Monday, August 31, 2009

I walk the line

I looked at Teakettle's cirque of amazing features, shapes that such be displayed in a pottery gallery, really, and as we approached the final traverse that led to its summit tower, I should have felt awe, inspiration and excitement.

That's what I would have felt in the past. That's what I was feeling now. But I also felt something else: An undercurrent of fear.

This is the first year since I had kids that I began really stretching my abilities. I started with a climb in the Never Summers range, a climb up the Hart Ridge with Cirrus and Lead mountains. That was a nice warm-up, a couple of ridges, some exposure, even a little danger.

Then I really pushed it with a climb up Capitol the weekend before Saturday's attempt of Teakettle, 13,800+. I was fine up until K2, but as we started to crawl over its top and back down, I was a little nervous, and then, as I stared as its knife ridge, I felt fear.

I hadn't felt fear in a long, long time in the mountains, certainly not for five years, at least. And this fear was different. Tears actually sprang to my eyes as I gathered the group and told them I wasn't sure I should go on. It's not my life any longer, I told them. It's the lives of a 4-year-old and two 2-year-olds, and it was hard for me to justify risking their lives when they don't have a choice.

Before kids, when I climbed, I never worried about my life. It's not like I did the tango on a ridge or two-stepped a sprint across summits. I was always careful. But I was never really afraid either.

That changed, of course, and so when I was attempting Teakettle with Pete Krzanowsky, Adam McFarren and the Artist Currently Known As Piper, I felt that damn fear once again.

I knew I stood out a bit in this group. Climbing mountains is a hobby to me, something fun to do on an occasional weekend, a way to challenge myself and a way to get out and see Colorado. It's a lifestyle for Pete, Adam and Piper. I hadn't really obsessed over the peaks for a few years, since, I'm sorry to say, I finished the 14ers. This was my third time out this year. Pete said he'd been out close to 50 times. That kind of devotion to anything impresses me, and their skill levels reflected that.

I could not have paid for better guides up the peak, especially Adam, our leader. They knew the route cold, set a quick pace and helped me with gear.

Gear is really what prevents me from doing these kinds of peaks more often. I don't know anyone in Greeley, where I live, who has the equipment and the knowledge to lead climbs. Besides that, I struggle when it comes to gear.

Like, a lot.

If this frustrated Adam, Piper and Pete, they didn't show it. They were very good to me. To be honest, I don't know if I would have been as good if, say, I was on the summit of Teakettle, and one of my climbing partners not only didn't have an ATC with him, he didn't really even know what one was. That might have happened. It was pretty high. Altitude fogs memories.

They double checked my harness, helped me with knots, gave me an extra biner to back up my own and generally helped me get through the final, 40-foot summit tower. They also sent up an extra ATC to the summit for the guy who forgot one.

When I didn't have to worry about the gear, I could concentrate on the climbing, and that was really fun. That's something I can do for the most part.

Sure, rappelling was a little rough at first, but it came back to me fairly quickly, and that, too, was fun.

We made it back down off the final ridge before the tower, went back down the black gully (not nearly as scary as advertised, by the way, it was actually one of the highlights of the climb) and then worked out way down a horrible, awful, terrible, very bad slope filled with loose rock, screen and loose rock. Also there was loose rock. I haven't yelled "Rock!" that much since I went to a Metallica concert a decade ago.

Oh, why do we always have to pay for such fun with such crappy, loose rock that the Elks and the San Juans throw at us?

By the time we were headed for our attempt at Dallas the next day, I'd had enough. True, I'd only camped one night and climbed one tough peak, but parenthood's left me a little soft, I guess. I didn't sleep very well in the tent - I never really do - and wasn't looking forward to another night or hauling a heavy pack up to our campsite.

I was looking forward to Dallas, however, and so I was disappointed as well as relieved when rain started pelting our tent at 3 a.m. The attempt really ended with those first few raindrops, even if it let up twice and didn't rain on us again even hours later.

I reached a conclusion in my tent as the rain came down that I hope will help calm my fears as I do another attempt like this one next year (maybe Dallas again, I hope). I will continue to push myself and climb challenging peaks, but only under optimal conditions, if they're within my ability and if I'm with good people.

Teakettle matched all that criteria, even if I wasn't as good with the gear. Dallas, however, was not under optimal conditions, and Adam wisely recognized that and called it off at the base of its majesty.

In the past, I'd be crushed. I don't honestly know if I'll get to attempt Dallas again, at least for a while. And we spent the night out. But now I appreciate the beautiful hike up and a good reconnaissance mission and the company of new friends. I appreciate the chance to get out.

I still recognize the need to get out. I still want to get out. It's so damn fun.

And most importantly, it makes me appreciate the small things. Camping and climbing for a few days makes you appreciate a pillow, hot water cascading over your body, clean skin, a fresh scent, an uncluttered car, white fingernails, a freedom to pee whenever you want and without having to put on your boots to do it, four-lane highways, real food like a cheeseburger (not an energy bar, gel or chew), sheets, cotton T-shirts, a place to keep your stuff (and your back not having to be the place where it all goes), sandals, lip balm, a couch, water from a faucet (not filtered from a creek), healthy toenails, flat terrain clear of rocks, cell phone reception and shelter from a storm.

And I really appreciate my family thanks to the peaks. There are always good things, like my kids shouting "Daddy!" when I get home, and there are always bad things, like my kids turning bedtime into a Civil War (actually it's pretty uncivil).

In fact, as Swine Flu invades our house - Kate answered the door tonight as I was getting out of car tonight with a "welcome to your infected house" and a cough - I may continue to worry about pushing my limits on the peaks.

But I'm also already keeping an eye to a few trips next year.


SirFWALGMan said...

I was all into the rough Peaker image until you said "lip balm". You then ruined it for me. heh.

The Wife said...

I LOVE the pictures! Even your half-assed smile one. What an amazing view.

And the lip balm thing doesn't diminish your manliness in my eyes at all. Must be a guy thing.