On Friday morning, I’ll board a plane headed for Europe where I am meeting three Polish climbers for two weeks of ice and alpine climbing in Switzerland. Packing and prepping for the trip has left me with little time or mental energy to write a quality, original piece, so I thought I’d re-post this entry from June 17, 2014 (originally written in my journal about a month earlier). It’s a bit wordy; an open bottle of Jack Daniels was keeping me company as I wrote. At the time, however, it accurately and completely summarized my heart toward climbing. Nine months and a thousand life-changing experiences later, the words still ring true.

Krzysztof and I ice climbing in the Slovakian Tatras eight years ago on my first climbing trip overseas. It will be sweet indeed to rope up with him again!

Krzysztof and I in the Slovakian Tatras eight years ago on my first climbing trip overseas.

I fully intended to try to puzzle on paper about climbing grades and ratings, better climbers, harder routes, and my strange and somewhat disgusting, immature loathing of every climber who is better, faster, stronger, or gifted with more opportunity than me. But now that I sit here with time, privacy, and plenty of blank paper, the puzzle pieces no longer seem to fit together with the same ease they did just hours earlier.

If history is any indication, even the hardest, most cutting-edge routes of today will eventually become tomorrow’s warm-up climbs, beaten into submission with superior fitness, techniques, tactics, or technological advantage. In one way, this strikes me as sad – depressing even, in a nostalgic sense. Of course, I recognize this as an inevitability in such a rapidly-evolving sport. It also certainly has its advantages; cams, modern ice tools and crampons, and woven nylon ropes have been integral and essential components in some of the experiences of my greatest joy and self-discovery.

If, however, once accepts the unstoppable consequences of such rapid evolution as fact, then the logical progression of thought journeys down a somewhat fatalistic highway until one arrives at the conclusion that climbing can only ever be fully enjoyed when viewed and truly accepted as the following:

  • An anarchical endeavor, where no man has the right to impose laws, boundaries, or ethics on another so long as the first does not engage in behavior that would hinder, impede, or in any way be detrimental to the experience of those who will come after him.
  • A purely selfish pursuit, where the sole purpose is self-satisfaction and personal evolution. Sadly, a spirit of competition and egotism, so intrinsic to human beings, can be justified under this point. Such petty emotions do have their place in accelerating progress and standards; the purist, however, is able to (largely) overcome or at least circumvent these childish notions with a proper sense of perspective.
  • A pastime that is really no better or worse than any other, except in the hearts and souls of those who hear and answer the siren’s call, knowing that only the vertical realm holds the antidote to the poison of this horizontal landscape in which we live.

To a non-climber, or maybe (probably) to everyone except a very tiny minority, the words above represent nothing more than a cryptic waste of ink. Meaningless drivel about a selfish, dangerous past-time. To me though, those words are the heartbeat pounding in my chest, my very soul and the credo by which I strive to exist. It doesn’t fucking matter that most people will never truly understand it; in some ways, it makes it so much better.

Your Greatest Responsibility

This composition has a similar heartbeat to one I posted recently titled “The Fight Of Your Life.” There is a good reason for that, as this post was never supposed to make it onto my blog. I wrote “Your Greatest Responsibility” at the request of a fellow climber named Chris for his excellent blog Fringe’s Folly. If you haven’t checked out his work before, you should; Chris has been published in many climbing publications including Alpinist, Rock and Ice, Ascent, and Climbing Magazine. Quite honestly, he is a much better and more experienced writer and editor than I am. In the end, however, I was unwilling to make certain changes to the piece to make it mesh with the vibe and intent of his blog. I just couldn’t attach my name to something that I didn’t believe sounded like my voice. Personally, I am thrilled with the way it turned out, and the writing and editing process sparked a lot of introspection and personal growth. Enjoy!

Happiness. It’s an elusive concept that serves as the driving motivation for the majority of our daily decisions. This sought-after state of being can be infuriatingly difficult to attain, yet once within grasp, so easy to lose. I wrote once that that happiness really is an inside job, and that in many ways it is a person’s chief responsibility to themselves. I believe those words now even more than when I wrote them, so I thought that writing an expansion of that phrase would be simple. Frankly, I’ve never wrestled with a topic so much as I have on this piece. Writing this has challenged and deepened some foundational concepts in my life, and I’m grateful for the experience. I hope these words will have a similar effect on some of you.

My first technical alpine climb was a two-day blitz in the Beartooth Mountains of Montana with Loren Rausch: the Chadwick-Bowman Route on the north face of Granite Peak.

My first technical alpine climb was a two-day blitz in the Beartooth Mountains of Montana with Loren Rausch: the Chadwick-Bowman Route on the north face of Granite Peak.

I’m an alpinist, and my love of high places and hard, cold routes runs deep. Seven years ago, I laid down my ice tools to pursue a romantic relationship and run a time-intensive business. When I did that, one of the most central components of who I am shriveled and died. I was told I was doing the responsible thing by adhering to the formula that is commonly held up as the societal ideal: go to school, throw yourself into a career, get married, buy a house in the burbs, have kids, go to Disneyland, and retire at sixty-five. There’s nothing innately wrong with any of those things. For many of you, a rewarding career, marriage to your soul mate, and a family of your own will be celebrated milestones on your road to personal fulfillment.  I started down that path too, but with each halting step I doubted more and more the validity of the public opinion that I needed to grow up and stop chasing the one thing that had ever made me truly happy.

Still, my progress on the road to maturity was being met with approval, so I tried what was essentially replacement therapy. I filled the gaping void in my heart with work, friendships, and love, pouring myself out in an attempt to simultaneously excel at something and distract myself from the mountains. Predictably, it all failed. My marriage began to unravel after barely two years, as unrealistic expectations for ourselves and each other eroded what little foundation we had. She walked out two days after Thanksgiving 2013 and never came back. Friendships were the next to go, as I realized that the vast majority of people that I associated with didn’t even know the real me. They knew well-dressed Jimmy, the guy who was making big strides in business and always had his shit together. When my facade crumbled and it became clear that we had nothing left in common, there was no reason for either them or me to maintain a pretense of interest.

I spent the first few lonely weeks of 2014 in a dark place. My ritual of coming home from work, scribbling depressed thoughts in a leather-bound journal, and drinking whiskey until I passed out continued unbroken until I got a call from my brother at the end of January. I had sent him a message to let him know the divorce paperwork had been finished and filed, and he was calling to offer a plane ticket to come visit him and his fiancé in Washington. A weekend on the coast sounded more appealing than one spent answering questions and dodging criticism in Minneapolis, so I packed a bag and flew out a few days later.

I want to tell you about what happened in Washington that weekend. Matt and I drank, talked, and commiserated our way through the first night; he had been divorced a few years earlier, so he knew what I was going through. The next morning, the two of us headed up into the Olympic Mountains to climb Middle Peak. The route wasn’t difficult – snowy fourth class at the hardest point – and the whole thing only took us six hours car to car. But during those few brief moments when the wind was gusting on the ridge, the holds were sketchy and insecure, the exposure was enough to make me test every foot and hand placement before committing to it…in those moments, I found my happiness again. I remembered and rediscovered the only pursuit that has ever given me a genuine and lasting feeling of peace and fulfillment. As soon as I got home, I pulled my ice tools and crampons out of the plastic bin in the closet and began to sharpen the dulled points, vowing with each rasping stroke of the file to never again suppress that most important part of who I am.

Back in the mountains! On the gusty summit of Middle Peak.

Back in the mountains! On the gusty summit of Middle Peak in the Olympic Mountains.

My version of happiness doesn’t require a large bank account balance, a big house, or a long list of things. I am still paying off debt accumulated in my divorce, and all of my material possessions fit comfortably in my tiny car or the equally diminutive bedroom I rent from a climbing buddy. Happiness for me is also not necessarily synonymous with comfort or security. Being cold, terrified, and exhausted on an alpine route is often just part of the game. What is it about climbing then, you ask, that brings me such joy?

I have seen early morning alpenglow transform cold, austere granite walls into fiery canvases that no photo could ever capture. I’ve been so overjoyed to feel the kiss of the first rays of sunlight on my shivering body that I could have cried. I have felt the joy of discovery as my partner and I became the first humans to ascend a new route, and I’ve worked my crampon-clad feet up vertical, icy tendrils in mountainous settings so beautiful that I felt as though we were trespassing in the realm of the gods. I have put my life completely in the care of my climbing partner, and I’ve watched him reciprocate that trust until the relationship became something more akin to love than simple partnership. Because of these experiences and a thousand more, I turn again and again to climbing to find happiness and peace.

blah blah blah

Finding peace on the stellar M7 Off Road in Casket Quarry, Duluth.

Happiness is a journey, not a destination. Your journey will differ greatly from mine; that’s the beautiful and fascinating thing about our uniqueness and individuality. What satisfies the deepest longings of my soul would make some of you shudder, and vice versa. The thing we have in common is our shared responsibility to work on that inside job. If you haven’t already, I beg you – search and question until you find what makes you truly happy and fulfilled; chase it down; and never, ever let it go.

Smashin’ And Crashin’ My Way Through Resolution #1

Working through the lower sequence on Reefer Madness, M8.

Working through the lower sequence on Reefer Madness, M8.

I wrote at the beginning of the year that I have three goals to accomplish in 2015, and that I would post updates whenever I had checked one off the list. Well, the pencil came out and the box has been checked, because I climbed my first WI6 route on lead this weekend! For those who don’t know what that means, a WI6 route has vertical and overhanging ice, hard to find and/or bad protection in case of a fall, and limited or no opportunities for resting.

Warming up on Thin And Bear It, an easy M6.

Warming up on Thin And Bear It, an easy M6.

Nate and I headed up to Duluth early on Saturday morning with the intent to climb at Casket Quarry both days. After warming up on a short, moderate M6 called Thin And Bear It, we headed over to climb Martini Madness. Martini is M6 or M7 depending on ice conditions, and on Saturday it was definitely M7. A huge chunk of the hanging dagger had broken off, leaving a fairly sizable ice roof to climb and the promise of a painful ledge dive if the leader fell while make the move onto the upper ice flow.

We both cruised Martini, and I was feeling strong and smooth after leading the route. As Nate flaked the rope, I studied our next challenge: the intimidating ice line called The Chimney. In good ice conditions, the pitch is a fun WI5/M5 that takes enough good ice screws to prevent a dangerous fall. These conditions, however, were anything but good. The vertical ice leading up to the huge ice roof was sun-leeched and hollow. Picks and crampon points had to be placed and weighted delicately, since much of the ice was just a skin with an inch or two of space between it and the rock wall.

I managed to place one ten centimeter screw about ten feet up and a thirteen centimeter screw about eight feet higher. Neither piece would have held a fall, but it was comforting to look down and see my rope clipped to something.

The ice line on the far left is The Chimney in WI6 conditions. A friend of mine can be seen climbing on Martini Madness, M7.

The ice line on the far left is The Chimney in WI6 conditions. A friend of mine can be seen climbing on Martini Madness, M7.

I gently hooked and tapped my way up below the ice roof and clipped the bolt in the rock wall to the left – the one thing that would stop me from falling to the ground if I whipped on the next few moves. Even so, I realized, it would be a painful fall, as the location of the bolt in relation to the overhang meant that I would swing back into the ice with a frightening amount of momentum. I wavered mentally for a minute, unsure of my ability to pull the crux without falling. I reached down to my harness and fingered a single carabiner…it would be simple to clip the rope to the bolt and have Nate lower me under the pretense of not wanting to risk an injury two weeks before my climbing trip to Switzerland. Suddenly, a familiar voice from below broke into my internal debate.

“Get your ass up there, Jimmy, we don’t have all fucking day!”

I looked down to see a cluster of people watching me from the ground. The source of the stoke was local pro climber Adam Dailey. Another Duluth badass, Rick Kollath, chimed in as well.

“Yeah, everyone is waiting on you, stop messing around and climb that thing!”

I smiled and shook my head. Ego and peer pressure is a dumb reason to climb, but there was no way I was backing off with some of my climbing heroes watching. I took a deep breath, leaned out as far as I could on my left ice tool, and carefully tapped the tip of my right tool into the soft ice a few inches above the lip of the roof. I tugged it gently, testing it as best I could before I committed my full body weight to it. The placement seemed solid, so I unhooked my left tool and slotted it into a hole in the ice a few inches above my right pick. Both tools felt secure, so it was now or never.

I took a deep breath and cut both of my feet loose from the ice below the roof, swinging the right leg out and up onto a hanging icicle about ten inches in diameter. The crampon point came to rest on a tiny ledge, and I slowly stood up so I could unweight the tools and move them higher. Suddenly, the entire icicle snapped off just above my foot and I fell back onto my ice tools.

“Fuck fuck fuck!” I screamed as I loaded my tools. I was sure that one or both of them was going blow, sending me for a long, painful ride down. Both placements held though, and I let out the breath I had been holding in one forceful gasp as more cheers came from below.

“Wooooohooooo! Ride that shit, bro! Get back up there! You got this!”

Looking for a good stick after pulling the ice roof.

Looking for a good stick after pulling the ice roof.

I took another deep breath and swung my legs up and to the right again until my torso was almost horizontal. With my right crampon planted in good ice, I pulled my right tool out and swung it into the ice as high above me as I could. The first swing went deep, and I pulled up on the handle until I could get my left foot planted. With both feet now secure and the pressure off my arms, I quickly climbed the last few moves to the anchors and clipped the rope into the bolts with a pair of quickdraws.

Topping out on The Chimney in Casket Quarry.

Topping out on The Chimney in Casket Quarry.

“Bring me down, brother!” I yelled to Nate.

With my feet firmly planted on the ground, I looked back up at the route and promised myself that I wouldn’t hop on anything that hard or sketchy for a long time…or at least until next week. With that thought in mind, we spent Sunday working on mixed and drytool lines that, although difficult, were equipped with bolts. It’s still possible to take a pretty good fall, but the bolts reduce the chance of serious injury.

Topping out on Off Road, M7. Bad ice but a beautiful new mixed line at Casket Quarry.

Tiptoeing through sketchy ice on Off Road, M7.

One 2015 resolution accomplished, and two more to go.

The Fight Of Your Life

Twelve months ago today, I was ready to snap. I had just filed my divorce papers a few days before, and my mind was awash in a contradictory slurry of regret, exhilaration, and doubt. A small part of me wanted to quit my job and fly to Patagonia or the Ruth Gorge to climb until my money ran out, but the majority of me (the part that acknowledged that I was broke and out of shape) was content to sit slouched at my desk, tapping idly on my keyboard. The trick was to mope internally in a pool of self pity while looking busy so no one would bother me. No one at the office knew yet, and I wasn’t about to tell them and open up another can of unwanted advice and superficial empathy.

Instead I ran. I flew out to Washington and spent a few days away from it all with my brother in Port Townsend. We hiked, drank, talked, and climbed a pretty little mountain named Middle Peak. The climbing itself was easy – not much more than a scramble really – but that snowy, windy minute on the summit was one of the defining moments of my life. In those few seconds, I made the decision to become a climber again and vowed to never again let go of that part of my life.

My brother Matt making the final moves to the summit of Mount Angeles.

My brother Matt making the final moves to the summit of Middle Peak.

Saturday, February 8th will mark exactly one year since that day, and what a difference a year can make! In the past 362 days, I have:

  • completely rebuilt my stockpile of technical clothing/shells/footwear, climbing rack, and backpacking/camping gear
  • dropped about ten pounds of superfluous weight and rebuilt a solid base of fitness for climbing
  • climbed in the Cascades twice
  • climbed Devil’s Tower twice, once as the fulfillment of an entry on a climbing partner’s bucket list
  • gone on an extended climbing trip that covered the Beartooth Mountains, the Clark’s Fork of the Yellowstone River, Gallatin Canyon, and Devil’s Tower
  • camped out and climbed ice for eight consecutive days in the South Fork Valley and Hyalite Canyon
  • climbed countless little rock and ice routes in Minnesota
  • comfortably led multiple WI5+, M7, and 5.10 pitches
  • free-soloed a couple 5.9 routes

In short, I have become a climber again. Not a great climber, or even a good climber compared to what I’d like to be climbing in my twenty-eighth year of life, but at least it’s a place to start.

Back in the game! Using the classic teeth belay as Nate squeezes through the top of the chimney pitch on Skyline Buttress in the Gallatin Canyon.

Back in the game! Using the classic teeth belay as Nate squeezes through the top of the chimney pitch on Skyline Buttress in the Gallatin Canyon.

362 days ago today, I felt pretty hopeless, directionless, and mired in a mountain-less Midwestern state with a huge pile of debt to pay off. I would be surprised if any of you were stuck in the exact same set of circumstances, but I think it’s safe to assume that a few readers aren’t having the easiest time of it right now. A job you despise, a toxic or abusive relationship, loneliness in a new city, a debilitating illness, a complete lack of passion for life…there’s a myriad of legitimate external forces and factors that can press in on a person until it feels like there is no escape from the crushing weight. Sometimes the easy thing to do is to succumb, stop pushing back, and bitch about your unfortunate circumstances to anyone who will listen. They might not even care, but the sympathy and pity feels good.

I would encourage you with this: fight through the adversity. Don’t give up, and don’t back down. Don’t worry about progressing perfectly; some days, just digging your heels in and not going backwards is enough. Fuck the negative opinions of others, because giving a shit about making everyone happy and listening to their bigoted advice is a sure road to insanity. Align yourself with a few truly positive people that you can trust completely. Get a dream – a big, powerful vision for your future that gets you out of bed in the morning and makes you feel alive – and chase it down with everything you have. Protect that dream, and stop listening to anyone who belittles it or tells you it’s not worth your time or effort.

Get yours, because no one is going to hand it to you.

You know the instructions the flight attendants give you for the oxygen masks in an airplane? Put your mask on first so you don’t pass out, then help the little kids, right? That principle applies in real, everyday life too. If you’re lost, depressed, and living without purpose, how are you supposed to inspire others to rise above mediocrity, to achieve more than they are currently settling for? You are ultimately responsible for YOU, so take care of you first. No matter what you’re going through and dealing with, battle through it. Survive and thrive, and watch the ripple effect change, inspire and lift up others in your life.