Tag Archives: Ten Sleep

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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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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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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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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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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