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.

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2 thoughts on “Taking the Tools for a Walk

  1. Its crazy that Steve House took a serious fall just after you were getting healthy. You two are two of the best climbers left alive in this world (from what I can tell you both might tell me that Marko Prezelj is the best).

    Glad to see that your recovery continues. You are an inspiration.

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