Readers Blog

Cruisin' with Susan

Posted on: April 30, 2008


We'd both wanted to do it. We lay there on the ground, shivering in the night air as much from fear as the cold.

"I wish I had more body fat," moaned Susan, "I wish I had more body fat".

Susan — my friend and climbing partner — a wealthy, blond haired, blue eyed, 50 year old mother of 3 with the face of a 30 year old and the body of a gal a decade younger, didn't normally profess a desire for zaftig proportions, but tonight was different. The sky had turned from a deep periwinkle to blackness so vast and impenetrable that angels quaked with trepidation. Clouds were forming, gray and wispy, like the hair in an old man’s ear.


The sun rose behind us rendering the eastern horizon a backdrop of vermilion and canary as we reached the base of our quarry: Moby Grape — a thousand foot alpine classic on perfect East Coast granite. I led the first pitch, a 180 foot splitter the width of a grapefruit. My thin, delicate climbing shoes — perfect for smearing on Gunks Conglomerate — were ill-suited to jamming granite cracks. To minimize my agony I moved quickly, placing sparse protection. Anchoring at the top of the pitch, I brought Susan up.

We swapped gear and, being the stronger climber, she led the next and remaining 7 pitches. Through the Triangle Roof, the Finger of Fate (a massive detached shark’s fin hanging precariously from the cliff), several pitches of face and chimney climbing and onto the summit. Topping out, we sat at the cliff edge, silent, staring into the gloaming; relaxed; torpid.

As Apollo's chariot clocked out for the day, the wind screamed over the ridge-line. Wearing nothing more than light weight Capaline, we shivered from the cold as we changed our shoes and coiled the ropes. It was a moonless night and even with our headlamps it was as dark and black as a lawyer’s soul. "Walk North along the cliff edge to an old helicopter pad," I shouted over the wind, reading the instructions for the descent, "then turn east, past some impenetrable brush and gain the descent trail.”

We picked our way along the top of the cliff, being careful not to walk off the edge. Often during times of stress, the mind wanders, mine to a trip many years ago to Europe. I was lucky enough to spend a few weeks one summer hiking through the Swiss Alps with an irascible Scotsman named Jimmy. At every nook, cranny and overhang Jimmy would growl: "Aye, thars a good bivy".

Following the directions, Susan and I passed each of the landmarks and continued toward what we thought was the descent trail, passing a deep gouge along the way. Dead ending at the cliffs edge we shined our headlamps into the void, revealing — a void. The wind was a hard slap in the face. We were dressed for mid-August, but with conditions more like mid-October we were quickly becoming hypothermic.

"We have to get some shelter or we're completely stuffed," I shouted. Like Obi Wan of the Highlands, Jimmy's voice echoed in my head: "Thars a good bivy," he whispered.

"We're staying here; we bivy" I shouted over the wind, pointing to the grave-like trench we'd passed earlier.

We carefully stacked the ropes to provide insulation from the cold ground, crawled inside large, plastic mattress bags I carry for situations such as this (Aye, thars a good Boy Scout) and bedded down for the night. Despite her affluence (including four homes and a shoe closet so vast the boxes require their own mug shots), Susan’s tripe was as solid as the granite upon which we laid. She calmly phoned Damian, her butler, and instructed him to inform Vincent, her chef, not to expect us for dinner.

We both slept fitfully. The combination of cold night air and our warm bodies caused condensation to form on the inside of the bags, rendering us as cold and dank as a witches kiss The wind howled above us but we were as safe and snug as could be under the circumstances.

I was deep in the velvet womb of slumber when I was awakened by a cold fluid dripping on my face. I opened my eyes and water was pouring off the side of the trench and onto my head.

"Susan," I said, voice shaking, "it's raining"

"Oh God," she replied, "We are so..."

Laying there cold, wet and shivering, I thought of my beautiful wife and daughter back in New York and how warm and comfortable they were. How my final hours could be spent suffering or consumed by the pleasures of a woman who had spent her single years in New York City in the 1970's and, more likely than not, knew how to work the gear, even cold, wet and inside a plastic bag. Such thoughts, both pure and profane, keep a man sane in survival situations.

By sunrise the rain had transitioned from downpour to drizzle. We got up, packed up and back tracked along the trail. As we approached our last waypoint it became clear where we had gone wrong. Major rockfall a few weeks prior had obliterated both New Hampshire’s “Old Man” feature on Cannon Cliff as well as the top of the descent trail. Had we continued, one of us would have taken the express route to the talus below.


We stopped at a nearby diner on the drive back from the cliff. Despite the questionable quality of the fare, we ate like Vikings.

“Not exactly what you’re used too,” I said, pointing to the eggs with the consistency of brain matter and the slab of carbonized bread nearby. “And last night wouldn’t be mistaken for the Bellagio.”

“Yeah,” she replied, smiling, “but I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”

Something for the Ski Mountaineers

Posted on: April 28, 2008

Clinging to that icy face

Toes and fingers, claws

Every cell in my body screaming

I know I have been here before

No dream, there is no escape

Instinct darkens my mind, must keep going

Watch that step

What awaits over that edge?

Over the top, legs shaking

In to the chute, no hesitation

Trembling energy keeps me turning

Like lightning through my body

Heart thundering, eyes clear

It's over now, but the calm roars

What's that?

I know I have been here before


Posted on: April 28, 2008

This is messed up

Another morning

Another hangover

Another solo journey to second peak

More risks taken on the faces



I feel sad now

But content

How long will the self esteem last today?

I'll be hiding

Behind my face

In a while

I know

That's okay

I want to live

More than ever

Because risks on faces

Relax my face

Free Pitch

Posted on: April 26, 2008

I must keep my mind alive. This is the only reason I’m thinking in English right now. Mamma mia, it’s so hard! My fingers are numb, I really can’t feel anything. It’s dark. Dark deep blue. I don’t know what kind of pitch is going to be the next one. I don’t even know which way to take it.

Randy is pulling ahead as if we were Rolling a Rock in Summertime. He jumps quickly from one move to the next one. Why did I accept this crazy gig? No money, no fun, lot of cold and my feet are freezing. I’ve been standing on the same leg for too long now. Dio santo… I should keep up the rhythm.

I must keep going on ‘til Randy is done.

Walking! Keep walking! I imagine him screaming.



No more wind: is it because Randy is not blowing anymore into his sax? Shut the mind, It’s my turn. Randy is done. He found a nice spot where to hide from freezing.

Shadows of Pretas look down at us as if we are annoying flies.

Ok, a small spot of light right in front

and all over me

the deepest blue of the night.

Sing, sing, sing something…


Rolling back and forth

Pleasing the waves

Swingin’ the time

In a deep blue fluid

Slow passion bullets

Fly through the deep mist

While bumps

Keep sense on

The beat

All around me, Deep Blue, dark, dense, misty Blue. My fingers are numb, my feet are numb, my face is numb, my brain is becoming whatever I’ll never know.

What am I doing at 2am with my double bass in a freezing Manhattan Avenue? I’m playing the cat with Randy, but that’s not the point. There are so many warm venues in town where to jam. I don’t even remember what exactly Randy told me. He wanted to play his sax in front of the Chinese Consulate because someone has been killed in Tibet. A monk, he said, a nun too. I guess it’s a good enough reason.

Randy blows the wind like a crazy. That’s why I’m here. He says in Tibet there’s a winged horse called Lung-ta. He’s Randy’s god. He brings prayers to the sky. I’m climbing up my double bass, pitch after pitch. I’ll climb ‘til no more passion bullets are left. That’s where Randy should be then, that’s where we’ll meet. When I’ll be done I’ll finally see why music is a mountain. Randy calls it Meru Mountain. From the top you can watch the whole universe below. Nothing is left above you, not even the sky, ‘cause you’ll be the sky, he said.

I don’t know what does it means, but it sounds good and everything about sound is a matter of life and death.

Randy is a great guy. I’m playing my chops and nothing more, ‘cause anything more is left in icy me.

Soon I’ll be on top of the wall, Giant Steps below me, holding a cup of extra hot coffee Randy’s preparing.

Free Tibet in a Free China in a Free World in a Free Jazz free climbing in a Free Mind.

No freak out.

Now I’m done.

First Light

Posted on: April 25, 2008

First light is on the outside of our tent. I haven’t opened my eyes yet, but I can feel the heat radiate on my face. After last night I didn’t think we would see the sun for days. First the hail came just after we pulled the fly tight. By the time that we got into our bags the wind was testing the breaking strength of our guy lines and the tents inner will to keep its shape. The inside was dry and our stove barely flickered, but the collapsing walls and ceiling seemed more like the inner workings of an Iron Lung. After we ate and turned out the headlamps, I laid there listening to the freight train gusts come over the ridge behind us and barrel through our camp. The temperature dropped to around 31 degrees according to the last check of my watch and then I woke up 5 hours later.

Against my will I open my eyes and the green-blue light quickly closes them again. The zipper on my sleeping bag snags at first and then gives way so that I can flip open the top and lay with the diffused sunlight on my skin for a while. No hurry, the rock will be warmer the longer that we wait. Over 150 routes are just outside, from 15’ boulder problems to 300’ multi-pitch trad routes. There is not another person for 20 miles that even knows what a quick-draw is. Cade is the exception. My son, still sleeping as usual. He would sleep until noon if I would let him. Not for lack of enthusiasm but because he can. I can’t anymore. I love to sleep; I just can’t sleep for more than 7 hours at a time. 6 hours is plenty and 5 are enough for most nights.

The sound of the zipper on the tent door will be his alarm clock. I could relight the stove and make coffee in the tent and Cade would not even turn over. As the screen flips over onto the side of the tent and the cool breeze flows in, I realize the sun on the tent is warm, but the outside temperature is still only about 50 degrees. It’s 7:15 in the morning; with any luck at all we will see 70 degrees by 2:00pm. By then we should be high on the face of the Iron Door. Standing up I feel the cold, damp earth under my feet and I shiver. The sun is on my back and heating up my black jacket nicely. Barefoot will have to do for now, gravity is setting off alarms in my bladder and my Teva’s are still in the tent.

The tent shakes and Cade crawls out onto the sandy floor of our camp. He doesn’t stand right away, but stretches his back and yawns. In one fluid movement he is standing and walking past me mumbling something about snoring. The stove lights on the first try and I fill the pot with water and open my pack to find the coffee grounds and the French press. Another climbing partner got me hooked on coffee before climbs and my lexan press has made every trip since. One luxury item each. Cade’s is an old pillow with only half of the original amount of feathers left in it.

With coffee done, the haul-bag comes out and gear is sorted. Water bottles are filled and ropes are butterflied and backpacked. The rack is shouldered and we walk the 35 yards to the base of the route. The first good placement is 12’ off of the ground and the only bolts are at the 2nd belay. In between we slot cams, place stoppers and wrap a couple of chock stones the size of my head. Cade clips the first draw and looks up at the 256’ of reddish, black and brown stone that slowly leans away from him. A good hand up and a thin right foot, the #4 camalot goes in and then 20 feet later a #2. The bad part is over, no more run-outs any longer than 12’. I can breathe again. Minutes pass and I hear the signal to get on the other end of the rope and clean. I’ve led this route countless times, this is Cade’s first lead in the 10+ range and he’s killing it. I inspect every placement as I clean. Only one hex-nut comes out without a tool. Not one take or a single lob, just straight to the anchors. I tie in short and hand over the rack. No swinging leads this time, it’s all his.

The small roof above us is pure fun. A solid lie-back around the right side and then roll over the edge, back onto the face. A splitter finger crack cuts across the face at a 45 degree angle and then switches back all the way to the 2nd belay ledge. I barely get my shoes off and he’s going. I look down at our tent and across the valley. No other signs of people. I look up as Cade picks out a big hex and sets it. In my mind I can see the placement, I’ve placed that very same hex in that same spot and now my son is doing it. He disappears over the roof. I can see each move in my mind as the rope pays out and then stops briefly as a decision is made. Set a tiny HB and keep moving or make a little, dicey move up and place a friend for added safety. I find out that he went for it on the HB when I cruise up over the roof and go to clean.

At the ledge we talk and eat and drink water. His eyes are like fireworks and his voice is electric. The crux is just before the belay and he says that he never even noticed it. The water goes away and he’s ready to go again. The rack is passed and he hikes pitch 3. 4 cams and 2 stoppers. Three pitches of 5.10+ climbing in the sun, in short sleeves, in January. It’s 1:45 pm and about 72 degrees out, no clouds in the sky no people on the ground waiting for us to finish. No wonder they call this place the Land of the Lost.

The descent is mostly a walk off with a couple of short rappels. We take our time and study a 5.11a that runs up the side of the face next to the descent called “ East of Edam” because of the texture of the rock looking like old cheese. Maybe tomorrow… We spend the rest of the day on a couple of short routes just across the valley called “Fun stuff”; 5.10c and “Pink but Deadly”, 5.9+.

At night we cook dinner and sit out under the stars planning the next trip. Cade, unknowingly has carried 6 Newcastle Ales in his pack. We drink a couple and burn the last of the wood for tonight. We leave the fly off the tent and go to sleep looking at the same constellations high above us. I sleep a full 7 hours and dream of the routes and that he will climb and the way climbing will shape his life.


Posted on: April 24, 2008

The slick rock below the waterfall is warm and slanted like a lounger. The heat of the stone soothes my sore muscles as I gaze upstream. Fowler Creek speaks. The waterfall pours over a forty-foot basaltic cliff and crashes into a blue pool misting my burnt face with Mt Shasta’s melt. An alpine breeze occasionally stirs the canyon causing pines to sway and dapple the long-cooled lava banks with sunlight. Aquatic flowers quiver just this side of the pool that catches the fall’s water, and small thatches of green grass spring from cracks between polished rocks. I’m exhausted. The descent following the North American Wall was brutal. Being dumped by my girlfriend on my return was hard, and the twenty-four hour shift in the Shasta Emergency Department was busy. The warm rocks and roaring falls offer solace and advice.

Maybe it was passage in Siddhartha that made me start listening to rivers speak, though I remember “The Springs” behind my house as a young boy in the Ozarks having a lot to say to my grandfather and I. Creeks and small brooks say the most and are the more magical, while mighty rivers speak in thunderous booming or, like the Mississippi, with a great silence.

Last week I heard the mountain’s song again. We climbed for several days and nights before I felt that I had escaped horizontal life. The Captain spoke, but it had been so long that I had forgotten the language of the mountains. As the river speaks through the earth’s pull on water rushing through gorges and over rocks, oddly, the mountain does not does not speak with its gravity. El Cap spoke with its animals and light and wind.

Frogs, thousands of feet up seem to cross my path every other pitch. One in particular was camped in the pin scar that I needed to continue up. He was delaying my already snail-like pace, but I was unwilling to squash him nonchalantly or prod him out with a tool. I must have spent thirty minutes second-stepped on a hook, coaxing him gently from his cozy bivy. He finally, trustingly hopped into my gloved hands, allowing me to deposit him on a tiny ledge fifteen hundred feet up. I felt a tinge of guilt nevertheless. I thought I’d displaced him from his only point of safety. As I made several more moves upward I looked down and did not see my orange bellied friend below. I was racked by guilt thinking he’d already plunged to the deck. My eyes rolled up the vertical horizon to my right to see him deftly climbing up the ninety degree granite. He eventually moved up and past me agilely executing a four-point-dyno. My guilt was erased.

Birds of many flavors accompany our ascent. My partner spotted a peregrine falcon lazily making circles a hundred feet out from our belay. Too, curious humming birds investigate our sunshine-yellow haul bag or our red portaledge. Yet they seemed most fascinated by our purple lead line. Tasting it, I’m sure they were instantly discouraged. They’d flown so high only to taste aluminum dust and rock grime. Our most constant companions on the wall were small sparrow-like birds: black with a bright yellow breast. They dove past us negotiating the undulating granite at phenomenal speeds. Only once did I see one light on the cliff near us. It was just below my partner on an ugly looking traverse to the right. I couldn’t help but wonder if he’d paused only to view what could be a spectacular pendulous fall.

The play of light and dark was transfixing. As I was exiting the “Black Cave” to rejoin my partner above, the shift in light and sound was uncannily contrasting. The darkness of the overhanging cavern and stillness of the air was divided by a single move out of the dripping dim. Simultaneously, all was alive. The light was blinding and the wind whipped the rope and my aiders as if they were weightless. My partner above yelled for me to look up for a picture. It was a brilliant azure sky, with dark grey granite below. The wind howled and blew my partners bright red jacket like a flag in a hurricane. It was like seeing Technicolor for the first time.

It is not until now, sitting by Fowler Creek, that I can recall the language of the mountains. I heard it then, but did not comprehend the words. The roaring winds, the clanking gear, the animals and the sky are the telegrams of the mountains. Nepalis know this, writing their prayers on strips of multicolored cloth. The flags beat out a Morse code of the mountains, delivering the people’s hopes and dreams aloft.

We returned to the floor via the East Ledges. I was exhausted. My partner left me in the parking lot of the Manure Pile Buttress to retrieve the truck. It was a dark moonless sky. Chilled as my sweat dried on my back, I crumpled at a picnic table. Somewhere between dream and waking, I heard footsteps but couldn’t raise my head. I dreamt I was still walking down, down, down. The steps shuffled closer. Emerging from my dream of the infinite descent, I raised my head and opened my eyes to the half-light. Two strides away, stood a yearling black bear sniffing the air. The light of the night highlighted his fur blue. He was very close. We stared at each other in the dark.

The sun is setting now at Fowler Creek. My muscles are chilled, and my emotions about my breakup are overtaking me again. Soon I’ll rise from the slick warm rock and hobble up the dusty trail to my real life. As my remembering comes to a close I think of that sniffing bear again. I imagine it as El Cap’s “Goodbye” and “Come back to visit.”

Rising from the dust, I mumble, “Thanks, I will.”

Foolish But Lucky

Posted on: April 23, 2008

Much to Athene’s relief and my chagrin, after a hair-raising journey on a narrow track high above the river, the jeep descended and ground to a halt on a dusty flat near the riverbed. It was not going well. We unloaded all our gear and set out for a two-hour hike to our “starting point”.

At least we were on the trail. Athene and I were exhilarated to be back in the Himalaya. We kept to the flat above the river for a couple of hours, then descended and crossed to our supposed starting point. While waiting for the rest of the crew to catch up, an old man walked by and asked where we were going. When I explained our journey to the source of the Seti Khola, he asked why we wanted to go up there. “No one goes there. It snows every day.”, he informed us, a puzzled look creeping onto his weathered face. I smiled and said we realized that, but beyond was a place of glorious beauty. He shook his head uncomprehendingly and walked on.

The valley closed in on us as we journeyed further the next day. We reached the last settlement, stopping to wait out a rain shower by a water-powered grinding mill. The place was exotically lush and picturesque. The rain stopped and a local led us to the river. The trail continued on the other side, but our porters looked at the three saplings lashed together as a bridge and refused to cross. Our local guide was pressed for an alternative and he reluctantly indicated another trail.

We should have twigged right away. The trail started by hauling ourselves up a cliff by the roots of trees sticking out of the face " and kept going up. It was tough going, and in retrospect, quite insane. Eventually the “trail” levelled out, becoming but a sliver of earth carved from the cliff, horribly exposed and hanging over the river far below. By this time we had committed ourselves to the route and it started to rain. Hard. Harder. This sliver of earth was the only place vegetation could catch as it fell from above and when it rained, the leaves became slippery banana peels. The rain brought out the leeches and they flung themselves from above if they couldn’t hop on from below. We were covered in leeches and soaked like drowned rats on a slippery, slim trail with horrible exposure to the river far below. I couldn’t ignore that our situation was becoming ripe for disaster.

I remember being amazed no one spoke up to say they were freaked by our situation. Stupid pride and a stubborn refusal to lead “on my vacation” kept my mouth shut. The metallic taste of fear tingled my tongue and numbed my mind. By that time all of us were concentrating for our lives and it was unspoken that ahead couldn’t be worse than where we were and where we’d come. We were afraid to go back.

The rain came down in torrents, hitting us with physical force. It was like being in a car wash. No shelter, no space to put the packs down and wait it out. Nowhere to go except onwards or over the cliff. It was insanely dangerous and it was about to come to a head.

I heard an enormous crash behind me. Time slowed down. I was already turning my body when, a moment later, far below, a rending impact like metal against rock erupted from the thundering river. I remember spinning around and seeing a clump of bamboo clinging to the cliff, still shaking from something falling through it to the river. Oh god. I saw Nima through the rain, the personification of Munch’s painting, The Scream. Crouched, his hands cupped near his ears, mouth agape in a soundless scream, his pupils were wide as saucers. He looked like he’d seen someone die before his eyes.

“Ke bayo!” (What happened!), I yelled. Nima was speechless with horror and couldn’t answer. We stared at each other through the streaming rain. It didn’t look good. No one would survive the fall, let alone the clutches of an icy Himalayan river crashing through car-sized boulders. While Nima found his voice, I found myself wondering which porter had just died.

“Ke bayo?” I asked again sharply, and Nima came running awkwardly towards me through sheets of rain, waddling like a duck. I wondered why he was running like that and why his hands were cupping his ears. His face was a mask of fear and he almost slipped over the side in his carelessness as he waddled my way. When he reached me, I shook him to his senses and demanded to know what happened. He stuttered out in Nepali that in mid-step, a rock the size of a basketball had whizzed by his face at sonic speed, then ripped through the bamboo before shattering into the river. Nima’s eyes were glazed and he was unresponsive. I shook him again, demanding to know if anyone had fallen over the cliff. When he shook his head negatively, I yelled out “Pahiro! (landslide!)”

An ominous rumble accompanied the chorus of screams linked like a chain as each porter down the trail yelled “Pahiro!” Then rocks, boulders and mud joined the rain falling from the sky.

When the mountain stopped moving, we gathered together in the lee of a large boulder, counting heads, covered in leeches, sodden with rain and shaken by the close call. Everyone accounted for, we slipped and slid, up and over a saddle, then down to a lovely campsite at a bend in the river.

Camp was pitched next to the forest. It stopped raining and everyone gathered around a huge bonfire to dry out, appreciative of the bond formed amongst us that day. I stood for a long while before bed watching giant shadows of us projected on the cliffs above camp, keenly aware we’d been both foolish and lucky.

The Visceral Game. The Pinnacles of Mt Ruapehu.

Posted on: April 22, 2008

Approach The air - grey and misty. The mountain - glued together by dirt. This drives us closer to the edge. We are breathless, speechless and serious. This is Paradise?

The Pinnacles Anchored, slung and the bottemless space is ours. First pinnacle and we're down or maybe not. The rock anchor has shifted, a buddy below, we grab to stop it. Done. Its time to move on. Down the pit again, all three little piggies on their way. Without guide or book we learn the path ourselves, remembering the 50 year old description - "an enjoyable day trip, not as hard as it looks" - we scoff at this as we fail to find a single solid anchor. We spy a tattered sling on a rock, out of reach and out of our version of sanity.

Escape The Grand Gully. Our escape but a kicked rock 'speaks' of unseen cliffs. Yet the other ways are crazier - The Traverse of the Gods - wet and angled, strewn with loose debris. The gully below us. Fallen boulders temporarily halted from their slide by slags of mud and dirt - hardly the solid anchors needed for our descent - but we manage and walk down the mountain under stars.


Posted on: April 21, 2008

Last night, I had that cliche dream. I sat meekly in a large class on a subject I knew nothing about. But there at the front of the room stood Sam Findley, my college Latin professor. Prancing before us in the same worn purple corduroys, he drilled his victims on obscure declensions. Be educated, or be embarrassed. Endless rows of ethereal students dutifully raised their hands and spoke in tongues, their selfsame, bland faces repeated ad infinitum as if reflected in two mirrors. His glee fueled by our mundane failures, Findley was hastily scribbling "um, us, urum, utus, utilius" and other such nonsense on the blackboard.

According to the usual script of such dreams, I began to panic. I hadn't turned in a single assignment all term, and it seemed the final was rapidly approaching. And I had to pass this class to graduate.

I heard my name and looked up. Findley was gazing directly at me, along with most of the class. Chalk held expectantly in hand, he continued to stare.

"Kelly?" The professor was walking down the aisle, headed straight for me. He stopped in front of my desk and bent slightly, the thin strands of his goatee dangling just above eye level. "Did you find time to do the workbook assignment for chapter nine?"

Straightening up and rustling the pages of my mint-condition workbook, I stuttered, "Um... I don't know?"

Findley turned around with a look of resigned disappointment. I had to say something... but it was too late. Before you could conjugate tempis fugit, the lesson had adjourned. Findley desperately waved his arms at the incomplete catalogue on the fading blackboard, then disappeared with the rest of the classroom.

I wonder if Professor Findley ever saw a faint flicker of passion in my eyes, or if he just pegged me as lazy. When my classmates were struggling to memorize their vocabulary, I was marveling at the sparkling edges of a nearby glacial erratic by headlamp. When Findley's students were shuffling by his office to schmooze before class, I was rummaging through piles of dirty clothes and climbing gear looking for my notebook. And when my friends were diligently applying to be entry-level cubicle jockeys, I was embarking on another cross-country mission to high, rocky landscapes and wide-open skies.

That spring I sent my long-term project at Rumney, punching through the low crux at last only to spend twenty numb minutes battling the frigid steeps above. Screaming, I finally fumbled the rope through the anchors with a useless, frozen claw. I still felt pumped when I returned to the weeknight quiet of the dorm, laden with beer and looking to celebrate with friends. A lone email waited on the computer screen: my psychology professor inquiring whether I'd had "something better to do than attend today's midterm exam."

"You're damn right I did," I said in a hoarse voice and cracked one open as righteously as my tips would permit.

Now even after waking, I still have a lingering feeling of guilt. My mother warns that I'm doomed to repeat this dream for the next thirty years. But my reality reassures me:

I graduated nearly two years ago. Professor Findley is 3,000 miles away. And absolutely no Latin will fall upon my ears today. The sun's glow is beginning to rise on the Eastern Cascades, and it's time to go climbing.

The Book

Posted on: April 21, 2008

So, I have this journal. OK, it's more like a diary, containing all the things that a little girl's diary might have: romances and crushes, heartaches, and the occasional "I hate that bitch!" I've filled it with days of shopping for shoes and the latest fashion trends. I've described dream vacations I wanted to take to places like France and Argentina. Heck, I even described my first time, and how beautiful it was.

Here's the thing: I'm not a woman. I'm a thirty-five-year-old guy who loves to climb. I started writing it, like any starry-eyed gumby, after my first day at the Gunks. On my way home that night, I stopped at the drugstore to pick up a grade-school composition book. I put everything in there. Is this something everyone does? Or is it reserved for the truly pathetic?

The entry for my first climb reads something like this: "I tried awkwardly to jam the right side of my body into the wide crack while telling myself to relax and breathe." Now it may sound like I was trying to free the Stove Legs pitch on the Nose, but in fact, I toproped a forty-foot 5.4 called Boston. But man it was cool!

The bitch I hated was a route named Jean. She was 5.9 and testy. She let me climb her the first time I ever tried, but has shot me down ever since.

Some climbs have one sentence. Something like, "climbed Modern Times today with Franz and I still managed to crap myself...again." Others have four pages of detailed gear, crux sequences, and emotional states. The first time Jung Taek and I did an ice line called Neurosis in the Adirondacks the thin ice and little gear evoked a writing frenzy: "One look at the line from the road and we were both scared, but psyched to try it. Two guys packed the trail through 18 inches of fresh snow for us, and we found them examining the first pitch, with skeptical frowns. We racked up and stepped in the moment they decided to bail. The aerated and thin ice was as bad as they assumed it was, but I found myself sighing with relief as I tied off to that beautiful cluster of dead shrubbery at the top of the pitch. Jung Taek looked up at the second pitch with a dread that could only mean he was asking for his Mommy to make it all better."

The west face of Churup in the Cordillera Blanca was my first attempt at an alpine face. Herein the result: "I yelled down to Jung Taek and asked him how much rope I had left. He answered back with an energetic go for it, so I did. Gingerly I placed my tools, stabbing them down into the sugary ice instead of swinging them high. Halfway there I started to dry heave again. All I wanted was an anchor, and I kept mumbling that word while gagging and stabbing. I reached the alcove and no sooner did I clip off to my hammer did I proceed to vomit into the snow. Two minutes worth of gagging and vomiting left me with that curiously cozy feeling just after you hurl chunks. I found two bomber nuts in the rock, equalized my tools, and was happy."

When I moved to the Gunks from New York City, I stopped recording every single climb in there. I was just climbing too much and had no time to write. But still, every few months I'll jot down the notable climbs I've done since last time. It's a project of love, and I feel guilty if I neglect it. I now have almost two full composition books. Every year or so I'll open a beer, sit on the couch, and read for two hours. I can see my progression from gumby, to fanatic ethic nazi, to who cares what anyone else thinks climber. The best part is that whenever I read my dia...err..journal, I get psyched to go climb something. It reminds me why I do this, to have good fun with good friends. In real life I may not be Dean Potter or Steve House, but in my book, I'm the shit.

The Jukebox

Posted on: April 21, 2008

"Isabel and I went to the market today. I bought her a lovely new handbag.”

"Really?" I replied.

"Oh yes. She works so hard and earns so little. I think she’s been feeling down lately. She won’t even meet us for drinks anymore. Have you noticed?"

"I’ve not.” I lied.

Carolyn’s father was a bank manager in Courmayeur. We lived in one of his flats, one with enormous windows and views of Mont Blanc. The walls were trimmed with velvet valances, handpicked by Carolyn’s mother. In the corner sat an antique Victor jukebox, a gift her parents gave when she graduated Georgetown University.

That’s where we met. She was exotic, with an Italian accent, long blonde hair and chiseled arms. Her ass looked great in lycra, something she clearly knew. She was different from other climbers I’d met. She had no interest in camping in The Valley. She detested my VW Westfalia. She didn’t read magazines, smoke pot or let people sleep on her couch. She liked poetry, going out to eat and getting dressed up. At Georgtown I studied communications. She studied statistics. I climbed 5.9. She climbed 5.13. I was proud of having climbed Rainier. She’d soloed Mount Blanc at age 15.

In the beginning, my life felt perfect. We had lots of money and she acted like it. I secured a job guiding on the Chamonix side of the Mt Blanc massif while she spent each day, sometimes more, climbing. When I’d get home each night I’d find her pack wet, but already repacked for her next day’s climb.

"I haven’t seen you in two days. What’d you end up doing?" I’d ask, as I unpacked from a day of guiding tourists on the Mer de Glace.

"A new variation on the Brenva Spur. The top was dicey." She’d reply. She wasn’t just a rock climber; she was an alpinist, something I didn’t even know until we moved to Courmayeur from D.C. If I had known how intimidating I’d one day find my wife I’d never have asked her out that day at Carderock Cliff.

Most nights I would retire before her. She would sit in her rocking chair, sipping vermouth, as the scratchy remains of Louie Armstrong’s "What a Wonderful World" would play, repeatedly. She would follow, hours later and drunk, to sleep off her routine. And when I woke up, she’d be gone. .


I stared at Isabel’s naked body as I stood up and slipped on my pants. "I hate to bring up a sore subject," she said, "but have you thought about""

I raised my voice. "I told you already. I’m taking care of it this summer."

"But it’s already July. How long do you think I’m going to wait? Are you ever going to leave her?"

"I’ll take care of it soon. I promise. It’s going to take time. I’m broke. Guiding illegally. I don’t even live on this side of the mountain. How could things work right now? I need more time.”


"How was work today? Did you see Daddy? He said he never sees you. He said he calls you to go to lunch but you never call back." You should go to lunch with him. He always goes to the nicest restaurants. They have the most wonderful food and the loveliest people.” I daydreamed of Isabel as Carolyn talked. The chatter paused, catching my attention. She looked at me. "Where are you?"

"What do you mean?"

"Where is your mind right now? Did you get caught guiding? Don’t embarrass me by doing something stupid…”

"I’m not in the mood for this.” I got up, tossed my napkin and grabbed my jacket. Five paces down the sidewalk I heard Carolyn from our table in front of the trattoria.

"Dear." Carolyn called out. "I want you to stop seeing her."

I slowly walked away.


When I got to the Piazza Isabel was already there. She stood in a white linen dress, the silhouette of her figure outlined by the sun that pierced the thin fabric. She wasn’t wearing underwear. Her dark hair was up, held in place with a red silk scarf secured with an ivory clip. With tears in her eyes, she rocked in place.

“What’s wrong?" I asked ignorantly.

“I’m pregnant.”

“Is it mine?” I retorted.

She angrily wiped her tears. “Of course. I love you. I want to raise a family with you. If I can’t do that I don’t want to live."

She was a dramatic woman. Two years earlier, after an argument, she rode the tram to the top of the Aguille du Midi to confront me as I finished a day of rogue guiding. As the fight deteriorated in front of tourists she teetered out, in leather shoes, onto the knife-edge arete that drops off into the valley and threatened to jump. I knew she was passionate. But not crazy.

"I’m so sorry, but I can’t talk. I have to go. Can we talk next week?" I asked. Isabel stood with her mouth open. My words trailed off into the playful screams of children splashing in the fountain.


Drunk, I fell across the threshold of my flat, tripping over a climbing rope and sending a crampon scratching across the polished oak floor. In the corner sat Carolyn, in her chair, drinking Vermouth. She was looking out the open window into the piazza. Her eyes were wide and bright. Tears on her cheeks reflected the yellow streetlights below. At her feet was an open newspaper. The headline read: “Missing woman’s body found by climbers on Frendo Spur.” I walked to the bedroom and closed the door.

As I lay in bed, watching the ceiling spin above me, I heard the jukebox quietly play "What a Wonderful World" as the tails of the rocking chair in the great room slapped the floor for the last time.