Loose jams: spring thoughts from the rocks

Two short years ago, I went into the summer with a rack consisting of sport draws, hexes, nuts, and two lonely cams. It was a good time—perhaps the first time I’d call myself a climber instead of just someone who climbed. I talked about climbing as a wonderful pursuit because I didn’t hold myself to big expectations. It was what it was, which felt refreshing in light of the bigger ski things I wanted to pull off. Even dreaming of something to do is an emotional investment in risking the thought of “could I do that, should we try.” Climbing didn’t feel that way for me; skiing did.

Passion has crept into my time on the rock—nobody is surprised by that. I’m now invested, the same way I was on my skis. Three summers ago, leading 5.10 trad seemed like the upper limit of what I could even conceive to accomplish. Credit a lot of help from mentors, plenty of time in the bouldering gym last winter, an SPI guide course and exam, great partners, and lots more mileage on the rock with getting strong enough to actually hit that level. I remember thinking about it as a major sort of milestone. As if it might have more fanfare accompanying each send. Yet here I type, having done some of the things I once only wondered about.

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Beta: use those ski legs and stem that thing. Topping out on George and Martha at Frenchman Coulee. Photo: Emily Smith

In the last five days, I’ve fallen off two of my projects, both 5.10b trad leads at our local pile of magical quartzite, Stonehill. It would be very nice to send these. I am genuinely bummed. I think things like, “I’m better than this. I can climb this grade. I’m strong as I’ve ever been, and know things that I never did. My mental game is way better. Why can’t I pull it together?

The answer, of course, offers a few different paths. Those of you who have read The Rock Warrior’s Way will recognize much of what follows. If you haven’t dove in, and you want to improve your experience of any activity were risk and growth go hand in hand, do yourself a huge favor and pick the book up right now.

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Excellent crack technique on the crux of Delirium Tremens at Smith Rock. Photo: Vinny Stowell

Now back to “why I can’t pull it together”:

#1. Climbing is not only about climbing hard; it’s about learning and exploration of both the physical world and personal abilities. It’s easy for me to focus on goals when I’m invested; it’s easy to get attached to the achievement reward of sending a climb. Diving into the redpoint mindset of trying to achieve a benchmark places that success as the highest goal, rather than learning or giving an honest effort.

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Stefan styles the ankle breaker section of Stonehill’s Supercrack shortly after I fell off of it. Photo: Jed Hohf

It’s important to zoom out, in the case of success or failure, and see what it means in the broader scope of what I want to do outside. And thus:

#2. Climbing should not always be hard; such an attitude ignores the fun that comes with enjoying all of the activity. Skiing, and all its wonderful facets, has taught me that it can be fun to play in the terrain park, or ski 20 degree trees, or ride lifts. Once in a while, it’s good to do the work to access big, steep faces deep in the middle of nowhere. But it’s the sum of those parts that matters—value in skiing doesn’t derive only from the hard, scary things that look impressive in photos. Whether I’m guiding, cruising 5.6, or chasing my strong friends up the hard stuff, my climbing needs to be informed by these lessons from the snow.

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#3. It’s easier for me to climb with good mindfulness when it’s well within my perceived “ability range”. But my old habits often take over when I’m climbing something that’s nearer my limit—I tense up, overgrip, don’t breathe as well as I should, and generally let the pressure get to me. So rebuilding my habits when I can dedicate more mental and physical energy to doing it right, ie on climbs where I’m less near my limit, will yield better practice that should translate to better climbing when it’s hard.

#4. Getting better at any mountain activity and participating in the community of that activity means spending time at every level: learning, hanging out with peers, being mentored. Coming into the spring, I felt like my fall had been spent doing things that rarely pushed me super hard. I was teaching. I was mentoring. I worked on being a supportive, helpful peer in the mountains. And I was doing important work, but it was time for me to chase some mentors up hard rocks.

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Harry heads up on his first trad lead of the season at Stonehill. 

That shift in mindset carried me away into focusing on achievement and comparisons, rather than honest effort and learning. Knowing this now gives me the mental weapons to shift the way I think about it next time I jump into the deep end.

#5. Trends of success are less important than trends of learning and giving a good effort. I find this particularly poignant now: my first climbing trip of the season to Frenchman Coulee saw me send a 10a lead that bucked me off last year. I managed to send 10b a few weeks later at Smith Rock, and felt pretty dang proud of that.

Some 10d bolts leads here at home and Smith had me thinking that 10b trad should be doable—when the send trend was broken, I got frustrated. It felt like I was slipping backwards, or somehow missing the boat. It felt like the effort I invested had been a sham. Instead:

#6. This is the biggest takeaway: in falling off, I didn’t fail. My success streak didn’t end; it just meant that learning shifted from “oh wow I can do this” to “it’s time to analyze and get better.” It’s good that I fell, because it emphasized the particular area I need to improve. See #3.

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Topping out on Zebra/Zion at Smith Rock. 

Addendum:

Grades. I obsess about sandbagged grades and benchmarks, as only a kid who had his apple juice measured to make sure I was getting as much as other kids can. But the bigger thing is that I’m sick of my ego getting involved in my athletic pursuits. I don’t want to compete with anybody but myself. Grades make such competition easy. But what kind of fulfilling joy comes from turning climbing into a constant opportunity to try really hard to keep up with other people? Or to get down on myself when I’m not constantly improving? Repeat answer #6.

Addendum #2:

My last post talked about how I need to blog as a method of thinking through emotions, thoughts, experiences outside of paid writing. This is an exercise in that kind of writing-as-thinking. It feels like navel-gazing, somewhat. However, my bet is that other people may see themselves in this kind of experience. I also want to showcase my own frustration and process; I don’t want to preach the value of struggle while somehow pretending that I’m above it.

Addendum #3: Dear partners, please take more pictures of me falling. They’re highly relevant to posts like this.

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Diversion: this thing is back. Here’s why.

Hello Earthlings with the internet,

It’s been a minute. I’ve spent less time than I would like writing lately, which might be the universal complaint of the non-disciplined writer that isn’t constantly employed at a keyboard. This post is an exploration of why.

My gigantic, whiny list of excuses that nobody wants to read (which is not available, even by request) dissolves into three major problems that bear mentioning: the removed ability to think through outdoor situations by writing about them, and the side effects from monetizing and job-itizing the writing I’ve been doing, and the people who have read my work, appreciated it, and want more.

Blogging was and remains my first outlet. Free from the benefits of an editor or the need to create content for sponsors, I just wanted a container to put my thoughts and adventures into. Those pure iterations developed into style of writing-as-thinking about the trip I was blogging, and thus did I better understand what had happened, what was cool about it, and how I could improve later on. Readers benefited from getting into that perspective as well. In not blogging as much, I’ve lost that retrospective rumination. Reason number one to kick this thing back on: I miss chewing on these experiences post-facto.

The strange aspect of all that processing was that it was valuable. I want to thank the folks that see monetary value in what I write—it’s super cool to be paid for one of the things I love to do. I’ve been given the key to audiences and containers that I would have never cracked on my own, and I continue to enjoy the support of editors who better my writing and push me to hone my craft, to develop my inklings into legible pieces.

But, making money off of something that’s a part of your heart requires care—and I didn’t manage that care very well. My relationship to writing changed: it became paid or rewarded content. It became a necessary part of my job, a line on my to-do list. I still wrote what I cared about, but it got squeezed into something I did when I was getting monetarily rewarded to do it. Other writing still appeared that felt good, but it wasn’t related.

Then my life moved on from a full-time focus on creating things that had marketing value. I’ve happy about that: it’s good to show up for work as a guide or salesperson or freelance writer and then leave the tools, the stress, and the to do list finished at the end of the day, to be picked up later. My thoughts went like this: “writing all the time for my blog or anyone else was a thing I did when I had the time—now, I needed to go to bed to get up to guide.”  Or, alternately: “I just want to go play, and get out of my head.”

Writing should be done because it’s what I want to do. Writers, first and foremost, should have something to say. The best part of this post is that it is procrastination: some writer’s block has slowed me down on a paid piece I care about, and here I am venting with words that flow easily, freely. Sorry Matt; I’ll get it done. Thus, reason two to return to the blog: writing is something I love. Some part of that love needs to be completely separate from work and money. I owe that part of me a chance that’s all its own.

If I were a storyteller in some village a hundred years ago, these kinds of thoughts might have been spooled out by the well, or maybe in a dingy tavern over the soft clinking of tankards at the bar. I’d look people in the eye as I said things, feel their reactions, appreciation, boredom. Instead, convenience makes this available nearly anywhere on a screen. You can read this at your leisure. I’m afforded a spectacularly large audience, many of whom I’m lucky to know, but can’t see their reactions. I write, it goes out, and I hope that it’s worth the time that people spend reading. I sometimes wonder how much time my friends and complete strangers have spent reading this blog. I wonder how many came back to read more. And recently, I’ve heard from a few of those folks saying that they want me to stop sitting on my hands. Thanks for the kick in the ass, you wonderful folks. Reason three: the people who spent their life force reading my ramblings demand yet more. David should not argue with these fine people.

It’s spring. Ski tracks and big, ursine paw prints once again crisscross the blanched dreamscapes of our local hills. Can’t go unprepared into this new season: it’s time for some more skinning with bear spray.

Cheers,

David

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Switcharoo Guest Post: bean roulette and yurts with Ben Horan

Good morning, and welcome back to Skinning with bear spray. Unfortunately, you’ve been bamboozeled by the oldest trick in the book: the bait and switch. I’m The Gentleman at Large, and I’m taking the reigns today. You can see what David has to say for himself over at the Gentleman at Large blog!

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I was sitting across a roughhewn wooden table from a man in a bandanna. We both sat with straight backs and leaned in toward each other slightly. Sweat beaded on my forehead. The room was very loud and dozens of people crowded around us, waving cash and yelling. In the other man’s right hand was an old revolver with the bluing faded near the muzzle. It was pressed against his temple and when the hammer fell on an empty cylinder the metallic click was drowned out by cheering and jeering and a new round of betting. Neither of us allowed our gaze to break from the other man’s eyes. He slid the revolver across the table to me.

Now I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “this sounds a lot more like a scene from The Deer Hunter than something that actually happened to you.” I have to admit that you’re right. And while I’ve never played Russian Roulette in a steamy Vietnamese prison camp, I have tried to finish all of the food that we packed on a yurt trip to avoid packing it out.  And as we passed the pot of reconstituted beans back and forth it began to feel a bit like a gun to the head.

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I’ve had the opportunity to spend a few weeks in yurts in recent seasons, and like to think I’m becoming an old hand at backcountry ski trips. And so to make your next hut trip experience more pleasant, I’d like to offer a few bits of advice.

  • Spring for the gear haul – $200 for a five mile gear haul sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? It is. They’ve got you over a barrel, and who cares? Do it, and then bring whatever you want. Throw your food in there. Throw a keg in there. Probably hang on to your avy beacon. Definitely don’t worry about how you’re going to get all that stuff you packed back to the car – it’s pretty much all just food anyway and you’ll probably finish it.
  • Do not look at a map – You paid for a snowmobile shuttle, so you’re good. You don’t need to know where you’re going, just follow the tracks. Be sure to disregard any fine print that could suggest that the gear haul only goes three quarters of the way to the hut. That’s depressing and you can deal with it when you get there.
  • Bring your own everything – Sharing is bullshit. Everyone should bring their own: tortillas, cheese, granola, beer, bread, peanut butter, mustard, and coffee. Nothing makes me angrier than when someone doesn’t bring their own mustard and then asks to use some of mine.
  • Pack only dried staples – Oats. Flour. Beans. You’re a regular homesteader out in this here frontier-style fake-house. Be sure to pack food like you’re playing Oregon Trail. Canned beans are for quitters. Store-bought bread is a sin. Bring a rifle in case you need to shoot a buffalo.
  • Booze. Lots. – During the Napoleonic Wars, sailors in the British Royal Navy received a daily ration of a gallon of beer, a pint of wine, or a half pint of rum (depending on availability). Who won the Napoleonic Wars? Not Napoleon, that’s who. Take a page out of Lord Nelson’s book and have a nip with breakfast.
  • Keg beer – Nothing steams my Twinkie (and there’s nothing worse than a steamed Tinkie) more than trash. And if you run the numbers on a group of ten, drinking a gallon of beer a day, for three or four days, you start to come up with a lot of empties. You can remedy this by just bringing a keg. Alternatively you can leave the keg in the truck with a large spool of tap hose and run that in behind you on the approach. Don’t forget to find a volunteer to hang out in the parking lot and pump!
  • Earplugs – You never really know someone until you sleep next to them at altitude after they’ve had their daily ration of beer. Now of course I don’t snore, but you sure do and so I always travel with earplugs. They’re also useful on airplanes, in the office, and at your next high school reunion.

I do hope that this has been as helpful for you as it’s been fun for me. Please do check in at The Gentleman at Large for regular Tuesday updates on better living and a healthy lifestyle!

What happened to summer? Part two: scrambling the Middle and South Tetons

In an interview recently, I mentioned that I’ve a hard time being excited about places and individual route ideas until I actually get there. Food is the same way: sure, a cheeseburger might look great on a billboard, but how does that compare to one steaming on a plate in front of you?

Somehow, I’ve been able to ignore the Tetons for quite a while. Their tops stick over the foothills and can be seen on the drive to SLC, so I’ve had a little bit of that in-your-face mountain lust as I passed south before. However, seeing them from Driggs, as I did while doing a few days of hanging with my dad at the beginning of August, ramped it up. He either got tired, got tired of me, or saw that I was keen to go for a big mountain day after an aborted day of rain backpacking and a hike above Teton Pass the next. Thus did I find myself making the commute from the affordable side to the mountainy side with everyone else the next morning. If I big day was what I needed, the 4th class southern couloir on the Middle Teton would fit the bill.

6:30am saw me leaving the trailhead, though that wasn’t quite headlamp material. Cold had me wearing a long sleeve for the first time for the summer: it’s nice to be reminded mid-summer that my winter fantasies aren’t some conjuring with zero basis in fact. Some guys I met in the switchbacks beneath Garnet Canyon told me that a there was a bear cub below the trail. If there’s anything scarier than an adult bear, it’s a cub with a sow out of sight. Went a little faster there for a while, and had a scare when a blast of sound came roaring up the foothills, only to realize that it was a jet taking off at the Jackson airport. Everyone I passed was on the same program: headed to the Middle.

New terrain and ranges entail a bit of choosing: do I dive in on something that appears gnarly, or take the time to get my feet wet? What guidebook has the info I need to make good choices? How sandbagged am I going to feel once I actually get out there? Some friends had done the Grand in nothing but running shoes; I wondered if that would be where I’d find myself comfort wise.

I picked up Aaron Gam’s Teton Rock Climbs: A Guide to the Classic and Not-So-Classic Routes at Yostmark Mountaineering in Driggs. It’s not the bible, but covers a lot of the classic options with a number of 5.11-5.12 multi pitch trad lines I’ll only dream about in this life. It seemed a bit better put together and more recent than some of the others. I’ll be happy to have it when I go back, but more about that later.

The Meadows campground in the fork of Garnet Canyon is beautiful for all the right reasons: mountain valley, epic climbs right out the door, good water, and camping under boulders. I took only a liter of aqua to start the day, then zapped a bunch of glacially cold water as campers crawled out of their tents. It was a nice break spot. After, the trail in to the south fork of the canyon rapidly gets into shed-sized boulder fields, which make for a fun mix of hiking, rock climbing, and route finding as you make your way up valley.

Route wise, it’s easy: go until you hit the ridge. There’s a faint trail on the climber’s right that I lost several times. Once at the top of the ridge, turn right, work up the snow/rock edge, and then take the central gully up the face. Lots of loose rock in this area, so a helmet is a really good idea.

Somewhere above the snow, I met up with a couple guys who had joined forces at the AAC climber’s ranch. We angled up and left, then ran the ridge top to the summit. We were the first group up top, with tons of folks behind us. The view down to the Lower Saddle below the SE face of the Grand Teton was excellent. Climbers were making their way up to the Upper Saddle for their days on the Grand, and I wondered what it’d be like up there. Overall, it’d had been solid 4th class climbing with some optionally harder moves that I made to have more fun. The rock felt nice, I was comfy here on a mellow scramble day. Choosing to do a mellow day rather than try to dive in on something faster was the right call. I felt good, with the altitude slowing me down a little bit. With the AAC guys, I took some photos, enjoyed myself in a windbreak beneath the summit slab, and I barely felt the elevation. My confidence was up.


As was my energy. I’d wondered about a route up the South Teton too, and the hordes arriving on the summit and soon to drop into that rock infested gully, I worried about being a human bowling pin. Saying a quick goodbye, I bailed down the ridge quite a ways before dropping in, which took me out of the line of fire except for about some sixty feet or so. “Rock!” sounded halfheartedly about every thirty seconds from the main gut, and making my quick escape seem that much smarter. I glissaded the bottom snow and stopped for a quick break at the saddle.

Looking south at the South Teton. Route I took follows the ridge from climber’s right to left.

Much like the Middle, the South Teton has a scramble-able route leading up from the saddle at the top of the canyon. Lots of loose talus makes the bottom of the route, but near the ridgeline a sort of trail forms. It goes through some spikes of rock, up a couloir with plenty of loose options to roll, and then onto the summit ridge. The views aren’t much different from the Middle, though the clean lines of the Grand are less clear. Far fewer people graced the top, and and I sat atop the highest boulder eating more of my lunch.

Looking South from the summit.

Back towards the Middle and Grand.

The more I looked down the face in front of me, I realized there was a steep snow descent that would have worked had I brought crampons. Such thinking was indicative of how much confidence I’d already gained—these mountains didn’t feel alien. Good rock. Familiar route finding. The same feeling of strain at altitude higher than normal. Learning that I should come more prepared seasoned the flavor of the day as I started my way back down.

Some remaining snow patches added a little glissading to all the boulder hopping on the descent to the Meadow. If ever there was an alpine day to bring poles—this is it. I fueled up a bit of water and kept plugging away down the trail, glancing back at the options that had now appeared: the Grand up the north fork of Garnet. The Dike Route vaulting directly up the middle of the Middle. The potential of the place still has me jazzed to head back and spend more time.

What had felt like a bit of switchback fun that morning quickly degenerated into thoughts of “man, you could ride a bike down this be back at the car so quick.” Enjoying the moment can be hard when I’m hungry and ready to be done, but as they usually do, the miles passed. I hit the car to drive back over the pass towards pizza with my dad, thinking of the views where I had been. Maybe, just maybe, I could fit the Grand in before heading south.

Soon: heavy traffic on the Grand.

What happened to summer? Part 1: Heavy Shield (Mt. Wilbur) with Dave and Gary

Confession: at long last, I’ve become one of those harried, terrible individuals who is responding late to all sorts of messages, blogging late, and wondering where all the time went. Current projects seem to keep running over the time I used to have to process and write. I once wondered what on earth such busy people were doing with their time, that they couldn’t find a half second to respond to my quibbling questions or issues. However, I now get it. To all the people I didn’t understand before: I’m sorry. To everyone who was waiting for this, thanks for your patience. I’ve been living in the moment a lot, and it’s high time to catch up.

Thanks for bearing with me as I keep trying to find balance. The next few posts will be about a few summer escapades so as to not totally lose my mind on the cronology.

Though I can’t successfully shop for groceries without one, hit lists of a mountainy sort don’t appeal to me from a number of perspectives. Making one is a sort of commitment: if I spend the time to organize my desires and sort out which are worthy and which are just passing fancy, I feel even more invested in them. Friends can tell you that I’m not a bucket list kind of guy.

So when talking to friends about summer ideas, I brought a couple things up, but didn’t write anything down. When very few of those passing comments happened, I wasn’t bummed because I hadn’t gotten all invested with a physical list. Instead, many of my summer trips were to familiar places with friends who hadn’t been there before. Case in point: doing the Thin Man’s Pleasure route up Mt. Wilber Heavy Shield with Dave Boye and Gary back in July.

Some nomenclature first. I’ve ranted before about the appalling tendency to substitute boring white guy names instead of the original, native designation. Heavy Sheild by name, the peak that you can find on maps and visitor brochures and guided vista informational handouts of the Many Glacier area is often called Mt. Wilbur. I’m not sure I know who Wilbur was. I don’t care. And this is why: the SE face of Heavy Shield looks like an enormous quarter pipe with grassy foothills. It directly squares the vista from the Many Glacier hotel front deck (perhaps the best place in the entire world to drink a beer post-climb), rearing skyward with that imposing quality of sheer ramparts and fortressness. It looks menacing—like something that inspired Tolkien’s visions of Mordor. Some impossible loaded pillars complete the eastern summit ridge, while a conical scree and talus cap completes the tippity top. It was a sincere and grave error in understanding to rename something that is so very clearly a Heavy Shield after a white dude of comparatively paltry significance. Henceforth, you’ll see it referred to properly in this blog.

For all the reasons I just listed, Heavy Shield is an imposing climb to view head on. It shows up on lists of technical peaks in Glacier, requiring rope work for most people (at least a pitch on the the up and a 35m rappel on the down over exposure). Beyond the lore, it’s just so central to the view. Every since I’d been to Many, I thought: “I want to go up there.” Longing to go up there is part of any decent Glacier mountaineer’s experience.

Dave and Gary got ahold of me, we booked a weekend in July, and I went skiing the day before on my way over. Gary’s connections through work had us a place to stay in near the Many Glacier campground. Since I was the guy with the most technical experience, we all got gear out and practiced rappelling with third hands anchored to a post in the glow of the front porch light. This proved handy the next morning.

Which, at 5:30, came pretty dang quickly. The walk in to Red Rock Lake went smoothly. No bears. Dave filled Gary and I in about his trip to Disneyland and American Girl dolls, which was a nice continuation of why I go out with these two: besides being great company, they’re old. Two generations ahead of me. They know how to function well in relationships, have gobs of good life experience, and know much about things that I don’t. Far easier to shortcut via their pitfalls rather than suffer the same defeats.

They’re also fast. If Dave Boye didn’t have his hands full being a father and running a mortgage company, he’d be the quickest guy in the Flathead Valley. None of us would keep up with him, except maybe the Spirit Bear, and he doesn’t count. So thanks to his desk time, Gary and I were right behind him. Until the brush started.

For those paying attention, the best way to approach the beargrass slopes at the bottom of Heavy Shield is as follows: go past Red Rock Falls, until you hit a straight stretch of trail that seems past where you should be to enter the valley with the stream draining the whole SE face. There will be some nicely angled rock along this straight stretch of trail, go the the end of it where it turns back to the west, then leave the trail and angle up and right through the mellow grass and occasional trees.

As the-guy-who-had-been-there-before, it was my job to know where to go. Nervousness saw me leave the trail too early on a promising game track that quickly evaporated into thickets. Dave has at least a Level 3 Bushwhacking cert. He could be heard ahead enjoying himself as Gary and I struggled along in his shubbery-y wake. I thought I spied a better route, and ended up airborne at least once before descending into the creek ravine and up the other side to join Dave and Gary in the beargrass.

From there, it’s a lot of upslope walking to get to into the real climbing. Edwards’ stair step approach goes up the left hand side of the mountain, following the ridge through easy scree/talus and a couple cliff bands until one runs into the upper castle.


My first time on Heavy Shield came three years ago with a crew from the Park Cafe. Vinny lead the way, and I remember thinking that it would have been impossible to locate where to go had he not been in the lead.

This time, it was my turn to be that leader, and I worried that the same blankness I’d seen before would send me searching for the right way to go. As we put on harnesses and helmets, then started up the scree chute and diorite, I relaxed into the climbing and it became clear: the route was right there.

Up left, plugging in hands and good crimps through some of the only igneous rock in the park within the diorite band. Then detour right on the ledge, around the bulge that signaled the belay platform. There was the cannon hole we’d climb through, the feature for which they call it Thin Man’s Pleasure. A few years more experience, more time spent doing steep stuff, and it felt fine to tie the rope to my harness and start soloing up as Vinny had done before. I rigged a belay off the two angles hammered into a crack, and Dave and Gary came up to join the party on the chockstone. Plan on bringing your own webbing, because both times I’ve been up there, the previous party has left an American death triangle for an anchor.

From there, it’s steep scrambling and traversing with one notable move at the place where Thin Man’s joins the central couloir routes.

A traverse on thin, loose holds comes to a corner, where most people jump six or so feet into a fan of screen next to the rappel anchor. Exposure yawns down underneath the jump, and it’s committing. “I don’t go airborne much anymore,” was Dave’s comment as I described it early in the day, but sure enough, he sent the jump with poise.

Past the scree jump, the route follows a ledge into a notch in the summit ridge. It’s not the low one that you see from the parking lot and hotel, but the view down to Iceberg Lake  is stunning. If you own a copy of Edwards’ A Climber’s Guide To Glacier National Park you’ll quickly recognize that the cover photo was taken here.


As the guys made the last moves and we settled into the mountain top lunch routine, I thought about how cool it was to be out there with them. The day had a vicarious thrill that I know well from coaching skiing: when someone puts the pieces together and I’ve contributed encouragement or advice, their excitement is contagious. I feel a jolt of satisfaction that’s part and parcel of the same experience; what can be a singular achievement is shared.

The elation Dave and Gary gave off at making the top was its own thrill even though it had been a casual day for me, through a place I’d been before. There’s so much to be said for sharing outdoor experiences and opening doors for friends. The older I get, the more important that becomes for me.

Dave ate a Jersey Boys sandwich he’d hauled up there. I napped a little behind the small windbreak of stacked rocks near the summit cairn. Then we packed up and started down the screen cone.

The corner we jumped on the way up is easier moves on the down, so that was narrow, but everyone handled it fine.

At the cannon hole, I rigged saddle bags of the rope to make the rap cleaner–yet another good idea I learned from Vinny the first time I’d been up. With a 70m, you can rappel climber’s left all the way to the scree ledge, skipping the platform we used on the way up. A couple overhangs allow protection from the rocks that get kicked down as others descend. Dave and Gary had some difficulty with their third hands; perhaps extending the rappel devices on a sling might have helped. I put them on a fireman’s belay and they made the rappel without a personal backup, so that’s something to improve on in practice. Both hadn’t rappelled in Glacier before, so there was some excitement as we all hit the ledge and headed on down.

We stopped for water on the way down, then found the route I described earlier following Dave’s Level 3 worthy lead. Cruising out on the trail was just hot. It was July, after all. There’s a satisfaction to walking back out after a rad climb. I’m always happy to be out of the gnarly, dangerous parts of the mountains, no matter how much I seek them out and enjoy the step up in heartbeat the accompanies those spots. I might trip and fall on a flat trail—but the consequences there aren’t there, so I can relax my mental concentration.

Dave and Gary wanted to bail back to Kalispell, so the beer on the porch of the hotel didn’t happen. But if it had, I’d have sat there and stared back at Heavy Shield, its impressive upper wildness, and marinated in having safely been part of the skyline, a satisfaction that only pilots and mountaineers can understand.

Thanks to Dave and Gary for their idea, their excellent companionship, and their photos. Always a pleasure, gents.

The view from Jack’s ledge: my personal account

When looking dead on, the east facing layers of the wall gave little away. Water ran down from hanging snowfields in the evening heat, wetting out many of the lower gullies that would have been funnels for rockfall even without streams cascading down. Pitching it out through weaknesses we couldn’t see on the bare rock would keep us on the wall for days. Sometimes, turning my head to the side helps to cheat the lack of direct perspective into finding a viable route—maybe that ledge connects. Maybe I just can’t see how.

Perhaps not strangely, trying to write the experience of watching Jack, my climbing partner, fall some weeks ago feels so similar to the process we took in scouting the route: looking at an unclimbed, unknown face to decipher a safe way up. Seeing the broad picture, while knowing that the details too fine-grained to be visible at that distance could well snag the whole attempt. Or prove the small holds that hold up a path through difficult, vertical ground.

A couple of reporters I respect did a fine job of telling the story. Why add to that? Why go on? Because writing, for me, is processing. I don’t sit down with the full compliment of ideas that remain after I’ve stopped typing. Time accrued between all the movements of key strokes, pathways crossing and ideas smashing together in the effort to paste them from the football fields of loose papers in my head to somewhere some other human can read them—what results is always more than where I start. So I’m unapologetic in that this is a personal account.

Internet content is so perfect so often–blue skies, huge stoke, big success. I’m a human being, and want to be viewed as such in my pursuits. This post is another contribution towards keeping balance in who I am as mediated by my blog.

A lot of people have asked how I’m doing. This piece is also for them, because my goal here is to process and evoke more of what was going through my head as things went down, the sorts of things that don’t fit into newspaper stories or pithy quotes. Things perfect for rambling along, like I usually do, on this blog.

Of late, I’ve tried to broaden my range of mountain mentors. Climb and ski with people who have seen gnarly things happen. Who have experience. Who can teach me the safer ways to do the things that I want to master. Jack is absolutely that guy—he’s done a lot in different conditions, and put in his time. Hell, he just turned sixty. So when he fell, I was pretty sure he’d get his axe in quickly.

He slid out of my vision, obscured by the rock bend in the couloir. I yelled his name a couple times, then heard rockfall beneath me, then silence.

Maybe he couldn’t hear me. I yelled again, and started traversing back out into the snow, where I could eventually see the bottom of the snow couloir. Some 500ft beneath me, the snow ended on a scree bench, with a big rock on the right side. Jack wasn’t on the snow, wasn’t on the bench. I yelled again.

The dull idea that he might be dead arrived. If he hadn’t stopped, he had probably gone to the bottom of the basin. My mind went straight to Touching the Void, a classic of mountaineering literature, in which a climber cuts the rope to his partner then assumes his death, only to later find that his partner survived. Recovery or rescue, I had to climb down and take a look. There’d be no peace if I didn’t do that. Maybe he’d survived.

Melt in the snow had shaped the surface of the couloir into a V-shape with a runnel in the crotch. That runnel had the hardest snow and made the best climbing on the way up. Gravity pulled Jack straight down it, and his ride had erased the steps we’d kicked. I’d plant my axe, kick both feet down, plant, and keep moving. It took forever. Imaginary phone conversations with Jack’s wife Leslie, who I’d never met, played in my head. What would I say? Kicking both feet in, I thought about the long, solo walk out if I found nothing below me. I thought about walking up the steps of the Belly River ranger station, about how I’d report a fatality. The words I might use.

We’d been more confident about the couloir than any other part of our route. Once there, we were home free. We’d have been atop the ridge in another 300ft. Perhaps we’d gotten too excited. Maybe lost focus, or didn’t properly respect the steep snow, an element I spend so much time on as to be dangerously comfortable. Plant the axe.

Whether alive or dead, I reminded myself that my own safety was key. Nothing heroic or risky—I was getting myself out of here. Make each move count. Kick the steps. Plant the axe. Go take a look, and then make a plan.

My crampons finally crunched into the scree at the bottom of the couloir. A pile of slush had come down the runnel with Jack and fanned out on the ledge. I still couldn’t see below me, so I traversed climber’s right for an angle. Something in me braced for seeing his body on a ledge. For not seeing anything at all, and having to walk out bearing a news so much heavier than my pack.

His green shirt caught my eye first. He sat on a ledge perhaps 200ft below the snow, head in his hands. Nearly empty, his pack lay behind him. It must have broken open during the fall. His helmet was gone. Somehow, he’d fallen down 500ft of snow and then through the ledges of a waterfall to stop here, not just alive, but sitting up. A rope and some of his gear glistened where the water ran around them a hundred feet above.

Alive. There’s so much vitality in just the word. It had been roughly an hour since Jack had fallen, and all the whirring in my mind had its answer. Alive I could work with. Injured, we could handle that. Instantly, everything changed. This was no recovery, no long walk out with terrible news, no situation beyond my ability to change—this was a rescue. Climbers understand focus on a goal, and I now had one: see how he was, and then make a plan. Keep moving forward.

The noise of the creek running next to him kept him from hearing any of the yells I made as I got close. There was blood on his arms, pants, and as I reached him, the first thing he asked caught me off guard: “Where am I?” Head trauma was my first thought. I cleared up where he was, that he’d fallen, and handed him the water bottle. He knew who I was, and seemed pretty on top of things given how far he’d fallen, but asked several times how far he’d fallen from the snow.

The ledge was decently flat, but the loose scree and rocks had me worried that he was still in danger of falling, so anchoring him in seemed important. We’d split part of the rack before starting our ascent up the couloir, so I arranged a quick anchor and clipped it to Jack’s harness.

His right arm was obviously broken, he had rib pain, and complained of a little pain in his back and neck. A big gash just above his left elbow was still bleeding a little, so we taped that shut. I got him to lay down on his pack, and tried to keep him from moving, as the neck and spine worried me, but he still had sensation in his limbs. His crampons were tethered around his ankles, but had been blown off his boots somewhere in the fall. I took them off.

Several times, Jack told me he was sorry. I told him there was nothing to be sorry for, because he hadn’t died on me.

We had no cell phone, and it’s dubious as to whether coverage would have reached the ledge anyway. No satellite beacon. No radio. I thought about our options, then heard a telltale thwacking. Glacier National Park is cursed by helicopter tours that buzz overhead at least once an hour on the busy days. I could perhaps signal to them, and get word out that way. Jack’s tent is a yellow Bibler, so I hung it on the snowfield next to us and tried to write HELP on it with mud. You can imagine how well mud and water sticks to a single wall, four season, waterproof tent. Instead, I gave Jack the job of listening for helicopters. Every time one came by, I’d jump up and wave like the lunatic I hoped I’d look like with an orange shirt in one hand and orange stuff sack in the other.

D: “We’re going to get you out of here.”
J: “I don’t know how.”

He was shocky, but I was blown away how stable he seemed. There was no way to know if he had internal damage. It seemed important to find a better spot to him to rest, given that I had no idea how long we’d be there. Moving him wasn’t a good idea, as the neck and spine pain made all too clear, but he was in the middle of a rock funnel. I looked all over in a fifty foot radius, and realized that he was in about the flattest, widest spot. Pushing mud and rocks downhill, I dug out a platform for him, lined it with my pad, then inflated his on top of mine. It wasn’t far, maybe four feet, but the anchor wouldn’t work with the new spot. I slung a rock then deadman’d it in the snow above him, doubling my cordalette to make the new connection. Jack managed to butt scoot himself up onto the pads, and he was finally a bit more comfy.

I’d arrived at Jack at approximately 12:30. It seemed important to stay long enough to get him stable and see how he was doing. But with each passing helicopter, there came a realization that we were still a long way from help. My attempts to flag them down did nothing, which isn’t their fault—why would they be looking for injured climbers during a scenic tour, especially in a place like where we were? I began to reorganize gear out of my bag, taking only the bare essentials I’d need for a quick trip out. Near the top of Jack’s pack, I left my sleeping bag, food, his bivy sack, two liters of water, and some layers. He also had the stove and pot to heat up dinner if things got cold.

Leaving meant a series of gambles. That he’d remain stable. That I could get help to him efficiently. That he could put on the sleeping bag when it got cold, or open the pack with so little strength in his right arm. But as 2pm rolled around, I felt the daylight shrinking. To get out, raise the alarm, then actually have help get there that day, I had eight hours and change. I’d have a mission, a purpose in what I was doing. He’d be left alone, to deal with the pain and taking care of himself. I don’t envy that position, and I think it’s the way harder spot.

Just after 2pm, I held Jack’s hand for a minute, told him that I’d get help coming, and set off. On my decisions hung not only my own safety, but the ability to get the word out. In my mind, failure wasn’t an option. I had to succeed. Maybe this seems strange, but after so much high consequence skiing this spring, tons of time in no fall zones—such a mindset is a familiar place for me. Not comfortable per se; I’m too wary of the danger for that, but I can operate there without wigging out. Let me be clear: I’m no hero. I didn’t do anything extraordinary or way outside my comfort zone to help rescue Jack. If there’s anything that sets my actions apart from what someone else might have done, I’d cite that ability to operate in vertical terrain with a cool head, an attribute of any good mountain partner.

At the bottom of the snow, I found Jack’s axe in the slush pile. That gave me two, and with the steps I’d kicked, it was quick work getting up the snow to the ridge. Jack had given me some directions about the descent on the other side. As Jack’s daughter Lucy later pointed out, it might have been a little foolish to ask a guy who had just hit his head about how to descend to Lake Margaret. Instead, his directions were spot on, and I ran down scree and glissaded until the double-overhead vegetation swallowed me on the shores of the lake. Since there’s no trail around, I walked straight in, boots and all, and waded the shore to make better time.

It didn’t feel like a rescue. More like I was moving through the mountains at speed, with high stakes, and trying to move quick. Not much more than that.

My plan was to start looking in the campgrounds for a party with a satellite phone. If that didn’t seem to work, I’d hang my pack and trail run to the ranger station in the Belly, some seven or eight miles away. Running shoes had seemed like an excess, but now they were security. I took the time to walk back the wrong way to check Mokowanis Junction, and found Maddie and Jeanne as the sole occupants—they immediately offered their satellite communicator, and Maddie graciously spent the next hours typing out messages, finding signal, and hanging out with a smelly guy whose mind was elsewhere.

I’m guilty of disliking Spot beacons, satellite phones, and anything else that provides a link to the outside world in places where it shouldn’t intrude. I’m guilty of thinking that they create a false reliance on technology—and there is some truth to that. I’m guilty of enjoying the distance felt when you absolutely can’t mess up.  But when someone is injured or dying in front of you, those reasons seem stupid. We’re lucky to have incredible rescue folks, and live in a modern age in an advanced country. Deciding to not take advantage of that for the reasons I listed looks cruelly on anyone who cares about me or the people I’m out there with. Outdoor pursuits are often selfish, but that cruelty is beyond my own comfort. I’ve since gotten a Spot locator, and plan to get it running.

Eventually, it got past 7pm. The satellite text messages we were sending back and forth with the emergency dispatch and, by proxy, Glacier rangers weren’t going through. I worried that the rescue wouldn’t happen that night, which would leave Jack exposed. What if something had taken a turn for the worse? What if he hadn’t been as stable as I thought? With Maddy and Jeanne, I weighed the benefits of staying vs heading out to the Belly River ranger station. If I was leaving, I wanted at least two hours before it got dark. Wandering solo in the Belly after dark is a poor idea. Just as I was waffling, a new text came through instructing me to hike that way and meet a ranger hiking out to meet me. In minutes, my pack was on and I was out of there after some lame attempt to express my gratitude to the two wonderful people who had helped us so much.

Hiking at a fast pace felt good. I hurtled along, pushed by the knowledge that the window of daylight was closing. Somewhere by Cosley Lake, I met the ranger. Immediately, we sat down and fixed Jack’s location over the radio. This same ranger had seen us on our way in, and also ran into Jack last year when he and Al climbed the Cusp. He had been out hiking all day, summited two peaks with some mutual friends staying with him, and then bounced out to meet me after hearing about what was happening on the radio. I credit him with incredible care, professionalism, and hospitality, as we eventually walked back out to the ranger station, where I spent the night. I remember thinking on the way in that it’d be cool to spend a night there someday—be careful what you wish for, I guess.

As we hiked out, the radio periodically gave us some info—a park contract helicopter had spotted Jack, and he was waving back. Two Bear Air, a local search helicopter capable of doing a high angle rescue with their hoist, was dispatched and en route. Then things calmed down and we didn’t hear anything until the ranger called in to ask. It turned out that Jack was by then en route to Browning in an ambulance, which was the final bit of relief. We couldn’t hear the helicopters, as they were on the other side of Mt. Merritt. I felt a long way away from Jack, from the events unfolding. That didn’t stop me from sleeping like a rock though, so it must have not bothered me much.

In the morning, I walked out with my friends who had been staying with the ranger. Their company made quick work of the six miles out from the ranger station, and I really appreciate them for it. I got out, started texting family to let them know that I was safe and what had happened, then tried to get in touch with Jack’s family by reaching out on facebook. Turns out that they’d been trying to get my phone number, but nobody they’d asked had it. Meanwhile, I drove to Browning in case that Jack was still there. It was hot in the car, I was sweaty, and super hungry as I’d basically skipped two meals after hiking and climbing a full circumnavigation of Mt. Merritt. Before I went on my way, I relayed the story to Jack’s daughters and wife by phone. Jack was in Great Falls, and I offered to come down there, but was graciously asked not to to allow Jack to rest. Made sense to me, so I pointed the ship for home. Thanks to Ben for meeting up with me at the Two Med Grill for food—I really appreciated his company.

In the wake of all that happened, it hasn’t seemed to affect my mountaining—two days later, Matt Brake and I did a big climb with a significant bit of snow travel on top. It was attention worthy, but I felt at home. Two weeks out, I made a committing solo traverse over a route new to me through Floral Park. Boldness and risk still matter to me; perhaps I’m more acutely aware of the consequences.

Mountains sustain and provide so much for me and those who I adventure with while holding the potential to injure or kill us. It’s a relationship of love and real danger. The work of a mountaineer’s life is to walk the fine ridge lines carefully, trying to anticipate getting smacked down amidst the joy. There may be no articulate answer or solution to the opposing ways that a mountain can make your life wonderful and simultaneously threaten to take it away, but I’ll keep looking, rambling here, and trying to learn and experience what I can.

Jack is recovering well at home. He’s walking, in just a neck brace and cast, and spunky as ever.

Glacier National Park climbing accident report, June 27, 2015

This is a media statement I wrote up and cleared with Jack and his family. It was an honor to be out climbing with him, and I look forward to getting out there again once he’s back at it (and we sort out our tahini game).

Climber injured and rescued from below the Lithoid Cusp in Glacier National Park
A statement by the climbers:

On Saturday, June 27th, mountaineers Jack Beard and David Steele, both of Kalispell, attempted to pioneer a new route up the glacial wall beneath the Lithoid Cusp in Glacier National Park. While no ropes were needed, the route traversed narrow ledges and featured much steep scrambling on loose ground over exposure. The final eight hundred feet of their planned ascent gained the ridge top by way of a steep snow chute.

Halfway up the snow chute, at approximately 11:30am, Beard lost his footing in the loose snow. He was unable to arrest, slid down the snow, and over the rocks and waterfall beneath. Steele, who was in the lead, could not see where Beard had stopped. He down-climbed the snow, then traversed a rock ledge, and spotted Beard on a small outcropping some two hundred feet below. Both men were using crampons and ice axes in the snow.

Steele descended to Beard, who had sustained fractures in his ribs, spine, and right forearm, as well as a concussion. After building a platform, anchoring Beard, flagging the area with a yellow tent draped on a snowbank, and arranging provisions so that Beard could spend the night, Steele then attempted to flag down passing flight-seeing helicopters. At 2pm, he departed to get help, climbing back up to the couloir, up the snow, and then descending the other side to Margaret Lake.

From Margaret Lake, Steele descended to Mokowanis Lake and began to ask backcountry campers if they had a satellite phone or any means of reporting the emergency. At Mokowanis Junction, Maddie Martin, a thru-hiker on the Pacific Northwest trail, offered hers. Martin sent the first SOS message dictated by Steele around 5:45pm.

Alone on the ledge, Beard endured his injuries and rockfall that popped the inflatable pad he lay on. He moved into a sleeping bag and layers as evening approached.

Assisted by Martin, Steele sent and received several messages from Glacier Park dispatch. Eventually, rangers instructed Steele to head east toward the Belly River Ranger Station to meet a ranger headed the opposite direction to meet him. They connected around 8:15pm and used radio contact to fix Beard’s location for searchers.

Once spotted by the park contract helicopter, Two Bear Air was requested due to the steep terrain and lack of landing area. Two Bear staff were lowered, arranged Beard, and transported him to Many Glacier. Beard then went to Browning by ambulance, and was transferred to Great Falls due to the extent of his injuries.

Beard and Steele are immensely grateful for all the efforts put forth in this rescue. They’d like to thank especially Maddie and Jeanne Martin, Bruce Gillis, the Glacier National Park dispatch and incident teams, as well as the crews of the helicopters. The speed and ease of the rescue was made possible by the incredible crew at Two Bear Air, and both climbers tip their helmets to those fine folks. 
Beard and Steele are confident that if they’d carried a large quantity of tahini in their supplies, nothing could have possibly gone wrong.

Solstice Solstice 2015: still ski time

I don’t know about you, but the calendar saying summer doesn’t really feel like much of a command.

Over the solstice, I managed a couple ski days on Logan Pass, one with Taylor Streit, who stars in the opening interview. The last line is one that I’ve stared at for a long, long time. It’s nice to have gone up there and skied it, but I don’t need to hit it again–at least not in these conditions.

Diversion: away//home

Away:

Stark and violently black against the frame of blue sky and background snowfields, the summit lazes impervious above a face filigreed with couloirs. Twisting and plummeting, they connect or careen towards the valley with an abandon bent by gravitational theories, white alleys cutting through cliffs and blank stone. The map in my pack can’t name the peak, can’t make it a reference–who cares what someone named it, though. To the untrained, unread eye, the name of every mountain is possibility. Maybe, with the right weather, the right crew, that could go. Up early, hug the right flank. Drop in once the sun hits it and blast wide turns back to camp. Might work. Nothing known to dull down the flavor. No limits yet imposed. Away, it’s easy to dream, and dream hard.

Home:

At home, though, the labeled names take on their own reverence. Folds cross the map as contours in evidence of the the terra so well cognita. I’ve dreamed this before. I see it again. Maybe this year. We keep talking, but no way. Not enough snow. Not filled in. Wrong crew. Shed cycle setting up again. Stood on top a few times–could we take skis? How many raps? Turns out someone climbed it in ’73. Had to dig to find that on Supertopo. More knife blades. Familiar in how it falls apart. Typical in the long approach. Standing on top means standing in awe, just from a slightly different angle.