As some have noticed, I haven't blogged in a while. I've certainly been in the mountains, but with a different heart and motives. Fishing trips. Camping. And a little hiking with my wife and daughter. On the weekend of February 18th, another climber and I were attempting our route on the Mystic Equinox Tower and suffered a catastrophic gear failure at the belay. Below is an (admittedly verbose) account of what took place.
WILD HAIR AND STONE TABLETS.
Based on the events from February 18th, 2006 in the Beartooth Mountains of Montana.
There are times in every climber’s career when your world stops spinning for a perfect moment, the clouds part, and you understand with perfect clarity and vivid detail the meaning of life. The fortunate ones come down from the mountain with wild hair and stone tablets, the unfortunate ones leave family, friends and children behind to wonder the rest of their lives exactly what happened.
As they often do, my perfect moment came upon unexpectedly as I lay on my back in the soft powder snow, opening my eyes to the windless dark blue sky and breathed that first, sharp breath of survival that rushes back to you as one breaking the surface of death after being under for a very long time. It filled my lungs and tasted better then anything I have ever tasted before. And with the second breath, the euphoric aftertaste that thaws its way into the consciousness with a methodical slow march that forever sears it’s message in the mind of every survivor; “I live still”.
A moment longer and its gone, and there I sit at the base of a 2000 foot alpine wall in the middle of winter on a minus twenty-five degree day. I strain to focus my mind, to stay sharp, but the confusion sets in as I wander through the pieces of my memory, trying to piece together exactly what had just happened. My partner meanwhile, having just survived the same fall with greater magnitude, having being ripped from the belay some 100 plus feet above me and had fallen perhaps 250 feet, was wrestling to keep panic and shock at bay, reeling with tears and grief one moment, focused rage the next. My mind worked slowly through each event, a backlog of thought after thought stacked one on top of another, digressing to a self-conversation as an act of preservation…
“What is he saying? And who is he mad at?” I wondered “Me?”
“That wouldn’t make sense. It wasn’t our fault.” I offered, “We weighted the rope. Our crampon came off and that is all we could do. Period.”
“Couldn’t clip a tool eh?”
“Not with ice choking the shaft… remember the approach?”
“And what about clipping the leash?!?”
“Well, a bit unorthodox… besides, it was easier to weight the rope.”
“Yes. Look what happened when easier was mistaken for right…”
The blood brought me back. A gash on my face. First wet, then freezing hard and stinging. Straining, I begged my mind to return to the present task; deciding what it was going to take to get us safely back to the trailhead and our vehicle some nine miles away, and then acting quickly on that information. Spencer, my partner in crime was pretty banged up. His wrist ached, and had problems with his leg, either a fractured femur or very bad muscle damage. I felt like I had been hit by a truck, but overall was in good shape. Bruised ribs, and a deep cut on my cheek. Helmet scarred, having done its job. Despite the daunting nature of our new minted epic in the making, we opted to roll out. A night out in the open at 10,000 feet with almost no food and very little fuel pleased neither of us and it didn’t suit our ethic of self rescue.
The day started as it often does for us in the Beartooths. An early, 12:00am departure with more then a healthy does of miles and elevation gain on the itinerary, with the added bonus of an attempt on a new route up a beautiful piece of rock known as the Mystic Equinox tower. Located in the West Rosebud, it sits proudly at the end of Mystic Lake, and offers relief resembling that of a prow of a ship jutting into the sky. I don’t know much about the tower, other then that Jack Tackle had told me he and Dougal McCarty established a route in the early 1980’s during the summer equinox.
In the Beartooths, the game is simple. Many of the great alpine walls and peaks that dominate the range are shrouded in a self imposed mystery by way of a tightly held no publish ethic. For some, it’s questionable that I even write about my adventures there. For others, including me, it’s not so much about FA’s (though there are some fine, unresolved alpine problems), it’s about a long-standing tradition of adventure climbing and doing your part to keep the standards high. For the modern alpine climber, this translates to a rare sense of adventure that comes from the very real possibility that you are climbing in the footsteps of those who came before. Perhaps climbing the very same piece of rock that the early alpine pioneers may have climbed a time long ago, but never fully understanding weather or not they had. Mystery the great, Babylon in the Beartooths.
For this day’s adventure, we paired the rack down to a bare minimum, as we often do. A set of pins, a few slings and biners, five ice screws, a picket to protect the cornice at the exit of the route, and a 60M 7.5mm rope used in similar fashion to what Steve House does in the great ranges. We imitate, operate, and modulate. Having bungled the approach the weekend before, and not wanting to dumb down the climb with an intentional overnight, we simply left earlier with the resolve to be at the base of the wall at first light. This way, despite the short day, we move quickly, climb quickly, and if goes well, leave quickly; daylight hours for climbing, darkness for approach and departure. It’s a pretty simple formula that I have been experimenting with over the past few years. It works well if you are ok with the thin margins of error and long days. Sometimes this translates to new climbs done in good style. Most of the time it equals spectacular failures that make you question openly weather the concept really works.
This day, it was clearly the latter. After an assessment of our near miss, senses firmly regained, we organized the gear and headed out. Spencer limped. I talked endlessly as a person happy to be alive often will. We reflected, talked and then moved on as the our waking nightmare faded in the mist of our memories. Eventually winding up at the truck with full minds and tired bones, ready to return to life as usual with wild hair and stone tablets. For Spencer, it was a likely big experience in the first chapter of his alpine career. For me, it was a curtain call. A moment of clarity, when you simply open your eyes and realize you’re undone. Not for fear of another fall, or even death. Those two facts are overwhelmingly evident the moment you rope up on any climb. It's part and parcel of the allure. But rather fear, or worry, a simple revelation set in that there are other things in life to attend to. Friends. Children. Spouses. Relationships. Birthdays. Anniversaries. Funerals. Faith.
To my knowledge, the route has not been done despite its very classic appeal and moderate nature, though I know of a few interested parties. Chop chop.