Adventures in Alpine Gumbyism
“What’d they say?” “They fired me.” I said.
“Really? Sorry man” Graham replied.
“Yeah” was all I could manage as a reply.
I sat back down at the computer and tried to focus on the assignment Graham had given me. For the last two weeks I’d been on leave from my full time, benefit providing, entry-level office job at a NW health insurer. I was put on leave after filing a complaint about my supervisor.
Things had always been tense there. I have a nasty habit of opening my mouth and speaking my truth when I feel like I’m being railroaded. But for the last month I’ve been taking a day off a week in order to start an internship, this had made things worse. When I called Graham to tell him that I’d been put on paid leave he suggested I start coming in everyday. We both assumed that I’d be back at my respectable job within a week tops. Then my HR representative called. The official reason for my was “bad attitude toward work duties”.
For the rest of day I continued with laying out and measuring pattern pieces, putting pieces and parts together, and cutting colored pieces of webbing. I was feeling scared and somewhat lost. What was I going to do? How was I going to afford my meds? How am I going to pay rent? I had given up the “security” of my a steady job for a chance to learn, to start my own company. I was conflicted. I could rant for hours about how much I hated my job. How awful the company was. How bad it made me feel about myself, but now I’m wondering if it really was all that bad. I’d been jobless for only a few hours, and I was already missing the false sense of security my job provided.
At the end of the day, we stood in the back of the shop, waiting for Matt to come back before we went cragging. Graham was exhausted and half sitting, half lying on the couch. I stood there with my head down contemplating my future. Graham looked up at me. ”Sorry you lost your job. But you were fucking miserable there. You were fucking miserable when I met you.” ”Yeah” I responded. Graham continued, “You need to go on unemployment and hit the road.” I nodded. ”I’m house sitting for the next week, after that.” I lacked the means and a partner for a real road trip, it would have to be a local fix.
Two weeks later I’d cashed out my meager 401k, filled a pack with gear and headed up to Seattle to meet my girlfriends family for the first time. After a bribe of gas money and dinner I had talked Signe into dropping me off in the Stuart Range in the Central Cascades. The plan was for her to drop me off and I would spend the next week climbing, then hope for a kind soul to give me a ride back to Seattle where I could catch the train home.
My original plan was to solo the West Ridge of Stuart, all reports had told me it was mostly 4th class “with a just a move of 5.4.” ”I can solo 5.4, this will be easy!” I thought to myself. But as our visit continued, I spent the moments before I went to sleep thumbing through the brown Becky. Flipping through the pages my ambition and unsubstantiated faith in my abilities grew. By the time we left Seattle my plans had swelled from one route, to a traverse of the Ingall’s group, then an enchainment of Colchuck, Stuart and Ingalls.
It bears mentioning at this point that my alpine experience consisted of two solo trips up the South Side of Mt. Hood. As if one could truly solo a route that has waiting line for the summit. My first trip up the South Side was a failure. The official line was “The conditions were bad”, but I think the fact that I had managed to fill a fifty-five-litter pack for a day trip probably had something to do with it. The thought that I may be a bit over my head with this Stuart trip hadn’t crossed my mind.
Before we had even arrived in Seattle my trip already had a mantra. ”Oh, shit I forgot….” was constantly coming out of my mouth. The list of things I’d forgotten included, a sleeping bag, sleeping pad, a long sleeved mid layer. Lastly an important item remembered at the last gas stop before I was dropped off, lighters for the stove. What I did manage to remember was: rock shoes, a full rack with double Camelots up to number 2, three books, five days of clothes and just enough food to get me through the next week. My solo kit also included 70 meters of 6 mm cord. This move was inspired by Steve House’s kit on his solo ascent of K7. I’m as good as Steve… Right?
As we got closer to Cle Elem, Washington the more silent I got. I could feel butterflies building in my stomach. The idea that I was bitting off more than I could chew was finally starting to surface in my mind. I now know that this is the feeling the precedes an epic.
It was getting late as we pulled on to Teenaway road and I was starting to feel bad, so I had Signe drop me off at the first camp site we came across. She nervously helps me set up my base camp, double and triple checks that I’ll be ok. With a kiss and a hug I assure her that I’ll be fine, that yes I will find a way home. With that she was off and I was alone.
Satisfied, I started boiling water for my dinner and started writing journal. The question then came up, “How far am I away from this thing anyway?” This was the first time I was looking at the map. I located my camp site, with two folds and some finger scanning later I found Mt. Stuart. ”Damn, that’s a long way” I whispered. I was too scared to actually measure it. ”No problem, it will be good for me. All this pack making buisness has made me soft. The hike will do me good.”
With the amount of crap I had, it would be impossible to pack it all into a single bag and hike to a closer spot. Before bed I packed my bag with one days worth of food, a partial rack, my rap cord, the entire brown guidebook, ice ax and crampons. I set my alarm and Headed off to bed.
The alarm goes off at four am and I hear (or was it imagined) rain on the tent fly and I fall back asleep. A few hours later I wake up to clear and sunny skies. I make breakfast and chase it with an espresso GU packet. My experiment in light and fast alpinism didn’t include real coffee. I shouldered my pack and headed down the trail.
A few hours and wrong turns later I’ve found my way to the mountain and someone giving up their bivy spot. Fortunately the ridge was socked in the next morning. I packed my gear and headed back down the trail. Telling my self that tomorrow will be easier because I know the way. When I return to base camp I dump some more cams, loose the crampons and repack for tomorrow. The next morning I head back down the trail with two days worth of food. In my head I complain about how far away I am from the mountain, which then turns into complaints about my complaints. After all a real alpinist wouldn’t complain about this approach. With all my complaining I miss the beauty of the area, the wildflowers along the trail and butterflies darting between my foot falls.
Arriving at a new bivy, the West Ridge is even worse than it was the day before. It’s early, so I decide on a nap. I was up a few hours later. The ridge is still socked in, but Ingalls peak is clear. Quickly, I jump out of my sleeping bag and throw some gear, water and GU into my day pack and rush off for the South Ridge.
Neverously, I start up the snow slopes leading up to the peak. In my haste I’ve forgotten my ice ax. I see two climbers descending with ice axes, boots and crampons. Its now abundantly clear how unprepared I am. It occurs to me that I should turn around. I look at them, look up the slopes and decide that I can punch and kick my way up (in approach shoes). I’ve come all this way and though I could wait till tomorrow, but I’m a bit too thick headed to let the thoughts of sane people enter my mind. I slip a few times, but manage to get up to the base of the wall.
Starting up what I think is the route I find crumbling green rock. The guidebook says the rock is solid, clearly I’m not on the right route. I set two stoppers and bail. I head up option two, I’m still not on route. I get freaked out and bail again. By now its five pm and clouds are starting to roll back in. Finally I make the decision to turn around head back.
I’m nervous about coming down the snow slopes. I find a rap station, but for reasons unknown to me this day, I skip it and decide to down climb. I’m trying desperately to plunge step with out pitching off. Then, my foot slips and I’m down the slopes. I claw desperately at the snow. ”Now where the hell is my ice ax? Back at the bivy!!!” I picture myself sliding all the way down to Ingall’s lake, breaking through the ice and drowning. Then I see a rock out cropping. My attempt to grab it is unsuccessful, but it does manage to change my direction. Close to 70 feet later I come to a stop when I crash into a talus field. I slam into a large boulder, and though I don’t know for sure, I’m confident that screamed the F-bomb, filling the silent valley with my voice.
It takes me about twenty minutes to catch my breath. My right leg hurts bad. I’ve got no choice but to get up and limp back across more talus and snow. I move slowly. My nerves are fried and I’m deathly afraid of slipping again. Then it happens, the wet snow lets loose and I’m off again. This fall is much shorter than the last one, but my method of stopping is the same. I slam into another talus field.
Over an hour later I limp into my bivy take off my wet shoes and sock and climb into my bivy sack and try to nap. Just as I’m about to fall asleep my right leg starts to spasm. I decide that I should suffer in my base camp instead of at this bivy. If I need it my chances of finding help will be higher if I’m out on the road. I pack my bag and start the limp back to camp.
When I hit the trailhead I take off my pack and rest for a bit. When I start back a man in a nearby VW bus asks me if I want a ride. I swallow my pride and get in. ”Where’s the rest of your party?” ”Its just me” ”Oh” him and his partner reply in unison. I relate my tale to them. ” You got lucky” the driver tells me. ”I know” is all I can reply with. We trade small talk until we get back to my site. They’re from Tacoma and agree to pick me up the next day and drop me off at the Amtrak station in Tacoma. ”Well, you’ve done 13 miles from your camp to the mountain.” ”Huh, well lesson learned.” I drop my pack, pull out my sleeping bag and head immediately pass out.
Back home I call Graham to see when he wants me to come back into the shop. I tell him about my adventure and how my trip was a failure.
“You think your trip was a failure?”
“Yeah, I didn’t get up anything.” I counter
“Are you alive?” He asks. “Yeah”
“Did you get some experience?” “Tons!” I reply.
“Ok, do you still have your hubris?” ”No!” I respond. His lesson finally sinking through my thick skull. “Sounds like a successful trip to me. I’ve got to go. See you Monday?” ”I’ll be there.”
“Okay, see you then”
I hang up the phone and toss it onto the desk. I lay down on my bed and smile. ”I’m going to like this alpine climbing thing” I think to myself and drift off for a nap.