Snapping Slings (gear geek post)

This post is about safety. I know, WTF? (Boooorrring!) But there’s a first time for everything, and contrary to all indications otherwise, especially given my banter about Disaster Style, sometimes I try to be smart. It’s not always easy, what with my low IQ and all, but Disaster Style is all about living. By trying to be smart, and stacking the odds in our favor when doing such life-affirming things as climbing, it’s simple: we stick around long enough to keep doing it. Helluva deal. Along those lines, let’s get to it: slings. Excellent recent info from DMM (video here; article here), with test results from climbing slings, warrants examination.

The key with this sort of data, in my mind, is this: How does it apply to the real world? One could be forgiven for looking at a chart of numbers, and videos from industrial drop towers, and tuning out. I see two major factors from their tests, confirming what we already know:

* Elasticity – huge difference between nylon and Dyneema slings – as noted by the guy in the video (Graham “Streaky” Desroy, I’m told), a typical leader fall might only generate 4–7 kN. That’s with a climbing rope, which stretches to absorb and distribute impact. But even a very short fall with something more static can generate catastrophic impact forces. Dyneema stretches about as much as a steel chain. Nylon stretches more. This doesn’t mean to avoid Dyneema slings, as they’re great in many ways. It means be aware of the situation and application.

* Shock Loading – pretty much always a bad thing. It receives a lot of attention with anchors, with many considerations about the best setup regarding equalization and shock-loading (summary: trying to pre-equalize and tie-off an anchor rarely achieves true equalization, so if one piece fails, the others get a shock-load anyway; sliding-X type configurations are less likely to fail in the first place; bomber pieces are the most important in any anchor). Yet we shock-load gear when we take leader falls, and pieces rarely blow-out. Why? See above – elasticity of a climbing rope. Put this info together, and you see that static shock loading – like falling directly (no rope between) onto a sling equals disaster.

Note that DMM’s drops were done directly onto the slings – no climbing rope attached. The dynamic properties of a climbing rope save our asses. So, when would these tests apply? When you’re clipped-in directly to a piece of gear or your anchor, like using a sling as a daisy chain at belays (or simply using a daisy chain; the results here would seem to apply). For example, if you’re clipped-in with a 60cm sling (thus 30cm long, since it’s a loop), if it’s not taught, like you’re standing on a horizontal ledge, it could dip just 15cm (about 6 inches) down and back up to you, and so if you fall off the ledge you’re taking a factor-one fall onto a static piece — check out the forces. That’s a direct free-fall, but wow. Enough to break a piece of gear, possibly the sling, and your body. Yikes.

Take-home message: don’t clip-in directly with a Spectra or Dyneema sling and jump off the ledge. Duh. Sometimes, though, we might slip off the belay ledge, or climb above the anchor to mess with something above (like adjust the top piece of the anchor) and easily slip and shock-load.

For protection pieces? I don’t see this as any reason to ditch your low-bulk, lightweight Dyneema slings and draws, because you’re clipping the rope – the greatest shock-absorber in the system – into the sling/protection piece. I’ve long carried one or two nylon quick draws or runners on my rack, though, for the very purpose of minimizing impact force on a sketchy piece or my first piece off the belay (when your impact force from a fall would be much greater, due to less rope out). Seems a negligible contribution to rack weight, and maybe just a tiny bit of extra saftey. I figure I do enough stupid shit already, and so, when I can, I should stack the odds in my favor.

Interesting side note: In DMM’s drop tests, a knot in the Dyneema sling greatly weakened the sling, of course (we’ve all long known that the bends of knots make any material weaker than when straight/unknotted), and it snapped like a twig in the drop, breaking at about half the force of the unknotted sling. The nylon sling also recorded a lower force, but – but but but – the sling didn’t break. Huh? Yeah, it actually reduced impact force, without the sling breaking, in one of the tests. How? Most likely due to nylon’s elasticity allowing the knot to act as a shock absorber, dispersing the force, making it less of the sudden shock-loading, catastrophic jolt that snapped the Dyneema sling. Whew, the mind spins a bit.

It’s tempting to simplify, but I don’t think that these tests indicate any need to stop using lightweight gear, like Dyneema slings. Dyneema slings have superior abrasion resistance and, at least unknotted, are much stronger than nylon, and they absorb less water. Only idiots take a single piece of information (“that sling broke at XXkN!”) that’s part of a complex system and jump to a rash conclusion.

So, more take-home points? I’m no rocket surgeon, so don’t listen to me, but here’s what I figure:

* “Having slack in the system is bad news,” as Streaky says. Keep in mind that we’re particularly talking slack with a static system here – slings, particularly Dyneema slings. No rope incorporated. Clip-in with the climbing rope, and you’re fine.

* Don’t tie knots in Dyneema slings if they can be shock-loaded. They’re too static, it makes them snap. They’re fine at their regular length, though (so long as you don’t shock load them without a rope involved). What about Dyneema slings knotted for an anchor? I don’t know, good question. We’ve always known to avoid shock-loading anchors anyway, but this becomes especially pertinent.

* Shock loading something static is bad news (again). A very short fall can generate deadly force in a static system – just a couple of feet, like imagine you’re standing on a higher ledge, clipped-in directly to the anchor with a Dyneema sling, and your foot slips and you shock-load the anchor. Especially if you had a knot, maybe for length adjustment, in your Dyneema sling. See-ya! Even if you’re backed-up with the rope, the force you’d generate is likely enough to cause you internal injuries.

If I were to distill it all to a single useful point: if there is any risk at all of your shock-loading your piece or anchor, use the climbing rope – not a sling – to anchor yourself in. It’s usually simplest and fastest anyway. Reach the anchor and clip-in with the rope – usually a clove-hitch to the power point or a single bomber piece that’s connected to everything else (always thinking “what if this were to fail?”). Related point: when clipped-in directly to a bolt or piece of gear, only hang on it. If you’re going to boulder-up and work a move (shock-load risk), be sure you’re on the rope, not directly in with a sling or draw.

A crucial thought, along the lines of crucial general thinking: “What if this were to fail?” The associated question, of course, is “what is the likelihood of this failing?” If I’m at a hanging belay, and on hard terrain where a fall is more likely, I’ll be more vigilant with how I clip-in, and with backups. If I’m on an enormous ledge, one where a lighting strike wouldn’t knock me down the face, sometimes I won’t sweat being unroped (or I’ll at least allow myself a bunch of slack in my tie-in point). Just like how I don’t wear my seatbelt when I’m sitting on the couch, watching Cops every night.

OK, I’ve repeatedly repeated myself enough already. Use the gear correctly, with some thought, and you can go lighter safely – it all adds up, as grams become ounces become pounds. Just remember to think – problem solving is part of what we love about climbing. Going lighter means going faster, which means more climbing in a day, which means the day ends with time for margaritas. Really, it’s all about the margs.

Cerro Torre, David Lama and Red Bullshit

Are the days gone where anybody mans-the-fuck-up and apologizes? I’m talking a real apology, not one of these politician apologies (I’m sorry if anyone misconstrued my construed intent…). Does anyone anymore just say, “I’m sorry. I’m truly sorry. I messed up, I won’t do it again, and here, please, let me try to fix it.”

The magnificent Cerro Torre. The Compressor Route roughly takes the spine along the upper half of the spire (starting off to the right), visible in the center of the photo.

Another Cerro Torre controversy. What is it about that spire? If fantasies build any peak, they make Cerro Torre. It is beautiful, hostile, otherworldly. Were it not for its bolt-ladder Compressor Route, with its sordid history, it would surely be the most difficult spire in the world. It attracts not only the obsessed, but also the crazies. And now, the commerce-hungry corporate-funded junkshow. Sure, in many ways it already has been commercialized, as photos, film and stories from Cerro Torre have inspired so many of us. But where to draw the line? How badly does its incomprehensible beauty and inhospitable nature clash with our hubris? Especially when someone’s willing to trash it to make a commercial.

In a nutshell, 19 year-old rock climbing phenom (mostly sport and competition climbing) David Lama, from Austria, and heavily sponsored by Red Bull energy drink, wanted to free the Compressor Route on Cerro Torre. Red Bull hugely pimped it up, complete with big talk from Lama, like:

“Back in the days of old school mountaineering only conquering the peak was important – not so much how this goal was reached.”

“Cesare Maestri, who made the first ascent in 1970, left an entire highway of bolts and pitons in the mountain’s south-east face, which has nothing to do with today’s climbing ethics.”

“Daniel and myself will be carrying all of our stuff into the park and out again. Transport flights are forbidden, but it’s not in our interest to leave any traces anyway.”

OK, whatever. Lama and team (film crew with guides, etc) got pretty much nowhere in their three-month expedition. But what they blatantly omitted reporting was that they fixed 700 meters of rope and abandoned them. Subsequent people had to clean what they could of the mess. They also added 60 bolts (they claim less, like 30, but that hardly matters) to the already most overbolted route in the world. Since the route went up 40 years ago, it’s been climbed likely more than a hundred times, attempted far more, and all without the addition of another bolt – until these clowns showed up. Basically, they built a ton of hype, brought in their movie crew, trashed the place, and left.

Back on May 6, on Red Bull’s Lama-hype page entitled “A Snowball’s Chance in Hell,” about Lama’s plans, I posted a comment. At the time, there were only three other comments, all fanboy type stuff. I asked some questions about their mess, as I’d heard of it from rock-solid sources, and I also emailed Red Bull. On June 10 I got a reply, a canned response that they sent to others:

From: Red Bull <>

Date: June 10, 2010 12:35:05 PM MDT

To: “” <>

Subject: David Lama’s free climb

Hi Kelly,

The Red Bull Media House is producing a film featuring David Lama’s attempt to free climb the compressor route on Cerro Torre. Due to bad weather, the production had to be stopped and is currently on hold waiting for the next Patagonian summer.

Red Bull takes the protection of nature and the safety of human lives very seriously and has a long history in producing high quality productions in extreme circumstances and exposed areas. The entire shoulder and wall has been cleaned of our — and older — material which was found. Only one haul bag and 30 bolts, which had do be used due to falling ice and to protect the main climbing route, has been left. Every step of the whole endeavor was planned and executed in close accordance with the local administration of  Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. After completion of the project, everything will be removed.

Have a soaring day,


Red Bull

Word got out, and scores of outraged comments appeared on Red Bull’s site (it’s now up to 83 comments, almost all condemning Red Bull and Lama, many harshly so, and many from Argentina – though Red Bull has also deleted many comments). Argentine climbers started a Facebook page, “RED BULL, CLEAN UP THE MESS LEFT BY DAVID LAMA IN PATAGONIA!” that has 362 members and growing.

Lama posted a similarly lame comment as Red Bull’s email reply (above), clearly showing that he doesn’t get it. He and Red Bull miss the point completely – it’s not just about the park’s rules. Lama and Red Bull sound like they should be working for British Petroleum. Of course some extra metal on the world’s most beautiful spire isn’t as damaging as the BP oil spill disaster, but we should care about the things we love. Otherwise, if we play the “it’s not as important as…” game, why not just throw your garbage out the window?

For what it’s worth – not much, I’m sure – I replied to Red Bull:

From: “Kelly Cordes (AAJ)” <>

Date: June 22, 2010 10:35:00 PM MDT

To: Red Bull <>

Subject: Re: David Lama’s free climb

Hi Emily,

Thank you for the email, but you sound like you should be working for BP. Just because it may have been “legal” doesn’t make it right — that’s the disappointing thing here, is that Red Bull is so woefully out of touch with the climbing world that you/RB simply don’t get it. Lama, while obviously a phenomenal climber in his specific genre, clearly doesn’t get it either. Imagine if someone went to the Alps and trashed one of the most iconic routes there? It would be legal, sure, but it wouldn’t be right. And you all did this for one reason — commerce. How lame.

Others have come before you and produced terrific media in Patagonia, and specifically on Cerro Torre, without trashing the place. Dozens, if not hundreds, of climbers have bailed off Cerro Torre in far more extreme circumstances and exposed areas than your RB team encountered.

I, and all climbers, sincerely hope you do remove everything, as you say you will. But based on the team’s utter failure to clean up after themselves last time — and after what, three months? — I think you’ve got a lot to prove.

How can you not see that you (RB) screwed up? Seriously? Instead of the BP tactics, perhaps you should consider actually apologizing to the climbing world — a real apology, not a B.S. “I’m sorry if the climbing world misconstrued our Cerro Torre soaring day intentions…”, and not only cleaning up, but doing something extra for the area and local conservation efforts. Maybe help with some trail building or one of the other projects going on down there. I’m sure that your marketing department could even figure out a way to gain publicity from it. It’s not required, of course, but it would be the right thing to do. Something to think about.

Best wishes,


Kelly Cordes

Senior Editor

American Alpine Journal


Colin Haley descending the Compressor Route after climbing Cerro Torre via another route.

At least Maestri was an obsessed maniac, wrong but deeply passionate. For those who don’t know, in 1970–71, Cesare Maestri fixed thousands of feet of ropes and placed some 450 bolts, solo, while hauling up a gas-powered compressor, in his attempt to “conquer” Cerro Torre. He littered bolts near perfectly good cracks and used them deliberately to avoid natural features via extensive bolt ladders. His assault was largely the impetus behind Messner’s classic diatribe The Murder of the Impossible. For a fascinating, impeccably researched article on Maestri and Cerro Torre, check out Rolando Garibotti’s article from the AAJ 2004, A Mountain Unveiled (free download here). But Red Bull and Lama? What’s their excuse? They trashed the place to help sell their fucking energy drink.

And they can’t even apologize – really apologize, not a politician’s apology – and do something to right their wrong? Maybe they will. I hear they’re working on it. We’ll see – the expedition happened last winter and now it’s late June – just how many meetings with their spin doctors does it take to come out and say “We screwed up, and we’ll fix it”? It’s both Red Bull and Lama’s mess – they’d both reap the rewards if they’d have succeeded, and they need to take responsibility for their mess.

Thing is, commerce and marketing can exist in the mountains. Fine, insert puking sound here, but I’m not going to give it a blanket condemnation because, as with most things, it exists on a spectrum. So, what’s commerce? Taking a camera? What if you don’t sell any of your photos, though? OK, but what if you had hoped to sell some, but your photos just sucked? Did you write an article? (Sellout!) Did you tell anyone? Commerce and marketing can be, often are, extensions of storytelling. I love good storytelling. It doesn’t have to be a rape-and-pillage Red Bull junkshow. My friend Rolo Garibotti, unquestionably the single greatest authority and historian on Patagonia climbing, and unquestionably one of Patagonia’s greatest climbers (and he’s still in his prime…), reminded me of some examples that show stark contrast to the Red Bull fiasco, such as Werner Herzog and crew making a film on the Compressor Route without adding bolts; the phenomenal imagery of professional photographer and climber Thomas Ulrich from his climb of the route, and also of the West Face; and, as Rolo wrote: “In 1985 Fulvio Mariani made one of the best climbing movies of all time when he filmed Cumbre, documenting Marco Pedrini’s solo ascent of Cerro Torre. They did so fixing three ropes, and nothing more, without placing a single piece of fixed pro. Obviously, as Lama and his entourage prove, there has been a big regression since then.”

In the end, the unfortunate reality is that this probably won’t hurt Red Bull or Lama, and they’ll learn no lessons, they’ll go straight back to their bullshit, and they’ll keep selling their adrenalized cough syrup not to the climbers that they use for marketing and whom they disrespect by actions like this, but to frat boys and hipster douchebags slamming it with vodka. Ahhh yes, guys, have a soaring day.


Back in 2000, Christian Beckwith, then-editor of the AAJ, commissioned an interesting article, Commercialization and Modern Climbing, with three authors (Will Gadd, Steve House, and the great Russian alpinist Pavel Shabalin) expressing their views.

Shabalin’s piece, appropriately titled Barbie in the Mountains, had one of my all-time favorite passages:

“Alpinism was exceptional and sacred because it was closed to the masses. And now it finds itself in the same historical situation as is love. When love was poetry, it was exceptional and sacred. When mass media put love in TV and magazines, it became pornography.”

It doesn’t have to be that way, of course, as sharing gives us inspiration. Art inspires. Mountains, nature, poetry. Respect. I suppose we all draw our own lines between love and pornography. And for Red Bull and David Lama, at least in the case of Cerro Torre, it seems clear where they drew theirs.

Media Review: My First Baby (’n stuff)

This rambling post has practically nothing to do with climbing. It’s about babies, raising babies, and the whole idea of web media. Huh? Yeah, stuff that I know nearly nothing about, but that hasn’t stopped me before.

Hard to believe, but we have some talent in my family – my sister, Jill is a TV host. And she’s now asking me to pimp out her new show, My First Baby, on my blog (despite my blog not exactly being her core demographic). She isn’t as old, nor as washed up, as me, and has had a couple of shows that apparently did well (I didn’t have a TV, so couldn’t watch), like “The Best Of” on the Food Network, and “My First Place” on HGTV. She was even on Oprah one time – no shit. Go figure. It seems clear who among us got the looks and the personality. But that’s OK, I like living alone in a shack and relishing my shocking lack of social skills.

Her new show might not be for everyone reading this blog (all four of you), but it probably applies to most people at some point – hell, even cockroaches have kids, and most of us will someday spawn. In most ways it’s way more important than climbing. In other ways, no way, dude, like, I’m working on this project – it’s sick, dude, SICK! – and it’s soooo radgnar, like, you grab this one hold with your left hand and then you go like this and then… The individuality of it all – one of the cool things about life and passion, no?

Scotty (L) and me back in base camp after Huntington, booze running low, but heading out -- just for the Hallibut.

Scotty (L) and me back in base camp after Huntington, booze running low, but heading out -- just for the Halibut.

I did have my chance at television, once. And, of course, I blew it. After mine and Scotty’s 2001 trip, where we got a bunch of good climbing in on Thunder Mountain and Mt. Huntington, I came out of the range starving and thirsty – we’d run out of booze. It just so happened that Jill had a Best Of shoot in Talkeetna, and after my annoying, “C’mon, let me come. I’m good on camera. C’mon. I’m your brother. C’mon, I’m hungry,” she relented and I got invited on the shoot as “talent.” Who’d have thought? We flew onto a glacier with a gourmet cook, the film crew, my dad, me, and my sis. Only I couldn’t help but crack jokes that seemed funny to me. As we ate fresh grilled Halibut, Jill’s going on with her TV thing:

“And! [insert perky face here] this is just delicious fish! What do you think, dad?”

My dad: “Mmmm, absolutely delicious!”

“Kel?” [Jill turns perky face to me, I quit gazing at possible lines in the nearby mountains and snap-to]:

“Oh. Uh. Yeah! Sure is great! In fact, I’d eat this just for the HELL-i-but!”

Get it? Hellibut? Like Halibut? Get it? OK, not so funny. But I thought so.

“CUT!” yells the director.

“Kelly, you’re ruining the shoot!”

“But I’d eat this just for the Hellibut, Jill, I swear!”

Later, Jill and dad are talking, I’m back to my best behavior, I sip my champagne and lean back in my chair – ever lean back in a chair in soft snow? Ya can’t lean back too far, because the back end digs in and you tip over.


Jill was pissed. It was an honest accident, but I was fucking up the shoot. At least the camera guys thought it was funny.

After dusting off the snow, I’m back at it, feeling a little bad now and so I’m hitting the champagne hard. Jill and dad resume talking, cameras rolling, super sweet table set up on the glacier, good stuff. I’m out of champagne, though, and notice that Jill still has some and she won’t notice; she’s talking to dad. So I subtly (need to be subtle; the cameras are rolling, after all) reach over and take hers. The director: CUT!

Off-set and looking good. My sis dealing with a flat tire. Just for the halibut.

OK, so I don’t have a career in TV. But TV is dying in its current form anyway, says I, the guy with no channels and no clue (ever since the heartless bastards turned off my cable a couple of years back, I’ve shunned TV, aside from watching Ultimate Fighting at friends’ houses – I’m so far behind that I’m ahead of the curve…). Everything will be on the interwebs soon. It’s all ball bearings these days.

This is a good thing, as it spares my sister the indignation of selling gadgets on late-night infomercials as she gets older and more washed-up, and spares me the embarrassment of having a deadbeat sister.

It’s cool to see how media is shifting. The openness of it all does, of course, lead to the endless drivel spawned on youtube and climbing forums worldwide, and if I am forced to ever again click a video of watching paint dry some shirtless dillweed slapping an arete on a three-foot-tall boulder problem over, and over, and freakin’ over, to a thumping techno soundtrack blended with his retarded screams, I think I’ll….well, I guess I just won’t click it again. The talented, on the other hand, figure out cool ways to make it work. Storytelling is part of our DNA. Witness things like:

Vertical Carnival (the one about Yuji Hirayama is my favorite – fully worth checking out)

BD’s site (full of great gear testing info and updates from their athletes; fancy site sometimes slow and clunky though)

Dirtbag Diaries (podcasts – great storytelling, you create the visuals yourself, which I love – engaging)

Tin Shed (watch the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc one, soooo awesome and inspiring)

The Season (really cool show that followed a handful of athletes through their season)

The Cleanest Line (Patagonia’s award-winning company blog, not just sport-centered, thus especially rad, though stay tuned for some cool additions coming soon…)

And, of course, My First Baby. Short episodes with all kinds of pointers and shared stories for, and about, first-time parents. Something I know nothing about, but, still, a pretty bitchen idea. Granted, my sister is paying me in tequila to say that, so do with the info what you want. It’s certainly no less entertaining than watching some Neanderthal slap a stupid piece of rock while screaming…


Yes, another autobiographical post. I know, it’s all about me. But this is a blog, after all, so what did you expect?

Friends are coming back from Alaska, some are still up there, we’re about to send the AAJ to print (and I’ll resume writing more, especially since I’ve got some cool projects upcoming — more soon), it’s that time of year that makes me think of big alpine trips, makes me long for them. Something about the whole experience, the travel, the high mountain air, otherworldly exposure and the greatest friendships. Thinking back to the 15 or so such trips I’ve done around the world, those things stand out. Summits don’t. As I type this and scan my memory, I can recall some of the climbing, and I’m happy to have been to some amazing summits, but, holy shit, it’s about so much more.

At least it is to me. Not everybody gets it, though. Including this guy. [Story written after my 2003 Alaska trip with Jonny Copp.]


He glanced at the mountaineering display, then started stabbing questions at the ranger on duty. How many summit? How many die? How many try? He’d seen Vertical Limit.

Jonny Copp, skiing out of the East Fork the day after our route, "Going Monk."

I could hear him careen around the ranger’s station as I sat peacefully in a chair looking through topos. From the corner of my eye I saw him scan the room herky-jerky style. He had no time to waste in Talkeetna, Alaska, population 300 and hot stop on the summer tour bus tour. I felt his eyes zero in on me. I buried my head farther into the topos, but those heavy breaths were soon bearing down on me like a steam train.

I must not look intimidating enough.

He stood way too close to my chair, catching his wind. No introduction, nothing but those two words, question mark-slash-exclamation point. His cheeks flushed so red they looked as if they could explode; his gut pushed so hard on his shirt I feared it might burst through and crush me.

“You summit?” he blurted between breaths.

Goddamnit, three weeks in my happy place and now this….What he meant, of course, was had I summited “Mt. McKinley,” obviously the only mountain in the Alaska Range. Jonny and I had summitted, via a new route on a peak we’d never even heard of in the East Fork; we’d skied in 10 miles, climbed 4,300 vertical feet of technical climbing, tagged the top in a whiteout storm that lasted through the descent, I plunged into a crevasse when skiing away afterward, returned to our tent cold and soaked and trembling in fear, when Jonny handed me a PBR that he’d packed in and hidden in the snow for our return. But none of this was what the guy wanted to hear.

He panted as though he’d just run a marathon. He needed my reply now.

I thought for a second about what to say, then looked up.

“Nope,” I said.

His head lurched backward a bit, and the corner of his mouth dipped in synchronicity with his brow. He’d been rooked: he’d come all this way to see a real climber, and this was all he got.

“Pthhhh,” he snorted and waddled away.

The Adventures of ShredDawg

By now we all know that my truest talent is goofing off. They say you should do what you do best, and along those lines a friend keeps urging me to return the Bossman (Boss McGillicutty, for those who might remember…as soon as I can figure out the technology, I’ll post the article), but as a Mexican version. Like Nacho Libre meets The Boss? But I just can’t do it. Besides, the Boss was my life’s pinnacle work-wise, and I’m all for quitting while I’m ahead. That’s my positivity coming through – trying to top a good effort only sets one’s self up for failure. Best to not even try. No Bosso Libre.

Good times in Patagonia with Ben Gilmore, Freddie Wilkinson, Colin Haley (not a NE'er), and Peter Kamitses.

I love busting the balls of my New Hampshire friends, especially Freddie Wilkinson. The guy is a classic, one of those timeless characters who grace the climbing world, and a great writer and great climber to boot. I’ve got a bunch of friends back there – Ben Gilmore and Kevin Mahoney, for example, both terrific people and such hard men that I bow down, Wayne’s World style, “I’m not worthy.” Jim Shimberg rules, Bayard and the young crew keep getting’ after it big-time, and the list goes on — the place has such strong tradition.

And the full-time NH guys are sooooo proud of it, even their shitty three-season weather: rain season, mud season, and black fly season. Oh yeah, and winter. It’s ball-freezing cold one week, then pissing rain the next. I still crack-up thinking of a time there, during Ice Fest, with my good friend Jack Tackle, when Jack stepped off the sidewalk on our way to dinner, crossing the street, and plunged mid-calf into a puddle of icewater. In the interest of decency, I cannot even attempt to replicate the litany of foulness that exploded from his mouth. But it started with “GodFuckingDamnit! This fucking place, how the FUCK does anyone live in this fucking piece-of-shit motherfu…” you get the point.

But, as Freddie is sure to note…it makes for fantastic ice and mixed climbing. And here, despite my love of bantering about the ‘Rado (just because it’s so damned obnoxious – “DudeBrah, I’m just out here putting the rad in Colorado…”), I admit that, indeed, New England has a disproportionate number of hardmen and hardwomen, and IMO the North Conway area is one of the country’s great climbing epicenters. Especially impressive when you consider that they don’t have shit for vertical relief. Instead, they have bad weather, bold routes, and a great community that breeds talented and tough-as-nails climbers. They’re a bit like the Brits. Badass.

One thing that cracks me up even more than that weird-assed accent those guys have, though, is every New Englander’s love affair for the Black Dike and John Bouchard (Jaaaahwwwwn Bouwchaaaawwwd, gweatest cwimber who evewr lived!). No doubt the guy was super badass.

“Yeah, I think that route could go with a couple of bolts,” says the visiting climber.

“Hey Maaawwwrty! This guy sez he’s gownna put some bowlts in! Must be fwom Cowowado!” says NH climber #1.

“Hey, I mean, this ain’t Cowowado, you gowtta CWIMB up hewe. There ain’t bowlts evewy thwee feet. And don’t forwget Mt. Washington – worst weather evewr wecorwded on earth!” his partner adds.

“Uh, OK, I guess maybe I’ll just go climb the Black Dike or whatever,” visitor says. [Note: yes, I’ve climbed it, excellent route, sure, but c’mon, it’s not that great. Ohdeargod, what have I just said…]

“Oh yeah? Goowd luck, Cowowado boy. Der ain’t no bowlts on da Dike! Evewr heawr of a little someone called….Jaaahhhwn Bouwchaaawwd?”

“Gweatest climber who evewr lived. Bwack Dike, solo, first ascent, 1923, naked, no tools or nuthin’. He muthafuckin’ LEVITATED up that cwimb, Mawwrty!”

With all that in mind, and for those still tuning in to my senseless and good-natured babble (please don’t flog me to death with your Supergaiters), it leads to the below. 

What makes a good troll? I dunno, I guess it has to be somewhat believable, enough for the gullible to bite. Talking not only content, but details. It must contain the requisite spelling errors and bad grammar. The appropriate level of douchebagginess in tone and cutesy/stupid/offensive phrases. Emoticons help. It’s more art than science.

But I don’t think it should be mean-spirited. Fine line, for sure. I don’t think it’s fair pick on the downtrodden, or do that bullshit second-guessing that every brave soul does after every climbing death or accident. I suppose I’ve most enjoyed luring-in the self-serious. Or just having fun. Right, anyway, yeah, so that’s like a trolling code of honor.

Here, I come clean – I was the illustrious ShredDawg, posting on a couple of years back about his desire to ski (shred) the Black Dike:

“Hey Bros! I got this idea to do a qwest where I climb up and then shred the raddest unskied lines that are also climbs…I’ve honed my skills out there in the ‘Rado and I guess you could say I shred the gnar, but I don’t like to brag. I’m just in it for the fun and for the kids.”

Something like 80 replies (can’t remember, the thread is no longer active). Some “bit,” for sure, and even got genuinely pissed at da Dawg. Screen shot below (click to enlarge), of the original post. Alas, I was gimped-up and now it’s too late – mud season, I believe – my ski descent of the Dike must wait (nevermind that I’m a terrible skier). But it was one of my better works, and my last troll. I’m far too busy – and mature – for such foolishness these days. Besides, it’s good to go out on top.

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, 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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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.