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:

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. 

Friday, May 8, 2015

The Chad Kellogg Memorial Route

Near the end of April, my good friend Vern Nelson Jr. and I were able to finish a mixed climbing project on Argonaut Peak, a relatively small, but interesting mountain in the Stuart Range. ran a nice trip-report style story of our ascent. Check it out here:

Sunday, March 22, 2015

And The Wheels Fell Off

"Maybe climbing isn't my path." A burning sadness settled in with my words. Jessica listened and gently tried to help me see a brighter, broader picture. I had felt her eyes on me all week as I thrashed around with little success on Joshua Tree's endless monzonite domes.  A few days earlier she held my rope as I sagged off at the first bolt of a route I wanted to do over and over again.

Lower me. Try again. Fall. Lower me. Try again. Fall. Lower me. Try again. Fall.

By the fifth or sixth time this happened, it was clear to both of us that I wasn't going to get up the rig that day, but Jess let me keep falling and lowering. I needed an outlet for my pain and wearing out my fingers on a sharp boulder problem I wasn't going to succeed on was my version of punching a wall. 

I had come to Joshua Tree on the Eve of Chad's death. I was looking for something. I'm always looking for something these days. "The Monument" was a place that used to make me feel alive and inspired. In my early 20's I spent every winter there, climbing boldly with my best friends. On this trip, every route seemed scary and hard. I shook my way up routes I used to solo with grace and focus. Sure, the sunsets were beautiful and I laughed a lot around campfires with friends, but something was different. I felt tired and worn out. 

The last night we were there, Jess firmly let me know that how I used to do things wasn't going to work anymore. I had to reform myself. I had to become a beginner again. If I wanted to keep climbing, I would have change my outlook.  I needed to give myself space from what I had let define me. If I didn't want to keep climbing, well, that was just fine too. 

Jessica headed to Arizona to visit family and I came back up to Washington to meet my friend Blake Herrington for a trip to climb ice in the Canadian Rockies. Needless to say, I wasn't feeling very inspired, but I had committed to the trip and wasn't going to back out. Plus, I was looking forward to spending time with our friend Steve Swenson, who would be our gracious host us for the week. 

Although I have climbed a fair amount of frozen stuff over the years, I am a relative beginner when it comes to the cold side of climbing. I had never been to Canada to climb ice and was really interested to see the Rockies.

Blake and I had a great trip. The lack of avy danger allowed us to climb whatever we wanted and we knocked off a host of classics. In the past, a great climbing trip could make up for even a large amount of pain, but as I rolled back into Leavenworth I knew something was different. I was and honestly am, feeling so down, so broken, that it's been hard to see any light at the end of the tunnel. It hurts me to not be able to share passion driven tales on this blog anymore. But this is about sharing the climbing life, right? My climbing life at least.

For now, I've canceled an upcoming trip. I've watched my callouses fall off and felt my muscles getting weak. I stowed away my climbing gear so I wouldn't have to look at it anymore. I didn't capitalize on the best winter conditions I have ever seen in the Cascades. I spent too much money on a new refrigerator instead of funneling every penny into the next climbing mission. I'm not sure what's happening. Despite the darkness, I'm proud of myself in other ways. I'm sober. The grief support group I joined makes me feel like I have a chance at happiness again. I have so many wonderful friends and when the depression becomes overwhelming I always pounce out my door and go find them. They are always happy to see me.

One constant that brings me great hope is my attraction to the beauty of the alpine environment. The road that leads from my cabin to the grocery store has stunning views of the Stuart Range. Every time I make the drive I smile, turn up the music, and know that I have lot's of unfinished business in the world's mountains. I don't know when or how I'll be back at it, but it won't be too long I'm sure. Right now, the birds are chirping and spring is here. I'm going bouldering with my friends and I'm alive. There is much to be thankful for.