A Rant About Lightweight Alpinism

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Katie Bono on Virtual Reality

 

The decision of what to wear on your person and in your pack for a big alpine objective can be as consequential as deciding what to wear on a hot date with someone who’s way out of your league. Why did she agree to go out with you anyway? You’re an alpine climber; you have no social skills. She’s probably just doing a favor for your friend who set you up. Wait. Don’t be so hard on yourself. She wouldn’t have agreed to do it if she didn’t see anything that she liked in you. You may as well give it a chance. Like, cast a large net or whatever. What was I saying?

People sometimes make fun of weight-obsessed climbers, but it really is important to cut as much fat off of your gear as is reasonable to do before attempting hard objectives. I’m not sure that breaking your titanium spoon in half and cutting the pockets out of your jackets is going to make the difference between sending or not, but I do think that general weight consciousness is worthwhile for big adventures since the physical consequence of carrying every extra ounce is correlated to the the amount of spacetime you’ll be hauling it through. The simple unfortunate truth is that spending a bit more money to get that 900 fill, carbon, dyneema, helium filled stuff will make you a better climber/hiker/whatever to an extent. C’est la vie.

If you believe that weight doesn’t matter because you only climb for yourself, that’s just great. I bet you have an excellent view from up on that horse, but like every other thing that humans do, climbing is social and competitive. I doubt that you would spend your free time climbing on mountains if you were the only person on earth. You would probably spend more time trying to figure out what happened to everyone else. That would be weird. Do you think that will ever happen to anyone? Like, when the sun is burning out and the human race is on its way to extinction, someone will be the last person alive for at least a little while right?

I would say that there are a few pieces of gear that absolutely must go into your pack for every committing alpine objective, but I’m sure that this has been done plenty of times only to be contradicted by people with bolder visions. The only way to really figure out what’s necessary or extraneous is to climb a lot and experiment, especially since a lot of the weight budget for big routes is occupied by food and fuel, which is a very personal thing. My pack has surely gotten lighter as I’ve learned more about my required calorie & and water intake, but I still try to finish bigger objectives with some food and fuel packed away in case something like unexpectedly poor conditions or a bad fall or were to occur. I usually throw in an extra freeze dried meal and conservatively calculate fuel requirements for multi-day endeavors. Extra food probably isn’t necessary to like… survive in the case of unforeseen circumstances, but my brain works so much better when I have enough calories to burn that I like having enough of this stuff around to ensure that I can problem solve effectively.

Owning nice gear doesn’t hurt, but good planning & critical thinking is even more important. I always try to be conscious of which pieces of hardware I use the most & least, so that I can consider what I really need for each type of objective. For example, the mega-guide Rob Smith will eliminate one carabiner from each sling  that he carries on technically straightforward routes. Crusher Doug Shepherd will carry a smaller water bottle on routes that he knows he’ll be stopped at belays with time to brew. Steve House accredits his successful solo ascent of K7 to the radically light 6 lb pack that he carried after making several heavier attempts. Josh Wharton doesn’t need to carry climbing gear because he’s Josh Wharton.

For shorter routes in the lower 48, cutting the tags off your jackets might not earn you a ticket on the send train, but as objectives get bigger, higher, and more far-out, cutting every superfluous ounce might be the difference between making a summit tag or returning to the real world with no arbitrary accomplishment under your belt.

Mt. Hunter // French Route

I rappelled to the end of our ropes, slammed in a couple of screws, and yelled “I’m off!” up to J.D. While I threaded our next rappel, the rope didn’t move. I screamed a few more times, pulled aggressively on the lines, then gave up. I slumped onto the slings attaching me to the face and dozed off, as I had done at every other moment where my wakefulness couldn’t help move us forward. I was happy for the chance to take weight off my feet. Keeping them sealed in soggy boots for the last few days waterlogged my skin, making them feel blistered all over. After some indeterminate amount of time, J.D. buzzed down the rope and we continued.

“Make sure you yell loudly when you’re off.”

“ok.”

Somehow, after three full days on the go with only a couple hours of rest, we didn’t feel totally out of control. Of course we were extremely tired, but we could still think clearly enough to problem solve our way through the terrain. It’s scary to think about how we would have dealt with a bad storm or messy fall, but pushing ourselves this far didn’t feel reckless in the situation as it was.

We were descending the West Ridge of Mt. Hunter after climbing the Garison-Tedeschi (A.K.A. French Route) on the North Buttress of the mountain, a route which Mark Westman calls “the proudest and most intimidating line on the wall.” We decided to try the French Route instead of another because we figured it might be more intact than any other line on the face after the long spell of warm temperatures that we’d been having on the Kahiltna. We were also encouraged by the hard-man Slovenians Luka Lindic & Ales Cesen, who had climbed the route to the top of the buttress a couple weeks prior. The only real beta we had on route were the finger-point directions that Luca & Ales sprayed at us in camp.

At 11pm on May 29th, we skied out of camp toward the beautiful and intimidating face. At the top of “ski hill”, J.D. mentioned that “I’m not nervous because I think we can’t do it, but because I think we can.” I agreed. We stashed our ski boots and planks at the base then went into business mode.

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J.D. made short work of the schrund then gave me a quick belay across. We simul-climbed through the traversing ice and snow which lead to the base of the prominent gully that aesthetically defines the route. I lead a shorter simul-block, then we started to pitch things out. Unlike other parties who have climbed the route, we pitched out most of the gully, which didn’t really feel much slower or more strenuous than simul-climbing might have been. We cruised through a handful of easy ice pitches. J.D. put the rope up for a scarcely protected one, and I sewed up an overhung one above that. Some easier climbing brought us to a great rest stop on a snow arette at the top of the gully, which finally allowed us to escape the  grapple-spindrift that had been bombarding us throughout the gully. We sat for about two hours brewing, eating, sharpening, and dozing off as the dim twilight turned into daytime again.

The next stint took us through a couple rope-lengths of thick ice between protruding rock, which foreshadowed what the easier terrain on the upper headwall would be like. A long traverse right brought us to the base of the crux of the lower portion of the route. I placed too many screws on the first half of the pitch, so I was forced to run-out some desperate climbing to the lower angle terrain above, where I could find a rock anchor. We took turns zig-zagging around rock-bands left then back right then left again on ancient bullet-proof ice that required four or five exhausting swings to stick a tool.

The sky dimmed into twilight again as we timidly approached the base of the upper headwall. We were both quite unsure about whether our entry point was the same as previous ascents. I still am. J.D. lead a block of three tricky mixed pitches while I super glued my eyelids open so that I could belay and sleep at the same time. The glazed look on J.D.’s face made it evident that it was my turn to take a block. A well protected but burley off-width lead to the ramp that we probably should have been climbing the whole time. A couple more pitches of involved but easier climbing and a tricky right-facing corner that J.D. crushed into rubble finally lead us to easy ground.

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We found a flat spot under a rock between the top of the headwall and the cornice bivi  where we could finally make a formal bivouac. I oggled J.D.’s extra pair of socks while he changed out of his wet ones. Endless pots of water and some man-spooning made us sharp again. We didn’t sleep for more than a power nap in length, but the short break was transformative. We started moving again sometime in the evening.

The trudge to the summit wasn’t technically difficult, but it was physically draining. It was worrisome to consider the long descent ahead of us. Colin Haley claims that the “crux of any climb on the North Buttress of Begguya (Hunter) is the upper third, from the cornice bivi to the summit.” As we approached the summit pyramid, clouds began to swarm around us, obscuring our vision of the West Ridge descent. We tagged the summit at around 3am on June 1st.

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We had the option to stick to our original plan to descend the West Ridge to the Ramen Couloir, or to go back down to the top of the North Buttress and rappel the Bibler-Klewin route. The latter option was more of a sure thing, but the former one was supposedly quicker and easier. 200 meters before we reached the summit, I had no intention of venturing into unknown terrain with low visibility on the West Ridge, but the sky suddenly cleared as we crested the top so we decided to go for it.

We ran down the ridge, carefully navigated an icefall, made five or six rappels into the top of the couloir, down-slogged for aeons, then finally reached the valley floor where we rested for an hour in the sun. It felt great to let my swamped feet dry in the sun, but hurt my soul to shove them back into my boots to start moving again. I think I would have achieved the same effect by coating them in maple syrup and walking on a bed of fire ants.

The lion’s share of the very cracked portion of glacier on the Southwest side of the mountain can be avoided by walking up a snow ramp and making a few fixed rappels into a narrow canyon over steep ice. During our late season attempt, we were not enthused to learn that this ice had become a torrential waterfall. Pulling our snagged ropes out of the falling water soaked us to the bone.

The seven mile long zombie-slog that followed was an exceptionally weird experience. After 75 hours on the move, my grey matter was melting. Tribal drums and piano music played in the silence. I could see dozens of faces and figures in the features of the rock face next to us. Whenever I squinted toward the foot of a ridge in the distance, it would turn into a helicopter. Without flotation, we broke into crevasses up to our hips and wastes numerous times. When we finally neared camp, I thought I was imagining the team of guided West Buttress climbers pulling sleds. It was an epic struggle to walk faster than this party, even though they each toted over 100lbs of gear.

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In the two days that we rested before returning to the base of the buttress to retrieve our skis, six feet of snow fell. Once we did go, they were nowhere to be found. They were completely concealed by the powder that had fallen, and possibly slough from the face. We probed the area for two fruitless days before giving up. Ouch. I was originally planning to go up Denali after trying Hunter, but without skis my timeline was truncated. We flew back to Talkeetna to party at the Fairview instead. The route was by far the biggest, most wild, and most memorable route that I’ve ever tried. It was a huge step up for both J.D. and I, requiring every bit of our experience and skill.

An Early Thought

honest I’m not sure I have a complete thought to write down, but I feel like spraying it somewhere anyway. I want to reminisce about a relatively insignificant moment that happened relatively early in my relatively uninteresting existence. I think I was five or six or seven. I don’t think I need to say that I’m not certain about that timescale. By the way, this has absolutely nothing to do with climbing whatsoever. Anyway, I was sitting in the backseat of my mom or dad’s car while one of them drove my family around. No one was talking. I was in the window seat behind the driver’s. That detail isn’t important to this little story, but I think it’s kind of interesting how early memories are almost always tied to some specific location. Pro-esoteric neurologist people might call this phenomenon spatiotemporal recognition, but I’m not that qualified. Anyway, I was sitting in the backseat of my parent’s car, looking out the window or at my feet or something when I had the thought that prompted the creation of this crappy collection of words. I should mention that I remember almost nothing from this period of my life. I think most people are the same way, but I’m not really sure about that. I pretty much only remember moments that were accompanied by big emotions, like really embarrassing, confusing, painful, or happy experiences… those times you can really feel your body-juice working. This process is now called endocrine modulation because someone’s thesis didn’t sound official enough. Anyway, I was sitting in the back seat of this car, my family’s car, when I had a thought that I considered to be abstract at the time, and still do really. In fact, I think it’s about the furthest I’ve gotten down the road of the topic that it concerns. I guess it was more of an experience than a thought because it wasn’t like a linear string of language, but more like a jumble of concepts in no particular order. I was sitting in that seat staring at something, and I thought to myself that my …state of being… I guess you could say, what I might now call my consciousness or existence or something, is a really weird, preposterous, unlikely, and strange thing. I hate when people use synonymous words together as if they have different meanings. Like, just find another word that means something else that you’re trying to say. Anyway, I thought that my being me was just kind of a farcical thing. I had to Google a thesaurus for that one. I thought about how it’s super strange how I’m this thing that controls this body thing among all of these other body things controlled by things. That wasn’t the first time I had this kind of thought, but it’s definitely the first one I can remember. I think the most interesting part of this little instance is that I can only recall the moment because I actively forced myself to store the memory. I thought that my brain would poop out some sort of truth if I were to delve into this dead-end of an idea that I’d had a couple of times before. I explored it, and then forced myself to remember it for later. I willfully shelved the experience, so that I could pick it back up later in life. …I guess it worked. My younger self would be proud to see that my life is now crippled by the smallness that I feel every day. Little Kurt would be ecstatic to learn that all practical pursuits feel futile when I consider the absurdity of my existence. I’m not sure why I felt like writing this down or posting it on the internets, BUT. I. DID.

I Want to Go on Adventures

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Whoa, how pretentious can a person be?

I’m a spoiled white boy with a debt free college education (#mom&dad). My life is easy.

Granted, I don’t have health insurance and I sleep in a van …but that’s alright. It feels good to escape that treadmill. …I probably shouldn’t be posting this on the internet.

What to do next, I’m not sure.

I think there are only two available paths that I  might want to  follow.

One.

I can build a life, skills, finances, whatever. This is a good option.

Two.

I can deny the pleasures of having stuff, services, and security so I can experience more things. This is a fun option.

I don’t think there is a middle ground for me. Working some job that I’m not passionate about at all seems useless. It’s like treading water. Balance is compromise.

For now, I’ve been trying to just drain some of the extra water from my life. That was a metaphor. I think that reducing myself has been a good thing. It has helped me figure out which things are actually worth the stuff required to keep them.

Looking forward is exciting but sad. I’ll always be missing big pieces. I can’t do everything.

For now, I guess I’ll try to have fun. I’ll do my best to scrape funding together for expeditions to big beautiful places. …because what else is there? No matter what professions/occupations/time-fillers I pick, I want to somehow just… be in awe… of nature or something.

Climbing around on cool looking chunks of geography seems like the most accessible way to do that right now.

I Will Dirtbag!

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Life would be half as confusing if I didn’t need to climb and explore.

I can’t commit myself wholeheartedly to anything that I can’t draw a topo line on.

Navigating the waters of the real world outside the forgiving shelter of college is interesting in some ways, but is way too bull-shit-full to keep my attention. Insurance, rent, work, car, jobs, fees, fines, girls, stuff. That was a sentence fragment. It feels like a lot of work to just… keep on keeping on… or whatever.

Grow up, work the system, build finances, sex girls, get hood rich, repeat. Live a long life that doesn’t make you feel too bad.

Maybe I should find Jesus or something. That would make things simpler. I’d bet that in a couple centuries people will show that religious belief is a positively selected behavior for modern human survival.

I think the only way I’m going to get close to dulling my angst and unease about whether I should be accumulating or renouncing responsibility is by jumping in the deep end of the dirtbag lifestyle, at least for a little while. I’ve never been “out there” for more than a couple of months. I’m sure I’ll wear out in no time, but I think I should at least try it out. A good number of the more interesting and classically successful old people I’ve met did something similar before caving in to a life of relative comfort, so maybe it won’t completely decapitate my future.

I WILL DIRTBAG!

When? …like sometime eventually or something I guess.