A Glimpse Behind the Kandersteg Curtain

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The trip report from my recent adventures in Europe has been posted, and I think the pictures and anecdotes will provide an entertaining read. However, writing a summary of those two weeks was hard. Choosing what to mention and what to exclude proved tortuous. After a lot of deliberation, I decided to focus on the highlights and happy parts that won’t hurt or anger anyone.

That being said, in the interest of personal integrity, I’m going to include this paragraph that I wrote last night while halfway through a bottle of wine from Kandersteg. It will raise questions that most of you will never know the answers to. If we are good enough friends, you’ll hear the whole story sooner or later.

“It sucks really – having such a life-changing trip and having to post such an edited, watered-down version on the blog to protect people. I learned so much, felt so much, fell in love, nearly died, and lost a wonderful relationship during and because of those two weeks. Part of me wants to post it all or none at all. All of it perhaps…and yet I can’t. Or shouldn’t. I may be frightfully good at using the knife, but I guess I’m just not enough of an asshole for that.”

Enjoy.

Credo

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.

Stripping Away the Bullshit

There’s a pervasive and patently false philosophy out there among climbers of every discipline. I hear it whether I am crimping plastic, stacking pads, smashing ice, plugging gear, or clipping bolts. It’s talked about inside and outside, on short roadside choss heaps and on long alpine routes in the mountains. If you climb long enough and listen closely enough, you’ll catch some version of it from the young and old, male and female, newbies with shiny gear and crusty old veterans sporting tattered harnesses and straight-shafted ice tools. And if you’re not careful, you’ll start to believe it. It’s the belief that the best way to become the best climber you can be is simply to climb more. Advocates of this mentality decry the use of free weights and running shoes, scorning those who frequent a gym and staunchly maintaining that training for climbing by any other means than climbing is a waste of time.

A lot of people call that mindset practical, efficient, or even progressive; I call it bullshit.

Before you start looking for rocks to throw and sending me links to the websites of famous climbers who avoid gyms like the plague, hear me out. I’ll concede the point that logging a lot of hours in a harness over consecutive days, weeks, months, and seasons is likely going to result in dramatic improvements in climbing ability. You’ll learn how to move properly, you’ll build and enhance sport-specific muscle groups, and you’ll become much more comfortable in the vertical realm. I will also agree that having six pack abs or the ability to crank out thirty consecutive pull-ups doesn’t mean you’ll be a natural on the rock. While a high degree of all-around fitness generally gives beginners an edge, I’ve take muscle-bound gym junkies out for their first ride on a top rope and watched them tire themselves out in the first twenty meters. Meanwhile, the timid, scrawny girl on the next rope over sends her first route with half the effort because she’s willing to listen and apply technique and proper footwork.

However, I’m not writing this for beginners or climbers who are happy as long as they are climbing one grade harder than the masses. This diatribe isn’t intended to motivate the weekend warriors lapping familiar routes at the local crag, or those lucky individuals who are truly satisfied to climb just for fun. I am penning these words for those who climb as a means of personal evolution. There are a few of us who really don’t care what anyone else is doing unless it further illuminates the corridor of our own potential. We seek to compete with ourselves, and for those looking to maximize their personal potential, simply getting in more laps at the local crag will eventually result in a plateauing of your progression.

In a recent conversation, my brother cited elite athletes such as Ueli Steck and Steve House to point out that using weights, resistance training, and other implements and techniques originating in the gym to train for hard climbs has recently become the trend. My opinion and response to him was that it has always been the trend amongst those looking to see just how close to the line of personal perfection they could tread.

Messner carefully observed and recorded his times as he all but ran up steep hills with heavily loaded packs to train for his Himalayan climbs. Twight used free weights and the Stairmaster to make himself as indestructible as possible when he was climbing hard new alpine routes all over the world. Bachar actually invented a fitness device – the Bachar Ladder – to push the limits of his free solo rock climbing.

You don't need expensive equipment or a fancy facility to get strong; throwing figure 4's and 9's on holes drilled into a ceiling beam is a good way to get build strength for dry tooling and mixed routes.

You don’t need expensive equipment or a fancy facility to get strong; throwing figure 4’s and 9’s on holes drilled into a ceiling beam is a good way to get build strength for dry tooling and mixed routes.

The benefits of non-climbing training for climbing are of course partially physical. Increase core strength and your power-to-weight ratio and you’ll go faster in the mountains for longer and have a shorter recovery time after the ascent. You’ll also decrease the time spent exposed to objective hazards like rockfall and avalanches, and therefore lower the odds of coming home in a body bag. Not an alpinist? Those same improvements will result in a greater number of daily burns on your sport climbing or bouldering project, and of course the same bit about shorter recovery time applies. Climbing also tends to stress and strengthen very specific muscle groups; if you do a lot of climbing and don’t find a way to work the other muscles and tendons, you will typically be much more susceptible to injury.

Personally though, I think the greatest benefit of cross training is mental. Day after day of early morning runs while the rest of the world hits snooze and rolls over…workout stacked upon workout of planks, curls, pull-ups, push-ups, sit-ups, deadlifts, squats, leg lifts, and finger-boarding…hour after hour of sweat rolling down your face and soaking your shirt. All of these things combine to build a massive reserve of psychological strength rooted firmly on the knowledge that your lifestyle of discipline has rooted out any mental weakness – weakness that could otherwise sabotage your attempts at the route you now stand looking up at.

The philosophy isn’t new, but I believe the world we live in is softer and lazier than the world even thirty years ago. For all our increases in the technology of our gear, we have gone backwards in the measure of our discipline. By simple generational inclusion, I’m as guilty as the rest, but I am willing to do something about it.

Are you?

Rock Your Boat

“Don’t rock the boat!”

This little pearl of colloquial “wisdom” is just one of several commonly employed variations on the same theme. There’s that bit about the nail that sticks out getting hammered down, the advice to keep one’s nose clean, the adage about the apple cart, and (again with the maritime terminology) the warning to avoid making waves. At some level, I understand the original intent behind these phrases, or at least I think I do. The intended meaning behind the message seems to be that if you have a good thing – or what used to be a good thing – going, stay out of trouble, don’t piss off those in positions of authority, and in general try not to say or do anything that would disrupt your current life circumstances.

“That seems like sage advice,” I can hear some of you saying.

I don’t completely disagree. I’m only occasionally a dick, I know when to kiss ass if it gets me what I want, and I don’t typically pick fights and start arguments without a good reason. However – tiptoeing through every day and social interaction as a lifestyle? Staying in a city or with a person or at a desk that makes you miserable because you’re too susceptible to others’ opinions, afraid of confrontation, or attached to a salary to make a change? Pardon the expletive, but that’s fucked up. I’ll refrain from using definitively superlative language, but I believe that two of a person’s great responsibilities to themselves are to grow personally and ensure their own happiness. When a sizable percentage of your time, resources, and mental energy are wasted on fulfilling societal and family expectations of conduct, income, and calendar usage, accomplishing either of those responsibilities becomes, at best, very difficult.

There are droves of people – young and old – that are trying their damnedest to not rock the boat. And yes, I used the word “droves” for a reason. Webster’s defines the term as “a group of animals driven or moving in a body.” When you’re paranoidly trying to butt-kiss and maintain your way into perceived equilibrium, that’s exactly what you look like.

The condescending sneer is out on some of your faces now. Patronizing explanations and rationalizations built on the concepts of mortgages, retirement plans, corporate ladders, and children are flying my way. After all, with three kids, a second mortgage on your shitty cookie-cutter house in the burbs, and two absurd car payments on your we-had-to-buy-brand-new-even-though-the-car-depreciated-$5000-in-value-the-second-we-drove-it-off-the-lot vehicles, the thought of selling it all, taking a job that makes you truly fulfilled and happy no matter the salary, and spending every spare second doing things you love with people you respect sounds like a pipe dream. You have a somewhat valid point. As far as I know, children don’t come with a return policy even on the worst tantrum days, banks aren’t cool with your cessation of house payments, and your depreciating asset of a car is still damned handy (although not necessary) for getting around.

The good news? Houses, offspring, careers, and vehicles don’t necessarily require the permanent, bloody sacrifice of your dreams. But if that’s true, then how exactly do I propose that you change, fix the problem, shed the herd mentality?

The answer sounds simple, is easy to apply, and remains frustratingly difficult for most to stick with: you rock YOUR boat.

There’s no need, rhyme, or reason to be an asshole and pick a fight with your boss or spouse. There’s also no call for rampant, damaging irresponsibility to get yourself temporarily closer to your ideal life. The problem is you, and it always has been. It’s the boat you built with your own two hands, or at least the one you willingly boarded. It’s the decisions you made, perhaps unconsciously or because you saw everyone else doing the same thing.

The solution is to make a change, even a little change. Find the aspect of your life that makes you most unhappy, and do something about it. Hate where you live? So did my brother Matt, so he left his high-paying job in Chicago and moved to Washington to be in the mountains that he loves so dearly. It took him years to make it happen, but now he’s happier and more fulfilled than he ever dreamed. Stuck in a toxic relationship? So was my mom, and she had the courage to move out and move on with her life, even amidst a cloud of judgement and questions from others. Now she’s happily married to a man who completes her and loves her.

I’ve attempted to live the words I’m writing too, and I know I haven’t always done the best job of making decisions or thinking about how those choices will affect others. Nobody’s perfect, and sometimes the changes you make won’t create immediate positive upgrades to your life circumstances. I know this though – while the process is tough and road can be rough, the journey will almost certainly be something you look back on with gratitude.

Horizontal scribbling about vertical scratching

I didn’t think a thirty-six hour escapade deserves a place under the “Trips/Adventures” menu, but I wanted to bang out a quick blurb about what turned out to be an awesome weekend of first experiences and new accomplishments.

Nate and I left New Brighton early on Saturday morning for Casket Quarry in Duluth. Casket is unique; unlike the ice climbing quarry in Sandstone where there are plenty of moderate pure ice and mixed lines, Casket has been developed almost exclusively for hard, ground-up mixed climbing. If you can’t pull at least M6, you won’t have much fun there. This is really the first season I have started scratching around on steep rock routes with ice tools and crampons, other than the occasional easy mixed climbing moves on alpine routes. To be honest, I always viewed modern bolted mixed routes as contrived and a good way to burn through expensive picks and crampon front points. Now that I’ve gotten in the game though, I’m addicted. Hard mixed climbing takes an incredible amount of physical and mental strength, and I have already seen my endurance and technique on pure ice routes improve because of it.

We had the privilege to climb with an incredible crew on Saturday – many of these guys are legends and pioneers of the Minnesota climbing scene, and they climb HARD. It was a super productive day, as I led my first two M7 routes and didn’t take a fall on either. One of my three resolutions for the year is to lead M9, so that only leaves two grades to go…and next weekend the goal is to lead Reefer Madness, M8.  Nate and I were so fixated on the climbing that we neglected to take a single picture that day, so I’ll include a link here to the Mountain Project guide for Casket Quarry.

After a beer and a mind-blowing wild rice burger at Fitger’s Brewhouse in Duluth, Nate and I pointed the Corolla south towards Sandstone, arriving at the quarry at about 2000. We set up camp in the dark, made some hot cocoa with peppermint schnapps, and passed out in the tent to rest up for another day on the ice.

Not a bad view from the tent.

Not a bad view from the tent.

We woke up the next morning ready to hit it hard. Amidst a growing sea of brightly colored topropes, we ticked one steep ice route after another. I led up each WI4 and WI5 route we could find, placing three or four ice screws on each to protect against a fall. At the top of each route, I slung a tree or clipped an anchor bolt and set up a belay to bring Nate up as he unclipped and removed the screws. When we were both safely at the top, we untied from the rope and let it fall back down to the base, and then rappelled down on a fixed line, grabbed our rope, and started on a new line of ice. We started to get pretty tired after a few hours of that cycle, so it was a welcome reprieve when my girlfriend Liz showed up for her first ever ice climbing experience!

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Liz only started climbing when she met me last summer, but she already regularly knocks out 5.9’s and the occasional 5.10 both in the gym and outdoors. I suppose a high degree of fitness from being a disciplined distance runner and a regular at the gym didn’t exactly hinder her progress in a harness. That being said, she’s not a huge fan of being cold, and ice climbing is a totally different animal, so I wasn’t sure how she would do or whether or not she’d like it. No big surprise – she tied in on a steep route and smoked right to the top. Even her heavy, clunky ski boots didn’t seem to hold her back, and she enjoyed it enough that I think we’ll be looking for some real ice climbing boots for her.

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A couple beers and an episode of the Mighty Boosh closed out the weekend, and now it’s back to the daily grind for five days. If only it were five days of play and two days of work…

I resolutely resolve to accomplish these resolutions

I thought about turning this post into a rant about discipline, commitment, and other assorted desirable character qualities that walk hand in hand with accomplishing New Years resolutions and goals, but the theme seems a bit tired right now. “Put up and shut up” seemed a more appropriate philosophy, as in put up my resolutions on my blog so I have some level of accountability to others, and then shut up and go work on accomplishing them before another year slips away. So with that in mind and without any more preamble or fanfare, here are my goals for 2015:

  • trad lead at least one 5.12 rock climb, most likely at Palisade Head – no bolts, just balls.
  • lead WI6 comfortably.
  • lead M9 bolted routes without a fall. I’ve never placed a bolt, but I’ll admit they do have their place (just not next to cracks that take gear or to make up for a deficiency in ability or courage). My logic is that if I can lead M9 on bolts at a crag, M6 on trad gear in the mountains won’t feel so sketchy.

Surprise – they all have to do with climbing. I have other plans and intentions, but these three will largely guide my daily training, my reading, my eating habits, and my use of weekends and time away from my job. The ice climbing trip out to Montana and Wyoming over Christmas and New Years was amazing and productive, but it also opened my eyes to my potential and how much work, time, and dedication it is going to take if I want to make significant gains in ability. I climb for myself, but sometimes one’s own expectations can be the hardest to live up to…

Anyway, there they are. Pictures and a story to come as I accomplish each throughout the next 11 months and 19 days!

Musing about the meaning

Stating the obvious, it’s been a while since I last posted anything on this collection of thoughts and verbal ramblings; in fact, it’s been two months and fourteen days to be exact. In some perverse way, that thought makes me quite satisfied, as I never wanted to feel obligated to post on any kind of a regular schedule or feel pressured to come up with material I deemed worthy of uploading. Frankly, I think there are probably about seven people who give a shit about anything I post here (and that’s a generous estimate), so feeling any kind of self-imposed obligation to blog with regularity is quite silly. That being said, the evening has seemingly conspired to create the perfect storm for the next installment of my scribblings, the ingredients of said storm being chiefly the following:

  • My plans for the evening were canceled, and I am home alone with no agenda.
  • I am currently two pints deep in a growler of Dangerous Man IPA, which I of course intend to finish tonight.
  • I had a minor panic attack about turning twenty-seven in December and having accomplished so little of what I thought I would have at this point in life, and it launched me into a series of sessions of serious introspection…there are a lot of thoughts swirling around in this ol’ brain.
  • Most importantly, I tend to write when life isn’t going so well, and for the first time in the last three months, it’s not. I blew my ankle apart five days ago playing soccer with five year olds (turns out climbing is the safest thing I do). It’s not broken, but I can’t climb, run, or do anything else except limp on it for the next 4-6 weeks according to the doctor. With plane tickets purchased and plans made for a climbing trip to Cody, Wyoming over Christmas and New Years, and to the Swiss Alps in February, I can’t push against that prognosis and risk further injury.

So with that in mind, let us embark on a journey through the tangled mess that is my mind. Disclaimer: this post, as entertaining, thought-provoking, or concerning as it may be to you, dear reader, is all about me. I almost invariably put a lot of time and energy into ensuring that a post will be at least well-structured and void of grammatical/syntax errors, but I really don’t care on this one. I’m after a cathartic, mind-emptying, soul-cleansing experience for me. If you get something out of it, that’s great.

I have been thinking a lot lately about death and dying. It’s no chance mental voyage into morbidity, nor is it a sign of suicidal tendencies or a cry for attention. It is simply a reflection on mortality brought about by current and recent life circumstances. I have lost relatives and friends, the passing of some of whom I grieved. The others I met with a clinical curiosity and a false portrayal of sorrow to fulfill societal expectations of a proper human reaction. I have lost friends and acquaintances to the mountains, all of whom I grieved – some personally and some as a part of the climbing community – but all of whom I learned from so as to not repeat the choices and mistakes that got them killed. And I am currently in the process of losing people that I love and care about deeply; some to old age, some to sickness, others to unhealthy lifestyles, and still others to a high-risk lifestyle that is unsustainable and quite predictable in its ending.

Amidst all the pain, tears, and shit that is generally intrinsic to the aforementioned circumstances, one question rises stark and contrasted in my mind: so what’s the point? What am I to say to those who question the validity of what I consider a life well lived? And how should I comfort those who grieve over a life I secretly scorn as a life wasted in timidity? What’s the answer, the meaning, the reason behind the individual human existence?

Opinions and answers are out there, usually as various as those polled for a response. Very often the questioned will reference their religion’s version of a higher power as they struggle to formulate an articulate one dollar answer to a million dollar query; the results are typically either vague or sound packaged and insincere. To me, both produce the same mental reaction as drinking a cheap beer…they tend toward the genuine, but fail to satisfy.

Others try to build a meaningful existence on the foundation of being a good, contributing, kind member of society – a kind of hybrid between the “Golden Rule” and a “Leave It To Beaver” life. Surely there is nothing wrong with this philosophy; a life based on it doubtless tends to produce humans with a proclivity to be generally decent people. However, although being a decent person is an admirable aspiration, an existence rooted solely in that endeavor makes me cringe, for it seems to reek of blandness and be sorely lacking in adventure and risk.

Still others believe that they are on this earth to burn brightly until they burn out – to risk, fail, achieve, adventure, and inspire others, and to do those things in a continual frenzy and in no particular order. In my own experience, many who hold to this credo put no stock in any kind of a continuance after death, so they tend to seek to maximize every minute they have on this ball of mud we call home. This brand of life walks hand in hand with existentialism in many ways (or if you strictly adhere to Group 1 or 2, you might say irresponsibility).

Do you know what I believe, what view I adhere to? Nope, you don’t; you couldn’t. First, I don’t think most people – myself included – fit neatly into any one of these three boxes, or the six, eight, or eighty boxes I could have probably come up with if I had more time and a clearer head. I would postulate that most people have a complex hybrid of beliefs that comprise their personal reason for existence. And second, I’m still trying to figure it all out myself. I do know that the last twelve months have been a whirlwind of self-discovery, and that I have benefited greatly from being immersed into situations and circumstances that have forced a lot of introspection to maintain my sanity. I know things now about who I am, what I want, and what I’ll never give up that I simply didn’t and couldn’t know six years ago…and for that knowledge (and despite the price paid for it) I’m grateful.

Not the most graceful of finishes, but that’s all I have. Let me know if you found it interesting.

Prima Mens Est – The Mind Is Primary

Briinnnnnggg! The alarm went off at 0420 with an intensity that Body was not particularly fond of.

“No running today,” he grumbled as he sent out a hand to slap the shrieking noise into submission. “We trained fucking hard the last three days, and I hurt everywhere.”

There was a brief moment of silence from the area of the pillow, and Body felt a brief flash of hope. Then Mind spoke softly but firmly, deflating Body like a popped balloon.

“Eyes? Please show Body our new tattoo.”

An almost imperceptible motion followed as Eyes swiveled downward to comply. Body, beaten and resigned to his fate, let loose a tremendous sigh of acquiescence.

“Ok, let’s get up and get dressed…might as well get on with it.”

Mr. Bones makes it difficult to favor the snooze button over an early morning training session.

Mr. Bones makes it difficult to favor the snooze button over an early morning training session.

An athlete in any endeavor will be successful to the extent that they believe in and live this credo: “Prima Mens Est – The Mind Is Primary.” Those who have never trained for a big climb, a long race, or a championship team will find those words to be a cute anecdote. Others – a tiny minority – can truly empathize and relate. They have fought the daily war against the atrophy, the pain, and the bullshit excuses that our bodies lever against us as we battle to mold these vessels into the perfect engines for our chosen disciplines. I don’t think the fight ever gets easy; if it were easy, anyone could do it. Who doesn’t want strength, endurance, and a lean, hard body? Hell, I don’t even think it gets any easier…but the mind becomes stronger, more resilient, and more ironclad in its determination to maintain preeminence over the process. Small daily victories build ambition and self-confidence in one’s ability to perpetuate the cycle of discipline.

Sometimes unconsciously and other times with eager intent, I have lived my life in an attempt to prove the thesis that a person without a lot of natural talent, perfect genetics, or extensive reserves of courage can accomplish almost anything as long as they have a strong, well-disciplined mind. There is no great secret to be found in the achievements of those held up as trail blazers or heroes, though most people looking on in envious admiration from the sidelines would protest that thought. No, those who succeed in any pursuit are the ones who acknowledge the existence and necessity of the process, refuse to quit, are willing to work in and through pain and exhaustion, and are passionate, focused, and obsessed with pursuing mastery of their craft.

In short: don’t be fucking lazy. Stop checking your watch or the mirror for results every five minutes, and get off your ass and train.

Training

I have found it beneficial to take some time off training after a big climbing trip – if you climbed hard, your body is probably beat to shit. The trick is taking off enough time that you’re jonesin’ to start cranking pullups and punishing the resistance bike again, but not so much that you start to get mentally and physically soft. I don’t think there’s any formula to figure it out; I just sit on my ass and get fat until I can’t stand it anymore. After this last trip to Montana, seven days of drinking beer, watching old Mighty Boosh episodes, and eating unnecessary amounts of fattening food was enough to start the craving for discipline again.

Whether it’s a training day, a rest day, or a climbing day, every morning begins the same way: a shrieking alarm at 0455 and a reluctant roll out of bed to start the daily 100/100/100. The numbers denote 100 pushups, 100 pullups, and 100 situps. Method is irrelevant; some days I do 10 sets of 10, and other days I’ll start with 15 of each exercise and do a decreasing pyramid count until I clear 100. I can’t claim originality on the concept – I stumbled on the idea reading another climber’s blog post, and he said that the daily 100/100/100 regimen (beyond his regular training schedule) had greatly increased both his climbing endurance and ability. I’ve only been adhering to the routine for about 3 months, and there’s already an appreciable increase in my fitness.

Because I currently work a 9-5, I do the bulk of my training in the evening when I get home. I converted my apartment into a little training gym with the following equipment:

  • Schwinn Airdyne resistance bike
  • Plyometrics box (adjustable from 14-22″)
  • 2x 30# kettle bells
  • 2x 20# dumbbells
  • 2x 35# dumbbells
  • 3x fingerboards (2 Metolius Simulators and 1 BeastMaker 2000)
  • 1x exercise ball

It’s pretty minimalist, but it’s everything I need for my current training plan. That’s one of the great things about body-weight exercises – you don’t need a fancy gym (and all of the accompanying drama, ego, expense, and spandex). If you’re pursuing a high level of functional fitness specifically for climbing, most of the machines and weights at your local over-priced facility are good for looking pretty and collecting dust.

After six years on the sidelines, I’ve been whipping my ass back into climbing shape with a combination of circuit training and low-impact cardio workouts. I won’t bore you with my calendar of which days are what workouts; that’s dictated by my physiology, recovery rate, and current fitness level so it wouldn’t be applicable to another person anyway. However, I think the circuits themselves are fairly well-designed to meet the goal of increasing climbing fitness and endurance.

Circuit 1:

  • 20x pushups
  • 2x French pullups
  • 10x box jumps @ 22″, unweighted
  • 15x pushups
  • 10x goblet squats w/ 30# kettle bell
  • 15 sec. L-hang on 2-finger pockets
  • 10x lunges, unweighted
  • 25x situps
  • 10x bicep curls w/ 35# dumbbells
  • 10x V-sit/full extensions w/ exercise ball

Circuit 2:

  • 3x French pullups (any holds)
  • 8x V-sit/full extensions w/ exercise ball
  • 20x pushups
  • 30 sec. L-hang on 2-finger pockets
  • 50x flutter kicks
  • 3x man-makers w/ 20# dumbbells
  • 5x V-sit/full extensions w/ exercise ball
  • 2x French pullups (any holds)
  • 20x situps
  • 10x pushups
  • 15 sec. L-hang on sloper holds
  • 8x bicep curls w/ 35# dumbbells

A typical training session is a combination of 4-7 circuits and a 10-minute fingerboard session. I also integrate a variety of sprints and long-distance rides on the resistance bike for cardiovascular fitness; if you’ve never been on an Airdyne till you puked, you don’t know what you’re missing! In my opinion, that (torture) machine is the best low-impact cardio workout you can get. For a reference point, try for the following distances/times:

  • 1 mile sprints in 2:30 (between each circuit)
  • 5 miles in 15 minutes (pre or post circuit training)

There are Airdyne fanatics out there that can absolutely crush those times, but I have found those benchmarks to be indicative of a solid level of fitness for alpine climbing. Again, the goal is functionality. Bragging rights and six-pack abs are just for fun. Now get off your ass and go train.

Cut The Strings

"Cut The Strings" by Nathan Hoarn

“Cut The Strings” by Nathan Hoarn

Marionettes. Puppets on strings. Obsequious smiles painted permanently on faces that are no longer capable of feeling. Little wooden figures jerked along in awkward motions by those to whom we willingly submit control of our lives.  It would be almost comical if it weren’t so depressing.

I see it every day, everywhere I go; the 9-5 working crowd is the easiest to identify. Recent college grads who have just finished picking their stages and are busy happily tying into their first set of strings; middle-aged career engineers and salesmen and managers who are beginning to suspect that the sense of peace and security offered by the puppeteers in exchange for subservience might not be all that it’s cracked up to be; tired old men and women nearing retirement, well aware now of the deception and filled with regret, but too fatigued and jaded to do anything about it…all of them dancing dutifully on the stages of their lives, propped up and manipulated by invisible cords held by bosses, managers, spouses, family members, opinionated acquaintances, or societal expectations.

Well I say it’s time to cut the fucking strings! 

The knife is honed to a razor edge and it’s always there, hiding in the darkness just beyond the edge of peoples’ conscious minds. It’s the little voice that questions whether life is always going to be like this, or mightn’t there be a better way…the wistful longing for change, because you know you could be better, accomplish more, be somehow different than what you have let yourself become. The time to sever the cords is now, but I can see the fear and doubt lurking in your eyes; it’s a long drop to the stage and your body is brittle and fragile. “Is this going to hurt? Maybe the strings aren’t that bad,” you say, starting to hesitate.

The knife is out now, the glittering blade hungry to slash and tear; it remains only for you to make the cut and take the long fall. Your delicate body will explode into a hundred jagged pieces when it smashes into the hard floor of reality and public opinion, but resurrection and redemption wait on the far side of that shattering impact. The new world that awaits you when you wake is brimming with danger, pitfalls, and potential heartache. You’ll never be as safe or as comfortable as you were on the strings; you might not live as long, and pain in various forms will soon become a trusted companion.

Yet in spite of all this – and in equal measure because of this – for the rest of your life, you will rise each morning with the opportunity to truly live.

 “There is an undeniable interdependence between consciousness and physical suffering…pain, I came to feel, might well prove to be the sole proof of the persistence of consciousness within the flesh, the sole physical expression of consciousness.”  Yukio Mishima, Sun and Steel

Make the cut.

Someday

“You’re living my dream right now haha. If I didn’t have to work or pay bills, I would probably be traveling all over! So envious!”

“There’s no way I can take a trip like that now…but someday I will!”

“I’m just so busy with work and school right now, but maybe next weekend we can do some climbing.”

“…so I hate to bail, but I don’t think I’ll realistically be able to fit the climbing trip into my schedule…I was really excited about it, but I just don’t think I can fit it in this summer.”

If you’re reading this and you recognize some of the above words as your own, the rest of this article is going to piss you off. I really don’t care; I just hope it makes you think. Those words are direct quotes from conversations I have had with four different friends in the last three months, and taken at face value, they seem to almost reek with logic and responsibility. To be sure, there’s nothing inherently wrong with those concepts; in hindsight, a little more logic and responsibility at certain times in my life would have saved me a substantial amount of heartache and wasted time and money.

What irks me is the pervasive, societally-perpetuated concept of “someday.” The quotes above are all slight variations on that theme, and the instructions to live a “someday life” read like a damn route summary off Google Maps:

  • Take the expressway straight from high school to college.
  • Continue straight to post-graduate studies.
  • Slight left onto Career Expressway.
  • Continue straight on Career Expressway…forever. Never ever detour, look right or left, take an exit, or stop to stretch and smell the proverbial roses (if you do, the Jones’s might pass you).
  • And finally, after many long years of acquiescence, compromise, and ass-kissing, arrive at…

Oh, I’m sorry, Mr. Johnson. You died of brain cancer at age twenty-eight. Or at age forty in a car accident. Either way, you didn’t make it to the Great American Goal of Retirement. Aren’t you glad you delayed on that month in Europe that you have been planning and looking forward to since you were an awkward, pimply-faced ninth grade dreamer? You knew every detail of how you would spend every day of that first week in Paris. You dreamed about the taste of your lover’s kiss under a moonlit sky in northern Ireland, and you felt a shiver of terror and excitement up your spine every time you thought about being trapped in a storm on the Croz Spur of the Grandes Jorasses.

“Wait a second!” you object. “I planned carefully with my finances, delayed gratification, inherited good genetics, ate well and exercised, and lived a risk-free, bubble-wrapped life. Now I’m sixty-five and I’m going to enjoy retirement, and do all those things I put off doing until ‘someday!’ Someday is finally here!”

Nope, sorry again. Social Security is bankrupt, your indomitable spirit is now housed in a body no longer equal to the challenges of the physical adventures you planned as a young adult, and your carefully planned investments just got wiped out by another national financial crisis. In short, you’re fucked and full of regret.

When are people going to wake up and realize that, with extremely rare exception, someday never comes. The short answer is that they’re not.The Kool-Aid is mixed in with breast milk and formula these days, so your typical high school graduate has been consuming that shit for eighteen years. They’re brainwashed into thinking that two weeks of paid vacation a year is a great deal, and that five days at a water park two hours from home with three kids and a tight budget will be just as exciting and life-changing as traveling the world as a reckless, free twenty-five year old. It’s not impossible to wake them up from the coma, but it’s not as simple as pumping their stomachs with impassioned pleas to live a little and tales of how your own adventures have changed and shaped your life. It’s more like a cocktail of organ replacement surgery (starting with the brain) and long-term dialysis.

The few with the courage to refuse the cup when it’s passed around – or who quietly gag themselves and vomit out the poison in the bathroom at night when mom and dad are sleeping – are looked at as irresponsible and labeled “no-future kids.” Fine – give me the label. Tattoo it on my chest and back and ass and let me wave a flag with the words printed in bold, black letters. Someone please explain to me why I should spend the prime years of my existence planning on an anticipated event that I probably won’t live to see. And people think I’m the crazy one…

Supernova

1840 on June 13, 2014 

“I don’t care about what I climb, only how it affects me. Success merely punctuates the experience.” – Mark Twight

If that isn’t a perfect summary of my heart towards alpinism, then I don’t know how to improve it. Those words – and that desire to be so purist in my motives – cries out to me, screams for my attention, and loudly proclaims the truth and validity of such lofty ideals. I read those two sentences and I hate myself for not being that strong. How easy and continually tempting it is to climb with and for lesser reasons and motivations! Someday I will be that strong…

I will continue to cut and burn away those parts of me – and everyone and everything around me – that drag me from the pursuit of my ideal self. Not a look or visible image; nothing so fleeting or banal. No, the “me” I so earnestly strive for can be barely glimpsed in the physical. Alpinism and training for it will be my fire, my furnace where I will melt away all that is weak and shameful and emerge time after time an evolved and purified man. Introspection, discipline, and honesty with myself will be my only ways. I will not hold onto that which gives me pleasure but detracts from progress.

This is war.

The strong survive and watch with pitiless eyes as the weak perish. Personally, I don’t give a fuck if I live or die. Dying just means I was playing the game on and with the edge, and the edge won. At least I was a participant. Living means the cycle can continue; evolution can continue internally and externally. Pain, shit, and blood will drive and lubricate the gears of the machine called life. There is no great personal gain or loss either way; why be so arrogant to presume that my flickering life-light really represents any significant social consequence?

My responsibility is to flare up and burn brightly while I remain on this ugly ball of mud – but for me, not for anyone else. And when it’s time to snuff that light out, I hope I’m fully cognizant and aware of every last second. I hope it hurts. And I fucking hope I go supernova.

Kool-Aid

There’s a lot of anger in this post. I had just failed on the north face of Mount Stuart with my brother, and I didn’t get out of that route what I was searching for and badly needed. The casual attitude toward death probably comes across to most as either overly dramatic prose or egotistical blustering; at the time I wrote it, it was neither. I really just didn’t care.

1838 on May 19, 2014

Well, I’m on the airplane on the way “home”…MN might be where I’m living, but the mountains feel so much more like home. I think I am going to keep an eye on tickets. If I can find a cheap round trip, I think it would make sense to go solo Mount Stuart. For me and just me – fuck everyone else and their goddamn judgmental opinions. And fuck me for caring what they think or do.

On that note – soloing Mount Stuart – I re-learned some things on this climb about fitness, training, and nutrition:

  • I need to train harder, mainly cardio and legs. My arms just don’t get used nearly as much on long alpine climbs, especially objectives that are easy enough to solo.
  • Light breakfast is ok, but I need to eat and drink small amounts more often.
  • Coffee is essential with breakfast.
  • Consistent pace is better than short fast bursts.
  • 3am starts at the latest – I like climbing in the dark and snow conditions are more stable.
  • Train cardio and legs more.
  • Repeat the previous step.
  • Find out a way to train my body to recover faster after long days.

Overall, for my lack of consistent hard training before this trip, I was pleasantly surprised with my performance. I could have continued up and over the summit, no problem. However, I have to remember I was climbing with a weaker, less experienced partner, and I only did well in comparison to him. A stronger climber might have – probably would have – smoked me. I don’t ever want to be the weak one…

Fuck, I want that route. I want it like I have never wanted anything before. I crave it, the sensation of being totally isolated and self-reliant, self-responsible. To know that if I fuck up, I die. That no one else could ever be to blame, that my every choice actually has real consequences. I want to live in color for a day, and leave this fucked-up, confusing world behind for a while. I want connection to my ice axe and my ice tool, and I want to cut away connection with every human on the planet. I want to feel real fear and truly be strung-out, but to operate coolly and effectively in spite of those feelings…or maybe because of those feelings.

Regular, old, everyday life sucks. And by the way, fuck [a friend] for drinking the Kool-Aid and chasing a career. I drank a glass too and nearly succumbed to the poison, so I can hardly judge. But goddamn, he should be doing what I’m doing and he fucking knows it. It was dripping from the drunk texts he sent last night – texts he never would have let himself send if he were sober and “thinking clearly.” Fuck this notion of logical decisions and clear thinking. Clear according to whom? Your parents? Your boss? Societal norms? Who the fuck gave them the right to make your decisions for you? And no matter who did, why are you falling in line? Why did you decide that security was better than freedom? Their brand of security only comes when you’re willing to stand behind bars and locked doors.

Thank god life jammed its fingers down my throat and forced me to vomit up the Kool-Aid before the poison did irreversible damage. A hard solo route should clear away the last vestiges of that bullshit, fucked-up, cock-sucking philosophy – if I survive. And if not, who fucking cares? Maybe my torch will burn brightly enough through these words and my actions to light the fire under someone else who is treading the fine line between freedom and acquiescence. I hope so.

The knife

Perhaps the rawest of the past entries that I’ll post; there were some long nights filled with a lot of cynicism and introspection. There’s worse (or better, depending on your viewpoint), but those get a little too personal to put up here. 

1930 on May 9, 2014 

Ha…my most cynical “ha.” So much for the bold words of this morning, predicting my triumphant, terrible wrath and resulting victory in the arena of exercise and training, no matter the pain or potential adversity. A bouldering session so short and weak so as to not even be worthy of the title was not what I boldly predicted would occupy my time tonight. To be honest though, today I really don’t give a fuck. After following up months (years really) or shitty eating, false starts, and revolting laziness with a week of discipline and real training, my body is feeling beat to shit. It’s a good feeling…but it was also undeniably clear that a rest day was needed, mentally and physically.

So now a Surly Hell while I sit and write. Also on the to-do list for the night: pack for climbing tomorrow morning (5am departure) and drink with Nathan. Pretty chill night…

I finally looked up some of Twight’s recommended punk/post-punk playlist today at work. I truly almost laughed; I was expecting much more anger and intensity from his descriptions. Another myth in my mind shattered for the better…it may have done the job for you, Mark, but I will will take the drive and intensity of Disturbed or Avenged Sevenfold any day of the week. To each his own, and I suppose that at some level, music, like high-level alpinism, is anarchy anyway. So fuck it all. Ha, and here I was thinking that by neglecting to adopt someone else’s unique taste in music, I was holding back my climbing and personal development at some level. “No chalk? I’ll smear their fucking routes with jelly if I want to…”

30 Seconds To Mars’ “From Yesterday” plays loudly in my ears, over and over. “On a mountain he sits, not of gold but of shit.” Yeah, that about sums up life here in Minnesota. I should never have come back…and when I finally leave again, I’ll never return to this state. A failed marriage and broken promises to hundreds haunt me, stalk me while I sleep, torment my dreams. I see what could have been with Kristi, and I both loathe it and long for it. Thoughts and memories, both good and bad, come rushing through the floodgates if I relax the stranglehold on my emotions for even a second.

For all my talk and blustering about my willingness to use the knife to cut away obstacles between me and climbing, I still miss and hurt and grieve. God, it hurts like hell sometimes, when will the bleeding stop? The morphine of adrenaline, sex, or alcohol could never be enough to heal, just mask. At the end of the day, it still fucking hurts.

But isn’t it supposed to? Isn’t pain and suffering and scarring intrinsic to the use of the knife? Only one question remains then: was it worth it? Were the cuts worth the pain? Do the results justify the costs of the operation? My answer would shock some, alienate others, and convince still others that I am living in a state of denial…but yes, it was worth it. The shit and blood and pain was worth it all. If I die on my next climb, it was worth it all, for I died living out my ideal.

Not the popular or accepted viewpoint in the circles I was running in over the last six years; I get that. I also don’t give a shit.

With my freedom now comes the heavy weight of my responsibility to personal evolution, I understand and accept that. My life will be filled with more self-induced pain than I can currently imagine if I am going to approach the limits of my potential…it’s going to hurt, badly. But it has got to be better than living a lie of happiness, stuck inside a life away from the only thing I really love – the one thing that makes me feel truly alive.

To my brother

I really hesitated posting this for public viewing for a couple of reasons. It’s not written in the best style; I had a lot on my mind that night and it could be rewritten so much better. It’s extremely vulnerable, and reading it touches nerves in places I’ve worked hard to wall off. I also never planned on making any of this public when I wrote that last paragraph. However, it provides an accurate (if somewhat abbreviated) snapshot and timeline of the last eight years, as well as a glimpse at my daily training as I started to gain strength again after so many years on the sidelines.

1723 on May 8, 2014

Another note on the futility and senselessness of letting ego get involved with climbing in regards to comparisons and inferiority complexes based on route grades. At least in hard alpine climbing, route grades are, at best, general indicators of the first ascentionist’s experience. Climbs in the mountains are so susceptible to changing conditions by the very nature of being alpine routes; one party could report 300 meters of straightforward 5.10 rock climbing, while two weeks later, a party on the same route could encounter verglass-coated M7 and WI5 under cloudy skies and high winds…obviously they would experience a radically different climb.

It all comes back to the fact that, in order to find true satisfaction and contentment in the alpine realm, an alpinist must turn his gaze fully inward…not to be ignorant of evolving standards and the progress of the sport as a whole, but to ensure that the process remains purely for the purposes of personal growth, evolution, and joy. Only then can true peace be attained.

Enough waxing eloquent about abstract conceptual bullshit; here are facts:

CARDIO: 10 miles resistance bike 32:49

CIRCUITS x3:

  • 15x pushups
  • 1 French pullup
  • 5x box steps w/ 30# each arm
  • 15x pushups
  • 8x 30# goblet squats
  • 15 second L-hang, any holds
  • 10x lunges
  • 75x flutter kicks
  • 8x curls each arm w/ 35# dumbbells

STRETCHING: full body

And so the streak of winning or surviving (depends on your perspective and your definition of each of those words; “living” and/or “existing” could probably also be substituted or added) continues, much to the chagrin of that pathetic, weak little bastard part of me that tried to get me to skip my workout and go piss away money watching a movie. Motherfucking asshole…I showed him.

Tomorrow will be even better and more productive: 100/100/100 in the morning, climbing at Vertical Endeavors after work, and then a run after climbing to close out the day. If I’m lucky, the shitty forecast is wrong (currently calling for rain, rain, and more rain) and I’ll get two days up at Taylor’s Falls (plus circuit training and cardio both days of course) before a rest day Monday. Then train hard Tuesday and Wednesday and fly out Thursday. Fuck yeah.

I am super stoked to finally be hopping on a serious route with my bro. We have been talking and dreaming of this since before he graduated high school. I’m not sure either of us truly believed it would ever happen…backpacking trips, sure, but I was dead-set on a career as a SEAL and Matt was climbing the ladder in the massive cluster-fuck of a system that is the Chicago city government. By the time I was out of the Navy and fixated on climbing everything I could see at Taylor’s Falls (sans ropes in the beginning), Matt was too out of shape and locked into a marriage and the accompanying compressive lifestyle to do much more than offer encouragement and financial help in obtaining gear…a rope, two Black Diamond Alpine Bod harnesses, and a handful of nuts and ‘biners. Actually, this latter contribution likely saved my life, so its significance should not be at all underestimated.

I climbed that summer in Taylor’s Falls, as well as taking a trip to Montana where I met up with Skew (thank you rockclimbing.com). After meeting Krzysztof while bouldering in T.F. one August day, I moved to Montana for seven months to learn how to ice climb…all to take “Kris” up on his offer to climbing with him in the Tatras the next March. This I did, and after a brief two month stint back in Minnesota, I moved back to Bozeman for seven more months. That August, Loren and I climbed the North Face Direct Route on Granite Peak, the pinnacle of my climbing career at the time. God, it was amazing.

Only four months later, I lost my job and fled back home to Minnesota…partially to chase a girl I would end up marrying and then divorcing. But now I wonder if a part of me knew I was pushing too hard, too fast to survive my self-induced learning curve. I was soloing hard ice routes at a desperate pace, trying so hard to prove I was worthy of something. Through it all, my brother watched, encouraged, loved, and in some ways probably envied. But he always believed in me.

The next six years saw a flurry of activity very unlike the preceding twenty. Desperate to achieve in some venue and lacking the mountains I had abandoned, I centered my attention and efforts on Amway and Kristi. Ultimately, I failed at both…willingly at one of them. But while the full weight of my failure and its accompanying shame was crashing down on and around me, a curious thing happened. My brother packed up his life, said ‘bye to the city, and moved to the mountains. And he started to get strong.

Matt, if you’re reading this, I’m dead and gone. I suppose I should have had the guts to tell you more often while I was alive, but I love you…for so many reasons, many more than are listed in the paragraphs above. I hope we climbed a shit-ton of hard routes together. Hell, I hope you never get a chance to read this. But if you do…I love you, bro. Live long and climb the fuck on.

Technicolor

There’s not much I would add to this entry. It’s one of the most concise explanations I’ve ever managed to pen for why I climb.

2026 on May 7, 2014 

I am feeling fucking strong and confident. One more week of this before I get on a plane to throw my best against a cold, icy, menacing route that cares little about my times on the bike or the number and intensity of my circuits. Mount Stuart has only to loose a single rock, open up one icy crevasse, or let slide one wet, cement-like slab avalanche, and my life will be snuffed out like a candle (and with about as much fanfare)…and for this, I love her, for it is only because of these risks, this rolling of the dice, that the endeavor is worth our striving.

Overly dramatic? Some would doubtless say so, and I would agree while sitting here in the safety of my apartment. But on the mountain, everything changes. On the mountain, the danger is palpable, and fear is a living, breathing thing. On the mountain, the grey landscape of existence transforms into the shimmering technicolor of survival. Suddenly, each decision matters, has consequence. All at once, the brain engages and links perfectly and inexplicably with instinct. Each choice on an alpine climb becomes, at some level, a matter of life and death. We roll the dice over and over, each time knowing that we are gambling more than we should – more than we can really afford to lose. But this…this is why we fucking climb. Not to die, but to risk death in order to feel truly, wonderfully alive.

I pity those who never know this feeling.

Credo

Another archived post…the lack of clear and coherent thoughts referenced in the first paragraph was partially due to an open, half-empty bottle of Jack Daniels sitting on my kitchen table as I wrote. Reading it a few weeks later, though, I was amazed at how clearly and concisely I managed to communicate my heart toward climbing and alpinism.

1830 on May 6, 2014 

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 accumulated history is any indicator, 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 past-time 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.