Tag Archives: Tetons

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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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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