Monday, December 17, 2012

My Day With Jack

 "People were always getting ready for tomorrow. I didn't believe in that. Tomorrow wasn't preparing for them. It didn't even know they existed."  
- Cormac McCarthy

Doug and Chris had attempted the line earlier that season and climbed to within a pitch of the summit plateau. It was dark and storming hard as they traversed the final rock wall guarding the top and a fairly straightforward descent down a gully to the North. They could hear the wind raging like a freight train above them, and despite their desperate search for a possible exit (a crack, a corner, a chimney, anything!) their headlamps revealed nothing but smooth granite staring back at them. Without bivy equipment or a stove, they had to keep moving to avoid freezing, and unable to find the fabled crack that lead to the top, they had to begin rapping immediately. Doug would leave a good chunk of his rack on that wall during eleven seventy meter rappels to the snowfields below, where exhausted, wet and cold, they found a bivy cave and passed the few remaining hours until sunrise snuggling and doing sit-ups to stay warm.

So, Sheridan invited me to join him for another go at Taylor’s Central Buttress.  Doug and I are training in his small garage, which is packed full of free weights, climbing gear, and a small forty five degree systems board.
Oh yeah?
Yep, and Jack Roberts is apparently coming along as well.
Have you ever met Jack?
I’ve never met either of them.
They’re both good guys. Sheridan is climbing super strong and is always psyched, and Jack… well Jack is Jack Roberts for Christ sake. Not only has he been crushing it for decades, he’s just one of the nicest guys you’ll meet.
Yeah, that’s what I hear.
The route is big though… probably bigger than anything else in the Park. Get an early start.

It’s dark, it’s cold, it’s windy. It’s the usual RMNP winter alpine-start requiring a high-commitment exit from your vehicle at the always gusty Glacier Gorge Trail Head - where cars rock back and forth in the gale and red eyed climbers crank everything from Slayer to Wu Tang to The Be Good Tanyas and gulp down last minute mouthfuls of strong coffee, knowing fully well they’ll probably have to shit within the first quarter mile or so of hiking... We walk through the forest following the snow-shoe highway towards the Loch. At first we chitchat, and I feel awkward around these two men who are so much older, more experienced, and more accomplished than I.  As the miles go buy we separate by bits of personal space, our heads down, our lungs burning, our minds all thinking separate thoughts – each of us is in our own world. Mine is a dream world as I walk across the frozen lake, my headlamp illuminating air pockets and hairline cracks - the ice varying shades of blue. I’m terrified of not performing today, of not climbing well, of not keeping up, I fear they will not like me.

It isn’t long before Chris and I are far ahead, past the Loch, slogging up towards Timberline Falls below Lake of Glass and Sky Pond. We stop for water and some food and watch the sky come to light, the shapes of walls and pillars emerge from the darkness. Chris tells me about Jack’s feet – the bane of his existence and the result of a lifetime wearing mountain-boots and climbing shoes, of enduring frostbite, immersion foot, countless hours spent kicking steps and front-pointing in hard ice. I remembered reading a story told by Dougald McDonald about Jack having to cut slots in his already roomy climbing shoes to relieve the pain while climbing a new route on Devil’s Thumb in the Indian Peaks Wilderness. Jack still managed to lead the route’s runout 5.10 crux pitch in style. Chris tells me how Jack placed pads between his toes and rapped his feet in cloth that morning on the drive up. Damn – I think, but at the same time I’m worried. It’s nearly light and we have a ways to go before we reach the base of our route.

There’s a sense of dread floating around in my head. Maybe it’s just all the talk of epics and suffering on Taylors Central Buttress, talk of difficult mixed climbing, deadly runouts and dangerous snow-covered slabs. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m climbing with two people I’ve never met before this day. Maybe I’m still nervous about performing well and leaving a good impression on these two climbers who’s accomplishments I so respect. I slog on towards Sky Pond, the Cathedral Spires rising on my right, Vanquished Buttress and Powell Peak to my left, the Central Buttress of Taylor rising before me, growing bigger and bigger and more scary. These mountains are nothing to Jack and Chris, who have climbed the world over, and who’s accomplishments have graced the pages of history and influenced the lives of so many of their peers, but to me this mountain is massive, the face a daunting pile of choss covered in unconsolidated snow.

We rested again at a boulder beneath the final snowfield leading up to the face. Jack is a small dot below, slowing but surely gaining ground. Chris and I stash our gear and snowshoes beneath the boulder, rack up for the climb, and then proceed towards the cliff, slogging  upwards through knee deep snow. Jack will be here by the time you lead the first pitch, says Chris. Apparently I’m leading the first pitch. After nearly falling into a moat guarding the base of the wall, I carefully dry-tooled up a steep rock step to reach a ramp of snow leading up and right towards the Central Buttress.  The snow of course was barely consolidated and resting on a granite slab – terrifying stuff. I groveled up the steep snow, digging for rock edges to hook and searching vainly for protection.  I’ve never before or after climbed such steep powder snow and the thought of it peeling off in a cohesive slab made me tense. About half a ropelength up the ramp I found a hairline crack and pounded in a knifeblade as far as it would go, (about an inch), promptly tied it off and continued upward. A large chockstone loomed above me. I had an eerie feeling as I gently moved up the impossibly steep powder snow. Occasionally I would find footholds on the granite slabs to my sides and I stuck my tools sideways into the snow as deep as I could to gain purchase. At last I reached the chockstone, beneath which lay a small cave. I practically dove for it’s safety as the snow disintegrated around me. It wasn’t a difficult pitch, it was tedious, and it was very dangerous. I found little protection for a belay, just one decent spectre driven into a clump of frozen turf and a number three Camelot slotted deep in a flaring, iced over crack, but the cave its self seemed a good natural stance to belay from, so I began to bring Jack (who had arrived at the base long before I finished my lead) and Chris up to the cave. Within minutes I heard a shout and felt one of the half ropes go tight – I looked in horror as the Spectre twisted in the turf and the cam expanded in the flare, holding, but obviously strained. The snow had finally peeled off the slab, taking Jack for a short ride, but he was fine.

I passed the rack to Chris and settled into my belay jacket. Jack was eating a cliffbar. I felt very glum. Jack’s fall had proven real the danger I had sensed on the previous pitch, and it was already noon… the short days of December combined with the deep unconsolidated snow made the likelihood of reaching the notorious last pitch before dark seen unrealistic. I had class in the morning and knew my folks would be freaking out if I didn’t call them from Estes before midnight (they’re from New Jersey and just don’t understand the idea of a forced bivouac, of waking up so early to go climbing, are skeptical when I tell them cell service in the Park is scarce, and just plane hate me climbing. Eventually my dad would buy me a Spot PLB and insist I carry it I were to continue living under his roof… needless to say I fucking hate that thing and don’t use it anymore…) I kept my sense of futility to myself however, and Chris – who I was quickly learning is always psyched and never afraid to suffer a bit – set off up a difficult M6ish corner around the chockstone. I was impressed by his tenacity and grace as he quickly climbed the pitch, torqueing his picks in a thin crack and finding the tiniest edges for his front points. He protected the line with hard won RPs and knifeblades slotted into tiny seams along the way.

I took the opportunity to spend a few minutes talking to Jack, who seemed quiet and content, just happy to be out in the mountains climbing. We talked about mixed climbing in the mountains and how different it is from cragging at a place like Vail, or Ouray. Groveling up these alpine routes in the Park required a broad array of skill that made the pursuit more dynamic, more dangerous, and to some more rewarding. Open up any American climbing magazine and you’re led to believe that alpine climbing is dead or never existed outside of Alaska, Canada, Europe, and the Himalaya. Ice climbing is alive and well, but you rarely find it here in the high peaks. Winter ice is all about frozen waterfalls and spring or aquifer fed drips. Ice in the alpine forms early in the Fall and late in the Spring and come from melt-freeze cycles and feeder slopes of snow. Winter climbing in RMNP is more akin to Scottish climbing (minus the 100% humidity) and mostly involves dry-tooling, turf sticks, and sketchy unconsolidated snow climbing. It involves long days, long approaches by foot or ski, a very active and dangerous snowpack, full on mountain weather (RMNP is often referred to as The Patagonia Training Center, and is widely regarded as one of the windiest places in the West) spindrift, and climbing traditional alpine rock routes, but with tools and crampons in place of sticky rubber and chalkbags. RMNP is the perfect venue for such an adventurous form of climbing – it’s not really popular, nor is it likely to be, but it is my favorite form of climbing and RMNP is my favorite place. A couple years later, after many more fine climbs with the likes of Sheridan, Doug, and my friend Ryan – I would begin my cancer journey, and these guys with whom I had shared such fine adventures would remain my most encouraging, most supportive of friends. A true testament to the “brotherhood of the rope”.

I don’t know what Jack Roberts thought of me. I was keen to ask him questions about his routes in the Alps and Alaska Ranges, and about his life guiding. He was extremely modest about his accomplishments and honest about the difficulties facing a professional mountain guide. He seemed happy though, and I imagine he was an excellent guide, someone who wasn’t afraid to share their passion for the mountains with others for fear of loosing some of their own.

The second pitch was indeed difficult, and the fifty feet or so of steep rock gave way to more steep and deep slogging. I think it was about noon when Jack and I finally reached Chris’s belay. Above us lay about eight more pitches. I voted for bailing, considering the time and conditions, Chris was psyched to continue onward, or maybe traverse left to an easier route called Quicksilver, and Jack said he could go either way – although he did admit we might be in a “world of hurt” if we continued – which assured me I wasn’t being unreasonable. We thought it over for a while but my sense of doom and the thought of spending another night rapping down wet icy ropes (I had recently endured a 24 hour epic day involving a lot of wet and cold rappels on McHenry’s) won out. “Fuck it dude, let’s go to Ed’s Cantina”. So we rapped off, conveniently using two of Doug and Chris’s old bail anchors.

We all walked out together at a slow casual pace, commenting often to one another at some beautiful sight – a bird, a thin line of ice running down the Petit Gully, the clouds building behind the Sharkstooth. We talked about women and climbing and Jack mentioned how difficult climbing and guiding can be on a relationship, and said “get out of it while you can, Kevin. Get out of it while you can!” A few minutes down the trail he turned to me and said “it’s probably too late though, eh?” We laughed and Jack told Chris and I about Ecuador, where he would soon be guiding clients up volcanoes. He talked about how his wife Pam, had spent the day skiing by herself, and how fortunate he was to have a wife who loved the mountains and was understanding when it came to travelling. He said: "she’s pretty good at taking care of herself". I asked him about all the routes in RMNP that he had climbed over the years and made a mental note to remember the ones he spoke most fondly of.  When we stopped for water and food I was surprised to see him pull a large stainless steel thermos from his pack and pour himself some tea. I guess light is right, but weight can be great. Like all professional alpinists he seemed comfortable and at ease, quickly shedding a layer while his tea cooled, he echoed my earliest mentor Ed Crothers with the adage “sweating is for amateurs”. His systems were so dialed he accomplished his tea-break and layer change in the time it took me to remove my pack and take a quick drink of water (after spending five minutes fumbling around in my pack looking for the bottle). At dinner in Estes, he spoke fondly about his early days wall climbing in Yosemite, his eyes glowing with countless memories of days and nights spent on walls, making the second ascents of The Shield, Zodiac, Tangerine Trip, Mescalito, and more. He said that wall climbing was great for his free climbing, that he’d spend a week on a wall hauling, jugging, hammering iron, and that he’d feel lighter and stronger when he was done. I practically blushed when he complimented me on my knifeblade placement earlier that morning - The best piton placement of the day, for sure.

After dinner we all shook hands and went our separate ways. I never saw Jack Roberts again, although Chris and I continued to climb together and had several excellent adventures that season as well as the following. His ambition, skill, and devotion to climbing in RMNP is rivaled by few. I am grateful for his friendship and the adventures we’ve shared. The day Jack, Chris, and I attempted the Central Buttress on Taylor Peak, a climber was killed in a fall on a route called “All Mixed Up” just one drainage over from us. Climbing in the mountains is a rewarding, worthwhile pursuit, but it is dangerous - brilliantly so – and that is why so many of us love it. The risks we take enrich our lives and remind us of our own fragility, our own mortality. I was in the hospital fighting for my life when I heard the news about Jack Robert’s death. Looking back to that day in the Park I wish that I hadn’t been the one who wanted to go down. I wish we had continued, I wish I could have had at least a few more hours with that man. While the climbing community mourned his loss, I felt his death (a fall taken while climbing Bridal Veil Falls) was a testament to an amazing lifetime spent climbing, a lifetime spent taking and accepting risk. In the cancer ward at Presbyterian St. Luke’s Hospital where individuals even younger than I were dying everyday, Jack’s death seemed right, like a good way to go. Some people mock the “he died doing what he loved” thing, but when it comes to Jack Roberts, he surely did and I’m glad I was fortunate enough to have met him.

 Note: The photographs that appear in this post are of different climbs and climbers in RMNP - I didn't have a camera with me on Taylor Peak. 

Friday, December 14, 2012

Climbing With Cancer

 “Knowing is not enough, we must apply. Willing is not enough, we must do.”

“And all those seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.”
-       Nietzsche

It has been difficult for me to climb while undergoing treatment for AML leukemia for a variety of reasons, some are physical, some mental, and some are emotional. Before I became sick, climbing was everything to me. It was the only thing I had remained disciplined at, the only thing I had ever shown or felt any ambition for. It was my compass, my only purpose, and I attempted to define myself by the routes I climbed and the routes I aspired to climb.  During the last sixteen months of treatment, climbing’s importance in my life has only evolved and grown stronger. As I struggle daily to continue through treatment I think about climbing constantly – climbs I have done, but mostly the climbs I haven’t yet done at crags and ranges I long to visit. Sometimes it’s difficult to have hope – hope is a double edge sword -  to imagine my lifetime of climbs and adventures yet to be had, and to accept that they may never be had… is difficult to say the least.

Following an allogenic bone-marrow transplant last February, I enjoyed four months of a cancer free existence, although much of that time was spent recovering from the transplant, I did manage to begin climbing again, mostly on long moderate traditional routes in Boulder Canyon and Lumpy Ridge. Those were beautiful days, and at the time I was very hopeful that cancer was behind me. I climbed a slew of fun classic routes and even made one foray into my beloved alpine, climbing the S. Buttress of Haimovi Tower, a long rambling adventure climb in the Indian Peaks Wilderness. When I relapsed in July, climbing took a back seat. My first notion was to say “game over”. I had long thought of where and how I would commit suicide if the cancer returned – the high country above Escalante, a lonely peaceful place where it would be possible for me to disappear, die, and have my body remain undiscovered by man, simply fading away and becoming a part of a landscape I loved… it would be perfect, except I didn’t want to die (think of all those climbs yet to be done), my family didn’t want me to die, and my conservative (and frank) doctor gave me enough data and reason to consider further treatment. So I decided to try again and I've been giving it my all ever since.

It’s been a long six months since then. I’ve endured an endless barrage of toxic chemotherapies and donor-leukocyte-infusions that have left me feeling broken, like the shell of the man I once was. My skin is grey, my frame boney, and I’m bound to the hospital for weekly blood and platelet infusions  (because my body isn’t producing any). When I do sneak away to clear my head I usually go up Poudre Canyon to favorite fishing and climbing spots and just walk around. Sometimes I paint, other times I wrap myself in a blanket, sip from a thermos of coffee, and try to remember every detail about the place as I can. Sometimes it hurts. I remember visiting the 420 Boulders, where I spent many fine days bouldering before I became sick, and it was difficult for me to be there unable to climb. Still, I would make the pilgrimage up there throughout the length of my treatment, visiting the same boulders, feeling the smooth polished granite holds and enjoying the smell of sage and moist stone… Once I even promised myself that I would not return unless it was with pads, a chalk-bag, and enough strength to climb my old circuit. But my desire for the place is too strong, and I continue to visit and walk among the boulders.

I went to the gym recently, where I used to spend a lot of my time. I wore a face mask to protect myself (neutropenia - weak immune system) from airborne illness and the chalk/bacteria filled air. I went early in the day when I knew few other people would be training, but still there were others, and I found it hard to endure their stares as I ran laps up and down the boulder problems tagged  “easy”. These people didn’t know me, and didn’t know that just a year before I could do a one arm pull-up and loved to shed my shirt and scream a little at rowdy bouldering sessions just like them. I felt self-conscious and embarrassed by my own physical weakness. How could they know what I’d been through? They probably didn’t even care – they weren’t really smirking and rolling their eyes behind my back like I imagined them to be… maybe they were, but why did I even care what they thought?! It’s much easier to stay home curled up on the couch reading Fred Becky’s 100 Favorite North American Climbs or scanning through beautiful mouth watering guidebooks while drafting up plans for all the future road trips that await me… IF I SURVIVE.

To climb in my weakened, sick and desperate state is not quite the graceful dance it used to be. Before I became ill I maxed out at 23 dead hang pull-ups. During my four months of remission I managed to build up to 6. Now I can only do one pull-up, and just barely. When I climb, I pant like a dog, my vision blurs, I get pumped just in anticipation of getting pumped, and I LOVE it. If climbing is a way of “dancing in the abyss”,  then climbing with cancer is like dancing in the rain. Although it is a difficult pill to swallow, just how far I’ve fallen in terms of my strength and ability, I still feel compelled to climb. In truth, all my planning and dreaming about climbing in the future may prove to be folly, tomorrow being so uncertain. And so I CLIMB TODAY. I recently met up with my friend Kent and we spent a couple of hours climbing at a lovely little crag in Boulder Canyon that boast several easy traditional routes. We climbed a couple and each one was well protected and loads of fun. I was at my very limit on each and took a lot of time huffing and puffing at stances, waiting for my vision to clear and trying not to vomit – luckily Kent is a patient belayer. When I was younger I saw a climbing flick called Return 2 Sender, and in that film there’s a segment with Jim Donini (one my many climbing heroes), and in this segment he talks about climbing being relaxing, and I’ve always remembered that because it rang so true to me. When I climb, especially when I climb well, everything else goes out the window. I relax, I breathe, and I let the movement of climbing and the setting of timeless geologic nature fill that void within me, and it does.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Rants of a Sad and Self-Righteous Man

The rants of a sad and self righteous man…

These verbal rants have been an ongoing process within me for quite a while. For weeks the encouraging comments of friends did nothing but anger me and awaken me to the ignorance of others regarding my condition – whether this ignorance was of my own architecture (borne in my own lack of detail) or not, worried me greatly. Had I put on too happy a face and tone? Do my own peers not understand the grave situation in which I exist? Writing everything out was a huge relief to me and through it I learned to LET GO of the expectations I hold above others and myself. The cancer experience is very personal and very emotional, even when viewed from afar. To feel uncomfortable, even angry at times, is natural, is OK.


Maybe it’s my fault – maybe I haven’t been as honest or descriptive enough when discussing my fight with cancer… I don’t want to bitch and moan about the silliest shit like so many other people do (and believe me they do) I just want people to know the truth, how difficult and unrelenting it’s all been. I also want people to be honest with me because I’ve always been so painfully honest with them.

A friend of mine, always full of encouragement and positive remarks recently told me to “keep them ice-tools sharp, brother! you may need them this season yet.” Seriously? are you a fucking park ranger now? Would you have the nerve to tell some quadriplegic to “keep up the rehab mate, you’ll be running circles around us all here shortly!?  I know the comment was meant to be encouraging, it was told with kindness, but it was bullshit. I’m sick of sugarcoated bullshit. You obviously don’t know anything about me or what I’ve gone through, what I’m going through…

I get the same hollow shit from family. They’re just bubbling over with optimism, inspirational quotes, and life experiences that just don’t compete with the seriousness and downright horror of mine. All the sweet talk and attempts at civility fall flat. The religious bullshit offends me the most… The very idea of some continuation of existence scares me shitless. I imagine death to be nothing, sleep without dreams, perpetual rest in blackness, and that’s the way I want it - so stow your talk of salvation, brotherhood, and love. I want none of it.


There are naturally optimistic and (seemingly) happy people. They’re a rare breed and annoying as hell - my father happens to be one of them. Growing up I remember him saying things like “life ain’t that bad”, “life’s easy if you let it be”, etc… The thing is though, he would became visibly distraught when confronted with discussion of death, disease, or discomfort. He’s not a religious man, but he was fortunate all of his life. Not much of an abstract thinker and comfortably imprisoned by boredom and routine, he never aspired to understand much or to experience much. He worked, he loved his wife, and he loved his son. The first time I saw him cry was a few years back when our much loved family dog Molly had to be put down. The second time came a year or so later when I was diagnosed with AML Leukemia… Oh God the sobbing, my father who was always happy, who always wore a smile, who gave everything and had nothing, who loved his son and his wife and his dogs and that’s about it…. And then he’s sobbing again (the third time ever!) standing above me in the ICU after they brought me back – why the fuck did they bring me back? Dad? Why the fuck did they have to bring me back?

There’s this kid I know from way back in high-school and even before then, a very immature kid. I knew and liked his father and so for years remained silent about this little chickenshit and his self demeaning desire or need for attention. Hey dumbfuck, you’re twenty three, you’re healthy, you supposedly love to climb (I don’t see it though, I just see you loving the social scene at the gym or crag, where you sit around and do nothing cept smoke ciggies and talk shit in your XXL puffy jacket.) You have a family that (somehow) tolerates you, a job, a clean bill of health, and yet you still write these goddamn embarrassing dispatches on Facebook. “Starting tomorrow I’m getting my life together and beginning to work hard to reach the goals I have set for myself… I’m even going to eat better and cut back on the ciggies.” Dude, where the fuck do you get the nerve to post this bullshit to your 15,000 Facebook “friends”? No wonder you feel so empty inside. Oh, and before I forget – harden the fuck up. Nobody gives a shit about the Junior High melodrama floating around in that head of yours. Open up your eyes and take a big look around you – see all the shit you have going for you? Now stop being such a pussy and get on with your life.

Another scene comes to mind – me talking to a friend who launches into a tirade against western medicine, assumes my doctors have advised me against exercise (actually, it probably hasn’t crossed their minds, considering that I’m slowly dying…) and then goes on to compare me to a guy in his weight-lifting class with a pulled back muscle. I hate to break it to you fella, but I’m literally wasting away here at twenty four. I’m puking green vile every goddamned day, emaciated, pissing blood,  and guess what? I didn’t get cancer because I ate corn and didn’t vehemently follow the Paleo Diet – SHOCKER!!! - I was raised in a healthy environment, ate healthy food, and have two wonderfully old and healthy parents in a wonderfully old and cancer-free family… All these folks training to climb and never actually climbing… Derek Hersey would be fucking spewing.

I’m sick of everyone bitching about what a warm winter it’s been (boohoo, not enough snow for you to slide down a hill on your fancy ass fat skis and baggy bro bra clothing? Nobody gives a fuck about your blog (or mine) – nobody gives a fuck about your ruptured A2 pulley (fuck you and your A2 pulley), nobody gives a fuck about how many squats you do, nobody cares about what company has offered you a spot on their “team”, nobody cares what color your fucking pants are, nobody cares that you have a prosthetic leg, or arm, nobody cares that you live in Boulder, nobody cares that you’re too big of a pussy to eat lentils or wrap your burrito in a fucking tortilla, nobody cares about your AA sponsored first lesbian bi-racial capsule style ascent of…

These past few months have been hard on me. I’ve been struggling to put my thoughts into words. My own friends and family do not comprehend the obstacle before me, the pain I endure, the unlikeliness of my survival. It’s made me angry at times. The brevity of my situation goes beyond that of my peers. It’s that simple. The people in my life can not relate to the turmoil and intensity of facing a debilitating and likely terminal illness. So again, I will not be climbing anytime soon – in my last ditch efforts to fight this disease I’ve sacrificed what strength and ability I had and every day is another day bound to a chair or a couch or a hospital bed. My stomach churns acid and I vomit every morning, my bones throb, my mind is constantly clouded over by an insanely large dose of narcotics and chemotherapy drugs… my only chance at life still another stem-cell transplant away, another year at least of suffering before me. No, I will not be climbing anytime soon – I wont’ be doing anything other than surviving in the most primitive form imaginable, bowel movement to bowel movement. Because my life with cancer is so goddamned shitty I’ve decided on an END date for myself. If I’m not in remission and recovering by ------- I am going to withdraw from the world of illness once and for all, on my terms. It’s a funny thing to wake up everyday craving your own death, but that’s what pain will do to you over time… and how could I expect my friends or my family to relate to that? How could I not become angry when I hear people bitch and moan about their torn A2 pulleys or sprained ankles? Forgive me for being blunt, my patience and enthusiasm has been regularly tested over the course of this trial. My life is more difficult and unfortunate than yours - and I KNOW that’s an extremely self-righteous thing to say, but it’s likely true. 

Sunday, December 2, 2012

It's gonna hurt.

My couple of weeks in Chamonix was coming to an end. Mike and I had just climbed the classic Voie Contamine on Point Lachenal, a rock buttress that rises from the Glacier du Geant Southwest of Mont Blanc du Tacul. It was the crowning achievement of my trip, having lead the crux pitch and survived a series of sketchy off route rappels back down to the glacier. With big smiles and high-fives we booked it back up to the Midi where we caught the last tram down to town. Passing beneath the Triangle, on which Mike and I had climbed a rather fun mixed route days prior, I spotted a team slowly working their way up the central face - the Contamine Mezuid. It being August, black ice shimmered alongside white blue streaks of neve. “That looks like a good one” I called over to Mike, who didn’t appear as enthusiastic. “Would make a good solo” he called back, “if you’re into that sort of thing.”

My first day in town, alone and awestruck by the size and shapes of the mountains had me reveling in emotion – I was like Donny in the Big Lebowski, out of my element. I dropped my bags at the geit and began walking around town in a manic stupor. Aleady homesick and scared shitless I searched out the nearest English Pub (my French being limited to “hola” and “como estas?”) and began to drink heavily. Chamonix was like Estes Park on a bad acid trip. Eventually I managed to get in touch with Mike, a former Colorado Mountain College instructor of mine. Apparently I had made an impression on the guy and on a whim he had invited me out to climb with him. Mike was no amateur to the Alps or Chamonix. He was spending the summer training for his guide’s exams and vacationing around the region with his lovely girlfriend, Sarah. While I was there we managed a pretty good weather window and climbed a slew of classic routes without incident (considering I had never climbed ice before my trip Mike once complimented me on my efficient movement - to which I replied “thanks, I’ve watched a lot of YouTube videos”). We climbed classic “guides routes”, long alpine rock routes, and fun mixed snow and ice gullies. Mike’s criticism was honest and blunt, his advice sincere, and I was (still am) grateful for the days we spent climbing together. I learned a lot.  On days when it was raining I’d sleep in, go for trail-runs, admire the throngs of beautiful blonde Scandinavian female mountaineers who wondered in groves through the city streets, and make myself omelets. Around noon I’d usually end up with a bottle of cheap red wine and kill the rest of any grey day reading Gaston Rebbefat’s Starlight and Storm and Lionel Terray’s Conquistadors of the Uselss. It was paradise!

As my trip was coming to an end I bid farewell to Mike (who was guiding clients up Mont Blanc the rest of the week), and decided I should pick a route to solo on my last day in town. I had been gunning to climb or solo the Frendo Spur, but when the time came I was considerably hungover and found myself dry-heaving in a corner of the Midi cable car (to the great disgust of the other fifty some early risers crammed aboard). A more realistic Plan B was the Contamine – Mezuid on the N. Face of the Triangle du Tacul, the route Mike had glibly stated “would make a fine solo”. Perfect! Once atop the Midi I bounded down the corniced ridge one descends to reach the Mere De Glace, passing parties of terrified people and nervous guides. I realized I too had been intimidated by the descent when I first arrived in Cham, and marveled at our ability to acclimatize to the scope and scale of our environments. I jogged merrily across the glacier towards the Triangle, hopping over the occasional crevasse or pile of human shit. I felt confident in my ability to climb the route quickly and then finish my day with a romp up the uber classic Cosmic Arete. The only worry I had involved my boots, which the previous weeks had revealed to be a half size too small, leaving me with blisters on my heals and tender toes when front-pointing in the hard late season ice. Hardly a reason to throw the day away! I climbed over the bergschrund and began climbing towards the route’s initial crux, a narrow section of 70 degree ice that flows through a large granite cliff band near the base of the wall. Conditions were great and I quickly climbed through the crux and onto the broad and endless 65 degree ice-face above. It was a beautiful day and I was elated to be alone, looking contemptuously down on the long line of ants ascending the Tacul’s regular route. Kick, kick, Swing, Swing, remember to breath. It wasn’t long before the exposure made itself apparent. The various rocks dotting the face that looked from afar as potential places to get off the ice and rest turned out to be blank slabs of granite devoid of ledges. The higher I climbed on the face the harder the ice became and it wasn’t long before I felt blood pooling in the recesses of my boots.  As the ice became more brittle I was forced to swing my tools repeatedly while the ice fractured into big plates which Frisbee’d down the face. It was exhausting, painful work. My arms began to cramp from the repeatedly hard swinging of tools and the pain radiating up from my toes was enough to make me contemplate just letting go. The ice seemed to go on forever and no rest was to be found on the face. I could see the rock ridge above me and knew I could reach it, but it was going to hurt.

I survived it, but all my toenails turned black and began to fall out one by one. The big toenails were the last of the holdouts and flapped about loosely for months, making it a bitch to wear socks or shoes if I didn’t tape them down. Eventually one fell off while bouldering, and the other eerily peeled off while wading across the Virgin River in Zion. I felt it rising and falling from its last points of contact, skin and nerve endings, but the water was cold – it wasn’t painful, and when I arrived at the opposite bank, it was gone.