Friday, March 23, 2012

The Greatest Climbers I've Ever Met

Alex Lowe once famously answered "Who is the greatest climber in the world?" with "the person habing the most fun.

I was thinking about this at about 5 a.m. one cool dark July morning at Whitney Portal. I'd been in the Sierras for a week with my dear friend Loreen, and our grand total of successful climbs was zero. Loreen had had altitude sickness and serious cramps on the Hulk. On Conness, the altitude had kicked her ass, and I'd scared myself shitless with a tiny, five-cam rack on fifty meter 10+ pitches in swirling fog and wind, 10 km and a 12,000 foot pass from any help. And at Whitney Portal, she'd developed giardia.

I felt for her but mostly I was being a self-indulgent jerk (internally). Here I was in the land of visionaries like Galen Rowell, Chris Sharma and Peter Croft, climbing fuck all. Loreen wanted a couple of days to scarf antibiotics, so I'd put up an ad for a partner and the response came froma guy camped at Upper Boyscout Lake. He had a rack and gear-- all I had to do was show up with a harness and suoes, and we'd go climb some Russell routes.

Well, I made my way up to Boy Scout and found the tent but not the climber. Now what? I wandered along the shore of the lake, a loopy green-blue eye, snowcrusted, staring at the purple morning sky. I had shoes, chalk, a shell, a headlamp, my MP3 player, and food. I walked over to the base of The Fishhook on Mt Russell, put rock shoes on, and sat quietly, waiting for the free-soloist's "nay" signal. This for me has always been the sine qua non of free-soloing: waiting for the inner voice that says "today is not the day." I can never feel a for-sure "yes" from that voice...cos, let's face it, soloing is insane...but I've most defs gotten some loud NOs. The no wAs not forthcoming, so up I went.

I'd done the Fishook before, on a rope, and wasn't worried. Croft's guide, a copied page in my pocket, also had exactly the richt amount of beta: "climb the arĂȘte" . So I did, past the obligatory rattly three-move 5.8 sequence and then fired into endless blocky cracks and bomber jams

On top I read summit register posts by people who climbed for their wife, despite their wife, in memory of so-and-so, and because, well, they could. It was 11 am and Whitney loomed. I grabbed my binocs and, thisbeing Saturday, saw ten parties at least on the East Buttress. I descended the scree slope back to my pack, and walked back to Boy Scout. It was 2 pm. A party just off the Mountaineer's Route was talking dinner. Loreen had steaks planned. But somethig drew me up and I soloed the East Face. This route has a few major air-under-your-ass sections, but your weight is on your feet, and the holds and rock are bomber. At 4pm I arrived on Whitney's summit in sunlight golden with firesmoke and empty-- no tourist screaming "GUESS WHERE I AM!" into cellphones-- except for some sociable crows.

I had an ice ax and thought about the Mountaineer's descent, but I'd heard there was a fine walking path-- the hiker's-- and toom that. Well, the first 4 miles or so, dropping along a ridge, trail threaded through quartzite and granite towers glowing orange in sunset and smoke, was wonderful. Then there was the snowfield, steep and frozen. At the first campground, somebody told me I had only 14 more miles to go. By the time I got back to camp I had been moving for 21 hours, climbedn 10,000 vertical feet, and walked about 45 km. I know, somebody like Croft would do this in like 3 hours. But I felt great: new route soloed, new trail walked, beautiful views, etc.

The next morning I awoke to Loreen making coffee and talking to a guy whonhad seen my partner-wanted ad, and who wS trying to pick her up in time-honoured tradition: by offering help for her truck, 1200 miles away but right there in her thoughts. When they heard about my day, they both said "holy shit!" and the stupid part of me was all gratified. Fuck, was I ever awesome!

Then our neighbours came over. These were two wiry, wizened Korean-Canadian women in their late 40s. They had summited Whitney via the hiking route the day before. They saw my gear and were full of questions. "You crime a rock? How a much you pay for gym?" Tea and time eventually revealed that these two were grannies, and that their families basically thought they were insane. Traditional Korean women according to them were supposes to cook for men, care for babies, and decorate the house. These two were due to take a climbing course tomorrow. "I rike to crime Moun Russer" said the elder, then asked if I wanted to go to the Vancouver gym with them.

How would YOU like to be domestic, subservient to husband and tradition, and physically inactive for 50 years of your life, and then start something so different that your family basically thinks you're insane? You ready to stick with it?
Well there you have it. Peter Croft can do it in 5 hours. Me in 21. The Korean ladies, probably never. But who's the best climber? The person facing the biggest set of challenges and going for it, full on: the Koreans b

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