83 Escape Route

Posted on: April 3, 2012


While recovering from a prescription drug addiction, Matt Samet enters the underbelly of Boulder's Flatirons, discovering a world in which darkness might lead slowly back to light and risking his life might save it.

The first time up the hill, I barely made it up the hill. The morning was hot, oppressive, airless, cloudless—another gauzy-skied July Saturday in Boulder, Colorado. I must confess right off that I'm not using the word hill in the aw-shucks spirit of false modesty. Our "hill" did not consist of full-conditions snice and avalanching shale. Rather it was a hike along tourist trails and up through dry Ponderosa woods. It was just a hill—albeit a big one. I could barely draw breath for the heat. As my climbing partner Paul, his friend Max, my hound Clyde and I moved through arid, rocky gullies, pulling on tree roots and bracing off talus, I huffed and puffed like Messner rounding the Hillary Step.

To be exact: I was headed that morning to a 100-foot roof called The Inside Passage, in the bottomless black slash of the Devil's Arch, high on the broad southern apron of the Flying Flatiron. It was 2008, and I was with my friend Paul Glover, who had made the first ascent just two weeks before. Paul has a unique eye for lines both on the rock and inside it. During the 1990s, he ferreted out stacks of boulder problems in tight, lightless Flatirons grottos that most everyone else had overlooked. The peculiar geologic uplift of the formations had sent them skewering toward the sky at forty- five degrees like enormous red dragon's teeth. Tucked into their every facet, slots and caves appear like thin, black mouths, portals to some secret realm in which light is darkness, and darkness is light: a negative plate of our own sunlit world.

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The Devil's Arch is the largest of these. It's named for a massive purple pillar that chocks its outer lip, leaving the middle reaches of The Inside Passage in perpetual gloom. The route cants at a forty-five- to fifty-degree overhang, forcing you to climb up and out of the cave, your back exposed to a slab that rises parallel. You're never more than fifteen feet off the slab—but then again, you're never more than fifteen feet off the slab. Blow any one of the sixteen gear placements—or fall in the wrong spot—and you'll be belly-up below, oozing down the slab like a bug on a windscreen.

Paul enlisted me for the second ascent because, after climbing together for two decades, he knew I would appreciate his twisted vision. It is a perfect Paul Glover climb: dark, committing and thuggy, beginning in shadow and emerging into daylight. At 5'10", with muscles like those of a mythical warlord and hair shaved close to his scalp, Paul is not the guy you want to tangle with. Barefoot, he has free soloed overhanging hueco walls in the Flatirons, backpacked through the talus- and poison-ivy-choked maw of the Black Canyon and summited the 18,192-foot trekking peak Kala Patthar in Nepal. At a hardcore punk show in Denver, when a Nazi skinhead took a hostile disliking to him, Paul dropped the kid with a single, practiced jujitsu move. Paul never seems to get scared, at least not so you could recognize it: once, after he strayed onto a blank face on the Diamond of Longs Peak, I watched him take two consecutive fifty- footers, saying simply, "I'm out" and jumping off—to the horror of the climbers struggling on either side. Each time he slammed into the rock, the rack clanged like some Quasimodo church bell in the still, alpine air.

Paul is also one of the gentlest people I know: for two decades he's worked as a certified nurse's aide, taking care of clients with quadriplegia, head injuries, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's. In exchange for room and board, he looked after his friend Halley O'Hara for years as multiple sclerosis reduced her world to the confines of her home. He stayed with her to the end.

From 2005 to 2006, I'd all but disappeared from Paul's life. This day, this first trip up, I was only two years out from a near- decade of addiction to prescription tranquilizers for "chronic anxiety," and the washout fatigue made the hour-and-a-half slog almost untenable. Only my family, roommates and a few friends knew that I'd once been hooked on benzodiazepines, a chemical crutch that only worsened and perpetuated my fear, and then on painkillers and alcohol. When I'd gone to clean up, the doctors had tapered me too rapidly, and when my brain couldn't take the withdrawal, they labeled me "bipolar" and put me on four, five, six heavy, psych-ward pills—mood stabilizers, antidepressants, anti- psychotics—a toxic combination that mired me in hell's blackest pit.

It was taking forever to crawl back out. I hadn't swallowed a pill since 2006, but my nervous system remained jacked up, even as it healed in barely perceptible increments. I now took shuddering, hiccuping breaths, fighting for equilibrium. Clyde tugged at the leash, muscles coiling beneath his brindled brown coat, eager to be cut free. I undid his harness and let him run ahead. A hot electrical current radiated from my spine. Unable to get a full inhale, I leaned against a tree, dizzy, nauseated, a hundred feet behind my friends. I'd known this might happen, but I'd wanted to try anyway. I wanted my old self back, the one who could ride his bike up to Chautauqua, then run to the Flatirons for five hours of unbroken movement, soloing thousands of feet of rock, with the city a flat mirage behind me, sweat in my eyes, the holds blurring and the rock flashing by in flickers of purple plates, chickenheads the size of manhole covers, crown-shaped iron-rock incuts, brown swaths of patina.

I wanted to turn around, but I wouldn't let myself. I had to see this climb that Paul was gushing about, because Paul never really gushes about anything.

By the time I'd scrambled up the fifth-class ramps and straggled into the slot behind Max and Paul, my eyes stung and salt crusted my lips. The mouth of the cave was lush with low- growing Oregon grape. The floor was flat and rocky. I'd left Clyde down below with a bowl of water, though he took to howling—Woo, woo, woo, WOO!—as soon as we climbed out of view. At 10 a.m., the day already pushed 100oF, though inside, in the permanent twi- light, it couldn't have been more than 80. We set our packs down, lay our shirts on the slab to dry, and let our eyes adjust. You know that creeping sick feeling when you arrive at a cliff and realize that the very route you've come to try is the scariest, wildest, most improbable line—and that perhaps you'd now rather try any route except that one?

Well, if I hadn't been wheezing so badly, that's what I would have felt. The Inside Passage starts behind a scraggly pine that extends its upper crown diagonally with the slot, reaching for the light. You traverse across sloping jellyrolls, your heels grazing the upper needles of the tree, to attain the crack that zigzags out the mammoth ceiling. It begins as a hanging, booming elephant-ear, pinches off to a lieback and tapers again to an A-frame with fingertip locks—the crux. Once past, you cross a series of oblong black huecos like buck- shot holes to a hanging feature the size of a shipping container: "Pigeon Prow." And then the route disappears into the shadows, spiral- ing out of sight around the arch.

I could hear my breath hitching and whistling high in my chest as I hunted for holds. My hands were numb: an ex-junkie paresthesia combined with brute, cold fear.

"It was 64 in here the day I redpointed," Paul said. He and Max scrambled above me on the slab, moving easily, joking. I climbed with the caution of a gripped novice, avoiding the waxy, calcite runoff veneer of the slickest pods, sidling sideways around potholes full of bird droppings. We paused in places and turned around to pick out grips on the ceiling so close you felt you could lean out and touch them. "But it was 90 when we hiked up."

Air rushed down through the slot, curving around the arch, splitting into two currents that reunited in the lower reaches. Wind and water had helped carve this cathedral, and wind and water would someday claim it. We stopped in a muddy grotto below Pigeon Prow, on a flat repair from the wild, tilting exposure. Framed by a keyhole opening, trees and talus spilled down toward gulch and mesa accordion folds, clear to the green curl of South Boulder Creek. Paul mentioned that when he first came up to the slot, the previous winter, there had been an ice flow two meters wide piercing the depths. He and his climbing partner, Christian Huber, had to fix ropes over the approach slabs. They'd come up five times, aiding to inspect the protection and to clean loose holds, sagging gently onto fickle skyhooks as they plied their way across brittle flakes. It had been so cold that the climbers, their breath streaming into the chill January air, lasted only a few hours at a time. They'd made it as far as Pigeon Prow and then called off the endeavor until summer.

A few of the black-and-grey birds squawked at us from their prow. They batted about the arch, alighting and then taking flight. They lapped the pillar once, twice, again, and then rocketed into the ether. Beyond them, a pair of ravens circled over the place where I'd left Clyde. Something that looked like a tiny archaeopteryx careered into an ebony pothole in the darkest recesses, chattering, spitting, flinging twigs, angered by our trespass. Paul told me that if I wanted to try the route today, he'd lead out first with a brush, hanging the gear and cleaning the flat holds where the prow's diamond tip was painted white by droppings. But I knew today wasn't the day— the hike alone had almost killed me. Really, it wasn't even the year.

I wouldn't grab those holds until two years later, when I mantled my bulk up and over the prow to press into a semi-no-hands rest, my head and neck wedged awkwardly against a flake. It was, I would learn, a discomfiting spot. The geometry is nightmarish, impossible almost: you're looking upside down through your legs at the slab only eight feet away and then on to your belayer, another seventy feet distant but forty feet horizontally inward.

As close to the ground as it is, the climb smacks of possibility, heroism, and romance. Even the words—The Inside Passage—conjure grand adventure. They were a riff off the Northwest Passage on the Third Flatiron's north wall, a somber, diagonal-banded, for- gotten choss-world of red swatches, hanging daggers and monolithic grey slabs. Tom Hornbein, Dick Sherman, and Bob Riley climbed the Northwest Passage in 1949, Colorado's first recorded instance of climbers trying to use bolts (hardware-store bolts, which were "an abject failure," Hornbein says). In 1972 Roger Briggs freed the climb, picking his way left through a no-man's-land of loose blocks and bird scat to a roof where the stone turns solid. It was mostly Roger to whom Paul paid homage with the name.

Warm skylight sun reflected into the grotto. Perched Tower-of-Babel-high above the flatlands, I could smell the heat of the day— woody, like a sauna—radiating off the hillside. From here we could see the route's final third: upside-down flanges leading into another, larger A-frame that, past its apex, culminated in a monster reach to a Hail Mary bathtub. The final protection piece, Paul said, was an offset blue-green Alien in a pod; you had to floss it in just so, your elbows lifting, the weight of the rope dragging you back into the depths. I wondered what it would be like to be there, having come so far, but with this final chance to blow it.

Two years later, I would find out. If you've ever experienced serious, life-altering trauma, then you know why it meant so much to be able to do so.

In 2006 I'd been too ill to climb, so weak I could only make it up the stairs by crawling on hands and knees. By 2007, I could shuffle to crags a quarter-mile uphill and toprope routes I used to warm up on. In 2008 I climbed 5.13 again—not that numbers matter, until they do: until you need them to reveal some core truth about yourself. By 2009, I began to take good health for granted. Because of ongoing breathing difficulties, I might never visit the high peaks again, but I realized, that year, if a cliff is below 10,000 feet and if I walk slowly enough, I will eventually arrive. By 2010, I was 90% better, which is where I've stayed—well enough to try Paul's climb.

Does it really matter how I climbed The Inside Passage? Which answer do you want: the "yes" or the "no"? What does style mean to you, and what does it signify that style must mean something to anyone other than each of us individuals in our solipsistic game? Shouldn't it matter simply that I did it—that I finally felt well enough? At first, this was all that mattered: I got snail-eyed trying the opening traverse—I felt hard-pressed to punch hard- right, far from the safety of a TCU jammed into a piddling stone eyebrow. I sheepishly asked Paul to ropegun to Pigeon Prow. He left the ground surely, chalking the soles of his bare feet before he pulled onto the rock, his broad shoulders grazing the tree, heel-hooking the sloping jellyrolls then hucking big to the base of the crack, cams jangling on his harness. He hung off a jug, reaching down to slap chalk on his feet again. When you climb barefoot, as Paul likes to, that's part of the game: finding chalking stances for your feet just as you would for your hands. Paul wanted, he told me, to rehearse the climb without shoes. He had redpointed, pinkpointed, and on toprope cleaned The Inside Passage the day of the first ascent, but since he'd had shoes on, his first thought upon grabbing the finishing hueco had been, "Why am I not doing this barefoot?" It had been, "I haven't really done this thing, have I?"

Style: When Paul was thirteen, his first climbing mentors took him out to the Gregory Canyon Amphitheater on a Colorado Mountain Club course. In a rocky nook on the Flatirons' north end, Paul—as kids tend to do—started bouldering around without shoes. He was high-stepping onto the lip of an overhang, cranking up onto his big toe, when the instructor, Franz Mohling, a physics professor at the University of Colorado, contributor to the 1960 first edition of Freedom of the Hills and seasoned mountaineer, told Paul he had the strongest toes of anyone he'd seen. "That just sunk in immediately," Paul said to me. "When somebody like that says some- thing like that to a little kid, that has a huge impact."

I never met Mohling, but I repeated a traverse of his in the Indian Peaks—one that bears his name. Before the tranquilizers destroyed my health, I liked to run ridges alone, unroped, linking peaks and alpine rock, though I always had a bottle of "chill pills" in my backpack and a one-hitter in my jacket. I doubt an old hardcore like Mohling—someone who'd made the second ascent of Robson's North Face, without modern ice equipment—needed any such chemical crutches. As he picked his way across the spiny, grey picket-fence ridge between Lone Eagle Peak and the hidden castle of Iroquois, Mohling probably carried little more than a canteen and a ham sandwich: perfect style. Paul had, he told me, cried like a baby mattered: I got snail-eyed trying the opening traverse—I felt hard-pressed to punch hard- right, far from the safety of a TCU jammed into a piddling stone eyebrow. I sheepishly asked Paul to ropegun to Pigeon Prow. He left the ground surely, chalking the soles of his bare feet before he pulled onto the rock, his broad shoulders grazing the tree, heel-hooking the sloping jellyrolls then hucking big to the base of the crack, cams jangling on his harness. He hung off a jug, reaching down to slap chalk when he learned that Mohling had been killed by an avalanche on Mt. Logan in 1982 on his third and final attempt, over decades, to summit the peak.

Style: That which compels us is also that which torments us is also that which kills us.

Style: My first time through The Inside Passage, I sorted out the first two-thirds on toprope, came down, pinkpointed to Pigeon Prow and onsighted the top. If we must label this specific style, we could call it a "hybrid ascent." I carried a third of the rack, the smallest third: a handful of 0.5s and 0.75s, one Stopper, that Alien. The rest of the gear dangled from the lower reaches; you could just see the biners protruding like undersea barnacles on the hull of some supertanker. Above the prow, I finally—after dithering for half an hour, out and back, out and back along the flanges—punched it off a nest of shaky cams. At the apex, the slab a presence over my shoulder, I grabbed a cracked jug, snorted a quick in-breath, and popped in a solid 0.75.

Style: As soon as I had to swim into unknown waters I'd wanted my flotation ducky, until I swam so far I had no choice except to keep going. Cam secured, I climbed into daylight again, free of the depths, liebacking forty-grit slopers along an offset seam as I busted drop-knees off a hollow, car-sized pancake that caps the pillar. Somehow, ten feet higher, my elbows lifting and gut churning with fear and fatigue, I flossed in the offset Alien and yorked for the bathtub: I fought for it, and I made it. I never needed to hike up this hill again.

As we walked out, Paul turned to me with a half-grin on his face. He said in his soft monotone, "Good job, man. I can't wait to come back with you next weekend so you can send this thing."

Wait, what? I'm at heart a fumbling, bumbling, idiot man-child raised in a world of poxy undifferentiated roadside sport cliffs at which you can legitimately claim anything short of toproping, no matter how shameful, as a "redpoint."

But Paul had a point: even if I'd free climbed the route, I hadn't really done it. When you have to hang on, upside down, and place sixteen pieces—and well—in one hundred feet; when you leave the ground and must execute a dangerous traverse with four- teen of those pieces swinging like anchors from your harness; when you, from the buck- shot huecos, have to stretch out to Pigeon Prow and place a blind Stopper below and behind your head, or else, that's when you've climbed The Inside Passage.

The only spot, Paul told me, where he'd ever fallen had been above that blind Stopper, trying to mantel onto Pigeon Prow and flubbing it, exhausted. He'd whipped with the rope around his leg, flipped upside down, and come to a halt facing the slab only two feet from the tip of his nose.

"Yeah, I'm down," I said. And I was. Here was a chance to rise above my own warm piss-bath of mediocrity, all those lost years on tranquilizers during which style was the furthest thing from my mind, all those years in recovery when my reality for a time became just brute, raw survival. Stale, useless, drug-haze years when I'd been pinkpointing life. "It would be killer to redpoint this thing."

"For sure," said Paul. "And that will give me a chance to do it proper too."

I knew what that meant: a barefoot redpoint ascent.

Style: "Shoes are cheating," Paul later told me. "You're using your hands and fingers, so why not use your feet and toes?"

Style: Paul finally bought a car in the last few years, to help him with the rounds of his Boulder clients, but before that I'd see him everywhere around town, pedaling furiously on his old ten-speed to the next appointment. If there's a way to do some- thing without leaning on some technological crutch that's how Paul will do it. Really, it's the best way.

Style: Style is either everything or it's nothing.

Style: Paul and I came back the next weekend and climbed The Inside Passage. The full rack was an iron apron on my harness, dragging me backward into the pit, as heavy and unwieldy as the withdrawal cloak of fatigue and muscular rigidity I'd so recently shed.

At each crux, I had to fight twice as hard. I'd had no idea what a difference a few pounds, or a few seconds longer hanging on at each stance, would make. But when I wrapped my hands around that last hueco, up on fluted ebony stone that exhaled the warmth of the day, I was certain I'd done it: I'd passed through the portal back into the world.

Style: I pulled the gear out for Paul on toprope, reversed through the slot, and handed all sixteen pieces to him there, standing on the rocky, silty floor of the cave. Paul tied in, racked the gear on his harness, wiped clean the soles of his feet, chalked them, and set off, fearlessly, toward the light.

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