Monday, April 8, 2013

Emptying Out

 This stillness to which all returns, this is reality, and soul and sanity have no more meaning here than a gust of snow…[mountains] serve as a mirror to one’s own true being, utterly still, utterly clear, a void, an Emptiness without life or sound that carries in Itself all life, all sound. Yet as long as I remain an “I” who is conscious of the void and stands apart from it, there will remain a snow mist on the mirror.”
                                                                                                -Peter Matthiessen, The Snow Leopard

Springtime and footloose, on the road again, Tucker and I hitting our stride. After two days of hard crack climbing in Zion we rally west to Red Rocks, Nevada and leave the car on a cool evening with rack and bivy gear, bound for the Rainbow Wall. After an hour of scrambling up a boulder-choked gulley and schwacking through copses of tough manzanita we emerge at a clean slab split in two by a silver knife: a thin veneer of water trickling down the sandstone, glimmering with the shine of another world. The trickle passes up into darkness, then beyond to the towering walls of the Rainbow Mountain cirque, our destination, looming stoic beneath a wan quarter moon.

In these moments we perceive the earth in the vastness of its form. Two small self-regulating sacks of ninety-eight degree blood and sinew and dreams alone in the indifferent terrain of this planet: deep gulleys and sheer walls of stone that climb straight into the infinite sky. A lot to behold; the unfettered space can feel overwhelming, but just as quickly I breathe the cool air, feel the sweat soaking my back under my wet shirt, and revel in the beauty of the place. Then nothing to do but shoulder the pack and begin scrambling up the smooth slab, all attention focused on tiny nuances for foot smears and hand holds. We spread sleeping bags under a boulder, drink a beer, cook a simple meal, and fall asleep with the dome of stars cut in half by the dark bulk of the Rainbow Wall.

We wake in the early morning to fierce winds buffeting our sleeping bags. Violent gusts whirl up the canyon in some invisible vortex, unceasing through the graying hours into the dawn. We peek outside our boulder bivy and the wall looms grey and menacing under a leaden sky. Tucker is almost knocked over by a gust as he takes a piss. Maybe this foul weather is an excuse to descend back to car, camp, and comfort.  Sheltering the stove in the back of the cave we make oat porridge and coffee; we sip the bitter brew watching the canyon wake up beneath the fits and tantrums of an angry sky. Eventually we shoulder the rope and rack and begin walking up the slabs towards the wall. Might as well check it out. We zip our jackets tight and steady ourselves as whirling gusts blast our bodies.

It turns out, by some miracle of aerodynamics, the vertex of the Rainbow Wall is sheltered from the harrying wind.  We’re at the base of one of the country’s finest 5.12 free climbs with a small selection of nuts and cams, a dozen quickdraws, one rope, a few Cliff bars and a quart and a half of water. These are the moments we try so hard and make so many sacrifices to create. It’s on.

The corner continues unceasingly toward the sky. The bullet-hard rock offers just enough imperfections for upward passage: an edge here, a slivered crack there, a mottled texture to press on. At times the features seem to peter out completely and the leader pauses, breathing, stemmed in position and trying to read the puzzle. Every time, subtle features emerge offering exquisite movement. The gear is solid, but well spread, keeping us always in calm focus on the sharp end.

There is a curious relationship between the difficulty of climbing moves and the analytical engagement of our mind. On easy terrain, the mind is free to sit back and enjoy the simple sensation of movement. As difficulty increases, the mind engages, reading the rock and indentifying discrete moves. Harder still, the mind scans the next twenty feet, analyzing incredible subtleties of angle, texture and size, formulating a complex sequence of moves while the body waits, breathing, poised at the stance, ready to pounce. The mental engagement increases toward a crescendo of analysis as the holds thin out to the limit of our ability to read the moves, and in these cruxes we are locked into an iron focus where nothing else gets in. These are great climbs.

What happens when the holds thin out a little more, beyond the threshold of what we can read into moves? Stemmed into a tenuous stance on the sharp end, searching, looking, analyzing in vain, what happens when we can’t visualize the way forward? For years this was my stopping point. I would take and aid, or try a desperate throw that I knew was pointless and fall. I could not move upward into the realm beyond my perception.

High in the upper dihedral of the Rainbow Wall I’m stemmed below a smooth bulge, breathing and searching, asking for holds which I know aren’t there. Every feature within reach appears useless, too small to pull on. Five feet higher there’s a jug. It’s my onsight attempt; my mind is churning with information and speculation at a nauseating rate. I’m judging the fall distance (short), the holds (useless), the move (can’t see it), how much I want to onsight this pitch (a LOT, my ego is on board and cheering). I make a desperate attempt to crimp on nothings and fall with a grunt.

Dangling above the void, the wheel of my fevered brain gradually slows down. I notice the cool wind, what a blessing it feels on my sweaty neck. A raptor glides beneath us in perfect repose, searching for prey with keen eyes. The rock itself is captivating, deep maroon with crimson blotches, dappled with green lichen. This whole cliff is just the aggregate collection of billions of sand grains, heaped up long ago in sinusoidal dunes by driving winds in the blistering heat of a vast Jurassic desert. Buried beneath the ground for eons, these solitary grains were compacted and glued together into something more solid, and as our continent slowly rose again in its unfathomable cycles of bulging and sagging, the earth has been carved away by the incessant grinding of snows and rivers to reveal this exquisite memory of an ancient desert.

My pulse has calmed to its regular steady rhythm. I pull back up to the bolt and stem up to my high point again. Having already tried to solve this puzzle with my brain, I simply look at the rock, the subtle features, the jug above, and accept. This is reality. There is nothing more. Accepting this, my mind lets go with a great sigh. In the vacuum left by its absence, beautiful silence rushes in. A hawk cry pierces the air, the wind rustles my hair. There is no more “I”. There is stone and texture and breath. Pressing with both palms I make an improbable step, another stem, another press, all on the “nothings” of before, and thus poised like a spring I look up and fix a soft gaze on the jug. The bottom of my mind drops out into the silence everywhere; I am empty, clean, a piece of the wind. Three limbs press, the stone presses back, and outstretched fingers close on the jug.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The aesthetics of line

the west face of Battleship Mountain

What is it that makes certain lines worth so much work? Whether in stone or in snow, certain lines seem so clean, so aesthetic, that some of us are called compulsively to struggle for them, as if the purity of the line is worth our sacrifice of toil and pain and danger. 

Skinning up the Battleship Mountain bowl in the late afternoon at the end of a long day of ski touring, forcing an exhausting pace to beat the shadows creeping across the bowl, I look back gasping for breath and see the straight, slender line of our skin track slicing cleanly through the pristine snow. My chest is heaving in the thin air and my thighs burn, but the simple line of our track evokes the perfect splitter cracks on Windgate sandstone that we struggled so hard to climb last week in the sunny desert. Now, deep in the snow-locked wilderness of the San Juan mountains, I feel a similar buoyancy lift my spirit and spur me to turn once again upward.

I slide one more foot forward to follow Tucker, who breaks trail into the immaculate white above with dogged tenacity. My legs and lungs scream for rest but the sun is fading quickly towards the western crags and every foot up gains another glorious foot down; I let my eyes focus and drift on the white glare above and let my discomfort dissolve in the silence, my only thoughts willing my legs forward. 

At the last gnarled tree in the bowl we stop and breathe. On one side lies a wind-etched cornice, its sinuous curve and the promised leap off it tempting our young brazen minds, but the landing is in a wind-loaded lee slope; too dangerous to ski today, it will remain another piece of wilderness we can only look at in admiration. 

Dangerous slopes now encroach from both sides, but a slender rib offers safe passage for another few hundred feet. We could ski from here; the shadows creep quickly toward us and we’ve already earned a 1500 ft run of completely untracked open slope, but this rib is enchanting. We grin, knowing the turns up there will be immaculate.

“Ten minutes more, man.  If we crank it out.”

We glance at the approaching shade, the sun-drenched rib above. No discussion is necessary.

Cutting switchbacks up the steep rib I can feel the exposure increasing and can see the sun out of the corner of my eye dropping into the teeth of the next ridge. I contract my stomach on each step to aid my weary thighs; each kick-turn is a feat of balance. I can’t help but wondering at the silliness of our endeavor; the altitude we gain with each arduous switchback will add a mere second to our descent. At what point is it no longer worth it? These questions don’t help the climbing, and I focus on the shimmering snow. As the earth falls away beneath us with each step and each breath, the sensation is that of ascending into a realm of pure light.

At the last inflection before the rib curves upward into the wind-scoured crest of the bowl we stop and breathe. Craggy peaks tower in every direction, wind-scourged plumes of snow catch fire in the dying sunlight. The shadows have engulfed the Battleship bowl and leave only a slim line of sunlit snow, directly below us.

High amongst this sea of mountains and gaping valleys, we perform the rituals of descent in contented silence: removing skins, tightening buckles, closing zippers, donning hats. After more than an hour of toil, we’ve earned this line. One more look around to take in the panorama of peaks etching the deepening sky, and we drop in. The world becomes silent; all we know is rhythm.