Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Learning Curve.

January, 2005:

Joel Irby's Jeep Wrangler crawled through Denver traffic.  I was with Dave Hoven and Joel and I was wild-eyed.  These guys were real climbers.  Two days earlier, I had "proven" myself by following Hully Gully, a single pitch WI4 outside of Colorado Springs, where I was a freshman at Colorado College.  That night, I had gotten a call asking if I wanted to climb in Rocky Mountain National Park with Dave, Joel, and Joe Forrester: all Juniors at CC.  They were gods to me.  Joe had just broken his back on the South Face of Acongogua, and Joel hiked out across the crevasse-ridden glacier and plucked Joe off the mountain with a helicopter.

Joe Forrester eating my last food on the only Fischers aid climb we ever did together.

Me, age 18, Alexander's Chimney.  Actually, I still use those mitts.

The plan was to meet Joe up at Chasm lake that night and climb Alexander's Chimney.  I had no clue what I was getting into, or how long it would take before I became a competent climber.  I just knew that the "MountainProject" photos of the route looked a lot like the pictures in Mark Twight's Extreme Alpinism, which was already getting read to shreds in my dorm room.  As we started hiking, I fell farther and farther behind, and as we got to treeline, somewhere around midnight, I could barely see Dave and Joel's headlamps, weaving their way through the talus.  This was my first trip to the Park.  It was my first time in real mountains, too.  As the headlamps crept further and further away, my visions of alpine mastery flickered away, and alone, in the january cold, I realized how far I had to go.

That night, I shivered next to Dave in a three-season tent, wearing my mittens as booties and wrapping myself tightly in a Wild Things EP jacket and 40 degree summer bag.  I didn't sleep at all, and the next morning we made tracks towards the East face of Long's.  I watched Joel confidently lead the first pitch, and Dave try every option on the second one, but the deep, January snow repulsed us, and we hiked out, horribly dehydrated.  My 18-year-old excitement dwindled as I lurched back to the car, exhausted.  

It was the start of a great apprenticeship.

Joel Irby, Myself, and Dave Hoven on the lower weeping wall.  I am not smiling because I was 19 and scared out of my mind.

Over the years, I made many friends who were great climbers, and we worked our way through the grades, same as everybody else.  But they always laughed at climbing in Rocky Mountain National Park. 

"Dave and Joel and Michael are going to cuddle and bail again!"  They'd pack quickdraws and clip bolts at Shelf Road, or climb the immaculate granite in the South Platte.  But come noon on lots of fridays, I'd sprint into downtown Colorado Springs to buy GU and propane canisters, throw myself in Joel and Dave's Jeeps, and we'd hurtle towards objectives we had no business getting on: Vanquished, Alexander's Chimney, the Smear of Fear, Womb with a View, Brain Freeze.  We were kids.  Older climbers must have scoffed, though we rarely ran into them.  (Real climbers knew that conditions actually mattered.)  Apart from a solo ascent of Martha, (5.6, WI2) my freshman year, and a 21-hour epic of another WI2, Dreamweaver, and surviving broken bones and atrocious storms, I had a zero percent success rate in the Park.  The grades were absurd: impossibilities for a scrawny kid from Connecticut.  The Smear?  5.10 WI5+?  Thin ice, six miles from the road?  It was practically a running joke in the campus climbing community.

Vanquished, the ethereal smear deep in the backcountry, always seemed like the ultimate alpine test-piece in Colorado.  It only formed every five years or so, in those rare, clouded springs.  I spent hours drooling over the dog-eared photo in Jack Roberts' guidebook.  

Dave eating a Taco Bell snack for breakfast after a bivy.  We used to always get Taco Bell but one day I got food poisoning.

Meanwhile, Dave and Joel and I (Joe had given himself to his first mistress: Cutler Sandstone aid climbing), kept ice climbing around Colorado and the Canadian Rockies.  I led my first WI4 pitch (on Polar Circus), and eventually clawed up some M6, and WI5's.  Under their careful tutelage, I was in danger of becoming a competent climber.  In the evenings, we'd get drunk, cause trouble, and rave about the alpine routes we'd climb.  And always, Rocky Mountain National Park lay under heaps of snow, three hours to the North.  

"A couple of punk kids."  Joel and I, 2006 or so.

We kept at it, for whatever reason.  I learned how to pack light, to only spend a day up there.  I got a pair of real ice boots, and crampons that didn't fall off every second time I kicked.  I learned to sharpen my picks, to wait, to check the weather, to be flexible and bend myself to the conditions, not the other way around.

My senior year, I manipulated days of class like chess pieces and sacrificed a lot of them.  In a week, Chris Alstrin and I climbed the Smear of Fear (Chris' lead blew my mind.  Still does.), Joel and our close friend Kevin Brumbach (now an absolute winter maniac living in Bozeman) and I climbed Alexander's Chimney (finally), and I soloed All Mixed Up.  When I explained the nature of these routes to my very angry English professor, he relented, told me to write my thesis on alpinism, and confided I probably learned more in those three days than most of his students learned his whole month-long seminar.

Chris Alstrin, who was 28 and worked in the CC AV department at the time, leading the crux on the Smear of Fear.  We skipped class/work and nabbed it.  October, 2007.

Me leading on the Smear, 2007.  Leashless tools, finally, and my first softshell jacket!  

Kevin Brumbach later that same week on Alexander's Chimney.

March, 2008

Joel and I rappelled off the Ames Ice Hose, the classic ice route in Colorado, pleased with ourselves.  I was finally getting somewhere.  Dave and Joe were gone by that point, having graduated two years before, but Joel stuck around the Springs to climb and my senior year we snuck out whenever his construction job would allow.  As the months and years went on, I went from being an ardent student to a peer and we had started swapping leads.

"That was the last of the season!"

I was ecstatic.  Through years, and determination, we had ticked off almost every route on our Colorado list.  

"Yaa," Joel responded in his Oklahoma drawl.  "Unless Vanquished comes in."  We laughed.  Vanquished never came in.  

Vanquished, June, 2008.  Just climbable.
June, 2008

In May I graduated and soloed Dreamweaver in five hours, car to car.  It was freezing and windy, and the Park seemed to have come full circle for me.  I vowed to quit alpine climbing and I drove West to hang out with my girlfriend in Southern California.  For a short while, I convinced myself I would be happy rock climbing and surfing.  I'd get a teaching job and we'd etch out life after college.  Then, I threw my back out and was bedridden for days.  A kooky SoCal doctor, friends of her parents, prescribed me a quiver of muscle relaxants and painkillers.  I drove back to Colorado, sleeping one night on a rigid picnic table in Arizona while my back spasmed in the 100 degree heat.

It was 90 Fahrenheit when I got to Boulder.  I could barely walk, but for some reason I convinced myself to take a hike in my favorite place, so I drove up to Estes.  I lurched up the trail with trekking poles, and found myself, nearly by accident, at the base of Powell Peak.  To this day I don't know why I decided to do this.  I wasn't sure if it was the European muscle relaxants or the altitude, but I could have sworn that white stuff was Vanquished.  I snapped some photos and limped down the trail, giddy, muttering to myself.  I must have passed hikers who thought I was crazy.  

Joel was in Boulder.  By chance.  By chance, he had the day after tomorrow off.  I shuffled around my friend's house with a mill bastard file for a day, unable to sleep.  Would it hold?  Would it melt in the heat?  One more ice climb…

Kelly Cordes and Steve Su had climbed it.  So had Jack Roberts and Dougald MacDonald.  Real climbers.  Vanquished, in June?  It still seemed surreal.

Joel starting up.
Me on one of the entry pitches.  I am wearing a Grivel helmet in an attempt to look like Steve House.

Joel and I packed our bags and started hiking at three a.m.  By the time we reached the base, a party was halfway up, and a party was waiting behind us.  The blogs had done their work.  The men were irritated to share the route they'd waited to climb for 20 years with two punk kids, but the park had become ours, too, and I smiled as Joel cruised the opening mixed pitch, quieting their criticisms.  We were not going down today.  Now, years later, as I write this, I remember that moment and it makes me supremely happy: Joel weaving his way up the gorgeous corner, placing perfect rock gear and front pointing amazing, vertical neve.  The last pitch, over a little roof, had thwarted previous parties, but we had to finish the route.  My crampons scraped around and I clawed my way upwards, relying on everything I had ever learned from all my climbing partners.  

Joel on the amazing middle pitches.

We rappelled to the talus with our single line, building anchors as the day wore on.  I could barely shoulder my pack with my hurt back, but I popped another painkiller and we stumbled, once more, down to Estes.  It was the last time I climbed in the Park.  

Later, Joel and I climbed the Moose's Tooth and Mount Wake, as things continued to click.  Still, Vanquished was our greatest climb.  I moved to New England and Joel stopped winter climbing as much, but I still remember that one.  I always will.  Sure, I had gotten my diploma a few weeks earlier, but Vanquished will always be my graduation.


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