The Story Goes On
This post is a follow up to the wild adventure on Sloan Peak Porter and I had a few weeks earlier. We climbed a new 1000 foot ice route, called “Superalpine”, before I fell, broke some bones in my face, and we bailed down the route.
Since I know what you’re wondering, I’ll start with the vitals: other than my face, my body is fully healed. I got surgery last week (fortunately before more surgeries get cancelled due to Covid-19). The doctor cut in through my mouth and planted some metal in my face to help make sure the bones heal properly. Interestingly, my face has hurt a bit more post surgery than post accident and I still cannot open my mouth very widely. But other than that, I’m getting back to normal, relatively unscathed, which I am grateful for.
I want to once again say thank you to all the people who have helped me out through the ordeal: both our families, Swedish Edmonds ER, Swedish ENT, Everett Mountain Rescue, and most importantly Porter.
It’s been a time of great change in my life – and the whole world – recently. I believe that change does not occur linearly. Every once in a while, we go through intense periods of external and internal stresses that force us to adapt. Growth, too, is non linear.
There are many nights where I still lay awake in bed with regret, frustrated with the decisions that I made. I feel guilty for scaring my family, putting Porter in a difficult spot, and just not finishing it when we were so close. It would have been so easy to do things differently: take the snow ramp out left, climb the right side of the flow, hell, just rest longer before committing. In my head, all of these alternatives lead to success and safety, but I know that’s not necessarily true. As humans, we are always tempted by the road not taken. But I’ve been slowly getting better at accepting what transpired and moving forward.
When people ask me what is the biggest lesson I learned from the accident, I jokingly, but truthfully, say “when alarms bells are going off in your head and you’re thinking maybe you shouldn’t keep going, don’t keep going.” I feel like people expect some grand metaphysical lesson, but this lesson is pretty simple. Nonetheless, the implications are a lot bigger than they initially seem.
When we met a few weeks later, Porter and I discussed how I was in a familiar spot: slightly sketchy climbing, a little tired, but so close to the finish! We get in those spots all the time as alpine climbers, on some loose, unprotectable runout low 5th slab or gully, just a short reach from safety. We learn to put our heads down, focus on the moves, and then it’s all over. We come to accept this mindset. Most of the time, we get away with it. This time I didn’t. It’s crazy to think that, had I not fallen, we probably would have shrugged and thought nothing of that spot, calling our safety during the climb a raving success. And herein lies the problem of safely learning in alpine climbing:
The alpine is a feedback-poor, possibly even feedback-negative, learning environment.
What I mean is that the results of our experiences are not indicative (and may even be opposite) of the quality of the decisions we made. We can make poor decisions over and over, get a way with it, and use that positive feedback to reinforce bad habits. This incident has made me intensely aware of past experiences where, in hindsight, I made poor decisions but got positive feedback: summits, beautiful views. As alpinists, we all must be aware of this trap and rely on the process and collective experience, not outcomes, to determine if we made truly good decisions. If nothing else, we should at least acknowledge this uncertainty.
As I think about it more and more, I also realize that fatigue, both mental and physical, played a larger role in my mistakes than I had initially thought. We were plowing up that route, simul climbing, swapping leads with little rest. We had been on the move since 2 am. A move that might have been trivial early in the day was challenging with muscles cramping. Additionally, the mental fatigue made me fall victim to the “just keep climbing and it’ll be over” trap. I was tired, and didn’t want to downclimb and go around or find an alternative. As much as I pride my mental and physical fitness, this was a wake-up call that my decision making can also degrade with fatigue and a stressful position. Crutches are okay as long as we are aware of them.
However, both before and after the fall, I am proud of how Porter and I handled ourselves. We had the climb under control, nailing the timing in the morning, route finding, and strategies. Really, it was going better than I ever could have imagined. Additionally, I think we handled the self-rescue well. Afterwards, one Everett Mountain Rescue individual called our self-rescue “heroic”, but I would just say it was following our training and staying calm. One of my friends commented that the fact our minds (even my substantially altered mind) went immediately to the threat of increased intracranial pressure is a testament to the effectiveness and necessity of a Wilderness First Responder training course. I couldn’t agree more.
Two weeks lateer, Porter went back with Tavish and finished the ice step where I fell, climbing a few hundred feet higher on the upper snowfields before turning around due to avalanche danger. They were able to confirm that, indeed, I fell on the literal last technical move of the route. I was 99% of the way there.
In a way, there is something almost theatrical – like a Shakespearean tragedy – about the fall. This was a climb I had dreamt of for years, a dream like no other. We were so close to a fairytale ending: two college-aged kids walk out into the wilderness and find a way up the greatest unclimbed winter face (that we know of) in the North Cascades? That’s the stuff out of books, not the life of an ordinary soul like me. The way the route just gave itself to us – it was like a script. I wanted so badly for that to story to be true. But in the end, I’ve come to realize that maybe this is an even better story.
Quite a few people have commented that our first ascent “doesn’t count” because we didn’t finish the route to the summit, or the point where it connects with another route. And honestly, I guess their point is valid. But also honestly, their comments really hurt. I’m not going to lie: I don’t have a thick skin and I do have an ego. Why did people have to nit pick when we finished 99% of technical climbing? What if the route just stopped where I fell? Why the hell do these people even care? Why can’t they just be excited for me and for the beautiful route we now have to share?
I don’t have answers to the above questions, but it did cause me to feel anxiety. Suddenly, I wanted to be back up there with Porter and Tavish to finish it off, even when I wasn’t ready. I felt like people were tearing me down. I felt like Ueli Steck and Annapurna, at the pinnacle of my career, my greatest accomplishment, mired in controversy.
Somewhere along the way I had an epiphany: none of this really matters. This wasn’t about first ascents, ice grades, or ice climbing really at all. This was about a dream – a dream so grand, so wicked, so inconceivable that it was laughable (and actually laughed at by people I told). It was the impossible climb and we were the ultimate underdogs. How the hell did two youngins think they could get up this face that had enticed, yet scared, and ultimately confuddled a generation of the best climbers in the Cascades? Because dreams have a way of elevating ourselves to heights we never previously thought possible. Dreams allow ordinary people to do extraordinary things.
The miracle wasn’t that Porter and I climbed the route. The miracle was that we even attempted it in the first place.
Pulling off the climb was surprisingly easy. Believing that it was possible took a certain naive, blissful faith in the mountains and ourselves.
Coincidentally, my sister shared a personality test with me recently. I had never taken one before. I got the personality type INFJ-T, or the “advocate”. It is a relatively rare combination of traits. In summary:
Advocates have an inborn sense of idealism and morality, but what sets them apart is that they are not idle dreamers. These individuals are capable of taking concrete steps to realize their goals and make a lasting positive impact.16personalities.com
These words hit home with me, and correlated with my experiences with Sloan. For me the mountains are the ultimate canvas for a non-idle, restless dreamer like me. We dream up something crazy, and then we go out and make that dream come true. Sometimes it’s a new high route or remote ski line. Other times it is a gnarly alpine face. But these dreams and the manifestation of them are what makes the mountains so special to me.
I was greatly surprised, and slightly offended, when one of my friends said after the climb that Sloan was a “stupid dream”. I guess that all mountain dreams are “stupid” in a way because they offer no real value to society and inherently involve risk. But they are also the most pure and meaningful of dreams, and there is something so human in that, something that even non climbers can understand, something that transcends sports, the arts, and history. I believe that there are really only two things worth taking risks for in life: dreams and love. I may only be 23, but I’ve now seen the dark side of both. That’s the price I pay for living the way I do.
Recently, I saw a post by a great Cascade alpinist from the 2000s on a climbing forum, deriding the new generation of “fast food” alpinists for lacking the toughness to explore and put up hard, new routes. “New” climbing has definitely fallen off here in the last decade. I understand the frustration he must feel, justified or not, like my generation is not appreciative of the hard work he put in by repeating his climbs or sending new ones. But it also underscored how I need to remember that I’m doing this for myself. Climbing is selfish, and that’s okay. If I expect some external reward or acknowledgement later on, then I’ll still be waiting when I die. Likely, our climb will slowly be forgotten like all the other great alpine ice routes from the 2000s (I made a list) and our names will fade into obscurity. But that doesn’t diminish the experience we had together.
Obviously, I made the smart decision to not join Porter and Tavish just two weeks after the fall, as it was just my hurt ego wanting to go. But I was feeling pretty good physically and I knew that the upcoming surgery would take me out for longer, so I wanted to do something. This was before it was socially unacceptable to recreate in the backcountry – in fact, nearly everyone was skiing and hiking that weekend, practicing “social distancing”. On Saturday, I went for a nice easy tour with my friend Cherlyn to Pineapple Pass. The Tooth appeared mystical in the passing fog and Cherlyn was enthralled. It was great to see someone appreciate such simple beauty when I sometimes find myself desensitized to the mountains around me.
The next day, I joined up with Jon and Sam, the “Baker Booter Boys”. We ventured out to the Shuksan zone, which was new for us. On the skintrack up the White Salmon Glacier, it was cold, calm, and dark. The mountains were big and felt threatening, like they were going to hurt me. But I brushed off the anxiety and kept moving. It got better when we entered the sun and got a view of Kulshan.
Above Hell’s Highway, we entered gale force winds with icy pellets pounding our faces. Wind chill was well below zero. I watched Jon crawling through the viscous winds and laughed – the mountains aren’t trying to hurt you, they don’t give a shit about you, they just are. And somewhere in the gnar, I begin to feel at peace – both with the immediate weather and the past. These mountains are my home, and this is where I belong.
Ultimately, we turned back at the base of the summit pyramid as we saw huge ice chunks flying in the wind (see Sam’s great trip report for more details). But none of us cared, because we were in the most beautiful place in the world, with great company, and we still were going to get to ski down! After all, who cares about summits and first ascents?
At the top of Winnie’s Slide, I had a moment to myself. As I gazed across to Baker, I felt a wave of emotions surge through me and tears flowed freely. Fear, frustration, guilt, regret, relief, gratitude. But most of all, I felt joy.
I don’t know when the next time I will go in the mountains will be. There is so much uncertainty in the world at this time with Covid-19. One certainty for me is that Sloan has changed me – I will never again be the same climber or the same person; I will be a better climber and a better person. Growth finally comes when we can learn to turn our curses into blessings. I will end with this quote, which has resonated with me:
Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness.
It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.Mary Oliver
To greater heights, to unforgettable sights.
The only way is up.