Tuesday, June 27, 2006

An update.

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.


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.

Monday, February 13, 2006

February 10th, 2006: Mystic Equinox Tower Attempt
Spencer Winchester and I decided to see if we could make an attempt on the Equinox Tower this weekend, and the mountains decided we could not. With drop dead gorgeous weather for the day and a full moon at night, we left the trailhead at 5am hoping for good approach conditions. Sadly, we should have left three hours earlier to enable more time to deal with the waist deep mashed potato snow we encountered in the steep forest that guards this alpine gem. After wallowing for three hours, we arrived near the wall feeling deflated and punished, and wrestled with the decision to jump on it or not with the afternoon winding on. We decided to rethink our tactics for our next visit, and settled instead for a training day in the Beartooths with close to 18 miles of terrain covered.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

No comment.

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

This is a photo of the Mystic Equinox tower in late spring conditions. Jack Tackle and Dougal McCarty established a very nice route on the right side of the face during the Summer Equinox, thus its name. It is also on my mind these days for obvious reasons.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

More from the climbing humor department.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

July of 2004: Granite Peak - One day ascent
Digging through old photos again, and found a nice shot from a day trip up Granite Peak. Good weather and a nice climb. Granite is a nice peak to introduce new alpine climbers to the Beartooths, as well as a good way to get loads of miles and fitness for other, more ambitious projects.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

The time was 1:20am on Saturday the 7th of January, and I was awake in my bed. Looking at the ceiling, with an intense mind that would not let me rest, because I knew that I simply must see the sunrise from one of my favorite spots in the Beartooths, the Hellroaring Plateau. By 2:00am I was on the highway on my way to the Hellroaring road, where I would ski through deep snow for 7 miles up an old mining road in a race to 11,500' to beat the pending sunrise. My prize? A fresh cup of coffee, and a view like this:

Friday, January 06, 2006

From the lighter side of climbing, a cartoon. Published in Alpinist 8, with a different headline. Another friend of mine, Jeremy Collins, has discovered how to make a living doing this. You can see his work at http://www.jercollins.com/

Thursday, December 29, 2005

A friend of mine who happens to take fantastic photos, recently sent me a photo of Granite Peak at Sunrise. Good stuff. You can see more of his work at http://www.larrymayer.com/

For those of you who are curious what its like to climb on Mt.Rainier in the winter, a photo from an outing with my mother on December 26th, 2005

Monday, December 19, 2005

Frozetodeath Pillar: FA "Ungoliant's Stair" (2,000', AI3+ 70°, M2, 5.6)
Decided to have another go at the Mystic Pillar, and quite glad I did. The route is big, but very moderate. It was quite cold at this elevation, -22°F below zero on the route, and for the first time I ever I recieved frostbite on a climb. Black skin, and today, blisters. I free-soloed the route in 2 hours 15 minutes with very poor snow conditions (14 hours car to car, but the approach was very very hard). If anyone out there knows anything about the face, please let me know. My hunch is that this would be an outstanding spring route.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Frozetodeath Pillar:
Thinking about this route a lot lately. This photo was taken from a failed attempt last winter. I first really took notice of this face when I was hiking up the Phantom Creek trail some three years ago. It has a very magnetic and imposing character about it, sitting proudly above Mystic lake. Have no idea wether its been climbed or not, but the total relief is near 4,000 feet, with a top out elevation at around 11,500 feet.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Summer of 2003: Exum Direct, Grand Teton
Was invited to join another party on the exum direct, an ultra classic Teton masterpiece. A very moderate trad route, with fantastic exposure pitch after pitch.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Role Model
This is a photo of my mother, on the summit of a tough little climb in the North Cascades of Washington called Mt.Daniel.

Summer of 2004: The White Wall / FA attempt
Bill leading the 2nd pitch up a corner that proved too unstable to safely climb. At the second belay, we watched with sick humor as a 500lb granite flake let go and screamed like a wagon wheel to the valley floor. Was quite pleased to be at the belay when it let go. Bill later returned and completed a new 4 pitch 5.11 further to the north of this corner.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Summer of 2004: The Bearstooth - One Day Ascent
Bill Davy, the modern equivalent of an alpine sensei, decided to humor me for a one-day ascent of the Bearstooth. We approached from the Glacier Lake trailhead in the Rock Creek drainage. It was a very long day.

October of 2002: Granite Peak - Light & Fast Ascent
I had just read the book "Extreme Alpinism" and was inspired to experience Mark Twight's theories in the Beartooths. On the way out darkness fell and we became lost on the Frozetodeath plateau in a severe storm. With my partner hillucinating, totally out of water and bonking, we wandered for three hours looking for the Phantom creek trail exit. A lot of lessons learned on that trip.

Friday, December 09, 2005

This is what the inside of an igloo looks like. For the alpinist proper who carries no tent, no sleeping bag, and too little food, this would be a very welcome site indeed for those inevitable days when ambition outlives your physical resources.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Winter 2004 / 2005:
Another long day in the Beartooths, this time the West Rosebud. Scouted out some big wall conditions, and found this little gem, 3 pitches of ice. First climbed by Jim Rott and Mike Latham and named Ignorance Is A Gift (WI3+)

Cody Ice Fest 2004:
Ben pulling through on "Curtains".

Winter 2004:
Joel Anderson leading Hellroaring Falls, in the East Rosebud.

Winter 2004: FWA "Drama Queen" Light & Fast Ascent
This was a solo up a beautiful wall that sits above Glacier Lake. Covered 18 miles in 12 hours car to car. The wall is 1200' tall and tops out just above 11,000 feet. I named the (assumed) route "Drama Queen" because of the mountains antics I faced on the climb.

Winter 2004 / 2005
This was a rowdy day in the Beartooths last winter. We attempted a route called "Funeral for Friend" in the Rock Creek Drainage. Attempted indeed. The chimney is fed by the upper reaches of the face, and produces unreal amounts of spin drift on days such as these.