Friday, October 30, 2009

Funeral For a Friend

October: low stoke; a wasted body and a troubled mind. Beartooth Mountains, Montana: cold stone and high winds. Climbing has been on the back burner for a while; I’ve been pre-occupied and jaded to boot, yet like any junky, there’s really no leaving the monkey behind – that bugger clings tight to my back and calls to me as a siren of the deep from the dusty corners of old ambition.

Spray-gun: locked and loaded…

I swear it off, wish for new-found passion, woo myself convincingly that personal satisfaction in climbing now only comes from teaching and inspiring others – that I have moved past my proving days and I’m thankful for it, happy to be off the hook. Then, I hear the monkey shriek and feel its bite in my neck…a change of season, a hint of something ethereal on the wind, long shadows and dark mornings conspire to pull me back in, a la Pacino – just when I thought I was out.

And so goes the narrative of a dark and introverted alpinist, the story we know well of how personal suffering can be channeled into a proper meditative mindset, useful to aid in concentration while facing dire circumstances and often resulting in a fine catharsis. At 4:30 in the morning however, such talk is minimal. With a carload of smelly guys, smelly gear and a lot of coffee, the talk is more peripheral: “what’s the latest forecast? I had no idea what to pack for ice climbing last night…red sky in morning, sailors take warning” etc. Five guys in a little Subaru wagon that’s stuffed to the gills with skis, snowshoes and garbage from McDonalds tend to experience a paradoxical discomfort: on the one hand you have a ski binding melding with your shoulder as your back slowly goes out of alignment and your ankle becomes numb in an effort to leave enough room for the guy in the middle seat; while on the other hand people you really only know casually suddenly become quite close and trusted counterparts through the shared enduring of said discomfort and gradually the talk does begin to drift closer to personal experience and expectations of the day.

We laughed and joked at our own absurdity, seeing the red dawn as we drove eastward and noting the black sky to the south where we would turn and gain elevation soon. “Hey – if you’re about to start your ice climbing season, you might as well do it right, huh?” Still on the periphery though; still below the surface laid the truth to our motives and hidden behind the goal of our chosen climb was our actual ambition. A gesture was made to the south and to that deep, dark cloud that engulfed the entire range, lifted slightly over the valley then showed a massive collapse in pressure with stacks of lenticular clouds bearing down as the land mass rose again, “look, it’s the wall of hate.” A one-word response was elicited – “Dukkha.”

The Buddha himself on Dukkha:
“Birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, death is dukkha; sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, & despair are dukkha; association with the unbeloved is dukkha; separation from the loved is dukkha; not getting what is wanted is dukkha. In short, the five clinging-aggregates are dukkha.”

And so it was that the word of the day was set and adopted, it would be Dukkha, the oft-translated as “life is suffering” first noble truth. That’s what we were after; that’s what we wanted – a big fat dose of suffering by choice. I know I’d been craving it, that sweet cleansing that only the cold pain of alpine climbing in foul conditions has ever given me. Oh for those moments far and away from the world, safe in my microcosm of running grey and varying shades of cold white; for the clarity of mind found in pure action and intimate awareness of the immediate and the real; for those times of letting go, relaxing and focusing determination simultaneously. Just give me a fix, just one fix.

No sooner was it spoken than it was accepted, embraced: we wanted discomfort, we wanted adversity and the floodgates were now open – coffee onboard, harsh weather inbound, the season upon us and we could not wait a moment longer. The monkey eased its bite, climbed off my back and into my lap – we were on our way…

The Suby was low on clearance and heavily burdened, barely scraping over the rocks as it weaved through a maze of cobbles: “how far is it to the trailhead?” its rightfully-concerned driver queried, only to be egged on by our enthusiasm and the soothing sounds of Rasta beats in the background…when approaching a massive and ice-filled low-point in the road: “just punch it straight through, it’ll be fine.” And it was fine. There was a moment or two when we needed to unload in order to regain some suspension and provide a bit of guidance through some of the bigger rocks, but all in all it was a fine welcome to Montana driving experience for our new friend and we all enjoyed the un-intentional sandbagging. At the trailhead, senses heightened and the wind cut through layers – the wall of hate was close.

There’s nothing quite like having a group of testosterone-filled 20-somethings to combat the stoke-depleting effects of steady 70 mile an hour winds and further the determination of my aging self. The wind knocked us sideways, backwards, forwards and unexpectedly every which way but down. We leaned into it, turned our backs to it, put on goggles and pressed onward, further into the black wall, full-well knowing that what we wanted was there to be had. We took five in a tiny shack on top of a small dam near the base of our route and laughed heartily at the wind and it’s shaking effects on the scrappy little shelter. Concern finally showed in the face and voice of one: “do you guys always ice climb when it’s like this?” The answer came quickly and confidently: “only when it’s like this.”

And then there were four…

The Beartooths are spectacular. Alex Lowe referred to them as “the best un-discovered range in the states.” The mountains around here certainly do provide an amazing return on your investment: while the approaches may be a bit more challenging than some of the better-know regions in the Rockies, the adventure quotient is remarkably high. There are certainly no lines and in fact, rarely any evidence of traffic on the climbing routes. Despite recent publications, there’s also very little in the way of information – a benefit to those wanting an honest experience. Closing my eyes, I can easily visualize the basin above the lake and feel the freezing spray of water being whipped airborne by gale-force winds: immaculate granite soaring in all directions, limitless possibilities for alpine endeavors left to the creative mind. Stepping out of the shack on the dam, my head spun with sensory overload – the wind, the stinging spray, the contrast of earth to sky and water to storm; the world outside was raging. Visibility was low and there were massive buttresses all around, but where was our intended line? I’d taken it for granted that we would walk up, see the line and amble toward it, but that was not the case, instead conditions were overwhelming and we were trying to steal glances from beneath hoods drawn tight and narrow down the selection – it had to be one of the two largest formations. We moved as quickly as possible to find the sheltered lee of a massive rock wall and escape the wind.

More wind and slip-sliding across a small lake brought us to the line of sight we needed in order to confirm where we were going. From there, it was simply head-down slogging upslope to reach the start of the climbing – a perfect chimney with a massive and unmistakable chockstone verifying its authenticity as our intended line; beautiful pink and tan granite running deep and high up the mountainside, choked with dreamy ice deep-grey in color and running periodically with modest spindrift. Ah, the Dukkha.

This was one of those routes that had been on my radar for ages, but I’d never gotten around to it (with a litany of excuses, it comes down to being lazy and not wanting to make the drive and hike for something “not really all that hard”). Now that I was at the base, I was set on sending. It was beautiful, it was perfect; we made analogies to routes in Alaska, ohh’d and ahh’d over this and that aspect of the climbing ahead, then lost a little enthusiasm as the spindrift continued with regularity.

There was little to no talk of what our rope teams would be but the implication became apparent that both Loren and I were planning to lead; Scott and Kevin then partnered with us respectively and by default as a result of where we stood at the base. Time began to slip by without action and I became anxious…I was wanting to give Loren the lead, to pass the torch to this energetic and inspired youth (or perhaps to have him poodle out there and prep the route for me), but he wasn’t taking the bait and I could wait no longer. Every time a slough ran through the slot above I tingled with excitement – it would be cold; it would be dark; it would be frightful and soothing at once; it might be heavy, and if it was, it could be dangerous. The wind howled near constantly and the sloughs coincided. There was nothing above to load and release, only miles of high, frozen plateau for the wind to rake hard and fast, scouring clean of any and all snow which may have accumulated, then funnel down our chosen line above – perfect. I was confident that there was little safety concern with these avalanches, only added Dukkha, free of cost.

We swapped banter, brief tales and quips of our dark motivations to get out and into the face of Mother Nature, shared the reasons for our need to be terrified and consequently cleansed by its passing waves. We were telling ourselves that the route just needed a few minutes to flush clean and that after that, we’d be in the clear. With one of the better lulls I seized the opportunity and launched upward under the pretense that I would race to a sheltered point midway, protect myself with gear in the rock, wait out a slide then punch through to the top – I’d time it perfectly. Kevin’s response: “Tapley’s always got a plan.” I’m still unsure if I heard sarcasm or not…

Plan A: Phase 1: Check! I reached the midway point without incident, protected and waited…come baby, let loose. And it did, lightly. It wasn’t much of anything, but all I needed to justify upward progression: I had a vein and was plunging, but still needed that fix, needed it to hit me and hit me hard. This was my first day of ice climbing for the year and I had a deep, quiet jones going that needed fixing – there was no stopping now.

Plan A: Phase 2: Houston, we have a problem.Whaaaa-hoooo!!! Dukkha baby!!” I hooted; I hollered; I reveled in the absurdity and the cold. The slough was coming again, early, but this is just what I wanted – an internal battle between fear and confidence, irrational stress response versus rational thought and problem solving. I was run-out, well above protection and the possibility of a “safe fall.” Consequences were real, not theoretical and I was alive. Another round of hooting as the spindrift continued far longer than expected and seemingly heavier than before. Keep the stoke alive, do not let the fear win or the cold wear you down and further back in my mind, yet louder this time around: it’s a Tackle route – get some. Midway through it became apparent that the hood rolled into a tight collar approach to weather protection was not going to cut it. There was a light, powerstretch piece under my jacket and I had been wearing its hood over the top of my helmet to seal things up, but it had been pulled away and began slapping the side of my face as it filled with snow, stretched, sagged then snapped back, emptying its icy contents onto the lower-right side of my jaw each time. I relaxed, shivered, then smiled. Dropping my hands from the tools overhead, one at a time, I shook them below my waist and forced warm blood back to the wooden extremities. I became comfortable and found my place in the world. I found my way to my jacket’s hood, unrolled and deployed – it was like a new lease on life and I was re-energized, ready for more.

The slide continued for what seemed like and age. I placed an ice screw at my waist, fascinated by the view: all was dark and grey, my visual world shrank to a hemisphere of perhaps only 18-24” and beyond that was nothing. I saw nothing more than the edges of my hood, my arms to hands and the upper portion of my thighs. My feet were gone; the rock walls, less than a foot away and massive, were gone. I was quiet and there was no sound other than rushing snow. It was perfect. I was safely protected, feeling strong and confident that the slough would remain soft. All I needed to do was relax and enjoy the madness.

Finally – a break in the spindrift and I motored, covering near-vertical ground quickly, efficiently and feeling confident. “Heads up!” echoed from below and a new wave raged down from above. My smile broadened, it got dark, the world went away and my view closed down again.

Eternity. That’s what came to mind as I tried to grasp the duration of this slough: it just didn’t seem to end and was very consistent. I repeated the routine and relaxed. Shaking out to keep my hands warm I would find the tool again by sense of touch, and then wiggle my fingers lightly in order to rid the snow that was building between my glove and the grip of the tool.

Heavier now and darker than before…eternal my mind repeated, it just doesn’t end and with that I was fascinated. These moments are rarely so extensive and the harder it became to hold on, the colder I felt, the more water that ran down the nape of my neck and soaked through the crook of my elbow the happier I was. Sweet, sweet, blessed Dukkha, give it to me baby. A lull, and a cold, now-nervous attempt to punch to the belay, to end this suffering, cut short by an increase in flow, heightened force from above pushing me down and strong pull from below as my ropes took weight with the slough’s new intensity. Down climbing: blind movement over the cusp of a bulge and back to the safety of protection at my waist; waiting: repeat the cycle, add another ice screw to the system and relax. Dropping my hands below the waist wouldn’t work any longer with this new level of intensity – the gloves began to fill with cold, granular snow. Instead I figured out how to adopt a position that would allow my hand to reach below my heart and still orient the gloves with the fingertips up. Wiggling the fingers and swinging my feet, burning pain welled and brought confidence-destroying doubt along with it.

Focus. Too cold now and getting stiff – time to dispatch.

Another seemingly-eternal passage of time and the eventual lull finally brought me to the place I’d wanted to go, not the belay, but that place in the spirit where action and thought are one, that place which hovers just outside and above the body. I turned the exit bulge as light spindrift turned to heavy slough, wavered slightly, then re-entered my body as I clipped the belay…and then it was gone, then zen-state became un-essential once the secure safety of the belay had been reached and washed away as if with the spindrift, down the mountain, into the lake below and eventually the sea beyond.

But the Dukkha, that hung strong, especially on the ride back…


  1. nothing like being stuck on the ice with snow coming down like that....been there done that!! that video is BA!!!

  2. Dude.. Pete. friggn' solid! You brought me back amigo. I can hear you right now; "Any fool can suffer". -I guess then it just boils down to the matter of perspective? Ahhh yes, it hurts so good. awesome! cAwe.

  3. I enjoyed feeling your perspective.

    Great writing.