Often times I feel like I clumsily stumble my way through life just as I do my climbs. Sometimes the outcome can be lucky and I successfully reach my point of destination unscathed. Other times, it can be disastrous. Maybe disastrous is a bit harsh. After all, I am still alive.
Here is a potentially disastrous climbing moment that haunts me to this day. It has wrecked the blissful, naïve nature that I once had on climbs. That mindset used to grace me to the top! I was virtually fearless. Whatever fear I had within, I could easily snuff it out. I was getting good! Now, I have difficulty trusting gear, I have trouble trusting partners and worst of all I'm even having difficulty trusting myself.
My partner and I decided to take on a rather remote alpine route in Rocky Mountain National Park on Powell Peak called Snark. Little has been recorded about the route with the exception of some brief details listed on climbingboulder.com and Gillette's RMNP Guide. It was listed as a 5.6, grade III route. I thought, "This is right up my alley!"
We headed out on Saturday night and hiked in until we found the most amazing bivy site ever. It was located close to the base of Arrowhead Peak. Arrowhead and the surrounding peaks were illuminated by moonlight. The illuminations made the peaks look as if they were covered in snow. Stars filled the sky. The last sounds my partner and I heard before drifting off were the sounds of laughter. I was tucked nicely in my bivy sack while my partner, who I will now refer to as "A", was still trying to set up his Taj Mahal bivy. His efforts were making me laugh pretty hard. It was a perfect night. Surely that was a sign of wonderful things to come.
Dawn arrived and we discovered that we missed the first alarm. Thinking that we didn't have too much of an approach ahead of us, we decided to go for it anyway. We hiked in for 2+ hours, bushwhacking our way to tree line. It sucked. By the time we reached our route, we were tired.
“A” took P1, which turned out to be the most pleasant of the pitches we climbed that day. We both assessed that it was rated 5.7, not 5.6. No big deal. "It's alpine. It's supposed to feel harder." I took lead on P2. Once again, the pitch was not true to it's given grade. It entailed slippery, featureless slab climbing with minimal protection and a sketchy traverse at the top. We both agreed that the pitch was about 5.8+. I was moving slow. I did get the beloved "nice lead" comment from my partner when he topped out on it, which almost immediately elevated my spirits and helped me to push on. Funny how that works. My partner took P3. It was a wet, awkward off width mother fucker. By no means was this pitch 5.6 or anything close. Perhaps due to the loose nature of the rock and the wet holds it seemed much harder. When I topped out we looked at the sky and agreed it was time to go back down. We were moving slow, got a late start and the clouds were coming.
Depending on what type of climber you are, the moment you decide to bail can be a difficult moment in time. It's a bit of a paradox when the only way to be successful is by going down. At this moment, your goals have shifted from completing a route to just making it down without getting killed by lightning. It is especially difficult when you look up and you see what you believe to be the finest pitches of the climb ahead of you. In addition, we could also see the top. The rain had not started yet but we knew what we had to do. We headed down.
“A” set up a rappel using of a single nut. Yes, I said “a single nut”. This is not just any nut though. "It's my most bomber piece ever" he proclaimed. He asked if I felt comfortable bailing off of 1 piece. My intuition said, "FUCK NO FUCK NO FUCK NO!" I knew “A” had done this before and walked away safely but I felt there was too much at stake. We talked for a bit and made morbid conversation revolving around our deaths if the nut blew. It was uncomfortable humor, kind of like a nervous laugh during awkward conversation on a first date. He made jestful comments about his wife and family being happier without him because of his fat life insurance policy. Then he asked me if I wanted to go first. I said, "No, you go. After you die, I'll just hang out up here and wait for the vultures to get me." We both chuckled. “A” proceeded to get on rappel. He looked up and saw me shaking almost uncontrollably. After our eyes met I told him out right that “WE CAN NOT DO THIS!!!!” He came up making comments like, "If it will make you happy, we'll back it up". I almost felt like he was mocking me. We found a small rock buried on the ledge. We dug around the rock with our nut tools and placed a cordalette around it with a quick link attached. We attached the rope to the quick link. “A” then took off. I still felt very uneasy. Something seemed wrong about the direction of pull on that nut. Simultaneously as I was having that thought I watched the nut pop and my partner fall. I had no idea how far he had fallen. I saw that the slung rock held him up but it was moving. I immediately began setting up a backup and put him on that so he could come up. “A” worked his way back up the rope. His fall was about 30'. He messed up his hand from rope burn pretty bad. His back slammed up against the wall and he was in quite a bit of pain, not to mention stunned. He thought he was a gonner.
This is where I believe I checked out mentally for a few minutes. I say this because I don't remember how we got off of that pitch. “A” told me that we found a HUGE rock and made a truly solid rap station off of it. For the next few rappels after that I remember feeling like I was going to die. I'd lost my mind there for a bit but it came back. I remember the next rap. I didn't trust anything that we were rappelling off of. Safe or not, I couldn’t' get the image of my partner falling out of my mind. The sound of the rope flying to the backup and catching is a sound that I can hear vividly ringing in my ears even while I type this. As I lowered myself, I remember expecting my rope to snap moments before my fall to my death. I was a mess.
The hike out was almost as miserable as the hike in. We were in a downpour. With “A's” injured back, I carried out the gear and the rope. He got ahead of me a bit and I was glad. I needed to be alone. I was dealing with some major psychological demons. I had surrounded myself in gut wrenching guilt. Although still alive, I felt like a horrible failure. You see, I'm a mother of 2 boys. As a mother, I felt like it was inexcusable that I had put myself in that position where we were both so close to death. I played the "what if" game for several miles. What if we had not backed up the rappel? I envisioned myself attempting to solo up the last few pitches. I envisioned myself falling and lying there lifeless at the base of Powell beside my partner. I envisioned being stranded on the ledge, 600’ up, in a valley without another human in sight for days and days. I envisioned my children crying and hurting deeply because of their irresponsible mother leaving them because of her hobby, which she so selfishly enjoyed. I was clearly in self destruct mode and I wasn't even the one who fell. Did I even have the right to feel traumatized?
We finally made it back down to our packs that we stowed under some boulders along side of the streams flowing from Black Lake, across from Arrowhead. It was a moment of relief. I had plums in that pack of mine. I ate one and no fruit to this day has ever tasted so succulent. We drank water. I can't even recall if we spoke. We didn't have much time. We had to take a shuttle to get back to our vehicle. If we missed it, we'd be forced to walk another 3+ miles along a paved road. It may seem like no big deal but we had been hiking miles already, climbing about 600’ and had been through hell.
I took most of the gear and we start running. I remember feeling exhausted but also feeling like I did not want to disappoint my partner by falling behind. I kept up the pace and we jogged all the way back to the bus stop. I could write a book about the emotions I felt when we got on that bus and how fantastic the plastic covered bus seats felt pressed against my face as I lay face down in a pile of exhausted humility. Even the smell of exhaust was fine with me.
When faced with close calls, you never know how it will change you or if it will even change you at all until after it happens. My partner is a safer partner now. He doesn't seem to have been very affected by this but he's a man and I think some of his feelings are suppressed. They come out from time to time over some fine tequila. For me, it changed me as a climber. I saw just how dangerous this thing we do is. I lost something up there and it has caused me to digress a bit. Maybe I needed to but I’m not happy with my timidness on big climbs since then. In hindsight though, I realize just how much I adore alpine. It's a true test of what I'm made of. You have to be capable of using your God given traits to survive. Strength, both mentally and physically is a must when the shit hits the fan. I felt fear, physical pain, guilt, sadness, empathy and mortality all in one crushing blow because I climb. It made me feel alive. Since that day on Snark, I've gone back for more alpine life and I'll continue to keep climbing alpine until it is no longer possible.