The First Foray: Climbing the Chadwick-Bowman on Granite Peak, Part IV

The north face of Granite Peak in August 2008. The Chadwick-Bowman Route goes directly up the face, just left of the main pillar.

The north face of Granite Peak in August 2008. The Chadwick-Bowman Route goes directly up the face, just left of the main pillar.

Procrastination isn’t usually my thing, but it’s been a rough first half of the year on a couple different fronts and I haven’t been too stoked to finish the story. Here it is though – the final chapter, and the conclusion of one of the defining adventures of my life. I’ll move it to the “Stories” tab in a few weeks, but you can find the earlier chapters there now if you haven’t read them already.

Loren traversing on the first roped pitch.

Loren traversing on the first roped pitch.

0740 on August 26, 2008

A faint shout reached my ears, but the words were torn away by the gusting wind. I looked down, my eyes following the gentle arc of the rope to where my partner was climbing almost sixty meters below me. We had been simul-climbing the moderately technical rock face to save time and stay warm, but now I could faintly make out the word “belay” as he continued moving towards me. I shrugged. The terrain ahead didn’t seem difficult enough to merit the safety of belayed climbing, but Loren was more experienced and maybe he knew something I didn’t.

I placed two solid cams in a hand-sized crack to my right and used a pair of clove hitches on our twin climbing ropes to anchor myself safely to the wall. Loren seemed to be almost running up the pitch, and it was all I could do to keep up with him as I pulled the slack rope through my belay device. He reached me just a couple minutes later, breathing hard.

“Give me the gear,” he said in a flat voice between breaths.

I started to unclip the remaining pieces of protection from my gear loops, handing them over to him one at a time as he arranged the nuts and cams on his harness.

“Are we belaying from here?” I asked. “It doesn’t look that hard for the next bit.”

Loren didn’t look up. “You’re moving too fucking slow, Bambi,” he said as he continued clipping gear around his waist. “I want to get up and off this thing before a storm rolls in. Slings?”

I ducked my head and pulled the tangle of slings off my shoulder without saying a word. I was embarrassed, furious, and surprised. I thought that I had been moving quickly and confidently, running it out between pieces as much as I dared and placing just enough gear to keep us from going to the ground in the event of a fall. I kept my mouth shut and focused on rearranging the anchor to account for an upward pull if Loren peeled off the rock above me.

Following Loren's lead two pitches below the ridge.

Following Loren’s lead two pitches below the ridge.

“You’re on belay,” I said through clenched teeth as he looked at me. I huddled into the rock as he moved swiftly up the blocky terrain above us. The sun’s rays had not yet kissed the wind-blown north wall, and I couldn’t feel my feet anymore.

1035

“Ok, climb!” came the shout from the ridge forty meters above me. I couldn’t see Loren, but I was eager to get off this shadowy face and into the warmth of the sunlight. I disassembled the anchor with numb fingers and made a few tentative moves upwards. After a moment’s pause, the two ropes snapped tight against my harness, and I knew my partner was paying attention. I jammed bloodied fists into the wide crack above me and worked my feet upwards, hating the weight of my pack and craving a hot drink.

1120

We stood together on the tiny summit block, arms thrown around each other’s shoulders. The sun had disappeared behind clouds that had materialized seemingly out of nowhere, but at least the wind had died. I was filled with a contentment unlike any I had ever experienced, and I felt closer to Loren at that moment than I had ever felt with anyone else in my life. Thoughts of the descent lingered at the edge of my mind, but I was determined to be fully present in the moment at hand. I looked over at my partner.

On the summit block of Granite Peak after a seven hour ascent of the Chadwick-Bowman.

On the summit block of Granite Peak after a seven hour ascent of the Chadwick-Bowman.

A final summit shot before starting the descent.

A final summit shot before starting the descent.

“We did pretty good, huh?”

Loren grinned. “Yeah, Bambi, that wasn’t too bad. Still gotta get down, but I’ve done the east ridge descent before and it’s not hard.”

I nodded, feeling physically drained but emotionally charged. I gazed out at the view of mountains and glaciers for a minute before glancing over at him once more.

“Again sometime? And soon?”

He looked back at me for a moment before a slow smile spread across his face.

“Yeah. Yeah, I think we could do that.”

Uncaging the Tiger

Today’s post is something special. I’ve never posted anything that I didn’t personally write; I have a very specific vision and desire for the voice and direction of my blog, and I’m an incurable control freak. That said, Magdalena’s story is one that needs to be told. It’s a story of self-discovery that I hope everyone is fortunate enough to experience personally. English is her second language as she’s native Polish, but you’d never guess it when reading her writing. Enjoy!

Magdalena at the top of the  stellar fourth pitch of Namenloss.

Magdalena at the top of the stellar fourth pitch of Namenlos.

“Hey Turbo, why don’t you lead that next pitch? I think you should because you have bigger balls than the three of us combined!”

The shout came from the curly-haired American that I had met only twenty-four hours before. I was just about to finish following my partner on the second pitch of Rattenpissoir on our first day of our ice climbing trip to Kandersteg. Following with a top rope again, as it almost always used to be. Too many excuses, too little courage, or whatever else it was that stopped me from believing I actually could be more than just a self-propelled belay device when ice climbing. A simple question from a guy I barely knew changed it all. 

I knew I was not going to find any excuse for backing off this time. Tempting as it was, the thought of rappelling down and getting a glass of hot wine in the fancy Randez-Vous restaurant, as my partner suggested, had just lost meaning. I wanted to lead for the first time in my ice climbing career. I actually wanted to lead a pitch, and it felt like the only right thing to do.

Magdalena with a smooth lead on the steep first pitch of Namenlos.

Me leading the steep first pitch of Namenlos in Kandersteg.

“Yeah, why not..?” I murmured, seeing from the corner of my eye the most startled look on my partner’s face. He wasn’t used to me taking charge.

I was not scared. Not for a second. All of a sudden I knew I was able to climb it without a problem. For the last several years, I had been climbing on many grade six ice pitches – following of course, but still doing pretty fine (except for the first trip to Kandersteg five years before, when I had been taken on a grade six route on my first ever day of ice climbing. I’m pretty sure the cute little Kandersteg valley has never heard so much Polish cursing as they did on that memorable day). 

Still, I had never dared to lead more than perhaps three easy pitches during all those years of ice climbing. Leading ice routes used to scare the shit out of me, for no good reason. I guess it was always easier to be scared and give up than try and succeed. Or fail. This time was different though. This time changed everything.

The third pitch on Rattenpissoir is easy; most parties climb only the first two because the upper part is full of snow-covered ledges. It wasn’t hard, but it was enough to remind me of a Tibetan maxim that I chose to be my one and only life philosophy a long time ago.

Better to live one day as a tiger than a thousand years as a sheep.”

Most of us live as sheep these days. We eat, drink, sleep, and follow our shepherd, whoever or whatever the hell he is. I chose this maxim to be mine because I wanted to be wild and free like a tiger instead of going through life on autopilot. I chose to follow these words, and then I forgot about them. Pathetic and ridiculous, but it actually happened. Why? Because it was easier to be just growing wool like a sheep than being fierce and self-sufficient like a tiger. Now, however, I was slowly gaining courage and uncaging the tiger that had been slumbering inside me for too damn long. 

Was it that simple? I guess so, because all that happened after that first fully-aware lead only proved it. I became a real climbing partner, willing and even demanding to always lead the first pitch on each route. This led me to sending the hardest pitch I had ever done before – the first grade six pitch on Rubezahl. I couldn’t describe how special and magical this moment was and how much it meant to me, even if I tried for a hundred years. There are times in your life when you feel truly alive without even trying, and that was one of them.

Turbo living up to her nickname on Rubezahl, WI6. Her lead on the first crux pitch was her hardest to date.

Following the second pitch of Rubezahl, WI6. My lead on the crux first pitch was my hardest to date and one of the proudest moments of my life.

My tiger is awake now, and I am well aware of the fact that life begins at the end of your comfort zone. You just have to get your ass off your comfy chair, deal with the consequences and move on. Stop simply existing and start living. Even if – as the proverb says – that life lasts for just one day.

 

image2 (2)Magdalena (aka Turbo) is a Polish rock and ice climber trying to make her dreams of great alpine adventures come true. She currently lives in Krakow, Poland where polluted air, endless winters, slippery rocks, an absolute lack of ice climbs, and murderously potent vodka make for quite an interesting existence. When she’s not working as a marketing manager in an IT corporation, she devotes her time to training, climbing, hiking, and trying to live her life full speed. She’s proud to have the maturity level of a fourteen year old boy and hopes to never grow up.

Worth Dying For

Loren simul-soloing on one of the purest alpine climbs I've ever done. We went light, fast, and with a minimum of technology; we truly met the mountain.

Loren simul-soloing on one of the purest alpine climbs I have ever done. We went light, fast, and with a minimum of technology; we truly met the mountain.

I have been called a purist, old-fashioned, and an idealist. Those terms I usually take as a complement if I have any respect at all for the person labeling me. I have also been told that I am stuck in the past, hindering the progress of our sport, and afraid of change. The first is true, the second debatable depending on your definition of our sport, and the third patently false. I have never put a drill bit to rock, and I know for a fact I never will. I usually wear that distinction among my peers quietly, but always with pride.

Mark Twight once wrote an essay about bolting entitled “Barbarians at the Gate.” I first saw it nine years ago, and the proud, angry words resonated strongly with my impressionable young mind. Some primitive, righteous entity was birthed inside me as I worked my way through his discourse, and I felt the nervous thrill of encountering some great pearl of truth. Having not lived the words the way Twight had, I couldn’t grasp the full weight of what he wrote, but the concepts fit together with my desired evolved self like a puzzle piece. I have read it scores of times since, and the idealistic phrases and uncompromising lines are now permanently imprinted on my heart.

Perhaps that obsession with his words is why I now find myself unable to write anything worth reading on the same subject. Anything I pen either sounds like plagiarism or weakness; I’ve torn up or erased several attempts over the last three months. Quitting is not my usual modus operandi, but I am of the opinion that Twight’s words were complete, lacking nothing. Since I’m not interested in producing an inferior product solely for the sake of autonomy, I have posted a link below to his original piece. If you read it carefully, you will understand – although perhaps not agree with – my title for this post.

“Barbarians at the Gate” – by Mark Twight

As a final note…I was texting my brother yesterday, telling him what I had decided to do with this piece. I remarked that Twight had said everything there was to say on the subject of bolting ethics, and in my opinion he had said it perfectly. Matt’s response was thought-provoking:

“…[John] Muir said it all. Twight only needed to say anything because people forgot Muir…you didn’t need climbers to talk about climbing ethics at all until climbers forgot to appreciate the mountains and just treated them as a big gym for their personal use.”

Truer words were never spoken.

 

The Only 3 Excuses

Placing psychological pro in bad ice on the Reflection Wall in Nipigon, Canada.

Placing psychological pro in bad ice on the Reflection Wall.

I was busy planning an alpine climbing trip with Nate and halfway through my second pint of Surly when my phone rang. I glanced down at the screen to see who was calling at 2030 on a Wednesday, and the name Adam Dailey was blinking on the screen. Adam is the strongest mixed and drytool climber in the entire Midwest, and he wasn’t the kind of guy to call just to say hello and shoot the breeze.

“Hey, what’s going on?” I answered as I mouthed the word “Adam” to Nate.

“What are you doing tomorrow?” Adam asked. No small talk, just straight to the point.

“Umm, well I just got back from two and a half weeks in Switzerland so I’ll be at work trying to catch up. Why?”

Adam laughed. “Dude, that’s a horrible idea. Nope, you are going to pack your shit and drive up to Duluth tomorrow by noon. Jon and I are picking up Whit Magro at the airport in Thunder Bay, and we’re headed up to Canada for the Nipigon Ice Fest. We need a fourth climber, someone strong.”

Adam, Jon, and Whit approaching the routes on the first day in Nipigon.

Jon, Whit, Adam, and James approaching the routes on our first day in Nipigon.

I hesitated. I had only been back at my job for three days, and I had a lot of work to take care of from the preceding two weeks. On the other hand, it was a chance to climb and hang out with a world class climber; Whit Magro had climbed and established hard ice, rock, and alpine routes all over the world, and I knew him from my time in Bozeman to be a genuinely nice guy who always had a lot of stoke and power.

“I’m sorry, bro, but I just can’t. I don’t know if I would have a job on Monday if I took off again.”

He laughed again. “Perfect! If you get fired, you can move up to Duluth. I could use another good climbing partner up here. Just think about it and call me back in an hour, ok?”

I hung up the phone and filled Nate in on the situation, mentally scrambling for a way to make it all work. I ran through a dozen possible scenarios in my head; all of them either concluded with me being unemployed on Monday or missing an incredible weekend of climbing in Canada. I was about to send a text to Adam declining the offer,  when my mind suddenly flashed back to a moment in Kandersteg a week earlier. While sipping our daily espresso, Magdalena told me that her entire life philosophy could be summarized in a single, ancient Tibetan maxim:

Better to live one day as a tiger than a thousand years as a sheep.”

I picked up the phone to call Adam back – potential consequences be damned, I was going to live as a tiger this weekend. The phone rang twice before he picked up.

“Yeah?”

“Fuck it, bro. I’m in.”

Ready to warm up on the route "Ten Percent Real" (WI5) for my first climb in Nipigon.

Ready to warm up on the route “Ten Percent Real” (WI5) for my first climb in Nipigon.

Ten Percent Real felt 100% real - 55 meters of sustained vertical ice, and a thin, steep finish.

Ten Percent Real felt 100% real – 55 meters of sustained vertical ice with a thin, steep finish.

Despite my close proximity to our neighboring country, I had never actually crossed the border into Canada to climb. This glaring omission on my climbing resume, I quickly discovered, had been a huge oversight. Nipigon may not have the vertical relief or huge routes found on the Stanley Headwall in British Columbia, but the routes there are fantastic and absolutely worth the pilgrimage. Wall after wall of steep ice and mixed pitches lined the winding roads like a scene out of alpine hardman’s dream. Orient Bay climbing is no picnic; normal winter temperatures require double boots and a double portion of desire. The approaches range from roadside strolls to multi-hour ski tours, and hundreds of hard lines stand waiting for a first ascent from someone with the vision and guts to search them out and put them up.

Following Jon's lead up a fun WI4.

Following Jon’s lead up a fun WI4.

At the top of the route with most of Peter and half of Jon.

At the top of the route with most of Peter and half of Jon.

Adam, Jon, Whit, and I shared a large, comfortable room at the Beaver Motel in Nipigon. After a full day of climbing and socializing on Friday, we set off Saturday morning to teach the advanced ice clinic to a large group of stoked climbers. We quickly set up top rope anchors on three classic routes so the clinic participants could take several laps on each and work on technique. As I belayed, I listened carefully to the instruction that Whit, Jon, and Adam were giving to the climbers, trying to glean some new knowledge that could give me an edge in the mountains. We had a ridiculous amount of fun, but I didn’t really learn anything new (other than the fact that leashes on modern tools are sadly still around in some remote corners of the world).

Whit racing up a stellar WI5 pitch to set up a top rope for the clinic.

Whit Magro racing up a stellar WI5 pitch to set up a top rope for the clinic.

Helping Whit, Jon, and Adam teach the advanced ice/mixed climbing clinic on Saturday. Ted G is the climber on the rock line; I'm not sure I've ever seen someone try so hard on a pitch. There was no quit in that guy.

Helping Whit, Jon, and Adam teach the advanced ice/mixed climbing clinic on Saturday. Ted G is the climber on the rock line; I’m not sure I’ve ever seen someone try so hard on a pitch. There was no quit in that guy.

That night, Whit presented an inspirational slideshow filled with pictures, videos, and stories that made me long to get back home and start training and planning for my next big adventure in the mountains. I fell asleep that night excited out of my mind for the future and the course I was on, but slightly disappointed at the same time. I had come on this trip fully expecting to learn something life-changing; after all, I was with some of the strongest, best climbers I had ever met. The trip had been incredible, but it was the last night in Canada and I hadn’t yet experienced the “aha” moment I was expecting.

A scary lead on the Reflection Wall, WI5. It was steep and the whole way, and the ice was hollow, sun-leeched crap.

A scary lead on the Reflection Wall, WI5. It was steep the whole way, and the ice was hollow, sun-leeched crap.

Jon and I finished up the trip with a fun, wet  two-pitch WI3 route.

Jon and I finished up the trip with a fun, wet, two-pitch WI3 route.

On Sunday – the final day of the ice season for me – we split up into pairs. Jon and I went wall to wall with the goal of getting in as many good pitches of ice as possible, and Adam and Whit went to attempt Road To Nowhere, the hardest mixed route in the area at M10. Jon and I managed to get in four good pitches of ice in three different sectors before my fractured left hand was in too much pain to whack against the ice again. We walked back to the car to wait for Adam and Whit, Jon munching on a sandwich and me crunching on pain pills as we listened to Blue October and napped.

Whit strolled up a few minutes ahead of Adam, smiling and shaking his head as we asked him if he sent the route.

“No,” he said, “but it’s an awesome route and I’ll be back to finish it.”

Just then Adam walked up. He had completed the first ascent of the route in 2013, so I expected that he would have sent it today without any problem.

Adam on Road To Nowhere in 2013.

Adam on Road To Nowhere in 2013.

“You send?” I questioned as he walked up the final hill to the car.

“Nope,” he answered. “Fell at the lip.”

“Damn,” I said. “Too windy? Too cold?”

He stopped untying his boot and studied me for a second before he replied.

“Three excuses.”

“Three excuses? What does that mean?” I asked, confused.

“Scott Backes taught me a long time ago that there are only three excuses that are ever acceptable when it comes to climbing.” He paused to yank at the knot on his boot, and then continued. “Excuse number one, I wasn’t strong enough. Number two is that I wasn’t brave enough, and acceptable excuse number three is that I wasn’t good enough.” He paused one more time. “And that, Jimmy, is all. Everything else is bullshit.”

I finished packing the gear into the car in silence. There were so many thoughts swirling through my head that I didn’t trust myself to speak. I had gotten what I came for, and I wanted to process it before I lost the moment of stunning clarity that had just overcome me. What Adam had said was true, and the acceptance of that truth was the door guarding the next level of personal and psychological evolution. I won’t write exactly what those words mean to me; I can’t fully explain it with words, and I wouldn’t if I could. Maybe your eyes will glaze over these last paragraphs and this post will just be entertainment, ice climbing porn, nice pictures of people doing crazy things in colorful clothing. But maybe there’s someone out there like me who is ready to receive and live those words. Someone who needs those words. I hope so.

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.

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?

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.

A good thing

This is one of a few selected “backdated posts” I’m going to post at the beginning of this blog…other than the correction of a few grammatical and spelling errors, I am posting them in their original format even though it’s very tempting to re-write or omit portions of them. I was deeply depressed when I wrote some of them, extremely angry during others, and slightly drunk while penning several of them. Enjoy.

April 29, 2014

“We are using physical effort as a means of self-discovery.” I think those words by Mark Twight (summing up the philosophy of Gym Jones) describe about 50% of my reason for climbing…the personal evolution and development that come through putting one’s self through the physical, mental, and emotional crucibles that are found in the complete package of alpinism. That’s why my psyche immediately bristled when I read on [a respected climber’s] blog that “the whole point of climbing is to stand on top of the mountain.” Really? The hell it is…

The value in these mad, meaningless heaps of rock, snow, and ice is not found in their physical apex – reaching the summit is merely an indication that the really valuable part of the climb is over. Exception to this rule in two radically different cases:

1) When the descent is an unknown, and will be an equal or greater challenge than the climb itself.

2) That the climber made reaching the summit the principle goal of the climb and therefore took the easiest route there, requiring little or none of the transformative experience for which I go to the mountains.

No, the value of these great massifs is found in the process, in the struggle…and in how it changes a man willing to undertake the fight. This is why the common alpinist (if there is such a thing) is no better or worse than any other athlete who continually crucifies themselves with and upon their torture device of choice in the pursuit of personal and spiritual development. We are all of us pitiful beings, so weak and frail in the face of such huge, uncaring masses of stone and ice…and yet in some small way we are beautiful to dash our tiny selves against such obstacles in so futile but noble a pursuit.

Does climbing make me better? Maybe not directly. But it changes me, makes me different. It helps me fight stagnation and sameness, and this cannot be considered anything but a good thing.