Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Tapering Off

Editing the American Alpine Journal book reviews I am struck by Clint Helander’s observation about Simon McCartney’s The Bond, the story of his and Jack Roberts’ two legendary and mysterious Alaska Range ascents.  Clint rightly observes that the book is about McCartney’s strength to walk away from it all, which he did abruptly and nearly permanently, emerging only now to tell a nearly 40 year old story.  Helander is in the Revelations as I write this attempting to slay yet another AK dragon.

I saw Andy Kirkpatrick in Banff last fall and over breakfast I asked what happened to his plan to solo Denali in winter—I had expected to see him the year before.  Kirkpatrick has made a writing career out of describing his sufferfests in the mountains.  When you’re reading, you don’t wish for a second to trade places with him.  Andy said that someone, Damien Gildea, as I recall (later: Damien has confirmed this) explained to him that he really didn’t have to do it.  Andy listened.  This time.

At the American Benefit Dinner Mark Twight accepted the Robert and Miriam Underhill Award, which is basically having official badassery conferred upon you.  Mark said that he quit climbing in 2001(I forget exactly when) but that he has thought about it every single day since.

I was reading a thread on Supertopo about Tomaz Humar this morning.  The Slovenian with the bonecrushing handshake who died on his solo attempt on Langtang Lirung's south face.  There was a sense of inevitability about it.  Rolling the dice, and he knew it.

Back when I took running seriously, I liked to say that my favorite strategy was “Start slowly and taper off.”  I was in my late 30s when I said that and thought it was joke.  Now I’m in my 60s .

After Charlie Sassara and I climbed Peak 11,300 in 2015 someone asked him how fast we went on the climb.  Charlie sad, “As slowly as we possibly could!”  Which was really true.  We went the same pace pretty much the whole climb, simulclimbing most of it, but even when we pitched it out moving at about the same pace.  We spent two nights out.  Just about right.

Late last fall Ralph Baldwin and I got caught out in the backcountry and had to survive a night out in a snow cave tempting hypothermia before the helicopter evacuation (a long story).  I remember thinking that if I got through that night I would be satisfied to climb easy bolted rock climbs in the sun, and ski on groomed intermediate runs at the resort.

Then last month I was down at Crystal Mountain skiing with two of my oldest friends Mike Schonhofen and Scott Baker.  Scott has always been en excellent skier, me: not so much. One of Scott’s favorite stories to tell, and he told it a time or two this trip, is about me was of skiing down a long pass in the St Elias Range roped to Jack Lewis—neither of us knowing how to ski.  We would ski until one of us fell and then the other would ski to the end of the rope and be elastically jerked into the air.  We fell uncountable times.  It was a five-mile run.  Scott remains vastly amused by this memory.  I mostly remember that when we got to the bottom of it we could see for the first time our objective, Mt. Kennedy shining in the nearly endless Yukon twilight.

So, Scott wants to show me the mountain.  Mike defers saying: “They used to make you sign a waiver to ride that lift.” 

But up I go.  It’s snowing hard and the snow is deep under our skis. It is not an intermediate run.  Or even close.  Strictly Black Diamond terrain. Steep and through the trees.   Barely manageable for me.

I am a slow learner. Scott gets me up there one more time and I go down a bowl, visibility bad, the snow deep.  Again, not very gracefully.   And I am thinking, “This tapering off.  When does it start?”

Photo: Ralph Baldwin searching for a cell connection or a landing zone in the Talkeetnas, October 2016