The first time you ever climb a mountain, any mountain, you just want to get to the top. No thought of pacing or style, just a need to stand up there and look at the vast earth below. The second time, you want to do it a little neater. More grace on the route, smooth curves and cleaner lines.
The third time you still want to do all that, but in the winter.
Most folks, including some mountaineers, are all about the summit. And the summit can be a beautiful thing. It’s the archetypical expression of triumph and individuality. To accomplish such a feat is to push through the limits of skill, and finally rely on your own spirit, not brawn or endurance. You feel a high on the summit, a lifting up of the soul, and a sensation almost akin to what flight must feel like. Its great, but that’s not why I climb. That little bit of euphoria cost hours of hard, often slow, plodding work. LSD, baby. Long, slow distance.
Climbing is not a fast discipline. It’s also not a spectator sport.
My days of summit fever, or peak bagging in the parlance of the culture, are behind me. I still love big ass mountains covered in ice and snow, but many of my climbs as of late involve more remote, or high and lonely routes. The approach might take twice the time of the actual climb, or sometimes is more difficult that the climb itself. Something that looks like a simple scramble in July can turn into a loaded, precarious death-slog in January. And sometimes it’s not even about the difficulty of the route, but its just that you know, you KNOW, that nobody has ever put this one up before, that you’re the first! That’s the rush. That’s the biggest thrill in the world. To stand in some high and lonely place, and look out and see maybe a half dozen lines that you put up, that you got to name. Deathcrush, Hairway to Steven, Mama Told Me Not To Come, Pain Is Now, Beauty Was Yesterday, and all that heavy metal stuff.
Like I said, fun.
Now I have climbed with partners and done some great work with them, but what I have found is that other people often ruin my time on the mountain. I go there to feel the immensity of the world, the emptiness of all our human constructs. I like the feeling of being small compared to the rock and ice. I like being in a world that is openly hostile to me. You never get to see what you’re made of when you’re sitting on the sofa! In the world of men, we are thinking of our bank accounts, and that doctor’s appointment, and when we have to drive on the fucking highway next Friday. But in the mountains, only a few things matter. I have my bivy sack, I brought the bomber parka, I have extra fuel for the stove, my ice tool is in good repair. Shit that matters. All the money in the world won’t mean a thing when the early sun hits that old rotten ice.
I have a friend who has been up Mount Shasta 62 times, and summited 50 of those. That’s pretty bad ass. What’s interesting is that every time he has had to back off, he is with a partner, or has somebody he is short-roping up. My point is, when you’re alone, you have only your dialog to listen to. You can ignore your own pain, or frustration, or even your own judgment, at your own risk, of course.
There’s a balance between ambition and self-preservation that one needs to be cognizant of if you climb in the mountains, or any remote area, in winter.
Now remember, victory loves preparation. So spend more time than you think you should packing that ruck, and fuck this “go light” thing. I know that a heavy ruck can be a drag, but think about it. In addition to bringing extra layers and a full compliment of winter gear, one thing I always do when I am solo is to bring enough overnight gear that I could survive an unexpected night out. This includes packing a sleeping pad and a bivy sack, and sometimes even a lightweight sleeping bag. A few extra pounds, a few more bits of gear, can turn that accidental camp out from a super duper shitty night, into a regular old shitty night. I have had both, and regular shitty is better. Trust ol’ Icewall here, ok?
So get out there, hike that trail in the winter, learn to use that compass that’s been in your drawer for years, and get off the map that’s in your head. Go put up that Magick Line that only you can see. You’ll never be the same.