Thursday, July 13, 2017

Rebel Hell

It was 6am on the Fourth of July and I was navigating the fringes of Wenatchee on my way to Washington Pass on Hwy 20 in the North Cascades.  I hadn't taken the time to make coffee, and no shops were open yet.  After finally getting some life juice in Winthrop, I made it to the Blue Lake Trailhead around 9am, to be greeted by Matt and Kyle, rearing to go after a restful night of sleep that I was sorely lacking.

As I got out of the car, I asked what we were going to climb today.

"Rebel Yell!" said Matt.

I vaguely realize that route is in the Wine Spires, a 3-4 hour approach.
My brain said, "Bitch, you crazy, that's a terrible idea."
My mouth said, "Okay."

I tossed my gear together and we were hiking by 10:30am, much later than recommended.  Halfway up the relentlessly sandy and steep approach, the physical and mental exhaustion of my work week caught up with me.  I didn't want to hike any more, I wasn't particularly psyched on climbing, and I was dreading the certain deproach in the dark.

I tried to bail, but my sympathetic and encouraging climbing partners wouldn't allow it.  We pressed on, arriving at the col and dropping down the east side into the snow.  Twenty more minutes found us at the base of the climb, tucked into a hole in the snow, racking up.  It was nearly 3pm, the antithesis of an alpine start.  We had three people climbing on two ropes; hardly the recipe for efficiency.  But we were motivated more by spending time in the mountains with good people than styling the shit out of anything.  Matt led the first crux pitch with few qualms, and shortly after the three of us were squeezed onto a belay ledge below a left-leaning flared chimney.

View of Silver Star Glacier from the route


Someone read the beta, "5.9+ flaring squeeze to a previously hidden hand rail traverse."

Before I could talk myself out of it, I agreed to take the lead.  Anyone who has done much climbing knows the "+" on the end of that number can be dubious.  Think of it as an asterisk, an ellipsis, a suggestion that this probably wont feel much like a 5.9.  I squeezed myself into the chimney and was relieved to find good protection.  I thrutched (it means exactly what it sounds like) up, making only a few inches of progress at a time, I'd get stuck as I tried to move up, and slip out when I least expected it.  After what seemed like eternity measured in grunting, I arrived at a wide crack that split the steep outer wall of the chimney. I placed my only large cam (#4, for anyone who cares), at the narrowest part and tried to move upward, quickly realizing that this wasn't going to be as straight forward as I hoped.  After hanging and looking and hanging and stalling, I tried to shove whatever would fit into the crack.  It was my right knee, and it fit so well I quickly became stuck.  After a few minutes of trying not to freak out or flail, the initial nausea subsided and I got myself unstuck.  After one last attempt that included rodeo-style horn-lassoing shenanigans I lowered to the ledge in defeat.  Kyle took over and managed to make it around the corner and to the next belay.  Turns out I just used the wrong knee.

Matt in the chimney

Moving through the upper pitches of the route, we were very aware of how much daylight was left. Some simple math concluded: not much.  Now that we had figured out the three-person system, we were making better progress and everyone was in good spirits.  As the light on the snowfield below started to turn warm and dusky, Kyle finished the last pitch and we began to rappel.

We are still super sane at this point.....

Things were tense until all three of us were back safely on the ground.  Baring the scary snow traverse in rock shoes to make it back to our packs, I was relieved that all I had to do now was hike.  We Marched by headlamp back across the snowfield and over the col.  The upper part of the approach is loose and hard to follow in the daytime, and downright treacherous at night.  The few times we lost the trail, we made every attempt not to knock rocks on each other or tumble into an endless debris gully.

Sunset from the route


By 11:00pm we were back on a definite trail and you could almost hear the collective sphincter relaxation.  There are a few different types of "fun" we define with respect to outdoor activities.

Type 1: I'm having fun now, and I will remember this as fun later.
Type 2: This sucks, but as soon as it's over, I'll remember this as fun.
Type 3: This is the fucking worst, and I will remember it as such forever and always.

Wine spires in the distance. View from Liberty Bell Group


As we descended by the orbs of our headlamps, now laughing and joking about the day's suffering, we hovered somewhere between Type 1 and 2.  Moments of that epic may never even make it below Type 3 for me, but after only a week, I look back on it fondly for the most part.  I attribute this to the quality of humans I am lucky enough to share a rope with.  From beginning to end, Kyle and Matt were happy, encouraging, and put up with my delirious mood swings with such grace and patience.  At some point that day, I said I can't imagine two people I'd rather epic with, and I meant it.

The best part is, ladies, they're single.

Summit of NEWS the following day.  Almost nothing went wrong.



Friday, March 10, 2017

Time to Roam

Remember that cafe in Moab?  Well, I'm here again.  A morning of chores is all that stands between me and a spring season at Indian Creek.  I've been off work for nearly two weeks now.  I stuck around in Washington for the classic Early March Pow Dump of the PNW.  This time when I drove away from Leavenworth, I looked forward to my return.  It takes a while to find your place in a small town with a tight community, and I finally feel like I've connected with the people I've been looking for. 


Matt, during one of many "best days ever"

All that being said, I was itching for a few weeks away.  The first stop, like usual, was Hood River.  I visited all my favorite places and people and got a day in on the mountain.  A girlfriend suggested we go out to Anthony lakes for a few days to see a local band play on tour.  Nestled in the mountains of Eastern Oregon, Anthony Lakes has one chair and only costs $35 a day.  When Kristle and I arrived Saturday morning, the overnight lot was packed with RV's and vans.  We set up our little hobo car camp and hit the slopes as the snow came down with fury. 

Anthony Lakes slack-country

The entire weekend was so much more than I expected: storm skiing interspersed with sunbreaks that opened windows to the craggy peaks just out of bounds, warm and welcoming locals that kept the energy flowing through the two-day party.  A woman who called herself Cookie was in an RV across the road.  As we geared up around 8:30 Saturday morning, she greeted us with a mason jar full of gummy bears soaked in vodka.  It was a one of a kind experience that I won't soon forget.

Greenneck Daredevils rocking the lodge at Anthony Lakes
Winterfest, complete with fireworks!

Sunday evening I got back on the road toward California.  Aside from the brief hiccup of running out of gas on I-84, I made good time.  I lost daylight somewhere around the Oregon-Idaho border and spent the next many hours following my dim headlights down the two lane highway.  Every so often there was a seemingly abandoned town I had never heard of and I only had one radio station for 200 miles.  Just after crossing into Nevada (to which my first thought was, "Why the f**k am I in Nevada?") I found a dirt road to pull off and sleep.  The wind howled all night long and I slept restlessly, dreaming of strangers knocking on my windows.  In the morning I found myself in a broad valley bordered by steep ridges; Nevada's stark Basin and Range, a textbook zone that all good geologists know.

My sleepy copilot

I drove 400 more miles that day, continuously confused about where exactly I was (I apparently need a geography lesson) and arrived in Mammoth Lakes, California around lunch time.  In three days I fit in as many hot spring sessions.  We skied the backcountry one day, the resort another and I felt woefully inept trying to breathe the high elevation air. 

The clumptastic approach
Scoping our line
John before dropping in to TJ bowl.
Yesterday I drove for a burly 12 hours across what might be the most unpopulated stretch of road in the country and limped into Moab, grateful to see a familiar place.  It's fully spring here and the warm desert air is beginning to melt the ice out of my bones.  I'm always sad to leave winter behind, but I can already feel the sun on my face and the gritty sandstone on my skin. 

Bridger Jack Mesa


"May your rivers flow without end... down into a desert of red rock, blue mesas, domes and pinnacles and grottos of endless stone, and down again into a deep vast ancient unknown chasm where bars of sunlight blaze on profiled cliffs, where deer walk across the white sand beaches, where storms come and go as lightning clangs upon the high crags, where something strange and more beautiful and more full of wonder than your deepest dreams waits for you -- beyond that next turning of the canyon walls."  
- Edward Abbey 

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Home Free

I found myself staring at a computer screen in a Moab cafe the Monday after Thanksgiving.  It had begun to rain in the desert and many of the climbers were moving on to warmer climates or winter jobs.  I still didn't have a job, or place to live for the winter and desperately needed to start making some decisions.  I fired off applications and resumes to Sun Valley, Bozeman, Carbondale and Telluride and wished I'd started doing this weeks before.  I was scrolling through photo after photo of my PNW friends balls deep in powder when I received an email from my old job in Leavenworth.  "I have you penciled in for this Saturday, but I wasn't sure if you'd be back yet."

The last day of climbing in Indian Creek. Above: P1 of Lighting Bolt Cracks on North Six Shooter, Below: Top of North Six Shooter,    Dan Kluskiewicz photo   

Without stopping to think too hard about whatever miscommunication got me scheduled when I hadn't planned on returning to Washington, I sent an eager reply and got straight in the car.  I spent a few days in Hood River skiing and retrieving Mr Morrison, then cruised back to Leavenworth for the first weekend of Christmas Lighting festivities.

Reunited with winter and my four-legged baby.
Late November Pow

I hadn't planned on continuing to live in my car for the winter.  In fact, the concept seemed unimaginable in the damp, cold northwest weather.  But as the weeks of December flew by, I worked 60 hour weeks during the holidays, squeezed in as much skiing as possible and comfortably survived over a dozen days of temperatures in the teens and single digits.

Though comfortable might be a generous term.

My "kitchen"
Nights are cold, but my bed is warm.  Mornings come with ice covered windows (on the inside) and an extended defrosting method.  Numb fingers clumsily fire up the stove so I can cradle a hot cup of coffee.  We take long walks in the soft, white forest to move blood back to the tips of my toes.  The cooler is now for keeping things warm, because no one wants frozen eggs.  Simple tasks become more time consuming, using the bathroom now requires foresight and strategy.  I've grown used to having numb toes throughout the day.  Every one of these little inconveniences are just that, inconvenient, but more importantly, a challenge.  I like to work harder, it's rewarding.  I prefer the way I spend my free time, compared to when I lived in a house.  Once, upon using the word "homeless," a friend answered, "No, home free."

Home Free

I now have a completely different understanding of what I can handle.  Sure, I've been cold, I've been frustrated, I've just wanted to curl up in a bed and watch TV and I tend to spend way too much time rummaging through the organized chaos of my small living space.

But guess what else?

When I could be zoned out in front of Netflix, I'm romping through the snow with my dog.
When I could be working, I'm skiing.
When I could be shoveling the driveway, I'm..... well, probably digging my car out of whatever snow drift I drove it in to.

Elaborate gear drying system

And best of all, during my four days off, I can go anywhere.

I'm always packed to roam.

And I hate packing. 

Dan Holz Photo

"I, who consider intimacy with the landscape to be the goal of our wanderings, believe that the ultimate intimacy is being so lost that I have not the slightest idea where I am. I am not somewhere on a map; I am simply there." 

- Joe Kelsey

Monday, January 30, 2017

Indian Summer

Updates here have been long overdue, partially due to my technological incompetence with managing a custom domain, and partially the modest inconvenience of finding internet and using an actual computer.  What can I say?  Priorities are all over the place these days...

It's been nearly 8 months since I left the confines of a traditional living situation and became a little more transient.  After spending the summer and early fall in Leavenworth, I went to Moab and spent six weeks playing in the desert.

All but just a few days were spent at Indian Creek, the climbing area just outside the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park.  Climbers from all over flock here in the late fall, some for just a weekend, others for over a month.  The nature of the climbing is physical and strenuous, so spending a longer time there is conducive to more progress.  The camping is cheap and the nearest town is 30 minutes away, so it's easy to live without much expense.

Bridger Jack Towers

It's really not about the climbing, though.  This valley is striking, remote, desolate and full of history.  The bold reds of the rock always contrast the open blue sky.  You have to bring your water down from town, yet wildlife thrives everywhere you look, perfectly adapted to the seasonal extremes of the desert.  Something about this place draws a certain type of human.  We collect here, in a sandy wash from all over the world; a community brought together by curiosity and love for our natural environment.  All enchanted by the magic of the desert.

Thanksgiving

When I showed up in The Creek I came alone, with plans to meet up with friends occasionally and find partners along the way.  What I didn't expect was to find a robust community of people overflowing with laughter, encouragement and love.  We spent evenings circled around the fire soaking up the last bits of heat to take back to our sleeping bags.  We spent mornings drinking coffee in the sun; days, strewn across the bottom of cliffs, waging our personal battles against gravity.

Hookers and Blow, 4x4 wall.  Mike Huffman photo.

I watched summer turn to fall and fade to winter.  I felt the days shorten, saw the trees drop their leaves, and the first snow of the season.  Rather than exist in proximity to the natural world, I became a part of it.  Like clockwork, I woke minutes before sunrise every morning.  I sat on the cliff above camp, appreciating the stillness of dawn, sometimes meditating or writing as the rest of our little town came to life.  Days of the week never mattered, I stopped wearing a watch, and just lived according to the natural rhythm.

Sunrise
With each unfamiliar face that becomes a new friend, I wonder if I will ever see them again, once our current paths diverge.  Every connection I make is special, I feel enriched and inspired by that individual and their story.  It was hard to leave, but my soul was ready for winter.  As the weeks have gone by and the daily memories fade, what stands out more than any one route are the moments of laughter, tears and desert revelry with kindred spirits and loved ones whose faces I will certainly never forget.