Friday, July 8, 2016

The Flash and The Sunrise

"FffroOOOoom!" My snowshoe catches an alder bush and I stumble into the blinding white. Scared and confused, I catch my balance just as the flash recedes into the midnight wilderness. My headlamp beam bounces around the trail. Cole's light chases mine, also seeking the mystery spark. Louder than necessary, I blurt,  "Dude, what was that?" "That was your mom man. She's watching out for us." Cole's shadowy figure leans on his trekking poles. He's serious. We hold our breath and fix our ears to the forest. Only the lazy swoosh of Mountaineers Creek and the hum of wind in Douglas Fir breaks the silence of winter.

Just a few hours ago we sat in a mexican joint in Leavenworth, ignoring the hustle and bustle of tourists. Instead, we focused on our strong beer and giant burritos. "Would you guys like another drink?", the pretty waitress asked. Instead of ordering another IPA, we requested the bill and stepped out into the misty streets. While an inversion shackled town in iron grey, we knew the weather was clear in the mountains. The promise of granite and ice above a sea of clouds fueled our motivation. Cole fired up the car and drove us to the trailhead.

At 2:30 AM we dug out a small rock cave, obscured by hollow snow. The warm murkiness of the restaurant had faded into sharp, penetrating cold. Moonlight illuminated the North Ridge of Mt. Stuart. We punched a door into our shelter and crawled in. It felt good to sit down after the ten mile approach. Our stove sizzled snow into water for the rest of the night. As I threw cubes of snice into the pot I couldn't help but wonder, what was that flash?

In 2007 I watched my mother lose her battle to ovarian cancer. I had never seen death. Instead of being distraught, a guilty numbness cut me. I sought the heights to escape the grief or perhaps, to bring it crashing in. During this period Cole and I climbed tirelessly, as we consistently had since meeting in a dusty climbing gym during the seventh grade. We read into each alpine experience with heady superstition. We had faith that everything in our lives was connected to the lines we chose, the peaks we climbed, and how each adventure played out.

At first light we started climbing the ridge. I was able to wear rock shoes on an awkward chimney and the crux, thin lieback a pitch higher. Every patch of white was solid neve and each swath of rock was bone dry. It was cold, but not too cold. The only clouds wedged themselves into Icicle Creek Canyon thousands of feet below. I knew how it felt to live in that gloom. Up here, above the inversion, it was heaven. I lead all day as Cole jumared with the stove, a half-bag, and a few energy bars. We operated like a machine, our systems churning without pause. As the short January day bled into night, we curled up on a ledge 1,500 feet up the route. A sunset, a smoke, dinner, and tea ushered us towards "sleep".

Vapor from my breath hung in the black air. "Cole". "Yo" he replied. "It's fucking cold man. I'm thinking we should just start climbing. The sun will be up in a couple of hours." We snapped on our spikes, stuffed the pack, and begin winding across the sharp ridge. Snow and ice smothered the granite, but it's concrete consistency made the climbing easy and aesthetic. Just as we reached a 200 foot gendarme, fiery, warm light washed over us. We stopped in awe and scanned the Cascades. Cocaine white, they rippled towards the sea. Like that flash, the dawn pushed us onward.

We monkeyed up the steep rock tower and then continued mixed climbing along the ridge. An hour later, I dropped 50 feet off the knife edge and caught an ice runnel tucked into a shady groove. I daggered up the gully and then mantled the summit blocks. Bracing myself in a nook between two fins of windblown snow, I pulled the rope in as Cole frontpointed the final stretch. The summit offered a swirling view of mountains to the west and desolate scablands to the east. To the south, Tahoma's glaciated mass dominated the open sky.

Three hours after leaving the summit we were back in the fog, digging for Cole's car keys in the wheel well of his Toyota. The last 40 hours seemed surreal. Surfing the icy backbone of Mt. Stuart, we sensed a cosmic energy. On the way home, between handfuls of greasy potato chips, I wondered about the flash and the sunrise. "You think that was my mom watching us?" I asked Cole. Ten and two, starting at the road ahead, he seemed so sure in his reply, "Oh yeah. What else could it have been?"

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Chinese Medicine

Tears slide from beneath my sunglasses, hit my jacket, and freeze onto the puffy folds. Through the scummy window of our car,  the Shuangqiao Valley rushes by. My life since Chad was killed reels through my head like a shaky homemade movie. I see my stabbing, lonely descent from Fitz Roy. Then, the undulating journey through my depression and self-loathing. A comforting image of standing on top of a route dedicated to Chad flashes and then is extinguished by a vision of myself crumpled over the toilet, puking my guts out after another night of drinking too much. My Argentine nightmare has led me to these mountains and hopefully to Chad's friends in Ringlong, a dusty village a few miles down the road.

"Chadderbox" told me endlessly about the people and mountains in central China. On approaches into the Torre Valley or the Cascades I would listen hard to these stories from the east. In the spring of 2007, Chad was on his second trip to the area. Backed by the McNeill-Nott grant, he, Jay Janousek, and Joe Puryear were attempting the mighty blade, Siguniang. In late april Mr. Ma, their expedition liaison and the friend we were seeking in Ringlong, delivered the agonizing news that Lara, Chad's wife, had been killed in the Alaska Range. Heartbreak, anger, sickness, and finally salvation through Buddhism led Chad back to Siguniang in the fall of 2008. That season, he and Dylan Johnson spread Lara's ashes atop the 9,000 foot ridge they completed.

I rock back and forth from one numb foot to the other. The cold is sharp in Ringlong so I join the locals on the warm side of the street. One of the men standing in the sun is Mr. Ma, but he doesn't understand why we've come looking for him. Steve Swenson, a mentor and one of my partners on the trip, phones Dalu, a Chinese friend who is showing us the ice climbs that are stamped onto the hillsides of the Shuangqiao Valley. "Dalu, do you mind coming by and translating for us? We've found Mr. Ma, but he doesn't understand why we're looking for him." Within minutes, Dalu arrives and explains who we are. He also informs Mr. Ma that Chad was killed two years ago and that I had been with him. Mr. Ma seems shocked for a moment and then takes the news in with somber grace. Without further delay, he ushers our team into his home.

I duck my head under the low eve of the Ma Family compound. A concrete hallway leads to a small, shadowed courtyard. I imagine Chad's laughter ricocheting off the gray walls before rising into the blue square of sky above. An older lady with kind creases in her weathered face places oranges, fried yak cheese, and small candies on the knee high table we're crouched around. A round of chang is poured and we find a buzz in the ruby red fruit wine. With a significant language barrier not much is said. Smiles replace words and gestures communicate basic concepts like, "chang is good!" We drain our shot glasses and give two thumbs up. The response is simple and the red jug of wine rotates around the room again.

Sitting back, I take in the scene. I make subtle connections between the Chad I knew and this small corner of China. It was here that Chad fell to pieces and here that he began to rebuild himself into a content and happy person. "Can I turn my life around? Can I heal and live fully again?" The questions drift through my consciousness like rustling leaves. There is a lightness to my self examination that I haven't felt before. Rather than crushing pain, I feel a peaceful hope. That I've found myself in China making sense of the tragedy in Argentina is a testament to the interconnectedness of our world.

When the chang is gone, we step out into the courtyard. This time, it is awash with sunlight. A warmth counters the sharp edge of cold air. Walking towards our car I look back over my shoulder. Mr. Ma leans into the doorway and watches the world go by. He seems so content. There's no doubt, his sense of peace rubbed off on Chad. Now, I'm the one affected.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Real Winter, Real Fun!

After seven months of recovery, stationary bike sessions, and gym workouts, I'm finally starting to get after it again. I'm not 100% by any means, but I'm getting closer. Of course, not being able to climb and ski has reinforced a strong appreciation for the opportunity to dedicate my life to the mountains (by this I mean the freedom of health and first-world privilege most of us enjoy). That said, my lifestyle is not guaranteed. It didn't come with a warranty. Being rad means nothing. Being able means everything.

My recent time in the outdoors has been purposely undefinable. No grades. No plans. I'm trying to take an organic approach to every mission. Rather than forcing my way through the mountains, I'm following the paths gifted to me. A twisting, moonlit descent from high in the Entiat Mountains that leads to my front door. A skinny ice pillar that wasn't touching down a week ago, but finally formed enough to dance up its crystalline tube. Surfing Stuart Range velvet as my home peaks cut into the desolate winter sky. Chimneying up an ice groove more akin to a slot in Yosemite than a winter climb in Leavenworth. I never expected any of these moments, but they keep happening.

The past few months I've skinned at least a couple hundred miles. I've woken up well before dark three or four days a week. I've climbed incredible ice and slashed through more powder than I can even remember. It's all becoming a blur. I'm definitely drunk on the real winter we are having in the northwest. Below is a serious of photos I took from late December to early February. I've attached a few words to each picture. I hope you enjoy it!
Above my backyard pear orchard lies the southern tip of the Entiat Mountains. In late December and early January I skinned A LOT of miles through the gentle, but lonely territory. The terrain was accepting of my healing body. There were many long days of powder that began and ended at my cabin.
An acquaintance recently saw me at work and exclaimed, "I didn't know you had a job. I thought all you did was climb!" The reality is that Icicle Ridge Winery is a major part of my life! We all have bills to pay :) I'm not afraid to wake up before dawn day after day after day...I love coming into work with a good ski tour under my belt.
Rather than chasing goals and grades, I've been hunting sunrises and good snow. Feeling the warm rays smother the cold night is always an energizing moment. In this photo dawn is creeping up on a powder day in the Entiats.
The Entiats are filled with ponderosa pines. There is something about those tiger orange trees that strike a chord in me. Skiing through their hallways is unique and inspiring.
One last shot taken in the Entiats. I've had many awesome days out in the last couple months, but some of the best have been right out my backdoor. That my return to sport coincided with a unique window to ski low elevation tours was truly a gift. I cannot describe how much fun I had exploring my backyard terrain.
I had several awesome days in the Blewett Pass environs. My first tour was sun soaked. Lounging on the solar rocks made me feel like I was on a beach in Hawaii. A few minutes later, I pointed my skis north. Within minutes I was shredding light, boot top powder in the gnarly arms of a burned forest.
A few days later I was back on Tronson Ridge with one of my best friends, Ryan Paulsness. Out of the 20 or so days I've skied the past few months, this mission might have been the best. The snow was unreal. All day we hooped and hollered with joy. Too much fun!!
Cashmere Mountain is a bulky, prominent peak on the southern border of the Stuart Range. I've spent several days on it's flanks this winter and can't wait for more. It is a rad ski zone.

One of the best parts of touring on the southern flanks of Cashmere are the views. The main, rugged core of the Stuart Range stands cold in the north facing shadowlands.
Off with their heads! The snow in the Stuart Range is remarkably light. In this photo I'm skiing a January storm. It was good. Very good.

To compliment the skiing, we stumbled on some quality ice up Mountaineers Creek. This was a relief as I was up against an ice climbing trip to China with a group of crushers from Canmore and Colorado. I hadn't done any climbing in nearly six months and didn't want to be a total joke. In this photo, Blake Herrington stems up the good 'ol classic, Mr. Seattle.
It was odd to have such quality ice to climb when the rest of Leavenworth had absolutely no ice at all. Whatever was happening up Mountaineers Creek was working. We chalked it up to cold winds that rush out of the Stuart Range and settle in the valley bottom. This route is a nice 30 meter pillar called Last Rites, one of 6 routes we climbed at this crag alone. There were upwards of 25 routes in the general area. 
 On my final day before China, I sunk a bolt and a pin into some really nice granite and accessed a hanging dagger. 
Another shot of the route shown above, which I called the Daggerba System. If you're a WA climber the name might mean something to you. Or maybe it won't :) I'm actually really excited to climb in this area next season. The king line is still waiting to be done! 

Friday, December 25, 2015

It's Not Over

The night is moonless and black like coffee. I ponder how many times I've descended Aasgard Pass, but my knees plead with me to fantasize about something else. Blake drifts through the scree ten feet ahead. "I'm psyched for next week man." I can hear the excitement in his voice. I'm stoked to try our link up too, especially since today's rehearsal went without a hitch. "We're not even done with this mission and we're talking about the next!" I joke.  But that's how it goes. This is our home turf. We've made this descent a thousand times.

Wise alpinists know that it's not over until it's over. Well now, it's over. An hour and half to the car, thirty minutes to Safeway, home eating pizza at eleven; it's not my first rodeo. To my left, a stream rushes through the talus. Blake and I follow it down and gain the main trail, one of the most popular in the Cascades. Then I hear a sound besides the crunch of our skidding approach shoes. It takes me a second to understand and then believe that a rock avalanche is 1,000 feet above our heads and bearing down fast.

"Run! Run! Oh fuck". The boulders gain on us. Dust clogs the air and the ground shakes harder. I glance to my right. Blake's doing the same thing I am. Recklessly gunning it down the slope is our only option. Just before being flattened, we instinctually throw ourselves under large, lucky blocks. A rock the size of a TV tomahawks through the beam of my headlamp. Basketball sized boulders chase it down the slope. My only thought underscores the nightmare. "I can't believe we are going to die like this."

The roar fades to a whisper. A millisecond later my headlight is whited out with debris. It's over. "Blake!" I yell. "I'm here, I'm ok!" I've never heard his voice shake. We stumble down to the car in utter disbelief. The hike, usually an afterthought, turns into an eerie stumble. Over and over, we mutter "I can't believe it" as shock flushes out our veins.

Back at Blake's Subaru, the rock slide feels like a bad dream. Next week we plan to push ourselves in these mountains again, tackling a goal as unattainable as anything we've ever tried. This past winter I lost a friend and a climbing partner. I also watched an avalanche narrowly miss a father of two daughters I adore. And now this?

If we can't understand the ways of the mountains, at least we can learn from them. The message is simple. We are not in control. Even in the most tame and travelled scenarios catastrophic accidents happen. We hop in the car and bump down the washboard road. Blake talks about next week's triple linkup. There are a myriad of logistics to nail down. Discussing the options is a coping mechanism. How do I feel? I just know I need a beer right now. I crack an IPA and take a pull off the bottle. The alcohol mixes with stale adrenaline. Can I continue this path I wonder? There's only one way to find out.

This is a behind the scenes look at:

 http://www.alpinist.com/doc/web14x/wfeature-herrington-holsten-stuart-range-linkup

Blake and I enchained Dragons of Eden and Der Sportsman a week before our triple link. The rockfall occurred on the lower flanks of Aasgard Pass. It was an insane event that the words above barely describe. It was so powerful that I wondered if we would be buried in rock. If you are familiar with the area, you know it's crazy to almost die a few hundred yards above Colchuck Lake in the middle of summer. Or is it? It might be a backyard run, but it's real in the mountains. Bottom line. This event definitely changed the nature of our coming goal. I was already struggling with Chad's death and then this. What were the mountains trying to tell me? Every time I pushed they pushed back. Even in the midst of a break from climbing I'm still straining my ear to the hills. I'm listening. 

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Going Alone

Hot sun beats down on campsite 21. The monkeys are out sending. I'm alone except for a chubby squirrel that crawls through the coffee cups and dusty guidebooks littering the picnic table. Reaching towards my toes, I focus on my breath. The stretch pulls on my hamstrings and pushes on my desire. It's supposed to be a rest day, but screw regime. My heart says climb.

I trot through an expanse of Joshua Trees, my tattered Mythos patting against my hip. In the distance is Echo Cove, a monzonite maze of egg-shaped boulders and quirky domes. I use the hike to build focus. I have a mile to empty my thoughts into the expanse. One mile to find my rhythm.

Under a lonely, leaning wall I put my shoes on. Details, like the creak of my laces tightening, etch themselves into space. A minute later I'm there, twenty five feet above the sand. I stretch out to a scallop with my left foot. My right foot comes up and I pop to the hueco jug.

Now I just have to keep it together. At a rest I pause to think, but only of when I should start again. Halfway up a solo is no place to let my mind wander. Hero jugs are indented into the the shield of stone above me. I move dynamically between the incuts and then slow down on one last lock off.

On the way back I absorb the sunset and regather the pieces of myself I separated from an hour before. Subtly, they fit together in a fresh way. By the time I get back to campsite 21 I'm the new me. That 50 foot climb worked its way into my veins. It had an affect. Now, I look at my friends faces lit by campfire. I think about sharing the experience, but instead stow away those moments above Echo Cove. I take a rocky seat and stare into the dancing flames. The vibration of going alone pulses in my soul.


Monday, November 30, 2015

Dreams on a Yellow Bike

I've been on the move for 4 hours. My first summit, strapped in winter snow, falls further behind me. I step off the ridge into a west facing couloir. Boot skiing and heel plunging morphs into log jumping and running. A purring stream cuts the hard, dirty snow that fills the valley bottom. Time to hydrate. Dipping my bottle in the flow burns my finger tips. Cold water in a dark forest. 

Across the room, suspended in glass, a sweat soaked figure pumps his legs like pistons. My mind drifts away from the forest and focuses on finding alignment under my second toe. I search for rhythm as I push the pedals, supervising myself in a mirror across the empty room. At 5 months post op, I tell others that my ankle is "coming along". Devoid of triumph, my vague and standard slogan is at least truthful. The surgeon removed a dime-sized piece of bone out of my joint, before shaving off spurs and reattaching blown ligaments. More than once, he wondered out loud how it was possible that I climbed on such a sorry appendage.

Ten years ago, during a Yosemite bouldering session, I hopped off a warm up. Snap! I remember laying in the pine needles trying to convince a friend that my season was over. At first, he laughed. How could a two foot fall break bones? I hopped to the car and drove to a hospital in Mammoth. Sure enough, my talus was fractured. A piece of the bone had broken off, floating in my ankle joint like a subtle blade, primed to slice at soft tissue and sabotage joint motion if it wasn't removed. With surgery a possibility, I decided to accept my long recovery and return home to Washington.

"Yeah, I see the bone fragment, but I think we can try conservative treatment." The orthopedist in Seattle squinted at the x-rays. I didn't even bother trying. All I cared about was that I didn't have to go under the knife. I knew that meant I'd be back to my vertical world sooner. I crutched out of the office intent on climbing as soon as I'd served my six weeks on the couch.

I still remember my first day back on the rock. I limped to the base of the Lower Town Wall, a mere five minutes from the parking lot. Ignoring the swelling and crunching, I twisted my ankle into cracks and grimaced as I took mandatory laps on the classics. After all, I had to get back into shape. The second day out, I blew a piece on a sketchy 5.12 and hit the ground. I laughed it off after I got my breath back. At least I hadn't landed on my ankle.  A week later I climbed a hard route on the Town Walls. I felt pretty good for being out of shape due to injury. In my mind, I had made a full recovery.

As the years went by I demanded even more from my body. I often attacked two difficult mountains a week, with off days spent shoveling grapes at a winery and going cragging with my friends. My ankle was functional, but always swollen and edgy. Of course, it continued to get worse. I changed the way I hiked when I could no longer flex my foot up and down. "At least I can still front point," I thought. If I could achieve my climbing goals I didn't give a damn how my ankle felt.

This past spring I was out for a rest day run at Smith Rock. As I tried to punch it up the final hill to the parking lot I stopped. I was limping like an ultra marathoner on the final stretch of a 100 mile race. I felt pathetic. No matter what I did I couldn't get around my injury. It had me up against a wall. I had lost the ability to ski and to run. Even my climbing was suffering. I couldn't power up on footholds anymore. Standing poised on ripples ten feet runout, my ankle would wobble and crack. My confidence hit an all-time low.

Confronting my injury has been humbling. I did a lot of damage to my ankle in those years of ignorance. I have little cartilage left between my tibia and my talus, so those two bones crash into each other with impact. When they "kiss", a fiery twinge signals the intimacy. Since cartilage in a can hasn't been created yet, there is no cure for the damage. Despite the prognosis I'm committed to figuring out how to work around the pain and to find experimental treatments that work for me.

For now, I ride the old, yellow stationary bike at the local fitness club and meditate on future goals. In the intensity of my workout my mind separates from my body. I stare into the mirror across the room, my own eyes glazed over and unblinking in the reflection. Visualizing how it will feel to be in the midst of my dream climbs, a few specific visions keep occurring. I run through them until my stopwatch breaks the trance. A benefit of time away from climbing is the realization of what inspires me and will drive my heart in the future. It's been a while since I was able to differentiate between passion and duty. The hours on the yellow bike are helping define that line.

Pouring out the last few swigs of water, I put my empty bottle back in my pack. Renewed, I charge towards another north face. The crunch my boots make on the snow pierces the silence beneath the mountain. Soon, I'm daggering up another web of ice runnels. 

"Chik, chik. Chik, chik". 

The mesmerizing rhythm of one swing sticks bounces through the halls of my empty mind. In an hour I break into the sun and onto the summit. Before me are the mountains I love. Staring off into the desert, blinking lights of the city beckon me home. 

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Still Questing

25 years ago I scraped my way up Orchard Rock, a flakey plug of sandstone only a few miles east from where I live now. Since then, I've climbed with maniacal devotion. All the lazar cut cracks, ice flows, and soaring faces flutter in the recesses of my mind. The mountains and walls have blended into a collage of rock and ice. Faces of partners, creased and weather worn, pulse through the memories. The experiences are like a quilt, each intricate stitch part of a greater whole. Part of who I am.
The vertical world offers a perspective that is honest and bare boned. It will smother you with joy and crush you with pain. Between those places I search for contentment. Rather than the blatant psyche of my youth, my modern mood is more reserved. I'm learning to pick my battles. Still, the ember of inspiration glows electric. I'll give everything to a route that calls my name because the mountains affect me. They strip me to my most basic self and this nakedness in raw nature feels pure. Can I take that sense of being to my everyday life? Can I love, create, give, and achieve with that simple heart?
Self knowledge, relationships, work, and other interests have always taken a backseat to climbing. Right now I'm trying to find out who I am besides runouts and sleepless pushes. If climbing didn't exist who would I be and what would I do? If I was never strung out above a TCU or falling on the last move of a project, would I be happy? Something tells me I need the grittiness. That I won't be content with an easy life. 
Over the last year I've had to ask myself if I want to continue climbing. It's a question that I couldn't face at first. It took me over a year to admit out loud to a best friend that it felt like my devotion was wavering. Since that confession I've allowed myself to contemplate a life without the mountains. Tucked beneath faded visions is the original joy I experienced so many years ago on Orchard Rock. That wide eyed challenge of finding the next hold, that moment when there is nowhere higher to climb. A summit perspective.  I've retraced my steps back to the starting point and realized nothing has changed. Climbing still makes me feel alive. 
For now I am laying low. I had surgery on my right ankle 8 weeks ago. It was a long time coming and recovery is the key for me to continue my athletic endeavors. By the time I'm climbing again, winter will be settling into the Cascades. I might search for adventure in the frozen mountains or I might clip sunny bolts in a far away land. Maybe I'll just take a road trip. Whatever I choose to do will originate in that sense of awe I felt above the orchard so long ago. I can't wait to tie in again.