Raising the Proverbial Bar:
A Climber’s Tale
By Patrick Hodge
August 2015. Syke’s Sickle, RMNP.
Johnny and I packed the van and were on the road by 2:50 am. The moon didn’t show its face; it was a brilliant night sky, to say the least, with a prominent glow from the Milky Way parting our black backdrop. Just outside of Lyons a black bear bounded across the road. I was ecstatic, for it was my first sighting of a bear in Colorado and I took it as a good sign. Shortly after, an owl swooped in from shadow and paced the van just overhead. It seemed to approve our path into the wild. Then, nearly the instant we began our descent down into Estes Park, a shooting star appeared, disappearing into the silhouette of peaks as if to point the only way to Spearhead. I was certainly feeling good.
At 4:20 am we parked at the Glacier Gorge trailhead and were on the trail by 4:30. The air was crisp and energy was high. We held a solid pace as we watched the sun shoo away the dark. The first three miles seemed to just fly by, then we began to feel the altitude; and though our steps may have slowed our excitement only grew.
Her peak taunted us from over a mile away with our line of ascent clearly in sight. A quick hike across a high meadow followed by a strenuous scramble over scree and talus left us 30 feet from the base of the wall, standing before a snow field. With little hesitation, I took off my pack and began to rack up. We were diligent to distribute our weight evenly between the two of us, which also consisted of 12 energy gels, eight Larabars, some cold, pre-cooked bacon, and two liters of water. Then, with Johnny close at my heels, I began stomping a path up the icy slope. Once I gained access to the wall I abruptly threw a Supercam into the base of the first pitch to hang from while I put on climbing shoes. A few minor slips on the way up, caught by the plunging of my hands into the snow, had left them completely numb. Johnny quickly flattened down a small square to provide a solid stance for the first belay.
We wanted to end our first pitch at a sloping, grassy ledge, named Middle Earth, roughly 60 meters from the base. The approach took longer than expected, so I was a bit anxious to make up some time. I took a few deep breaths, chalked up my hands and started up. At 25 feet I placed my first piece of pro and then continued on. Around 50 feet, I clipped an old piton, and despite it potentially being decades old, I remained optimistic of its physical integrity. With my mind unalarmed, I picked up my speed. When I was roughly 10 feet past the piton my right foot suddenly popped off the wall, sending me bouncing down the slab. But the piton held. I may have been a bit too careless – and just like that, all expectation of a clean on-site fell away. I suffered only a few minor scrapes and some rope burn, so I quietly brushed off my ego and continued on.
Despite use of long slings the rope drag became quite severe, forcing me to set up belay towards the bottom of Middle Earth, verses 30 feet higher. Upon finishing the first pitch and joining me on the ledge, Johnny continued up and set up a belay before the 35 foot 5.7+ slab, runout traverse. Yet, after only a few moments of discussion we decided that the flake system above us appeared to be complete and a better alternative. Excited about avoiding the slab, Johnny began navigating his way up the face. He made steady progress for nearly 40 feet but then reached a substantial gap between him and the obvious line of the route. His options were to risk a monster whipper on loose flakes or down-climb back to the ledge. After a few attempts to regain the true route I could hear the mild panic in his voice as he questioned what he should do. I re-stated the two options and reminded him to keep breathing. He wasted little time in deciding to down-climb. His drained disposition became quite obvious; fear had met him up on the wall and the mental battle had left him feeling weak. He attempted to relinquish the lead to me but I assured him that he could certainly do it. After a brief moment of silence, he started out across the daunting slab. I watched his shoulders relax as he fell into a state of absolute focus. He found his breath and I watched him perform a delicate dance far beyond his last piece of pro. Tension grew in my own mind as I envisioned the pendulum that would ensue, if he were to slip, into the ledge below. But despite the howling gusts of wind Johnny remained calm. His tip-toes held true and as he clutched the “thank god” jug which marked the end of the traverse, he let out a heavy yell of relief. A smile beamed across his face as he ecstatically thanked me for pushing him. He plugged in a cam and started upwards.
Yet, after only ascending another 20-30 feet, he was back on loose rock. While recalling the scenario later, he mentioned a moment when his self-talk went from, “I can’t fall,” to, “I won’t fall.” He had attempted to place a cam behind a flake, and upon giving the cam a tug to insure it was properly positioned, the entire flake partially pried away from the wall. He knew that if he let himself panic, he’d fall, so he went somewhere else in his mind and became nothing but his breath. Tension finally subsided once he made his way to the top of a small ramp, right before the headwall, where he set up a belay for our fourth pitch.
Not one move was truly that difficult, but following the traverse was quite heady and just a mental mess of “what ifs”. By then it had become quite obvious how different and, in many ways, how much more committing alpine climbing was, relative to other forms of climbing. I’ll admit, I wasn’t entirely prepared for the risks involved, but that didn’t matter anymore. I found myself staring at the West side of Long’s Peak, wishing I could see The Diamond. I began imagining how much more serious The Diamond would be – I mean, that’s why we were even there, really. We chose this route to act as a baseline to check our current fitness and mental stamina. So were we ready for Long’s Peak? I was the more experienced climber and if we were to fall into some shit, I was expected to be the one to dig us out. I let these thoughts settle in the back of my mind and regained focus on what was happening right then and there, every hand placement and every foot – that’s what really mattered.
The fourth pitch was just a continuance of those loose flakes and sketchy runouts, but I tried to make quick work of it and Johnny followed suit. Then the rock quality slowly improved throughout the fifth pitch with the only noticeable crux being a short, 10-foot stint of awkward off-width. However, roughly 15 feet beyond the off-width, Johnny clipped a fixed nut only to realize he had passed the beginning of a traverse on flakes that set you up for the crux pitch – which the route was named after. He had me take up slack so that I could lower him back down to the traverse, which he sent quickly and set up an anchor. Despite thoughts of an awkward down-climb I had little concern as to how I was going to clean the pitch. Once I had made my way to the fixed nut a new strategy came into focus. The flakes I needed to get to were about 8 feet down and to my right, so I looked at Johnny and shouted, “I’m going to jump for it!” – and with no intention of waiting for a response I leapt into the air. I could hear Johnny fumble a few words while I was airborne, then cheer as I landed and grasped the edges safely. We both laughed and, for a moment, we felt anxiety drop for the first time in hours.
We ate chocolate-mocha energy gels (which actually made me feel nauseous) and re-hydrated. The rock quality of the next pitch looked quite fantastic, finally! I just wanted to focus my energy on the movement of climbing and not question the rock or my gear anymore. I expressed to Johnny that the mental game up to this point had been nothing but a mind-fuck. You must be prepared to basically free-solo some sections in order to make forward progress in stellar places like this. I began to understand the inherent boldness that often characterizes alpine routes, and the fortitude required to climb them.
The crux followed left-trending slab moves on bomber granite into a chimney made by the Sickle formation leaning away from the headwall. To gain the chimney, I worked my way through a series of underclings, and once in the chimney, I could finally stem the gap to plug my last piece of pro before pulling the lip via mantle to the top of the Sickle. I then followed an obvious flake to the top of a pillar, and though I knew I had gone too far, I set up belay. Johnny, after a mild struggle and a few grunts, came into view as he mantled. I told him that I had passed the true belay for the seventh and final pitch and to keep his eyes out for a bolt in the middle of the face. He wasn’t able to see the bolt but could make out a few face holds which seemed to mark the beginning of, yes, another traverse. He then proceeded to set up an anchor so that I could climb back down the flake in order to finish the last pitch. The final runout traverse went smoothly and with a sigh of relief I pulled the lip and stood atop the summit. Johnny took little time to follow the line and was soon celebrating with me. We drank the last of the water, ate a couple Larabars and began the 3rd/4th class scramble down the Southwest side. We collected the gear we had stashed at the base and immediately began our 6 ¼ mile hike out.
Though exhausted, we reached the parking lot just before dusk at around 8:45 pm, and began our drive home to Boulder. A thought resonated in my mind: what do I consider acceptable risk and does my capacity to perceive it fluctuate? I thought of all the stories I’ve heard through the years of challenges people faced and overcame, such as the story of Tommy Caldwell’s kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan. He mentioned being colder and hungrier than he thought he could mentally endure. Now, when coping with life on big-walls, nothing can compare. There is a common theme among these types of stories. If they were able to overcome their fear to accomplish the task amidst the ever changing environment, they’d experience an increase in their perceived abilities; the proverbial “bar” would be raised. That being said, I noticed that my own experience seemed to harden me. It offered proof that I may be capable of even greater accomplishments. Yet, when I think of what I overcame I’m reminded of the numerous times in which if I had failed, I would have gotten seriously injured. So, if I continue to push my limits, will that translate into taking greater risks? Is it worth it? I suppose these questions often leave me in a state of hesitation, which is where the very consequences of risk can come to fruition. A dangerous dilemma. I’m well aware of how to limit risk and climb safely, but the thrill of the unknown is one of the greatest temptations.
I came away from the experience feeling a more well-rounded climber, whose motivation and psych are ever-growing. Johnny, however, really took a step back to evaluate the “why” of climbing for him. We decided The Diamond wasn’t for us that year. I moved to California to see what Yosemite was all about, and Johnny moved back home to Costa Rica, to regain his sea legs and surf. But I know climbing is still alive in him, as he already has plans for Potrero Chico. Sometimes people just need to distance themselves from fear for a little while. I’ve done it, too. And when you come back, it’s game on.