2014, El Chalten

On the Nature of Summits and Partners

“Well, here we go” I announce, screwing the Doite isobutane canister onto the Jetboil. “Let’s see if this works” I continue as Rainbow and Anne glance up to watch me turn the valve on the stove. The silence says it all. “Fuck.”

Rainbow, Anne and I are setting up camp at the toe of the Glaciar Rio Blanco Superior in preparation for a final attempt on the Aguja De l’S via the Cara Oeste. Rainbow and Anne will be leaving in two days and this coming period of lower winds could be the last “good” window we see. Now our malfunctioning stove could serve to undermine our mission. I had packed the stove and fuel and though I had checked the notoriously unreliable Doite fuel canister for functionality ten days prior, I had not checked it this am before throwing it in my pack.

“Did you shake it or try to warm it up?” Anne asks as I turn the valve back and forth to no avail.

“Did it look like I shook it or warmed it up?” I respond sarcastically.

“I didn’t see. Sorry for asking” Anne replies with equal sarcasm.

I take a deep breathe, realize I am pissed at myself and should watch it. “Thank you, apology accepted.”

“Don’t you think you owe me an apology too for giving me sarcasm and talking to me in that tone?” she asks, upset that I took her apology seriously.

I look away, frustrated, recompose and remind myself I am talking to a friend and it is not her fault that I fucked up. Don’t take it out on anyone else, don’t be a jackass.

“I thought you saw me screw on the cartridge and turn it on. I was wrong. I am sorry.” My justification riddled apology does little to appease her or me.

An uneasy silence settles over the three of us as we stare at the stove. Our meals are of the freeze dried variety and the meteorogram is calling for cold temps this evening. Our improvised bivy spot is forty minutes up the “trail” from the Swiss Bivy, a large overhanging rock which was occupied by a tent. We had tossed around the idea of staying there, but opted instead to make our way to the base of the glacier and find something workable. A bit of scouting had located this useable spot and I had unpacked the stove and was about to set to the task of making hot water for dinner.

“Well, the way I see it,” Rainbow says, ignoring the terse exchange between Anne and I, is that we have several options…”

Several minutes later we have decided on the option to make our way back down to the Swiss Bivy and see if other’s have a stove that works with our canister or will let us use their stove. We cache our technical gear and don our packs. As we walk out Rainbow shoots off ahead down the wet granite slabs and Anne lingers behind. “I am sorry about…” she starts in and talks briefly about what she was feeling and how what I said affected her. I listen and take it in. I know that my earlier apology and actions were dickheaded and try to offer an apology for making her feel the brunt of my frustration. I could have done better, both in the apology and in the initial communication and I feel like shit because of it.

Truth is, that no one, especially a friend and frequent climbing partner, needs to have my frustration taken out on them. I screwed up and it is my fault, not someone else’s.

My climbing partners are people I know well, they are people that I trust with my life, but also trust with my friendship. I trust them to be conservative when necessary and listen to me and make decisions with appropriate care and thought. My partners are a big reason as to why I climb. Climbing is not life. Life is relationships and interactions. Climbing only serves to strengthen those bonds or weaken those bonds. I have written before and will likely continue to write about how the drive to climb is intertwined with the wind tattered and sun faded bonds of friendship. Friends ignite desire more easily than climbing with new people. Desire for summits or even climbing at its simplest level, bouldering or sport climbing, is fueled by a mutual trust, respect, understanding and friendship. Basically I want to go hangout with a person. To me, as I have said before, the summit is merely a convenient spot to start the descent and a good excuse to go to the wilds and be with good people.

At the base of De l'S post climb

“Summits are optional; the parking lot is the goal. You have to come back.” That is a Whigger Mullins-ism from back in the day when I when I worked for him at Trails Wilderness School. In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Robert Persig writes “it is the side of the mountain that sustains life not the top.” It is a cliche, it is profound, and it is pretty true. Summits are never ending. There is always another on the list. I have heard folks say they cried when they reached the top of Fitz Roy or when they reached the top of El Cap. Is the tear shed because it is the end of the journey and thus from sadness or a tear of elation from having achieved a worthy goal? I guess it doesn’t entirely matter. That is fine as we all have our reasons and reactions; tears however, are not shed from my eyes. In the same novel Persig also writes “that mountains must be climbed with as little effort as possible.” As with most things, there is context and perspective to take into account. Is he writing about finding the easiest way to the top? Should we all take the trade routes or eschew the technical climbing for the ease of the non technical walk up? I would say no. I think he is writing of, and referring to, the effort of desire. The concept that it is the journey, not the destination, is being alluded to. I desire to be in the mountains and I desire to be doing those things. I purchased a very expensive plane ticket to Patagonia because I desire to challenge myself. Desire is what gets me out of bed in the morning. It is what drives me to do anything, to, live even. To desire a summit however is to emphasize the destination over the journey. It makes the sides of the mountain simply a means to an end. If you climb enough, summits are inevitable. The summit is the metaphorical Station in the poem of the same name by Robert Hastings. Yeah the summit comes, as does graduation or a job or retirement, but it changes nothing. It does not make life easier or make me sexier or more confident. Any confidence, increased competency or perspective I gain from being in the mountains is gained from the toils of ascent, descent and the decisions, including when to switch from one to another, that are made along the way. The top is merely a convenient resting spot.

I count Anne as one of my good friends. This past year, I may have tied into a rope with her more than anyone else. From the granite spires above El Chaltén to big walls in Zion National Park to the crags of Cochise Stronghold, Indian Creek, and the Green River, we have shared a lot of pitches. In some ways our foray onto the east face of Aguja De l’S epitomized why I climb with people I know and who know me. Yeah, I was a jerk, but we both know how to communicate effectively (for the most part) and we both know what to expect from each other. And if we mistreat each other there is a base of friendship to fall back on. There is a common bond of friendship and understanding that goes beyond the drive for the summit. With Anne, or other familiar climbing partners, I am not afraid to fail, speak my mind, or push myself hard. I know that these people will, at my worst, tell me to smarten the fuck up, suck it up, or commiserate with me. I know that these partners will not abandon me. I have seen them belay, I have seen them build anchors, I have seen them rappel. We use systems we know and with which we are both familiar. I can ask questions and be skeptical. And I expect nothing but the same back. It is a mutual understanding. They know they can rely on me and I on them.

So we hike back downhill. At the big overhanging rock bivy we grab the stove that is sitting out and try our canister. No suerte. So we sit and wait. Slowly, little by little, climbers come up the hill, most looking to make use of the already crowded rock. The three of us opt for an open bivy on the rock slabs nearby and set up our stuff. Joel and Adam offer up their stove and fuel. An acquaintance of Rainbow’s saunters in and has the ticket for fixing our stove. Rainbow jams a wire into the canister, jiggles it and frees the interior closure. The isobutane sprays out, coating and freezing his hands. He screws the spewing canister onto the Jetboil and viola, the Jetboil lights up. Only now, we must travel with the canister attached until the canister is empty.

The next morning we leave camp in the predawn darkness. I take the sharp end and lead us up to the base of the Cara Oeste. We find a stance, organize ourselves and start up the technical climbing. A mixed snow pitch and a snowy traverse lead to a snow and ice filled crack. I stash my crampons onto the back of my harness and dig my bare fingers into the splitter granite cracks. Three short pitches later we emerge onto a wide belay stance of steep snow. We switch leads and Anne takes off up a splitter hand crack. Several pitches later find the three of us simul-climbing an easy, steep snow slope to the base of the summit pyramid. Around us the wind howls, screams and tries to get at us. Our well chosen position on the east face is protecting us from the driving westerlies. Behind us Joel and Adam pull up to the same final pitches and above us a group of three is finishing up their two hour assault on the ice and snow coated summit pitches.

“Well, I’m on the fence” Rainbow says as we watch Scott Bennet play bandaloop games on the rappel above us. His double rope rappel got a bit clustered and after ascending the rope to work out the problems, he is trying to rappel back to the shoulder. Joel and Adam have posted up below us and they are gearing up for the final two pitches. We empty our bladders and put fuel in our stomachs as we stand, watch and decide.

“I’m not” I say. “It took those guys, like, over two hours to get up that thing, and they are good. It is what, three-thirty? I think we would be up here all night.”

“Yeah, I kind of think we should head down” Anne adds “I would be more inclined if we had jugs.”

“I’m on board with that” Rainbow chimes in. “Let’s head down.” With that proclamation it is obvious we are all on the same page, so we set to getting on with the business of going down.

***
Even though Anne and Rainbow have left I find myself wanting to go back to the mountains but don’t have the self confidence to go out with just anyone. I could probably hold my own, but I need something more, an undercurrent of mutual understanding and respect, as well as friendship. The bond of friendship needs to be stronger than the rope. Taking more risks and challenging myself is easier if I have complete trust and faith in the others on my team. That trust and faith builds the desire to climb. Much like the tat we rap off of in the mountains, we must take a look at our partnerships and inspect them for problems and worn edges, and then repair, replace, or rebuild as necessary. To go into the mountains without a solid relationship with your partner is like, to me, rapping off a crispy, sun faded piece of webbing around a sharp flake of rock. It is a disaster waiting to happen.

Digging back into my memory I could tell you with whom I climbed Epinephrine or the Franco-Argentina or the Northeast Buttress of Pingora or Voces en la Noche or the West Ridge of Mt Hunter or the Liberty Ridge on Rainier. I could tell you with whom I first climbed Olive Oil, Black Elk or the Petzoldt Ridge on the Grand Teton. The beta or intricacies of any of those routes is a completely different story. In the end it is the people I climb with that I remember.

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