration did not necessarily see one through.

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I looked up at the rest of the pitch. It was almost done. The angle eased above, and I could see a nice, flat spot for the belay, just below the accumulation zone where old snow undermined the solidity of the ice.

The route then followed a broad ledge rightwards. I could solo up the remaining section of WI3, bring him up, and cross unroped. But when he arrived at the belay, the day was clearly done. He had the look of retreat, so we did.

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His confidence flowed back on the rappels. He began to chatter, pinging from topic to topic like the amazed, excited, five-year-old flitting from window, to window, to window in the hut. He  was excited this time though, because he had begun to understand what we were doing, and it wasn’t some fairytale, adrenaline fix or ego trip.

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Revelation came in one long word, articulated by picks, boots, simple effort, and the perpetual movement of the Valley’s substance in water, wind and light. Once you heard it, you never completely stopped hearing it, as it went on and on without end. It got louder from time to time too, back in the real world, every time you saw somebody get angry about the contents of their coffee cup or tear up when exposed to a flag and a song.

In those moments, it reminded you that you never completely left the Valley, and it called you back as a whole. We already had our next tickets; only 3 weeks back in the real world to go.

 

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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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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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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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Seven

CIMG4015Seven is the number of pitches for Broken Hearts, one of the best climbs in the Southfork valley. The trouble is, those pitches do not often coexist in time. The upper tier of three amphitheaters waits for the Spring to grow its pillars. By then, the sun has eaten away the path up the ice that leads to the show.

Looking back at the road from the half-way point on the walk up.

Looking back at the road from the half-way point on the walk up.

What a show it is, too. The final three pitches, along with Carotid Artery, are a different story from the lark in the lower drainage. But there is a price. To reach this venue in Springtime, when the lower pitches are missing, one has to walk up the walk-off.

Carotid Artery

Carotid Artery

Walking around on the valley walls in Cody is ill-advised in principle. The slopes are steep, loose and rocky, and it is easy to reach  a precipitous dead-end, resulting in grueling detours and back tracking. The course which skirts the lower canyon of Broken Hearts is better than most.As I plodded the solid hour of uphill however, I found myself making notes for the next time: “Remember, it is that bad, it is that bad, …”.

My Only Valentine

My Only Valentine

In the first of the three bowls, Carotid Artery was not formed. Some new fixed gear adorned the crack behind the hanging dagger, but the ice was too far out from the wall to make a mixed version feasible or safe.

Seventh

Seventh

The rest of the pitches were there, though. We knew from the start that the seventh belonged to Rich. We didn’t need to discuss it. He had been thwarted twice before, having to walk away from the climb due to conditions and time. Conditions were not perfect this time. A massive amount of water poured over the roof at the top. We were prepared for it this time, though.

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Like a character moving over landscape out of a Dr. Seuss book, Rich made his way up the twisting series of steps and columns. He was able to skirt the roof, though the climbing to do so was still past vertical.  As I swore away the barfies at the top, water dribbled from the velcro cuffs of my current hand-wear. I found myself making notes again: “Remember, gloves with gauntlets next time.”

Lap 2 on Pillar of Pain the next day

Lap 2 on Pillar of Pain the next day

By the end of it all we were wet, cold, miserable and exhausted. We would be the same way at the end of the day tomorrow. Ice climbing is just freaky like that, and if you aren’t too, you probably won’t keep doing it. I will. I found myself making more notes on the trudge back down: “Remember, it was worth it…”

The upper valley

The upper valley

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It’s an Ice Fest Every Time

Sheep on Deer Creek

Sheep on Deer Creek

Rich made that comment while we discussed the merits of driving to downtown Cody to visit the Southfork Ice Fest. It would have been nice to see Aaron’s slide show, but we were kind of tired.

My kingdom for a Bosch! Mixed potential left of Bitch's Brew

My kingdom for a Bosch! Mixed potential left of Bitch’s Brew

Regarding the source of our amotivational state, Rich summarized as only he can, “Someday we’re going to bite off more than we can chew.”

Pitch 2, Bitch's Brew

Pitch 2, Bitch’s Brew

We always seem to end up in Cody on the Ice Fest weekend, but we never make it to the event itself. I think our efforts to dodge the “crowds” (this is the one weekend where you can expect to see other people during your day out on a route) sabotage us. We end up going to things like Illogicicle that are harder to access and farther back.

Steep ice on Who's Your Daddy

Steep ice on Who’s Your Daddy

This time it was Bitch’s Brew and Who’s Your Daddy. Bitch’s Brew is just across from Smooth Emerald Milkshake a couple of miles up, and I do mean up Deer Creek trail. The latter climb is a relatively popular moderate, so we figured some ambitious festivants would be breaking trail for us. We were wrong.

Fortunately, we only had a few pristine drifts to break through. The climb was worth it, as usual: one WI 4 , 65 meter pitch, followed by a pitch of wind-sculpted WI 5+, a short pitch of WI 5, and some grade 3 possibilities above. Did I mention it is in the nice warm sun all day?

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Who’s Your Daddy is the alternative to the first pitch of Ovisight. The approach was mercifully in good shape. The Legg Creek pitch was too. Where the whole drainage pours through a 2 foot wide slot, there was a solid, 6 inch wide strip of through the last 20 feet of climbing (it even allowed a good stubby ice screw). The trip up the last, left side-drainage was a slog.

3rd pitch

3rd pitch

The two, steep steps to solo combined with the thigh-deep snow burned up a good chunk of daylight. The three upper pitches delivered however, especially the third, which had an overhanging section in the middle. Here’s to good dental health.

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A Moister Brownie…

4th pitch of Mean Green

4th pitch of Mean Green

…is not necessarily a better brownie, especially when it comes to dirty ice.

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The Southfork is not is stellar shape this year. Climbs like Moratorium haven’t seen enough water to form up properly, while South-facing routes like Ovisight haven’t seen enough cold.

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Mr. Mulkey has pulled off ascents of Pillars of the Community and the mixed start to Joy After Pain (the latter with help from a friend, see video and photos at coldfear.com) but even those climbs are beginning to sublimate away.

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We squeaked by the third pitch of Broken Hearts.

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On the return trip, it was gone.

6th pitch of Broken Hearts

6th pitch of Broken Hearts

Carotid Artery wasn’t even close enough for me to agonize over.

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Mean Green looked to be missing the fourth pitch, but it turned out that the ice was just so full of dirt, you could barely distinguish it from the rock.

The Valley from the top of pitch 5, Mean Green

The Valley from the top of pitch 5, Mean Green

It feels like the season has never gotten started this year; thoughts of Canada are already popping into my head unbidden.

Ten Sleep

Ten Sleep

We’ll give it a couple of more weeks.

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Oh Suzanna

Elusive ice in Ten Sleep

Elusive ice in Ten Sleep

The pick made a distinctive ‘plink’ as it bounced off the rock. The sound always sends a shock down my spine, but I can’t tell if it’s the nature of the noise itself or purely the implications. I tapped a little higher and the tool set with a hollow sound no less disappointing than the ‘plink’. The resonance came from a layer of air separating the ice from the cliff face. I spared a glance down.

By the road in the shadow of the canyon floor, I could just make out a tiny brown stain by the car where the dregs of my coffee had flash-frozen when I poured them out an hour ago. The shadow ended in a sharp line half-way up the steep drainage and the upper portion took full morning sun.  Twenty feet below me, my last ice screw basked in the direct radiation. I drove another short screw into the ice. It gnawed through with dismissive ease.

The ice may have been just four to six inches thick, but it was not vertical and was well supported by a thicker lip of ice at the bottom. So, even though it was not continuously attached to the rock, it wasn’t likely to break off in a sheet unless I got very clumsy. The consistency was perfect, too. Though too soft to hold an ice screw well, it allowed the points of the tools and crampons to bite and set. ‘Hero ice’ was the name for it. The whole trip had been black and white like that.

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Every time we drive through Ten Sleep Canyon we look up into the second drainage East of the fish hatchery, hoping to see ice. Usually, we only see a water streak. Sometimes we see a thin smear. Very rarely, we see a fully formed climb. When the ice is formed, we vow to climb it on the way back through, but it always disappears before we return. Nevertheless, when we saw substantial ice in the drainage on our way out this time, we took it as a good omen.

High on Boulder and Moonrise from the river

High on Boulder and Moonrise from the trail.

The sense of good fortune evaporated as we traveled from Cody to the Southfork the following morning. Just as we reached the gravel road, something went wrong in my stomach, and the organ decided to right things by turning itself inside out. We were reduced to a driving tour of the valley between puke stops. The conditions looked dry. Moratorium was thin. Mean Green had a translucent 4th pitch. Ovisight lacked a first pitch. Broken Hearts looked pretty good, though.

High on Boulder and Moonrise (right-hand climb)

High on Boulder and Moonrise (right-hand climb)

Rich had to make a day of downtown Cody once we got back, but my problems subsided over that time and once again we felt fortunate. By the following morning, I was ready to try again. We headed for the lower pitches of High on Boulder, plus Moonrise.

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I hate Moonrise. Rich says I have a psychological problem with the climb. I may, but it often forms up with a series of short roofs, and as everyone knows, roofs are for short people – short roofs the more so.

Another view of Moonrise

Another view of Moonrise

I climbed poorly on Moonrise. After such a depressing reversal, I was sure that the column in Ten Sleep had fallen. Yet as we passed the fish hatchery, there it was intact. We pulled a quick, dangerous U-turn on the shoulderless highway and parked in the last pull-out. The approach was longer and steeper than expected. The climb looked less steep than expected, maybe a WI 4(-) but with the thin ice, imaginary protection and bent pick, it remained interesting. As we rappelled from a bundle of icicles at the top, an old song kept running through my head, “…sun’s so hot I froze to death, oh don’t you cry for me… ‘least I don’t live in Alabama, so don’t you cry for me…” Or something like that.

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Dutch Whatever

“I’ve noticed that in the alpine, everyone’s hesitant to rate anything harder than M6 – and then everything’s M6. Why do you think that is?” Mike wondered.

M6 is a grade given mixed rock and ice climbing. For most folks, it’s the grade that consistently feels hard, the place where you start to feel like you could fall off. I thought back to the previous day in the Clarks Fork. When you’re trolling for blind pick placements under a sheet of snow, yarding on apparently frozen blocks with the secondary points of your crampon wedged in a crack coated with ice and running with water, it really is all M6 until you’ve climbed it.

Looking down the 6th pitch of Broken Hearts

It had rolled for us, though. We had felt good after sneaking in six pitches of Broken Hearts as the climb melted around us. It was a good omen, and we had word that the climb in the Clarks Fork had looked feasible as of two weeks ago.

Beta doesn’t obviate omens when it comes to going into the Clarks Fork, though. The climb was probably there. The approach was surely there, and in the usual condition: a brutal wallow through the continental snowpack, followed by a dicey stumble down frozen dirt beside a stream bed.

It was quite a reward at the bottom, almost enough to make you forget you had to walk back up what you just came down. The morning sun shone into the gorge, tanning the 800 ft. granite walls, while the river grumbled under ice, welling in pools where the channel widened.

Call of Cthulhu first pitch

And there was the climb I’d fallen off two years ago. The weasel-like part of me that scampers around the base of my skull was disappointed I wouldn’t get a rematch with the mixed version of the first pitch. The more clear-thinking part was glad to see the first pitch touching down.

The climbing wasn’t too hard, it just took a light touch on the sun-baked, arching pillar. Mike accepted the ramble up the second pitch with equanimity.

Mike nearing the end of pitch #2

The third pitch was alpine climbing, the beautiful sort of stuff made of rock and ice at once which defies any sort of rating, with a little bit of M4 (after the fact) to finish.

Pitch 3/4 belay

Mike got his karmic justice for enduring the mediocrity of the second pitch. Steep sunny ice on the fourth pitch lead to a spacious belay cave at the end of the route.

Beginning pitch #4

By any name, it was a stellar climb. So good, I barely noticed the quadriceps hematoma from rockfall on the way down. Hell, I’d even forgotten the walk out by the time we left the parking lot. Ok, maybe that’s a lie, but it was pretty damn good.

Pitch #4

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Ovisight

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I am getting old. Every year, I recover more slowly from big days out. Injuries have started to accrue rather than heal. My climbing partner has an artificial hip. The day I’ll have to back off is on the horizon. But I can still climb Ovisight, so that day has not arrived yet.

The hills don’t care who you are, what you do, or how you feel. The Ovisight/ Legg creek drainage cares perhaps a bit less than other sections of the world’s terrain. The approach is always just as treacherous and choked with snow, no matter the conditions elsewhere in the valley. This year was no different.

We got a late start, so it was mid-morning before we stood at the top of the approach pitch, where the entire drainage funnels through a gap you can stretch your arms across.

We slid and wallowed our way up to the first pitch. The ice was easier than usual, more five-ish than six-ish.

The second pitch was, as usual, harder than it looks.

At the top of the pillar, the snow was deep and the hour was late, so we went back to climb the first pitch again rather than pushing on to the final column of ice above.

As we were wrapping up, two teams of younger guys arrived at the first pitch. They had started at noon. I was impressed until I checked the clock. They hadn’t moved any faster than us, it was just that late.

We made it back to the car as the sky faded from blue to black and the coyotes began to call to each other. We were whipped and I think if either of us were asked at that moment, we’d have said we wouldn’t go back to climb Ovisight again. But, being old, we would forget that moment and next time the first pitch peeked around the ridge at us, we’d head back up for another Alzheimer’s onsight.

As our little diesel cranked and caught we looked back at the climb one last time and we saw headlamps wink on high, high up the valley wall. I shivered. Age had its advantages after all.

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