The Climbing Life

Posted on: March 1, 2008

[Illustration] Mike Tea

Death: The Interview

DURING THE WORST possible climbing moments, this same guy always seems to be hanging out in the shadows. You've probably seen him too, likely when you’ve been running it out, can't get any pro, kicked through a section of thin ice or dropped a key Stopper. In Ecuador, while crossing under a rather nasty serac, I saw him again, patiently waiting on the other side. The surreality of his presence—particularly the black Gore-Tex cloak—prompted a double take, followed closely thereafter by a hasty retreat. (Good thing: the serac collapsed a minute later.)

Back in the hut, there he was once more, minding his own business in the corner over cafe con leche. I walked over and introduced myself. As it turns out, he's Death. Well, not the Death, but an agent thereof. Sensing a rare opportunity, I decided to ask him some questions on behalf of climbers everywhere.

AA: So how has business been lately?

D: Not as good as it could be, I suppose. I thought I really had it in the bag today. You darn climbers keep pulling through, though.

AA: Sorry about that. But where have you been seeing the most action? Just here, or...?

D: Oh, mostly I hang out in places where it's likely someone would be meeting me anyway: manky, quarter-inch bolts, the bottom of a crevasse, anywhere above 7000 meters, gritstone—you know. If business is slow, I'll wait outside a gear store for someone to fill his SUV with a brand-new backcountry set-up or a new rack he doesn't know how to use. I've picked up more than a few that way.

AA: How did you end up specializing in the climbing sector?

D: I started at the bottom like everyone else. After a year of residency in an emergency room, we get an apprenticeship with someone else in a field of specialization. Some agents choose to stay in emergency medicine, others go in for wars or disasters. Those are the large market sectors. I think the real challenge is in the smaller fields where you have to do more than just wait around.

I've always had a fondness for alpinists because you never know what's going to happen on any given day. The growing popularity of climbing in the last ten years has picked up business a bit, though, and it helps me get through the thinner times when the usual suspects are all sport climbing in Thailand. And the scenery can't be beat. I mean, would you rather be outside in a place like this or waiting in some institutional-green ER for another coronary?

AA: So exactly, what's your place in the ethereal realm?

D: Really, I'm a free agent with no agenda. I don't work for God, the Devil, Shiva or anyone else. I provide a necessary service. I just have to be in the right place at the right time to move souls from one plane of existence to another. A doorman, if you will.

AA: What's a typical day at the office?

D: Usually, I don't have to get to the mountains until around noon, so I spend my mornings checking the weather report, glancing at the blogs to see who's going for the summit that day. The Internet has really revolutionized how I do my job, especially in the Greater Ranges—I used to have to wait around at a base camp for weeks. I still work the old system, mostly looking for sketchy "Partner Wanted" notes on the Camp 4 or Jenny Lake bulletin boards; this usually turns out a keeper or two a season. Once I'm in position, I just wait for a while, then bring a freshly liberated soul to our sorting facility, where he or she is processed and redirected.

AA: If a climber doesn't want to see you around, what can he or she do?

D: The simplest things are really what add up. Having an idiot-proof system and sticking to it. Staying hydrated. Reading Accidents in North American Mountaineering and applying those lessons to your own climbing. You know, Accidents was like Cliff Notes for me my first few years on the job.

AA: How has work changed over the past five years?

D: Well, there's definitely more variety to choose from. With so many people out in the hills, we've had to expand the whole outdoors division and adapt as fast as the sport diversifies. Mixed, sport, trad, alpine—it all just used to be "climbing." The growing popularity of the sport hasn't been a complete blessing, though.

AA: How so?

D: Well, I don't see many customers in the bouldering world. Most of the work from the pad people we outsource to our sister department, Pain. You should give one of my friends over there a call. He's got some great stories.

Well, I've got to get going. A poorly guided party is supposed to summit Aconcagua via the Polish Route tomorrow morning. See you around.

AA: I hope not.

—Andrew Allgeier, Laramie, Wyoming

Lukla Airstrip, First International Shovel (Siege Style)

EVERYONE IS CLIMBING RADICAL LINES these days; tales like ours, of a thirty- six-hour roundtrip, fast-and-light, alpine-style first winter ascent of the East Ridge of Tawoche have become matter of course. I won't dwell on the terrifying, X-rated ice and rock at hypoxia-inducing altitudes. We had no epics, no moments of self-transcendent heroism. No one died; no one found nirvana. We were simply climbers doing what we love: climbing.

Instead, I'll tell you about our truly original success, an objective that presented itself to us after Tawoche by pure chance and that we accomplished in full-on, heavy siege style, with a large team: the first complete international shovel of the Lukla airstrip.

Kris Erickson, Adam Knoff and I had been wallowing out of the Khumbu for days in waist-deep snow. Waist- deep snow in the Khumbu is not normal. Khumbu winters tend to be dry and relatively stable. The freak storm that unleashed this precipitation was therefore not normal by about two feet. To put it in perspective, Kathmandu got its first snow in sixty-two years. But despite this decidedly abnormal event, by the time we approached Lukla we were in fairly good spirits. We were scheduled to fly out the next day and rumors had traveled up valley through the yak train that the military had cleared the runway.

[Illustration] Jeremy Collins

When we arrived in Lukla, our shoulders sank. A blanket of white stretched down toward the massive valley rim. The runway was covered in eighteen inches of sun-cooked snow. A few happy kids were sledding on the normally off-limits airstrip.

You know that feeling when it's just time to leave? It was time to leave. We had two and a half days before our flight left Kathmandu for the States, and not only had the military not cleared the runway, no one had any plans to do so. Word was, the airstrip authorities had decided to let the sun melt the snow.

We didn't have the weeks that would take. If we missed our international flight that was it: no refunds. A team meeting was convened over large bottles of beer.

"We could charter a helicopter," Kris said.

"Too expensive," I said.

"It would be cheaper than missing our flight," he said.

Desperation crept into my voice. "Let’s just keep walking."

Adam said in a sharp tone, "It would still be expensive. We'd have to hire yaks and porters. Besides, we don't have the time."

Adam had a point. We were at the end of the trip with no money left. The only thing we could afford was to fly as planned.

As we glanced back and forth from face to face, I saw it welling up silently in my friends' eyes: there was only one option left, and we all knew it.

Quietly, so as not to send anyone over the edge, I said, "We could shovel the runway."

"Shit!" they said in unison.

The three of us shook our heads in disgust and headed for our lodge.

THE NEXT MORNING I woke up feeling as if someone had placed a wet towel over my head: tired, cold, dirty and sick of it. Over yet another cup of bitter instant coffee, our fate settled in. The only shovels we had found weren't fit for a litter box.

As Adam, Kris and I stepped onto the runway, the bad coffee buzz and the sense of commitment made our hearts race. The terrain spread out for 1,700 feet, fifty feet wide and eighteen inches deep in snow. We did the math: there was a total of 85,000 cubic feet to shovel on the airstrip alone, not counting the taxi area. Definitely Grade VI.

"No way," I said.

"No problem," Kris said.

I shot him a glare and started shoveling.

Not long after, Kris said, "I don't know, guys."

"No problem," I said.

"No way," Adam said, with a grin.

We took turns being pessimistic, our sole distraction from the shoveling and the freezing, sopping wet. I felt worse than I had shivering in my old hump rag of a sleeping bag at 20,000 feet.

Nonetheless a small square of black began to appear in the midst of the white. The armed airport guards stood in the doorways of dingy block buildings, kicking dirt and watching us; we were their entertainment for the day. Shaking our shovels above our heads in mock aggression, we tried to taunt them into helping us. We knew they could do nothing unless they were ordered, but still, it was fun. A little bit.

People began to peek their heads through their window curtains to watch the stupid Americans shoveling. Finally, a heavyset South African couple staggered out of a smoky lodge and asked what they could do. I bit down on my sarcasm. "How about shoveling?" I said. They disappeared.

But soon they were back, with two brand-new shovels.

The next to turn up was a tall Sherpa in a fire-engine-red coat. He looked like an extra from Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video. That man could shovel. Soon, other locals trickled in to join the effort.

Either our taunting worked or the police captain didn't want his men to look lazy, because later in the afternoon he ordered them to help. In a matter of minutes our crew size doubled. Our objective began to seem feasible.

By the next morning the three of us were heading up an operation of sixty people. An Australian firewoman and a couple of guys she was dragging around Nepal had never shoveled snow in their lives, but they got after it with an intensity that put us Montana boys to shame.

"Pace yourselves," Adam said, concerned about our growing team’s resources.

I divided the massive police crew into groups of four and showed them how to shovel snow into a tarp and roll it, burrito style, so they could carry it away and dump it on the sidelines. In no time, they developed a quick, steady rhythm. Up close, I realized they were only boys, ruddy, chapped faces and shining, dark eyes, enjoying a new game.

[Illustration] Herb Conn

Other military kids in full camouflage, their leather boots laced up high and tight, turned over one of the luggage carts to use as a plough. Two of them would yell, then begin running with the upside-down cart from a twenty-foot head start. The yelling would climax as they hit their target. Then camouflage and snow would fly in all directions.

Kris began working with a Korean team, marking lines to keep the digging straight. Their leader, "Mr. O," was a tight, collected individual in state-of-the-art athletic cloth- ing and sunglasses. They'd traveled to Nepal for a mountain-bike trip from Lukla down the valley, but before they could even get on their bikes, they'd been hit by the storm.

Kris checked in on their progress. Mr. O stood silently, scrutinizing the operation behind his fancy shades. "Only 20,000 more cubic feet to go!" Kris shouted and let out a war cry.

A young Sherpa, no older than twelve, hunched over a square wood scrap he'd found, the size of a shovel blade. He drove that thing as if it were a ten-yak plough. We put him on cleanup detail, patting him on the back in between rounds.

The runway was going to go!

By evening on the second day, the tower gave the thumbs-up for planes to land. We'd moved 85,000 cubic feet of snow in two days. That night, with some of our new friends, we feasted in a Lukla teahouse on lentils and rice while our team members rehashed the shoveling in the best English they could muster.

Could a smaller team with better equipment and training have achieved the runway alpine style, in a push? Now that the psychological barrier has been breached, who knows? In the future I foresee new speed records and enchainments, perhaps even a traverse of the Himalayan airstrips.

Cheering roared over the sound of the first plane landing. As the instigators, we were rewarded with the first flight. We landed in Kathmandu with three hours to spare before our international flight departed. At the airport counter, our shoveling karma kicked in. Due to mishaps on our inbound flight seven weeks earlier, our tickets had all been upgraded to first class.

We slipped into our seats, ordered gin-and-tonics and relaxed, dapper in our street clothes, our faces clean-shaven. Mr. O and his crew, boarding the same plane, saw us and did a double take. We raised our glasses and tipped our heads, smooth as secret agents: in Montana, that's how we roll.

—Whit Magro, Bozeman, Montana


IT'S ALMOST TEN, LOVER'S LEAP is still in the shade, and Fred Beckey sleeps in the back of his red Subaru wagon. It must have been after two last night when I heard him pull into the campground. Now, a dirty window frames his craggy face, poking from a sleeping bag.

Fred's been climbing for some seventy years, more than anyone, and tomorrow he'll leave for another partner and another climb. Four months ago today he asked me to climb The Line. He’s writing a guide to his 100 favorite climbs; he hasn't climbed The Line, but he's sure it will make his book.

Swathes of golden light and purple mountain shadow fill the valley. A squirrel chitters on a giant deadfall. Two blue jays poke at the ground next to the picnic table. I can hear moving water. Out on the highway a truck shifts gears. The sky could not be bluer. One more cup of coffee and I'll wake Fred.

I met Fred twelve years ago in Alaska, where he's been climbing since 1946. He called, we went to an Anchorage coffee shop, and he showed me pictures of an unclimbed granite minaret, north of the Neacola Mountains in the southwestern Alaska Range. We never got to the minaret. In fact, Fred and I haven't had much luck in the mountains. We got into an argument two years ago on Thunder Mountain. I was pissed for the next six months, but we kept meeting up at the coffee shop, and last winter I climbed and skied with him in British Columbia.

Fred is hunched, his pants are hitched up and his hair's disheveled when he crawls from the Subaru. "Can't complain about the weather," he says and smirks. Seems impossible to get a straight answer to where he was yesterday. Maybe Portland, because he said he was on Highway 5. Can't be sure.

I feed him coffee and cereal at the picnic table. He sits cross-legged and talks about a woman we both know. "She's a pain in the ass," he says.

"Yes, she is," I say. Twice, he heads for the outhouse.

"Let's go," I tell him. Fred's eighty-four; The Line is three pitches.

The parking lot fills with climbers while Fred fiddles with highly secretive papers in FedEx cardboard envelopes: notes, phone numbers, pictures, future climbs. I get the rack together. Fred says, "You have too big of a rack."

I take off a few cams. Then he asks if I have enough.

Fred wanders off to talk with some dudes from Tahoe. It's afternoon before we leave for the climb.

[Illustration] Tami Knight

Sauntering through the open forest, Fred pivots his head and swings his arms slowly, taking everything in. He stops and stares at the cliff. A couple tags along as far as some big boulders, and two friendly young guys follow us to the base of The Line. They're going to climb next to us so they can hang with Fred.

Fred's ready; he holds the green rope with just enough slack. "On belay," he says. I pose at the crux; he takes lots of pictures. I'd love to have my picture in his book. Once I'm at the anchor, he yells "Off belay" twice, and waits until I pull hard before he starts climbing.

Soon, Fred's straight up on the balls of his feet. His back is not hunched anymore. He's liebacking and finger jamming. The wall's steep; I look right down at him.

"Up rope," Fred says. He's at the crux.

"I got you, Fred." I pull tight.

Three more times: "Up rope." The lanky kid from Berkeley on the other route takes pictures. The sun feels good. Fred's past the crux. "Barely made the move," I hear him say.

Fred liebacks, stems, jams up to me, then clips his blue and white daisy chain to the belay. I throw a clove hitch in his end of the rope, clip it and snug it up. Sometimes he doesn't seem to hear anything, but when we had our argument, six months later he repeated what I said, word for word.

"You guys are moving fast," says one of the guys at a belay to our right.

Their camera is out. Fred's pushed right up against me; the skin is lighter in the deep creases on his face. White hair flows from his big nose and ears. There's still a little brown on his head, but his sideburns are completely white.

"Nice lead," he tells me. "You put in lots of gear."

“I don’t want to die.”

He says, "I don't want to die either." No one has ever died climbing with Fred.

The next pitch goes fast: horizontal dikes make it easy. I tell the kid climbing next to me, "We got eighty years on you guys." Fred sings up the rock and says, "Up rope."

The last pitch is 5.7, but it's steep, so I keep the rope tight. The young guys' route has merged with ours. Maybe Fred's tired, because he leaves some gear for them to take out.

Sunlight creeps through the forest. The young guys give us our gear and head down. We sit for a while and don't say anything. Across the valley there's a waterfall. The descent winds east through the forest and down a slab to the old Pony Express trail.

Johnny and Chris, two friends of ours from British Columbia, hike up to greet us.

"Fred's sure smiling," Chris says. "Look at him: he's dancing down the trail. Did you guys have a good climb?" We walk down in bright yellow.

—Jim Sweeney, Anchorage, Alaska

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