The Climbing Life

Posted on: November 27, 2006

[Photo] Dodo Kopold

After the Expedicion

A mountain had been climbed; no one had died or even lost extremities to the cold. Richards, the guide, sat on a hotel porch in Huaraz while the hotel owner, Jeemay, disappeared into the smoke-filled kitchen. He returned a few minutes later with two glasses of pisco puro.

As they drank, Jeemay asked Richards to shed light on the behavior of his rich American clients, that certain kind of gringo you can't please no matter what.

"They're as much a mystery to me," Richards, an American himself, said, "as they are to you."

They shared more glasses, speaking less and less frequently. Richards was mildly surprised, but not alarmed, to see particles of his personality drift into the twilight with the ash above the small cooking fire that smoldered in the yard.

As the day's last glow ignited the snow-covered peaks, Richards began to repeat their names softly, from north to south, like a magic spell that would make things right: "Oshapalca, Ranrapalca, Pucaranra, Cayesh...."

Seven years earlier, before he'd drifted here and started guiding, he'd noticed nothing but the mountains' beauty. He was immersed in his annus mirabilis, his year of wonder: three Himalayan expeditions and a new technical route on a 7000-meter peak. But at the end of the year, the accidents had begun, and now his successes would always be balanced against an unwritten page of his climbing resume, against the darkness.

Richards woke on top of his bedcovers, his boots paired neatly at the foot of his bed—not the first time Jeemay had carried him to his room. The air was already stifling with the early morning heat. After breakfast, Richards took his cafe con leche on the porch and looked out over the cock-fighting arena below, watching the young birds strut and peck.

He was joined by a young Spanish climber. The Spaniard was still a boy, shy, with somewhat feminine features; he climbed long and hard routes, always alone, three that summer. The first two he'd managed quickly; it was the first time either had been soloed. The last had never been climbed before, and it had taken the boy close to thirty days to finish. The boy told Richards of one more climb he hoped to do before returning to Spain.

Richards nodded. He was nearly overcome by the urge to tell the boy to return home immediately, find a woman, learn a trade. Instead Richards said, un momento, and went to his room.

He returned with his plastic boots—this year's model. He gave them to the boy, who protested in astonishment, even though he needed such boots dearly. Richards assured the boy that he had no further use for them. If you get out of it with your life, Richards thought, perhaps you'll want your toes.

Richards remembered the surgical tool that had amputated his: the gleaming, stainless pruning sheers with a curved beak. Spring-loaded. The sound it made. The thing was this: he had been lucky and no one, least of all himself, felt otherwise. He had surrendered three toes to a bivy high above the Khumbu, but his partner, Jensen, had surrendered the whole of it. That night they had agreed not to speak in the unlikely event that one of them managed to sleep. He didn't think Jensen would just slip away like that. They had so looked forward to sunrise. Instead, in the morning, like a thief, Richards grabbed Jensen's camera and journal, the chunk of turquoise around his lifeless neck, and cinched the hood of Jensen's bivy sack tight. Son of a bitch, he said. God rest your soul. Then he staggered down to high camp.

As he was leaving the Spanish boy, Richards thought of one more thing he wanted to say, but when he turned he saw that the boy's face had taken on the sad and wise look that was his natural expression. He already knows, thought Richards, backing away. He already knows.

When they were working on his feet, Richards, insensible with grief and painkillers, had felt as if he were in a barber's chair. One of the porters had stood nearby chain-smoking in silence. "You go from peak to peak," the man said, "from nothing to nothing." He smiled as he backed away, hands folded as though he were praying.

Now Richards caught the bus to los banos at Monterey. He would soak out the sweat and the memories of his most recent clients, their childlike demands, their ceaseless fretting. He would soak out thoughts evoked by the Spanish boy's youth and the emptiness that seemed vaster than ever—for his veinte minutos or longer, until the attendant beat on the door with his fist because whole families down from the mountains were waiting.

The people who used the baths and the people who used the pool, the terrace restaurant and the hotel were two distinct classes. These days, Richards belonged to neither. He reserved himself a place in line for the baths and wandered up to the terrace, where he ordered beer. There was one table of young men and another of old men. They wore linen jackets and mirrored lenses. New money. When they caught his eye, he lifted his bottle in a silent toast, drank from it and grinned. Richards was going the other way.

Luciano, an arriero who had accompanied him on some of his expediciones, was in line ahead of him. Since each bath was designed for at least four people, Richards asked Luciano if they could share. Luciano spoke Quechua; Spanish was his second language, too. When he finally understood, he looked startled. Norteamericanos were supposed to be able to afford showers of their own. But once Richards had shivered through the night with Luciano and the arrieros, wrapped in the same burro saddle blankets, and so now, perhaps for that reason, Luciano agreed. Gringo locos.

[Illustration] Bill Temples

Luciano stared. Richards had risen from the tub and begun to dress in Luciano's clothing. The pants contained the sweat and dirt of uncountable seasons of burro tending; their legs ended, predictably, three or four inches above his ankles. Richards put on each of Luciano's three shirts carefully like a priest with his cassocks and surplices, then Luciano's oil-stained, once-orange ski parka, the gift of some foreign climber.

Richards took Luciano's blanket and slung it over his shoulder. He gestured to Luciano that his clothes, which he had removed with great deliberation and folded neatly on a single chair, were now Luciano's. He took the money out of his money belt. There were four fifties and some smaller bills in American money and a thick wad of soles, worth about 3,500 to the dollar and rising daily. He indicated that he was buying Luciano's clothes. Richards took out his passport and airline ticket, which he tried to explain were for Luciano as well and that he could sell them for enough soles to buy an old truck or even a small mud-brick house. When Richards began to open the door, Luciano opened his mouth to protest, but no words came out.

After the second day Richards was so dirty that not even the beggar children noticed him. Two weeks later he was many kilometers north of Huaraz. He had been feverish for days, lying in a straw-filled lean-to, in a high valley pasture. A guardiano had shared food with him, until, suddenly, the boy had seemed unnerved by his presence and hurried off.

When he returned with four other men, Richards first assumed it was out of curiosity. But they began gesticulating wildly. Policia, gringo, Sendero Luminoso. Peligroso, peligroso! The men had brought him a basket of food under the condition that he take it elsewhere.

Once he got moving, Richards felt better. The road led into the mountains—where else? Though a soft rain began to fall, the sky had a preternatural light that reminded him of the trek into Ama Dablam. His first expedition. He had been walking with Jensen, each of them giddy with packlessness, their first approach with porters.

They could hardly keep from running. A light snow had begun to fall. Then, the sky brightened. Richards and Jensen stopped, held their palms out to catch the flakes, opened their mouths skyward, laughing like children. This climb is going to be so great. And so will the ones that follow. All of life out there.

Jensen told him the story of a broken-down boxer dancing on his toes, gloves raised triumphantly in the air, crying to the heavens that he would take on all comers: "Anybody! Anybody!"

And then he and Jensen were up on their toes, arms raised, shouting, "Anybody! Anybody!" The snow continued to fall on the trail toward Ama Dablam.

Here in the Blanca, the rain had turned to snow and the two-track dwindled to a single glittering trail, almost filled in. So this is the shining path, Richards thought. He much preferred the Spanish: Sendero Luminoso. Such beautiful words.

At some point he had become soaked. Now he was shivering, but he continued. Darkness was upon him. And stars—it was clearing. He found a rock to duck under. He'd bivied in worse spots. Making a ritual of it, he ate slowly and put the last bread roll in his pocket for morning. All ten toes, phantom ones included, were tingling fire.

He was too tired to unfurl his body to stand and piss. Not tonight. Richards rested his head against a rock and curled into a ball, hoping dimly for one last night's sleep.

—David Stevenson, Macomb, Illinois

[Photo] Traveler Taj Terpening

Climbing Couture

Dean Potter is my Michael Jordan and Barry Blanchard is my Mohammad Ali. For me, it's no longer "Just do it"; now, I'm "Committed to the Core." If I wear the tattered threads that adorn my heroes, who's to say that I didn't solo the Nose earlier today?

My sandals are worn beyond repair; the leather of the footbed gave way to the rubber underneath long ago. My Carhartts, impeccably stained by grease and paint, are rolled into haphazard capris. Yes, I can afford a new pair—but you're missing the point. The fat leather belt is fastened loose by a stylish buckle, allowing the pants to hang low enough that, should I choose to lift my shirt casually during a conversation about the climb I just did, they reveal my scoops. Two layers of Capilene are hidden beneath the puff of my filthy Patagonia DAS parka, and my hair looks as though I just rolled out of a bivy.

It's hard to tag the exact moment when climbing became fashionable. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, wearing a vintage Patagonia fleece on the streets of Chicago would have made most pedestrians wonder if you'd just skinned a sheep and crafted a jacket from its steaming hide. It wasn't until dyed synchilla hit the scene that fleece began its rise to the top of the outdoor industry. When Lycra found its way across the Atlantic and into the pages of the climbing magazines, a new industry of cool was born in the campgrounds and climbing areas of North America.

Fashion is a constant; the only thing that changes is the venue. Western glitterati spend their nights in martini bars, basking in the warm ambiance of candlelight, clad in the most stylish apparel they can afford. I hang out in campgrounds, martinis replaced with beer, candlelight with campfire. Fat Tire in my taped hand, Patagonia (the more threadbare, the better) is the Gucci of my world. Arc'teryx is the Prada.

If you say you don't care about what you look like, ask yourself why your closet is full of The North Face, Mountain Hardwear and Marmot. Sure, there is function in this fashion, but it goes far deeper than that. Why do you wear a Prana button-up to the bar? Just the other day, I found myself putting my harness on over rolled Diesel jeans. Why? Because they make my ass look radical! Why do I wear Capilene to work? For its wicking abilities? Hell no—I wear it because it makes my pecks look great! And I would swear that I'm a better ice climber when I'm wearing my Mixmaster jacket accompanied by my French Roast pants (combination is essential).

Of course I'm a sellout, but as I stand in the glow of the fire, playing eyes with the cute girl in the Sultan Red R4 jacket, I care less and less. Damn, those Prana capris are sexy. She must climb at least 5.12.

—Cory Richards, Red Lodge, Montana


Outside Joe's soccer-mom van the snow has abated a little, though our tracks up to this locked gate have all but vanished. New Mexico's climate hasn't met our expectations. I'm in the back of the van under a pile of jackets, trying to warm myself with a dying laptop. Laura's buried in her sleeping bag; only her hand holding a book appears above the front passenger seat. The emptiness of the driver's seat reminds us that this is Joe's van. Which was why neither Laura nor I were quick to help search for someone with the combination for the gate lock. Joe went out alone, disappearing like a vapor into the white, his down booties muffling his footsteps.

We can't go forward, and we can't go back: ten miles of four-wheel drive up to 9,000 feet led us to this narrow valley and its overhanging tower of volcanic rock. In campsites of questionable legitimacy, I've always pointed my car in a getaway position. But now we're boxed in and my imagination fills with movie scenes in which unshaven, lumpy-mouthed hunters, loaded on piss beer and beef jerky, converge upon us with sinister intent.

Driving from rainy Moab the day before, I wasn't anticipating that I'd wake up last night with a foot of snow pressing the tent wall into my face. Or that Joe would be stamping his feet early this morning to keep warm while I dogged up through the swirling white to retrieve the gear I'd left on yesterday's project. Judging by the dozen or so pickups at the gas station this afternoon, the legions of hunters out there weren't expecting this weather either. And if the gas-station attendant, hands stuffed in his overalls, is any indication, this isn't a big climbing destination: he hadn't even heard of the crag we wanted or the turnoff for it, only seven miles away.

Off the magazine rack, Joe handed me a copy of Extreme Wildlife, open to the centerfold of a pouting woman in bikini and waders, knee-deep in a river, cradling a sad, dead pike. The magazine offered a hundred bucks for the readers' wives in similar poses. In the gas-station parking lot, dozens of camouflaged men spat black into jars as they loaded cases of beer into their trucks. Have you seen Deliverance? I asked Laura, who suggested asking them the way. She hadn't. Joe rolled his eyes at me; he had.

Inside the diner, when Laura asked if they did veggie burgers or Americanos, I couldn't help scanning the room from behind the menu to see if anyone had heard. Slinking out, I thought of the BC plates on Joe's van.

Joe's still gone. The laptop batteries are almost dead. A big, dark truck, with blinding spotlights, is coming up behind us. Someone's getting out. Oh God, please don't let his first words be, "Wheeel, loookie here. We got us some Can-ay-di-ennes."

—Stewart Hughes, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada

So We Leave Shortly Before Saturday's Midnight

"They'll be gleaming, glowing," he promised, and we sneak out of our houses like a pack of schoolchildren, giddy to a fault. For a long time, we see only the double yellow lines racing ahead of us, ahead and ahead into the darkness, never converging. And then the shadows and blurred forms slip off, and we enter Tuolumne Meadows, with nothing between us and the moon.

The dome nearly pulsates at our feet, white streaks like arteries filled with cold light. We climb deftly up the brow. Our friend has been true to his word. And from this vantage everything I've learned about geography becomes an awkward burden. So I shift a bit, recast my gaze. The domes morph into gigantic luminescent jellyfish, strange forms rising out of a vast, blue sea. Unmoving, they move us, the hardened.

I do a slow 360. The stars follow suit above, and I don't blame them.

—David Hsu, Arcadia, California

[Illustration] Tami Knight

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