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!

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