Readers Blog

Alone Time

Posted on: June 30, 2008

There are some things better left unsaid until you have the privacy to strike up a conversation with yourself, that is, if you’re inclined to open lines of communication with yourself. More and more I find (alarming) this the case, and often (more alarming) I do so while unclothed in front of a full length mirror (I can’t over emphasize the import of the mirror showing everything from the tops of my feet (pale and thick with veins, aren’t yours? Of coarse they are.) to the top of my scalp).

If I am to make any pretense of honesty here (tedious and annoying to do so, I know, but I must assume that here I am among friends). I must tell you that by profession I am an alpine guide, and that (of late) I discuss only one thing with myself in the mirror. Before I tell you what that is, I must ask you one favor (I can’t really ask you, but I must try).

Don’t ever trust a rope. I know you have, hell, I have too. But never trust it again. It will lie with its coils. It is bold and audacious, but so are the best liars (more on this later).

The mirror only wants to hear about steep ice, but that’s not all we talk about. Long snow slopes with exposure also, from time to time, dance into the topic of conversation, and sometimes avalanche. Oh yes, and you can’t lie to the mirror, it winks back, and afterward I blush.

Oh, but I know, I’ve missed the point, haven’t I?

I’m glad you caught me at it, I will pay mind not wander again. The rope was frozen above and wouldn’t budge, sometimes it happens when you aren’t moving fast enough at night. A wind will come and freeze it right through into place, oh, and that is a such a shame that we didn’t rappel just a little faster.

“I’m cold” My fingers said.

“I’m cold” My toes said

“I’m cold” My partners said.

“I know.” Was all I could say.

Snow drifted down from the sky, it was watching us lazily, I think, with a thousand eyes.

Part of me is still there. Still on that ledge, waiting for the storm to pass. I’ve tried to look for it in the mirror, but I can’t find it.

I want to say one thing more, though. I lied up above. I am a former guide.

The Lesson

Posted on: June 30, 2008

Today we had a heavy downpour combined with a wild wind. However, I had to have my “expedition”, I had to go far amidst unfairly uneasy conditions. With one leg that doesn’t work, with a crutch in one hand, with an overused aching knee tired of replacing his pair, an equally exhausted elbow and an umbrella. Facing a wind that kept changing direction all the time apparently with the aim of reversing or snatching my umbrella from my hand. With a backpack that was not supposed to get wet for it contained the precious X-ray printouts of my damaged ankle. Almost two miles, an uphill walk. Then I had to take buses, get into the town, see the doctors and get back kangarooing to various distant bus stops.

After a time I realized the umbrella offered not much protection from a horizontal rain. It was rather an impediment. I didn’t throw it away as I would have done it a mere month ago, before my irascible temper triggered an accident to be well-remembered for the rest of my coming years. I just shook the water off and folded the umbrella. I was very proud of myself at this point. Maybe I have finally learnt the lesson of not being upset with THINGS.

The first big lesson gave me a dark blue ring around my right eye when I once got angry with my helmet. I had not fixed it the right way and when I was in the middle of an ice slope it started sliding down my front and pushing down my sunglasses. The sunglasses became foggy from my breath. I couldn’t see any more, but I had no free hands as I was holding myself to an ice axe and an ice hammer. Thank God, I was second in the rope, not leading. However, I was furious of having to blind-climb and by the time I arrived to the top of that small frozen waterfall I was cursing loudly and telling my helmet how I hated it. Nevertheless, it was the ice axe that thought me the lesson when I impatiently tried to get it out from the wall.

Then there was this second lesson. I had to experience a humiliating exclusion from a climbing event and later that day I had an angry impatient jump that ended in a slip and a double fall with a glass bottle in my hand. Now here I am, hardly able to walk, as the summer days approach, miles away from any adventure that involves leaving the asphalted flat grounds. Two miles are normally not a distance for me. But now it takes me 40 minutes to traipse along this street, totally alone, bending against the adverse wind and rain. And another hour on the way back.

Suddenly an urge of gratitude invades me. All those harsh times in the mountains seem to be useful now, when I realise that even if I forgot how to walk, I haven’t yet lost the capacity of ignoring the wind and rain. They somehow don’t bother, although my trousers and shoes are not waterproof and I feel cold wet clothes stuck to my legs. Indeed, why was I so scared when an abundant wet snow drenched us an evening while trying to locate a hut on a nunatak of the Aletsch glacier last summer? Why was it a torturing experience to learn ice climbing amidst small avalanches and snowstorms? These and all the other tree-uprooting, glove-stealing storm experiences have become an asset now when I am so hardly trying to imitate a human walking movement.

When I finally get home and dry myself, I look in a mirror and behind my head I incidentally catch glimpse of a picture on the facing wall. It is a Swiss Alpine peak we climbed almost a year ago. Around three thousand meters it wears a thick white cloud skirt, but above that layer a thousand meters of seemingly virgin brilliant white slope ends in a partly stony suave summit. Perfectly elegant and as calm as the sky when your aircraft reaches its cruising altitude above a landscape that had looked so grim and gloomy when you were still down.

A moment of happiness invades my core: I KNOW how it is up there. The wind splashes tiny ice crystals onto your face. You don’t want to remove your sunglasses, it is so bright. You see dozens of miles away. You see clouds from above. If the wind lifts them, far down the glaciers really look like huge grey wrinkled-backed snow-rivers petrified while streaming down the valleys.

Going for that mountain was a moment’s decision. I was not given more than a few seconds to say whether I would join a team. I had no time to think, to consider whether it was within my abilities and courage. My heart quickly nodded and I surprised myself by loudly saying YES. Nine months later, today I know how much this answer and its consequences changed me.

In the aftermath of that climb the world can no more be the same. It is bigger, wider, bolder, vaster, and I feel as if I have carved a tiny place for myself in its vastness. It holds me even now with this broken leg. It doesn’t hurt to look in the mirror. I touch my painful ankle and keep reading on the alpine style ascent of the Nanga Parbat’s Rupal Face. I remained a dreamer, but a different one. Not that I learned so many things in nine months. True, I learned a bit of meteorology and of avalanche risks, but the real erudition of this escapade is actually a very simple thing: if you want to be happy, let your heart answer the unexpected calls of adventure.

Lost to This

Posted on: June 30, 2008

I wonder how many more will be lost to this. All that have failed have been given the final kiss. Lives are scattered beneath the face, broken hopes of those who lost the race.

I can hear their incessant caterwauling as they tumble, tumble down in to the abyss. The wind blows ceaselessly mimicking the cries of the bereaved, a sound so sad that even the indurate could be brought to their knees.

They came with a hope and belief greater than most have ever possessed and wielded their tools to fight their impending death.

To them it was home, where the cold wrapped tightly around their bones, wound in the unloving arms of the wind, the rain and the snow; they felt a deep purpose few could ever know.

For some it was an art, a canvas to draw their lines, people built strong in heart with beauty in their mind. They etched their own destruction and created pointless pain, in order to find meaning in a world at disarray.

Others came as actors; here for their crowning show in a theatre with no audience, they lead the closing scene, the curtains came crashing down, bringing an end to their routine.

Many were romantics, at hopeless surrender to unrequited love; no longer could they be at peace so they disappeared into the above.

The chattering heads babbled mindlessly, like cackling crows they passed endless judgment. They picked at the fallen, the frozen corpses; their contorted spines and gaping mouths, piled one atop another, cracked legs and twisted arms intertwined in their final moments. At this altar came those who followed suit, ready to begin their upward struggle, they needed no salute.

Yet still they keep on coming in their humble and inspirited way, leaving behind the voices, they live only for the day.

Apartheid Mountain

Posted on: June 30, 2008

My Sportivas were a bit leaky and I felt a bit under-dressed as I looked around the campsite. I didn't have time to shower between trips. The Euro's were comparing wrap around glasses snuggling their flabby thighs into their insulating spandex and staying warm in their sleeping bag jackets.

"This mountain is neat, but when I was hiking the Inca Trail. I was so much more hardcore,"

"So you have done Inca trail? Well have you ever climbed in the... ADIRONDACKS! The crimps and run-outs are crazy, and when the weather comes in it comes in fast."

"The Adirondacks seem neat, but you should really check out some of the ski resorts in Canada..."

The conversation continues on this way, but I need to walk away, I am getting nauseous. Later in the day I am going to have to run around the mountain to find these guys wheat toast, they won't eat the white toast that my guiding company has provided.

Maganga sits on the other side of camp with the futbol I gave him. The Orlando Magic wind breaker isn't exactly gore-tex and looks a lot more soaked than my La Sportiva boots. In fact his boots are nikes, and look like something Axel Rose would have worn back around the time of Use Your Illusion One.

"Mambo Vipi"

"Mambo Poa... na wewe?"

"Baridi kidogo,"

That is about the extent of my Kiswahili. I do understand the card game though, and upon seeing me Maganga is already doing the African style of shuffling, mashing the cards together in a disorganized way.

As we play more porters come out of the tent, and soon enough a candle is brought to light the game. There is a lot of yelling in swahili that I don't understand, but get the picture of. The clothing looks like something out of the Cosby Show, patterned sweaters and scarves. Most porters shiver around the circle. Maganga lays a high card down and in disjointed English states,

"white men can't jump," followed by laughter from all the porters.

I lay a higher card, and say "I am Barack Obama," which gets most of the porters rolling on the ground with laughter.

The game goes on like this for an hour or so until I get a yell from the other nice tent (the one that is dry without holes that my clients don't even sleep in).

"Mista Bill your dinner is time"

I give some handshakes to the porters and walk to the mess tent. Looking back, I can see the twenty or so bodies smashing themselves in the cook tent for warmth on the other side of camp. I stroll into our tent where, counting myself, there are three of us. There is also one black guy that brings us food and pours our drinks. Maganga comes in, but doesn't look me in the eye and just serves the food.

I feel sick again.

"Tell me about the summit morning Bill," my client says.

I go through it in all the details. Talk about how great the peak is, and how wonderful the sunrise is. I know I am going to have to help him walk to the summit and Maganga will shiver the whole way.

"And then when we get back we are going to have to tip these boys right? What is a decent tip that won't leave them expecting more?"

I feel sick again. Being a mountain guide sucks.

User Unknown

Posted on: June 30, 2008

From: Frances Gardner

Date: 15th May 2007

To: Thomas Pullman

Subject: Understanding

Hi Thomas,

I hope you don’t mind me mailing, but I found your address on the net and was wondering if you could help.

I need to understand how one becomes an accomplished mountaineer. How much training and experience you need and what it is that keeps you motivated.



From: Thomas Pullman

Date: 8th July 2007

To: Frances Gardner

Subject: RE: Understanding


Sorry for the delay, I’ve been away.

It’s good to hear from you, and of course I don’t mind. There really aren’t enough women in our sport and I’ll do what I can to help.

I’m very lucky to be climbing full time and this is a massive advantage—to become experienced you’ve got to get out there and actually climb some mountains!

To begin with I suggest you go for easier routes; as many as you can. I promise that over time you’ll get a feel for the hills and develop that all-important ‘mountain sense’. Don’t worry about getting bored doing the simple stuff, changeable conditions and the weather will provide you with plenty of adventures.

Take care out there,


From: Frances Gardner

Date: 9th July 2007

To: Thomas Pullman

Subject: RE: Understanding

Hi Thomas,

Thanks for the reply, but what exactly motivates you, what makes you want to climb?


From: Thomas Pullman

Date: 2nd August 2007

To: Frances Gardner

Subject: RE: Understanding

Motivation " that’s a difficult one.

Mountains are beautiful.

And on a clear day when rock and snow are sharpened against a crisp blue sky, they are just fantastic.

And when I see what’s beyond a mountain I feel a mixture of elation and an almost physical need to see more. There is just so much of this beautiful world out there, to be seen, to be travelled, to be experienced, and there’s just so little time…. This motivates me.

And we’re not isolated from this world; I love the physicality of my body, particularly when moving over rock, the way it reacts perfectly to the forces from my hands and feet. Even being perfectly still is the product of many complex and incalculable forces, and just consider the lovely harmonic motion of a rockover; beautiful. This is a very fine thing and when attuned to it, I feel connected to the underlying rhythms of the universe.

..…I climb because I love it.

T x

From: Frances Gardner

Date: 3rd August 2007

To: Thomas Pullman

Subject: RE: Understanding

Don’t your emotions and worries get in the way? What about the risks, don’t you sometimes wonder whether any of this is worth it?


From: Thomas Pullman

Date: 5th August 2007

To: Frances Gardner

Subject: RE: Understanding

Hi Frances,

You ok? You sound a bit down.

Obviously I try not to do anything that will definitely go wrong, but I sometimes accept risks that are proportionate to my goals. That’s it—I attempt to balance the risks against what I want to achieve. I try to keep them to a minimum, but part of the fun is overcoming the dangers. Mountaineering would quickly become tiresome if there were no risks at all.

As far as everyday worries are concerned, they just disappear. I think it’s the singularity of purpose that does it. You always have to focus on the next move, or the next gear placement, or even the next bivouac site. It really clears your mind of useless thoughts.

Perhaps you should get out this weekend; just being amongst the hills can be enough.

T x

From: Frances Gardner

Date: 6th August 2007

To: Thomas Pullman

Subject: RE: Understanding

Hi Thomas,

Sorry to be a nuisance, but in all your mails you haven’t mentioned anyone else, like your climbing partners, I assume you don’t climb alone.


From: Thomas Pullman

Date: 15th September 2007

To: Frances Gardner

Subject: RE: Understanding

You’re right, I hadn’t realised, and of course I’m rarely on my own. Perhaps whilst my climbing is a shared experience, my motivations, hopes and fears are particularly personal.

I’ve had quite a few partners. Early on I hung around the more experienced guys, a kind of climbing stalker; intent on learning stuff from the best. These mentors had such drive and determination that I was carried along in their wake, and I accomplished a great deal very quickly.

Then I teamed up with climbers more my own age, with similar aims and ability. We could climb as a team, each pulling their weight, each able to lead the pitches, each able to trust the other. Many of these climbers have become friends; there is something about adventure that bonds.

The deepest relationships however are created when there’s been trouble. When cold, thirst, hunger, and exhaustion are shared throughout long nights and dark days. hese ‘comrades in adversity’ share an understanding and a knowledge that even your most intimate friends don’t possess. You’ve seen each other scared and naked, overwhelmed and desperate.

I tell you once your eyes have met whilst considering your death, you never forget it, and you’re joined for ever.

T. x

From: Frances Gardner

Date: 16th September 2007

To: Thomas Pullman

Subject: RE: Understanding

But if that really is how you feel Thomas, last May, when on your way down to the North Col, why did you walk past my dying brother?

He had goals, ambitions, and a love of wild places. He had yearned to see more. He had felt his strong young body move across the rock.

Was he not a ‘comrade in adversity’?


From: Frances Gardner

Date: 24th September 2007

To: Thomas Pullman

Subject: RE: Understanding


Please reply. I need to understand.


From: MailBox

Date: 24th June

To: Frances Gardner

Subject: Failure notice does not like recipient.

Remote host said: 550 unknown user

Giving up on

This is a permanent error.

Mr. Braceface

Posted on: June 30, 2008

Life is like a grab bag. My co-workers scour Myspace hoping to catch a glimpse of next weekend’s fling. Me, my standards are even lower. I’m looking for someone to hold the other end of a rope. My more"than-just-a-climbing partner, has been out of town and our transient lifestyle leaves me feeling like the new kid in the cafeteria clutching a brownbag. I want to climb, so I solicit partners on the internet.

Yesterday, I met Mr.B. He called my cellphone 3 times, because I was 5 minutes late; but it was on silent and I miss the calls. Pulling into the parking lot, I look for the ‘red rose’, a man eating an icecream cone, no one’s around. Relief: I’m getting ditched. But I play along, organize my gear then trade my office shoes for approach shoes. With one maryjane off and one sneaker on a tan Explorer lurches into the spot next to mine. A goofy looking green-braces-filled grin greets me.

Thoughts race through my head, making me feel like the butterflies in my stomach are puking. Could this guy be a perv? The cellphone gets tucked into my pocket. He’s donning blue mesh Nair-ad-model-like shorts, his thighs aren’t at all Spartan-like, but his legs are tan and lean. A red tank top accentuates the shorts and deodorant is caked in his underarm hair. With his metal smile, dark wrap-around shades, and messy pepper-blonde hair I can’t tell if he’s young or old.

He’d been climbing all day, ate huckleberry icecream, and then his friend, our 3rd " my safety net " bailed on him. Mr.B is sore from doing sprints and beat from being in the 90degree sun, but psyched to do more. After all, this is the year to climb; next year will be the ‘Year of the Javelin’; and last year was ‘the Year to Sprint’. He brags that Steph Davis, while in town for a fundraiser, belayed him on a crack climb. He’s got the gobies to prove it, but he hates trad climbing, hates it.

I’d forgotten my guidebook. Mr.B hands me his tick-list: a 2-page document in 8-point font with lines of 10a-10d sport climbs. He suggests warming up on the Peanut. I cringe. A climb there had crushed my self-esteem, I’d since remedied that, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to kick off a new season with it. Hiding my hesitation, I agree, and suck it up.

Mr.B walks beside me on the steep narrow trail leading to the crag. His arms swing in wide arcs like an upside down metronome as he keeps up the rhythm of small talk. Even though thunderclouds now block the sun, I still haven’t seen Mr.B’s eyes. ‘Does your schedule let you climb a lot,’ I ask. But he answers another question. The one about work that I find irrelevant and always avoid. Mr.B is an IT specialist and can climb whenever he wants as long as a server isn’t crashing. In his free time he coaches middleschool track and competes in a running club. During the ‘Year of the Sprint’ his goal was to run a sub-60 second 400. I don’t tell him that my little sister does that weekly. He doesn’t ask my occupation, I smile.

By the time we get to the Peanut it is in the sun. Mr.B suggests another climb. I take the sharpend, we check each other’s knots and harnesses. Three bolts up it occurs to me that maybe Mr.B doesn’t know how to belay, I grip every hold harder. When I get to the chains, I opt to rappel. While lowering him the rope zips through my device; I aggressively shift my weight to avoid being lifted. Mr.B’s beefier than he looks.

The clouds return and we go to the Peanut. He wants to redpoint his nemesis climb. Last season he had tried it and ‘failed’. Since, he’s switched his diet and improved his core strength. He tells me I’ll love this climb because of my little feet. Seranading his size 13s with refrains of ‘ohshitoshitohshit’ he clumsily makes each clip. But from the ground, I can see that he is glowing with satisfaction. I lie and yell, “super smooth, man.” Again, he insists on being lowered, ‘it’s faster.’

The climb I choose next apparently sucks and he suggests another. Stymied before the first bolt it laughs at me from above, I can’t commit to a polished slanting foothold. Finding a stance I cling to a nubbin and gripe. Mr.B offers to be my human-stick clip. The goon almost toppled over while coming to my rescue, but pulls it off. With his chivalrous aid, I make the moves. The climbing doesn’t ease. I eke out as much dust as I can from the soft insides of my chalkbag. ‘Remind me next…time….huff…to… puff..bring…ahhhh…more.. ‘Bring more what?’ Phew… ‘chalk.’

On the way to our next climb, Mr.B points out where he earlier ‘watered’ the grass. This rock looks like melted strawberry and vanilla icecream. The first bolt is within reach and each of the following ones are at smile-making intervals. Mr.B’s up, this one will play to his strengths: power and big moves. This time he truly is smooth.

Done for the day we pack up our stuff. After every other climb Mr.B had lollygagged, leisurely removing each of his displaced-looking LaSportiva Tradmasters. Now, he’s out of water and ready to go-go-go. I finish stuffing the rope in my pack as he says, ‘ohhhh…. I was going to carry that…’

Walking back up the hill he slows for more chatter. Last week someone biked into the river, he carried lots of rocks up that hill, he eats burritos despite his diet. We practice saying, ‘escanda tortilla, por favor.’ (spelt tortilla, please) Cresting the final switchback he finally asks, ‘what do you do for work?’ The sun is setting, clouds linger, and random raindrops hit my bare skin. So, braceface, you want to climb again?

Old Partners

Posted on: June 29, 2008

When we were students, the mountains were an obsession, no, a religion for us, and we were their most loyal disciples. The spring break of our senior year, Gabe and I decided to make a trip into the Eastern Sierra, to an area known as the Devil’s triangle of the west. We had a hankering to be first on something, and after perusing survey photos and old articles from Alpine Journals we found what we thought to be our line. A just less than vertical crack that split the face of Mount Chouinard, a quiet little 11 thousand foot peak, that like many others in the Sierra, had jagged snarling teeth and a soft, flabby ass, making for an easy hike down. Gabe and I were not vying to be first to stand atop its summit, some surveyor while drawing the first maps of the Sierra Nevada probably did the smart thing and hiked up the backside. No, we wanted to find a new route to scale our way up the nearly vertical East face of the cliff. There were several photos taken in the sixties by some climbers who ascended a series of cracks that split the face neatly into two separate sections. We were going to climb some other cracks that meandered a bit, interrupted by big ledges and a few low angled sections; nothing too proud, but it would be our baby.

Gabe and I prepared for the hike into the canyon that surrounded Mt. Chouinard loading our packs with our climbing gear and either running stadium stairs, or dripping sweat on the Stairmaster at the gym. When we worked out, other students would stare at us as we cranked out endless chin ups, weights dangling like giant iron testicles from our climbing harnesses. We were consumed by the absurd notion that our climb was somehow important, and would change ourselves on some fundamental level. We knew our route wasn’t the most difficult line on the face, and if it were any other place in California, closer to the highway, and not in the Devil’s triangle; the East face of Mt. Chouinard would have seen thousands of climbers each season, with dozens of routes and variations reaching the summit.

Mt. Chouinard though, provided Gabe and me with the perfect opportunity for a real adventure without getting ourselves killed in the process. We both heard the stories of the Devil’s triangle - tales of compass needles spinning like helicopter blades, weird weather changes, hauntings - even Bigfoot. There is an abandoned Ashram built by an eccentric railroad executive that was the site of sexual magic rituals in the 1950’s. These stories kept many from venturing onto the bleached granite that Gabe and I longed to touch more than the power these campfire tales had to contain us.

Our routine was simple, it worked for all our other trips, and we were a superstitious lot, so we stuck to the comfort of repetition. After Gabe’s Molecular Bio class ended, I was standing in the chilly fog next to the van with a hundred pounds of climbing and camping gear swelling the stitching of my backpack. Gabe arrived, the big cargo door of the Stinky Dodge opened and I tossed my backpack into its open maw.

Six hours, several pee breaks and a kidney rupturing dirt road ride later, we were parked at the trailhead. The desert night had vanquished the air of everything but the cold. We crawled into our sleeping bags leaving only the tips of our noses exposed, and attempted to sleep in spite of the growing excitement.


Three hours or so slip by; I had fallen into a meditative bliss, shrinking into a tiny embryonic version of myself that one is solely capable of while sleeping under the stars. We are awakened from this near nirvana by the dull thud and sharp ping of something soft being hurled at Gabe’s van. The sound was like an empty fifty five gallon drum being hit by giant spit balls " solid and thunky, but a little moist. The next sound though was Lovecraftian in its indescribability " a single note, A above high C, but wrenched and angry. It entered my head rattling around inside looking for something soft to pummel. The shriek was followed by more pelting of the van and a low shuffling sound that indicated movement.

I needed to pee, and I almost did…

I looked over towards Gabe and he lay almost perfectly still. I was hoping that his academic knowledge of animals coupled with his family’s ranching background would lead to some reasonable answer to the immediate question in my mind: JUST WHAT THE FUCK IS THAT THING!?

I was afraid to move out of the combination of two separate fears, the general fear of being devoured by another creature balanced by the fear that Gabe would ridicule me for being terrified by the mating call of a Stellar’s Jay or some such ridiculousness. I put my faith in the childhood logic that as long as you don’t move, the monsters can’t get you.

Silence again, this time pregnant with the potential energy of another shriek, or something worse.

The sound came again, louder and sharper, ricocheting off the steel of the Dodge. Gabe turned toward me and said:

“Let’s get in the van.”

For some God awful reason, I started shrieking back at the noisemaker, jumping around in the chilly night air waving my arms like the robot from Lost in Space. Gabe looked at me like I was completely batshit, but then joined in making an inhuman high pitched wheeze and gurgle. Soon, we were collapsed on the floor of the van laughing nervously at the re-enveloping silence; whatever it was had gone.

An Imaginary First Ascent of a Real Route

Posted on: June 26, 2008

“In climbing style is everything…”

In the fridged van they apply their make-up, mainly winter stuff; the ‘Electro-Goths’ head into the tempest, tempted by unclimbed ice.

Apprehension in the air as all imagined forms of unclimbed ice come to mind; W6 pillars and mushrooms, long sustained pitches of perfection…Only for the future route to be altered as a consequence of these thoughts; because no expectations are ever met. Once conjured in the mind, anticipated in consciousness, the illusory world interacts and refashions the real forms of unclimbed ice.

“It is a pencil; now it’s a waterfall; It is an ice climb; now it’s a drip; It is a thought; now never exists”

Listening to electric beats, the drum machine their feet, Vega’s hitting hard scree because converse don’t fit crampons; to the Goth’s style is everything. Being the noughties not the eighties they wore lids, mullets no longer offer protection from falling ice. Three hours of uphill dance and the songs were wearing thin; strong winds had spoilt their hair from tangled mess to frozen distress.

Then a view of the route, initially it looked steep, they exclaimed ‘Sweet’. A harder stare and the ice, altered by expectations and imagination, is easy. Front Range wind drives fresh snow into their eyes grating like sandpaper, while soloing rambling straightforward frozen water.

The thought that the climb and them (the Goths) were stupid passed before their minds, as the anticipated was an anticlimax…At least in their minds eye they looked good; a hollow shell much like the ice they has just climbed.

Their expectations had ruined the real perceptions of now climbed ice. The imagined climb was better in every way, and never existed. *

* ‘Good Training for Nothing’ a WI3 in the David Thompson Corridor of the Canadian Rockies " this account bares almost no resemblance to the story of the first ascent.

Forgive Me Climber for I Have Sinned

Posted on: June 24, 2008

I didn’t set out to break the First Commandment of Ice Climbing: Thou shall not fall. I didn’t expect an epiphany to come from it either.

I fell in love with ice climbing the first time I swung an ice axe. In order to learn more I set up a deal with 2 professional climbing guides. As a graphic designer I would redesign their company website in exchange for climbing instruction. Over the course of 2 years they taught me the fundamentals of rock and ice climbing. Their instruction was uncompromising on systems, techniques, safety and objective hazard awareness. They became my mentors and friends.

Fast forward to year two of my climbing. I had about 50 days of climbing under my harness. My partner and I were climbing Shades of Beauty, a grade 4 climb off the Columbia Icefields Parkway in Alberta. I had already climbed this route twice the previous year and felt comfortable about being out there considering I was the more experienced ice climber. I was climbing the crux pitch and was preparing to place my third piece of protection. I had a good stance and was getting my left arm straight and high with the intent of putting in a screw with my right hand. In theory it was all good. However the ice wasn’t cooperating. As I swung to get purchase with the left axe, it would ricochet off. Swing two, no better. Swing three with extra strength but I’m no closer to getting a good placement. Swing four I’m prepared to put all I have into that swing when, with shock and surprise I realize that I’m staring at my right ice axe which is no longer in the ice. This is how Wiley Coyote must feel.

Ice axes directly in front of me and I’m dropping in space. I notice that I have time to think, which means I’m falling a long way. I feel the wind on my face. I’m wondering why I’m thinking so clearly. My protection held and rope stretch had me lightly touching down on what felt like angel wings at the base of the pitch. My fall was about 25 feet.

While my partner had virtually no ice climbing experience he was an experienced rock climber and had seen people fall many times which is a good thing since he helped me to stay calm. I had never taken a lead fall before. I looked up at the climb, stymied as to why I had fallen since I hadn’t felt beyond my ability. I went back up and lead the pitch, albeit with an Elvis leg accompanying me.

After my climb, I began to ruminate about what had happened and soon I realized that a dark angel was whispering in my ear. “What were you thinking, that you could lead ice, look what happened, you’re not on top-rope anymore little sister.” “You sure as hell let your climbing instructors down, they taught you everything an you still fucked up.” “You were lucky you weren’t seriously injured or killed for Christ’s sake, should you be doing this?” I felt embarrassed that I had done what no one else I knew had done, dare to fall on ice. And more disconcerting was I didn’t know what went wrong.

Eventually I did what I was dreading and called one of my guides. He became very professional and asked me to recount exactly what I remembered of the entire event from ice quality to each of my moves. As I was providing a play by play he interjected “What about downward pull on your right ice axe?” “What do you mean?” I asked. “Were you keeping downward pull on your axe while you were swinging with your left?” When I thought about it, I remember that on the fourth swing I actually pulled abit on my right ice axe to gain more leverage. It hadn’t even occurred to me about downward pull, I thought that hold was bomb-proof. He began to talk at length about how subtle movements can loosen the axe.

At last I knew the reason for the fall. But I was shocked and dismayed at my negligence. As I was speaking to my teacher and friend I realized I was close to breaking another Commandment: Thou shall not cry. I felt like such a inadequate asshole in that moment. I felt like I was carrying some mantle of responsibility not only to my teachers but to women in general since I knew so few female ice climbers and fewer who lead and now I had made them look bad too. I managed to mumble “I guess I let you down, after everything you taught me” There was silence on the other end which I assumed was tacit agreement. And finally he said something like “Are you crazy? I’m fucking proud of you, getting out there like you are. But you have to learn from your mistakes otherwise the experience is worthless.” I realized that the only person attending the pity party was me. Over time I talked to other climbers and only after I admitted my sin would their transgressions be revealed. Bulges that dinner-plated while their axes were on either side, slips on the ice, a moment of inattention and sometimes pure bad luck. None of these events resulted in serious injury and on principle they were rarely talked about after the fact. Apparently the First Commandment is broken by others after all.

The epiphany was revealed slowly and with time it dawned on me that falling may have saved my life. Downward pull on an ice tool is second nature to me now. I’ll never know if there would have been other times I would have made the same mistake with more dire consequences. I’ve also become a more aware climber asking myself “What don’t I know? Am I missing anything?” The reality of falling makes my climbing more exact and ultimately more confident.

I’ve come to realize that epiphanies can be wrapped in failure as easily as success. Hallelujah.

White, Snow, White

Posted on: June 24, 2008

Foggy. Step by step I climb the slope. Right ski, left ski, right ski, left ski, again and again, I move, exhausted.

The fresh snow is deep. It snowed for a long time, powder, too much.

The fog muffles all noises. Poor visibility. Too much silence, oppressive.

I keep on climbing but the snow is too much. Good but too much. Nice to ski. Hard to climb.

Beautiful to ride at high speed.

White out, I can’t see where the slope ends. I can’t distinguish between snow and fog. I see the snow covering my skis.

Too much snow. Hard to climb. I look steadily at my boots, step by step. I see the snow covering them. My head turns and turns. Everything’s white, a feeling of vertigo.

An air blow. A rumble. I’m moving, an unwilling movement. My head turns, and my boots and skis too.

I spin around an undefined spot. Everything’s white, speed, white light, no pain, no reference.

Air, white, rotation, confusion, incomprehension, crackle noise roaring... movement, rotation without spin, everything’s white. Sliding, still, I can’t distinguish between snow and fog, full and empty, up and down. Speed, wind against my face, snow beating my face, chill.

Vortex confusion consciousness speed darkness light snow… seconds minutes hours eternity. Slipping skiing or dreaming?

Silence, everything’s white. Vertigo. Everything’s still. Am I back to life?

Out of the Dark Room

Posted on: June 20, 2008

Twilight had set. Two more then we’re going.

Every time I miss the thin ledge, every time. And now dense blue sky pushed around, hiding the ledge, and everything else, but it was wired, it was going.

Greasy pocket to thin ledge. Poor feet. Miss.

It wasn’t going.

Crouch through the jumbled boulders of Buthiers, under the arch and it’s there. Perfect, the magic angle, the compelling point between the extremes. Thin ledges chop the belly of the beast, this is the line.

Last time. Slide through the dark, and it’s there, solid. The lights are on. Gather, this is good. Flow. Steady now, to the scattered light above.

Where? Darkness swirled to my right, erasing even those ugly, luminous chalk stains, it was all trust now. Slap. Pray. Somehow it’s there.

Come on

Yes! It’s done.

Even the twilight had faded now, but something was bright. I was out of the Dark Room.

Ry McHenry Northern Ireland Youth Climbing Team

Collateral Damage

Posted on: June 18, 2008

Stefan's dog was playing with his bowl in the corner of the kitchen. He dropped his front legs to the floor, stuck his nose into the empty bowl, and with a twist of his neck slammed it into the baseboard.

Trevor's worn nerves ripped. “Reinhold!” he bellowed. “Cut that shit out!”

Reinhold ignored Trevor. I poured another cup of coffee from the pot on the kitchen table.

Trevor resumed his account. “Stefan broke trail up through the base of the ravine. It didn't get technical 'til we got up to the gully. Just post-holing through new snow.” The tension in his voice intensified as he spoke.

“Once we got in the gully we found ice but it was thin. Early season stuff. We should have just turned around, Freddie. But we'd invested a lot of energy to get that far. Neither one of us wanted to admit that the best decision was to go home.” He stroked his beard. “We didn't discuss it.”

I interrupted. “But Trevor, we've been there under similar conditions. We've turned around. More than once.” I stared down at the table and shook my head.

“Sure, Freddie, ” he confirmed with a bitter tone. “But we weren't there with Stefan. When you're climbing with someone that strong there's a feeling that he can get up anything. You know. You've been there. The sun is shining; there's no wind; Stefan will lead. It'll be a great climb.”

“Yeah, I've been there,” I agreed. After a decade of climbing with Stefan, Trevor and I had felt that vibe often.

The bowl slammed again. Reinhold barked and shot a glance at Trevor, testing for a reaction, hoping for some attention from his new master. Trevor, now caught up in his story, seemed to have forgotten Reinhold.

He continued. “Right from the start Stefan was balancing up some really sketchy shit, but he was able to get in three decent screws. We had those bolts at the top of the first pitch so our anchor was solid. I just tippy-toed up without much worry. Stefan offered to swing leads but it was too dicey for me.” Trevor took a sip of coffee before continuing.

“Now there's no chance to get in a screw. He messed around at a couple of spots, giving it a try, but it was a waste of time. He just kept climbing, angling for the rock wall on the left. I guess he figured he could get in some gear at the wall. Then " and I don't know why " his right crampon came off. For one or two seconds it was dangling at the heel, and then it dropped clean off.”

“Did he fall right away?” I asked.

“No. He had his tools planted so-so and, I guess, a not-too-bad foot. I just held my breath. He'd run out about forty feet and didn't have a frigging thing in above my belay. He slowly, very slow-like, moved a tool a little farther to his left. Real slow and smooth. Headed for the wall. He did this one-legged thing where he'd set his tools and then swing over with his foot. I thought he'd make it. But after five or six of these moves a tool popped when he was moving his foot. He hung on by the other for maybe a second. Then it came out and down he came. Quietly. Didn't say anything. Nothing. He just slid and bounced right on past me. His helmet came off. Head injuries killed him. Flipped and bounced on his head.” Trevor sighed and resumed tugging at his beard. “Those bolts are solid. I'm here to vouch for that.”

He paused for a moment and then whispered, “We shouldn't have been up there. We had choices. Another week, a little more ice, a couple of screws and it would have been cool. But I figured with Stefan ...” Trevor stopped for a few seconds, watching the dog. “Well, you know, no worries.”

He got up from the table, retrieved Reinhold's dish from the floor, and tossed it into the sink. “More coffee, Freddie?”

“No, thanks,” I replied. “I'm meeting Claudine at twelve to help wrap up arrangements for the funeral. She's really suffering. Eight years. And now she's lost him.”

Trevor looked absently around the room. Suddenly he sat down and looked up with an angry expression. “Freddie? You know what pisses me off? It's those assholes that keep referring to Stefan's 'tragic death'. Tragic? He's dead, that's for sure. And, yeah, he was just thirty-one and all of that bullshit. But tragic? Tragic is those kids in Darfur that are starving to death! Tragic is some poor son-of-a-bitch with a wife and three kids sitting down at his desk just when a frigging terrorist flies an airplane through his office window! That's tragic. Stefan getting his ass killed falling down some ice?”

His tone softened. “That ain't tragic.” He shook his head, the anger returning in his voice as he whispered, “Sad? Sure! But not tragic!”

I shrugged and moved towards the door. Then I turned back to Trevor. “Trevor? What about his mom and dad? And Claudine? He was everything in her life! For them it's an awful hurt. It's a tragedy for them. Isn't it?”

“For them? Yeah, for them it's tragic. They have to live with it. No damn choice. But not tragic for Stefan. He had choices. Didn't he, Freddie?”

I nodded and left. Reinhold bounced out the door and trotted at my heels, hoping to hitch a ride home to play with Stefan. “Stay, Reinhold,” I commanded.

My truck slipped down the snowy drive. In the rear view mirror I could see the dog, lying in the drive, head between his paws, watching the truck leave. Yeah, Reinhold, I thought. It's the bystanders. They're the ones that pay the piper.

The Old Saxifrage

Posted on: June 17, 2008

The Old Saxifrage

(with apologies to Emma)

Not like the shiny metal of apple fame,

With arrogant concrete grasping from hope to hope;

Here at our wind scorned, wintered mother's perch

A tiny life with a spark, who's light

Is the spectrum of a universe, and her name

Breaker of Rocks. From her slight tawny frame

Glows remarkable indifference; her delicate display embraced

The jagged line where earth and ether struggle "Keep puny man, your absurd toil!" cries she With hollow indifference.

"Give me your fetid wounds, your nails, Your weakened knees, searching for higher purpose, The tragic cycle of a refusal to indifference Send these shattered frames, concussion whipped, to me: I raise my staff amongst the shadowed cold"


Posted on: June 17, 2008

The day began with a simple enough, 6a sport-climb. But, while I lowered to the ground, a local man took an extraordinarily keen interest in our equipment. Did he need climbing equipment?

The nomadic lifestyle of goat herders in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco lends itself to having the time to watch the recreational movements of climbers while keeping one eye on the goats. We had grown accustomed to the normal gazes of the locals. They always had wishes of good luck, and relished the opportunity to practice a few words of a foreign language. But today, this man, whom we had never met, was pulling on the rope and investigating the stickiness of our climbing rubber. After thoroughly kicking the tires, he decided we were primed for a task.

Hamu had woken in the morning to find seven of his goats sleeping on a high perch far above the riverbed. The cliff walls were too steep for Hamu to ascend, and evidently the goats were also reluctant to down-climb the precipice. He told us, in a combination of French and Berber (neither of which we speak), of his predicament. He needed the goats down, so he could keep moving. He wanted us to climb to the level of the goats and assist in herding them off. He pointed out exactly where they were, and demonstrated how to throw rocks near them to scare them into the intended direction. We had seen this done, and understood our job.

This, however, was not the problem. The true obstacle facing me was a conflict between an opportunity to help a fellow man, and the need to maintain my relationship. Melanja had never climbed more than 30 meters off the ground! Despite my constant pleas to give multi-pitch, traditionally protected climbing a try, this young Slovenian was perfectly content to stick with single-pitch, sport-climbing. To her, the challenge in climbing was in getting to the next grade, not the next peak. I knew diplomacy was needed.

Admittedly, my desire to get a little higher of the ground may have biased my explanation of the situation. But we’re talking about saving goats! We’re going to help an old man. It will be simple climbing. I was elated when she said she was up for it - because she “couldn’t say no to an old man,” and “If the goats can climb it!” If my alpine ambitions had not been enough to persuade her, then this man’s plight had tugged the right heartstrings. She had barely finished saying okay, before I had pulled our rope " draws in place " and was coiling it over my shoulder. Our first goat herding experience would also be her first multi-pitch!

I think Hamu expected the swift ascent that he had seen in my sport-climb warm up. He had no way of knowing that I was coercing Melanja up each pitch, shortening every lead to be able to coach every step of the way. Seemingly, she was motivated by our mission. I was happy to see her smiling " our climb connecting her to the kind people of this area. But our pace was snail-like, and this is what the people below saw.

At about the halfway point of our climb, the whistling began. We turned and looked, but could not decipher their gestures. We continued our ascent. As we got higher, the calls became more pointed. We were having fun, but the crowd had grown to a herd of its own, and Melanja began to fell pressured. We were about ten meters from the terrace, and we could not see the goats. The whistling and waving was clear at this point " they wanted us to come down. We reasoned that we must have scared them down the other side, and essentially accomplished our mission.

After a few abseils, and a little down-climbing, we reached the valley floor. Only Hamu’s family remained, and they were all smiles. We were full of pride, certain we had helped this man, and his goats. “Motos?” I inquired, referring to the goats. Hamu expressed that the goats remained stranded. But he was relieved that Melanja was on the ground. He had not considered her involvement, and felt that those heights are no place for a woman. They called us off because they were afraid for Melanja.

Even though we were disappointed that we could not help, Hamu and his family had prepared some ‘Whisky Berber’ as a token of their gratitude. We were clearly warned to not drink the river water, and the small fire obviously did not produce the BTUs to boil the water. Furthermore, the family’s teacups were made from old plastic cups that probably held motor oil at one point. Aware of this, Hamu’s wife ostentatiously wiped them clean for us with the dirtiest rag I have ever seen. It was clear that we would receive our thanks in the form of a g-track nightmare. Visions of taking turns squatting over a pit toilet for a few days ran through both our minds.

Whatever the risk, the significance of this gesture was not lost on us. And, since I lacked the communication skills to explain that, “We do not want to be insulting, but our poorly developed, third-world intolerant, digestive tracts would never…” we knew we had no choice. So with a shared glance, and a quick prayer to Allah, it was bottoms up.

We never got sick, but that’s not the only reason we considered ourselves lucky.

Amazir is the Berber word for ‘independent man’. These people, who live simply, are free to travel the land as they wish. As climbers, and adventurous athletes, we too revel in the spirit of the amazir " taking pride in our ability to escape social norms. But for as much as we feel our lives are self-determined, we cannot deny our need for community. These chance exchanges of cultures should serve as a model for our lives. It is our differences that bring us together.

Calling You from a Cloud

Posted on: June 15, 2008

Fragments of a diary written in darkness, wearing gloves

Engstligenalp, Switzerland, July 28

I walked up here this morning, I hiked all around the plateau, going up from 6250 feet to a ridge at 8500 feet than back to 7900 feet, then climbing along the ridge a bit, then back again at 6200 than up to another mountain in another direction and finally from 7900 feet down again to sleep at 6200… Now I am all set, well-fed, just sitting by a table outside, facing the full moon hidden in the same mass of cloud where the refuge is… Only since a couple of minutes did these flocks of giant clouds start to float up along the valley and along the precipice of a giant waterfall and now visibility is less than 65 feet. Within the veil of a thick and dense night, there is a layer of fog that envelops everything. I just found some train schedules in my pocket, so I am writing on the back of these papers with cold hands.

It has been more than a month I haven’t seen you, Dear One and I will have to wait another two weeks before you come. Then I will ’loose’ you again, while you and your fellows climb Weisshorn and some more alpine peaks. Then I meet you at the end of August to possibly climb something together with you. In the meantime we develop this habit of sending each other an sms each time one of us reaches a summit, builds a belay place or at least experiences mountain at its purest state.

This morning I hoped so much I would have an experience enabling me to report you right from the spot: YES, I am on a ridge, I see far and I am sending you my love! This is how I set off. When the routes divided themselves, there was one up to a mild summit called Ammertenspitz and I took it. After crossing this huge plateau crowned all around by the Tschingellochtighorn, Chindbettlihorn, Wildstrubel, Rotstock and so many other peaks I had to cross literally a square mile of cows, mainly wildly living out there all summer. Well, one would expect cows to be neutral if not friendly, but these were quite organized and warned each other about the danger they thought I represented for them. There was no question of stopping nearby and taking pictures of them, they made it clear that they preferred me picking up the pace and heading higher.

Although there was a couple of hikers about 300 feet above me, they kept disappearing and re-appearing behind rock formations as the route turned, so I was in fact all alone. Right at the beginning I left behind a German party, they are now far below. As I greeted them I caught the eyes of the last one in the row: an elderly woman. I knew how she felt, I knew how the uphill route was for her… I just felt the effort she made to keep the rhythm of her companions. So many times I had experienced this, and as I grow older chances are I will know that feeling again. I sent her a thought of sympathy.

Then I trudged on, from stone to stone and left behind a thick snow patch that was still lying there as a last reliquary of a bygone winter.

Already the moment I set off I felt how much a balm mountains can be to the soul. The mere fact of seeing and touching them, the view they offer, the wind that blows away mundane worries about workplace stress made me finally feel at ease. This is an easy excursion, loneliness is enjoyable as there is no particularly big risk and I feel just so happy. At times my thoughts wander away, I feel you, and I feel this eagerness to finally hike the same routes with you.

From the ridge it takes me 26 minutes to reach the summit. It is easy to hurry up when there is cold. The view is worth those six hours in the train and all the money the journey costs. The indescribable savageness of the other side and of its steep precipices mesmerizes me. I feel also how the bone-meal is going stiffer in me with the wind getting to power. First I couldn’t take my eyes away from the other end of the valley in the direction of the Wildstrubel and Lenk, and now I cannot see much of it.

The facing ridge is ceaselessly generating cold clouds, relentlessly sending over these dark missionaries of a cruel, stormy caprice. I put my jacket on, have a bite of chocolate and dig my mobile phone out. I am doing all this in one huge mass of grey cloud as the morose messengers all unite around my summit here and around my wind-blown lonely self. Clouds keep coming and coming and coming, not giving wind a chance to break up their line…

No, this will not be an sms. I want to call you, consciously forgetting the roaming fees. The only thing I don’t want to forget is to start downwards as soon as possible. I hear your surprised voice.

‘Yes it is me indeed, you see, I just wanted to be the first woman to call you from a cloud’, I say. You chuckle, ‘you actually ARE the first woman ever to call me from a cloud.’ Never did I miss you so much, but I didn’t say anything about this, I just spell you the name of the mountain I am on and I blow a kiss in the wind. We disconnect, I start balancing down, and can no more afford to think of you. The slope consists of broken haphazardly heaped plaques of stone, it wouldn’t be fortunate if any of them played banana peel with me.

Whether It is Worth It or Not

Posted on: June 15, 2008

Whether it is worth it or not, you only come to know long after you have started the game.

Only when you have left everything behind... The last and lost roads where man-made means of conveyance can take you, the last pathways where diligent or hysteric four-legged porter friends are able to step, the last marked and then unmarked paths, the last slopes where birds still venture up, the last heaps of stones only humans can struggle themselves up to " before beginning an arduous trudge on cracking ice " the last somewhat secure solid ground below your feet… Only when you will have left behind even the insecure grounds of snow with black hollow spaces opening in treacherous crevasses and whatever comes afterwards, still offering you some place for your ice axes and for the front spikes of your crampons…

You have to leave behind everything that has to do with horizontal in order to meet with horizon itself. The last few meters, the end of it will at last make you realize whether it was worth doing. By the time the exposed trackless route into the sky itself has taken toll on your entire being, by the time the rarefied air hardly can quench your gasping lungs, by the time a nameless, discrete grace from beyond the veils of headache and muscle pain helps you higher on till your eyes literally reach the level of the ridge and by the time you get the first glimpse of all that is behind this ridge, you will surely know that it is well worth it.

This may be the most breath-taking moment and it may come before you can plant both your feet on the summit or before you can sit on it as in a saddle. The moment when you first get to see what is beyond the ridge-curtain… At first you see only summits emerging above the facing valleys, then glaciers and entire mountain ranges as the totality of a valley or of a wide labyrinth of valleys reveals itself beneath your feet.

This is the precious moment you are initiated in views the other side can offer, a sheer second before you instinctively prevent yourself from stepping further out on the edge. Oh, yes, watch out as it may only be a brim of blank snow that may break down below your weight and may take you into the void... If you have consciously lived a moment like this in its full intensity, you know that the happiest moment of a climb and the moment of standing on the absolute top do not necessarily coincide even if they usually are connected.

It's worth the trouble, now you know. To accomplish the journey, you make the final ritual steps, until nothing more is above you. Here you may do the rest of your personal ceremonials, you may feel proud or lonesome, may smile or may cry, may be overconfident, may cherish self-indulgence, may be grateful or forgetful, may be a hero copied from magazine covers or may be just your humble self...

‘Here man can visit, but cannot live’, writes Sri Aurobindo when talking about the higher regions, the worlds above our mind's understanding. So true, in the physical and geographical sense, too. You are standing at the place you so much yearned for, you so much strove for. And your only reward is a drift of cold wind splashing icy crystals in your face. Eventually a piece of chunky chocolate or some lukewarm tea still left in the bottom of your thermos. In the very last case, a thought of God, with the slight hope that God is also thinking of you exactly at the same moment…

You are standing at the place that once became your goal, your motivation, your raison d’être, your driving force, your obsession... And you are only halfway! The same arduous way is again ahead of you, you ought to get down where you started from. Down. Well, that’s where you really belong to. The realm you can inalienably claim as yours is down there, love it or not. It is for them, and for your tiny self down there that you are doing all this, you better admit it. It is not for some whimsy gods dwelling on imaginary or real ridges of the inaccessible space that you are pushing yourself on and on, groping for the limits of your endurance. It is for the sake of all that is down there and for someone who craves within you to know what is it like, up here, in a realm seemingly ever inaccessible for the common mortal.

You are only halfway! You have to get down, back to the dreams that implemented themselves in and through you. You have to go down again, to dream new dreams and to unfold the fulfilled ones to onlookers. You have to share the gift divine. Yet, you cannot bring them snowflakes, neither pebble... What will you take from the ridge where you met the sky close up?

Take them the sky itself. It is living in your eyes now, once you tasted its vastness, it never leaves your regard. Once you had a mouthful of infinity, its taste will permeate every wish of yours. Once you walked high above the clouds, it is the unfathomable blue depth of space that will make your heart its abode. Share this with those down there. Take care, you are only halfway... But you have the entire sky in you to confirm that it was worth striving.

Report from Very High Latitudes; A Personal Account of Northeast Brazil Climbing

Posted on: June 13, 2008

Sited in front of my computer, with that awakening courage of doing nothing, typical of very early times of the morning, I noticed there was only one impetus that inspired me to stand up from bed and cross my room to sit on my computer chair. From there, looking out the window, I’m granted with very colorful and bright scenery. The turquese blue sea stretches out to the horizon line. On land, the only movement is a procession march of weekend vendors, the first to get to the beach on weekends, walking toward they semanal labor, which is wonder around hot sand selling (coco)nuts, fruits, hot dogs or pirate dvds. Palm trees and countless white skyscrapers frame the picture.

I can't feel tired from every single day appreciating that view, although I still can never find the object of my early morning inspirations in it. Nevertheless, I filled with joy by the pretty sight of the ocean, called my bro and requested his company in the fulfilling of an overwhelming innermost motivation. This last act reminded me of how important is sintony-with-a-partner, as he promptly answered: "I was about to call you for the same thing, it's all set and we have to meet the guys in front of the hardware shop in 1 hour".

Active mode turned on; I filled my pack with all goods necessary, three or four objects, and flea the building. Coming outdoors is impacting, as the tropical brightness and heat dazzles. Approaching the bus stop, the figure of a man, with what seems to be a huge suitcase, gradually got less and less blurred by the flaming asphalt heat. Is Diogo, waiting. A cow crosses the street.

We hoped on an empty, black smoking, minibus and stare at the traffic flux coming, while we go. Soon we hit a junction though, with very heavy transit. The sensation is of going through a pump, resembling a heart, which from an inside pressure spills pedestrians, bikes, buses and trucks in every direction, to the arteries of the city. The core of this place gives the impression of the world’s most dense demographics. Open-air dirty markets share space with eletric products exposed on sidewalks and an orgy of small credit shops and small money ever changing hands, along with loud speakers pouring ‘brega’ (a local dancing-erotic music style) on the air, all suggest a vague interpretation for the somehow ironic neighborhood name: Prazeres (pleasure).

We hoped off and try to walk across this tumult in an intrepid manner, but we couldn’t help feeling frivolous, in the pursue of our own goals, as the crowd hassled around for a living. Truly no one bothered to acknowledge our existence, but all eyes seemed accusatory of something intriguing out-of-place in our selfishness. We kept going.

Finally arriving at the meeting spot we were again motorized and packed in a cheap small car stuffed with people and foam, thus heading to the highway. At the 15km plaque sit a roadside garden plants shop. From there, an entrance to a fenced field gives access to two adobe constructions where reside a family of peasants. We badly verbally communicate with these local people, but there seem to be a tacit agreement of respect, as at least while we’ve been coming here we were never expelled. In years, handguns assaulted us only once. A bull’s-eye one, as it was a matter for a hijack. But that’s another tale.

Popping from the ground, just five meters from the road, a labyrinth of black rock boulders, hard grit stile, covers 10km2 of small hills. Around the year there is a rotation of fields in the plantation of cassava (“macaxeira”) which determines which sector is more accessible than other, as the vegetation, when let to go wild, produce countless and omniscient poison ivies, growing grabbed anywhere their seed lands on, like inside crimp holds, for the worst. “Urtigas voadoras”, (“Flying Poison-Ivies” in English) is the name for one of the hardest routes of the whole place. Not graded. Quality of the rock is not the most popular in the world of bouldering, but there are fanatic lovers. Abrasion is extreme, tearing the softened - by the 80% round-year air humidity - fingertips in a matter of minutes. Holds are rare and establishing problems is like gem hunting. Beware of religions dispaches found on boulder, better not touch them.

Topping out a good problem on the summit of a hill it stroke me a line of thought. I realized, looking at the view of the city skyline, made by innumerous high buildings against a blue background ocean - still bounding the horizon - that hardly 10 persons regularly practiced ‘bouldering’ (word with no translation in Portuguese) in that 2 million people metropolis, and those who didn’t, couldn’t even vaguely conceive it existed such an activity. Then I looked at my feet and saw the holed ungluing rubber of my imported climbing shoes, thus remembering it would take at least a month to dribble the prohibitive taxes and smuggle a new one in. Finally, I thought that somehow in the local x global paradox of our times, my few friends and me were segregated resistors of a practice fed by the virtuality of Internet videos and foreign magazines. Nevertheless we became all around good climbers, traveling around the country ascending from boulders to big walls. Stunned me the fact that what made us continue doing it was not, in any sense, the recognizal for what we’ve already done, the routes we sent, as this was none existent. What made us prosper in such a non propitious environment, was such and only the nostalgia of all the places we knew we still haven’t been, of climbers we’ve never met yet, of routes we never seen till then. Is the same reason why the whole joy of climbing is not related to reaching the top, but with puzzling the way up, with imprinting human meaning to some raw chunk of nature.

The Alpine Blitz

Posted on: June 12, 2008

If you lived in Alberta, Canada, most would say "Move to Banff, Jasper, heck even Calgary would do". But to some, Edmonton has been a home base I am one of those.

We have perfected the art of the "Alpine Blitz".

First, conditions must be right. Word of mouth and some websites help alot, but an open mind is even more important. Once you get there, things might have changed and plan B must always be in the workings.

Second, you must stay in physical prime from late July till the end of October if you really want to reduce that "tick list". When the call comes "Hey man, I heard the Beckey-Chouinard was bone dry yesterday" you must be ready to step up to the plate.

Third, make sure your vehicle of choice is tip top. Don't forget to check for a jack and spare. You won't get anywhere without a car there.

Now, leave work early. A suden illness is a good one, just remember wich one you used last time. Pack the car, hopefully done the night before but if it's a true blitz, just trough it all in the trunk. You'll probably use it all anyways.

Fight to get out of the city then line up for a coffee. You ain't making it without one of those either. Drive between 3-4 hours. Park, eat, sleep , climb, descend. Eat, sleep, drive 5 hours (it's always slower coming back).

Regardless of the outcome of the climb, the look on your face at work the next day will make anybody believe you could've been sick yesterday. Exagerate for effect, words of diarhea are a good interogation ender.

Repeat next time a high pressure ridge comes in.

Alpinist Comforts

Posted on: June 9, 2008

The comfort of being in an alpine environment brings a level calm. We can avoid everything and avoid nothing at the same time.

We work to fund trips. We work half years to claim more tax back, which is then instant trip finance.

We blag free equipment from friends in the industry, on a “test” basis, only to use it and ebay it, then for it to be transformed into something else that we need for the next trip.

We watch the weather obsessively before a big trip, for once the weather chick is not worthy of our attention.

People we work with do not understand how anyone can find enjoyment in suffering in the cold. They do not appreciate pure water ice, the low moisture content of true powder snow or the danger of windslab and rock fall.

Our friends seem amazed by the photographs, the endless tales and the quality of dinner party guest you are at their otherwise dull tables full off bank workers, accountants and “normal people”.

Your family are concerned that you are looking for trouble heading into the mountains. The only thing you are looking for is some kind of perspective away from people who are concerned.

We are driven by the ability to be able to visualise, to read an account or route description and be there, feel through the roof to the jug, torque and jam our fingers, feet and tools.

We earn the right to extreme thought during long approaches, this kind of mental purging is our release valve.

We need to keep thinking, keep visualising, keep looking at the possibilities, keep studying the old magazines for new potential lines, keep studying the maps again and again until it makes sense.

Will this life ever make sense?

Tale of a Cliffside Whale

Posted on: June 7, 2008

If I was not a climber, I would not see the things that I have seen. If I don’t continue to climb, I will surely miss future sights, sounds, and perspectives. Climbing in Alaska leaves my fingertips aching and the sights I see leave my soul aching for more. Sometimes a rope is all that is needed to connect to another world.

Southeast Alaska isn’t known for great dry rock but when it does allow its seaside cliffs a few days sun, an astounding combination is in order. The accessibility of nearby glaciers in Juneau has led my partner Tim and I to swing an ax more often than to place a cam but that hasn’t stopped us from accumulating a rack to lead on rock. The skies had not unleashed a drop of rain for seven days. In an area that only receives an average of 30 sunny days a year we literally jumped on the rock.

The Sea Cliffs aren’t huge, in fact none of the routes on the grey igneous rock are more than one pitch but the ocean laps at the steep shoreline of jumbled black boulders just 15 feet behind the base of the climb Tim started up. The shiny colored cams and nuts jangled from one side of his harness and his ten pound film camera hung under one shoulder. 30 feet up he anchored himself to the wall and continued to belay me up from below planning to shoot some photographs.

I tied into the rope and pulled my hair back. To feel warm rock on my fingertips was enough to keep me smiling all week. After navigating the first few difficult holds and separating myself from the rocks below by about 20 feet I came to a precious foothold two inches deep. While reaching for the next nub of rock far above, an enormous exhalation sprayed forth from the water below and behind me. I would have fallen had it not been for that foothold. I clung to the rock while whipping my head around to see the head of a humpback whale, lunging vertically out of the water.

My body seemed to float as part of the air next to the cliff, my mind disconnected, but my fingers pinched the sharp hold until they were white. I heard Tim’s camera shutter clicking wildly. We both shouted expletives that began with “holy” and I quickly glanced back toward the rock to better position myself.

I squinted into the reflective water. The enormous shiny body of the whale lunged again a moment later and then as playful as a golden retriever asking for his belly to be scratched, rolled over, waving an eight-foot-long flipper. I could nearly feel the spray of its breath. Its body slowly turned, spiraling little curls of blue water around it. The white underside of the flipper dipped back into the water and then its tale flukes briefly popped up. As if waving hello, it looked at us up on the cliff from its side. It appeared just as curious about our four limbs and cliff-clinging forms as we were about its beautiful and mysterious nautical life.

“Only in Alaska,” I muttered. Only here would I find myself clinging to the side of a cliff while a whale jumps for a view at me just several yards away. My neck ached from twisting it around owl-like for more than ten minutes, my shoulders burned from hanging onto that hold. The Chiklat range rested across the channel, their peaks catching the pink and yellow rays of the setting sun at 6,000 feet. I didn’t pay much attention to my muscles.

Our timing could not have been better but more than anything our interaction with the whale had been one of a kind. Being a climber is in part about seeing things from unusual perspectives. Had we not been on the wall the whale might not have seen us in the first place.

The whale came up for air several more times, its powerful lungs releasing moist air more than ten feet high. Tim belayed me down. My mind was not on the rock anymore. The climb was one of the shortest I had done but by far the most magnificent. We collected the rope and sat on the boulders watching the humpback rise for air every few minutes as it swam northwest into the glowing sky reflected in the rippling channel.

Tim coiled the blue rope. It held all the words we didn’t have when the two unlikely species of climber and whale came to meet.

The Snaz

Posted on: June 5, 2008

After mantling onto the ledge and clipping in, my partner hands me two nuts. “These both fell out,” he says. I show my teeth behind a grimacing smile of embarrassment. “Thanks for the heads up,” as I re-rack them. Perhaps, it’s time for ground school again.

Matt smoothly walks up the flaring corner, hesitates for a moment as he places a red cam in black rock and then cleanly pulls through a body length of jams in the 5.10 roof. As I follow the crux I struggle to stem and face climb around the gritty jams. Cutting up my hands will put me out of work, massage therapy and climbing aren’t the best mix. A minute and a half of groin stretching and strenuous butt-hole clenching against the high altitude shits brings me over the lip.

“Nice work,” I say at the belay. “I almost crapped my pants back there! No, seriously... I think keeping my bowels under control was as hard as the moves!” We both laugh in agreement. What is it about climbing that turns your stool into a smooth paste anyway? I have now adopted a strict ritual of patiently expelling my breakfast no more than thirty minutes before departure. The only other time I have neglected this habit I ended up in a large crack, half-way up Temple Crag, sacrificing my shirt to clean up after myself. The painful sunburn that lingered for the next few days strongly reinforced my new ethos; crap before you climb, and bring some TP for backup. Failure to do this lowers my climbing ability by a full grade.

I cower up the next pitch of 5.7 corner, veritable belay ledges spaced every seven feet. Fortunately, our partnership was forged from friendship and Matt thinks no less of me, even on my weakest days.

We only linger at the last belay “enjoying” the view for a few minutes before I press Matt to head down. It’s lunch time anyway. When we get back to the base Matt removes his pack from a dead branch stein pulled in a small alcove. “Brilliant,” I think, marveling at the cave man engineering. We share garlic clove bread and sliced chunks of dry Italian sausage. I brought the food, matt the rack. He comments that he likes that about climbing; everyone contributes something. He’s having problems with some girl and my girlfriend’s been a bitch all week. There’s nothing to do about it though, so we shoulder our packs and forget about it. The camaraderie of the mountains will always draw me back. And as long as my partner climbs harder than I do, it will keep me regular as well.

Flailing: A Play in Two Acts

Posted on: June 4, 2008

Act One.

The Scene: Approximately 2 PM at about 18,500 ft. above Denali’s Orient Express.

The Characters: Me: A 40-ish guy with a wife, kids and mortgage. Partner: Similar, only single and more handsome.

The Setting: After a long, cold morning of ascending the West Rib, the characters face the possibility not summiting. Travel conditions: Knee to crotch-deep snow interlaced with fiendish boulders.

Me (to Self): “Argh! We were cruising. This sucks. Stupid snow. The top’s still a ways off. I think my feet are alright. Should have brought overboots. Why hasn’t he offered to take the lead? Ahhhh! Shit. Up to my crotch again.”

Partner (to Self): “Argh! Postholing. Too slow. We’re not gonna make it for sure. Where’s the top again? I don’t wanna spend a night out up here. Frickin’ sufferfest, for sure. What’s he thinking?”

Me (to Partner, aloud): “Man, the footing….uhhhh!” (Hard breathing) “I’m really whacked. What do you think? You wanna try for a while?”

Partner (to Me, aloud): “No, you’re doing great. I think we should go over there by those smaller boulders. It might be easier. If we can’t, then maybe we should call it.”

Me (to Self): “What? Call it? Call it?” (to Partner, aloud): “OK, I’ll try for another 15 or so. Let’s see. We’re not that far off.”

Partner (to Self): “Holy crap. Not that far off? Is he crazy? Screw it. This place sucks, anyway. 14.2’s a joke. This is a joke. My hands…how are they doing? Are they bad?” (to Partner, aloud): “All right, you’re looking good. Go ahead and check it out.”

Me (to Self while climbing): “Uhhhh. So slow. All that work. My one chance to summit. What a fricking flail.”

Partner (to Self): “Wow, I’m glad I’m not breaking. Unbelievable. I’ll let him go on for a while, and then we’ll bail. The pantywaist. I’ll never hear the end of it.” (to Partner, aloud): “Looking good! Keep it up!”

Act Two.

The Scene: 14.2 basecamp. 6 PM. Both characters are sitting by their tent, unroped.

Me (to Self): “God, he's an idiot. Why didn’t we top out? We should have gotten up at 2, not 4. I’m just so bummed.” (to Partner, aloud) “Sorry. Not happening today.”

Partner (to Self): “What should I say? Be a hard-ass , or not? Do I ever want to want to climb with him again? It was a tough day. Maybe I shouldn’t be too tough on him.” Pause. (to Me, aloud): “It’s cool. Lotta work up there. I should have been more helpful.”

Me (to Self): “At last, some conciliation. About time. Hmmm, do I want to climb with him again?” (to Partner, aloud): “Yeah, we could have done better. Live and learn.”

Partner (to Self) : “ I like this guy. Good man.” (to Me, aloud): “Yeah.” Pause. “Hey, if we ration our food, we could try again tomorrow, what do you say?”

Me (to Partner, aloud and grinning): “You’re on.”