Bruised ribs from a bike crash did not qualify Greg for our toughest man title. I had the trump card: a permanently broken rib, called a non-union fracture in the orthopedic jargon, from a surfing crash. It was no contest. Either way, we were both up for new pain. We were headed into Rocky Mountain National Park to climb a legendary moderate rock and ice gully called Dreamweaver. It would be tough because our lives have become massively complicated by crash-landing into our 40s. Greg and I both have young kids, demanding jobs, restless personalities and aggressive recreation agendas.
Imagine traveling to Boston, Boulder and Reno in one week. You finally get home, where your kids wake you up every night at 2 a.m., as if you were a Gitmo detainee. Five hours’ total sleep is a victory. By noon at work it’s as if someone has a hot poker down your throat. You go to the doctor for a swab. Five minutes later you’re on Cipro, the stuff they give to bioterror victims. This is my life, and the beauty is: This is the training plan!
My son Elias wakes most nights claiming to “need sumfin’.”
We need something, too. That’s why we’re going on this trip.
This is not like the old days, when we trained for expeditions with day hikes up 14ers. Now I’m traveling or sick, sleepless or deskbound.
My training included hiking the short, steep local Ute Trail with a 40-pound pack. At the top, I would dump 20 pounds from a bladder of water, to save my knees on the descent. The bladder is from a traction device for my chronic stiff neck (partially solved with a Posturpedic pillow).
For my rib, I am part of a study group, testing a device that uses electromagnetic pulses to heal broken bones. I have to wear something that looks like a small alarm clock on a strap, jerry-rigged with the terrycloth belt from my bathrobe. With that over my shoulder, the ticking electromagnetic pulse clock against my non-union ribs, Greg and I embarked on our drive, hoping I wouldn’t get pulled over wearing, apparently, an explosives vest.
I played a mix that included the sublime greatness of Gordon Lightfoot and John Denver among other lite classics.
Greg screamed: “No wonder you can’t climb hard. You’re listening to The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.’ Do you think the guys in Iraq are putting on Jackson Browne before heading out on patrol? They are all cranking death metal, Slayer, AC/DC!”
Calmed down at the trailhead, Greg knew a shortcut to the lake. It worked well, even though my pack, initially planned as “superlight,” now included a six-pack of beer, an orthopedic pillow and a rotisserie chicken.
From a switchback I looked through binoculars at the exit to the Notch Couloir, one of the great routes on Long’s Peak, gaining the summit ridge. I thought, Damn, the worst-case scenario would be to come out of that snow gully in a snowstorm. It would be terrifying, especially for me — I have now become so cautious that I vacation with a carbon-monoxide detector. But here’s the deal: That happened to me. I once exited the couloir in a storm — and it was OK! My point is: that guy was another person.
We camped in a “bivy site,” a swatch of landscape lacking either flat or rock – free camping, and overrun with marmots. Greg spent some time reprogramming them with small rocks, which made a soft thunk on their bellies. Our route arced in a ribbon of snow above us, before disappearing into a shadowed gully.
Many good mountaineers had been on Dreamweaver this year, all saying it is one of the best routes around. Mark Wilford and Doug Madara came up here and loved it. These guys are the real deal, capable of extreme alpine mixed climbing, but they came to Dreamweaver because it offers all the elements of the great routes.
Greg took one of my precious sleeping pills and was gone in minutes. I took one and still couldn’t sleep, the story of my life since I was a little kid. I was awake more or less the whole night. Sleep deprivation. Broken rib. Chronic gas. Sleeping-pill immunity. Still going to wake up and bang out the climb. Toughest man.
When Elias can’t sleep, he’ll yell for me in a guttural howl, then deliver a litany of complaints from the crib as I sit dazed in a rocking chair.
“I can’t sleep.”
“OK, well, just lie there.”
“My pillow is wet.”
“Move away from that, it’s just some water from your sippy cup.”
“My monkey is wet.”
“Stop sucking his head.”
“My finger is wet.”
“Take it out of your mouth.”
“My eye is wet.”
“Everyone’s eyes are wet, that’s how they work.”
In the morning we were up early, booting up the snow apron so that we reached the base of the gully by 7 a.m.
We moved up into easy wet rock with slabs of dirty ice in the crack, ice axes dangling, grabbing generous holds barehanded. While I harbored a vague fear of the unknown — standard background anxiety exacerbated by coffee and the fact that most of the gully was not visible — mostly we were thinking about how cool it was to be on rock with crampons. Yvon Chouinard, our hero, always said he was most comfortable with one foot on ice and one on rock.
The climbing was easy but the definition of the alpine world, a mixture of dripping rock and old ice and slabs and dark chimney. But the beauty was, it wasn’t hard. It was like paintball: warfare without the consequences.
I made a long reach and felt a grating and separating feeling in my side from the free ends of my broken rib. Every three months a nurse for the bone-stimulator study asks me questions: “How does your rib feel? Pick the best response: terrifying, horrifying, paralyzing, ripping, tearing, wrenching.'”
When the ice started to get steep and the gully narrow, with the consequences of a fall being that you’d toboggan then launch off the face of Mount Meeker, I got gripped, thinking too much. In the past months climbing had lost its best: John Bachar, Craig Luebben, Tomaz Humar, Guy Lacelle. These guys were superhuman. How could we mortals even stand a chance? I demanded a rope. Greg hated the aesthetics of it, wanted to do the climb pure, thought it would bolster his toughness credentials. But we had a thin 30-meter rope, and I argued that using a rope can be pure, too. And it looked great hanging in a big arc that suggested tremendous boldness, risk and exposure.
There was a beautiful orderliness to our work, moving up methodically, putting in an anchor or two, that offered a wild contradiction to our normal lives. On any given day, we are fighting unstoppable forces of chaos that form layers of compounded entropy.
One early morning, my friend Martin heard a frantic rapping at his door, then some popping sounds. Outside, there was only what appeared to be a tire burning on his lawn. He grabbed a fire extinguisher, and started hosing down the tire, which now appeared to be, in the predawn, a mannequin of some sort. And as he put the fire out, he realized that it wasn’t a mannequin, it was a man.
Turns out a crazed ex-husband had tried to kill his wife, but instead accidentally set himself on fire, discharged a rifle to kill himself, then immolated on the lawn. I imagine Martin in his bathrobe, fire extinguisher in hand, silent and stunned. Yet he may also have been resigned, thinking: “This is the way things are. This is how you live a life.”
The ice section of the gully was sublime, plastic water ice that necked down between granite walls you could bridge with both hands. I urged Greg to put in an ice screw, for looks, and he angrily refused. On my lead, I slotted only Stoppers into the sidewalls, in an old-school reverie that kept me from using my many Camalots. At one point, Greg had to maneuver around an overhang, a big chockstone. He stopped and waited at the crux so I could get the shot.
In two hours we were out of the gully and on easy terrain, and we bagged Meeker’s fractured granite summit. And that was it: our long-planned and extensively trained – for expedition, which ended so high, and so beautifully, that we almost forgot who might be the bigger, tougher hero of the climb.
In the car the next morning, I strapped on the bone stimulator, and we were almost instantly stuck in traffic, shoveling down CornNuts. Hours later, Greg and I were both home. A woodpecker had been banging on his metal flue on the roof every morning at 6:00 a.m. Ratatatatatat. He was strapping a plastic owl to the chimney to scare it away. I was hosing out a pajama blowout on the front lawn, waving to smiling neighbors who were unaware of the grim nature of my task.
I’ve developed a technique to overcome what at first seems to be an insurmountable challenge. Sometimes the solution, like taking toxic footy pj’s out onto the lawn, seems absurd, but when you assess the situation, it’s the only option available. A friend had his leg cut off mid¯calf because the shattered mess that had become his ankle after a climbing fall would never, ever perform, or feel, as good as a prosthesis. “This is what you do,” he said.
Dreamweaver would melt out entirely in a few days. But I had stored it for reference, to bring out as needed for sustenance, like the picture of Elias and Willa in my wallet. In fact, I was thinking about the climb now, here on the lawn, with the hose, and the sun in my eyes.
This is what you do.
Auden Schendler runs sustainability programs at Aspen Skiing Company, and is the author of Getting Green Done. His broken rib has never healed.