Friday, December 25, 2015

It's Not Over

The night is moonless and black like coffee. I ponder how many times I've descended Aasgard Pass, but my knees plead with me to fantasize about something else. Blake drifts through the scree ten feet ahead. "I'm psyched for next week man." I can hear the excitement in his voice. I'm stoked to try our link up too, especially since today's rehearsal went without a hitch. "We're not even done with this mission and we're talking about the next!" I joke.  But that's how it goes. This is our home turf. We've made this descent a thousand times.

Wise alpinists know that it's not over until it's over. Well now, it's over. An hour and half to the car, thirty minutes to Safeway, home eating pizza at eleven; it's not my first rodeo. To my left, a stream rushes through the talus. Blake and I follow it down and gain the main trail, one of the most popular in the Cascades. Then I hear a sound besides the crunch of our skidding approach shoes. It takes me a second to understand and then believe that a rock avalanche is 1,000 feet above our heads and bearing down fast.

"Run! Run! Oh fuck". The boulders gain on us. Dust clogs the air and the ground shakes harder. I glance to my right. Blake's doing the same thing I am. Recklessly gunning it down the slope is our only option. Just before being flattened, we instinctually throw ourselves under large, lucky blocks. A rock the size of a TV tomahawks through the beam of my headlamp. Basketball sized boulders chase it down the slope. My only thought underscores the nightmare. "I can't believe we are going to die like this."

The roar fades to a whisper. A millisecond later my headlight is whited out with debris. It's over. "Blake!" I yell. "I'm here, I'm ok!" I've never heard his voice shake. We stumble down to the car in utter disbelief. The hike, usually an afterthought, turns into an eerie stumble. Over and over, we mutter "I can't believe it" as shock flushes out our veins.

Back at Blake's Subaru, the rock slide feels like a bad dream. Next week we plan to push ourselves in these mountains again, tackling a goal as unattainable as anything we've ever tried. This past winter I lost a friend and a climbing partner. I also watched an avalanche narrowly miss a father of two daughters I adore. And now this?

If we can't understand the ways of the mountains, at least we can learn from them. The message is simple. We are not in control. Even in the most tame and travelled scenarios catastrophic accidents happen. We hop in the car and bump down the washboard road. Blake talks about next week's triple linkup. There are a myriad of logistics to nail down. Discussing the options is a coping mechanism. How do I feel? I just know I need a beer right now. I crack an IPA and take a pull off the bottle. The alcohol mixes with stale adrenaline. Can I continue this path I wonder? There's only one way to find out.

This is a behind the scenes look at:

Blake and I enchained Dragons of Eden and Der Sportsman a week before our triple link. The rockfall occurred on the lower flanks of Aasgard Pass. It was an insane event that the words above barely describe. It was so powerful that I wondered if we would be buried in rock. If you are familiar with the area, you know it's crazy to almost die a few hundred yards above Colchuck Lake in the middle of summer. Or is it? It might be a backyard run, but it's real in the mountains. Bottom line. This event definitely changed the nature of our coming goal. I was already struggling with Chad's death and then this. What were the mountains trying to tell me? Every time I pushed they pushed back. Even in the midst of a break from climbing I'm still straining my ear to the hills. I'm listening. 

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Going Alone

Hot sun beats down on campsite 21. The monkeys are out sending. I'm alone except for a chubby squirrel that crawls through the coffee cups and dusty guidebooks littering the picnic table. Reaching towards my toes, I focus on my breath. The stretch pulls on my hamstrings and pushes on my desire. It's supposed to be a rest day, but screw regime. My heart says climb.

I trot through an expanse of Joshua Trees, my tattered Mythos patting against my hip. In the distance is Echo Cove, a monzonite maze of egg-shaped boulders and quirky domes. I use the hike to build focus. I have a mile to empty my thoughts into the expanse. One mile to find my rhythm.

Under a lonely, leaning wall I put my shoes on. Details, like the creak of my laces tightening, etch themselves into space. A minute later I'm there, twenty five feet above the sand. I stretch out to a scallop with my left foot. My right foot comes up and I pop to the hueco jug.

Now I just have to keep it together. At a rest I pause to think, but only of when I should start again. Halfway up a solo is no place to let my mind wander. Hero jugs are indented into the the shield of stone above me. I move dynamically between the incuts and then slow down on one last lock off.

On the way back I absorb the sunset and regather the pieces of myself I separated from an hour before. Subtly, they fit together in a fresh way. By the time I get back to campsite 21 I'm the new me. That 50 foot climb worked its way into my veins. It had an affect. Now, I look at my friends faces lit by campfire. I think about sharing the experience, but instead stow away those moments above Echo Cove. I take a rocky seat and stare into the dancing flames. The vibration of going alone pulses in my soul.