First Light

Posted on: June 1, 2007

Peter Croft in 1997 amid the dreamiest knife-edge he'd ever seen, on the first ascent of the Evolution Traverse (VI 5.9), Evolution Peaks, Kings Canyon National Park, Sierra Nevada Range, California. When Croft first came to the Sierra, he believed solo adventures in the mountains offered the storybook experience he'd always sought. As his time there deepened, he began to rope up with others, and found fellowships with the climbing friends who became his heroes. [Photo] Galen Rowell

I broke into the High Sierra at night. Shortly after the witching hour, summer 1992, I was alone in the Bishop Creek Basin on my way up to the Palisades, a stegosaurian crest in the central part of the range. The moon was full, the air crystal. By starting early, I reckoned I could finish the approach and perhaps manage a peak or two in the dark. Once it got light, I'd see what else I could do. At 11,000 feet a slow wash of icy air swept over me, making the muscles between my shoulders tense up and my pace quicken.

I came to a shallow arm of a lake. Although the trail continued along the water's edge, an intermittent line of pumpkin-sized granite boulders made a shortcut straight across.

Halfway over I froze; a sudden splashing approached from behind. A held-breath moment later it was all around my feet. Something was coming up out of the lake. In a flash of adrenaline I knew, absolutely knew, it could be just one thing: squid. Giant alpine squid.

I flew toward the far shore, hopscotching the wobble blocks in double time, expecting at any moment a tentacle to whip around my ankle and drag me down. As I pounced the last bodylength, my momentum carried me clear across some frosted heather and into a patch of stunted hemlock.

I whipped around, sweeping my headlamp beam back and forth to see whether I was still being hunted. Nothing. I bit my lip and listened, but I couldn't hear anything above the thrum of my own heartbeat.

Creeping out to the edge, I saw nothing at first, the black water glass-smooth ink. Then, a flash of silver... no, rainbow... and a splash. Attracted by my headlamp, trout were rising frantically. I had to grin at myself. Giant squid. Uh huh. But then, no one really knows for sure what might live on the bottom of that lake. This time, perhaps, I had just been lucky.

I have a proclivity for moonlit adventures, an attraction to my own superstitious fear. My journeys are partly a desire to understand that fear, but I also want to be ready to witness the sorcery of night, those times, particularly alone, when my imagination flares up at a nocturnal rustling or an unexpected draft of warm air. The unidentified noises and half-seen shadows touch on something primal. At night, it seems, anything can happen.

The fear of dying horrified me when I was a boy; its absolute finality and blackness made me pray for a God and beg for reincarnation. There was so much I wanted to do, so much color I needed to see. Naturally the fear was worse after the lights went out. When I became a climber, I took to getting up earlier and earlier, using the night to get more day. The loaded moment would come in the in-between hours, when I'd had enough sleep to get rid of yesterday but long before the first wisp of dawn. Lying awake, I'd stare into the darkness and wonder what was possible. How could I ever roll over and go back to sleep?

I came to the High Sierra in the early 1990s, hoping, at first, just to see how far I could go. With its gouged-out cirques and splintered ridges, the range snakes down through California like a gnarled reptile, the meat of it over a hundred miles long. If I balanced along its spine, the secret of what lies on the other side, the shining white walls and tarn-filled meadows, would be laid out at my feet.

Big traverses on its ridges would form the perfect lodestar, defined by their most mind-expanding element: the first summit is just the beginning.

Walt Shipley entertaining the riffraff, Snell's Field, Chamonix, France, 1984. Shipley was one of Croft's fellow guides in the mountaineering school of Tuolumne Meadows. Remembers Croft, Shipley "stood out for his hilarious storytelling genius" as well as for his epic solos. [Photo] Duane Raleigh

My adventures, though, seemed at odds with the decade's trendy redefinition of climbing as sport. Knowing there had to be others like me, I nosed around in guidebooks and alpine journals, catching up on the hobnailed, alpenstocked ascents of a hundred years earlier that began by stagecoach, turned into skin-of-the-teeth epics and finished with a tattered return to town. But history—and heroes—seemed to end in the mid-1950s. Where were the modern cliffhangers, I wondered, and their bare-knuckled protagonists?

At that time I was a guide in Yosemite Park. My fellow climbers and I spent spring and fall deep in the Valley, but in early June most of us moved to the mountaineering school in the back of a gas station in the wide-open spaces of Tuolumne Meadows, cooking and eating in the cramped kitchen we called the Ratroom. My most fruitful research on contemporary heroes occurred around the campfire. In the early evening we discussed superficial information like places and grades. The real stories only came out after dark, when the mind's eye gets strong—and we were drunk.

Of the eight or so of us, Walt Shipley stood out for his darkly hilarious storytelling genius. Alcohol was certainly a contributing factor, but Walt would often emerge from binges to born-again health kicks, such as his strict adherence one summer to a Haagen-Dazs-only diet. Renowned for his crash-and-burn relationships, he'd performed heartbreak-induced epic solos of the southwest face of Mt. Conness and Keeler Needle, two big-wall 5.10 routes high on any hardman's list. Tales of his adventures would leave the rest of us jittery and cotton mouthed.

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