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By Mark L. Moran © 1996
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After a horrid rainy January weekend, I sat down at my computer on Monday morning to work. There was email from Chris Dube saying Omega had appeared. He told me that it had already been climbed by John Bouchard and Joe Josephson. In my mind Omega is, perhaps, New England's definitive statement of technical and emotional difficulty. The route only forms once every 4 years or so and it is simultaneously exceedingly beautiful and extremely frightening. This year, the warm heavy rains of Saturday had soaked our beautiful deep snow pack sending the whole slushy mixture pouring down the cold steep granite walls of Cannon. The route had formed as a thin golden strand of ice in a matter of hours.
Chris knew that I was fit and that I was ready for the route. We both knew that Omega is a delicate ephemeral apparition that vanishes just as quickly as it appears. If I were going to climb Omega I would have to be on the route Tuesday at first light. Thus, the maddening mixture of adrenaline, obsession, fear, ambition, and lust had begun to uncontrollably pump through my heart and soul. I had no choice. I had to climb.
First, I imposed my desire on Jim Lacombe. Being a full-time single parent I begged him, could he, would he, Please, take my six year old son to school in the morning and perhaps pick him up from the baby sitters at 5:30 PM? Jim is a close friend. One of the few non-climbers I have ever met that seems to understand the madness. Jim would help me.
I called Chris. He had desperation in his voice. He too was gripped by the madness. He needed to go. After several frantic efforts to rein in his obligations it became clear that Chris simply could not climb on Tuesday. At the moment he called I was out of my office. He left a message on my phone. In saying he could not go, Chris sounded like he was talking about the death of someone he loved - perhaps he was. I felt his pain and my own. My heart sank. Tears were in my eyes. I nearly cried for both of us. Why was this so hard .....
I spent the morning frantically calling and sending out messages to everyone I knew that might be interested in doing the climb. I discovered that Jim Shimberg was already out on the route... Andy Tuthill could not go but he had seen Omega on Sunday and said that he had never seen so much ice.... In the best of circumstances, It is hard to find high performance partners. On such short notice in the middle of the week it seemed impossible. My list of possible partners was quickly becoming exhausted. I began prying at friends that I knew could operate jumars... Perhaps people could sense my desperation and were afraid of me? Everyone declined. In desperation I called Kurt Winkler. He was at the dentist. I left a message with his wife and continued my frantic efforts to find a way out.
Kurt Winkler is a Professional. He did the first ascent of Le Pomme'd Or in Quebec, as well as many other test pieces in New England and around the world. We had met 3 winters ago in the bitterly cold days of Feb. He was guiding one of his "students" on the Cannon big wall classic "One drop of Water." I was chasing demons out my closet by doing a rope solo of VMC Direct Direct. The two routes go straight up the middle of Cannon and are separated by only 100 m. Over the course of 3 days, we three would meet before dawn at Jay's diner in N. Woodstock, have breakfast, then hump up to our respective projects. I would shoot photos of Kurt and vice versa. After dark we would walk together down the scree talking of the days events and exchanging complimentary remarks. After three days, I had to return to work, Kurt remained and finished his route. I sent him dupe's of the photos. That was three winters ago. Now I was not sure that Kurt would remember who I was. But I was desperate. I needed help.
By 3 PM I was lost in deep despair. I simply could not function at work and was about to go home "sick" for the day. All I could do was sit and stare at my computer hoping Scott Porter would send me a message. The phone rang. I was sure it would be Tim Healy. A Washington bureaucrat. I had no appetite for that conversation. In a deadened voice I answered the phone. It was Kurt.
He had remembered our experiences of several years ago and was interested. Despite having been in New England for many many years, Kurt had never climbed Omega. Since we had never climbed together Kurt had no reason to think that I really knew what was involved much less that I was capable of doing the route. But Kurt knows the passion. He must have heard it my voice. He made a leap of faith. He would climb with me tomorrow. We would talk later that evening to consummate our plans. The world had changed in an instant. My office walls could not contain me. I told Jim Lacombe the climb was on. I rushed home to get my gear. As I drove, fear invaded my thoughts. My hands trembled on the steering wheel... This was really going to happen.
That evening I called Jim Shimberg. Jim is strong. The route had gone extremely well for them. He was so excited I could scarcely understand his description. Jim talked of thin steep ice that had deteriorated visibly over the course of the day. In 125 m of climbing, he had managed to get only one partially driven screw. After the first 50 m pitch, Jim had been forced to go 75 m (on a 50 m rope) to reach the trees. On the way he placed his only "screw." I was Scared. What I had I gotten myself into? Jim said he had talked w/ Kurt. Kurt had asked him many questions... Perhaps it was not too late. Perhaps I could get out of this? My fingers shook as I dialed Kurt's number.
Kurt's tone was cautious. Inquisitive. His doubts were many. What had I climbed lately? Who had I done them with? Could he climb the route..... He too had the twin demons of doubt and fear raging in his heart. But Kurt knows this space in his soul. And he knew how to deal with the demons.... I had called with the intention of backing out of the route. To my surprise, I found myself arguing for going to take a look for ourselves.... From a distance, I stood outside myself, listening to the conversation in amazement. I heard my voice speaking with authority, clarity, power, certainty.... Did I really have control over myself? Who was this person talking to Kurt? Kurt's questions turned to an analysis of what we had learned from Jim. Though it had not been reconfirmed yet, I knew Kurt had crossed his threshold. He would go. I knew I would go. We agreed to meet at 5:30 AM.
I called Tracy and told her what I was about to do. I told her what I had learned from Jim. I confessed my fear. We talked of our Love. Supportively, she commanded me, "Climb well.... " She was right, there simply was no other alternative. In unspoken conspiracy, we purposely said good night instead of good bye as we hung up the phone. I tucked my 6 year old son, Logan, into bed (where would his father be tomorrow?). I sorted my gear. Absolutely nothing that I did not need would go. I tossed my briefs out of the pile. I gently filed my axes and kissed them. The new blades were sharp against my lips. I sharpened my crampons. Holding my tools in hand, I prayed. I lay down to sleep. But could not..... Only God knew what tomorrow would bring. I did not.
At 2:30 AM I loaded my dog into the car and began the drive to Cannon. Something had happened as I lay in bed. I was calm as I drove into the darkness. I had no thoughts about the route. I simply drove. Nothing more. At 4 AM in the parking lot at the foot of Cannon I slept soundly. Waiting for Kurt. At 5:30 headlights lights shone through my frosted window. Time to go. I stepped out of the car and stretched. I shook hands with Kurt. Our clasp was that of steel against steel. That was all the introduction we needed and we immediately began to sort out a rack. We were both relaxed and easy conversation flowed between us. By 6 am we were walking energetically toward the hill. Above us, to the East, Mt. Lafayett's ridge line glowed in a cold early morning blue against the still black night overhead. No wind blew. The temperature was someplace just below freezing. We moved in casual deliberateness up the scree toward the south end of Cannon.
As darkness gave way to gray light, the upper pitchs came into view. It was steep. It looked hollow. Somehow that did not matter to either of us. I was there. Kurt was there. We would climb. We rounded the toe of the buttress that hides the notorious lower pitch. It was coated with a thin veneer of yellow ice. There would probably be no gear on the pitch. The upper half of the climb was festooned with tortured yellow mushrooms. In Kurt's words, Omega was the distillation of dark gothic madness. I turned to Kurt and told him I would do any or all of the leads. Kurt said he thought that would be the case. We had not surrendered to madness. There was no insanity to what we said or thought. This was what God had intended when he created the human race. As Kurt and I stood at the feet of Omega, I knew that we had become what we were made to be. My heart was at peace.
In an effort to avoid Jim Shimberg's experience, we divided the route into 4 short pitches. They would be the slab, the cave, the mushrooms, the exit. We flaked out the rope, checked each others harness. Then Kurt lifted himself free from the ground. He climbed. I belayed. No words were spoken. There was no need. Kurt climbed as water flows. The quite, gentle tapping of his axes and crampons against the hollow thin ice echoed off the walls of the small universe that surrounded us. In 45 min.'s he announced his arrival at the belay with a cry of joy. It was the falcon's expression of freedom and exhilaration. In 50 m of climbing his only piece of pro was a bandoleer wrapped around a small column 20 m off the ground. I followed. Moving slowly. I reveled in each placement of my feet and tools. Between long balanced reaches ice, sufficient for my picks, hid in small corners and lumps. It was a beautiful lead. I truly admired the artistry and clarity that Kurt had allowed me the privilege of witnessing.
At the belay we continued the relaxed banter of friends. The gear passed between us. And I followed the thin steep ice that lead toward the cave. I hardly realized that I had left the belay. I climbed as I breathe. In easy rhythm. In the cave I girthed a sling around the narrow column, discovered placement for a good screw to my right, then drove both tools to the shaft. All this was clipped together. The belay was solid and Kurt climbed. We savored each moment. Conditions were ideal. There was no stress. Leaving the belay, Kurt placed a small knife blade and z pin in a shallow flake in the upper right corner of the cave. I snapped photos as he pulled over the roof of the cave on the right. Everywhere in the eye of my camera I saw fragile golden mushrooms and hollow candled ice glued to the rock. 5 m above the lip he found purchase for two useless screws. At 30 m Kurt place 4 equalized screws in the hollow ice for a belay. My turn. I followed. Long reaches and careful feet allowed me to find excellent tool placements. It was an amazing pitch. By far the best I have done in the east. I climbed above the hanging belay to a nice no hands stance and, taking the remaining three screws, I promptly left for the top. The golden pathway of ice remained vertical and festooned with mushrooms and candles. I placed a bomber screw 5 m above the belay. I felt great. My tools found abundant ice. 20 m and 20 min.s later I was in the trees. It was 12:30 PM. Kurt removed the belay and climbed to the top.
The route had been shear joy. With the exception of the first pitch there were generally great tool placements and sufficient gear. We had climbed very well and as a result the route had been done safely. It was a true honor, as well as pleasure, to climb with Kurt. Though several friends and colleagues had called him on Monday evening seeking his partnership for Omega he remained faithful to his initial covenant with me. Kurt took a leap of faith in every sense of the word. Above all else, yesterday on Omega represents the quintessential exhibition of integrity and competence in the fullest meaning of those words. When I turn 80 years old and can do little more than sit in a rocking chair, I know I shall savor the flavor of Omega and the achievements of the human sprit that it now represents.
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