Tuesday, May 6, 2014

To coffee, my love

To coffee, my love

I first met you as a child. You smelled so good wafting out of my mom’s mug. Once, when she got up to answer the phone I stole a sip and barely avoided spitting out the vile bitterness. Treachery! I’d been had. I scarfed cereal straight out of the box to purge the taste and reflected on the hidden perils of the grownup world. I thought you were just another cruel joke, a booby trap lying in wait for the curious.

The next time we met, I was ready for you. I’d been through puberty and I meant business now, if you know what I mean. Strictly business, actually. I was in college and I had to squeeze 25 hours of work into a 24 hour day. Including, of course, a spin on the mountain bike and a good three hours of drinking. In the morning, with nothing but a foggy memory and willpower to finish my paper and drag my skeleton to class, you gave me the fortitude to pull though. I was rough with you; I’m sorry, I was desperate, and I didn’t know better, really. I poured boiling water straight onto your grounds, drowning you in a hot acidic bath. Looking back, it’s shameful; I was just a gold-digger. Despite occasional overtures to your finer points at fancy shops downtown, I must admit I was only in it for the caffeine.

I used you at my lowest moments. I abused you. On road trips, exhausted and battered from arduous climbs in the desert, with hundreds of miles remaining between us and class the next day, I paid for you in dirty places. I snuck quickies in gas stations, I bought the brown tepid swill on the hot plate and violated it with high-fructose artificial flavorings. French Vanilla. Hazelnut. Irish Crème. I convinced myself it was consensual, and it wasn't hard; my buddies had you the same way. Everyone was doing it, and nobody was thinking twice about it.

After college we parted ways. Sometimes we met casually in diners after rowdy nights. Always in a group, never alone. It was never awkward, that way. I’d enjoy you on the side along with my hash and bacon, but I was still using you for the thrill of it. My hands would shake later if we hung out too long; I figured that was normal. Sometimes I brought you home and we fooled around on a lazy morning, but I didn't really know what I was doing. I inherited a used plastic French press from a roommate, and we tried new things. We were friends with benefits, nothing more.

There came a time when the after-glow of college days faded; the drum-and-base dance jams subsided to a whisper, and responsibility crept into the empty space left behind. Work became real work. I struggled and faced real tedium without relief. I woke to days that I knew I wasn't going to enjoy and I had to get out of my sleeping bag and stand up anyway. I found you one of these mornings, I was cold and figured that wasn't going to change all day but I brewed up with that French press and you made me warm, if only for ten minutes. We started hanging out in the mornings. I was better with my hands then, and treated you better. I learned to wait a minute before pouring. I learned to temper my intake. My hands ceased to shake.

Summer came again and the earth warmed, I didn't need your rush anymore and we began drifting apart. We started seeing each other socially again, with food. It was casual. Then my world flipped upside-down; I met a girl, a human girl, and fell head-over-heels for her. I lost track of everything: my job, my keys, time. It turned out you two were already deeply involved; we enjoyed each other together, three-ways, but it was awkward. I felt embarrassed, I fumbled. She obviously knew you better. My French press was cracked and held together with duct tape. She wasn't impressed.

Fall, and all the walls came down. I was free, no job, no rent, no home. Even she was far away. I packed my car and made my pilgrimage to Yosemite, to live in the valley of legends and learn to try BIG. It was a powerful time, but a lonely time too, as all quests are. Waking early on cold mornings in Camp Four, pulling rations from the bear box by headlamp, half reveling, half dreading the day’s coming hardships, I needed a companion. We found each other alone on those frigid mornings, we learned to share that peaceful dark space, the calm before a hard effort. Things are simple that far before dawn, things were quiet and my senses were sharp with anticipation. I explored you. I probed you with my nose, my tongue. I learned new things about you. Those quiet moments before the coming chaos of sunlight and gravity became precious, and we shared them together.

The days grew shorter and the nights grew colder, new hues of auburn and ochre emerged in the forests and hills, as if the land were rusting. With winter on its way I returned to the mountains, to friends and a warm house and one month’s rent remaining in the bank. I carried you with me, we were partners now. I found work twisting wires in houses and office buildings. I settled into a new rhythm; five days a week I rose to a silent house and found you in the inky darkness of the kitchen. I was half awake and you caressed my senses to life. We left before any roommates woke and drove across town under a graying sky. We stood in the yard together watching the sun rise over the mountains; it was cold and my breath sparkled in the frigid air. Sunrise after sunrise, on those cold mornings it was a pleasure just to be alive, to feel the shock of a frozen planet spinning toward something benevolent. I learned to court you. I bought a spill-proof thermos mug to keep you warm. I bought a glass French press with a fine mesh plunger; I learned to wait four minutes after boiling before touching you; I learned to pour slowly; I learned to make you smooth. I learned to savor you, to take it slow, to linger on your taste and subtle notes instead of rushing forward. I learned your aromas, your curving tendrils of steam. You became my companion, the thing I looked forward to. We shared each silent dark morning, it was our secret time together. I learned to stretch you out, over a whole hour, until the sun rose over the yard and I felt the warm rays splash on my face and I got called to load pipes or wire or start the truck.

Sometimes we’d get Fridays off and I’d slumber late like a bear, then rise, stumbling and yawning through the bright house, to revel in you besides heaping plates of pancakes and eggs and kimchi and wonder at the dazzling light of it all. We’d have a go at each other several times; I breathed you into my nostrils and lungs; we were in love. I started going to a local roaster and paying top-dollar for your best beans, I learned the difference between Ethiopian and Colombian, between French and medium-light. I learned new techniques, new ways to caress you with hot water, to bring out your greatest pleasure. We spent languid golden mornings in the kitchen. We had wild flings. We jammed over Coal Bank pass on a full head of steam under brilliant sunshine, Rolling Stones blaring and skis clattering in the back of the car. We took one last sip before skinning up into shimmering mountains, into the Cold Smoke. We were head-over-heels, inseparable; we never looked back.

Our relationship is older now, and wiser. More storied. As if the more water flows under the bridge, the easier it is to weather each storm. On a road trip once, far from home, I craved you badly and I bought a bag of Starbucks; you forgave me. We understand give and take. I make you at home now, mostly. When we go out, I usually pay for some place nice. Nothing fancy, I keep it simple, but nice. Sometimes, if there’s nothing quality around, I’ll wait until next time. I can do that, now. We can do that. We’re more patient.

I traveled across the globe to toil and claw at jagged mountains; weight was critical so I had to bargain to keep you. I brought instant packets and a battered mug; you understood, it was good just to be together. We needed an anchor in that rugged chaos, nothing made sense. The wind howled incessantly and the stars were upside-down and we woke up at midnight to don thick boots and harnesses and ropes and huff up swollen glaciers under piercing stars. Huddled in tents we shared a quick drink by headlamp before fighting inertia out the tent door into the massive effort that awaited outside. I held you close; you were my sanity.

Thank you for being such a steady, complex lover. I feel like I keep re-discovering you. You have so many moods, so many levels of flavor and texture. It keeps me motivated; I keep wanting to impress you. I've learned new techniques, like slow drip and cold-brewing in the summer. Encouraged by some friends, I brought some toys into our play. The Aeropress surprised you at first, but I think we've both grown to like it.

You are my muse, my solace, my excitement. Sometimes my only reason to get up, sometimes the last blissful thought I have before falling asleep: anticipating a quiet moment with you the next morning. May you ever be rich and strong.

Here’s to you, coffee.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Zen and the art of post-hol...no that s#*! just sucks... deep thoughts and deeper post-holes

Providence, Rhode Island. This historic north-eastern city is a hotbed of learning, art, and culture, replete with quaint architecture, a vibrant food scene, and great hipster-watching. Unfortunately, Rhode Island is notably devoid of topography, a key ingredient, I think it’s fair to say, for most kinds of climbing.

Mid-March, and New England is locked in dubious battle with the icy clutches of Old Man Winter: snow blizzards are starting to alternate with bone-chilling sleet, north-facing sidewalks are still locked in treacherous ice, and my situation is looking grim. It’s been almost two months since returning from Argentine Patagonia and the alpine-high is starting to fade. My classes at the community college are slow, I haven’t found work, and the hiring market seems to be frozen every morning along with my windshield. I find myself sliding rapidly down a slick rabbit-hole of coffee snobbery, experimental pancakes, and binge-surfing Mountain Project. I need a fix; I crave adventure. The urban life is comfy but isn’t enough to sustain the soul. I need to try really hard, I need to get pummeled, I need to get into a situation that actually sucks and requires me to dig deep and expend real willpower! Grit! My girlfriend raises her eyebrow and looks at me like I just volunteered to plow the whole city myself, naked. “Just make sure you finish the dishes, and put your laundry away.” “Sure babe, see you after work. I’ll pick up groceries.” Yep. The great thing about an honest partner is how they point out the silliness of our private manias before we take ourselves too seriously and do something stupid.

…Or, at least they make us pause and reflect on our inherent stupidity before we plunge in regardless. In the depths of the March doldrums, philosophy was not going to cut it: I needed to get my ass kicked, and I had the ice-tools to do it. The trick was, I needed a partner, but luckily I’d finally found one. I met Craig in the parking lot of the rock gym in Providence, and I could smell the Rockies on him before we even spoke. A well-worn Colorado Mountain School hoody confirmed my suspicions. Desperate times call for desperate measures; after 5 minutes of meet-and-greet in the parking lot we had a playdate set to climb ice in the White Mountains. That was 2 months ago. This time, Craig proposed an objective that would surely involve a dash of suffering along with good clean fun, and after some schedule-juggling and consultation of our significant others we successfully left Providence way behind schedule on a Thursday night, heading north for the White Mountains.

Cannon Cliff is one of the proud granite walls of New England. When we arrived at its base the next morning after sleeping in a snow-plow lot, the cliff was shrouded mysteriously in a thick wet fog. We slogged through the snowy forest, picked our way painstakingly across snow-covered talus, and finally got a good look at our objective: the Black Dike, an all-time classic New England winter climb. The convoluted rock appeared to ooze with swollen boogers of ice as fresh spindrift poured down from above at regular intervals. The forecast for the day: snow, then wintry-mix, then rain, high 34°. Yum. As Craig began scratching up the first marginally-protected pitch and we both kept dropping our heads as gloppy spin-drift covered us, it occurred to me that most people make a point of staying indoors in weather like this. Well, we didn’t drive all this way to have an easy time of things, did we?


The Black Dike was an excellent outing, proving to me once again that mixed climbing is pants-pissing scary even at moderate grades. Something about feeling my picks scraping at little rock edges and wondering if they’re going to pop off gives me the willies. We each enjoyed an exciting lead and were able to purge any demons that needed purging before it started to actually rain. Luckily Cannon Cliff is only a few pitches tall, so we were soon crawling up sugar snow into the forest above and all that remained was to scramble up to the trail and saunter down through the woods back to the car. Right?


As things turned out, our combined knowledge of the descent consisted of my glance at a short blurb on Mountain Project during a caffeine-induced packing session the evening before. Why have I played out this scenario so many times? Here we go again.  To be fair, we also knew the general shape of the landform of Cannon Cliff. I mean we weren’t trying to descend a sheer Patagonian spire riddled with hanging glaciers and crevasses, we just needed to walk down a roundish hill and avoid the single cliff. We celebrated with a spongy high-five, coiled our sodden rope, and set off into the woods to accomplish this modest task.

It soon became apparent that any forward progress whatsoever was going to require a lot of work. The snow was bottomless, formless sugar that supported a human foot about as much as day-old tapioca pudding would support a brick. We weren’t exactly excited about the prospect of wallowing up to our waists down the whole hill, but it was downhill, how bad could it be? We took our best guess as to the location of the cliff, offset our direction accordingly, and plunged merrily along.

People talk about “bottomless” snow, but I never really pondered this phrase until I found myself floundering up to my chest in the forested slope above Cannon. It was like quicksand in a bad dream; if I pulled with my arms and pushed with my legs, my limbs would just sink deeper into the snow. My shoulders were now even with the surface and Craig was giggling as I squirmed uselessly in the hole. I had to wonder: Does this ever stop? Would I just keep going down, like Alice in some freakish sugar-snow wormhole?

We wallowed, we bumbled, we waded up to our chests, we plunged between submerged logs and fell on our faces. We discovered that we could swing our axes into trees to extricate ourselves from holes, and this provided modest entertainment. We slid down a steep slope on our butts, bouncing off trees to check our speed.

Eventually the terrain leveled out and we intercepted some ski tracks. We were thus able to take heart in two of the classic lies of being lost:
1) Someone has been here so it must be the right way.
2) It can’t be far now.
These are pretty much always wrong, but you’ve gotta believe in something, so why not indulge?

We soon realized we’d stepped out of the frying-pan into the fire….if the fire was a gentle slope of formless sugar snow, glazed with a thin pseudo-crust just strong enough to hold about half your body-weight, before collapsing and letting you plunge irremediably to the crotch.

There is nothing so demoralizing as post-holing in a flat forest. Distances that should take mere seconds to cover end up taking minutes. We human beings, the upright apes, triumphant in our bi-pedal progress over the earth, are reduced to tedious crawling. In the flattest spots I actually started crawling, like an infant, as this equally exhausting and completely demeaning technique was slightly more efficient. But nothing was actually efficient.

Nearing a stream bank, I plunged into a log, flipped over, rolled down the bank, and lay at the bottom feeling wet snow seep into my neck and underpants. “Do you get the feeling that someone is watching us and controlling the snow, laughing? It’s like some Gary Larson version of hell.” I pictured a guy with bifocals and a toupee in a control room watching us through hidden cameras, his hands atop buttons titled Hidden Log, Resist for 2 Seconds and the ever-popular Total Collapse. You could almost hear the laughter echoing through the soggy forest.

Craig pulled himself out of a face-plant and grinned maniacally, snow plastered to his moustache. “Life is like a post-hole, kiddo. Just when you think you’re gonna make it, you get totally screwed.” At least we both got a good laugh out of that one before sinking back into silent, tortured monotony of our glacial progress.

After experimenting with various forms of locomotion, including crawling, butt-scooting, and the belly-craw-roll-to-butt-scoot combo, we concluded that there is absolutely nothing one can do to make post-holing easier. There is no option but stoic endurance. Each motion feels like a massive effort of penitence, as if I was paying my karmic debt with the frozen north-land presiding in stern judgment. What were we doing today? We drove three hours to risk bodily injury while clawing up a frozen vertical gulley, then slog uselessly through a snowy forest? I guess so. Nothing to do but take another step.  Step, plunge.

Three and a half hours later, after descending into the exhausted silence of our private karmic purgatories, we arrived at a packed snow-mobile path. “Careful, it might be a mirage,” Craig said. I crawled out of the stream-cut and flopped onto the path, my cheek meeting a hard, unyielding surface. Packed snow never felt so good. We stood up, brushed ourselves off, took some tentative steps forward, and reveled in the amazing luxury of walking.

The belly-flop of victory...finally on a firm surface

Cannon Cliff

Craig approaches the Dike 

Nothing defines type-2 fun like marginally protected, snow-dusted dry-tooling.

Found some actual ice!

Good times.

Photos from myself and Craig Muderlak. 

Craig creates cool videos and inspiring drawings of cliffs and craggy landscapes, check out his material at: http://blownminds.blogspot.com/