Monday, August 18, 2014

Da muddafuggin' Beckey-Chouinard

You weigh each item between mosquito swats, eyeing the rapidly-filling pack.  Extra longjohns? Nah. More coffee? Fuck yeah!  It's three hours and 3,000 vertical feet to the Applebee campsite in the Bugaboos and every gram counts....sort of.

McBennett and I are sweating balls at 9:00 AM and storms are far from our minds.  This trip-- hastily improvised around the end of what looks like the best-ever Bugs weather window-- is going to be a headcleaner.  Both of us are looking down the barrel at life changes.  In my case, a recent breakup which, if I detailed it, no-one would believe, kids moving on, being on strike, the busiest year of all time professionally, watching my Dad suffer and then struggle with recovering from a stroke.

Especially tough has been watching Dad deal with the stroke.  At age 81 this kind of thing is expected, but you don't ever really get OK with it.  Watching a guy who once shredded black diamond ski runs, who arrived n Canada with $20 and no English and built a multi-million dollar business, and who is strong as an ox, work at walking to the bathroom with two canes is fucking hard.  Even worse was seeing the rest of the stroke patients at the Fanning Center in Calgary:  people who had one body-side not working, who drooled,  who flapped their hands helplessly, who struggled in the dry July sunlight to roll medicinal joints outside.  My Mom, ten years younger and in amazing shape, one day said to me "if I ever end up like that, pull the plug."

McBennett is a guy I have tried hard (for me) trad climbing with, and he and I have the climber's sine qua non: total confidence in each other.  The worries, when they come, will be outside the circle of us two.  While one or both of us might not be able to pull a move, do an approach or whatever, together, things will hang together.  McBennett is 15 years my younger and three times the climber and I'm grateful for his enthusiasm and mad rock skillz.

So of course we shit-talk each other before strapping on death-sized loads and beginning the hump.  I am amazed at McBennet's fresh-veggie menu and his immense set of clothing options, which include two pairs of longjohns.  My newly smoking-free lungs power me up the approach and I arrive at Applebee sweating but not blasted.  And there are like 200 people there.  Literally every flat spot has a tent on it.

The first person I run into is Will  guzzling both water and A Prayer For Owen Meany in
the mid-day sun.  He and Matt are working on some sick insane 14+ trad line but they are doing it sportclimber style: three burns a day starting at 1 pm.  We catalogue who brought in which books (me a Murakami novel; Will a story collection; Matt has audiobooks; Mcbennett a book about astrology) and this is good; if (no-- when; this is the Bugs) the weather shits on us, we have entertainment options other than meditation and route discussion.  I am also psyched that Will is there because this guy always has a giant-sized stash of Ibuprofen with him and he is a generous sort.  McBennett arrives a bit later, gassed from the approach-- the guy has been working endless 12-hour shifts-- so we decide to work on our tans and reading.

Bugs weather speculation, built of at-best sketchy data-- weather reports checked at km18 end-of-cell range, fragments heard on the radio, or  imported by the ranger every morning-- begins.  Our objective is the Beckey-Chouinard (no bivvying-- I have it in my head that this would be poor style. Not that I can define good style exactly) and we need a lack of rain.  Tomorrow looks like 30% chance of  showers, thereafter shittier, so over a dinner of coconut-milk veggie and quinoa curry, the decision is made to go for it.

Sleep does not come easily.  I piss again and again the tea I foolishly drank at 8 pm.  A midnight, atop Bugaboo Spire, headlamps pick their way down the Gendarme. Oh, you poor motherfuckers.  My stomach is doing backflips around coconut curry, and horrendous gas is coming out of both of us.  At this rate I'll be able to plug my anus into the stove to brew coffee.  When the alarm goes at 3 AM I can't tell if I've been asleep.  After coffee and food McBennett says "just watch me, I feel weird," and of course I promptly ignore this warning.  Intuition, experience and reason all go out the window as I am so fucking stoked to climb this route.

We avoid the Snowpatch-Bugaboo col, which looks like a giant took a shit on it, massive rockstains all down its front, rockfall having chopped a couple of climbers' ropes mid-rap (they survived) and sneak around the base of Snowpatch.  As we leave camp, we see a pair of lights attempting the Snowpatch col.  Madness.  It's been shitting rocks all night.  Atop the Vowell Glacier, in now blowing rain and mist, stumble six apparitions.  It's the Bugaboo crew, now in their 30th hour of movement, having spent all night descending the Kain route.  We feed them granola bars and sandwiches, knowing suddenly that, holy crap, climbing the Beckey feeling like this, in this weather, is a REALLY DUMB IDEA and wondering, how the fuck did we ignore all the signs?

When I finally wake up again in the tent, it is 10 AM and the smell of coffee makes the sun impossible to ignore.  It is a magnificent day and Will and Matt are rolling out of bed, the campground is nearly deserted, and somebody is smoking weed, man.  The Weed Man turns out to be a Yankee who, on crossing into Canada and not having any weed, man, decided to google "where can I buy weed in Osoyoos?"  This actually found a man, a place and a time, and eventually a half which American Weed Man was sharing.

Coffee can't just sit in the bag on a sunny day so after four blastersfull and some serious leg vibrations McBennett and I go up to do McTech which I have wanted to try like 30 times but there are always 18 parties on it.  With a 70 meter rope we do it in 2.5 pitches and I get why it's always crowded-- amazing perfect granite cracks that make me forget the disappointment of the non-Beckey.

At camp the weather speculation begins again-- 30% Thurs, 70% Fri, let's do it, let's not, one chance, what if it rains on top, etc-- so we decide, YES.  This dinner features no coconut so both of us actually sleep and at 3 AM we are up and at it.  I have a bivvy sack so elect not to bring my micro-downie.

We leave camp at 4:30, trudge up to where we'd met the Apparitions, then head up the SW side of Pigeon and descend into East Creek.  At 9:00 I am plugging cams into perfect granite and we are off.  We have a double set and a 4, and are simulclimbing on blocks.  At Pitch 11 we catch up with Tom and Brian from Philadelphia.  McBennett is still gassed from work and hands the last couple of leads over to me.  Clouds are rolling in and wind is up, and McBennett mutters about his heart feeling weird.  Shit.

The Beckey is not hard, but it is one hell of a workout.  Every pitch is sixty meters.  You are guaranteed a crux far enough up from your belayer that a fall would be ugly (the exception being the first 10a pitch, which McBennet leads in fine style).  And if you're dumb enough to do the thing in a day, you've already been walking for 4 hours when the first of about 2,500 feet of climbing starts.

The route's real pleasure, other than its amazing rock, is its situation.  You are way up there, with wild remote valleys, no roads, masses of glaciated peaks, etc, all behind you, and the astonishing vertical North Howser off to your left.  You feel like you're OUT THERE.

At the top of the 14th pitch the weather finally shits the bed completely.  Howling wind and rain smack us and we strip and add longjohns and all other clothing options-- which in my case do not include a downie-- to shaking bodies.  Tom and Brian haul our rope and fix it so we get a free jug up the last icy pitch and then it's routefinding 101: a rap, then fifth-class ledges to the summit.

I've just climbed the most famous alpine rock route in North America and I don't have thirty seconds to stop and look around.  The wind is so strong we can't hear each other from ten feet away, we can't tell one direction from another because it's so foggy, and we therefore have no idea where the fuck we get off this thing.

On top of this, it's freezing, and like an idiot I havn't brought gloves.  It was at this point that McBennett, who's been feeling like crap for most of the day, revives.  I am fried-- I've just led fourteen pitches, found the 5th class approach to the summit, and am freezing-- but McBennett tunes right in.  "We have to stack and carry ropes on rap," he shouts over the wind, "and let's simulrap with Tom and Brian."  Good ideas all. We find the raps and got moving.  Here's us starting the descent.

My biggest worry after finding the raps is hypothermia.  Tom and I simply don't have enough clothes.  I have a bivvy sack but...small consolation if you end up with stuck ropes on rappel on a footledge 200 meters off the deck.  Rapping with Tom and Brian slows us considerably, but is safer, I think: if we have rope issues, we could use one of their two 60s.

Here is us setting off on the third or so rappel.

 Eventually we get to the glacier and then it is a mad sprint toward the Snowpatch rappels that bypass the glacier.  We find them, and manage the six raps with only one stuck rope, then stumble for hours through hallcinatory boulders and snowpatches and into Applebee at 1:30 AM.

The next day every muscle in my body felt like it had been chewed on by sharks.  I drank litre after litre of water but could not shake the cottony feeling from my mouth.  Six pots of coffee couldn't wake me.

Will, and Matt-- who had what looked like a partial pinkie amputation-- also spent the day lazing around and we got to spend a bit of time chatting.  There's a few things that impress me about these guys.  First, they climb like fiends and drive shitty cars.  I can guarantee you that if you meet a guy with an awesome 4x4 truck he will talk much much harder than he climbs.  Will has an awesome purple-red minivan that looks like a giant stealth suburban grape.  It's an old question: what is worth investing in?  In my experience, bad cars = good times.  I did the math on my last shitbox, a Hyundai Accident, and it came out to-- all in-- something like $3,000/year.  Had I opted for anything fancier, or with 4wd, or newer, or whatever, the bill would have been $2,000 a year higher.  But man, a crappy car paid for trips to Bolivia and Colombia and loads of climbing.  I look like a joke driving it.  It's especially funny at work where all my colleagues have nice respectable vehicles, SUVs or trucks if they can (suburban status and all).  But I can tell you, when I die, I won't give a fuck about what car I had-- or even remember what I drove-- but I'll be stoked that I had enough time and $$ to climb.  I always remember the dude from Colorado I met in the Creek who whined about the dreadful hours his job demanded.  His truck must have cost $70,000.  Holy shit, dude, ditch the awful job and the small-penis compensator and get a life!  Owning a piece of crap car would buy you a year of climbing.

Then there's the devotion.  These guys will have spent eighty days by summer's end working four pitches.  Two bolted at 13+ and two on gear at mid-14 and they expect another summer needed to send.  Holy crap, the monks had nothing on these guys.  I also like that they both read and are far more interested in talking about things they've read or watched or done outside of climbing than they are in yapping about climbing.  (This is a quality I've noticed in a few of the other elite climber types I've met.  Croft HATES climber talk; Long likes any kind of story and is pretty philosophical; Will Gadd is a rabid reader of everything (if the guy wasn't a climber he'd be a great lawyer or lit professor) bla bla).  Actually a good solid personality quirk of any thoughtful human:  can you talk about something other than your job?

On Saturday it was pissing rain so we packed up and ambled down the trail.  Well we only did one cragging day and one alpine route but then I thought about luck.  First, McBennett AGAIN proved himself.  How awesome is it to know your partner's got your back?  Second, I was walking.  WALKING.  My Dad can't do that.  Neither can a load of people.  Third, I was climbing.  CLIMBING!  What do poor people in most of the world do when they have a day off?  Fuck all, that's what, cos that's what one can afford.  Fourth, I felt that fine, clear sense of balance you sometimes get.  On the one hand we could have died if getting off Howser had gone wrong.  On the other, my Dad for whatever reason was still alive.  We choose near death;  others get thrown into it.  Made me feel arrogant and grateful.

At the bottom Will and Matt were off in Will's stealth raspberry van to the Big Horn Motel in Radium for four beers each, a shower and some Interwebz time.  How awesome is that?  Think about this.  These guys are among six or so people in the climbing world who can climb 14+ trad.  This makes them the climbing  equivalent of Lebron James or Michael Jordan.  James and Jordan pull(ed) in like $40,000,000 a year and have multiple cars, yachts, yadda yadda.  You can bet that Lebron doesn't stay in a motel after a big game.  I watched an interview with Alex Honnold where at the end they showed the white van he lives in.  The interviewer said "you live in this?" as if the van was a death sentence and Honnold smiled and said "yeah dude it's AWESOME got a bed and everything!" and he beamed as he showed the interviewer his pull-out gear drawers.  If objects and status are your goals, climbing s an idiotic life choice.  If living LIFE is your goal, climb, or have kids, or build/make something new.  Honnold, who Will Stanhope describes as "the best in the world," lives like a '70s hippie minus the drugs.  

Best lesson of all from mountains, one we learn over and over:  I'm alive, thank God, and there is way more to life than owning crap.

1 comment:

  1. Love it. This is how a climber's journal should read.