Friday, January 23, 2009

All Along The Watchtower

A traditional climber at heart, I am compelled by the beauty of the stone I move on. The routes that call me are not forced up blank walls, but instead link features such as cracks, corners, and ridges. A suddle and exciting connection of natural weaknesses through the gut of a massive wall seems perfect to me. But the mountain only defines part of my inspiration. The human element is also important. Two people moving up a canvas of stone using only their physical prowess, skill, and mental intuition ties it all together.

All Along The Watchtower fits my criteria for a world class route and then some. Hidden away on the elusive, yet accesable west face of the North Howser Tower, it takes a direct line to the summit. My good freind Max Hasson and I shared the dream of completing a one day team free ascent of this route. Judging from past parties experiences on the wall, we knew our goal would demand perfection all day long. Fitness and technical granite skills were one half of the equation. The other half encompassed the mind game. We had to be calmly focused, even in the most intense moments. We certainly did not expect to fail, but we also knew success was a long shot that depended on many factors. Our plan was to take it step by step, stay in the moment, and do our best.
July 17th, Peshastin, WA:
I step over a duffle bag, start the coffee process, and walk out the front door. The warm summer dawn is comfortable and I can't help but feel a bit giddy at the thought of our adventure ahead. Soon I am called back inside by boiling water and before long we're on the move.

July 19:
We are here, which is nice, because Max's rig is classic climbers fare. Solid, but aged. My senses perk as I step out of the car. Sweet smelling alpine flowers, clarity of high air, a tickle on my neck from a pesky fly. We tediously stuff the food and gear into packs and step onto the trail. Psyched.

July 20th:
Plunging steps into the East Creek Basin, we notice two climbers surfing golden granite high on the Minerate. They are obviously free climbing difficult terrain in a fast, light weight style. Inspired, I pick up my pace, hopping over rubble strewn about the snout of the glacier. Soon we are settling into an incredible camp site. The weather is splitter and we decide to only stay for a few hours before setting off.

July 21st-July 22nd:
The stars are clear in the black sky. The winds are calm and the air has a soft crispness to it. As I slither out of my sleeping bag I notice Max's headlamp illuminate the sides of the tent twenty yards away. Gametime. We down coffee and oats as we watch the two climbers we saw yesterday rap the Minerate. Their small voices grow bigger as they descend and soon they are running towards our camp, all smiles under failing head torches. Nico Favarase and Sean Villinuevo, two Belgians known for climbing in pure style on the world's biggest free climbs, eagerly describe their ascent and wish us the best of luck on ours. Chatting with Nico and Sean under a moonlit South Howser Tower at 2 am energizes us more than the caffiene buzzing through our veins. We turn our backs on camp and execute the approach. My light footwear makes hard snow more interesting than usual, but we have fun moving in the night under the Howsers.

It is plenty light by the time we begin the climb.

Polished stone and wonderful cracks turn out to be not so perfect when we find they dead end. We make our only route finding error very early, make the correction and keep moving. Midday finds us at the base of the most beautiful corner I've ever seen. An absolutely splitter system, the corner provides clean 5.11 climbing for many pitches.

Near its top the corner arches left. We are suprised to find the seepy feature is quite thin. I immediatly recognize the slabby sequence of credit card dancing under the arch. Not the tips underclinging I expected. Although I give the pitch everything my dehydrated body has to offer, I fall off in a fire of light as day blends to night. Max also gives the pitch his best on the follow, but pulls on a few pieces. There will be no free ascent, but we are proud of our effort and keep moving. One last painful pitch delivers us to easy climbing and a snowpatch where we start brewing some much needed water. At first light we are off. The rope put away, we solo in a most incredible position.

We foot shuffle, straddle, and hand traverse the snaking ridge that leads to the top. Soon we are on the summit watching clouds dart across the morning sky. We enjoy ourselves for a bit, laughing and lounging, but eventually start to make our way down the east face.

Soon we are on the glacier, dodging snow sloughs from the sunny walls above. We move quickly through the danger zone and gain the Vowell Glacier. From here, simple heel plunges carry us quickly towards our base camp. As I throw my pack in the talus next to our tent I notice Nico and Sean running over. Their psyche is like one thousand cups of coffee and the energy fuels Max and I for another 6 hours. Music, noodles, and a bit of whiskey are the staples of this party.
We talk excitedly about everything from the raddest routes on the world's greates walls to moves we love on our local rocks.
At some point we finally decide to lay down and catch some rest. I bivy outside, the South Howser Tower rearing above my head. A smile of satisfaction creases my face. I am happy with our effort, but I also begin to dissect every decision we made. Was the pack too heavy? Did we not pace ourselves correctly? The free ascent was at our fingertips...How can we improve our techniques? As always, there are ways to improve and lessons learned. Surely we will apply what we have learned to many other great walls.

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