String Theory: a summary of July – November

To anyone who actually understands string theory, the title of this post will leave them scratching their heads and wondering about the lack of correlation between what I wrote and what I decided to call it. I’ll save those smart people some time and confess up front that there is no connection. To be honest, after a half hour invested into studying string theory on Wikipedia, I found myself unable to garner even a basic working understanding of what seemed to me to be a complex heap of bullshit. I decided to use the term in my title anyway, because it seems to be a succinct verbal portrayal of the last few months of my life. Every event lies jumbled in my mind like a tangled mess of individual strings on the floor…and yet I get the impression that if I could somehow unravel the nest of snarls, it would really just be one long string, with each event flowing seamlessly and perfectly into the next because it was meant to. All of that rhetoric to say this: a lot has happened in the last four months in a lot of different areas of life. Not all of it has been fun or perfect, but it all feels necessary and right. So with that in mind, here are the highlights.

My last entry under “2014 Trips/Adventures” covered my year through July 9th. Only three days later, the highlight of my summer occurred at a going away party for a dear friend of mine, Kristi Rohwer. Kristi was my original climbing partner, although memories of rollerblading marathons, early-season swimming in Minnesota lakes, and other shenanigans stretch back well before we tied into a rope together. She was with me when we learned to tie figure-of-eight knots from the instruction sheet that came with our brand-new harnesses, and when we nearly got electrocuted climbing in a thunderstorm at Taylor’s Falls in an attempt to be as hardcore as the the climbers in Cliffhanger and Vertical Limit. She also naively belayed me as I led up route after route at TF with just a handful of nuts for protection, finding shitty placements that often popped out and slid down the rope to her as I moved past them. We hadn’t gotten to spend a lot of time adventuring together in recent years, but I wasn’t going to miss a chance to say goodbye to one of my oldest and best friends before she moved to D.C. with her husband, Eric.

I got there a bit early, and was already a few beers in on a mostly-empty stomach when a gorgeous woman appeared at the bar next to me, ordering a round of drinks for the other members of the bachelorette party she was attending. Now, let’s set the scene. I was sporting beat-up softshell climbing pants, flip-flops, and a t-shirt. I still hadn’t shaved after twelve days of climbing in Montana and Wyoming, and my shaggy hair (not yet long enough to be considered majestic) was ensconced in a chalk-covered Patagonia trucker hat. About all I had going for me was my brimming confidence, due in no small part to my alcohol intake. We struck up a casual conversation, enough for me to find out that her name was Liz and she was a registered dietitian at a local hospital. She soon walked back to her party with the afore-mentioned drinks, and I started to strategize about how to get her number without taking a kamikaze dive into the bachelorette party and getting shot down in front of that many ladies. A half hour later, her group walked out on their way to another bar, and she happened to be bringing up the tail end of the procession. A pathetically awkward request for her digits and her long, contemplative stare at my scrubby appearance later, she acquiesced and I had what I hoped was a legitimate telephone number. I didn’t know it then, but that chance meeting would result in my falling head-over-heels in love with the girl I’m now dating…more about what we’ve been up to later in this diatribe.

Enjoying a perfect September day at an apple orchard.

Looking back at my first months of serious climbing, there were several people that either probably or definitely saved my life. Kristi Rohwer was one of them; Kelly Jaworski was another. I can remember two occasions when I was soloing routes at TF without bothering to check ratings first (a practice that I have since learned to avoid). I soon found myself in terrain that I didn’t have the skills to navigate, and both times – the first as a complete stranger – Kelly dropped a rope to me so I could tie in and be lowered down safely to the ground. I feel foolish for taking such risks now, but at the time I was just grateful for her help. We went on to climb a lot of routes together that summer, and found ourselves climbing together again this year after nearly seven years of tying in with other partners or not at all. She’s always been a solid partner, so it was an awesome experience on August 2nd to check “climb Devil’s Tower” off her bucket list. It’s the climb she’s wanted to do since her first year in a harness, and seeing all of her experience, training, and focus come together in one morning on such an aesthetic route was amazing. We were the first party on Durrance (5.7, five pitches) on a beautiful Saturday morning, knocking out the climb and descent in just over three hours.

Kelly on pitch 2 of Devil's Tower.

Kelly on Devil’s Tower.

We left on a Friday after we both got off work, settling in for the long drive across western Minnesota and all of South Dakota. Other than running over a dead deer at high speed and waking up to Kelly wrapping up almost an hour of driving over 100 m.p.h. in an attempt to stay awake, the drive was fairly uneventful. We finished off the giant bag of spicy Cheetos at 0300 as we drifted the Corolla like Ken Block into the park service road leading to Devil’s Tower.

” Hey Kelly, should we drift this turn instead of slowing down?”

“Umm, no I don’t really think…”

“Ok, hold on!!”

With under two hours until we were going to wake up, drink coffee, and climb, we decided to forgo the campsite and camp illegally under the stars right on the sidewalk at the visitors center. To our great surprise, a Forrester was already parked there carrying three fellow climbers who had the same idea…as did the next three cars that all showed up within twenty minutes of each other. With our goal to be first on the route threatened, we lied about our intended start time, and whispered plans to each other to wake up at 0445 after just forty-five minutes of sleep. Unfortunately, our alarm and subsequent movement woke several others, and the mad dash to be the first climbers on Durrance began. We won the contest with just minutes to spare, racking up and starting the route by headlamp just as two other parties arrived. Perfect weather conditions and a great partner made it one of the best climbs I could remember, and we topped out less than two hours later. With the rest of the day to relax and enjoy the euphoria of having accomplished our objective, we rappelled down to drink cold beers and field questions from fascinated tourists. We camped under the stars again Saturday night in Spearfish Canyon, and woke early the next morning to finish the drive home to soft beds and our significant others.

Kelly and I after knocking out DT in just over 3 hours.

Kelly and I after knocking out DT in just over 3 hours.

After several climbing trips in the first eight months of the year and double-digit days spent lapping the classics at Taylor’s Falls, I was finally able to knock off a couple of solos that I’ve dreamt of doing since the first time I climbed there. Alone early on a Saturday morning in mid-August, I climbed The Bulge (5.10-) and Fallen Knight (5.9+) ropeless. It had been a long time since I had felt so powerful and smooth. Thoughts of falling or fear never entered my mind; I felt as though I flowed up the routes with my mind, and my body just followed behind. I have soloed both routes again since, but it’s never been the same. It’s interesting how vital and intrinsic the factor of the unknown is to a powerful, altering experience.

Ropeless on the crux of a 5.9+.

Ropeless on the crux of a 5.9+.

Soloing The Bulge at Taylor's Falls.

Soloing The Bulge at Taylor’s Falls.

On the topic of powerful, altering experiences, I had the privilege of watching my brother Matt get married to an incredible lady in Port Townsend, Washington on September 14th. It was far and away the simplest, most elegant, beautiful ceremony I’ve ever been a part of. The whole thing lasted perhaps fifteen minutes, and was officiated by my sister Sheryl (a newly minted minister of some universal church of everything, all praise to the Interwebs). The thirty family and close friends in attendance were treated to a view of snow-capped Mount Baker across the Puget Sound, and the weather could not have been better. After the ceremony, I was able to expose yet another selection of the population to my appallingly bad dancing skills…I really need to work on those someday. All in all though, it was a great weekend, and I wish Matt and Emily nothing but the best.

Just married! Matt and Emily walking down the aisle together after a refreshingly simple ceremony.

Just married! Matt and Emily walking down the aisle together after a refreshingly simple ceremony.

At this point, I know what you are thinking, dear reader. You’re wondering how I could possibly jet out to the mountain playground of the Olympic Peninsula for even four days and not climb, bike, ski, or in some such similar way engage in adrenaline-pumping activities. Well not to fear – tasked with the responsibility of journeying to a neighboring town to pick up tables and chairs for the wedding (and under the guise of needing six hours to accomplish this task), Matt and I detoured to Vista Rock at the Hamma Hamma wilderness area to finish a new single-pitch rock climb we started cleaning a few months ago. Tables and Chairs (aptly named in light of our ruse) went at 5.9+ on a slack top rope. I brought a rack of small gear intending to lead it from the ground up, but the wall offered only two or three possible gear placements that didn’t even look like they would hold body weight. I’m loathe to place my first bolt, so for now (unless a local decides otherwise) the routes there will be developed for top roping.

Matt gearing up for rappel at the top of the cliff.

Matt gearing up for rappel at the top of the cliff.

Climbing Tables and Chairs at Vista Rock.

Climbing Tables and Chairs at Vista Rock.

September also marked the finale of a period of financial irresponsibility in my life (one of several over the years actually). Since February, I have devoted most of my resources to the pursuit of becoming a climber again, rather than paying off debt accumulated in my divorce. This pursuit manifested itself in two forms: accumulating gear and traveling to climb. The gear list necessary to climb ice, rock, and alpine routes is staggeringly long and nearly prohibitively expensive. I had sold or given away nearly all my gear after moving to Minnesota six years earlier, so I spent several thousand dollars rebuilding my stash of equipment and technical clothing. Unfortunately, I currently reside in a state that is not known for its climbing, so I also invested a fairly large sum of money traveling to Washington four times, Montana once, Wyoming twice, and buying tickets for upcoming ice climbing trips to Cody, Wyoming and Switzerland. Technical skill is never really lost once obtained, and fitness is fairly easily regained with discipline and consistency. I have found, however, that climbing hard routes is largely a mind fuck, and that part of the game only comes with exposure. Hence, the trips to the mountains rather than a jaunt to the gym. As of October 1st, the race is on to pay down debt and build savings as soon as possible, aided by the following factors:

  • I have all the gear I need for any adventures in the near future
  • I have my plane tickets for the trips to Cody and Switzerland
  • I am strictly and successfully adhering to a tight budget for the first time in my life
  • I moved, and my monthly rent is a flat $300 (and that includes a pegboard wall to store gear!)
Some of the gear stash, stored per my OCD tendencies.

Some of the gear stash, stored per my OCD tendencies.

After returning from the wedding, Liz and I embarked on series of “local adventures,” namely camping, climbing, hunting, and attempting to visit and try the beers of every local brewery in Minneapolis and St. Paul before waving good-bye to Minnesota. Fear not – this last goal isn’t likely to turn us into raging alcoholics as we have a good three years before seeking somewhere with mountains and a more temperate climate. Liz is a brave woman, as she had only ever car camped and had never climbed or hunted before we met. However, she recently climbed 5.10 at Taylor’s Falls, warms up on 5.9 at the climbing gym, helped skin a squirrel we shot, and took to camping in a tent like she’d been doing it all her life.

Liz setting up the brand-new Hilleberg tent on its first test run. Huge vestibules are the best!

Setting up the brand-new Hilleberg tent on its first test run. Huge vestibules are the best!

Liz cruising a fun 5.7 on her second time climbing.

Liz cruising a fun 5.7 on her second time climbing.

The final note isn’t a positive, but in the interest of keeping things in chronological order I’ll finish with it anyway. While playing soccer with my young cousins, nieces, and nephews at my grandma’s birthday party in mid-October, I caught my toe in the ground somehow, went down hard, and blew my left ankle apart. I realize that’s not a very medically sound description, but it pretty accurately sums up the noise, the pain, and the damage. I wasn’t able to put any weight on it for a couple days, and the entire foot swelled up and turned black, blue, and green. Apparently climbing is actually one of the safer things I do. I hobbled into work on Monday with the aid of some child-size crutches I borrowed from a niece, and my boss was kind enough to x-ray my foot with the C-Arm we have in our cadaver OR. We took a lot of x-rays from different angles before we were sure that I didn’t have any broken bones (although we both might now have cancer, since neither of us were wearing lead). Eighteen days later, I’m still walking with a little bit of a limp and occasional slight pain, and I can tell that it would be extremely easy to tweak it just a few degrees and re-injure it. This is infuriatingly frustrating, as I am supposed to be training for the upcoming climbing trips. I can do some arm and ab workouts, but I can’t climb or do any cardio. I’ve been compensating as best I can with craft beer and good coffee, but it just doesn’t seem to be having the same effect…

Anyway, overall it has been an amazing four months. There’s been change, adventure, new experiences, and a lot of learning. The next “Trips/Adventures” update will be after the trip to Cody, Wyoming, so stay tuned early in January!


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