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By Wayne Trzyna.
After several rings, I heard the click and recorded statical greeting of Dave Sheldon's answering machine. Having been stuck at work until after 9:00pm, I didn't relish the 4:00am rising. While wind-gusts pounded the walls of my kitchen, I spoke into the receiver, "Dave, this is Wayne. Uh..., it's really windy out there. They're predicting big winds in the mountains. I don't know... I still want to go. Gimme a call if you're home before 11:00. Otherwise, I'll just see you in the morning." My message was about as clear as my resolve. I was caught between the futility of expecting Dave to wimp out, and the futility of attempting to climb in impossible conditions.
My thoughts the next morning were the usual alpine-waking Saturday-morning pathos: "Why do I do this? I need to get more rest. That damned wind! My tendonitus is flaring. I should be resting. This is going to be miserable. Gotta be careful today. One of these days, I'm gonna get hurt. Gotta be careful." And so on.
The wind seemed to have died some, and now that I was up and moving I didn't mind so much the inevitable reality of a hard day. In fact, I was sort of looking forward to it.
About the time I was ready, Dave showed up (late). We made a few last-minute adjustments to the rack.
"I've got these short 10cm screws."
"Good. We're gonna need 'em."
"You brought some knifeblades, right?"
"You got lots of long slings?"
"Yeah, I brought a bunch."
Unfortunately, I forgot my lunch.
Our goal this day was Necrophelia, on the north face of Thatchtop, a route with a reputation for being thin and sketchy even when it's "fat". The rumor-mill said it was thin, but Will Gadd and Helgi Christian had climbed it a couple weeks before. This of course, meant nothing with regard to my being able to climb it. Having watched Helgi climb, a mental comparison served only to remind me that maybe I didn't belong on this route today.
As we progressed up the road toward Glacier Gorge, it became more and more apparent that the winds were not as bad as predicted. I viewed this as a trap, a temporary lull. There was a good chance that the day would be one of lots of aerobic post-holing, and little climbing. At the trailhead, there was about six inches of new snow, and it was snowing fairly hard. Fortunately, we had someone's steps to follow as far as Loch Vale, but beyond that we were on our own, breaking trail through up to several feet of new snow.
Loch Lake was not sufficiently frozen to cross -- in fact I stepped through the ice at one point in the shallows -- adding considerable difficulty to the approach. The wind was becoming a factor now that we were above the trees, and our first big mental test came on the talus slope south of the lake. Wallowing among the big blocks in waste-deep snow, I struggled against the urge to make some lame comment like, "What do you think?" Weakness feeds on itself, and I felt if either of us expressed any negativity, that would be the beginning of the end." Instead, I uttered the most positive thing I could think of: "I picked a hell of a day to forget my lunch," I said, trying to keep a tone of good-humor in my voice.
Eventually, the thin improbable line of ice runnels over rock appeared through the blowing snow and mist. We'd made it to the base and I now lost all doubt that we were going to climb. After stomping out a belay ledge in the snow, intense physical activity ceased while we sorted the gear and put on crampons and the wind blew snow into every cranny of our clothing and packs. We realized for the first time how cold it actually was. These were full winter conditions.
"It looks thin."
"Yeah, ...it's definitely thinner than last time I did it."
Both Dave and I had done the route once before, Dave a couple years ago with Pete Tekeda, and I about fifteen years ago with Kazik Borkowski. Both our memories demanded caution and reverence today.
We decided to do the route as two pitches, setting a belay below the shelter of a roof about half-way up. Nervous with excitement now, I'd take the first and Dave the second. It wasn't until I'd tied in and slung my tools to my wrists that I realistically assessed the difficulty of the first few moves. The ice which in fatter years forms a pillar up to a roof was broken off right at the roof, about ten feet off the ground. There would be no opportunity for useful protection until this barrier had been surmounted. With some hesitant dry-tooling moves I worked up below the roof, reached out, and planted first one tool, then the other in the thin brittle ice above. Hauling my upper body out into a horizontal position, I shoulder-rolled and re-placed the right tool higher, hooking a questionable hole. I looked down at the snow below and wondered what sort of sharp talus blocks were lying just below the surface. If my tools popped I'd land flat on my back at best, on my head at worst. The next move would require sticking a tool up and right in an adjacent runnel, and it was clear I had the sequence wrong; I needed to have my left tool where my right was. But more importantly, I needed to think this whole thing over a bit. I worked my way back down, while at one point my feet blew out and I dangled from the roof by just a single tool, like an animate, twitching haul-sack. I wanted to tell Dave I wasn't up for it. I knew that if I did, he would jump in and take over, which on the one hand made it all the more tempting, and on the other, made me resolve to pull my share. Floundering in the snow I convinced myself there were no dangerous mystery-objects lurking below the surface, just an ice-block off to one side, so I gathered my wits, and gave it another shot, taking care about the sequence this time.
On the next attempt I pulled the roof, with my bungling feet found a stem between two stubbed-off danglers, and stood there gasping for breath. I got a semi-decent screw in a small ice-bulge, and looked up at what appeared to be a long easy, but thin and unprotectable ramp. I started up the ramp moving more and more slowly as my distance from the screw increased. My progress and consequent deceleration continued until I was barely moving at all, again facing a ground fall, this time of some thirty or forty feet. Procrastination found expression in seemingly aimless scraping at some loose snow and ice-debris, and I was really beginning to feel in over my head, when a perfect, fist sized crack emerged beneath the nervous raking of my tool. I slipped a large cam in, and for the first time since I'd left the ground, felt safe.
Two fingers of my right hand had frozen and at this secure new stance, I took time to thaw them. I looked down at Dave and knew he was freezing in his inactivity. "How you doing, Dave?" I shouted. "What?" "How you doing?" "I'm OK," he replied in a voice which gave the term "OK" no margin for comfort. When my fingers reached the point that I knew they wouldn't immediately refreeze, I moved on up to the base of the final vertical headwall before the belay. I got a 10cm screw in some rotten ice about two-thirds of it's length, and tied it off. It was the kind of piece that you know won't hold a fall, but you leave it in anyway since there is nothing to be gained by taking it out. I also got a rattly, nearly fully expanded cam in a wide crack. "Be ready!" I shouted, chuckling to myself at the silliness of my words. Be ready for what? To watch the gear pop out as I tumble? Dave's holding onto the rope was the least of my concerns. My command was really directed at the protection, but the protection had no ears and Dave did. Focusing my concentration, I scraped my way up the headwall, again loosing my feet in the shallow ice. But my tools held. Atop the headwall I finally got a good small cam in. Further up I tied off a small icicle, and then reached the belay.
As one would expect from a person forced to sit still and freeze for what must have been hours, Dave wasted no time in getting moving when I put him on belay. While hoisting over the initial roof, he dislodged a big block which punched a small hole in his face drawing considerable blood. But he ran quickly and solidly up the rest of the pitch.
Now it was Dave's turn on the sharp end. It was my turn to freeze. The apparent crux of the second pitch was a thin, narrow, vertical curtain right off the belay. We rigged a Screamer to the highest belay piece, the only potection Dave would get until he surmounted this obstacle. While Dave moved up, I cowered beneath the shelter of the roof, keeping a close eye on his crampon points above me. He moved through this section deliberately and at a good pace, but then took an interminably long time rigging protection up above. The belay was a less than comfortable semi-hanger, and I was freezing. I wondered what could be taking so long on this "easier" section, but wouldn't allow myself the indulgence of telling him to hurry up after he'd been so well-behaved as I crawled so slowly up the first pitch. I shivered stoicly, shuffled from foot to foot, whining to myself, and focused on the fact that eventually, he would reach the top and I'd be allowed to move again. A cycle of brief motion in the rope followed by long hesitation repeated over and over. After a good while, the rope movement became more progressive as Dave gained the easier final ramp, and I heard a faint, distant, long-awaited shout of "Off belay."
I had most of the gear out by the time the rope came tight, and I pulled up on shallow single swing placements with the new-found confidence of a top-rope. When I reached the place where Dave had hesitated, rigging protection for so long, I saw why. Above was thin ice dissipating into a smooth vertical rock slab, blocked by a roof. It looked utterly impossible and, disbelieving, I had to keep reminding myself that Dave had just climbed it. After dismantling Dave's careful web of protection, I worked my tools up and out around the roof to where the ice ran out, and balancing delicately over a shallow crampon placement, teetering with virtually no upper body support, swung my other foot up high over the roof planting it in a tiny patch of thin ice. The move turned out easier than it looked, meaning that while it looked impossible, it was barely tenable. Though not finished with the pitch, as soon as I was in earshot of Dave, I began lavishing praise on him. It was an impressive lead.
We wasted no time rigging the rappel, descending, packing up, and slogging back down through the powder and talus. We had spent 12 hours car-to-car climbing just two 80 foot pitches, and yet we both had the deep satisfaction of success. We agreed that the climb was much thinner and harder than the previous years we'd done it, and that it was a rude introduction to the season. Speaking for myself, the climb took every bit of determination I could muster and tapped every bit of knowledge and technical ability I've developed in thirty years of climbing rock and ice. I had no desire to get on the climb again in those conditions and neither did Dave. In other words, it was a profoundly satisfying day.
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