Terra Incognita

Doubt, fear’s twin brother, confidently raised it’s beastly head today. It came as I stared upward at the imposing chimneys. It was there again as I followed my partner’s lead through heady moves and strenuous climbing. It was there again as I took the sharp end and gazed upwards at thirty meters of chimney. Do I really want to do this I wonder to myself. “Don’t do anything you don’t want to do” my partner reassured me.

“I just haven’t been climbing in so long” I reply. The endeavor seems doubtful.

“Yeah, but you of all people are capable of off the couch sending”, she replied, just trying to be nice. I mostly ignore her.

It is normal for me to have my doubts when it comes to climbing. I doubt myself all the time. This time though it is bigger picture doubt. This is not about a move or a pitch or a route. This is about climbing. It is about alpine climbing. It is about climbing hard rock routes in the mountains. This is about a driving force, one that has been surrounding me for years; it is about The Calling which has dragged me time and again to Patagonia, to India, to the Bugaboos and beyond. Is this what I want to be doing? Do I enjoy this? The uncertainty is pervasive now.

What started with a few simple one line emails progressed to a trip into the Cirque of the Towers. The first email from me to Anne was simple and to the point: “Feather Buttress?” Her reply was equally and unequivocally the same. “been thinkin’ about it all morning. Hike in tomorrow?” There was never any doubt or uncertainty. The route that had sat unnoticed in the cobwebbed corner of my psyche and guidebook of a mind, with its “wildest 5.9 pitch in America” claim about the pinnacled “Feather Crest” seemed to be the right choice for her and I.  Days later, as we approached in the cool of the August mountain morning, we discussed our development as climbers and more specifically the growth in our abilities to accept uncertainty on longer routes. “I used to not sleep well, you know, before a big climb” she says.  I nod silently in agreement. “I now know that I have the skills and confidence to go up and come down if something were to happen.”

The thoughts roll out in quick succession, one after another; it’s as if each armload of slack pulled through the belay device is fodder for new uncertainties, new questions.

“Yeah, you go up until you can’t go up anymore. Sometimes that is because you are at the top. Other times it is for other reasons.” We walk and talk through Jackass Pass then around to the slabs below Warbonnet’s steep, cold north face. From a distance cracks look small and the rock looks solid. The closer we get the more imposing the chimneys become. Wide and overhanging. Rumor has it somewhere up there is a 10c pitch. A chimney? An off-width? Our beta is not revealing. Kelsey writes, in his classically understated style, “some of these leads involve difficult chimneys.” We solo up to the base, overshoot, and have to down climb to a useable ledge. A rochambeau ensues and I win. Saddling up for the first lead I gaze upward at the crumbly cat litter garnishing the sides of a steep cleft. It’s cold, grainy, uninspiring, steep nature is reminiscent of the start of St Exupery’s Kearny-Harrington. Minus the dripping water of course. Above is the ramp to which I am heading. Inside the doubt is still well smothered, non-existent to my conscious.

I have written about fear and how on past climbs it has swam its way to the surface. Fear can master me, make me inefficient, make me ineffective. Fear has caused me to bail prematurely. I wasn’t afraid today. The stone, despite it’s initial kitty litter like consistency and a broken hold on pitch two, is solid and dependable. I work my way up twenty-five meters of grainy rock before breaching the left end of the ramp. The rock quality improves, as does my disposition. Once there I move quicker across the lower angle and more solid granite. I spy a fixed anchor and make my way to it, finding a cordelette equalizing some pitons and a horn. I connect them with another cam, clip in and tell Anne that my belay is off. Then I look up and the doubt creeps in. “Shit, that looks hard, I don’t know if I can lead that” I think to myself. That small crack in my normally accurate self-awareness is all it takes. The flood gates open and the doubts come nonstop. I wonder how far up the next pitch will take us. Will I be stuck with the crux or the off-width or the infamous Feather Crest? Can I manage those? It becomes a philosophical wondering. Is what I am spending my life doing what I want to be doing? What am I doing? Why am I doing this? The thoughts roll out in quick succession, one after another; it’s as if each armload of slack pulled through the belay device is fodder for new uncertainties, new questions. I mean, I could be sport climbing in Sinks Canyon, enjoying an ice cream at the Scream Shack or curled up in bed with a beautiful woman. All of these sound so much better at the moment. Am I actually going to spend a few thousand dollars again this winter to go be uncomfortable on Patagonia’s Fitz Roy massif? Do I want to? I now know that I am struggling with a as of yet unknown demon. This doubt has grown beyond what I have experienced before.


Anne below the Feather Crest
Anne below the Feather Crest

Anne leads the pitch. She does not struggle. She sends. She has to work for it, but she sends. She has been climbing all summer. Seeing her work hard casts even more doubt into my mind. From somewhere above an “on belay” floats downward. With mixed emotions I rig the small pack for dangling, attaching a sewn double to it and my belay loop. The movement will warm my now chilled body but the climbing could cement and justify my doubts. Do I want to know that my doubts are warranted, do I want to prove myself right? I shuffle upward with the chimney, off-widths and doubts all growing in both my mind and in reality. I climb through varied terrain, marveling at Anne’s lead head; her gear is spaced so far apart. “Fuck I woulda’ needed two more pieces in there” I frequently think to myself. I break a hold. It doesn’t assuage my lack of conviction. The rope from above though, offers reassurance. Standing in the wide cleft, seeing the rope disappear behind a slung chockstone I remind myself that it is only rock climbing and it is something I have done hundreds of times before. In fact, in the past I have relished these off-width/chimney/blue collar type climbs. I move upward. Somewhere inside a switch is flipped. My kinesthetic memory is instinctive and armbars, kneebars and groveling happen without thought. I am a machine. I move without conscious thought. The forefront of my mind is focused on a lack of desire: a scary, perhaps life changing thought process. I squirm and thrash. I reach deep to pull out a 2.5 Friend, silently cursing Anne for being smaller than me and simultaneously gaining empathy for Sydney in the chimneys of Epinephrine where, so many years ago, I did the same to her. I turn my head and my helmet jams. I sigh. The helmet comes off. My reflexive ability to make upward progress does little to wash away my wariness of future ventures to the mountains.

“Nice lead Anne” I say with full conviction. The pitch has deposited both of us at the base of a wide chimney. In front of us it pinches down. Above it rises twenty meters before narrowing into an off-width. In the back of the chimney, hangs a tantalizing fixed, red, rope, knotted for easy grasp or for secure “sport” clipping. Fowler and Lowe had no such rope. Hell, they had no such #6 Camalot. They only had conviction, chocks, and cojones (well, maybe a few pitons and rigid Friends, too.) “I don’t know about this” I say with more belief in the statement than I hold in my climbing ability. “Well, I guess there is always the rope” I add, eying the dangling red umbilical cord of safety.

“You totally got this” Anne reassures me. “Don’t do anything you don’t want to do.”

“I just haven’t been climbing in so long” I reply. “It seems doubtful.”

“Yeah, but you of all people are capable of off the couch sending”, she replies trying to put a positive spin on it.

I fight back the tears brought on by the sadness and dispel the urge to cling to the safety of the red umbilical cord that dangles in my peripheries and move upward.

I let out a sigh and start racking up. My capabilities are known, they are reflexive, involuntary this chimney will be climbed, as will the pitches above. I am a machine, I will get the job done. I do not want to be a poor partner. Maybe a bit more whining than usual, but in reality, kinda the same. It is the desire that is lacking. I cast off with a bit of stemming, jamming and shimmying that leads to a big nut placement behind a large flake. “Better than a cam” I think to myself as I tap the hollow sounding flake. My eye keeps the red line, off to my left, in the corner of my mind. Looking up I see little in the way of protection. I move gear around, getting it on the correct side. Chimneying upward is once again instinctive. I feel the pain in my knees and shoulders as the rough stone rubs through my puffy jacket and other layers. Not far above, the chimney’s constriction allows for my biggest piece of protection to go in. I inch upward, my mind still elsewhere, distracted by thoughts not relevant to the current time or place. I work harder than I should for the 5.8 chimney; my loss of mental focus takes its toll. The doubt allows for distraction, the distraction allows for inefficiency. I long to be home, writing, drinking tea, making love, and reminiscing about the mountains. And these thoughts simultaneously bring me sadness, melancholy and a contentment. I fight back the tears brought on by the sadness and dispel the urge to cling to the safety of the red umbilical cord that dangles in my peripheries and move upward.

The pitches above bring more awe at Anne’s abilities and more faith in my ability to get it done. I draw what, in retrospect, is the crux pitch. It goes smoothly (but not too proudly) with a pull on a purple TCU. That pitch’s second roof is more off-width/chimneyish and I free it after a bit of up and down thinking and resting. Above, a splitter hand crack leads me to a comfy, sunny belay ledge. Anne leads left then up to near the crest. Our beta tells us to go left, but in hindsight that takes us around the Feather pitch. I should have know better. It was beautiful and what Fowler and Lowe would have done, but our beta source told us left around the first Feather. We traverse, find a chimney, find the crest and the summit.

In the end it was anti-climatic and disappointing. It was anti-climatic in that it went off almost as expected minus the Feather Crest (my internal struggle notwithstanding). It was disappointing in the knowledge that I was relieved to have not of had to of led the pitch. Yeah, it would have gone, I could have done it and it would have been fine. My logical mind tells me this. My actions and abilities on the pitches below reinforce this knowledge. It would have been no different than before except internally I was not having fun. I was wondering how, in the past, I had found these items to be fun. Lower down I started thinking about being on the side of South Avelllano Tower or on Higher Cathedral or South Howser Tower and how in those places things felt natural; I felt at home. Today, in comparison, my thoughts were: why am I here? why am I going to Patagonia? why do I want to climb in the steep, cold, challenging mountains? should I alter the course of my life?”

Writing these words now, I feel tears well up in my eyes. There is a melancholy and a sickness present, similar to the ones I felt as I slowly, silently slithered up that chimney. I sense conflict too, for I also feel hope and desire. Talking about the feelings with a friend, I was reminded how a short memory span is essential to any climber, particularly those who frequent the mountains and alpine environments and those who chase The Calling. I still priced tickets to Patagonia, I still picked up the guidebook, perused the pages, and felt the Urge. I know, that the demon is still there. I know now that doubt is not far away. I think I can say I want to spend time and money to test it out. And I can say without a doubt, that sitting here, in this quiet room, drinking tea and processing my thoughts into the written word, that I want to go back and send that fucking Feather Crest pitch. Someday.

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A little bit less of a nomad now, Jared still likes to refer to himself in the third person.

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