September 06, 2008

The Long, Last Walk on the Edge

By Dan England © 2008

I stared at the pool of vomit pooling on the dirt floor next to my tent and considered my future.

The caffeinated coffee drink went up quick and hard, through my throat, piercing the black like a comet and out, barely missing my boots and prompting my climbing partners to ask if I was all right from their tents.

I wasn't sure.

Usually puking would answer that question for you. It would mean the flu had kicked in, or maybe the egg salad had some bad mayonnaise, or maybe you'd downed one too many Southern Comforts and it was time for bed.

But I was at 11,000 feet, where I had spent the night after a long day of climbing, and so the answer wasn't entirely clear.

Maybe I was sick or had eaten something bad, but I didn't think so. The altitude was probably part of it. When it rises above 10,000 feet, messes with you. It sours your stomach and makes your head hurt.

Deep down, I think I knew the real reason, only I didn't want to admit it.

I was afraid.

Only it was more than that. I was scared, and maybe scared silly, to do what I was about to do.

I was about to strike out at 4 a.m. to meet up with a 65-year old astronomy professor from the University of Northern Colorado, and we were going to climb Little Bear, a gnarly 14,000-foot peak, and then traverse across its ridge to Blanca, another 14er deep in the Sangre de Cristo range.

Little Bear was bad enough. On the list of 54 14ers, a list I was chasing, it was considered one of the top two or three hardest. At least one died every few years on its slopes. The route featured the hourglass, a shiny, slick rock face, that led you to a couloir that captured every rock dislodged by climbers above you and funneled it down screaming toward your head. Its nickname? The bowling alley.

To avoid such obstacles, we would climb Little Bear through its northwest face, a route so steep it rivaled a skyscraper, and then we would make our way over the ridge, a mile-and-a-half long and thinner than a picnic table.

After almost 100 peaks, forty 14ers, and thousands of hours spent above 11,000 feet, it would be the toughest challenge I'd ever faced.

I took a deep breath, fought the urge to crawl back into my tent and climb the easier route up Blanca with my partners, and started cutting through the darkness with my head lamp.

• • •

I shivered in the cool morning, but otherwise the clear sky encouraged me as I made my way up the Lake Como road, searching for Dick's tent. I found him hunkered down in a sleeping bag. He grunted hello and we were off.

I met Dick while working a story on light pollution. I looked around his office while he was answering a boring question I regretted asking and saw him perched on top of a snowy peak.

"Oh, you climb?" I asked, cutting him off.

"There are two things I'm passionate about," Dick answered. "The stars and the mountains."

A few months later we climbed Capitol Peak, one of the other hardest 14ers in the state, and I wrote about it for the Greeley Tribune. It turned out Dick had climbed almost 1,000 peaks and was only the 130th person (at the time) to climb all of the 14ers in Colorado when he finished in 1970, before they became the fad they are now.

Dick was crusty and quiet, the kind of guy who didn't mind sitting in a room all night and looking at the sky, alone, through a telescope. In fact I think he preferred it. He was perfect, then, for climbing mountains, an activity that was, more than anything, about the internal struggle.

But he was about the only one I trusted to do the Little Bear ridge with me. When he found out I was interested, he called me that winter, and we agreed to climb it that July.

"I finally found someone crazy enough to do this," Dick told me as we walked up the road. "I've wanted to do this my whole life."

Little Bear loomed before us, daring us to climb it. We started to kick steps up the scree slopes.

• • •

Our first challenge hit us almost right away, just a half hour into the climb. A sheer, exposed rock face bridged the scree below and the scrambling above. Before I got a good look at it, I scooted up the side and sat on its top, waiting for Dick to follow. Dick paused, and then I got a good look at what I had just climbed. Oops.
One slip would have killed me. I was too cavalier at that moment. Later, my cockiness would almost kill me.

Dick brought a short rope along and grunted about needing a belay. Only I wasn't sure how to give him one. I wrapped the rope around my waist and held out the end.

"No, damn it, how is that going to help me? Put your feet on the end of the rock there and get yourself steady!"

I fumbled around for a good purchase while Dick continued to bark orders at me. My inexperience with technical gear was embarrassing me and pissing Dick off. I think he wondered if I was ready for a climb like this, even if we were already into it.

But Dick climbed the pitch, and as I looked up, I knew that little face would be the crux of the route for now. The scrambling was interesting, and you didn't want to loose your footing, but it was also fun, even as it got steeper. By the time the summit approached, we had forgotten all about our little spat, and we were climbing partners having a good day on the mountain.

I reached the summit and celebrated. The summit of Little Bear is always a relief for anyone chasing the 14ers. It's one big, very fat checkmark. And then I glanced over at what awaited us, and my mouth went dry.

"No fucking way," I whispered.

The ridge looked like the back of a stegosaurus. It was long and thin, yet it also had many long, technical towers about three times our size that we would have to climb over. And once we got on the ridge, there was no getting off. No wonder many climbers considered it the toughest ridge in all of Colorado.

I began having second thoughts. Something didn't feel right. But Dick told me to look around. The sky was a beautiful, clear blue, the kind that gives climbers wet dreams.
It was exactly the kind of day you have to have to attempt a ridge like this one. You might get a day like that one once every 15-20 attempts.

I could not let this opportunity go to waste.

Even if a part of me wanted to turn around.

• • •

Dick started up the first tower, essentially walking through the door and beginning the climb, with me close behind.

The ridge was airy, but it was solid and featured many good holds. It was beautiful rock, as perfect as a C-cup.

When people ask why I climb, why I would go through the pain, there are many reasons, but one of the best are for moments like that one, when you're in the groove and climbing good, solid rock with plenty of holds. It's like the rush at the poker table that keeps us playing through all the suckouts.

I was enjoying myself too much.

I jumped ever so slightly, off a ledge. The rock seemed to snicker at my foolish mistake as it squirted out from under me, yanking me off my feet and sending me tumbling like drying laundry.

My brain snapped into gear, searching for anything to grab, ignoring the granite that was tearing the skin off my palms. I had climbed enough to know not to panic when something happened. It's not the fall that kills you, it's the panic before it.

My leg banged against a small boulder, and I immediately hooked my right leg around it and then my left, and I screeched to a halt. I took a breath and glanced behind me. A 2,000-foot drop was a few feet from my head.

I looked up again and saw Dick's eyes bugging out and his mouth a perfect O. I thought that only happened to Bugs Bunny characters. I sat up, grabbed the rock and winced at the sting it brought to my hands. It wasn't bad though. The holes were quarter-sized but shallow.

I climbed back up the ridge and began to shake. Dick told me to take my time, to "my bearings," as he said. My bearings, at that moment, were scattered all over the rocks below.

I enjoyed the rest of the day, but it wasn't the same after that. I climbed the towers and scooted across stretches of the incredibly exposed ridge with trembling hands. I was on the edge internally as well, confident but also barely holding it together. Dick shared his water with me, as I sucked most of mine down after the close call.

Near the end, my jaw dropped.

"Oh, man, come on," I said.

A short section of rock bridged the end of the ridge to Blanca. It was probably the thinnest ledge I'd ever seen, with a sheer drop on both sides. This would feel like walking along the ledge of a skyscraper. There wasn't even enough room to crawl.

"Well, now or never," Dick said, though I could hear the fear in his voice.

We crossed the ridge a few feet from each other. I grabbed on to the sides and shuffled my way across. Halfway through, I felt a hold loosen in my grasp, and my heart stopped, but the hold held.

The summit of Blanca was only a couple hundred feet up, and when I reached it, I kissed the highest rock.

We snapped several shots, exchanged a few high-fives, and then it was time to go.
About a quarter of the way down, I stopped, got on my knees and vomited. I stared at the puddle and considered my future.

The adventure wasn't over. I would make it back to my tent by 10 p.m., in the pitch black, the same way I started. I would take a nap until midnight and wake up to a beautiful full moon, and I would pack up and hike out to its silver light and make it to my car by 5 a.m., 25 hours after I started the day. I would call Kate, who had worry tears in her voice when she answered the phone, and I would drive for five hours home, where I would sleep for an hour before I went to work.

When I think about this adventure, my greatest on my quest to climb all the fourteeners, I think about it all, even the two times I puked, both, probably, out of fear.

Three years later, I would finish the fourteeners (I'm number 1,153 on the list, Dick beat me by just a few). Jayden, my first child, would be born the same year I finished. On my last few trips, his picture rode in the front seat with me.

I left a part of me on Little Bear and its ridge that day besides the barf. It was a part of me I'll never get back.

It was my willingness to gamble everything.

I'll relish the times I lived with my very life hanging by an ankle. But Jayden, and two years later, a pair of twin girls, now make the stakes too high for anything but fond memories of the edge.

Dan England is a professional writer from Greeley, CO and a part-time mountain guide. He writes for Twins Magazine, the Greeley Tribune, Pokerworks and various other publications.

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