Sunday, August 15, 2010

Luck has Nothing to do with It

A short bit of fiction, inspired by recent trip to the Grand Tetons:

(Both characters are fictional)

“Pop the trunk” I said to Owen, as I stood outside the car at a gas station in Lander, Wyoming. The smell of warm dampness emanated as I rifled through the trunk, searching the pockets of a wet pair of pants for a clif bar I remembered leaving there. “As soon as we get back to Colorado, we’re gonna need to spread this stuff out in the sun to dry”, I commented,  imagining our tent and sleeping bags rotting with mildew. “We should probably grab some ice here,” Owen replied, imagining the tragedy of our cooler, containing the meager remnants of our roadtrip’s provisions, stagnating in the hot prairie sun. Funny how priorities change. 24 hours earlier, a little mold (on tents, cheese, or otherwise) had been the least of our worries.


The idea had struck me three weeks earlier, as I prepared to give my boss my two-weeks notice. Through my final lame-duck days at the restaurant, the idea took root; becoming a plan, then a necessity. I was quitting my job waiting tables in Colorado, preparing to move back East to my childhood home of Michigan to begin a more “career-oriented” job. I’d been living in the mountain paradise of the West for two years, and I needed to go out with a bang. What better way than a summer roadtrip, the archetype of Western freedom, to commemorate my time here? And who better to join me than my roommate Owen (who of course had nothing better to do)?

We always dream big upon moving to a new place; the allure of a blank slate is universal. Upon moving to Colorado, I’d had dreams of becoming a Rock Climber. Sadly, a few 10-punch passes to the indoor gym, and some scattered top-rope sessions at the local crags (always with Owen) had not really fulfilled my daydream. I wanted big mountains, bluebird alpine skies, craggy ridges and exclusive summits. So before heading back to the fertile flat-lands of Michigan, I knew I had to try something big.
The plan for Owen and I to pack up the car the night before, making ready for a quick escape as soon as I walked out of my last day of work. Our destination: The Grand Tetons; our objective: stories of climbing glory to impress everyone back home!

“Looks like 287 will be a bit shorter, and definitely more scenic,” Owen said, glancing up from my worn Road Atlas of North America.
“Cool, I’m down,” I replied, steering my 4-door Civic through the late afternoon Front Range traffic.
He was right, and thirty minutes later we had exchanged gridlock and strip malls for granite boulders, timbered ravines, and the steady hum of pavement beneath our tires. Soon, the silhouette of a cowboy on a bucking bronco welcomed up to Wyoming. We had been gradually gaining elevation, and the Continental Divide passed almost imperceptibly beneath us as the sun escaped behind the distant horizon, leaving every hue from purple to orange on the wispy clouds.
Fueled by powdered donuts, 64oz gas station sodas, and Owen’s ipod DJing, we rallied West through the warm night. The dark two-lane highways of Wyoming revealed little of the dramatic geology we were approaching, and the stray cattle, illuminated in our peripherals, set a timeless scene. The urge to stop the car, build a little fire of sage and juniper, and wrap up in buffalo robe, was somehow buried in our DNA. This is what I’ve come for, a true Western adventure!

Owen led us to some free camping on National Forest land at around 1am. Exhausted, yet nervous with excitement and caffeine, I threw a tarp on the ground next to the car, left my sleeping bag half unzipped, and quickly passed out.

Seemingly seconds later, I opened my eyes. Of course it was hours later, and the sun was rising, but this logic failed to make an impression. My entire conscious mind was overcome with the view, extending West across ten miles of idyllic grasslands to the mountains: The Tetons.
Like enduring remnants of an ancient and proud civilization, or the brash monuments of some new one, the Tetons jut purposefully from the peaceful Snake river valley. At once inviting and foreboding, accessible yet lofty, the summits of the central range cannot help but inspire dreams, and incite action.

Our first action of the morning was breakfast, a hasty affair of bananas, chocolate fudge poptarts, and OJ straight from the carton. Next came the short drive into the park, necks craned study the peaks. At the Jenny Lake Ranger Station, Owen went inside to procure a backcountry permit, while I stayed in the parking lot, sorting food on a tarp next to the car. Owen returned, the white tent-tag in hand, and we finished stuffing our packs with every conceivable packaged snack food, and a bit of gear as well. After the short drive to Lupine Meadows trailhead, we locked the car, stashed the keys on the left rear tire (“In case I die, you can still get home” I joke) and headed up the trail. 



“Garnet Canyon, 4.1 miles” Owen read as we passed a small wooden sign, and we quickened our pace with excitement. I felt buoyant as we made quick work of the gentle switchbacks, feeling that only the weight of my pack was preventing my from floating away.

Soon we entered the canyon, and the sweeping views of the plains below gave way to awe at the snow-mottled granite peaks and impossibly clear streams. A sign announced our designated bivy site, “The Platforms”, and we were glad to dump our packs and select a nice flat tent site amongst the trees. Foam pads, sandwich materials, and ipod speakers come out, and lethargy threatened to consume the afternoon.  Not to be tempted, though, we re-motivate, throw some jackets and bars into the daypack, and set off further up the canyon.

Though normally just roommates and friends, on the trip Owen and I assumed different roles: guide and client. Not officially, I wasn’t paying him more than a burger and beer once we returned to flat ground, but just naturally Owen was to be the guide. With years of climbing experience and plenty of gear, Owen was glad to help me pretend to be a rockclimber. And so our first day would be a warm-up, and a chance for Owen to get me accustomed to moving in the mountains. Our objective, the Middle Teton, was still a proud one, but we chose the easiest route: the Southwest couloir.

Now burdened only by a light daypack, I followed Owen up the canyon, first through delicate alpine meadows, then across bare talus. Soon we reached the first of the snowfields. I was nervous, for snow in Michigan is usually flat and non-threatening, but here it looked like a wall. As we neared it, though, the angle began to seem more reasonable, and after a few tentative steps, I settled into a rhythm, kicking my running shoes into the sun-softened slope. A few more snowfields, interspersed with loose talus, brought us to the saddle between Middle and South Tetons, with the obvious couloir beckoning us to the summit.

Though definitely slowed a bit with tight quads and straining lungs, the final gully led us to the summit and our spirits were high. Not a cloud was visible, unlike nearly everything else within a hundred miles! Our 360 degree panorama: to the East, the broad Snake river valley, with the tips of the Wind River range glittering just above the horizon; to the South, the crenelated ridge from South Teton to Nez Perce; and to the West, convoluted canyons and icy alpine lakes, giving way to the endless plains of Idaho. To our North, though, the view was dominated by something much closer at hand: The Grand. Towering almost 1000 feet higher than our already lofty perch, the Grand Teton could not be ignored. This would be our objective tomorrow.



Our descent from the Middle was pure joy, much to my relief as I’d spent all of our summit time silently nervous about it. We jogged down talus slopes, and the snow had now softened enough for us to carve turns in our tennies! As the sun made its stately retirement behind the canyon rim, we rambled back into camp, eager to get water boiling. Potatoes re-hydrated and pre-packaged meals re-constituted, we attempted to replenish the day’s many burned calories.
“When should we get up tomorrow” I asked.
“Four” Owen replied, “Set your alarm,” and I programmed my cell phone before zipping shut my sleeping bag and, once again, passing out.
--------------
The harsh beeping, carefully calculated to be impossible to ignore, intruded into my sleep. Everything was still dark, but luckily I’d left my headlamp somewhere convenient: my head. The flat, white light illuminated out preparations: water boiled, sandwiches made, rope coiled.
“We’re climbing on this thing?” I asked warily, fingering our ultra-skinny 7.7mm cord.
“Not climbing, just rappelling. We’ll be fine” Owen replied.

We again crossed the delicate meadow as the sun’s preliminary glow began to soften the eastern sky, and ascended steep switchbacks as the orb broke the horizon. Today’s sky was not, however, the unbroken shield of blue that had guarded over us yesterday. A grey haze filtered the fresh sunlight, and rows of high, dark clouds held position in the West.

The Lower Saddle, between the Middle and Grand Tetons, is guarded by a snowfield, perhaps a bit steeper than the ones we’d dealt with yesterday. Since the sun had yet to exert it’s full influence, the snow still had a crust of ice and provided much more resistance to our attempts at kicking steps. We had each found well-shaped rocks beforehand, though, and our primitive tools helped chop out a stairway up the snow.

Owen stands on the highest boulder in the Lower Saddle, facing west. “I think we can make it,” he says, “but we’ll have to move. Speed is safety” Above us the sky remains hazy, and to the west a line of dark clouds is visible, its lower edge bleeding down over the far-off plains, drenching somebody’s potato farm. From here, our route was plain. Owen pointed out the gully, where we would skirt around snow couloirs on bare rock ribs, where we would gain the upper saddle before attacking the steep summit pyramid. We started up.

Though the gully here was no steeper than our route yesterday on the Middle, the combination of higher altitude and sore legs conspired to make progress a bit slower. Regardless, the darker skies prevented us from stopping for any breathers. Our gear, luckily wasn’t a burden. I carried our tiny daypack, loaded with two sandwiches, a few energy bars, and rain jackets. Owen carried our skinny 60m rope, trussed up in a tight coil and strapped to his back. We both wore harnesses, and Owen had a handful of cams, nuts, and biners clipped to the back of his. The plan was to scramble up the route unroped, and use the rope to make a few rappels on the way down. The light rack was just in case.  

We reached the first of the really steep snow, clearly too steep and icy for us to tackle. We could see tracks from parties with axes and crampons, but our light shoes would not be able to follow in their steps. Owen’s plan, on the other hand, was for us to wear approach shoes with sticky climbing rubber, and simply stay on rock on the margins of the gully. This would enable us, once we reached the upper, dry rock climbing sections, to move quickly where heavy boots would have hindered us. Owen moved right, and easily mounted a narrow ledge. When I reached the same obstacle, I found the same handholds, but was hesitant to step up.
“Just plant your foot and trust the friction” he called down to me. I put my right foot high, where I’d seen him step, and mantled up onto the ledge. Continuing up the steep ramp, I found that these shoes really did grip the rock, much better than any pair of running shoes I’d ever tried. Soon I was moving (almost) as confidently as Owen. We weaved our way up the gully, avoiding snow, staying on dry rock and moving quickly.

We gained the Upper Saddle, between the Grand and a small sub-summit called the Enclosure. From here, the Summit looked impregnable. I had faith in Owen, though, and followed him as he skirted left along a narrowing ledge system. “Now that we’re getting into the real climbing” he said, not looking back as he scrambled further along the ledge, “pay attention to where I go and what holds I use. I’ll even mark some of the really good ones for you with chalk. If you get sketched out, just let me know and I’ll come back down to help you.”
The ledge we were following petered out, and as I got to the edge, I immediately took a step back. Below was a huge drop, falling away steeply to the far off depths of Valhalla canyon. The ledge system continued ahead only as a jutting sliver of rock, coming out of the main wall at a steep angle. Owen had already begun casually traversing this obstacle, both his hands on the ledge, both his feet pasted to the near-vertical rock below.
“It’s jugs all the way across here,” he yelled back, clearly enjoying himself. “Just smear your feet and walk you’re way along.”
I started as I was instructed, but quickly decided to throw one leg up and over the ledge, just for extra security. This made progress awkward and slow, but at least I didn’t have to look straight down through my feet to the gorge far below.
Owen was waiting for me at the other end of the passage, grinning, but also scanning the sky. The far-off storm had moved much closer, now completely obscuring a mountain range that had been visible minutes earlier. Though silent, we could see flashes of lightning explode inside the clouds. Wordlessly, Owen continued. Speed is Safety. Above, we were now moving up the mountain, a relief after the extended traverse. The route followed an ugly chimney system, dark and damp in the back, but with plentiful holds. Owen would stop occasionally to mark the good holds with chalk, he knew that it would make me feel comfortable to be following a marked path, just like in the gym.

Despite his best efforts, though, I knew I was slowing down. Legs and lungs were feeling the burn, but exposure and fear were also playing their roles. And then, almost imperceptibly, the hail started. One or two at a time, the tiny chinks of ice bounced off the rock around me. Like God’s own dandruff, it piled up on the tiny ledges and cracks. I focused a bit more on my feet, put my head down and continued, keeping Owen’s shoes in the top of my vision.

We reached a tiny alcove in the chimney, and the hail turned to sleet and began to fall harder now, making the holds cold and wet. Coming out of the alcove, we faced a steep bulge, which Owen quickly surmounted, marking a hold along the way. Still trying to “Trust the friction” (and, implicitly, Owen) I grabbed the tick-marked hold, planted my right foot on a sloping edge, and began to step up. Instantly, my foot popped off the damp hold. Luckily, my handholds were good, as I caught myself and lowered quickly back to the alcove. Searching around for an alternate foot hold, I felt the hot wave of adrenaline, a few seconds delayed from my unexpected foot slip. I tentatively smeared my foot on a different, but equally wet, foothold, but I could immediately tell that my confidence was gone, I no longer trusted my shoes.
“What did you do here?” I yelled up to Owen, now twenty feet above me.

“Just grab that good left handhold that I marked and reach for the big ledge up and right...” His voice trailed off as he looked down at me. The fear must have been obvious on my face, as well as in my voice. “Or you could just chill there for a minute.”
“I’m gonna toss you an end of the rope, then I’ll go up to that ledge and try to build an anchor” he yelled down, his voice remarkably calm.

I huddled back in to my stance: the small alcove in the chimney, shared with some snow, ice, and a growing amount of sleet. A few seconds later, a pile of red-orange rope landed in front of me. I quickly found the end and forced my stiff cold fingers to form the familiar figure-8 knot, thankful for the many gym sessions that had ingrained it into my muscle-memory. Though I knew I was not yet “On Belay”, the very presence of the brightly-colored, obviously man-made object gave me a feeling of security against this harsh and foreign environment.

I realized that a switch had been flipped in my mind. I had been aware of the weather, but had focused on climbing as fast as possible; always keep Owen’s shoes in sight, he’ll lead the way to the summit. Now I was hunkered down, focused on getting down slowly and safely. This was a siege, and for the moment I was safe in my alcove, my castle. But the enemy was readying its catapult.

I had already put on my rain jacket, but I still had a bandanna in the pack, so I pulled it out and tied it around my head, hoping for a meager amount of warmth. Cinching down the rain jacket hood, I left myself a small porthole for breathing and monitoring the approaching lightning. We had first heard thunder maybe ten minutes before, but it had been muffled and seemingly unrelated to any visible lightning; like someone moving furniture in the next room. Now I could see a flash, start to count, and match it up with a distinct crash, ten, maybe fifteen seconds later. To the northwest, I could monitor the storm’s progress against Paintbrush canyon, a beautifully perfect example of a glacial U-shaped valley. Or at least that what I’d thought yesterday, gazing at it leisurely from atop the Middle. Now it just looked like a giant, gray storm gutter.

After many minutes of slow progress, the rope in front of me started to move quickly, and soon came tight on my harness. “That’s me!”, I yelled, my voice sounding pitifully weak against the wind and rain. “You’re on belay!” came the reply from far above, Owen’s voice sounding vague and gauzy through my hood. I stood up, stretching my stiff legs and trying to regain balance and mobility. Again, I grabbed the holds, the chalk mark all but washed away, and stepped up to reach the holds to my right. With the added confidence of the rope, and the incentive to get moving and re-warm my body, I moved quickly over the bulge and continued up the chimney. Thirty feet higher, I came to a broad, but sloping ledge, and Owen was huddled at the back of it, trying to maximize the shelter of a small cave. He had used a few cams to rig an anchor in the cave, and I joined him there.

“Well, I don’t think it’d be a good idea to summit right now,” he said laconically. “With that lightning coming in, it’s probably best to wait it out here, and descend quickly as soon as we see a break.” I nodded my agreement as I wormed my way under the sheltered overhang.
Like cracks across a windshield, a web of lightning suddenly covered half of the sky. I hadn’t even reached three before the stunning report shook the mountain around us.
“Here, let’s pile the rope on the ground, and we can both crouch on it,” Owen advised, “maybe it’ll insulate us a bit.” He then showed me how to crouch with my hands behind my head, and both elbow touching my knees. “It gives the electricity a path around your body that doesn’t cross your heart” he explained. I’m not sure I believed it, but I had nothing better to suggest, and I appreciated following instructions. As the storm fully engulfed the mountain, and us with it, the sleet became harder and harder, drowning out all hopes of conversation.

My thoughts drifted, mercifully, and I pictured myself in Michigan, sitting at a desk, pecking at a computer. Blissful boredom. I mentally started to compose the story, and how I would tell it to my family, old high-school friends, and future co-workers. I would definitely have to be carrying a bigger pack... and maybe it would be snowing... I wonder if they would believe there were girls up here, and maybe some potential rescue... of the girls... by me... just the strict truth of course, but it has to be interesting... CRACK! The thunder was like a steel cable snapping, and it brings me back to our pitiful cave and Owen’s rigid “lightning crouch”.

To say that the air felt electric would be trite, but it would also be true. The hair on my arms was standing up, and if I’d taken off my bandanna and hood, I’m sure the hair on my head would too. The rocks around us seemed to be making a low, buzzing sounds, like a cheap neon sign, or maybe a bug zapper about to go off. Nothing to do but maintain the crouch.
I imagined transporting myself in time, to a point maybe five hours in the future, when surely we’d be back at the trailhead, the sky now clear.... We’d change into dry clothes, then sit in the car and crank the heat... Later still, in town, we’d be sitting at the local brew pub, mowing through a huge plate of french fries...The cute waitress would bring us more and more and listen to our harrowing tales with concern... CRACK! Of course there was no time now between the sights and sounds, just one overwhelming sensation, followed a few seconds later by the conscious relief at being alive. 
I’m not even sure if I daydreamed anymore.

------------------------

Eventually, the rain slowed. I think it had turned to rain, anyways, before it slowed. We could once again count the seconds between the light and the noise of the strikes, and we we counted as high as twelve, we began to stir. Owen moved out across the ledge, trailed the rope with him. From here, he’d explained, we could traverse the ledge over to a rappel point. Since everything was wet, we would stay roped up. Owen leading, placing cams along the way, and then bringing me over, like a fish, on the end of the rope. 



I watched him pick his way across the sloping ledge, carefully testing crucial foot placements. He went out of sight around a corner, and then the rope moved rapidly. When it came tight on me, we went through our verbal commands, and then I started to follow. It took a moment to reacquaint myself with the limits of the friction on the slick rock, but soon I was walking upright, with just one hand brushing the rock for balance. I arrived at Owen's stance, and was relieved to see that he was at the rappel point, a tangled mass of slings around a reassuringly huge chunk of rock. Owen showed me were to clip myself in, and then threaded the rope. 

“Careful on this wet, skinny rope, it will move faster through the ATC than you’re used to,” he warned me, “You can rig it up with an extra biner, though, for more friction.” With that, he disappeared over the edge. I leaned back to see him quickly sliding down the rope, swinging gently, and then making a soft landing on the ledge below. I rig up my own rappel, using two biners as he’d suggested, and gingerly lowered myself onto the rope. The rap was fun, nearly free-hanging, but I was not in the mood to appreciate it. The the lightning had moved off, the sky was still dark in all directions, and we were still in a cold, wet, and hostile environment. I wouldn’t feel safe until we were back in the real world, with trees and cars and food and people.

On the descent back down the gully to the Lower Saddle, Owen broke out the rope a few times to belay me down steep sections, always just dropping the rope and then downclimbing. Once back on non-technical ground, we picked up a light jog, mostly just to warm ourselves. Our long wait huddled in the cave had chilled us both to the core. The snowfield coming down from the Lower Saddle was the last real obstacle, and we approached it nervously. Unlike yesterday, the sun had never warmed the snow, and we expected it to be just as hard as it had been on the way up. It was, but we again found pointy rocks and made slow, backwards progress, step-by-step. On the trail once again, I don’t remember much, just a wet, gray, knee-pounding blur.

Neither of us had said much for a while. With our rain jacket hoods up, conversation was reduced to mostly meaningless comments on the weather, how far away the last lightning strike might have been. Owen, hiking in front, took off his hood. “It’s not like I’m gonna get any wetter.”
I followed suit.
“Thanks for keeping your head together up there,” Owen said as he slowed his pace, turning back to show a massive grin.

“You didn’t know what was going on in my head up there, I think we got pretty lucky” I replied, but I too was smiling.

“Either way, I can think of a lot of people who would’ve freaked out in that situation, you know, just frozen. Lot’s of folks with tons more year of climbing than you.”

“Whatever man, I think you earned your burger and beer.”

We stopped briefly at our campsite, hastily stuffing all of our sopping gear in packs. More muddy trail, heads down, lost in our own minds, but without any conscious thought. Sore knees, soaked shoes, making sucking noises with every step, pack straps cutting into hips.
Then, we were back at the car.

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