Gran Carambano: Part I

Gran Carambano (IV, WI 5, 100m) in the Froze-To-Death Cirque of the Beartooth Mountains. The route follows the large, steep flow on the far left.

Gran Carambano (III, WI 5, 100m) in the Froze-To-Death Cirque of the Beartooth Mountains. The route follows the large, steep flow on the far left.

This is the first segment of what will probably be a three-part series about the first significant first ascent I ever did. It’s one of my favorite memories, and I thought it would be fun to try writing in a story format. Following the advice of a fellow blogger, I’m splitting it up into installments to make it more readable.

Friday afternoon, November 14, 2014

I sat in my cubicle, bored, gazing idly out the window at traffic whizzing by on the interstate fifty yards away. With more than half of the employees at our small company gone at an industry trade show or on vacation, there wasn’t much actual work to do. My feet had been propped up on my desk for the last hour as I intermittently skimmed through lab reports without actually comprehending anything I read. My mind was elsewhere; just over a month remained before I would board a plane to meet an old friend I hadn’t seen in almost six years. Our plan was to spend ten days over Christmas and New Years climbing frozen waterfalls in Montana and Wyoming. As the minutes ticked slowly off the clock towards the time when I would coax my aging Corolla into the mad rush of commuters racing home to start their weekends, my thoughts drifted back to the first time I met Olin Erickson

0430 on Saturday, November 15, 2008

The alarm on Olin’s cell phone was deafening in the cramped interior of his Subaru. I heard him rustling around in his sleeping bag as he searched for the device and silenced the din. Fogged up windows precluded a look outside, but the wind that continued to moan loudly and buffet the vehicle made me want to curl up in my feathery cocoon and go back to sleep. More movement from Olin as he twisted around to crack a window and light the tiny camping stove put an end to my wishful thinking.

“Hey, uh, Jimmy, are you up?”

A heavy sigh and a groaned reply, “Yeah, I’m getting there. Weather sounds like shit.”

“Eh, it won’t be that bad once we get up the trail a little bit,” he replied, countering my pessimistic prediction that the weather would worsen as we ventured higher into the mountains. Optimism is not my strong suit early on a cold morning, and I was here with a man I barely knew to climb a difficult, dangerous, virgin ice route that I had never seen…but a route that was supposedly amazing and worth the heinous approach. According to my climbing partner, who was essentially a complete stranger. Hmm.

I had met Olin barely twelve hours before when he picked me up in his Outback in front of the townhouse where I lived. Actually, I shared a tiny room with a large chest freezer and my sister’s extensive Care Bear collection in the basement, but the rent was cheap and it kept me near the mountains. Olin and I had been connected by a mutual friend and climbing partner that we both respected and trusted, but it was still awkward to settle in for a four hour drive with a stranger whom I would literally be trusting my life with the next day. I was relieved to find that he was an unpretentious, easy-going guy who loved all things outdoors – the kind of person I could feel comfortable with right away. We talked the hours away as we motored towards the Beartooths, and we were soon pulling up at the West Rosebud Canyon trail head to camp for the night.

Now, as I slithered out of the cozy warmth of my sleeping bag and began to don layers of insulating pants, shirts, socks and jackets, I began to feel apprehensive about the day ahead. What would the weather do? Should we pack bivouac gear or risk a night out unprotected and exposed to the bitter cold? Would the ice be climbable, or too brittle? What about avalanche conditions – would the slopes on the approach be stable, or were we walking into a wind-loaded time bomb? I was beginning to talk myself out of even getting out of the car when Olin interrupted my paranoid reverie with a question.

“Want some hot cocoa?”

Grateful for the break in my thoughts and for the offer of a hot drink, I reached over the mound of packs and gear between our sleeping bags to take the steaming mug. The warmth felt good on my numb fingers. Maybe I just needed  a good brew to lift my spirits. I tipped the cup back slightly to take a sip, already anticipating the warm, chocolaty beverage sliding down my throat and warming my belly.

“Jesus, Olin, what is this shit!?” I exclaimed, coughing and trying hard not to regurgitate the villainous concoction all over the inside of his vehicle.

“It’s a special brew,” he explained, his tone apologetic but tinged with pride.

“No kidding,” I replied as I handed the mug back and reached for my water bottle to wash the taste out of my mouth. “What did you mix in there?”

“Besides the cocoa powder? Garlic and cayenne pepper mostly, along with a few herbs that are supposed to help with increasing circulation. I figured it would help with blood flow, maybe keep us a little warmer.” He took a sip, managing to keep a straight face as he forced the liquid down. “It’s really not that bad. You want any more?”

“I think I’m good,” I said as I reached into my pack for my own stove. “No offense, but that stuff is disgusting…I’ll make my own. And I bet your girlfriend is glad she’s not here so she doesn’t have to kiss that mouth.”

“Don’t have one,” he announced as he took another swig and set the mug down to lace his boots.

Small wonder, I thought but didn’t say. A tiny smile cracked across my face as I stretched to grab my own footwear. Another thought was running through my head as I jammed my feet into the heavy boots: I like this guy – he’s fucking crazy.

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