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The Path

Posted on: June 13, 2016


Jenny Abegg following the traverse on Pitch 3 of Acid Baby (IV 5.10+, 1,000'). [Photo] Whitney Clark

It's 3 a.m., July 2015. We walk through the darkness, headlamps illuminating our path. A cool breeze awakens the trees, and the creek bubbles to life as we switchback up the trail. Our movement becomes rhythmic. Three hours pass rapidly. Faint light paints the horizon, and the mountains are stirred awake by a luminous glow. When we reach the base of our first climb, Acid Baby (IV 5.10+, 1,000', Larson-Layton-Cappellini, 2005) on Enchantment Peak, we hurry to dig up our cache of gear left from a reconnaissance a few weeks prior. I start up perfect granite cracks and move quickly under the rising sun. We know the route well; two and a half hours later, we top out and scramble to the summit. Distant peaks form snakelike ridgelines. Pockets of snow blanket the ground, a stark contrast to the dark rock against a blue sky.

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Jenny Abegg and I were roommates living in Leavenworth, Washington—one of the best places I've found where I can to go on big adventures in the mountains and still sleep in my own bed. We spent most of the early summer doing long alpine routes right outside of town. And when we decided one climb wasn't enough for a day, we conspired to do more. The Enchantments are stacked with multiple peaks all within a few miles of each other. We planned to attempt three routes on three different mountains in fewer than 24 hours. The day would encompass around 18 miles of hiking, 4,500 feet of elevation gain, and 18 pitches of climbing mostly in the 5.10 range. We weren't certain whether we could accomplish our goal, but the mountains drew us in, so vast and wild, luring us with endless possibilities of mystery and adventure.

The south face of Prusik Peak (8,000'). [Photo] Whitney Clark

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So far, our plan is moving along well. Atop Enchantment Peak, we high-five and begin our descent off the backside, wandering through meadows strewn with Indian Paintbrush flowers, scrambling down polished slabs to golden tarns. Time passes easily in these mountains—an alpine paradise of granite peaks, wind-sculpted larches and crystal-blue lakes. I soon forget my tired legs, my mind occupied with the beauty surrounding me. We fill our water bottles from a stream and continue overland until we reach the talus below our next objective, Solid Gold (5.11, 450', Olson-Wallace, 1989) on Prusik Peak.

A steep wall towers above us, as if guarding our passage, yet beckoning us to climb. Cracks shoot toward the sky, and the route unfolds, pitch after pitch of smooth grey rock studded with black knobs. The angle lessens, and we begin simulclimbing, winding our way up and down the gargoyle-riddled ridge toward the summit. A white mist hides the secrets of the surrounding peaks, for now. Standing on top, we know that the easy part of our day is over. Eight miles of knee-busting trail lie between us and our next route.

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Hours pass, each second measured by the monotonous downhill pounding of my feet. My knees creak. I'm tired, and I want to quit. I stumble along the trail behind Jenny, struggling to keep up with her pace. At last, we find ourselves two miles from the car at the base of the approach trail to Snow Creek Wall. I hesitate while climbing the steep hill, trying to summon any last traces of energy. This is what we came for: to push through uncertainty and see what we could accomplish.

Jenny on the steep second pitch of Acid Baby. [Photo] Whitney Clark

"I'll take the first lead," Jenny says. She looks determined as she grabs the rack, and I soak up her energy. Swapping leads, we reach the base of the crux pitch on Iconoclast (IV 5.10c, 800', Hargis-Hargis, 1971), and I take off up steep terrain. Soon, I'm runout, twenty feet from a small cam and directly above a ledge. I reach for the rack of nuts on my harness only to find that they aren't there. We'd forgotten them. "Screw this pitch!" I yell down to Jenny. Somewhere I hear faint encouraging words and a reminder to breathe and refocus. I trust a dubious-looking hold and paste my feet against the wall, pushing the thought of falling from my mind. I whoop with excitement as I reach the safety of the belay.

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We top out in the evening light and quickly descended the gully, making our way back to the car 18 hours and 35 minutes after we began. The sun hovers on the horizon, crimson and gold. Its orb grows dim and disappears, sinking slowly behind the hills. Jenny cracks me a beer and we watch the shadows creep slowly over the mountains, cloaking them in darkness for the night.

Too often we limit our desires and dreams, I think. It's not failure that we should worry about, but rather the fear of failure that holds us back. That night, I dream of our endless movement through the mountains, flowing like water down a stream. I hear my breath, feet pounding along the path, and the wind whistling, carrying the leaves with us along our way.

Eighteen pitches, 18 miles, 18 hours and 35 minutes. Whitney Clark and Jenny Abegg climb Acid Baby, Solid Gold, and Iconoclast the Enchantments/Stuart Range area of Washington state in one very long and very fun day. [Video] Jenny Abegg

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