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. 


  1. Gripping accounts Ben, I was ready to jump into that crevasse at the end, dang!

    With this temporarily lame knee of yours, I hope you rest while writing up more such adventures.

  2. Thanks Jon! 12 days out from surgery and things are looking brighter.