Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Lower Wall Syndrome

Iron Horse - Jens Holsten
To Index climbers, the iconic Lower Town Wall exudes an almost mythical distinction; and when summing up its remarkable density, extraordinary stone, aesthetic architecture, and agreeable proximity, it is no great wonder most visitors focus their time here; except of course for those hearty folk queuing up for Davis-Holland; which is bar none, the most popular and doable of the Upper Wall routes, containing six pitches of irresistible cracks, commodious ledges, and bolted belays –traits befitting a mega classic of modest difficulty.  To the dismay of many, and the pleasure of a few, the local peregrines have now migrated from their former paradise in the Cheeks, and Davis-Holland, including most of the Upper wall is off limits till July, as the falcons repose in relative solitude, upon the suitably named big honker ledge. But, I digress.

Paul T on Like Honey
Ever since I can remember, I’ve had recurring bouts of Lower Wall Syndrome [LWS –a pathological craving for the same Lower Wall routes, common symptoms including compulsive repeats of Japanese Gardens etc.], my proclivity encompassing the expanse between Princely Ambitions and Thin Fingers.  Embarrassing it is, that given opportunity, I can innumerate piece for piece, my preferred rack for almost any of those routes, without the slightest hesitation.  A majority of these climbs I have so ruthlessly wired, that, lying in bed, with lids sealed tight, I can replay every intoxicating sequence, down to the slightest nuance.  Call it what you may, but said syndrome—this pattern to lap routes ad nauseam, has finally eased its grip on me.  Is it early-middle age, hindsight, or boredom?  I'm really not sure.  But, somehow I’ve kicked the habit; effectively leaving me free to get off the beaten track and explore the vast unknown, without feeling remorse for neglecting my long time addiction.  Likely, what this all boils down to for me is this —too much of a good thing, really isn’t much good at all, when it becomes a numbing litany.  But back to the Lower Wall…

LWS amounts to little more than this.

Me on TPMV full.  Andreas Schmidt photo.
 Notwithstanding my raillery against LWS, there yet exist a few uncharted lines beckoning, begging for freedom, for the gauntlet of obscurity to be thrown down.  Greg Collum, Greg Child, Greg Olsen, Darryl Cramer, Max Dufford and friends, in the 80’s and early 90’s were first free ascent machines, and undoubtedly a determined lot.  Aid lines and mossy faces were there for the taking –and with grit, gumption, and camaraderie, they quite literally changed the landscape of free climbing at Index.  It is mind boggling just how productive that era was, and how nary a stone was left unturned.  They have my utmost respect –just to contemplate all the scrubbing required.  To fully appreciate their work: just open the back of Clint Cummins guide to the FFA section, and imagine the time commitment.  Inscribed on those pages you will see their names over and over again. 

13+ crack to Kunselman's...open project.
So what’s left to do at the LW?  Well, aside from a few squeeze jobs, there in fact remain some prominent lines– dangling on the vine so to speak, waiting patiently for harvest.  Keep in mind however, that our predecessors weren’t slouches when it came to performance; therefore, most of what remains is plain hard, or difficult to get at, or a combination of both. 

This January, I was fortunate enough to free a new route at the Lower Wall with the help of Ryan Daudistel, my partner Pat O’Sullivan, and a magnificent stretch of excellent weather.  I named it Nobody Tosses a Dwarf.  It comprises an admixture of the 2nd pitch of Snow White and new terrain.  All things considered, it is far more exposed than most LW routes; and while most of the harder pitches nearby spring from terra firma, NTAD soars high above the ground, weaving a cunning path through inspiring features.  Anything but a squeeze job, it is nestled spaciously between Tuna BoatersTadpole.  Unlike most of my new route experiences, this one dragged out much longer than I could have imagined.  Here is my story.

Thin Fingers
Japanese Gardens - C. Haley
It was well nigh seven years ago that I first played around with the idea; and while lowering off of another lap of Doctor Sniff and The Tuna Boaters, I took some time to scope it out.  Based on guide book descriptions, Greg Olsen had climbed a 30 foot section graded 11d just right of Doctor Sniff, concluding his effort at a long roof capped under-cling, that would eventually lead back into the aid line of Snow White, should it go free.  As I lowered down, I took time to familiarize myself with its holds and do some scrubbing.  After two hours of strenuous effort, I succeeded in finding a solution, albeit a desperate one to this powerful crux.  At the time, it seemed around V7/8 to me.   During my exploration, I also observed some appealing real estate below, which could provide a sweet intro to the route, should I ever come back and get serious.  For the record, there was a good hold that broke at this crux --whether this will affect the difficulty for others, I am unsure.  But, for my method, it made it a bit easier.

A year later, I returned by myself.  It was one of those dreary days, sprinkling on and off throughout.  After soloing up the Great Northern Slab, gear en tow, I scrambled down to the Tuna Boater anchor, and rapped in to scrutinize the lower section.  What I found looked promising.  The aforementioned wall had nice jugs, edges, but also some small bushes and loose blocks, that would need to be eliminated.  Much to my pleasure, an obvious belay ledge roughly two thirds up Princely Ambitions (and to the right) would make the perfect starting belay. 

Usually when working new routes, at some point my motivation gets the better of me, and my doggedness doesn’t give in, until the dust has settled, and either I, or the route are defeated.  It was apparent that I was very psyched to do the route –but things just wouldn’t come together; and through life circumstances, many more years passed by.  I got married, went on a 16-month road trip, went back to school, and mostly indulged in steeper fare.  In effect, I didn’t see Index much. 

However, with the passing of the seasons, I've been increasingly keen to climb more granite.  After sending nearly every route at my local sport cliff of Little Si, even the walk to world wall began to smack of drudgery.  Of the projects I had yet to tick, both were nails hard and notorious seep-fests, and the effect was clearly draining my resolve.  As much as I have gained strength at Si, I was pining for something more adventurous –for a style requiring a technical mastery, balance and subtle footwork, combined with unrivaled scenery and a sense of anachronism, of days gone by.  There was only one cure for my fever –Index. 

Ryan Daudistel.

­­­So, I called up my pal Ryan, and together we logged around five days woring on the new route.  We did our best to clean things up, scrubbing till our muscles ached, working in tandem from two lines.  Loose blocks were pried off, carpet moss uprooted, and some very small snags were extirpated in the process.  After our toils, we worked the route on TR, trying to figure out where best to place bolts, if such were required.  In all, we placed 10 bolts.  It was our intention to establish a route that people would be psyched to climb on, without neutralizing the adventurous character.  The route was ready to go.

Not long after, spring arrived, and oven like temperatures followed suit.  Despite the sultry weather, we went up anyway, being intractable to common sense.  Predictably, blistering heat thwarted us, as frictional properties were outright atrocious, our soft shoe rubber fuming underfoot, oozing, rolling; our essentially good-for-nothing efforts decidedly useless.  At the boulder problem, two exceptionally rounded crimps would quickly wear down our skin without mercy, and within several goes we’d be done for.   Conditions, compounded with the circuitous nature of the route, and the onerous task of cleaning it were serious obstacles.  Back on the ground, our bodies glistened with rank sweat, as we reclined against the wall, totally pooped.   For those to whom memory recalls, it was a ball busting summer of incessant 80-degree temps. 

Climbing came to a standstill.  At the beginning of July I witnessed the birth of our daughter Hazel Sierra Gilkison.  This event, combined with grad school applications took all thoughts and allowances for climbing endeavor out the window.  Also, my knee was still finicky, and all but dependable.   Mostly, I just rehabbed, hiked, and soaked up being a Dad.

On TR- just after the BP.  
Hazel Sierra Gilkison
Without further ado, I came back to the route this January, during an impressive spell of high pressure.  Kevin Newell and I spent an incredible afternoon top roping.  Overhead, the sun provided just enough warmth to keep us from numbing out.  With these improved conditions, my attitude became increasingly optimistic; and we both managed the boulder problem without much fanfare.  Up on the roof, we discovered reasonable sequences –but I found it very taxing on the arms.  Lastly, we went up to the Newest Industry anchor and TR’d the finishing crack.  This section is definitely not 10c, as suggested in old drawings; but rather, more likely 12a, and kind of funky to boot.  Sure enough though, Kevin made it look like 10c. 

Two days later I returned with my friend Pat.  We cruised up the wall, ascending Princely to Tuna Boaters.  It was another perfect day.  And according to weather forecasts, represented a near end to a notable dry streak.  I felt a bit of pressure.  But, after so many years, what did it matter?  Perhaps I was just ready to be done with it.  After hanging a couple draws at the crux, we both lowered down to the belay ledge.  Taking a deep breath, I cleared my mind, and began.

Nobody Tosses a Dwarf leads off with thirty feet of mellow climbing to get the juices flowing.  At a wide ledge, you can sit down, turn around, and simply revel in the austere beauty, absorbing the grandeur of alpine peaks like Baring, Index, and Merchant; or lean back and shut your eyes –just listen: hear the subtle murmuring of the river, the wailing shriek of train whistle, and the energetic badinage of climber jargon, all commingling in the mountain air.  After doing just that, I gave a shout, “here goes Pat, watch me!”.  

On TR- roof entrance
Beta spoiler alert!  Cautiously standing up, I wedged my right index finger (palm up) into a diminishing crack, burying it to the hilt.  With a grimace, I squeezed it into a mono under-cling.  Right foot up slightly to small nub, left foot higher to obvious knob, and then standing tall, I flattened myself out gecko style, left hand straining pinky down into a polished slot.  Calmly smearing on next to nothing, I rapidly fired the rope into a draw dangling above.  And with left foot rooting for dubious traction below, I sprung up to snatch a square cut crimp, oriented perpendicular to the wishbone crack, arching into nothingness.  Tracking my right foot up, I placed my foot gracefully on some rough texture, nothing more than a vague impression, and flagged my left leg starboard, countering the ineluctable urge to barn door.  For the moment of truth, and not a second too soon, I shot my left foot up high, digging every ounce of rubber I could manage into that slot.  Left hand two finger sloper, and with my hips turned out, I fixed my gaze on a rounded edge just out of my reach; and out of this awkward stance, I exploded upwards---suhhhhhhhhh, got it!

Psyched, I climbed nice 5.10+ moves up to the roof, clipping a couple bolts along the way.  At the roof, I paused; my legs splayed out, stemming from steep slab leftwards to the concave surface of a right facing corner, its surface riddled in small pointy knobs.  Roughly ten minutes went by, while I recharged for the roof traverse, waiting in pensive quietude.  I’d only led across the roof once or twice earlier in the year.  And, situated there, at the beginning of it, I was reminded that I hadn’t figured out exactly how I was to let go and clip. 

At the edge of the roof, a convex carpet of slab joins, and slides under, like the confluence of two continental plates.  Little space remains where the two meet.  With hesitation, I ebbed out to the thick of it, feet plastered underneath, fingers searching nervously, looking for something to grasp; all the while, the roof, a two foot rostrum like projection pushed back against my chest, with my arms all but invisible, straining heartily out of sight.  Very carefully, I worked my way across, in a vain a attempt to remember smears, positions, and choreography, which in my current state of mind, weren't one bit of help.  Clipping was awkward on the fly, but I managed it, barely.  With biceps burning, I was nearing the mid way point, when a foot slipped, nearly sending me into space.  But I held on.  Doubt started to gnaw at me, eroding my fragile confidence, and undermining my limited provision of composure.  Far below, I could hear Pat cheering me on; and somewhere in my psyche, I was able to dig into reserves of strength.  With one last effort, I succeeded in latching something meaty, a section where the crack opened up.  Repositioning myself, I conformed my right hand into a hand-jam, got my feet up high, and realized I now had several feet of 5.11 to go, which would deposit me at the last rest.  After a brief respite, I charged on with feet cranked high, arms digging deep, and in utter desperation, and then I was there, at the other end of the roof, perched in the most outrageous position, forearms totally spent, my pulse pounding at breakneck speed.

What I haven’t described yet, was the wind.  On this robust January day, a potent gale was en force, and as I stood there, shaking out my arms, I was nearly knocked off by a strong gust.  It was pretty exciting to hang on in the face of such elemental pressure.  With a prolonged rest behind me, I signaled to Pat that I was casting off.  Separating me from the finish lay 30 feet of bizarre crack climbing.

On TR- the finish.
Although I knew the finish to be easier than the climbing below, I realized it was just tenuous enough for me to randomly slip off, if I wasn’t in the zone.  Left hip in, right hip in, yellow alien high with long sling, back to left hip in, and now a final crux.  It was here that I had a momentary crisis.  In disbelief, I gaped down at my shoes, and observed one of the laces dangling, blowing in the breeze.  In my present position, I was pressing all of my weight on my right shoe at the edge of the crack, which was quite rounded; all the while, my shoe was relaxing its grip on my foot, and I watched in disbelief as my shoe began to slide closer and closer to nothingness. Then the train came by suddenly, blaring its strident whistle, just as the wind decided to rush in, and nearly blew me over.  I was a wreck.  Pat was by now out of view, which didn’t calm my nerves one iota.  But, being so close to finishing this epic route, I mustered the gumption to carry on.  From my position, I reached up cramming one tip of one finger into the crack, then I karate chopped my feet up and tenuously lurched to a bomber finger lock.  Cautious not to trip on my laces, I placed one small stopper, and clawed my way to the anchor.

While NTAD isn't cutting edge by any stretch of the imagination, it does offer some decently strenuous climbing, and provides an engaging journey for those up to the task.  Big thanks to Greg Olsen for getting the ball rolling, Ryan for the work, Kevin for his psyche, and Pat, who was kind enough to belay me!  Hopefully, some other people will be inspired to head up there and give it a go. 

Regarding its grade, it felt around 12d to me, give or take.  Who knows though, perhaps it is only like 11d, like everything else at Index -wink.  Officially, I'm calling it 5.12, so nobody thinks I'm a fluffer.  In comparison, I thought it harder than routes like Numbah Ten, Narrow Arrow Direct, Stern Farmer, and Power Horse.  Please, take all this information with a grain of salt, or a heaping spoonful if you prefer.

Funny, when I sat down to write this, I was thinking of no more than a few paragraphs; just enough text to capture the essence of my experience, and describe the overall process.  Major fail.

On a personal note, after being accepted to three out of four DPT programs, to which I applied, I’ve decided to attend University of Puget Sound, beginning this September!  I feel so blessed and thankful for this opportunity to pursue the field of Physical Therapy.  Big thanks to Chris Allen for helping me shape my career vision, for allowing me to be his shadow, and for his kindness.  Grad school will be an exciting new chapter for me!  Tiffany, Hazel and myself are looking forward to checking out Tacoma, meeting new friends, and staying in one place for more than a year.  For right now, I'm taking my last prerequisite, third quarter physics.  Also, I had minor arthroscopic knee surgery a couple weeks back.  My surgeon cleaned out some likely culprits and I should be back to full speed soon.  It is going to be a great year!

Friday, March 28, 2014

Some things I like about Index

Mt. Index - source google.
Over the last couple decades I’ve managed to climb more than work, placing greater emphasis on free time, than cultivating my work resume.  Within the tidal flow of seasons, I’d regularly disappear on month long road-trips, to escape our pervasively depressing rain, and explore new areas; and while savoring exciting destinations like The Needles, Joshua Tree, The South Platte, Yosemite, Cathedral Ledge, Little Cottonwood, Squamish and countless others, I was often reminded of one thing:  Index is about as good as granite gets.  Admittedly, I’m reluctant to stamp superlatives like “best”; since this is merely opinion, affected by my own bias and quirky metric.  But, nevertheless, after many a pilgrimage, I can state that Index is my favorite, and for a number of reasons.  Here are some.

The Upper Wall & Cheeks
Gorgeous surroundings:  Like clockwork, almost every winter there are periods of high pressure, displacing the tyranny of leaden skies, dank, and drizzle, which by and large reign supreme.  Overhead, oppressive gray transcends into electric blue, and the softened rays of a southern sun, paint the Skykomish valley with a revealing brush, highlighting a tapestry of rounded corners, arĂȘtes and mesmerizing texture, hillsides peppered in glowing evergreens.  Thanks to its Southern aspect, the walls dry quickly, and with a vigorous SE wind, can dry out surprisingly fast, yielding excellent winter climbing conditions.  It is during these lucky streaks that I find myself most spellbound by Index.   Between the months of December and March, Mt. Index is absolutely plastered in a wintry wardrobe –its ice chutes, towering buttresses, fluted ribs and colossal scale dominating the southern expanse.  From the town walls, one need just turn around, and breathe in the awe-inspiring relief and tonic like aesthetic. 

Fine Grain stone: Granite at Index is strikingly fine grained.  So what, you say?  Firstly, it is very gentle on the skin.  For many of the crack climbs, this readily increases the enjoyment of sinking those perfect jams, like the ones found just above the crux on Thin Fingers; whose dimensions are like a fine wine; and so every time I go back to them, they seem to get better and better.  But for those equally prolific face climbs, it frankly just hurts less pulling on edges here than when compared to places like Joshua Tree, a place proliferated with flesh sawing crystals the size of tick tacks.  Additionally, the fine grain, which is almost like coarse sandstone makes the perfect canvass for footwork; and it is not unusual to find countless variations regarding smearing and edging possibilities.  In the winter, the rock almost feels like Velcro.  This quality lends dance like feeling to the overall movement; with exception to times when one is thrutching some desperate mantle, foot cranked up at head level, trying not to tip over backwards, while essentially doing a one legged squat.

Even Steven
Unique crux moves:  Years ago, a good friend and brilliant climber, said bluntly, “Index is nothing but a circus trick”.  At the time, he was on his way to that magic 5.14 grade, and was dedicated to acquiring a manifold skill set; which included friction slabs, cracks, boulders, and fingery test pieces.  His premise proposed that hard routes at Index have very little correlation to climbing hard anywhere else, and was therefore an end in itself.  Over the years, I’ve often reflected back on this statement, trying to weigh it in light of my own experience.  After consideration, I think the idea that Index doesn’t instill usable skills is balderdash.

Ultimately, when you compare crux moves of routes like Numbah Ten, Stern Farmer, Blue in the Face, and Narrow Arrow Overhang, you will find highly specific movement, that honestly, are not likely to be encountered anywhere else. But, that said, I think climbers learn lots about balance, friction limits, problem solving, bizarre flare chicanery, and learning how to go for it on terrain where natural gear or fall potential seem scary. 
The Iron Horse Slot.
These things can be applied.  If you do well at Index, I think other granite areas will become more transparent (the caveat being actual meat and potatoes crack climbing).  While there is a flow and cadence to the climbing, the crux moves are often unrivaled puzzlers; and as a result, I’m never bored because individual routes often have some unique & bizarre crux move. It is interesting to observe the fact that over half of the pitches at Index are fully bolted sport routes. But, you won’t often see the Little Si sport phene out here, presumably because it is just too slabby, and certainly not because there are too few bolts.

Heaps of challenging routes: Although Index is known for its sand-baggery, and I am inclined to rant here...let's just leave this notorious subject for an independent entry.  Suffice it to say, there are loads of technically difficult routes sprinkled amongst the many walls.  And, this winter, as I’ve analyzed the pages of Clint’s and Darryl’s guide books, and new routes reported on Mountain Project, I came to the conclusion that I’ve only scratched the surface of Index climbing. 

The Old Bus. RIP.

Thin Fingers.
This has me all fired up!  Seriously, I feel like a kid in a candy store.  Like many, the bulk of my experience is circumscribed to the Lower Wall-- the easy goods.  By easy, I don’t mean a walk in the park, I mean ease of access, convenience.  Let’s be honest, nobody breaks a sweat approaching the lower wall, which is one of the reasons it is so universally popular, aside from the fact it is stacked with awesome routes.  But, now that I’ve done most of the routes that catch my fancy here, I’ll have to start hiking for new route experience. 

In my giddiness, I’m torn between stoke to try old routes like Rise and Fall, Technicians, and Good Girls -- versus scouting for new routes, and examining abandoned projects, to which there are a significant number.  Despite my psyche, I know it will take more than words to start ticking these climbs.  5.11, 5.12 –which is the hallmark grade for Index often takes me lots of work.  Conditions, dirt, irrational fear, flying objects, runouts, humbled ego, reaches, and partner availability are all factors.  I love that about this place.  

little jupiter

What are your favorite things about Index?  I’d love to know.
Green Drag-on

Friday, March 21, 2014

Rolling back the years

With the life of a stay at home Dad, I’ve had ample time for nostalgia recently, reminiscing on the perfect fine grain of Index, and sifting through dormant memories of my origins as a climber.  Though I now much prefer the inherent challenge of flawless vertical rock, I shall never forget the role that early alpine climbs played in my development.  

It was during the summer of 95’ that I cut my newborn climber teeth, cavorting around with Bart Paull, my first mentor.  He was all of fourteen at the time, and needed a partner with wheels to transport him to his preferred environment.  Naturally, like any Mercer Island lad worth his salt, Bart existed on a strict diet of climbing—consuming it for breakfast, lunch & dinner.  Absolute possession had laid hold on Bart at an early age; and by the time we met, one auspicious day at the UW rock, he had already scaled miles of water ice, multiple el cap routes, and probably hatched plans to climb everything in the known universe.  It was an ideal partnership for someone like me; who saw a vast wilderness of adventure in my back yard, but didn’t know the first thing about tying knots or jugging lines.

One of my better looks.
In hindsight, I imagine he saw more than mere transportation, and surely beckoned to the Siren call of our Gilkison family chariot.  At that time, I was rolling a copper-tone colored Honda Civic hatchback, known by my friends as--- ‘the chic magnet’, bequeathed to me following the demise of the infamous Red-door Corolla, which I ignominiously totaled, just three days after turning 16.  Already, the chic magnet had attained near fame by making the trip from Steven’s Pass to Shoreline in sub-hour time, passing more than 74 cars along Highway 2, blitzing through towns like Goldbar, Startup, and Sultan at blistering speed, early Rush blaring out of the stereo, and me totally unconcerned; my teenage mantra being-- ‘no cop, no stop’, under-girding my every tap of the brake and plunge of the accelerator.  At the age of 17, I was invincible, like most of my peers.  A quick study, Bart knew that minimal time would be wasted en route to our climbing objectives. 

During that glorious summer there were no hindrances, responsibility, or other obligations…other than get outside, and pick something cool to climb.  I’d recently recovered from a terrible case of pneumonia and nearly missed my high school graduation.  I think my parents felt I could use some unfettered relaxation before starting college classes in the fall, to rejuvenate and convalesce.  On a sympathetic note, they implored me to refrain from work, and rather encouraged me to have fun and explore my newfound passion. 

Needless to say, Bart also fell into the same carefree camp; and without further ado, he charged at the opportunity to drag me around the Cascades, teaching me when necessary, & pouring fuel onto my otherwise combustible enthusiasm.  Spurred on by Bart’s redoubtable prowess, and my admitted inexperience, our youthful concept of immortality was stretched thin on more than one occasion.  Some sobering misses and perceived brushes are forever emblazoned in my memory from that first summer:

West Ridge of Forbidden Peak

In late June, I climbed my first mountain.  Up until then, I’d been to the top of some peaks; but those had been accomplished by means of relatively straightforward trail systems.  Bart’s plan would far eclipse those experiences because for the first time, I was actually going to utilize those few items in my alpine quiver.  Ice axe, helmet, crampons, shiny and still gummy in places, where I’d recently peeled off the REI stickers, were all carefully stowed away in my Lowe Alpine Sirocco pack, ready for action.  We rolled out early to Marblemount, diving into the heart of the North Cascades, and dropped by the Ranger Station to procure permits for Boston Basin. 

The ranger looked at us from behind his fortress of maps and official insignia with curiosity, first at Bart ---a sturdy built 14 year old with dark shaggy hair, brimming with youthful wit and laconic retort; and then down at me, a diminutive 14 year old looking sidekick, obviously out of his depth, overly eager, and tractable to the merest suggestion.  In due time, the rangers lengthy speech came to a close, and we were granted permits, albeit with perceived reluctance.  As we sauntered out of the station, I like to imagine the ranger sitting there in calm repose, pondering our intentions with a concerned air; him speculating whether our parents knew were we were, a couple lost boys with delusions of alpine grandeur.

Back at the helm, we careened off the main highway onto the Cascade River Road, and were soon kicking up a contrail of dust far into the tunnel like canopy above, and playing the best of road games, dodge the pot-hole.  Over twenty miles later, we were parked at a non descript pullout, with a couple other cars there to mark an otherwise homogenous looking stretch of road.   Once saddled up, we were off.

I’ll never forget that first time I put on a big pack.  Back then, I could still hear my high school weight lifting coach Dmitri’s reproachful words, “Gilkison, you got chicken legs, go do some squats!”  As teenagers just discovering the marvelous transformation afforded by weight training, what were legs when compared to a ripped set of abs, cannonball biceps, and an enormous chest?  We thought it was obvious what girls cared most about.  Needless to say, I did not make time for those squats.  Consequently, with my burdensome load, and an approach that stretched to the heavens, all but a vertical staircase of tree roots and brush, I several times recanted the day I eschewed coach Dmitri’s advice.  Our ascent was slow, sweaty, and short of daylight—and by the time we left the forest, pitch-dark conditions made locating the Boston Basin campsites all but impossible.  We settled upon some forlorn knoll after a vain search for the official site. 

It was still dark when our alarm clock sounded its strident call, erasing an otherwise perfect sleep.  I’ve never been too keen on getting up early.  But, as we began our ascent over small snowfields & remnants of glacial ice, I couldn’t help but marvel at the silky purple sky waxing over the horizon, and the ice cloaked peaks standing in stark relief all around.  Seeing something like that for the first time is truly moving.  Since then, I’ve seen lots of similar mornings, but none remains with me like that first purple haze, an indelible mark upon my early consciousness, of beauty and mind-boggling clarity.

Closer now, Forbidden loomed over us as we inched our way up, a peak of remarkable symmetry, and seemingly sculpted like the Great Pyramid of Giza.  We were just gaining a steep couloir as the sun grazed over the upper ridge on Forbidden, hitting Johannesburg in a resplendent sheen of orange light.  We both climbed tandem in the slot, circumventing a large crevasse at the base, and moving quickly up the 45-degree slope.  The snow was quite frozen and our crampons bit surely and easily into the slopes of the chute.

After a few hundred feet of steep climbing Bart stopped, waiting for me to gain his level.  I climbed up to him and was a few feet below him when I halted to catch my breath.  He asked if I could pass the camera to him.   Casually, I dug the shaft of my axe into the snow, releasing the safety strap so I could more easily maneuver the camera from its bag.  Once in my hands, I couldn’t quite reach up to make the hand-off, so I kicked one foot firmly up hill in the snow, and then the next. From here I was just barely able to deliver it to Bart. This is where I had one of those “why did I do that?” moments.  As I began lowering the last of my higher foot placements, to get back down to my axe, I hesitated.  The crampon spikes on my higher foot dug into some of the webbing anchored to the rear of my harness, and for one tenuous moment, I stood there one legged, wobbling with my hands oscillating in the air, sort of like the karate kid doing the fabled crane move to win the championship match.  Only, I was standing near the top of an icy chute, hemmed in by solid rock walls, and at the bottom no gym mat, but a sizeable crevasse, its gaping maw ready to swallow me whole.  Those seconds were interminably long, my mind awash in trepidation over which direction I was to go.  And then, like a tree loosened from its roots, I toppled over, backwards.

In my mind, that was one of the scariest moments of my life.  Sliding backwards, my speed increased, as I managed to turn myself right side up.  But then, my crampons bit into the snow, sending me into a spectacular flipping cartwheel.  For seventy feet I rag dolled; and during each moment, sent screams ricocheting in all manner of direction.  Just when I thought all was lost, I felt the rope begin to pull on me, slowing my fall, and putting me in an arcing swing, my face dragging against the cold ice.  Then all was silent. 

From my vantage point, I strained up to see Bart bent over in a self-arrest position.  To this day, I am in awe that I survived that fall; and forever thankful that Bart was up to the task, and that I only weighed around 100 pounds back then.  Suffering only an abrasion to my face, I pulled myself up, and scampered back up to Bart under a watchful boot axe belay. 

West Ridge.
With shaken confidence, we recommenced, and shortly made the ridge crest.  Surreal vistas opened up.  Huge glaciers and desolate peaks punctuated an alpine wilderness of sublime proportions.  Without further detail, we climbed to the summit, and somehow I lost my helmet and ice axe on the ridge, both cascading down the NE face, bouncing and banging for thousands of feet down to the glacier below.  I’m sure they are still there.  But, at least I am not.  In addition, during the descent we were caught in a terrible lightning storm that came out of nowhere.  For ten minutes, I felt like we were about meet another unsavory ending.  A different party had joined us in our descent by now, and through collaborative efforts, I was able to safely descend the snow and ice, and regain the haven of our camp.  Still, I can just see that Climbing Ranger sitting there, ruminating on our whereabouts, lips upturned in a wry smile, and head slowly shaking side to side.

Mt. Rainier:

That July, along with Bart and his father Dan, we climbed the iconic Mt. Rainier.  Our climb up the Kautz Ice chute proceeded without incident.  But, during our last night on the mountain, spent at Camp Hazard, things got wild. Sometime in the dark of night, a front slammed into Rainier.  70 mile per hour gusts came out of nowhere.  Outside our sheltered cocoon we could hear the ebb and flow of the wind, surging at times with the crescendo of a freight train. With a runaway imagination, I pictured the end, as I observed our Bibler Bombshelter begin to flatten.  Huddled in the middle, I sat spellbound as Bart and his Dad braced their bodies against the walls, straining in a valiant effort to rebuff the tempest.  Though I didn’t sleep a wink that night, the storm eventually subsided, and my tensions eased with the first rays of morning.  Crawling out into the cold alpine air I beheld the most impressive cloud I’d ever laid eyes upon.  Stacked directly over the summit was a six-layered pancake, comprised of saucer shaped lenticulars.  It was breathtaking. 

Camp Hazard 
Descending the Turtle amidst the tempest.

Mt. Shuksan:

Between trips to Leavenworth, the Enchantments, and Index, we managed to squeeze in one last mountain before I shipped out for my first semester of College.

Me on the North Face
High on the North Face of Mt. Shuksan that August, we were close to finishing the steep 50-degree slope, which forms the crux.  Ice riddled peaks enveloped us in every direction, the American Border peak rising salient amidst the vanguard of formidable giants.  Craning our necks up, we stared down, or up rather, at our final obstacle.  Above us loomed an ominous schrund blocking our line.  We were standing on a somewhat level shelf at the bottom, with a meaty 60-foot pile of rope amassed from our simul-climb of the lower face, lying piled between us.  Each of us had an ax and an ice tool at the ready. 

Bart was the leader; and hitherto, had used a combination of snow flukes and the occasional boot axe belay to protect our progress.  Confidently, He ambled along the lower shelf to access a steep snow bridge at the crevasses far end.  Temperatures were rising, and the formerly perfect neve’ was beginning to soften and ball up under our crampons, ebbing away at the safety of our running belay.  Soon, Bart was 30 feet out left and 15 uphill, looking quite the part, when his feet suddenly lost purchase, and for a moment were furiously doing the running man, legs pumping up and down, groping for traction in a frightful panic.  In near slow motion, I stood aghast as I witnessed my precocious partner begin his fateful slide, axes slicing uselessly through the wet snow, timely expletives bootless against the forces of gravity.  His velocity increased, & despite my disbelief, I knew this was extremely bad.  Bart outweighed me by at least 50 pounds and with no belay in place, I prepared for the inexorable downward pull; in short, for our imminent demise. 

Hiking the Lake Anne trail back to the car.
In a flash of desperation, I considered hurling myself into the crevasse to arrest Bart’s decent.  If I failed to act, we would both likely plummet down the face and launch off a 2000-foot cliff, ending our climbing day, and my burgeoning tick list, to which this was to be my third mountain climb.  Impulsively (because jumping into a crevasse is easier said than done), I dropped myself into a self-arrest stance and closed my eyes.  Time stood still.  Minutes passed, and I was still there, my heart in my throat.  Faintly, I heard my name being called.  Cautiously, I stood up, adrenaline amplifying my senses.  To my astonishment, I saw Bart extricate himself from a hole, thirty feet below his former position.  He had only slid a short ways before falling into a separate & smaller crevasse, landing on a snow bridge ten feet down, and serendipitously, saving our lives.--- Somewhat shaken, we went on to climb the false summit, got lost in the towering serac field of the Crystal Glacier, and found our way back two days later via the Fischer Chimney route, two bedraggled youths, wide eyed, but already hatching new plans. 

August came to a close, and I drove south to California, to attend college.  Though Bart and I climbed several more times in the ensuing years, we slowly drifted in different directions, he more into mountain adventure climbing; while I developed an attraction for free climbing and sun warmed granite, something quite abundant down in California.   But, I will never forget that amazing summer learning the ropes, leapfrogging from adventure to adventure. 

Incidentally, I originally sat down to write about a new route I recently completed at Index after seven years of dabbling.  But, I suppose I’ll leave that for another entry. 

Sunday, February 9, 2014

New Beginnings

Considering the seven months since my last post, I find it hard to suppress the latent intimidation lurking beneath the surface of this blank canvas.  After such a long hiatus, it is difficult re-approach that creative helm, knowing I bare my life in such an accessible digital universe.  Somehow, I perceive the sum of my experiences have amalgamated into a homogenous mishmash.  Likely, this is because so much has happened since my last post, and I’m nervous that my words might spin into a torrent of gratuitous and mundane drivel.  Much happened in 2013; and I suppose it is only logical to start with a low point, its malignant shadow still manifest, but growing dimmer with every setting of that magnificent fiery orb, which ironically, we’ve seen a lot of here this January. 

As I vividly recall, 2013 commenced loud and clear as my MCL ripped apart while working a deep drop knee on Migrana Profunda, a sport route in Suirana Spain.  Following two months of standard protocols including the entire arsenal of HIRICE and bracing, my doc cleared me to resume physical operations, and my normal active lifestyle.  Within a week I began trail running again in the 3 to 7 mile range; which in hindsight, might have been too much too soon.  At the time, we had moved into a apartment near downtown Issaquah and were situated at the doorstep to miles of excellent trails up on Tiger, Squak and Cougar Mountain.  Things were starting to click and it felt exhilarating to be exercising.  The MCL area was a bit tender still, but tightening up bit by bit.  Honestly, I was so enthusiastic to be mobile again, that I consciously chose to obfuscate that incipient yet growing twinge under my knee-cap, which in recent past had immobilized me for several months.

To bring this to a head, I went out for alacritous six mile trail run on Tiger, including a quad-pounding decent and found myself limping home, writhing in sea of self-pity, dejection and palpable trepidation.  Now, I could digress into the gory medical details that include MRI findings and other depressing diagnostics, but I'll spare you, the reader.  I’ve known for years that my left patella tracked laterally, that my VMO is the size of a raisin, and that my IT band is tighter than a taught slack-line.  But, when you’re an athlete and everything seems to be working fine, it is more convenient to believe that performance and body function are immutable qualities. 

Much as Neo in the Matrix, I’ve been caught in a Dreamworld.  In my dreams, my body moves like it did 20 years ago when I began climbing at 18.  From my minds perspective, I am the same person, infused with similar vigor, and a desire to trump my own best.  Each day I get up to embrace challenge with renewed strength; and am motivated by a redoubtable will to seek the boundaries of my abilities.  These strengths (or foibles) are intrinsic to my personality.  However, I have changed.  Or, closer to the truth, I have adapted to new parameters.

Like the aftermath of a bucket of ice cold Gatorade poured ignominiously over my head, my eyes are shockingly open now.  Undoubtedly, I have sobered up to the reality that time unravels all, and that I must temper my innate penchant for performance with a circumspection for self preservation, keeping one hand on the throttle, but another prudently around the brake.

During the last 10 months, I’ve worked assiduously towards correcting my patellar tracking problem.  Typically, I spend 2-5 hours a week engaged in specific exercises to strengthen hip flexors, adductors, abductors, VMO and the like.  It is a slow road rife with inherent uncertainty.  But to my benefit, the curve has mostly been a positive one, with occasional episodes of regression.  But now, I’d say I’m 75% back to normal and stoked to put this chapter to rest.

Aside from the knee debacle, there are a few other noteworthy life developments.  Last summer after taking the GRE, I applied for grad school!  It was an onerous process.  But, after a few weeks of drudgery, I managed to apply to four different Doctor of Physical Therapy Programs, two in state, and two out.  I’ve been accepted to one program already, and am currently waiting to hear back from three others.  It is mind-boggling just how competitive PT schools are.  There were almost 1200 applicants for the school I just got into, with 80 student slots available.  --- After spending most of my life working a farrago of jobs including acting, outdoor retail, wilderness instructor, ski patroller, photographer, and carpenter, I’m convinced this will be the last suit I’ll ever wear; and I’m incredibly psyched to know this is really happening.  Many thanks to Mom, Dad, and my supportive wife Tiffany for inspiring me to stick with it. 

Far and away the most significant change in my life recently occurred on July 3rd.  It was on this auspicious day that Tiffany Dawn Gilkison gave birth to our daughter Hazel Sierra Gilkison, just over 7 pounds.  She has been an unequivocal source of joy and recrudescence in our lives.  Hazel is now 7 months old, and rolling all over the place. Soon she will be crawling...  It has been my responsibility and pleasure to be a full time stay at home dad for the last four months.  To be fair, some days are harder than others.  But, I wouldn’t trade this for anything.   Our time is especially precious because I’m about to head into an intensive and time consuming graduate program.

Lastly, the skiing/climbing shop I’ve worked at sporadically over the last 14 years, Marmot Mountain Works, is officially going out of business March 2nd.  This place offered me one of my first out of college jobs and it will be missed.  I’ve met a lot of great people over the years here, and many adventures started right in that dark old basement.  Au revoir Marmot dungeon.