La Plata Peak 14,336'

16 August 2012

Sketch city. The Ellingwood Ridge alternate looked totally sweet, but it ended up being miserable. One wrong turn, that’s all it takes. Shortly after making the ridge, it was apparent that it was going to be a slow, tedious traverse filled with moderate-to-difficult route-finding (no trail and very few cairns). I’m not easily discouraged, so my spirits were still high.

Before I made it halfway through the first crux area, I was willing it to be over. I say “area,” because there isn’t just one wall and a nice suggested route; it’s a whole mess of stuff with little-to-no guidance at all. The crumbling rock was hardly reassuring.

I was rapidly becoming frustrated with the whole thing, but especially the route-finding. It wasn’t long before I became keenly aware that I was off route. I was on good ground, so I took a moment to look around. I could see a system of ledges above me. It looked like my exit, so I climbed a short, easy class V section to gain the ledges. Now I don’t mind a little free-soloing of a class IV or even V, but I genuinely dislike down climbing that stuff. I was pretty sure I wouldn’t have to, so I pressed on. About 25 feet up, I could see my intended route more clearly and could tell with certainty that that wasn’t where I was supposed to be. I took a deep breath, explored a bit, then bit the bullet. I was gonna be down climbing. But where was I heading? Then I spotted it: purple webbing wrapped around a chockstone and secured with a locking carabiner. It was quite a bit lower and clearly indicated that the gully was my exit. Not the solution for which I was hoping but certainly better than being lost. The line down to the gully was unclear, since I wasn’t where I was supposed to be to begin with. I found a direct class IV/V down climb that looked acceptable. There was an easy class V traverse standing between me and the proposed down climb. The traverse looked pretty straightforward, but the ledge was narrow (maybe 4″) and there was some overhanging rock rising above it. We’ll call it suboptimal. Still- I was optimistic, so I went for it.

Sure-ok-yeah, I went for it. It was that simple, but it wasn’t. The traverse wasn’t too bad until the line ran out just above the down climb. I lowered my left leg and gave my foot hold a solid kick to make sure it could hold my weight. My heart shot into my throat, then steadily sank to the pit of my stomach as the rock cantilevered out of the slope (quite literally) in slow motion. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Given the approximate dimensions, I’d be willing to bet it weighed about what I do. I listened attentively while it crashed clumsily down the steep gully for a few long seconds before a still silence ultimately prevailed. As you might imagine, my heart was pounding. You wanna talk adrenaline? Ok, let’s talk. I was physically shaking and could actually feel terror taking hold. I knew I was in trouble when a fleeting thought came to mind: What would it feel like to follow that rock down the gully? Would I live? God, I hope not. That’s how I knew I was in deep. I noticed I was gripping my hand holds unnecessarily tightly and all of my muscles were getting pumped. I needed to calm down; I needed to consider my options; I needed to make a decision.

For the first time – on this, my 17th fourteener – I would’ve preferred to have had someone up there with me. Too late. No sense getting lost in that fantasy.

Instead I mounted my tenuous perch, relaxed my muscles, and took a slow, deep breath. How did I get here? Nevermind, it doesn’t matter. How do I get down without jumping 200 feet? I looked back the way I’d come, but suddenly those exposed, overhanging holds didn’t look so inviting. I checked and re-checked options on my proposed line, but that was the only foot hold. And now it was gone, long gone. I didn’t want to be on the perch; I didn’t wanna be on that ridge; I didn’t even wanna be on that peak anymore. But I didn’t regret one single decision that had brought me there, even as badly as I wanted to be somewhere else, anywhere else.

That was the fear working its way into my psyche. My lifestyle carries with it inherent dangers. Sure I could change the way I live, the hobbies I love, but all that would get me is a life full of unfulfilled dreams. I know it’s morbid, but I need my family and loved ones to be mentally prepared for the terrible possibility that they’ll have to bury me. I don’t have a death wish, but dying young because I’m pursuing my dreams is far less tragic than the alternative. I celebrate the life I’m living every single day. And should it end prematurely, I want all of you that I love to do the same. I’ve experienced more in 26 years than many folks do in a lifetime, but that’s because I’m chasing my dreams. It’s not that I’m not afraid of dying; it’s that I’m more afraid of missing the wonderful opportunity to really live.

And for my trouble, I know myself as well as anyone else, and better than most. When you’re standing on the brink – real or imagined – more afraid of surviving the fall than of dying, that’s when you meet yourself. That’s when you see your naked heart. And you can’t know that part of you until you’re on the edge. Thank you for putting it so eloquently, Grandma. I had no idea how to say it.

Of course, I worked my way out of it. I had to very cautiously retrace my moves. It was unpleasant but not long before I was back on stable ground. The rest of the traverse was even slower and more tedious; I wasn’t looking for a repeat offense. I looked up shortly after exiting the crux area, and my heart filled with anxiety when I saw the clouds had been building during my ordeal. Fortunately they abated over the coming hours. This wasn’t the place to get trapped in a lightning storm.

Once my mind and body settled, I realized that part of my trouble today was that I hadn’t been properly hydrated to begin with, and I couldn’t catch up. I had a light but persistent headache (extremely rare for me), I hadn’t peed very many times over the previous few hours, my lips were dry and cracking, and my tongue was swollen. Classic signs. But it’s not like I could simply chug a few liters; I had to budget my precious lifeblood. Normally 3 liters would’ve been more than enough, but it took me seven hours to make the summit. I’ve never been on a mountain that long when I wasn’t working. I’m generally up and down in considerably less time than that. I’d underestimated my route. It wasn’t a critical mistake, but the descent was more unpleasant than it needed to be.

Ten hours and as many miles after leaving my car, I returned safely, none the worse for wear. And maybe a bit better. Sure the experience was terrifying, but it was also reassuring. Yes, reassuring. Most of us like to think that we’d be calm, cool, and collected if we found ourselves in a position where one ill-advised move could mean the difference between walking away and not. But the truth is that we can’t know who we are in that situation until we live it. I’d be willing to bet that all of us would struggle to keep a level head and our wits about us the first time we face that risk. Most of us can do it, but it’s unnatural. If you don’t make a call – and own it – then terror can take hold and paralyze you.

As you can imagine, decisions become more difficult to make when you have no safety net, no opportunity to correct an error. You must be fully committed. I had to trust myself completely and accept the nature of the predicament. Today I found my limit, my terror, and I know what’s in my heart. Tomorrow my limit will be a half step further, and then another the day after that. Let’s be real, this isn’t the only time I’ll find myself in this kind of situation. Now I know with certainty that I possess the self-control and confidence to keep making decisions. I’m not going to actively seek out terrifying situations, but I’m not going to surrender to them either. Remember that at that critical moment, engulfed in terror, I wasn’t psyched about it, but I didn’t regret one decision that brought me there either. How many people get to say that?

May we all find our limit; may we all meet our naked hearts. 

There are many fourteeners on my list that I will likely return to one day, most of them the more challenging and exciting. La Plata is not one of those. It left a disturbingly sour taste in my mouth. I’d put myself in a position with few outs, though this outcome is hardly the mountain’s fault. Regardless, the experience has taken the wind out of my sails…but I doubt the damage is permanent. More summits to come in the next few days.

The Peak draws some people like a siren but rejects others.
If it draws you, approach with respect and caution.

– Gerry Roach