Rites of Passage

“So far this is type three fun,” Matt comments.

The first two pitches have been miserable. The ice is fine, or at least good enough, but the wind and low temperatures are BRUTAL. Up to this point, I’m kicking myself for getting out of bed and passing up on sleeping in with my girlfriend, wasting the day. My bed is warm, I am not. My glasses are completely frozen over and stuffed uselessly in my chest pocket. My eyebrows are adorned with ice sculptures. I can barely open them. I’ve already had at least one bout of mid-pitch screaming barfies.

“There’s a warm, beautiful woman in my bed… why are we here?” I laughingly reply.

But the next pitch beckons. Half of it is even in the sun, at least if the clouds hold off. Sure, I’ve been thinking of retreating all morning, but the reality is, in my mind, there’s only one way off this thing, and that is UP!

I’ve got this…

I take off from the 2nd belay into the crux pitch of Fafnir, aiming for the thin pillar directly above us.

Rites of Passage

Article by Patrick Cooke
 

I’m psyched to be moving again. I can feel my hands finally. The pillar is straight forward. Place one tool, move feet up, repeat… but it narrows down higher up, petering out where it seeps out of a corner above. There’s barely enough to swing into – definitely not enough for two tools. I can place one foot on the pillar, the other stemmed off of the bubbly veneer of ice on the left wall. I consciously think at the time “it’s cool how you can use so little…”

Ice gives way to powder snow and tools tenuously hooked on god knows what… I’m committing to big moves on unknown hooks. The blocks to my left afford some cracks but look detached and questionable at best. I use them.

Oh fuck, oh fuck, oh fuck, oh fuck…

2 solid cams and I can breathe easy again.

*****

Every winter, we’re itching to get out and swing the tools. We go to the usual places, usually up high, to find those first dribbles of ice. But the truth of the matter is, early season climbing is serious. The gear is questionable, the conditions are questionable, and our readiness is questionable.

Despite all the reasons not to, we venture into the unknown looking for a fix. We’re anxious, itching to swing the tools again. We don’t want the security of the known… we want the outcome to be in doubt.

*****

The Saturday after Black Friday, 310 am: the alarm is going off. “Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuccccccckkkkkkkkkk”

I’m heading towards the Rockpile, hoping to beat anyone ambitious enough to camp out by the Harvard Cabin. I don’t want to be behind anyone. Overnight temperatures were around 0, and I don’t have a partner… I need to be able to pick the best line and not worry about falling ice or waiting around.

There’s a party in Pinkham already at 445, but they clearly aren’t ready to go yet. Another party comes in while I’m getting my boots on, but I doubt they’ll be keeping up with me, though I don’t want to push the pace too hard on the approach. No one else has signed in yet.  At 5am I’m on my way out the door.

Sunrise on the approach

First hints of daylight on the approach.

I break trail all the way into Huntington Ravine. The going is treacherous… several inches of powder coats everything. I can’t tell if I’m going to step on flat ground, a rock, a hole, a stream… I manage to find all of these.

Pinnacle looks pretty good. Not fat, but doable. 2/3 of the way up I can’t tell if the wind is blowing snow upwards or if there’s water shooting out of a hole. Pinnacle was my goal, but this is day one. I’m coming off of a separated shoulder. I’m alone. I don’t know if I’d be able to downclimb if I can’t get past the potential geyser. I start the miserable slogging traverse/descent over towards O’Dell’s which at least has more ice, and the potential for sunshine.

 I’m up, I’m moving… swinging the tools… kicking the feet. The right side is steeper, and the left is probably the safer bet. But the right side is in the sun, and I’m fucking cold. I head up.

Swing. Kick. Kick. Repeat. It’s the first day out this season for me, but it feels natural. I’ve climbed enough over the years that it doesn’t take long to feel like I never stopped last winter. Conditions are pretty good, but i release two big water dams on the way up – a sobering reminder that I’m alone, unroped, and a long way from safety.

Worth the effort

Just Reward. No photos from below… too cold!

*****

Moving right, away from my cams, I’m feeling better. The climbing isn’t hard, it’s just awkward. Another icy step marks the transition into the blocky upper section of the pitch. If the ice came all the way down, it would be straight forward. If the ice above the block was thicker, it would be easy. It doesn’t come all the way down. There’s not enough to swing away at. I place a piece below the step but I’m doubtful about how useful it will be. I’m in don’t fall terrain.

The climbing is a puzzle. Where can I hook my tools? What blocks are solid enough for me to yard on? What can I step on? How can I move my feet up, since I can’t just kick away at the smear of ice at waist height.

A couple of false starts, up and down, and I make my way onto the next blocky ledge. I’m committed now. I’m not down-climbing that move.

Oh fuck, oh fuck, oh fuck, oh fuck…

*****

Sunday after O’Dell’s… the alarm goes off at 545 and it feels like sleeping in. A text from Dave says he’s running late… an extra 30 minutes of sleeping… After 2 hours of sleep before my 310 wake up the day before, I feel like things are looking up!

We’re across 93 from Cannon, pulled over on the side of the road. The DOT snowplows are pissed at us. We’re scoping the Dike and Fafnir with binoculars, waffling on whether we want to head up. We see a party coming down from the base. We try to convince ourselves it will be worth it, but the ice in the Dike should be yellow, not the white of fresh snow.

“I’m more of an ideal conditions fan for Fafnir… you know, temperatures below freezing” Dave quips. We head to Crawford.

Standard Route is not in. But we climb it anyways. It’s in fat… fat water conditions. It’s almost like climbing ice, only without the pro. But it’s fun, and it beats sitting at home or slogging back up to Huntington or Tux.

*****

More gear and I’m breathing again. Climb up, move right, move past that damn jutting block and I’m on the ledge. Sounds easy. Looks easy…

Man these hooks suck. Did I just imagine they were really good when I followed this last year, or was there just more ice to play with?

Motherfucker! the block that seems like a great hook is totally detached and moves… my heart is somewhere in my throat. I commit to an awkward mantle onto a questionably secure block.

Oh fuck, oh fuck, oh fuck, oh fuck…

*****

We follow Standard with a romp up Shoestring, my go-to early season route.

At the harnessing-up point, it’s clear this isn’t going to be much of an ice climb. We climb sketchy steps of slush, mixed climbing on Webster’s finest-quality rock. A bowling ball size block falls out of the wall above Dave as he’s topping out one of the sketchier steps in the gully. It stops about 6 inches short of his head. We opt out of the right hand exits. They’ve clearly been done that day, but why play with fire at this point? We head straight up into the trees.

*****

The block held, and I’ve found some good gear. Now, work up under the roof, move right. Make it past the before-mentioned jutting block and I’m home free.

I get a tool hooked to the left of the block, but my right foot is where my left needs to be. I hook a tool right of the block. It’s hooked, but on what? I move it a bit and torque it between another block. It’s secure, but I’ll never be able to get it out. FUCK!

I manage to bash it out of it’s wedged position and hook it back on the tenuous placement it was in before. I let go of the left and grab the block to pull off of it with my hand. It feels secure, but as I move up I momentarily panic, letting out an audible whimper, and move back down to the security of my tools.

Oh fuck, oh fuck, oh fuck, oh fuck…

This is it. If I make the moves, I’m at the top…

I remove the better, left, tool, and hook it with the right. Swap hands, mantle with the right hand on what seems to be a somewhat flexing pile of blocks… I commit and make the move onto the ledge above.

Don't let the blue sky fool you... it was @#$%ing cold.  Also, it may look like a WI2 gully from this view, but it doesn't feel like one when you're on it!

Don’t let the blue sky fool you… it was @#$%ing cold.
Also, it may look like a WI2 gully from this view, but it doesn’t feel like one when you’re on it!

*****

“Man, that was sketchy on second!”

I’m a bit relieved to know that I was justified in thinking it was hard. It wasn’t physically difficult, but it was mentally taxing for sure.

Cannon has become my go-to crag for the early season. Often, when there isn’t much else in, there’s great climbing to be had. It’s the perfect early-season experience: Conditions wont be ideal, but there’ll be just enough there to make it work. There’s no room for wandering thoughts, it channels that total focus that only happens for me when the outcome is in doubt.

A week later, I’ve still got some frostnip in my fingertips, but I’m glad I dragged myself out of bed. Those “Oh fuck, oh fuck, oh fuck, oh fuck…” experiences are just a rite of passage each December.

2 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *