Saturday, March 31, 2012

NOT AN EPIC : Part 3

By the time we reached the top I was running on pure adrenaline, my body was a corpse, animated by a sheer desire to find my way back to my wagon-bed at the Red Rocks Campground. The thick blanket of night was useful for forgetting the exposure of some of these moves. Knowing only that if I fell, I could be pulling my two friends off the mountain side with me, I moved quick, in time with the pull of the rope in front of me.  It is called symoclimbing. The idea is that the leader places gear that the follower takes out on the fly. Both parties are moving and if one falls, the others bodyweight catches it. This was the method we used for the last 700 feet of the climb, in favor of speed and efficiency. About 60 ft ahead of me was C, and in front of her, W. Every once and again I would call to C that I was at a crux and hear C yelling for W to slow down, or I would find myself waiting, holding coils of rope that had forming in front of me... wait for it to pull tight. At one section, while I waited for C to ascend a steep crux section, I turned to look around, behind me, Vegas had finally woken up.

We met up on a plateau, gasping for breath and quickly disarming ourselves of ropes and harnesses. A dark wash had covered our trails and the silent stress of a long day lingered in our thoughts. It was time to get off the mountain. W kept the lead, as myself and C followed, careful to test our footing on the loose rock that could easily shift and cause a fall into the abyss below. Cairns became beacons of hope as we continued to march upward towards an elusive summit. After circumnavigating our way round the peaks what seems like a few times over, we had lost the trail. My feet and hands kept slipping and I could feel my attention doing the same. Sitting down, I told Claire that I was getting drowsy and unstable, but I was aware of it and would monitor it as we continued. She nodded and switched up the weight in the packs. Wolfgang went on a mission to find cairns while we sat and discussed our options, distributing rations and sharing what we had to refuel. Should we continue wandering the summit and its adjoining gullies in the dark? or sleep till daylight without half a litre of water to share? Eventually, Wolfgang’s persistence found us a hole that led 20 feet below to what seemed to be a trail. C and I were skeptical “ was there a Cairn?” we asked. “There was a rock… I added two more” came the reply. We ambled down, bum sliding slabs and down climbing chimneys to what we were hoping would be the canyon floor.

We scrambled down another steep gully, joyful that we seemed to be a) going down b) following a path of least resistence. Sitting for a rest, Wolfgang turned to me and said “ SO do you still think we shouldn’t have rushed??”. “ If we had, one of us might be dead” was what came from my mouth. This is something I believed. Taking the time to double check and clear our heads is how we avoided error, how we stayed safe all day and as unfortunate as a night descent might be, as long as it is accounted for and diligent, it is a far better option then hurrying your team.

After another 2 hours. We found ourselves on another plateau. The moon had risen high and in its nearly full form, illuminated the curves and streaks of our steep terrain. What was seemingly our  cage, seemed soft and magical in the indigo light. “ I think we rap here!” said Wolfgang, having found a boulder slung with someone else’s gear. I threw a rock past the ledge as a test. It took a few seconds before we heard anything but then the splash and a deep plunge was audible. We had somehow found the only deep, natural water in the desert, it could only be a pit of doom. “ Fuck that!"  I yelled, frustrated that this oasis of hope was gone.

Words of climbing guides and legends rang through my head, thinking of mistakes and accidents, contributing factors were always nightfall and exhaustion. Here we were, coming up on 10pm. We have been in the rocks for 16 hours now. We were no closer to a descent trail and we were out of water.

“ Take me home girls, I cant lead anymore” W pleaded as he sat down, staring out our illuminated landscape. I walked off to think. I heard myself begging saint Anthony, my mothers most utilized saint, for a cairn, for a sign, for a path… We needed to get out. That is when I saw it… up the left side of the canyon was a switchback train with 3 rocks piled half way up. I called back to the others, and led them up one cliff side that seemed to lead to a saddle high above us. In minutes we were there, with a clear view of Las Vegas again. Ecstatic and choicefully ignorant to the remaining distance between us and ground level, we started ambling down another steep slope. Eventually we lost the trail again and sat, lost in the bushes. Cactuses tore at our clothes and skin while holly bushes administered a strict assault for our off-trail habits. Why can’t we see the car? I thought.

C walked ahead, following a trail of goat poop until once again our confidence was renewed by a cairn. We seemed to be on something resembling a trail or at least a path that another lost traveler had taken at somepoint in time. The goats knew the way and we found our angle shifting, flattening, allowing our steps to widen and quicken. We eventually found ourselves on a bike path, which could only lead home.

We reached the car at 12:30am.

By all stretches of the imagination this should have deemed an epic. It was definitely the longest day I have ever spent on a mountain. But with the company of C and W, I have never felt more secure, more confident. The leadership roles were passed around as burdened minds and bodies failed. We kept each other safe all day, checking knots and minds and carrying each others moral on our shoulders when necessary. It might have been the longest climb any of us have ever undertaken. It also might seem a recipe for an epic. But in that company, with the skill and support of great climbing partners, I would call it a pretty good day.

 Photos all courtesy of W.

Me in my second chimney pitch. solving riddles of climbing negative space.

big rack!

C negotiating the climb with her pack trailing.

another fun chimney... this time 'froggy legs' were the way to go.
slightly loopy me... coming up to pitch 10

Climbing on cordalettes!

Vegas waking up.

Friday, March 23, 2012

NOT AN EPIC: part 2

The chimneys came all too soon. C blazed up the first three pitches, pulling up the climbing derby of me and W behind her. I had somehow signed myself up for crux pitches, citing my new found adoration for the beasts. When W asked me at the second belay whether or not I was ready for them, all I had to say was “ If ego has anything to do with it, I guess I am. I have gone around telling the world I love chimneys, I guess I have to love them”.  It was true. I had only led one chimney in my whole life, but having committed to the challenge, I tried to smile and convinced myself I was capable.

The nice part about chimneys:
-You can rest anywhere… but only once you have figure out which limp or long bone is jammed where.
- Squirming is your best option, if you can allow yourself to throw dignity out the window, hollar, splash and use your helmet as a cam occasionally… you can get up anything. 
- drop any sense of grace or techique, improv seems to work best so if that is your thing. Go get it. 

...Six hundred feet later it was over. I had placed a number 4 and 5 inch cams numerous times for the first time in my life and negotiated countless different awkward positions and body wedges. C and W were both good sports, having deliberately and clearly stated earlier that they both hate chimney and crack climbing and all for that matter, they trailed the packs up as patiently and calmly as they could.

Once W hit the last belay ledge at the top of  my leads he was gunning for the sharp end. Although for me, the climb seemed over, we still had 7 pitches to go... That alone is more pitches than this team usually climbed in a day. So off he went, placing minimal gear and fighting for daily light. He soared up  pitch after pitch, linking where he could and impatiently tugging deliriously drowsy and giddy versions myself and C up behind him. After watching him frantically try dynamic moves without appropriate gear placed below him, I got hostile. “ We are NOT in a rush! Take it easy, take your time, place gear, be safe” After all, we knew we would be finishing in the dark, walking down at night is better than being stuck on the cliff because of a stupid mistake.

My attention was harnessed from weeks of writing and research Canadian climbing accidents. I found myself often writing up potential accident reports in my head as I swapped leads and attempted to manage my risks on multi pitches. That unsupervised decision not to tie knots in the ends of my ropes, or whether or not I should wear my helmet on this pitch… had more obvious answers, a more committed attention. I found myself actively fighting complacency and lucky passes, and when any of us lapsed, there others would step in; double check, review systems and methodology.  Years of misplaced confidence on luck in the mountains are no reason to get sloppy. Especially when you are 1000 feet vertical.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Lessons learned, Part 2 : "not an epic" part 1...


I know this story has to start somewhere but I haven’t decided where yet. For now it will start here…

Woke up at 4:45am yesterday, but I wouldn’t really call it waking up. I would call it rolling out of my car from one mental state to another. For whatever reason, it had been unable to sleep the whole night prior. Thoughts of traveling north again, money spent, car organization and future came rushing in. Through winds, rain, parties and the perpetual light from Vegas, I have been able to sleep, but when at the mercy of my own thoughts I am hopeless.

The knock came on my window as I had finally fallen into the first stages of REM. C was up. I rolled, burrowed into my pillow and took a heavy breath into the back of my lungs. I could already feel the abuse from yesterdays climbing setting in.  Water was already boiling when I got out of bed (car), but C wasn’t so hot. “ Would you still go if I wasn’t going?” “ Do you feel okay climbing it without me?” she asked. Of course I would be okay, but no, I wouldn’t go without her. For the past month and a half, myself W and C have been grown into a tight knit crew, and in this last week in Red Rocks I was hoping to have a day out with the both of them. We would wait to do this climb with her if today wasn’t the day. She still looked hesitant and retreated to her car to read the route description again.

I knew we were in for a big day. But I wasn’t worried about it. This was probably our last chance to do something big. Claire had had bad luck on Multi pitches in Red Rocks so far on this trip; one uncomfortable and late rappelling adventure with twisting ropes and another climb that forced her to attempt technically foreign movement while on lead. She was not sure she was ready to commit to a 13 pitch route in a party of three on Wolfgangs ropes: twin ropes, what we, Sport climbers would consider not much more solid than ‘cordalette’.  All considered, I wasn't sure I was ready either. “ Claire, if there is one thing I know, its that if there are two people you want to do this with, its me and Wolfie. I can’t promise you we will have an easy day, and yea we will definitely be walking down in the dark… but I can promise you that it will be fun”. I could feel my shit eating grin bearing through. She retreated to her home once again for some last minute mental alignment. I boiled more water.

The Sleek black rental sonata pulled into the campground just past 5:30am. Wolfgang emerged, 50s rock and roll tunes on the radio and two Americanos in his hands. “ Girls!” he smiled. “ Are you ready??” I can’t help but love our Austrian friend. We turned off the stove and left the water to cool as we drove off towards the Black Velvet Canyon.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Lessons Learned: Part One

--> Last night, after a delicious meal of basmati rice, bagged vegetable curry and spinach, I poked the fire with my Paleolithic poking tool and asked C to help me recollect the moments and lessons of our desert experience. No adventure should go without a debrief and after a month of constant adventure, I knew we would both have a lot of insight.
For myself, the month of climbing has been paralleled by a sobering research assignment, leafing through the lives of those who have died for their summit dreams. It has forced me to really re examine my own reasons for climbing, for putting myself at the fate of so many incalculable risks.
From 4 fresh logs of ‘hot wood’ down to ash, this is what we came up with:

1)    If you sit too close to the fire… you will get burned, probably without realizing it at first. That one may sound more profound than it really is. 

2)    Listen to that little voice inside your head.
Everyone knows this one. The little angel and devil syndrome, or occasionally the just the voice you want to swallow and continue on whatever path you may be on. Occasionally this ends with trading safety for convenience. In C’s case, this reminder came on the a bolted multi-pitch climb. She was climbing with a new partner on a climb that was feasible for her ability and should have for all purposes been a straightforward day. After pulling her partner up to the first anchor with her, she noticed he was not wearing the daypack with her headlamp and down jacket. She mentioned this and the partner shrugged it off saying “ would you like me to climb back down and get it?” “YES! Of course!” screamed the little voice in C’s head. But like many of us who dislike being the “squeaky wheel”. She too shrugged it off.
Later that evening, as twilight descended, the team had just finished rappelling the top anchor when their ropes got twisted and immobile. They were stuck at a 500’(ish) rappel station and could go no further. After a minor epic that took them 4 hours into darkness, C and her partner used their camera flashes to identify anchors and prussiked up the ropes to separate them. Reaching the ground at 9pm. By 10:30 she was back at camp, grateful for her partners resourcefulness, but having shared had an invaluable experiential learning experience. What would have taken 15 extra minutes for her partner to fix his initial mistake would have saved them 2-3 hours in descending.
Lesson here, is to listen to that little voice, share it, and when in the mountains, do not settle for convenience over safety precautions.  Be it an emergency rappel on a locking biner instead of a non- locker, a call on weather conditions or a retreat for a day pack. It might seem like a big deal at the time, but if you don’t listen it could be less than the buy in.  ( yep… poker reference.)

3)    Manifest
This one may seem lofty but dag nabbit, it worked like a charm. Buddy was busy complaining about his shoes at the fire one night when my friend and car-mate K called him out in her beautiful, hippy fashion. “ DUDE! you gotta manifest that shit… don’t complain, don’t say you need it, just pretend you have it” She said, nodding knowingly. We all nodded and smiled but I don’t think I could have ever taken her word for it. Days later, K and Buddy were walking out of an epic climbing day in Pine Creek when they stumbled across a nearly new pair of Muiras (Expensive and wonderful climbing shoes). Buddy put up signs and messages in online communities and campground message boards but eventually accepted the karmatic gift and tried them on. Cinderella herself couldn’t have fit better.
Later that week I was mid sentence, telling my friends that it was high time I bought a new rope. Mine had seen two core shots now and seemed to be shrinking by the day, although I was accumulating a lovely assortment of skipping ropes. “ I think I am going to go buy a rope tonight, I will sack up and get 70m”. Just then a rental car cruised by, stopped and backed up to our campsite. A gentleman got out and smiled “ Hi! We are from…uh… Switzerland… and we have too much weight for the plane... do anyone want a free 70m rope?? … it was only used for rappels” My jaw dropped. K giggled. The boys around me all ‘ pffffffft’ed. We ended up giving the folks two beers for their rope, to which they exclaimed, delighted, “this is the beer from the commercials! We’ve been dying to try it! ”. I guess everyone is happy.
*** Rope ended up not being 70m. This was learned on the first of 5- 35m rappels off a multipitch with friends, T and M. Perhaps another lesson in ‘trusting the Swiss’ lies in there somewhere, or more rationally a lesson in checking things out for yourself and measuring your rope before you need its length...*** 
*** for the sake of me not feeling like the only one to have suffered or felt stupid... I'm betting Buddy got warts on his toes.  ***
*** I'm sure my manifested karma just fizzled after that last comment, sorry buddy*** 

4)    Awesomeness can transpire without any expectation
These are C’s words, but as she spoke them I stared into the fire and understood exactly what she meant. C's trip in particular had started much different than it was unfolding. After breaking ties with the climbing partner she had come down to Las Vegas with, she had been sitting alone at a campsite across the grounds. “ Hey K, we should invite her over… cheaper camping and we need a 4th!” C joined us, and we soon realized we had similar objectives. The climbing has been great ever since, we have been to J-Tree, we have learned to climb crack and we have managed to keep a steady diet of crushing rock and eating pretzels. “ I am so happy” is a sentence spoken as often as water is consumed. Life is good without planning.

This is a fridge magnet at the Dakota tavern in Toronto that I saw 2 years ago when I returned there. It is also the unspoken mantra of every car-dwelling climber and vagabond out there. Simple as it seems, It speaks to what brought both myself and C and Tate and Doug to the road. I feel it is so often underestimated by those who impose gravity on themselves; to be where they are unhappy and not really mentally being there at all. The quote gives you a choice; get into it, or get out of it.  This is something that no human being should ever forget. Once I was no longer there, I came here. Once I am no longer here, I will go elsewhere. If you can’t leave, you must figure out how to find interest or passion or projects where you are, for your own sake.
We have each taken on a somewhat bandito impersonation here in the desert, reliving the origins of sin city. Folklore states that vagabonds and bandits would run away to hide in the rocks of Nevada to escape the laws from where they came. Naturally gambling and gluttony transpired. Gluttony: yes. in the form of pretzels. Gambling: only a bit, but I won 100 bucks and haven't been back. I consider it a gift from the climbing gods.

6)    Trust your gut… This one needs sub- bullets.
a.     Don’t learn fist cracks on lead, on multi-pitch.
There is only one mention although there is an article in the Alpinist that will be released this spring that covers my own account of this lesson involving guts and trusting them when you don't feel good about a climb and of course, retreat when necessary. 
I think the statement goes something like this “ I got myself into this, and now I’m going to die”. I don’t know if we have all had this moment, where we have bitten off more than we can chew, but I know that when she said this I burst out laughing (in empathy). These are C’s thoughts as she jams a slippery fist into her first ever fist crack. She is somewhere in the middle of the rainbow buttress, in the middle of a lead, with her last cam well below her and her stance is insecure, there is a technically foreign move above. This is when she made the right choice. She called down to her trusted belayer and asked him how he felt about leading the climb. He, being a great partner, agreed and picked up where she left off. This also plays into swallowing the ego in favor of common sense. Something I need to learn more about.
b.     One man’s Frank and Fina’s Cocina Experience.
Questions which one must ask themselves when consuming Mexican feasts:
-       did you have to reposition yourself before you finished that dinner?
-       Where you in physical pain before you ordered dessert?
-       …Did it still seem like a good idea?? 

I only wish I had a photo documentary of the aftermath of this delicious meal with our South Dakotan friends. Here are the main stages though:
1) Our friend is smiling a big one, teeth and all, but his eyes are glazed as he stands behind the fire. He doesn’t seem to be able to participate in conversation
2) Our friend is lying horizontally on the bench with a water bottle as his cuddling item.
3) Our friend is kneeing behind the bench, hunched over it with his head down.
4) Our friend is leaning against his van-home (named Bushka), waterbottle still in hand, eyes closed. Smile remains.
“ Go to bed dude, go to Bushka” Someone calls to him. Out friend mumbles the name of his beloved home and stumbles into the van.

 I have never seen someone so in pain from food consumption. But there is a first for everything. Welcome to Las Vegas… More to come. 

Things to look forward to: 7) Double Check: Complacency is real. 8) Take rests, know how to use them 9) Don’t forget your headlamp! But if you do make sure that Las Vegas is in view, or it’s a full moon. 10) The explosive properties of Jack Rabbits: explored.