The mountains are my church. I disappear into the hills to get away from the chaos of life, to find quiet, to get recharged. The mountains of New Zealand, the Southern Alps, are legendary and have produced some of the world’s finest climbers, generation after generation. I could think of no better way to transition from the cold and dark of Antarctica to “civilization,” than to spend a week climbing.
The plan was to hop in a helicopter and fly into the heart of the mountains for five days of climbing. I was unable to convince any of my usual climbing friends to come down, so I hired a guide. This would afford me the opportunity to climb some really difficult routes, to push my technical limits. The Southern Alps are not tall, but they make up for it in difficulty. The mountains I usually climb are equal parts physical and mental challenge; tall, cold and remote. These would be a pure mental challenge, pushing my technique beyond my limits.
My guide built his reputation establishing one of the fiercest routes in Alaska in the early 1980s. It’s a route of such aesthetic quality and technical difficulty that it has seen few repeats and is, to this day, a feather in the cap of any elite alpinist. He also established some fine first ascents in New Zealand and the Alps. This was someone from whom I could learn a tremendous amount. Unfortunately, while he is no doubt an accomplished alpinist, he is also a bit of a burned out asshole. It would appear that his heyday, both of climbing and guiding, is long since passed.
We spent the first day in the climbing lodge because the helicopter couldn’t fly. It was too windy. The forecast for the week was entirely suspect. The second day, we were finally able to fly and split two helicopters with a group of 8 women and 2 guides headed to the same area for a week long ski tour. Their all-female ski tour was guided by the daughter of the owner of the guiding service, herself an accomplished skier and alpinist, and the first woman to summit Everest without oxygen. Despite the mighty resumes of the guides, the outlook of the trip -for me- was poor. Ideal ski conditions generally equate to lousy climbing conditions. The ladies of the ski tour would get a day of great skiing in and then spend the next few days hut bound. Had we not called the helicopter for a last minute flight out, I’d probably have been stuck at the hut for a few days longer than I had planned. The winds stayed atrocious and the snow continued. There was a fresh meter of snow at the front door to greet us the first morning, and it would continue unabated. The avalanche conditions were “Considerable,” which is a bit much to go play in. Getting up to fight your way to the outhouse in the howling wind and snow really teaches a person whether or not they really need to pee or not. The temps were in the -20s C. Inside the hut was probably around freezing. Everyone around me was bundled up in big puffy jackets and warm hats. I had on a fleece. Freezing is still pretty balmy at this point. I went into the mountains for climbing and got more of what I just left.
Prior to bailing, on the second morning, after having scouted the route after landing, my guide and I got up and climbed a steep snow gully. I was going to lead it, under his watchful eye. “Be careful when you place pro, the rock is absolute rubbish. Give it a tug, it might explode” was my guides advice before I set off. Great. A choss factory. But, it was by no means out of my comfort zone. This was to be a warm up for further, higher difficulties. I was being evaluated constantly so that he might choose an appropriately difficult climb for the next day.
Sadly, that was it.
As predicted, the sour forecast came to fruition. We had consistent 60-70mph winds with gusts much higher. I actually would have gone up in those conditions, but instead, we got out. We managed to catch a ride out of the mountains during the lone 90minute window that the pilot was willing to fly. And when old salty Kiwi helicopter pilot says, “awlright, it might be a tad bumpy” you know you’re in for a ride. “Just lemme know if you’re gonna throw up, eh” – awesome. Thankfully, we didn’t crash.
The weather chased me out of my church.
Once back in town, we opted to hit the local rock climbing crag. I hadn’t been on real rock in ages, although the Antarctic climbing wall helped me maintain a modicum of climbing shape. It felt great. The routes were disappointingly easy though. The sun was out, the temps were cool and the rock was dry. It felt good and comfortable, but not challenging. My toes, separated from the rock by an inch of climbing shoe rubber, felt strong and confident. However, the plan for the next day called for stepping it up a notch. We would climb multiple rope lengths up a more difficult route. I was excited.
Until I woke up the next morning to more snow and howling wind. But I just spent the last six months in snow and howling wind. It wasn’t that bad. So I made my guide get up off his duff and we went out to the same area as the day before. I climbed the same routes, only now I did them in gloves and clunky mountaineering boots. Gone were my svelte climbing shoes, the ½ inch between my toes and the rock replaced by inches of thick, dense rubber. I could feel hardly anything at all. I was terrified. But, I thought to myself, “I’m on top rope, it’s fine, suck it up.”
Being on top rope means you’re attached from above and can’t fall more than a short bit.
I looked around for my next hand hold. There was no rope at eye level. I looked down and saw it dangling between my legs. “Shit. I’m leading.” I had a massive brain fart and realized that I wasn’t, in fact, on top rope. I was leading the route, belayed from below instead of above, meaning that a fall would travel twice the distance to the last piece of protection, a good twenty feet.
Holding on to a small rock outcropping with my left hand, I bit the index finger of my right and pulled. The gloves were coming off. It was still snowing, but I had to be able to feel the rock. I wedged two fingers into a small crack in the rock and cranked on them. It was a secure position for the moment. I removed my left glove in a similar manner as I had the right. My gloves were now safely stuffed into my jacket pockets, useless to my fingers. My raw, exposed fingers felt around the rock for the next placement. Periodically, gusts of wind would blast my face with snow. My fingers were going numb. I had a decision to make: I could either put my gloves back on and lose a great deal of the necessary tactile sensations needed to make this route successful, or I could leave them off, let them go numb on the frozen rock and lose a great deal of the necessary tactile sensations to make this route successful.
I left them off.
Each foot placement was a precarious roll of the dice. Trying to balance on tiny, inch long pieces of rock in boots built thick and dense for the highest altitudes required every bit of concentration and trust. I had to trust that when I placed a foot somewhere, it would stay there. Slowly, slowly, slowly. I made my way up the wall. Every time I looked up, the final anchor seemed dangerously far away. Until it wasn’t. And I was snugly attached to those final two anchor bolts. I put my gloves back on and waited for the inevitable “screaming barfies.” The screaming barfies are a lovely sensation known well to all climbers. They happen when the blood comes back into just recently numb and frozen fingers. As the name would suggest, they are not pleasant. I belayed my guide up the same route. Once I had secured him to the same anchor, he inquired, “how ya going on that one, eh?” (translation from Kiwi: “how did that treat you?”)
“That’s what I needed.”
I had to get kicked out of my church to find what I needed. Apparently, I’m not happy unless I’m miserable.
The mountains really are a church.