Down & Out | Ascent
“Oh, no! Climbing.” Not even a question mark.
It was the natural reaction, repeated time and again, by all who knew my passion. After all, here I was, a mountaineer of indeterminate skills and judgment, void of other athletic interests or talent, now hobbled upon crutches and clamped below the knee in a Goliath-sized walking cast. What could it be other than evidence of some epic mountain disaster? I’d like to think my situation conjured images of a magnificent fall, a stoic collision with unforgiving stone, capped off by a heroic crawl over talus and ice back to civilization. Never mind that those who knew me doubtlessly envisioned a stumble in the dark while peeing from an unplanned bivouac. Either way, a tale of mountain adventure was what people expected to hear, and what I longed to tell. The truth, however, was the antithesis of glorious injury, and demanded a shameful confession:
Blank looks, then a cautious brightening: “You mean cleaning out a crack?”
“No. Digging a hole.”
More perplexed expressions. A final stab at context: “Ah, a snow cave! Or a deadman anchor?”
“Um, no. Digging. In actual dirt. To plant … plants.”
In fact, the deadman reference wasn’t far off the mark because although I didn’t know it at the time, in terms of climbing, I’d also dug my own grave.
Instead of an ice axe, a shovel was literally the implement of my destruction. Hammering my heel repeatedly behind the blade had transmitted blunt, concussive impacts throughout the foot’s musculature, eventually rupturing a sinew deep within the ankle. At first I felt only a burning discomfort, like a mild sprain, and so I kept at it, stomping and chipping at the rocky clay with blind determination, ultimately planting myself deep in a depression of my own making.
For weeks, months and then years afterwards, the vertical tear hiding within the tendon eluded diagnosis; meanwhile, every step I took ground the fibrous gristle, exacerbating the damage. I deteriorated from limp, to crutch, and even wheelchair. Eventually, I abandoned any form of ambulatory exertion and took to the couch, no longer even an armchair mountaineer.
By the time the surgeon finally deduced and repaired the injury, years of inactivity and unburned calories had accumulated over me like a lead blanket. Any thoughts of climbing had long ago been routed to dead-end sidings of the brain, abandoned in isolated pockets of hazy memory and impracticable dreams. In a bloated, sedentary gloom, I could imagine no path leading back to the mountains. Objects at rest tend to remain at rest.
Finally, badgered by family and friends, shamed by my own reflection, and with the fear of god put in me when my slimmer and more active father suddenly clutched his chest and dropped dead in my arms, I turned off the TV, pried myself out from between the sofa cushions, and ate an apple. Training had begun.
I walked roads, then trails, ever faster, finally running. Slowly the pounds began to melt away, muscles firmed, and the ankle held. I saw light at the end of the tunnel, even began daydreaming about possible trips and routes to mark my return to mountaineering. For the first time in years I bought a climbing magazine. And that’s when the needle skated off the record:
Stranger in a Strange Land
I never expected the merry-go-round to stand still, but
until I got bucked off, I guess I never appreciated just how fast it was spinning. Sure, I’ve got a dusty box in my basement full of T-tons and Peck nuts and other relics of mountaineering archeology that no climber born after the Reagan administration has ever heard of. But the evolution from those bits of antiquated chockery to the state-of-the-art gear I had been snagging into cracks right before I kicked that garden spade had seemed measured and logical, like the little finches of the Galapagos Islands gradually developing slightly different beaks or minor variations in plumage in response to their changing world. Now, judging from the pages of the magazine, during the time I’d been away from climbing, everybody had turned into flamingos.
In particular, the current high-water standard of mid-range 5.15 seemed absolutely trippy. Not that the upper fringes of climbing were ever my bailiwick—even in my prime, I was elated whenever I managed to untangle a 5.11 ball of twine. Long ago, however, when mountaineers were still clucking over the fact that the Yosemite Decimal System for rating fifth-class climbing (5.7, 5.8, 5.9, etc.) had necessarily popped its top to accommodate the mathematically nonsensical 5.10 and beyond, I saw a magazine advertisement that poked graphic fun at the grades. In it, some guy had posed for a photo by backing his ass and legs beyond the lip of a jutting horizontal overhang, the underside blank and smooth as troweled concrete, his rope dangling freely through empty space. The caption read, Leading a 5.15 pitch! At the time, we all chuckled because the number, like the photo, was so comically preposterous. In those bygone days, when the best in the world were poking at the lower ranges of 5.13, the likelihood of 5.15 ever becoming a reality seemed on par with printing the Bible on a pinhead.
Of course, I should have seen it coming: Even in my heyday, 5.13 was thoroughly mastered, even passé, as the elite hammered away at 5.14. Nevertheless, in my mind, because of that one memorable spoof from the Paleozoic, the notion of 5.15 climbing had remained the height of absurdity. Then, in the midst of my convalescence, scientists announced they’d managed to etch the entire Old Testament on the head of a pin.
So here I am, Gripped van Winkle, wide awake again at last, blinking in the strange dawn of an unfamiliar and unsettling reality. Or perhaps, because of my absence, I’m just seeing things through fresh eyes. Whatever the case, climbing seems to have turned upside-down. It’s a world gone mad: Little kids are climbing Everest, Greg Mortenson is the Devil, and shares of Black Diamond are publicly traded on NASDAQ.
The question isn’t when I will ever climb again. It’s whether I even want to.
Gear Up Or Get Out
“Dammit, dammit, DAMMIT!”
It was 1991. My buddy R. and I had just come off a miserably taxing winter aid climb, part of a youthful ambition to establish the first grade VI wall climb in the Midwest, a lateral series of linked pitches and traverses across the half-mile face of Palisade Head. Humping our mountain of equipment back to the car had exhausted our reserves of strength and patience—not to mention the last minutes of daylight. Then, just as our eager push for hot food and warm beds seemed all but done, my car planted its heels, resisting all efforts to reverse out of the snug little pullout like a bull that only knows one direction out of the chute. Bucking and shuddering, the engine bellowed, the tires pawed, but the vehicle stubbornly refused to back up more than a few inches.
“Maybe there’s a rock under one of the wheels,” R. suggested.
“You want me to check?”
“Hold on!” I screamed, working the gas like a pump organ, parlaying a frenzied rocking between forward and reverse toward escape velocity. Suddenly the entire rear end of the car rose up a foot or so, and the vehicle broke loose, bouncing and lurching wildly as if backing over a dead horse.
The stark light of the high beams illuminated a scene of even more chilling carnage: a lumpy debris field of mangled ropes and shredded packs. It was all there, despite having been brutally raked and strewn beneath the spinning tires and oily undercarriage of the car; every bit of our climbing gear, right where we’d left it.
“Fuck!” I bellowed at R. “Didn’t you put the stuff in the trunk?!”
“I thought you did.”
So you see, I know first-hand that even the idea of having to replace one’s entire accumulation of climbing equipment is enough to conjure extreme notions (Do I really need two kidneys? Do I even need one?), even throwing in the towel. And today, after being left to molder, most of my kit belongs in a museum or a dumpster. The ropes, webbing and other soft goods have turned as brittle and funky as my grandmother’s wedding dress, and much of the hardware is hopelessly outdated. (Compared to the latest-and-greatest ice tools, bristling like rose stems with wicked-looking grips and pinkie rests, my axes are a couple of Neanderthal shin bones.) Re-outfitting myself with new, state-of-the-art gear has real potential to break me, both mentally and financially. Even before the car disaster, I’d already been forced to replace all my equipment once. That was after some miscreant managed to snatch a bulging, monster pack from right under my nose in Paris (City of Light Fingers). And after I crushed the whole lot under the car? Oh, I continued to climb on that stuff for another decade. Like I said, the prospect of losing everything can short-circuit the neurons of judgment and light up the lobes where crazy runs the show.
So what will I do this time around—that is, if I decide to rack and roll? Pony up, at least in part. Even I have to admit that by now my ropes are beyond salvage (a little motor oil is one thing, but actual decomposition really can’t be ignored). Likewise, I’ll concede to shelling out for new tools. I’m not sure if the latest configurations represent a progress of form, function, style or marketing hype—I really don’t care; when you’re the only turkey in a flock of flamingos, you’ll grab at anything just to fit in. In terms of my boots, jackets and other clothing … perhaps there I’ll be more patient. They say that if you hold on to anything long enough, it eventually comes back into fashion. I do know this: For over a hundred years, every mountaineer from Whymper to Hillary went into battle wearing woolen long johns. Then, around 1980, wool abruptly fell out of vogue, usurped by a new crop of pricey synthetic fabrics made from spun petro-chemicals that were hydrophobic (apparently fibers so fierce they are literally rabid) and warm as a bear’s armpit—an apt analogy, considering that’s exactly what they smelled like after a day or two in the field. There’s always room for improvement. And so today I see the ads and catalogs are touting an even more expensive miracle fabric heralded as the end-all for odorless warmth and insulation: merino wool.
Because It’s Bare
Of course, it’s impossible to speculate about getting back into the game without reflecting on why I ever wanted to climb a mountain in the first place. “Because it’s there”? With that oft-quoted quip George Mallory took the prize for brevity—and maybe being kind of a dick—but Mallory is also credited with a lengthy and eloquent explanation that only a complete asshole would consider abbreviating, so here you go: “There is something in mankind which responds to the challenge of a mountain and goes out to meet it … [I]t is the struggle of life itself, upward and forever upward. What we get from this adventure is sheer joy … and that is what life is for.” Maybe. But for me it was about girls.
In the beginning, I was a bookish little spud, athletically inept, introverted, literally disconnected from my world—my favorite pastime was sitting outside all night in a lawn chair sketching the constellations. Climbing is also fundamentally a question of connecting the dots, and so when a middle-school Phys Ed instructor forced me onto the 30-foot woody he’d nailed up the gym wall, I stunned myself and everyone else by intuitively unlocking the sequence and being the first one up. The whole class cheered. Even the girls. A future decided, then and there.
Of course, the notion that climbing mountains will make someone more attractive to the opposite sex is complete rubbish. The exact opposite is true. Even Mountain magazine, that now-defunct vessel of unbridled masculinity that pumped air month after month trying to keep the ideal afloat, lamented, “What female will ever be impressed by the fact that a man would rather spend the night on some frosty ledge, spooning with another stinky dude, rather than cuddled up with her in a warm bed?” Nevertheless, it remained my dream to one day partner up with some gorgeous rock groupie. Ironically, that’s precisely what it took to finally point me in the right direction.
The rain in the Mont Blanc massif had been so persistent that my climbing partner flew home in a desperate bid to rise above the clouds and see the sun again. I, on the other hand, sought refuge at En Vau, an idyllic cove along the French Riviera, famed for its pocketed limestone walls and towers. When I arrived, the place was teeming with sunbathers and other day-tourists, but throughout the afternoon, as the canyon’s inevitable shadow gobbled up more and more of the beach, the crowds dwindled until all that remained along the margin of the azure lagoon were a few small tents: my own and two more that belonged to other climbers—Americans, to boot. One housed a pair of grim-faced guys from the Seattle area, who despite a high tolerance for wet and dreary weather had also fled the sodden valleys of the Alps like rats from a drain. The other tent belonged to S., a sunny and athletic young woman from Colorado who was also flying solo, and just happened to be looking for a climbing partner.
I introduced myself.
S. smiled. She asked if I had any interest in hooking up with her for a few days.
This didn’t mean what it does now; nevertheless, hopeful to the end, I winked—way too slowly.
She told me she had a boyfriend at home.
And from that point on, we got along famously. To her credit, once the ground rules were established, S. gave me the benefit of the doubt, accepting without prejudice that what may have seemed a creepy, innuendo-laced advance was in fact an unfortunate congenital tic. We spent several lovely days together cragging along the sun-kissed fringes of the Mediterranean—where any further tendency for spasm was masked so completely behind my sunglasses that it was all but forgotten, almost as if it never existed at all.
There’s more to the story, however, and in the end, it represented a turning point for me. Like any significant epiphany, this was forged in a gauntlet of internal conflicts and external pressures (including stratagems that would cause Machiavelli to blush).
After we worked our way through the classic routes at En Vau, S. surprised me by suggesting that we journey on together to the Verdon Gorge, a massive canyon and the premier climbing destination for European rock on a grand scale. She’d taken to the French limestone and was eager to extend our partnership in order to sample what the soaring walls of the Verdon might offer.
It was an invitation no sane man would refuse: a holiday in sunny Provence with a delightful and attractive female companion. Unfortunately, over the past few days, I’d gone a little crazy—thanks to the two brooding palookas camped just up the beach.
The truth is that in the evenings, after bidding S. sweet dreams, I’d taken to relieving any niggling carnal frustrations by drowning them in late-night lager-fueled bonding sessions with the ill-tempered gorillas from the Pacific Northwest. There was a reason why these guys were so grumpy: They were alpine to the core, and since the environment here wasn’t beating them up, they were left with having to torture themselves. They endlessly second-guessed their decision to abandon the mountains, but spoke of it in terms of a “retrenchment” rather than retreat, and were already planning a counterattack. Their thinking was pretty messed up—we’d all just come from the Alps, where only a fish could argue that the season wasn’t a wash—but as a thwarted mountaineer myself, I found their dark rhetoric and manly grunting infectious. It wasn’t long before recalling me to active duty had become a new brick in their quixotic road. They convinced me that in fact it was this place—the beach—that presented the greatest peril; the danger here was in going soft, losing my edge and my self-respect … seduced by simple pleasures and—they thumbed darkly toward S.’s tent—a feminine influence. In the end, I swore an oath to return with them to the Alps, to attempt one of the great Swiss Nordwands—the notorious north faces. Never mind that these walls were typically regarded as alpine death traps, even in good conditions. We would kick some ass or go down swinging.
But first I would have to break with S., and it wasn’t going to be easy. She made sure of that.
“No … no,” I told her firmly, while kneading tanning oil between her shoulders, working it underneath the edges of her sports bra, per her request. “I’ve got unfinished business in the Alps!”
She was killing me; lazily sunning herself on a foam pad, but clearly working to undermine my resolve by pressing an unfair advantage.
And so I added, rather meanly, “I simply cannot waste any more time rock climbing.”
“But why not?” S. pouted. Sitting up, she leaned conspicuously in my direction and smiled prettily. “Haven’t we had a good time?”
“Well, yes, of course. It’s been awesome,” I admitted, before clinging to focus. “But try to understand that I’m an alpine climber—mountains are what I do. For me, the rest of this is just … training!”
S. breathed out an unimpressed sigh. “Well, I don’t get it. All that cold and ice, instead of this?” She massaged another squirt of oil into her thigh. “And Switzerland?” She raked her tongue against her teeth with disgust. “I mean, the Swiss are so uptight. I just can’t believe you wouldn’t rather stay here in France, with me, where everyone is just so … free!” And with that, she suddenly peeled off her top and stretched out like a leopardess along the length of her pad, her skin a dizzying study in contrasts: bronzed contours along sun-burnished shoulders and arms, while elsewhere touched for the very first time by the dazzling and glorious light of day.
Vive la France! So began the communication with which I tendered my resignation (in my defense, I did leave a note): Sorry, lads, change in plan—off to Verdon! Hate to disappoint, but c’est la vie, right? Best of luck vis-à-vis Nordwands. Drop me a line after (if you’re not too broken up. Ha!). Cheers!
Here’s the thing: In the years that followed, I actually did climb a Swiss death trap or two, but I find that now, with the perspective of time and after a period of forced retirement, I can honestly say that I have as clear and satisfying memories of that magic trip to Verdon with S. as from any significant or hard-won alpine contest. She and I lit it up. Climbing mind-blowing rock by day; dancing in the streets of La Palud and strolling moonlit lavender fields by night—I’d always dreamed that climbing would lead me to romance, and then it did. And it had nothing to do with sex (although my companion continued to take perverse delight in pulling my strings). Rather, we experienced that other definition of romance: a spirit or feeling of happy adventure, excitement and the exotic.
Bliss. Mallory’s “sheer joy.”
But do I even need climbing to find it? Absolutely not. I know this because my wife and I recently shared an equal experience exploring the misty cliffside monasteries and ancient pathways of Bhutan. I don’t know which is more remarkable, that we found a way to wander freely through this notoriously closed kingdom, or the fact that I actually have a wife (at long last, a female companion who doesn’t point me to a separate tent at night). I only know that together, we encountered one of the few remaining pockets of unspoiled 5.17, the Himalaya of forgotten time and lost dreams, and I never once missed my ice axe.
This isn’t to say that I’d never consider climbing another big mountain. In fact, there’s always been one that would send me scrambling back into the saddle faster than snakes in the sage. I even have a plan.
The Highest Loser
As an adolescent, I made a list of all the summits I dreamed of visiting one day. Foremost was the mountain that reigned supreme over all others by sheer virtue of its size. Even then I could appreciate that it would not offer the steepest or most technical terrain, but there is something irresistible about ticking the ultimate, and for a budding climber, nothing carried a greater thrill than the prospect of scaling the highest mountain ever measured. I’m referring to Olympus Mons, a volcano that rises 14 miles in elevation on the planet Mars.
Of course, I now know that most of the truly exciting developments the futurists keep saying are just around the corner will never come to fruition—innovation is driven by profit potential, not science fiction. (It’s why I was able to clap out the lights on my dream of climbing via personal jetpack.)
Commerce, however, may be my ticket to achieving another ambition—a sort of consolation prize, a mountain of lesser elevation but more gravity than the Martian colossus. I’m talking about that relatively insignicant high point on the next planet over toward the sun: Mount Everest, the Kosciuszko of the solar system.
While I was still climbing, I never put much serious thought into attempting Everest. If the opportunity had suddenly fallen into my lap, I would have jumped at it, but left to my own devices, I found the challenges of costs and logistics too daunting. And since nobody ever did offer me a slot gratis on a packaged trip—despite my willingness to pen a bestseller about the ensuing disaster—I joined the haters, denouncing commercial expeditions for having turned Everest into the clown car of mountaineering (once they opened the door, the bozos just keep coming and coming). But these past few years on the couch have given me an opportunity to view the world through a new lens—a whole bunch of lenses actually—and I’ve changed my tune. Reality television may mark the advent of human devolution, but it could also be my salvation—a way for me to get back in shape again, plus hitch a free ride to Everest. To this end, I’m pitching my own show, and trust me guys, it’ll kill.
It’s part survival game, part weight-loss competition; the ultimate endurance race meets a “gumbies in the death zone” documentary. The contestants are a bunch of morbidly out-of- shape climbing has-beens, but instead of a fat camp, we (attention, casting director: Note pronoun) are sent to the northeast ridge of Everest. From there, it’s an all-out race for the summit, but with a twist: no food allowed. That’s right: Outwit, outplay and out-fast. The gamble is that we’re already packing enough stored lipids around our guts and thighs to get us to the top. Hilarious highjinks ensue: We waddle around falling into crevasses a lot, but, like corks in a bottle, we don’t drop very far. Drama unfolds: Who gets voted off the glacier for crapping his pants on the Chinese Ladder (solid evidence of contraband rations)? There’s a ton of cross-promotion and product-placement opportunities: we’re all out fitted with the logos of our personal corporate sponsors (e.g. family-style restaurant chains), whose goods and services are instrumental in getting us all well-marbled pre-climb. Eventually, however, the field thins as the mountain literally eats us alive, burning off the flab, trimming all the white from our bacon, until—like a butter butterfly exiting a chrysalis—one honed Adonis emerges from his quadruple-XL expedition suit and plants his ass alongside his Waffle House flag on top of the world! Besides summiting Everest and getting a temporary reprieve from type 2 diabetes, the winner receives a lifetime supply of climbing swag (updated every time styles or ethics evolve, or if anything gets lost, stolen or driven over with a car); he also receives freedom from ridicule at the crags for his outdated techniques and his wool (not merino) knickers; he’s granted the authority to cap the Yosemite Decimal System once and for all, so there are no more reminders that everybody except him seems to be getting better, and he’s given the power of life and death over anybody who even thinks about uttering the numbers “5.16.”
OK, time for me to stop. I swear it was never my intention to preach. I don’t want to be that guy … the cranky old man who lives in the past, thinks his answers are the only ones, and spends all day guarding his turf against the kids on their newfangled bikes.
I’m just trying to figure out where I go from here.
Will I ever climb again?
Maybe not. I know I can get what I really want and need out of life without risking life and limb.
But maybe. Despite the bewildering spectacle of the constantly evolving climbing scene, the mountains offer rich experiences and relationships that just aren’t the same on paper or on screen—even in high definition.
As a climber, Dave Pagel spent over 30 years grappling with hard terrain (including the Titan in Utah’s Fisher Towers, Lotus Flower Tower in the Cirque of the Unclimbables, and Switzerland’s Eiger Nordwand) until he finally met his match planting flowers. His garden is in Duluth, Minnesota, where he lives with his wife, Dina.