Fear and Spraying in Estes Park

What does boxing have to do with climbing? A lot, actually. Or at least I think so.

I try to explain while weaving together a couple of stories in a new Dirtbag Diaries episode, The Pugilist (free download from the site, also free on iTunes). As I’ve written before, I love podcasts, and regularly download them onto my mp3 player and listen when I’m driving, or when I’m out for a gimp (I have a hard time just sitting at my desk and listening). Essentially, this episode is about fear. Being scared comes behind only failure and margaritas on my list of specialties. But I’m not alone. Everybody gets scared, and I don’t believe any climber – or any fighter – who claims they don’t. You should be scared. Fear comes in different forms – sometimes it’s more anxiety, like fear of failure without real consequences; other times it’s legitimate fear because the consequences are very real. We need fear, it’s important because it keeps us alive, keeps us alert, and, I believe, dealing with it challenges us and helps us grow.

The Pugilist is the most I’ve ever written or told, publicly anyway, about my past life as a boxer. I started boxing in high school and continued in college; it was huge to me then, everything, the way climbing is to me now. College boxing isn’t a big deal, though. It’s the same style as in the Olympics, but nobody in college boxing is good enough for the Olympics – for the most part, the top amateur boxers aren’t college kids. One thing that remains universal, though, much as with climbers at different levels, is the need to deal with fear and intimidation. I swear, the “ring walk” must be the most intimidating moment in all of sports. In many ways it feels similar to walking to the base of a huge alpine climb.

Sometimes little things help you deal when you’re teetering between a lack of motivation or debilitating fear – maybe breathing exercises, self-talk, humor, or, my specialty, just turning off my brain (seems I overdo it daily, though).

So, here’s the big spray part. I got this awesome email the other day, from a guy named Eric whom I’ve never met. He had a climbing trip planned to Mt. Kenya, leaving in a week. Didn’t look like it was gonna happen: “My partner was wavering, filled with fear. Today he sent me your podcast for the Pugilist. He is in.”

Hell yeah! Wow, how awesome. I’ve long thought inspiration is one of the coolest things around, and I get it from soooo many sources. It’s nice to return the favor on occasion. Now, granted, I know – before I get too full of myself, it might be pathetic and sad when a short gimpy guy can provide inspiration, but what the hell, I’ll take it.

This post reminds me of a guy who walked into a Catholic confession booth.

“Father, forgive me.” – have I told this one already? Not sure. Anyway:

“Yes, my son, what have you done?”

“Well, there were these two beautiful blonde sisters, and I slept with them. Both. At the same time.”

“You have sinned. Say 20 Hail Marys.”

“No way,” the guy replies, “I’m Jewish.”

“Well what are you telling me for?” the priest says.

“Oh, I’m tellin’ everyone!”

Another Pointless Post: Sweatpants and the Car Wash

The differences in lifestyles across sub-sets of our culture sometimes leave me stupefied. Last December, while sitting at a gas mart in Thornton, a cookie-cutter suburb of Denver, waiting to meet Scotty D for a brief climbing road trip, I stared, mouth agape, at the six-deep line of cars and SUVs waiting to enter the automatic car wash.

Damnit, guys, I told you we should've washed the Jeep. (En route to Hushe, Pakistan.)

I’ve never once washed my car. Even if I cared, the rain does it for free. I can’t anymore imagine washing my car than I can imagine being one of those tea-party douchebags (call me un-‘Merican, but I believe that caring for our fellow human – even the less-fortunate, pathetic and slovenly as they are – should take priority over corporate profits). On my list of things I care about enough to spend even ten minutes of time, washing my car couldn’t be farther below the bottom of the list. I just don’t get it. Not that it matters if I get it, but this is my blog so I’m allowed to rant about random topics.

Climbing makes no sense, either. As least until you consider that challenging yourself on levels physical, psychological, and emotional — regardless of the vehicle (pardon the pun) – gives us depth and helps us grow in ways that most of us, myself certainly included, cannot adequately articulate. Simply put, though, it’s probably passion. Certainly passion can be used for evil, but well directed passion helps drive us (that pun thing again…am I on to something here? Are cars (well washed, of course) the solutions to the world’s problems? Uh, no).

Colin Haley is SO going shopping!

Why do so many people seem to wrap their identities in the hunk of metal that gets them from point A to point B? Does that count as a “passion”? It’s like the people who “love to shop” – seriously? Yuk. What a turn-off. There I go again, being un-‘Merican by bashing on unabashed materialism. But really, just buying tons of unnecessary crap that you don’t use for anything, for the sole sake of buying tons of unnecessary crap that you don’t use for anything? A passion? Really? I’ve already ranted on this, so I’ll spare you. I know, I’m a judgmental hypocrite like the rest of us. In contrast, I’ll concede that hand washing your car, like the auto buffs do with their collector’s editions (even if I don’t “get” the car thing), seems different. Just sitting in line to hit the auto-scrub seems purely superficial.

Keeping expectations low, gotta wash the car now.

Who am I kidding? I sound like an ass-hole. We all do all kinds of pointless things just to get by, things that somehow give us a shred of daily self-worth in a lost world, as silly as those things seem to others. Climbing, for example. And I have my favorite margarita glass and my favorite coffee mug. I don’t know why, I just like them. I hate to admit it, but sometimes I think about what I’m going to wear if I’m going out in public – even to the grocery store. Mock copy block time:

No Expectations Sweatpants. Dream low and plan to fail—nothing says “ambition” like a good pair of sweatpants and at age 37, still living in your parents’ basement, sleeping till noon and playing Doom all day, you need something as soft as you are. You’ll never get up the route anyway, so slide into these power-lounging sweats, expect the worst and you’ll get to be right or pleasantly surprised. Made from unwashed recycled pajamas.

In my trying-to-be-less-judgmental-but-not-quite-there-yet mind, I still shake my head at the inanity of giving a rat’s ass about having some dirt on your car. Let your car get too dirty, though, and you could end up with a rig like the Chief’s. And maybe those people simply like their cars without dirt. Just like I like my favorite marg glass. Just like I’m still not wearing sweatpants to the grocery story.

Jumbo Goes Big

On Shi-Shi, Giri-Giri, and I-TO

Jumbo goes big. Again. And what impresses me about Katsutaka “Jumbo” Yokoyama isn’t just his mind-blowing climbing – if you’ve been paying attention, you know him as the de facto ring leader of the Japanese “Giri-Giri Boys,” who’ve been sending incredibly ambitious alpine routes around the world in recent years. No, it’s not just that. It’s his approach, his attitude, his kindness, and humility. I first met him in person last summer, when he, his girlfriend Chihiro, and I cragged and camped together for a couple of days at Wild Iris. I went in wondering “what in the world makes this guy tick?” Like it was some top-secret observation. I came away realizing that the always-smiling, polite nearly to a fault, kind and warm Japanese guy sending the biggest alpine routes in the world and .13+ sport routes alike, well, he loves to climb for the same reasons as most of us, and he tries damn hard. He has the physical tools, sure, but without his psychological willingness to learn, and to grow, and to experience life how he wants to live it, none of it would matter. I’d emailed with him for years, with our first correspondence coming after his and Fumitaka Ichimura’s new route on Mt. Huntington, followed by a rapid ascent of the massive, difficult Denali Diamond. They were college students, eager to learn about alpine climbing, and…and I read his report, including:

“This line might have already been climbed, due to its prominent location, but I couldn’t find any record in the literature. Or it may be a variation of the Phantom Wall route. Anyway, this line was so beautiful, and we enjoyed the climbing. We named the route Shi-Shi (1,800m, Alaska Grade 4, M5 AI5). Shi-Shi means a person who works to realize his worldly ambitions at the risk of his death, like a Samurai. Shi-Shi never regrets, even if his body is thrown in a ditch or a ravine after his cruel death. The person like Shi-Shi always must imagine his body lying in a ditch.”

Uhhhh, come again with that last part?

It’s easy to think that others are so different. Different culture, right? Sure. Or just maniacs? No way. As I worked with Jumbo on his feature article in last year’s AAJ, it became apparent that he has no death wish. He has a life wish. Just like most of us. It’s expressed differently, and he had difficulty explaining. I suspect there’s more to it than I understand, but I think I get the gist. From his article last year:

“We use Giri-Giri mostly in parody of a TV show about sexy Japanese girls. But literally, in Japanese Giri-Giri means “at the very limit of something.” We always seek to be on the edge in the mountains. This was our fourth consecutive season in the Alaska Range. Why Alaska? Simple: It has many attractive faces and offers low-budget expeditions from Japan. We have no money, because we spend everything climbing. Although the members vary from year-to-year, our most frequent trips are to Alaska, but we have also climbed in the Andes and the Himalaya. We have little experience and are immature in our climbing technique, but we are close friends.

Our Alaska trips began in 2005, when Itchy and I flew to the Tokositna Glacier, below Mt. Huntington. The first time we saw its southwest face, we saw a beautiful line. It started from a dangerous serac-lined basin—“Death Valley”—and ascended 1,800 meters to the summit. On that trip we read a novel by Ryotaro Shiba. The hero is Ryoma Sakamoto, a visionary Samurai who worked to free Japan from its feudal trappings and created a modern government in the early 1800s. He was the ultimate Shi-Shi. The first Shi means “ambitions” or “soul,” and the second Shi means “a man.” A Shi-Shi must be willing to accept his death as part of his desire to realize his ambitions. Death is never an acceptable ideal for a Japanese alpine climber, so we can’t literally live like a Shi-Shi. But the Shi-Shi way of life and spirit are always in our dreams. It is difficult to explain. Speaking for myself, life and climbing are not only about success or enjoyment, but about living true to one’s ambitions. I think that the line on Huntington was the first time I fully lived these feelings. Although our route was not so hard, it was important to us that we found the line by ourselves, not in a guidebook. We named it Shi-Shi.”

Chihiro and Jumbo at Wild Iris.

Oh, and the nickname? He’s about 5’9” 180 pounds of solid muscle, from Japan, where most people are about half his size. Over coffee at Wild Iris, they dug into the used van they bought in Anchorage, after their trip, and drove down to the Lower 48, scraping by the whole way in fine dirtbag form. Out came his coffee mug, like a miniature Japanese teacup with “JUMBO” written on the side.

His feature article was about his 2008 trip to Alaska, again, with his fellow Giri-Giri boys. They played “Pachinko” – a Japanese pinball-like game, only the mountain version is what we call an enchainment. Right, kind of like those link-up days we do at the crag…or not. After a huge new route on the Bear Tooth, he, Ichimura, and Yusuke Sato made an ascent of the 7,200-foot Isis Face, a still-coveted route put-up in 1982 by Jack Tackle and Dave Stutzman. The route climbs its own feature, a wall that tops out on a long flat part of the South Buttress a long ways from the summit. Tacking on the additional 4,000+ feet to the top has been a longstanding project. The Giri-Giri Pachinko way? Get this – instead of continuing along the easier and obvious South Buttress, they descended 4,300-feet into the East Fork of the Kahiltna, without a gear cache or refuel, and climbing out to the summit via the 9,000-foot Slovak Route, the hardest on Denali. Say what? I’ve done nine Alaskan climbing trips, friends countless more – literally hundreds of years of Alaska experience between friends and I – and been doing the Alaska section of the AAJ for 10 years, and I can say that nobody else even fucking dreamed of something that out there. So rad. Or, as Jumbo kept saying while sport climbing, “Ahhhh, so nice!”

As with so many things, there’s a lot more to the story, including the tragedy simultaneously playing out with their friends, who disappeared on their own Pachinko nearby.

There have been many like Jumbo over time, at various levels layered throughout climbing, as time progresses and we build on the shoulders of those who came before. We learn, and those with a sense of decency and respect give credit, remain humble, remain human. Especially because, remember, it’s just climbing and even if you climb well but are an asshole, well, you’re still an asshole.

I suppose one way to be an asshole is to disrespect those who came before you. Another is to disrespect those who surpass you. In doing so, when you think about it, you disrespect yourself. Nothing worse than a bitter old climber.

Me, Charlie, and Jack.

But nothing better than people like Jack Tackle. I’m starting to ramble, as usual, but let me say that, as I’ve gotten to know Jack over the years – from the time I got my courage up to talk to him after a slide show he gave in Missoula, when I was a young climber, and I still remember how big he made me feel – I know that there’s more to his story than a great climber who just walks in and sends big. In fact, he had to learn to walk again ten years ago, after being struck down by a bizarre neurological disease and nearly dying. After his grueling recovery, on his first big trip back to the mountains, with the wonderful Alaskan hardman Charlie Sassara, 2,000 feet up Mt. Augusta, rockfall nailed Jack and broke his neck and back. Charlie, a true hero, had to leave Jack, descend alone in terrible conditions, crawl across the glacier because he couldn’t see the crevasses in a zero-visibility whiteout, call for help, and one of the boldest rescues ever ensued. It’s been a long road for Jack. But last year, with Jay Smith, he had probably his best ever Alaska trip. So, how’s the saying go? 55 is the new 30, yes? Jack has a great feature article about the trip – and more – in the upcoming AAJ (which I’d better get back to).

Anyway, so Jumbo was wrapping up his year in the U.S. and Canada with a trip to the massive, unclimbed, south face of Mt. Logan. It’s one of those remaining gems. And damned hard to nail – steep climbing, huge, and horrible weather. Jack had been there twice, making probably the only real attempts to date. Sure, Jack’s done a ton, but it’s not about collecting, it’s about something deeper. He still wanted it, it was his remaining gem. Jack knows the face better than anyone, and Jumbo asked him about it. What to do? We all have projects we guard, and nobody can blame you for keeping your info to yourself. It’s also a fact of life that, as we age, maybe we can’t pull off everything we wanted for ourselves, and so to share becomes maybe not just the next best thing, but the best thing. At least at that time and place, and with the right people. How could you not want to help Jumbo?

Just the other day, Jumbo and Yasushi Okada sent the coveted south face of Mt. Logan. The route was 2,500m tall and went at WI5 M6, in perfect alpine style. Jumbo told me it was the best climbing he’s ever done, and, of course, he graciously thanked Jack for the honor of his help, and the connection they share. Jumbo and Yasushi named the route I-TO, which means “thread, line, relationship.”

Jumbo and Yasushi's new route on the south face of Mt. Logan. photo: Jack Tackle

Taking the Tools for a Walk

My friends have no shame. Or, at least, no sympathy. It’s like that old saying, “No friends on a powder day.” Except that powder is full on, indisputable, Type I fun. G-climbing in the Park? (G is for Grovel, as if you didn’t know.) Fully Type II, sometimes Type III.

“Hey, want to take the tools for a walk?” – you normally just carry your pack in the wind and horrific conditions in the Park come winter and spring. But, knowing how I sort of enjoy such things, even though I really don’t, you’d think that my friends might show some restraint. Twice the other day I got emails that went like this (this one from my friend Ben, and the other wasn’t much different): “I know this is a mean thing to ask you in your current state but have you heard anything through the grapevine about RMNP ice? The usual, Vanquished, Womb with a View, etc.?”

On phenomenal melt-freeze alpine ice, and below the final sketchy stretch of the route, I took a break from giggling to snap a photo of a smiling Steve Su and the “too good to be true” climbing below.

Seriously, I’d be happy to help. But I know nothing. And you have to believe me this time, because I’ve got nothing to hide. Here, I’ll come clean and admit that, in the past, on occasion, I’ve lied. Flat out. As in, “Nah, man, don’t know anything, but with recent weather I doubt if anything’s in,” as I pack-up for the next morning’s outing, based on the day’s recon mission. What, like I’m going to broadcast what’s formed so that I can compete with all of Boulder in the Park the next day? Ha, right. I’m not as dumb as I look. These things take effort, the G-climbing gems, and, unlike powder days when everyone knows it’s a powder day, not everyone knows when the G-climbs are in. It takes a shitload of either dumb work – at which I seem(ed) to excel, putting in the hours and miles to do the recon missions – or just lots of dumb luck. Which, obviously, I’ve been short on lately.

And so, no, I don’t always give out the secrets. But I would now because if I can’t be out there doing it, hard though it seems to believe, I’d love for others to enjoy themselves. Just like the spring two years ago that the Secret Asian Man, Steve Su, and I had in the Park. Story posted below, with photos – this first ran on Patagonia’s awesome blog, thecleanestline.com. If you haven’t noticed, I’m doing some reposts lately, just because I’m too buried in AAJ work right now to come up with much original content. The above rambles notwithstanding, of course.

Oh – and I’ve got eight inches of new snow on my porch here in Estes. Mid-May. If you know anything, you’ll be sharpening your tools for the next sunny spell with cold nights, so that you can take your tools for a walk.


[from June 2008]

Since moving to Estes Park eight years ago, I, like every ice and alpine climber around, have fantasized about a route called Vanquished. Every fall and every spring, Rocky Mountain National Park climbers whisper about fleeting smears of ice and patterns of precipitation, temps, wind and sun. Ice will form and disappear within 24 hours. Rumors and notions circulate like conspiracy theories. The Chase begins.

My theories rarely pan out, no matter how hard I try to convince myself. At best I calculate about a 4:1 ratio of “taking the gear for a walk” to succeeding on the Park’s alpine treasures, but I’ve emptied my abacus on Vanquished.

For me it starts with low-investment, “just a little exercise,” trail runs and ski tours – but always with my binoculars and with ulterior motives. If I see something, I call a friend and ask, “Hey, wanna carry packs full of climbing gear around the Park?”

More than anything, you just have to go.

I love the process. Vanquished isn’t cutting-edge or even that big – probably 700 feet of climbing to the top of the route, and at least double that to the summit or summit ridge. But local gems sometimes carry such mythical status, and you invest so much, that you don’t really care.

Steve Su (a.k.a. A Boy Named… and Secret Asian Man for his being a humble, low-key hardman) and I had done a couple of alpine mixed routes in the Park in the last half of May, when Vanquished wasn’t there. And then everything seemed to melt out and everyone went rock climbing. Still we wondered, maybe Vanquished will form…

Steve hiking to the base after we killed an hour in the rocks below, waiting for sunrise.

On Sunday, June 1, in a short-sleeved T-shirt I alternately skied, carried my skis, and postholed (ahhh, the joys of Spring) to Sky Pond and glassed the route. Small snowpatches fed the scooped-out shaded face. Remnants of ice clung to the upper half, and water ran down the bottom. Damn, missed it again.

Two days later, the 12,000-foot forecast called for a brief snap of snow and nighttime lows below 30. Ahhh, the joys of Spring.

I studied my photos again, called Steve and agonized over what day would be best – too early and it’s not there, too late and it’s gone. It’s a three-hour approach, I was under deadlines and shouldn’t be missing even an hour of work, and Steve works, goes to grad school and has a family.

So I called the master. Duncan Ferguson, who develops Alpine products for Patagonia, knows more about melt-freeze mixed climbing in the Park than anybody. In the 70s and 80s he was one of Colorado’s most prolific all-around climbers and a true maestro of ephemeral ice and mixed. Even today, when locals find some smear in the Park, the saying goes, with a respectful smile and a shrug, “Duncan probably did it.” Through the phone I read him the weather forecast, asked his advice and took notes.

June 7 was our day. But the afternoon would get warm so we had to be fast. And early. I utterly despise early starts. I skipped my nightly margarita ritual, got a 40-minute nap before rising at 12:10 a.m., meeting Steve at 1, hiking at 1:45, reaching the base three hours later and killing an hour waiting for sunlight. It’s a rare and notable day that my lazy ass gets to a route too early, but there’s a first time for everything and I’d chased Vanquished for eight years. We didn’t want to miss it.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

La Escoba de Dios

Here’s a short piece I wrote for the Patagonia catalog two or three years ago — we titled it Into the Rime, but I think I like The Broom of God or La Escoba de Dios better. No matter — I’m buried in AAJ deadlines for the next month, and short on time but long on daydreams. It’s so cool reading about the great adventures everyone had last year, and a bunch of my friends are in Alaska now or will be soon. Woohoo, get after it!


La Escoba de Dios

Colin on the Torre Glacier, with Cerro Torre trying to emerge.

Nearly a mile up Cerro Torre, Colin Haley disappears into a world of white. I’d worried about this, the penultimate pitch on Patagonia’s space needle. I sit alone at an exposed perch as wind blasts and howls through natural organ pipes – otherworldly mazes of overhanging snow mushrooms, gargoyles and tunnels – making haunting, beautiful music. Everywhere I turn the world looks different, immaculate. But we can’t stay here, and this pitch has shut down better climbers than us, sent them packing down to the remote ice cap. Since we hadn’t come up from the ice-cap side, and since we have no bivy gear or contingency thoughts for this brilliant scheme, we might have a problem.

Our Cerro Torre plan sounded good. Start from camp on the comparably cozy east side, boogie on a one-way ticket up serac-threatened smears so ephemeral they’d be gone the next day, don’t get caught, hit the wild West Face where it wraps around, hope for good conditions and continue to the summit. Rap back down the east side, bam, a nice little tour. It started well enough: We made good time, suffered a little overnight huddling together without sleeping bags in a snow hole, but it was just one night. Shiver until sunrise, tie in, keep trying.

So this was it, one desperate pitch before easier ground to the summit. I buried my axe and carved out a nice little seat in the snow – textbook belay – so Colin could have all four of our pickets. He launched up a wind-carved vertical halfpipe of horrendous sugar snow, where he could chimney and grovel using every technique not found in any book – arms, elbows, shoulders, knees, back, feet, grunt, curse – that led to a perfect, fully enclosed natural tunnel 100 feet above. Gaining the tunnel would unlock the route, as the tunnels, created and hardened by intense miniature tornadoes, always had good ice. But the half-pipe didn’t, and Colin dug and dug in desperation, trying for purchase until he disappeared, burrowing horizontally into the snow mushroom.

“Lookin’ good, man, you got this!” I cheer, though I can’t see him and the rope hasn’t moved in a long time. Translation: Dude, if we get shut down here, we’re gonna run out of food and water bumbling for days out on the ice cap trying to circumnavigate the massif back to our camp, miss our flights home, and have the mother of all epics.

“C’mon, Colin! Wooohoooo! You’re doing great!”

The surrounding view, terrifying or magnificent, relieves my anxiety. To the east rises the massive Fitz Roy group, obscuring the comforts of town so near – sort of – and continuing into the barren and timeless landscape that, just south, then breaks into fjords that become the Pacific Ocean – or, here at the southern tip of the hemisphere, is it the Atlantic? Immediately below and north, Torre Egger’s summit looks like whipped cream and somehow it makes me chuckle. Then I turn westward and gaze in awe at the mind-blowing ice cap, a different planet altogether from where infinite molecules of supercooled moist air from the Pacific smash into the Torres, carried uninterrupted across the ice by a wind so ferocious, so violent, that locals call it La Escoba de Dios – The Broom of God.

The rope moves a little and I look up, cocking my head in curiosity toward the mushroom where I last saw Colin. Nothing. Just overhanging rime-snow-ice-sugar-junk, the consistency of aerated salt, held together in overhanging formation.

Suddenly, something flies from the mushroom overhead and instinctively I duck. In that split second I’m confused, afraid the mushroom is collapsing or Colin is falling out, but like a door opening wide it’s a chunk of rime ice that sheds off above where Colin disappeared. The chunk hovers for a moment and then sails horizontally, wind outdoing gravity, whoosh, gone. Colin’s axe flails through the opening and his bomber-goggled head pokes out from his homemade wormhole, just below the key upper tunnel. He looks around, then down at me. I let out a whoop ’cause now I know we’re in there, but my voice quickly dissolves into nothingness and everything, blending into the universe, carried away by the Broom of God.