February 3rd, 2014:
Yesterday was so great in part because we were so respectful to the mountain, climbed with the greatest commitment, and went with the simplest, most innocent intentions. We had no aspirations to pit ourselves against nature. We climbed the route to pay homage to the mountain. In order to do so we climbed in the purest style, like two boys climbing a tree together. We chatted as we went, stopping and going casually: we embraced the difficult sections with enthusiasm, growing more comfortable the higher we went. There was no ego, no pretense, no worries. We reveled and exulted in the brilliance of conditions, weather, and the view. Like Muir in his tree tops, we felt joy in our movement. Stripped down, as Twight says, we climbed like animals.
I picked Dasan up at the airport in Nikolai's little Kia at the end of January. He scratched me as he gave me a hug – an icetool already in his hand.
During the drive back to campus on the other side of Anchorage, Dasan told me his shoulder was healed up (after our end-of-semester antics 6 weeks earlier) and about his multiple ascents of Mount Hood by various routes in the last month. I told him about all the climbing I had done in the last month, mostly with Karina. We had been waterfall ice climbing, drytool cragging, and done a couple alpine routes.
This January had been unseasonably warm – to the point we were rock climbing on the highway one sunny afternoon. But a cold snap in the last week turned all the mushy snow in the mountains into hard neve, which makes for fast, secure climbing. Karina and I celebrated with an ascent of Ski Tracks on Ptarmigan Peak in the front range. We took about 12 hours car-to-car, faster than when I climbed it with Dasan and Nikolai in November, but still not impressive. Karina is a good rock climber – two grades above me most days – but she's also conservative, unwilling to climb unroped. I never climbed with her before an ankle -shattering accident the season before, but I think she's always had this mentality. This is fine, and I climb with a rope most of the time, but going without a rope on easy terrain is one of the fastest ways to gain altitude. While I enjoy climbing with Karina, I wanted to drop the hammer and wrap up my month of winter climbing with a really stylish, fast ascent.
Sitting at a red light, I told Dasan I had been up on Ski Tracks the day before and the conditions were perfect for a fast ascent. He looked at me and waited.
“I think we should solo it.”
A grin split his face and he told me he was glad to be back. We agreed to head out the following morning. Back on campus, I helped him haul his duffel and big pack into his room where he immediately began unpacking and throwing gear everywhere. We had both been on Ski Tracks twice now, so he probed for details on the conditions while hanging up his rack of cams and his rope. We agreed to go fast and light, taking minimal insurance against catastrophe. Neither of us wanted to climb with a pack, so we settled on the brains of our big packs worn around our waists to carry the water, candy bars and light puffy layer we would take.
Later, sitting in my room considering my clothing for the following day, my phone rang. It was Dasan wanting to discuss bringing a 50 meter half rope and a handful of nuts for emergencies, or to lead if conditions weren't as good as we thought, or maybe to explore a variation of the route. I started to agree, but then considered that carrying this extra gear would mean carrying real packs, harnesses, warmer layers for belaying. All of this would weight us down, slow us down, and complicate things. I wanted fast, light, and simple.
“We have to commit. Either commit to going naked, or bring a real rack and commit to pitched climbing. I was just there. Conditions are perfect. The weather is going to be great. I want to run up this mountain.”
After a moment of silence, Dasan agreed. We would climb the route we knew, quickly and with no margin for error.
The forecast called for sunny skies and a 20 degree high. I decided to wear my midweight tights and gaitors on my legs, with a grid fleece hoodie, and windshirt on top. I loaded my fanny pack with a liter of water, half a dozen candy bars, and a nano-puff style pullover. Enough to stay warm with constant movement on the shaded North face of Ptarmigan Peak, but not much more.
We left the trailhead parking lot in the dark, hiking by headlamp up the trail that leads to Ptarmigan Pass. We were at the base of the route in two hours flat – an approach that usually takes 3 hours. Dasan started up the dry rock of the first pitch while I put away my water bottle. I followed 10 feet behind him. I suppressed the butterflies in my stomach as I timidly began hooking my way up the 5.7 pitch, feeling more sure with every move. We passed over the thin ice traverse from the top of the rock onto a couple pitch's worth of exposed 50 degree snow slopes that lead up and right to the base of more technical climbing. While Dasan started up around the corner, I stood at the typical belay and fiddled with the tri-cam I had got stuck and abandoned a few days earlier. Once he gave a shout that he was clear of the awkward mixed chimney, I followed behind. This pitch ends at a large block with a few fixed anchor pieces, where the route traverses left along a snow ramp with incredible exposure to some 80 degree ice climbing that puts you at the base of the crux. Here we paused for a drink while inspecting the mellow-looking stretch of ice above. I had been caught off guard a few days before when I began to lead up this pitch and found it to be significantly steeper than it appeared, as well as too thin to take a 10cm screw in most places. The crux is only about 20 feet of climbing, but it commands your attention. I started up the ice first. While I placed my pick carefully into a hole I left a couple days before, I told Dasan that in fact it was slightly overhanging.
“No way, man.”
Once I cleared the bulge and gained the lower angle terrain above, I climbed a few more steps, stomped a bit of a platform, and tucked my hand in to a crack to wait while Dasan came up behind me. I heard his ice tools ticking and his crampons crunching. After a few minutes he came up over the bulge with his eyes wide.
“It's definitely overhanging!”
I just smiled and shrugged. The rest of the route flowed smoothly up a few pitches worth of 60 to 70 degree thin, secure snow and ice with a short step of near-vertical ice close to the top of the technical climbing. It ends at a large boulder where we sat to rest for a minute, put away a tool each, and continued up the last few hundred feet of snow to the summit.
We lounged on the summit for over an hour waiting for a couple of friends who had left the parking lot at the same time to gain the summit via a longer non-technical ridge route. Our route had taken two hours and ten minutes from the base to the summit – five hours faster than with Karina the other day and 11 hours faster than November. It was my first experience climbing such a big route in such committing style. It was a culmination of everything I had learned in climbing to that point, and it was a fine cap to the month of climbing that January. I hesitate to wax so poetic about my experience because it is a minor accomplishment compared to those of my climbing heroes like Steve House and Mark Twight – who have climbed nearly as naked on routes significantly longer and harder – but it was my first time achieving that level of simplicity and purity in my climbing.
A few months before we took 13 hours on the same route. We guessed the weather wrong and ended up climbing cold for much of it. I forgot my headlamp and climbed the last couple pitches by moonlight and the shadows of my partners' headlamps. We tangled the ropes so badly at the base of the last pitch that we untied and put them away in frustration, opting to solo and get off the route instead of spending another half an hour trying to sort them out. I was nervous and hesitant, feeling two thousand feet of exposure yawning below me in the dark. In November, Ski Tracks was the biggest route I had ever been on, as well as my first real alpine route. By the beginning of February, after another 50 or 60 days of winter climbing, Ski Tracks was like climbing my favorite tree in the backyard.