August, 9, 2007: The 4:30am wake-up in Kent's basement does not usher in excitement. Arriving in Boulder at 10:30pm the night before after flying in from California where I had just moved into a new apartment has left me a little tired. As Ryan and I stirred however, the smell of strong coffee being made upstairs began to awaken our anticipation. We were going to climb Mt. Toll, in the Indian Peaks Wilderness, sitting at 12,998ft via the 5.6 North Ridge route. After a few cups of coffee and an egg sandwich we were off and were at the trailhead at 7:00am, just as we planned. For Ryan, this was just a warm-up, a reality check after having lived in Florida the whole summer. While this was also a warm-up for our planned trip to the Tetons, I having been out of commision from a herniated disc surgery, this climb held a slightly deeper meaning for me.
July 5, 2005: Hunter and I leave the parking lot headed towards Blue Lake. Our goal had been to climb the Petit Grepon in RMNP, but due to time constraints, we settled on this one day outing to climb the North Ridge of Mt. Toll. The cool air descending from the meadows above promised a beautiful day. We could see patches of snow lingering on the mountains that defined the valley leading to Blue Lake. Our pace was quick but relaxed and we reached Blue Lake in about two hours.
Except for the lack of snow, it was like living in the past. The air was crisp this morning and our pace got us to Blue Lake in two hours, exactly the same as it had been before. This time, the lake was not a sheet of ice, and the approach over the rocky moraine looked less promising than it had two years ago when it was covered in snow. Not be detered by dry conditions, we set up the moraine towards the North Ridge.
Our climb up the moraine, despite it being covered in snow and us being in approach shoes, went very smoothly. At one point we had to employ what I like to call "Scottish Mixed Climbing," or simply using our axes to ascend dirt and grass.
We reached the base of the North Ridge route and I set off leading. The information we had read said that the climbing was harder, with better rock, to the left, and easier, with worse rock, to the right. Seeking a happy medium, I started up a rightward sloping gully and came back left in a hand crack. I set up a belay on a small, sloping ledge below a steep headwall and brought Hunter up.
Having been here before, I took off on lead, essentially running our rope out until I felt we would need a belay. Past experience had shown that I wanted to go far to right of the ridge. So I traveresed up and right for about 150 feet before building a belay, bringing Ryan up behind me, and setting off again. So far, things looked better than my previous outing to Mt. Toll.
Hunter and I swapped leads and he headed off to the right, the direction of easier climbing. He traversed on medium edges and cracks about 30 feet to our right before placing a #6 Trango Flex Cam down into a crack so that if he were to fall, the stem would be bent over an edge. He then proceeded upwards for about 10-15 feet into a corner system. He was going for a reach so I fed him slack. He stood up, grabbed the hold, and began falling backwards.
A slippery traverse into a corner let me reach another large bench system. I traversed up, and still farther right on good holds and footing until I turned a corner around a large boulder. From here, there appeared an obvious ramp system that gave access to two chimneys with good gear placements. About a full pitch out, I decided to belay at the base of this ramp system and bring Ryan over.
The sound of Hunter hitting the sloping rock below his corner and the subsequent tumbling that insued made my two-piece belay on the ledge seem all the more exposed. I braced for impact. It came, but more for Hunter. He had fallen 25-30 feet, most of it rolling, and the tightening of the rope at the bottom had spun his right arm into the rock at whiplash speed. He hung, sideways and motionless for a few seconds before I could determine that he couldn't move his arm.
Ryan saw the chimneys and was chomping at the bit to lead. I gave him the rack and he took off. At the top of the ramp was a knee sized crack with a finger crack on an interior wall. I traverse onto the face brought Ryan to the base of the chimney. After a lot of trial and error, he dedied to take his pack off, shove it above him, climb above it, then pull it up, a move I would have to repeat reluctantly. He set up belay on a sunny ledge and brought me up. The ground above looked fun and mixed between 4th and 5th class. We decided to simulclimb.
Thankfully Hunter's down-placed cam held. After some coaching and talking, we managed to get Hunter back to the belay. We had twin-ropes, so I lowered him back to the base of the ridge, got him to untie, then rappelled down to him on a couple of stoppers. Hunter, an EMT, had wisely sat in the sun and already taken meds. I rigged a sling for his arm, which he said was feeling better, with his rain jacket and a sewn-runner. I put my pack inside his, carried both of our loads (glad we were going light) and stayed roped to Hunter as we descended the snow fields back to Blue Lake. We made it out without anymore hitches, later determining that Hunter has dislocated his elbow.
Ledge and chimney systems opened up above us in the low 5th class range. We kept simulclimbing, covering the ground quickly.
Suddenly the terrain eased into a low angle boulder field, and I could see the summit. I stayed ahead, partially because Ryan let me because he new that I wanted to get to the top. The summit was windless and hot. We took pictures and I ate the last of my food, elated at having gotten out from under the shadow of Mt. Toll.
The last statement about being in the shadow of Mt. Toll was not simply having not climbed the moutain before. July 2005 marked a turning point in my climbing life. I had been onsighting 5.10's. I had led a 5.9 with a 50 foot runout four months earlier. On Mt. Toll I witness my first serious fall where Hunter dislocated his elbow. Exactly a week later, back in Oklahoma, I slid down a slab onto a small ledge and rupture a ligament in my left ankle. My rock climbing suffered from that, but I tried to get back into it. In October of 2005, I fell on a cam about 10-15 feet off the ground only to have the bastard pull out. My belayer was kind enough to break my fall and neither of us were hurt, but my nerves were shot. I have yet to lead another 5.10 since then, and have had difficulties on 8's and 9's even following them. I met Ryan in the summer of 2006, and we began climbing regularly. We went to Washington State and had tremendous success that August (see the trip report Three for Three). Within a month of returning to Oklahoma to continue school and keep climbing, I developed a herniated disc that would keep me on low activity till I had surgery in May of 2007. I am not the climber I was two years ago, and even when I can climb at the same technical level, I still won't be. But that is how the sport evolves inside of you. Climbing Mt. Toll this August was a bit like coming full circle for me, a way to wipe the slate clean. Now I am in a new place, without a climbing partner, but the future ahead is no longer clouded by an image that brings thoughts of decline and failure, and that is a good place to be.
"No matter how big a guy might be, Nicky would take him on. You beat Nicky with fists, he comes back with a bat. You beat him with a knife, he comes back with a gun. And you beat him with a gun, you better kill him, because he’ll keep coming back and back until one of you is dead."