Thursday, November 8, 2012

White Mountain Pachinko

Cannon on 7 November

I watched as the stuck rope slithered away from me.  I suddenly felt very alone.  An avid reader of history, I should have known better: don’t try to attack Russia in the wintertime, and certainly don’t rope-solo the Black Dike.  Especially in November.
            On Election Day I sat at Pinkham notch quivering with energy.  I was jealous.  On the last day of my WFR class, two of my favorite climbing partners, Erik Eisele and Ryan Stefiuk, were romping up the first ice of the season on Cannon cliff.  I knew how much fun they were having.  I built another fake splint and looked forlornly up at Huntington ravine, swathed in early-season white. 
A quiver!

Why is early-season ice important to me?  More often than not, the thin, poorly formed ice and scrappy mixed terrain are what one encounters in the mountains.  I have gravitated towards the idea that one has to create long days artificially in order to make full use of the great terrain November has to offer.  Katsutaka Yokoyama, the brilliant, creative Japanese alpinist, has a word for it: Pachinko—Japanese for pinball.  “Simply put, Pachinko is a link up of multiple routes, and it helps us train for bigger mountains abroad.”  Having trouble choosing which early season venue to hit, Huntington’s, Tuckerman’s or Cannon, I eventually decided upon all three. 
            Two pairs of ice tools, three pairs of socks, jackets, two packs.  A pair of running shoes for Mount Washington, and a 30 meter rope, some cord, three pitons, a set of nuts, a 10 cm ice screw, and two hexcentrics for the Black Dike.  I avoided outright telling anyone of my plan because it was crazy, especially the Dike.  Having soloed it multiple times, I’ve never taken a rope or any gear.  But it isn’t January.  The plan was to tie a loop of rope around the anchor, place a small amount of gear, and tie loops of cord around the rope and anchor, pulling the rope up top like a reverse rappel.  I’d lose a couple of pitons and nuts that way, but the crux would be secure and I wouldn’t have to climb each pitch twice.

The ubiquitous Cannon soloing shot.
            The crux had gone smoothly.  I was actually enjoying the slow, deliberate pace this morning, as opposed to the normal rabbit speed.  On the second pitch, I talked to myself.  Slow is smooth, smooth is fast, youth.  This is stupid, but it is also fun.  I imagined my friends using the same holds the day before and it gave me comfort.  Bang in a pin.  These teeny pins are crap.  Clip it anyways.  Good.  But then, disaster.  Perhaps I forgot to untie a safety knot.  Perhaps the rope simply jams in that one spot.  It wouldn’t budge.  I could not stay where I was for long.  I unclipped, calmly, because it was the only thing to do.  I was light, all of a sudden, and it was quiet around me.  I looked up at the trees.  I thought I was done making stupid decisions!  Thin, delicate, loose November ice barred my way to safety.  Up was the only option.  I jammed a crack with a gloved hand and forced myself to breathe: Cannon will not decide whether or not you get off this thing alive.  That’s up to you lad, so go!  Slowly I tapped and scratched my way upward.  Thank god for Erik’s photos.  I knew the last pitch had ice on it.  After a time I found myself on top, a busted lip, short a rope, but alive.  I rejoined my friends’ tracks.  Erik texted me.  “Did you go to Cannon?”  If only he knew!  I hustled back to the car and ate half a pizza on the drive over to Washington.
            Yokoyama has another expression: “Alpinism is not a sport; it’s a worn-out body moving upwards.”  How true!  Even Hunters and New Order blasting in my headphones couldn’t convince me to hike quickly up the Tuck’s Trail.  I met another lonely climber in Huntington’s.  We chatted and I set off for Damnation, where the ice was good.  It was good to cruise on something, no harness, no fear of anything going wrong.  I sprinted across the alpine garden as it was getting dark.  The ice in Tuckerman’s looked scary, and I could not bear the thought of any more Pachinko today.  My friend Dave made me some tea at Hermit Lake and I sat and chatted for an hour or so.  I stumbled down the trail by headlamp.  Half an hour later I was in bed in Jackson, dreaming of sport climbing.  

Note to the winter climbing community:  I am ashamed at having left a rope up there.  I also left a nut and a piton on the dike but these are less unsightly and annoying for fellow climbers.  I intend to return soon, as I do every winter, and remove the rope.  I hope I can get to it before it freezes.  If you are up there, feel free to cut it loose.  I apologize for having left trash and ask for forgiveness from my community. 


  1. I'm sure the community can cut you a break: nice effort and a fine showing. Perhaps there's a rope ghost in that crack, just waiting for new generations of soloists to lay siege to Moscow...

    1. Fortunately, most soloists don't produce future generations. Yes, the rock that snags ropes hasn't fallen down in the past 41 years.

  2. So rad. Maybe we can get that rope back tomorrow.

    1. Good climbing with you today buddy! Failing on Cannon is always a great excuse to hang out. Psyched to get back on it.