Friday, February 22, 2019

The Tipping Point: Notes from an Aging Alpinist

Consensus on television game show: 50 years of age is the point at which men “let themselves go,” physically speaking.

I have signed up for two ski races this season.  Goals.

By ski races I mean cross country ski races.  I gave up downhill racing a few years ago after getting progressively slower over three seasons.  And by progressively slower I mean that in my last season I racked up more DNFs than completed runs.  The DNFs included some pretty dramatic crashes.

I haven’t participated (“raced” would be an exaggeration) in five years.  The reasons for this being, in no order: race called off because of lack of snow, death of son, rescued by helicopter out of the mountains, heart surgery, shoulder surgery, self-pity.

“Do not go gentle in that good night.”  I didn’t need Dylan Thomas to tell me that.

Thomas died the year I was born.  His last words were “I’ve had 18 straight whiskies.  That’s a record.”  However, he didn’t die of alcohol poisoning, but a host of other maladies, mostly self-induced.  I don’t know if he went gently or not, but he went early. He was 39.

There is absolutely no research to support the commonplace notion that men think about sex once every seven seconds.  But say it is true.  If it were ever true for me there was a kind of tipping point: now I think about death once every seven seconds.

In 2015 my friend Charlie Sassara and I climbed Peak 11,300 in the Alaska Range.  “How fast did you go?” someone asked.  “As slow as we possibly could,” Charlie said.

Ueli Steck, the Swiss Machine, climbed the north face of the Eiger in less than three hours.  I would imagine he maybe could have done 11,300 in about the same time.

We turned back due to high winds the other day before we got to the summit of Flattop.  I hike with three guys who are more fit than I am, younger, too, I add now in self-defense.  So they are above me when they turn around and pick me up, so to speak, on the descent.  And I am always glad to “retreat.”  And I wonder: will there ever again be a time when the others want to fold and it’s me who wants to continue pushing upward? Or have I passed a tipping point there?

According to an Institute of Medicine report, a good death is: "Free from avoidable distress and suffering for patient, family and caregivers, in general accord with the patient's and family's wishes, and reasonably consistent with clinical, cultural and ethical standards."

Before his record on the north face of the Eiger he had climbed the route around 40 times.  Ueli Steck died soloing on Nuptse.  He was 40 years old. 

My best estimate is that I have climbed (walked up) Flattop around 200 times in the last decade.

I had the cornice dream again last night.  In this one I am skiing close the edge of a summit ridge and the cornice begins to crack and slowly give way.  As I am falling I believe I am going to survive, that the snow will somehow cushion the landing.  I know there is a shelf that will catch me 150 feet below.  For some reason this seems completely survivable.  I awaken before I find out whether the dream-me survives or not.  In the light of day, of course, one would not survive this scenario. But in the dream world, I was certain I would.

“For when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you.” So Nietzsche famously said.  I have been guilty of the naivety of taking Nietzsche (and others) literally.  That is: I have gazed into many literal abysses. In the mountains.  What has been on my mind foremost in those moments was a note to self: "Don’t fuck up here.”

Peter Habeler climbed the north face of the Eiger at the age of 74.

We had made two or three good climbs, depending how you count, the highlight possibly being chased off Mt Temple by an enormous grizzly.  We were having breakfast at the little restaurant in the Alpine Club of Canada’s hostel at Lake Louise.  The room had a stone fireplace and was decorated with antiquated climbing equipment.  Among which we recognized the gear we first used on our first Canadian Rockies excursion, 1973.

I had kidney stones that would not pass and they put me in the hospital to manage the pain.  The pain would not be managed.  Ironically, when I had life-threatening cancers there was hardly any pain at all.  Anyway, they had me on an i.v. morphine drip which I could self-administer (up to a point, of course).  I maxed out quickly.  I was curled up in the fetal position and I remember there was a television up in the corner of the room.  It was turned off and in the screen I could see my colorless reflection: a shrunken man curled up in pain in a white hospital gown.  I remember thinking, so there’s Nietzsche’s abyss. I remember thinking, “So this is how it ends.”

But Habeler had also set a speed record on the north face in the 70s with Reinhold Messner.  With whom he was also the first to ascend Everest without the use of bottled oxygen.

Cancer wore my dad out at 82.  Nonetheless his last words were reported to be “get me up, goddamnit.”

Fred Beckey made over a thousand first ascents, mostly in North America.  The first time I met him was in the mid-70s.  He came by Early Winters in Seattle trolling for prospective partners. He would climb with anybody, but not everybody enjoyed climbing with him. 

As late as his early nineties Beckey was still trying to do hard climbs with the aid of younger, well-meaning climbers.  He had a tick-list of four routes he was desperate to accomplish, any one of which would  kick anyone’s ass.  He was unable to get further than to the base of them, which was a considerable achievement.

I’ve climbed Beckey routes all over the west.  In 2014 we tried to climb the famous West Ridge of Mt. Forbidden in the North Cascades, a route Beckey first put up in 1940.  We were super slow on the approach and exhausted when we arrived at the high camp.    We discovered the glacier had all but melted out leaving a dangerous gauntlet of tottering seracs and an exposing an additional several hundred feet of rock climbing where there had once been snow.  We abandoned the climb.

The last time I saw Beckey he was bound to a wheelchair.  He would pass away later that year at home, in the arms of beloved friend.  He was 94.

I have a tick list of climbs I still want to do.  The north face of the Eiger hovers just off it.  I am superstitious about revealing what is really on the list in the same way I am superstitious about talking away the potential magic of a writing project not yet completed.

I turn 66 this year.  Six more centuries and I become a beast.

Mountaineering history is filled with many haunting deaths.  On Nobukazu Kuriki’s fourth Everest attempt frostbite took nine of his fingers to the middle joint.  He was 36 years old last year when he perished on his ninth attempt, solo.  His final You Tube message: “I hope to keep climbing with you in spirit.”

The Tour of Anchorage is nine days out. We have enough snow. The ten-day weather forecast is good. My training has been . . . consistent. 

In the cornice dream I am not panicked, or even stressed.  I know I am going to survive.  I think, even, that I will live forever.

Photo: North Face of the Eiger from the side, 2007

Monday, January 28, 2019

Night Skiing

The temperature was eerily warm for late January, but I was determined to ski at the resort and so set out for Girdwood.  I had been spending all my ski time on the cross country trails in Anchorage.  Along the highway I could see little piles of rubble loosened from the crags above by the earthquake and its aftershocks.  Note to self: let someone else test the rock before rockclimbing in the spring.  A sign flashed avalanche work closures on the highway but I blew by it too quickly to read the dates and times.

The snow was wet at the base, as was expected. I managed to make the last run up Chair 6 and as the chair approached the end of the ride I could see the liftie ahead  folding up the seats of the benches as the skiers disembarked.

It was pretty dark up there at 4:35 p.m. and I felt a little disoriented, noting that even though I’d skied this run dozens (hundreds?) of times this was my first day out this season, my latest ever, and the shapes of the drifts and lines vary a little bit from year to year.  I am going solo, not unusual. I ease my way down Mighty Mite, the easiest line down to the tram station.  After that the lights are on and ironically this provides much better definition than the flat light of the sun.

There’s not much evidence of any grooming and some of the lines are mashed-potato-ey and the effect it has on me is that I’m tentative and easily worn out.

So few people on the tram that the operators don’t bother to give the tram speech, which hasn’t changed in years, though can be useful for tourists to be warned of the tower swing.  The operator has the Marley cranked:

Cause it's news (new day) news and days
New time (new time), and if it's a new feelin' (new feelin'), yeah
Said it's a new sign (new sign)
Oh, what a new day

He is singing along, expertly timing every pause and intonation.  Actually, about half the tram riders are singing along: Oh, what a new day.

A few tram rides later the operator says, “It’s like the same 15 people in every tram.”

On many of my runs I can’t see anyone below or above me.  As if I have the whole mountain to myself.

I ski until my legs are about to buckle. I am reminded on an on-line training forum someone asked if downhill skiing counts as “training.”  I chimed in: I don’t know what kind of skiing you do, but I pretty much ski until I cant even stand up.  So yeah, I count it as training.

I know my wife is entertaining friends at home, so I’m in no rush.  I stop by Chair 5 for a cheeseburger and glass of Broken Tooth IPA.  The highway is dark as hell and there is some new rockfall–new since the drive down– to skirt.

The next morning our friend Sarah who early-morning commutes back and forth from her bakery in Anchorage to her cabin in Bird will be just behind the car that gets crunched in rockfall. Mile 113.  She has to call the ambulance and wait for the road to open.  Last I heard the guy is critical and Sarah is staying in town for a few days.

Monday, December 31, 2018

Roma, Mexico, Me

Though I admired the earlier films of Alfonso Cuarón I didn’t know anything about Roma going into it.  Within a couple minutes I knew I was in Mexico City in the early 1970s.

I knew this because in the early 1970s I was twice in Mexico City, the second time for about three months.

Roma is loosely autobiographical and much of it takes place behind the gates of an upper-middle class family home.  Most of the residences in Mexico City lie behind these gates and when I was there I was acutely conscious of having no access to the lives inside them.  Thus the intimacy that Cuarón reveals now felt like a late and unlikely gift.

The Mexico that Cuarón shows us outside the family’s gate felt very familiar: the strange random musical paramilitary parades in the city streets, a casket business on a roadside, the vague threats of violence from protesters or policia, the low lying fog below the mountains in the countryside.  These details might have been drawn from my own memories.  I look forward to watching the film again to absorb more of its rich atmosphere, now that the story is known to me.

Thinking about my own time in Mexico, the winter of 1973–’74, I realized that I was only inside of two homes.  One was the home of the long-time ex-pat and mountain explorer, Otis McAlister, the other was the home of a young American couple who worked as teachers.  They kindly invited me to spend a few days recuperating at their house after I became sick high on Iztaccihuatl, the eighth highest summit in North America, an occasion marked by severe dehydration, mild frostbite, and brief hospital stay.

The rest of my time there I stayed in one-star hotels or slept in the mountains.

The occasion for me being in Mexico was my idea to write a guidebook to climbing the volcanoes of Mexico.  This plan was foiled by two facts, not the least of which was that I did not know how to write.  The other consideration was that the pleasure of my travels was precisely in not having a guidebook on which to rely.  If future mountain travelers needed a guidebook, maybe they should go elsewhere.  Or so I thought.  A guidebook in English would be published about ten years later.

What I never lost was the feeling that I wanted to write about the experience.  But I didn’t know what I would write and I would wildly underestimate the amount of time it would take to shape the experience.  And, when the book, Forty Crows, actually got written, almost forty years later, it was not a book I was capable of imagining when I was twenty years old.  It’s as if I shot a few rolls of film and they sat for decades in developing trays waiting for resolution that may or may not . . . develop.

Roma is described as loosely autobiographical.  Who knows what that means, exactly?  And whether it matters.  My own novel is probably exponentially more loosely autobiographical.  About twenty of its 400 pages might have been written as nonfiction.  And certain details of the protagonist’s past, told in flashbacks, are stolen from memory.  It’s not me in any literal sense.  In a figurative, what if? sense, it’s all me, in the way that all fiction is an answer to the question what if?

I look forward to my next viewing of Roma.  Forty Crows is not my Roma, but it is my Mexico.

Shameless self promotion:

Sunday, December 30, 2018

John K. King Books, Detroit 2018

I check the mountaineering section first.  Often it doesn’t change between my yearly visits. I find a copy of Scrambles Amongst the Alps, sixth edition, hardcover. Sixth edition is 1936.  The book had been in print 65 years at that point.  This edition has a dust cover (tattered) and the six foldout maps.  Since my only copy of this is cheap paperback, it’s a no-brainer to pick it up.   The story culminates in Edward Whymper’s tragic first ascent of the Matterhorn, its last paragraph remains among the truest observations ever made about climbing, oft-quoted and easily found, if you’re interested.
            In the “new” introduction, added to the original by Whymper in 1900, he observes: “The pleasure they [these scrambles] cannot be transferred to others.  The ablest pens have failed, and I think, must always fail, to give a true idea of the grandeur of the Alps.”

I wander around, aimless. John King  holds over a million books on its four floors, an abandoned glove factory in its previous incarnation.  A clerk sporting a black leather jacket adorned with patches and messages which I can’t casually inspect well enough to actually read, asks if he can help me.  I ask if he has any Wittgenstein, realizing immediately that I had meant Benjamin.  He strides ahead vigorously toward the Wittgenstein, as if to demonstrate that, of course, Wittgenstein is always at one’s fingertips.    
“We have Zettel,” he announces victoriously.
"You have Zettel,” I parrot back, as in disbelief.  I have never heard of Zettel, but try not to betray this suddenly embarrassing fact.
“Yes,” he says, “Zettel” and he takes it from the shelf and thrusts it into my hands in one quick motion.
I cannot hide my admiration for a person who in a building holding one million books knows the exact location of Zettel.
Zettel contaiuns the collected fragments found in a “box-file” after Wittgenstein’s death.  The text is in German on the left pages, translated to English on the right.  I turn randomly to entry 160: “The way music speaks.  Do not forget that a poem, even though it is composed in the language of information, is not used in the language-game of giving information.”
I decide instantly to acquire Zettel.
“Do you have any Benjamin?” I remember to ask, remembering also to pronounce Benjamin correctly.
“No,” he says, “we cannot keep Benjamin in stock.”  He pronounced Benjamin even more correctly than I had.
Somehow I find this a reason for hope, not just for the city of Detroit, but for the world in general.  The market for Benjamin has never been stronger!

I wander about, pausing to inspect a copy of Unter dem Vulkan.  I guess a have a strain of the German language running through my mind today, unbidden.  Even though can’t read German I desire this for some reason, even though I have five copies of it in English. I exercise a smidgen of self control and pass.

Being in John K. King Books is one of my life’s greatest pleasures. You could go to Detroit for two days and spend half your time at the Detroit Institute of Arts and half the time in John King.  Two of the richest days you could ever have. You should do it.