One Foot in Front of the Other
At the New Year, we like to look ahead at what the future might hold. But honestly, I am always looking forward. I am the type of person who dreams big and dreams long. Plans and opportunities for the future are what motivate me through training, rough days, and bad weather. Usually, this blog is a way of reflecting on past experiences, but this time I will use it to think about the future.
Over the past six years I have been playing in the mountains, I have come a long way. I didn’t grow up skiing, backpacking, or climbing. Each year, I have added new tools to my kit and progressed beyond my own expectations. I am at the point where I do not anticipate starting any radically new skills (although Anthony is really trying to convince me to try paragliding), so I am more focused on improving my existing skills and combining the domains.
Admittedly, I am addicted to the feeling of progress and evolution. I cannot be ordinary. I need to feel like I am improving and thus I have the motivation and focus to make constant improvements. My jazz director in college remarked how “anything can be fun as long as you are improving”. To people like us, a plateau is our greatest fear. There is always something to get better at. You can always go bigger. Part of me will never be satisfied with myself. I am not sure if this is a character flaw or positive trait, but it is who I am.
During the last year, I think reached an inflection point. With some of the things I am most passionate about, like fast and light climbing, making first ice ascents, and ski mountaineering, “going bigger” inevitably means “assuming more objective risk”. As a fast and light climber, what are we to do but solo harder terrain and cut more corners? As an alpine ice climber, do we not just seek bigger, more challenging faces? As a ski mountaineer, what else do we do but ski steeper, more exposed lines? When viewed from this perspective, there comes a point where progress and objective risk are inseparable. This is unsustainable.
There comes a point where progress and objective risk are inseparable.
During the fall ice season of 2019, I had an incredible string of climbs, from dinking around at Heliotrope all the way to Cosley Houston. It was a remarkable progression, and the fitting way to cap it would have been a first ascent of the West Face of Sloan Peak. At the time, it felt like I needed to go bigger, and so Porter and I went for it. The result could have been much better or much worse. If we had gotten the send and snuck out of harm’s way, I wonder if I would have been finally satiated or if I would have kept on needing to go bigger. Honestly, I am not totally sure. The need to “go bigger” was so inextricably woven into an honest drive for self improvement, an ego, and also a desperate attempt to lift myself out of depression. So many factors – some good and some bad. As much as I would like to say that I feel more stable and sure of myself today, all these factors are still in play and affect me. I am human, like everyone else.
During the spring, I focused on ski mountaineering. I took a huge step forward with a single day Isolation Traverse and completed my first real “steep ski descent” in the Kumquat Couloir. I have always thought of myself more as a runner who skis, but here I was, ticking off hard, rarely skied lines. I realized that technically and mentally, I have what it takes to ski steep descents. But even the best can make mistakes, and with skiing, you are always on the edge, partially out of control. Then Matt Bunker died skiing Liberty Ridge just a week after we ran together. He was a great skier, much better than me. But bigger lines inevitably mean a smaller margin of error. Is that really what I want? Will that truly make me feel satisfied? Where do I draw the line?
During the summer, I dialed things back. I did more trail running, scrambling, and relaxed backpacking. It felt really nice to “dial it back” and still have a good time. My running took a step forward and I was able to “go bigger”, although eventually that led to an overuse knee injury in the fall. Progress always has a cost. But what if we can redefine what progress means?
For single sport athletes, progress is simple: a rock climber wants to send harder grades, a runner wants to run faster or longer. But the simplicity of one dimensional objective progress has never appealed to me – that is why competitive running burned me out in high school. Running fast is not an end in itself to me, nor is sending hard grades. I wish it was that easy for me to feel satisfied.
At its core, alpine climbing is about first ascents. It is about achieving something that no one else has. Adventure taps into my soul, and what better adventure is there than to push to where no other human has? But to reach new, previously unattained heights comes with an inherent risk. I am not saying I am done with alpine climbing or other riskier activities, but I need to be more selective in my choices and objective. I cannot be dependent on bigger climbs to give me that feeling of progress. It is about how I frame progress: alpine climbing should be a reflection of my progression as a mountain athlete as a whole, not the definition of progress itself – “I accomplished X climb because I am a better climber now”, not “Sending X climb has made me a better climber”.
An uncreative alpine climber in search of progress might indefinitely seek bigger lines, taking more risks along the way. Fortunately, I am a creative individual. When simply mastering harder piano songs, becoming a technical machine, lost interest to me, I started writing my own music and found it much more fulfilling. And as I reach the limits of my body with running, I can find more creative routes that keep the sense of adventure fresh. It is still progress, but in a more sustainable way. Still, everything grows stale eventually. I can keep thinking of more high routes, but eventually I will not be improving upon my last route.
Some people create random goals to sustain themselves. The Bulgers (top 100 peaks in Washington) are a popular objective that keep peakbaggers busy for a lifetime. Jason Hummel is attempting to ski all glaciers in Washington. My friend Nick has a list of couloirs to keep him motivated and exploring. The Cascade High Route was that goal for me, but I could be finished with that goal in another few trips.
One direction many top athletes are heading is combining elite skills from multiple mountain sports. In Chamonix, they climb, ski, then paraglide steep lines. Mountain runners are increasingly scaling complex rock routes in running shoes. I am a “jack of all trades, master of none” so the combination of different mountain skills offers a great opportunity. I want to create more scramble/run linkups. I dream of epic ski traverses with multiple awesome descents linked together. All of this can be done in a way that does not increase risk significantly. There is much progress to be made when we look at an experience as the synergy of many great individual components. The objective itself becomes the strategic composition of multiple smaller objectives. That is artistry, alpine-style.
Some people might wonder why I cannot just go on nice hikes and appreciate the scenery. Sometimes I wonder too. But that experience, while enjoyable, will never give me the same fulfillment. The drive for progress is inherent to my character. It is in the values I was raised on. It drives me to work hard, focus, and improve. But it can also be dangerous in a wicked learning environment like the mountains. It is fire – one of the great gifts to mankind, but also a destructive force. Slowly, I am learning to better tame that fire.
For 2021, I have some short term goals: get back on an alpine ice route, more ski traverses in the spring, and maybe execute my full vision for the Glacier Peak High Route this summer. But these are individual goals and they are not really indicative of a clear, cohesive long term plan. I guess I am not really sure what that is and I am still trying to figure that out. While I lack an overarching vision, I do have a better awareness of what motivates me and how to channel that drive in a more sustainable manner. 2020 has taught me to become more patient with myself, with partners, and with the mountains. Monumental progress is the accumulation of incremental improvement.
Monumental progress is the accumulation of incremental improvement.
People might think that mountain sports are simple (get to the top, duh), but to me, they are inextricably complex and personal. There are so many meta layers to a mountain experience. There is what you do, how you do it, why you do it, and where it fits into a greater scheme. Sometimes we work backwards, from an individual mission to a great purpose. But all the while, we are moving forward, putting one foot in front of the other. I am not sure where I am going next, but I am sure of one thing: progress is unstoppable.
To greater heights, to unforgettable sights.
The only way is up.