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!