Friday, August 16, 2013

Le Hulk

I would like to preface this post by thanking my Mother and Father for being amazing.  So thank you Jamie and Susan, I love you!

  It was 9:45pm and the final light from the day had disappeared behind the jagged horizon of the high sierra. We had just reached the summit of the Incredible Hulk and I couldn't have cared less. It wasn't that I didn't care that I had summited my first alpine route; I've just read enough books about adventures into the vertical world to know that the summit is only half way.  We still had a nerve racking 4th to 5th class descent down the side of the mountain, unroped, for 200ft at which point we had to locate two shiny bolts on the side of a 1300ft mountain. We would then rappel 80ft and begin a knee shaking descent down seemingly endless loose rock and scree while basketball size boulders slide  down the very narrow and steep gully you must walk back to camp. Oh... and because of our "lets just chill and have fun" game plan, we will do all of this in the dark, for the first time.......

The Hulk
   The Incredible Hulk is a 1300ft white granite fin jutting out of the High Sierra's of California. The summit sits over 11,000ft in elevation. It was discovered by Dale Bard during a ski trip over two decades ago and has since become a destination for anyone attracted to hard and technical alpine free routes. Its easy to imagine Dale's excitement when he saw this beautiful peak for the first time, as one can't help but look up every ten steps for the last 2.5 miles of the arduous approach to gaze up at this mountain and all its majesty. It wasn't hard to pick a primary objective when I decided to move to California with all this great peak floating around in my imagination. All I needed was a partner.

   After 4 months of networking, which isn't easy when you live in a place cut off from the outside world,  and many many emails I finally found a partner on Mountain Project from Pennsylvania that was available and capable of climbing such an objective. Brian and I met up for several training climbs the week leading up to the Hulk. After doing several long routes at Lovers Leap together and some harder single pitch lines at Eagle Creek Canyon we decided that we should have no problem as a team and started packing for the Hulk. Its funny to look at in retrospect, but most of our "training sessions" were conducted after I got of work, in the dark.

   We decided our goal should remain rather moderate since this was only our 4th time climbing together, our first time in the alpine, his first big wall, and my first time climbing above 10,000ft. With all these factors in play we decided to do a classic line put up by Bard himself called the "Red Dihedral 5.10b". Red Dihedral is 12 pitches right up the middle of the wall. The climbing is relatively easy with only two of the twelve pitches rated 5.10 so we felt confident in our ability to climb the route. We both agreed we wanted to savor our first alpine experience so we decided on a 3 day attack of the Hulk versus the optional car to car method ( which would absolutely suck unless you are of the Peter Croft breed ). We would drive down Thursday night, do the 5 mile approach on Friday, climb on Saturday and then hike out victorious on Sunday.

The steep hike in.
   We woke up early Friday morning and acquired our backcountry passes from the local ranger station before setting off. The air was warm that day, the way it is in autumn as the sun is just about to set. The sky was a vibrant blue and the sun was big and bright as it hung high in the sky. As I stepped out of the car the wind kissed my skin ever so lightly and I could smell the pine trees as the gently swayed about. For a moment I flashed back to all those early Saturday morning races and triathlons; to that feeling that soon I would be pushed both physically and mentally. The Hulk would not only test my fingers, it would test my endurance, my decision making and my ability to control my own fear.

  When I pulled my pack on over my back it contained my rack,  a 70m rope, water, food and shelter for 3 days. I turned to Brian and said, "Steve House would hang his head in shame if he saw the size of this pack." We both laughed at our enormous packs and began the 5 mile approach to the base of the Hulk. By the end of the hike I had stripped down to my underwear and felt as if my shoulders were going to snap under the weight of my pack. The last 2.5 miles of the approach ascends several 1000 feet of granite talus fields and is exhaustingly slow moving under a baking Sun. Towards the end of the approach you don't even follow a trail as much as the path of least resistance. We arrived at the base around noon and set up camp. We certainly had time to climb a few short routes but opted to hydrate and watch other parties ascend our intended line as we reveled in the beauty of the High Sierra. To our dismay the route was a total shit show with parties stalled on almost every third pitch. We would watch and watch and watch but no one seemed to be moving up! My stomach sank at the thought of being stuck behind a slow party all day, dodging rock and fumbled gear. We vowed to wake up at 5:00a so we could get to the base of the route before the other parties.

   At 8:00a the next morning I rolled out of my tent to Brian making coffee. There was one party starting the 4th pitch of our route du jour with no other party behind them. Sweet! We could take our time and eat breakfast and give that party plenty of time to get ahead of us. I wasn't in any hurry to get into climbing shoes anyways since my feet were chilled to the bone. It had reached below freezing that night and my 40 degree bag just couldn't keep me warm enough. By the time I finally warmed up and got some coffee and a few cigarettes in me it was 9:45a and we were hiking up towards the base. Again, proving nothing comes easy in the alpine, we must first ascend a 45 degree slope of car sized boulders before we reached the base of our route. For the first time in my life I began to feel the effects of altitude. I was a little nauseous and short of breath but this was expected so I said nothing of it. Besides we were at the base and it was time to put our ideas into action.
At the base of the route.

   We free soloed the first pitch and a half before Brian set off into linking the next two pitches on lead. His lead would deliver us to the crux pitch of the route and my first lead of the day. I quickly followed Brian and cleaned the gear, anxious for the namesake pitch of the route. The 4th pitch is a beautiful red corner system split by a hand crack leading to an exposed 5.10 bulge crux. As I racked Brian asked me if I wanted to take some extra gear but as I looked at the bomber hand crack I decided that I didn't really need more than a single rack as.
   At 80 feet off the belay I realized that I had underestimated the difficulty of climbing 10a at altitude, with a pack on... and I had underestimated the length of the 120 foot pitch and how much gear it would take.  I looked down at my harness, out of breath, and realized I had two cams and a sling. "FUCK!", I still had 40+ feet to go, including the crux. I reassured myself I hadn't fallen on a 5.10 in 7 years but my feet were popping off unexpectedly left and right and that made me nervous about running it out. I was struggling to climb in good style and I was well aware of it.

   Stemming below the crux on burning legs and sweaty jams I had a choice to make: a) protect the crux and have one piece of gear for the anchor or b) run it out and face a potential 50 foot fall but have at least two potential cams for an anchor. I began to panic a little. I thought to myself  "You really fucked it up Eric. Why didn't you take the stoppers and extra cams?!!" Then I had a moment of clarity and thought ," SHARP END, GERMANS, KNOTS!!!" I could tie a knot and use it as pro! I had no choice, I reached for my sling and with one hand and my teeth I tied a surprisingly decent barrel knot. I shoved my knot into the smallest constriction I could find and began to stab it with my nut tool to set it even deeper. ( This isn't crazy. There are entire eastern European climbing communities that climb bold lines solely protected by knots. Ok its a little crazy)
Top of Pitch 4

   Semi positive that my knot would hold a fall I fired into the crux. A few exposed face moves and I was back on easy but unstable terrain. I was climbing over loose rock that if knocked off would spell an immediate end for my belayer below. I slung a horn with my prussik cord for one last piece of "protection" before carefully arriving at the belay ledge, only to find a gift from the climbing gods. Someone had left behind a brand new X4 leaving me enough pro for a 3 point anchor. I set the anchor and popped my approach shoes on and lit a cigarette. Brian followed quickly and informed me that he nearly knocked himself off the wall trying to get my knot out. I smiled, knowing somewhere, I made an old german climber proud.

   After my brief moment of reflection on my sloppy climbing I got my head together and relaxed into a more graceful rhythm. Brian linked pitches 5 and 6 as the sun began to peak around the corner. This was a welcome change to the cold shade and warmed my body as well as my spirits. I absolutely hate being cold in a hanging belay. I quickly followed Brian's lead, trying to climb as fast as I possibly could. I arrived at the belay out of breath and jumped into my next lead of the day and our final hard pitch. I linked the easy pitch 7 into the 5.10 finger/hand crack of the 8th pitch. Unlike the last crux pitch, which left you tucked into a corner, this pitch left you completely exposed with, at times, only a few fingers and the tips of your toes in the crack. I love finger cracks and as I jammed my fingers into the thin granite crack I was overcome with joy as I looked below to see nothing but 1000 feet of air and the Sierras jagged peaks fading into the horizon. I felt free, moving with the rock rather than fighting against it.
Top of the stellar 5.10 splitter pitch with camp far in the distance below.

  After a few quick easy pitches we arrived at the false summit with only two dirty and awkward chimney pitches to the true summit. As we made the exposed 3rd class traverse across the ridge line to the base of our final two pitches the sun dropped behind the horizon. It was clear now, we had misjudged our speed and as a consequence we would be finishing this route in the black of night.
An hour later I followed Brian up the final 5.6 chimney and emerged to join him on the summit. We quietly celebrated with food and suckers saved for this moment. It was clear to both of us that our night had only started.

  As I sat in the dark and rested on the summit I stared up at the clearly visible band of the Milky Way, some surprising thoughts came to my mind. I began to think of my family and how I hoped they didn't think this life I lead is me trying to run away from them. I hope they understand that I love them and miss them daily but I also have to know what's around the next corner and experience life for myself. I began to think of my high school cross country team and how I missed running through golf courses late at night with them. I thought of all the relationships that had fallen apart because of my addiction to climbing. I thought of the future and realized I still had no idea where it would take me. I thought of myself as an old man, alone and broken down. I thought of myself with a son and a wife and a house in the mountains. I reflected on the good sends of that year and the projects back home that I couldn't wait to get back to.  I thought of this last year of my life: getting laid off from my dream job, living out of my car in a cold and rainy Brevard, the warmth of my parents home and now my time in California catering to the rich. And finally I thought of the Hulk and that it didn't feel as hard as Whitesides. Then it was time to start moving again and all this vanished as quickly as it had arisen. As always, climbing keeps my mind in the here and now.

   So there we were, wondering around the top of a mountain at over 11,000 feet in the pitch dark. After several minutes of debate I decided to tie in to the rope and start wandering down the 4th class terrain in search of anchors. If I found them I would yell up to Brian and he would follow my rope line down. The rope would serve to stop a catastrophic fall but in reality with no pro for over 210 feet of rope I knew that it would merely make it easy for search and rescue to find my body the next day in the event that I fall. I tied my knot and looked at Brian and quoted a scene in Fight Club, stating" I feel like a monkey ready to be fired into space...." then began my descent into the abyss. For an hour I wondered and scrambled around this massive mountain looking for two tiny bolts. Finally, just when I was getting ready to give up and nearly out of rope I spotted our glorious anchors. Had I not found the anchors we would have been forced to spend the night on the summit, exposed with no shelter and little water.
The last of the light fading into the Sawtooth Range.

   After our quick 80 foot rappel to the gully had finally got off the mountain, but we still had a very long way to go. To our left was the North Gully, certain death at night. It looked like death's winter retreat, covered in rock and black ice. Then there was the South Gully which descended down steep, lose rock so technical it still makes my knees hurt when I think back on it. For the next two hours we slid and stumbled down unstable terrain, the falling rocks echoing off the high walls that surrounded us on all sides. The sense of space and size around us made it seem as if we were walking at the base of Olympus Mans herself. By the time we reached camp I had gone through all of my reserves after being on point for over 10 hours. But as is true with the alpine, you are never really finished.

    We still had to go filter water as we were both severely dehydrated and still needed to eat dinner. After another half mile hike and an hour of cooking and lounging we finally passed out at 3:00a. I woke the next morning to a scorching sun and chapped lips. We watched people climb for a few hours through binoculars, ate lunch then contently packed our heavy bags onto our sore bodies. Only 5 miles of knee aching hiking and we would actually be DONE!
Chilling in my La Sportiva Vertical K's, Superlight & Sticky!

    I'd like to tell you that over the next few days after the trip I experienced a fantastic high and achieved a new level of enlightenment but thats just not the case. I was proud of my accomplishment but as I get older as a person and as a climber I've learned to stop projecting these ideals onto my objectives. No one climb will ever satisfy the thirst I have. No one climb will ever be transcendental. Some will be better than others but in the end they are just routes and there will always be something harder or scarier to climb. I know as long as I'm smart and lucky I'll be doing this for a long time and because there is no finish line in this sport, there in turn is no reason to be in a rush. I try to just take it one day at a time, one breath at a time. In the end I simply hope to take joy in the compilation of it all, the way one body of work flows into the next.

 The Blue Water 9.1 Icon. The perfect rope for all things vertical!

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Singleguy Update

   We often plan for things to happen a particular way. We make schedules for and have dreams about the way we want it all to work out. As we all well know the human experience functions on an entirely different premise. There are truly to many variables for any plan to ever go accordingly. The essence of our existence is based upon the practice of adaptation. If nothing else, our most impressive trait as a species is our ability to adapt and over come the ever flowing stream of orchestrated chaos that governs our lives.
   For the last 6 months I have existed on a fringe that I feel most civilized citizens of this country can not understand. All in good sport I might add. I chose this path, blame it on my love for Russian philosophers I guess, because I have found that throughout my life my greatest moments have come after long periods of suffering.
   My idea was noble in theory. I would ask myself the hard questions about my character and what my future should be during the long night hours by a lonely campfire for one. I would climb day upon day upon day upon day on hard and bold North Carolina lines. Life would be simple and stoic. Hot showers and warm beds would be luxuries.  My entire existence would be summed up in the acts of eating, sleeping and climbing.
   For three months I couch surfed, camped and crashed my way around my network in Brevard. If it wasn't raining, I was climbing. If it was raining my mind was on the weather and when it would break. The majority of my time was spent in preparation for and execution of a classic North Carolina king line known as "Pawing the Void".  It is a nine bolt 5.12b/c face climb that spans 80ft up a seemingly blank wall. To avoid being too dramatic and alluding to acts of valor and Spartan dedication, I will simply say I was in love. While the actual red-point only took 8 attempts, the process was, in my eyes, a long arduous journey to a sense of self realization that I was so close but yet so far from. I knew from the beginning that the version of myself that would stand atop Pawing The Void had not yet arrived. That he would be delayed and sometimes halted, humbled and damn near broken. Like all my favorite lines, this one was not just a feature to be climbed but an allegory to be understood.
    Pawing the Void will forever be my most proud ascent. For 80 ft of steep and delicate granite climbing one has to be absolutely calm, composed and engaged. One rushed motion, one moment of haste or panic and you're taking a whip and starting all over. If you are in the least bit forceful and inpatient then you wont make it to the third bolt, 40 ft off the ground. There is no rest, no place to gain composure or settle one's mind. From the moment you leave the ground this route demands your full attention for 20 plus minutes. To add to this technical difficulty, my patience and mental fortitude were tested exponentially more by my environment than the route itself. Rain, snow, and ice were constant saboteurs in my quest for perfection only to be multiplied by the obstacle of finding a climbing partner when you have everyday off. Most people, normal people, work. The entire experience was truly magical. It went in the same fashion all great lines go in, transcendental beauty. It was one of the top 10 most enlightening days of my life. To see something go from impossible to possible is always the most rewarding moment in climbing.
      The weeks after this triumph I went into a mild state of depression. That is the burden of passion. It asks everything of you. My great project was over and once again my life was relatively meaningless. And as it often does in this life I lead, my mind went deep down the rabbit hole. See in a "normal life" we have foundation, consistency, and capital. My life revolved around climbing rock faces and when that wasn't being done there was a massive hole in one's daily algorithm. Couple this with the crash from operating on all cylinders, plus some, for days on end culminating in extreme highs and you get a crash that is nothing short of titanic. My 3 month "walk about" had cracked the armor and I was beginning to bleed.
   After 3 months of being homeless, cold, hungry and averaging a bank account balance of $100.00 I was damn near, if not far past broken. As any good climber does when his composure has long vanished, panic rattles the chambers of his mind and his heart knows nothing but the worst kind of fear, I started moving and moving fast! Within a few weeks I made a decision to accept an opportunity that would forever change my life. I landed a revolving seasonal job at Stanford Sierra Conference Center in South Lake Tahoe, California as the assistant dining room manager. At the time being I do not know the words I would use to describe how deeply content I am with my current forecast so I'm not going to try. My roommate and I have agreed that we have one the Vagabond lottery
    On April 2nd I packed my car with all that I owned and drove 3,551 miles across this beautiful country. I stopped briefly to enjoy the monastery that is the Moab desert before arriving in my new home in South Lake Tahoe. After 2 days of staring at Cathedral Ridge, the ominous mountain that looms behind my house, I decided to have a go at it just before a big snow storm hit, later dumping 4 feet of snow. Alpinism is something I've always respected but never pursued. I don't like the cold, I don't like avalanches, but I do like to suffer. So on a Saturday after work I ran to my apartment and packed the bare essentials I assumed I needed. I put on my hiking boots, synthetic pants, soft shell and hard shell. I duct taped my pants to my boots to, in theory, keep the snow out. I made some matte and walked 300 meters from my porch and started going up my imaginary line to the steep left chute.
    The first 400 meters felt as if I were crossing the rive Styx. I had to brake trail through head high bushes covered in snow on 30 degree slopes. It was as if I were swimming up stream, all the while getting poked in the eye by branches and snowed on. Finally I broke through what I now call the demon bushes and looked up at a steep rock chimney covered in ice. I climbed 30 feet up this icy bastard until my "No" alarm went off inside my head. This particular alarm is the only one I never ignore. It's the alarm in my subconscious that tells me that if I proceed with my current plan of ill advised action that I will most likely....die. So I down climbed and traversed to a large scree field that would deliver me to the base of my glorious gully.
    After 30 minutes of tiptoeing up ever shifting rock fields I made it to the first snow field. For the next 900 ft I kicked steps up an ever increasingly steep and narrow chute. 200 meters from the top a storm popped of the top of my now not so little mountain. I had a moment of clarity looking 1200 ft back down the steep snow to my warmly lit home on the lake. It was dumping snow and I was 2 hours from my aforementioned home. I was so close to my goal, 10 minutes of step kicking away max but it was getting dark and I had no idea where the walk off summit trail was. I thought it best if I called my friends and AMGA rock guides and asked them what the signs of AVI conditions are.
    I quickly learned that I was the current poster child for an avalanche victim. I hung up the phone and asked myself one question, "Up or Down?". As I thought about this question I took a look around.... I looked to my summit and I looked back down to home. Home was very very far away and invisible behind the wall of snow that was falling down on this "little" mountain. I realized that my awesome end of the day work out had quickly become a really fucking serious situation. I began to bound down the snow slope as fast I as I could, occasionally sinking waste deep into the snow, headed for tea and a sauna.
    Long story short I made it home with sore knees, numb digits and soaked clothing and stumbled the last 500 yards down steep and woven "devil bushes". But since my employer provides me with a full kitchen and spa I recovered very quickly and was instantly proud of my chosen line as I drank beer with my 40 co workers, in a sauna. When I woke up the next morning the gravity of my choice to solo an improvised line up an unfamiliar mountain in terrain I had never seen before dawned on me. I was proud of myself and nothing less. I went into the unknown and made all the right calls while still putting everything on the line.
    It was on the windy, dark and cold descent that I realized that my "walk about" had just started. That all the trials before this were just in preparation for what I think my be my finest hour. I am 3 hours from the Valley, the High Sierras are at my finger tips, and there is rock littered about every square inch of my quaint little California town. I have the opportunity to truly step outside of all that I have ever known and test myself on some of the greatest mountains that exist on this small planet. With these challenges and unknowns comes a depth of fear I have not felt in my life. Very soon, when this work season is over, I will go to the big mountains and I plan to test myself against them.  So for the time being Fallen Leaf Lake is my own personal training camp. I run from my work shifts to my car and go do 21 boulder problems into the dark sans pad or I run free solo laps on the 300ft Hogsback. When I can find a partner, which isn't hard because everyone I've met is very open and friendly, I go plug gear on the 500ft granite ridge line that is Lovers Leap. Mix in some improv alpine, weekends in the Valley and a few stand up paddle board sessions and you've got a recipe for success in the High Sierras this July.

To all those back home,
I miss you dearly, I'm having the time of my life. In case I don't see ya....
Good morning, good afternoon, good evening and good night! :)

To see pics of all this nonsense you can stalk me on FaceBook or follow me on Instagram @ esingleton_se