A Standard

For a small tribe of rock climbers in the Cascades, climbing the complete North Ridge of Mt. Stuart, in less than 24 hours, without sleeping (“car to car in a day”), represents something of “a standard”. Certainly not a noteworthy climbing achievement, but enough effort to warrant a little respect. 8 miles and 3,000ft of gain on the hike in, 3,000ft of rock climbing up to 5.9, some scrambling and route-finding down a steep snow couloir on the way out. For most recreational climbers, it’s a pretty full day.  If that doesn’t mean anything to you, just ride along for the photos.

I climbed Mt. Stuart via a different route in 2010. Our “car to car in a day” took 23hr30min, and was an eye opening experience in alpine snow and mixed climbing. I was grateful for strong partners, but was mostly just along for the ride with more experienced people.

Last year, Pat and I climbed the upper North Ridge, approaching via an overnight camp at Ingalls Lake, the Stuart glacier, and a snow gully that cut off a bunch of more technical rock climbing. We had a blast, and after a punishing descent, made it back to camp in 15hrs. The position of the route, the quality of the rock climbing, and the reputation amongst my friends made me think that doing the Complete North Ridge was fully warranted. Sometimes it’s fun to bite off a little more than you can chew.

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(First look at the whole shebang)

Between weather and other commitments, I usually only get to partner with Ky one weekend a summer – so when we lined up for the July 8th weekend, I wasn’t going to waste the chance. Reliable beta indicated that the descent was in good condition.

We left the car at 315am and somehow managed to nail the approach- I was leading in my rock shoes at 715am. We let another party (Nick and Austin) pass us at the crux 3rd pitch because I wanted to take my time on the lead. I don’t regret it, but did cost us 45min. After the crux we lost a little more time with some route-finding, reaching the “halfway” notch at 11am. We were already low on water and while we rested and nursed a snowfield, the hoards caught up to us from below. I think there were 6 or 7 parties on the route that day. There are fewer possible variations higher on the route- so traffic management slowed us further.

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(Ky follows the crux)

It gets real at the Great Gendarme, and suddenly folks were more orderly in letting faster parties go. I blitzed the layback pitch (which I had followed in 2016), and Ky made excellent grunting noises while sending the off-width pitch on-sight. Both pitches are amazing climbing, but we were tired and I was really glad I didn’t have to lead the off-width. We raced for the summit, topping out at 645pm. I wish I could have enjoyed it without dreading the time of day on our descent.

(The only non-blurry summit photo I got of Ky. Instagram PC – Ky)

We gratefully followed Nick and Austin (because they knew where they were going), and found a legit snowfield water source just before really getting onto the snow downclimbing. Conditions were good, but I was very grateful to have aluminum crampons and approach shoes- we had to front point all the way down. We approached the bergschrund (where the glacier pulls away from the mountain) around 915pm, just as daylight started to fade in earnest. Steep snow was hardening, and our brains were fried from effort and dehydration. A safe path was not obvious, and it was not the time to be bold. We opted to give up on completing the sub24 hr standard, sit out for the night (with no bivy gear), and make a better decision in the morning. Nick and Austin agreed and we collectively found a nice little rock ledge to hang out on.

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(Starting down the snow. PC Ky.)

After 5 hours of shivering, it was glorious to see the sun-rise. We warmed up for an hour, and left around 6am. Breakfast was a peanut butter packet and a fruit leather, the very last of our food. With daylight, the bergschrund crossing was more obvious and we were soon cruising towards the car.

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(Ky finds salvation below the bergschrund)

I love mountains, even when it doesn’t all go according to plan. Thanks for following.

 

 

Copyright Skander Spies, 2017

School

I admit- I smile when people ask me where I went to college. Northwestern University. The pedigree, the reputation, my ego swells. Ask me though, how I really felt about it and I’ll get smug and tell you I hated it. My professors came in two groups- conservative, arrogant, and unconcerned for the world, or perhaps liberal, arrogant, and willing to see me for the washed out music major wannabe that I was rather than who I would eventually become. I needed more hand holding than they were willing to offer, and I was too proud to get help or cheat like other struggling classmates.  I wasn’t smart enough to cut it there, and I still might not be. The raw math and fundamental concepts never came that easily to me. Instead of stepping up to the challenge, I cursed and complained. I graduated half out of spite, with bold aspirations to earn my living in the mountains, or some other way. To forget my pedigree, to forsake my intellectual inheritance.

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Showing Abigail and Michael around campus today though, I have a deep connection to this place. I’m proud of my time here, and the deep marks on my hide that remain from the struggle. Ask me now and I have an unbridled passion for engineering. The more technical, the better. Northwestern may have put the chip on my shoulder, but now I’m willing to consider that was exactly what it was supposed to do. I’m a better engineer because the experience was so damn harsh. This place has evolved too, and I see more of what I hoped it had evolved into. The friendships I built because of this place still stand- the wedding I’m in town for is proof. The projects I did then still feel cool, the lessons I learned still serve.

 

Maybe it’s time to bury the hatchet.

Flow

3 months of overtime leading up to last Friday had replaced most of my mental resiliency with a weary, pressurized tension. Thermodynamics gives us the solution- pressure and flow are two sides of the same coin. To reduce pressure, allow an outlet for flow.

 

The Southwest Rib of South Early Winter Spire is an easy climb with some of the best rock in the Cascades- a perfect outlet for tension. Devon has quickly become a trusted and sought after adventure partner- he is also knows how to have fun. Last Sunday we flowed up the route, laughing and being totally inspired by the North Cascades.

Sometimes the flow is a hard thing to feel.  I don’t get it every time, but it’s a part of every single adventure I chase. It’s usually easier to find with someone else. Thanks Devon.

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(photo by dP)

To Truly Dance

Dear Mom,
You died on Saturday, April 1, 2017. It was a surprise. I was skiing in Whistler, British Columbia, as likely of a place as I was to be as anywhere.  I’m grateful there weren’t many things I still needed to say to you. In the time since, I’ve told our story so many times: after dad died- I grew up close to you, close to the church. We grew apart, bitterly on my behalf, when I left the church and moved west.  I found my own truth and we pieced it back together slowly, like the beautiful blankets you made for Soren and I. The last few years of your life held some of our most honest and loving conversations. The most recent lesson: that feeling the same faith is less important than feeling each others humanity.

A few more favorites:

The air smelled thick of cut grass and the quiet, high-ceilinged church- I was 9, and stood up for the first time to give a testimony in Wednesday night church. I was just back from summer church camp full of newfound confidence. The cicadas chirped outside in the sticky midwestern summer. I shared a short truth about overcoming my fears at summer camp, you beamed. My faith is different now, but no less strong- you made faith cool.

I was 13 when you were finally able to tell me about my half-brother in Australia- he was half a world away, wondering who I was. I was so mad at you- his existence seemed to refute the moralist foundation you raised me with. Ultimately, welcoming him openly into our family inspired us all to a greater sense of compassion and honesty. I can only hope to learn so much from my own indignities.

At 17 you let me drive your new car and two friends 1500 miles to spend two weeks on our own in the Wind River mountains. When we got out, you flew to Jackson to shuttle us back to the car, feed us, and send us off on the drive home. You experienced the mountains differently than I do, but loved them no less. You refused to let the fears of the world darken the light of your experience, or mine. It’s a lesson we need badly these days.

We were eating at Lulu’s Noodles during the spring of my freshman year at Northwestern. I was terrified, because I had met you for lunch to tell you I was dropping out of music school. To my surprise, you took it in stride and cheered for me to enjoy a more relaxed version of college. That’s when I learned your dreams for me were nothing less than exactly my own.

I skipped my graduation from Northwestern to go on a NOLS course in Alaska. Instead, you sent 5 dozen cookies up to our team because my college team had won our senior design competition. it seemed out of place at the time, but I realize now it was the sweetest way that you could say you were proud of me. You always knew how to celebrate the important things.

Last Christmas we went out for deep dish, the whole family of us. Over the years I had always ducked the opportunity to pick up the check at a family dinner but in 2016 I was glad not to skip the chance. You always lived with the assumption of having enough to do the right thing- whether you had a lot or not. There was always enough.

And that is the point- we had less time than we all hoped, but it was enough. I’m still learning how much you cared for us, how great of a mom you were. I think you’re proud of me- I hope you know how proud we are of you.

“Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing.
And when you have reached the mountain top, then you shall begin to climb.
And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance.”   (Kahlil Gibran)

Climb on, mom.

You can enjoy some of my mom’s ideas through her lecturing and writing work for the Church of Christ, Scientist- her most recent piece is particularly excellent. Our family is deeply grateful for your compassion, however there will be no service. You can honor Lois most meaningfully through a donation to her church or to Mountain Home Montana

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Blossoms

My mom loves cherry blossoms. Last night I went for a leisurely run from my house down to University of Washington and just took a few pictures on the way. Yes, it was crappy light, so I touched up the light and color on a few of them. Regardless it’s a good season in Seattle. This one is for my mom.

“Allow. That’s most of what we have to do, is just allow it. We may not understand now, or ever, but we will feel it, we will feel our lives.” (Andrew Given)

Scratch

“Shit guys, my hands are done.” I hated to be the one to call it, but I had just tipped past “fun” and my hands were giving up on holding my ski poles.  It’s always humbling to hang out with people just a little tougher than you are.

We’d been skinning for a couple hours up the long south face of Mt. St. Helens. Wind-driven snow at 35F has an uncanny ability to turn into liquid upon contact, penetrating every last layer. The gale increased with elevation, but visibility dropped. I didn’t stay focused on self care enough to make sure we hit the summit before the painful wet cold overcame my ability to smile about it. Not being able to see up from down didn’t help the case for continuing, despite Devon’s GPS coordinates keeping us on track.

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The best visibility we had all day.

This spring storm cycle has been unforgiving for those of us limited to weekend days and smaller plans. Every once in a while, you can’t scratch the itch any other way. You make the long drive, put a smile, and go see what Mother Nature serves up.  The snow was really good on the way down, but we skied some of the flattest, whitest conditions I’ve ever been in. We side slipped together, checking course every 100yds.  There were no visual references. Like the best of friends, Martin and Devon wore smiles all the way. Its always remarkable to me how much better you feel as soon as you slip on a puffy coat, thick gloves, and rip your skins off.

I don’t know why we needed to do that, but I’m glad we did. Maybe it was a test. Or a smackdown. Or just a day out in the mountains, full of acceptance for what we got. For a power much greater than ourselves. In a world where we tend to see the best of everyone else’s days on Instagram, where failures are uncelebrated- an unremarkable day of skinning, freezing, and smiling with friends feels like the best thing we could have done.

Colorado

Despite learning how to ski here, my normal adventure map has strangely omitted time in Colorado. Abigail has cool friends- they celebrated their wedding in Crested Butte, and she managed to find cheap airfare for both of us. It was a good start to February. One photo per day:

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Day 0: Packing for adventure schizophrenia.

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Day 1: Fly from LAX to Gunnison- Grand Canyon scenic flight for free. #AlaskaAir

crested butte, ski bunnies, ski bosses

Day 2: Meet friends and make new ones. SKI.

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Day 3: Vacation. Cute houses, deep snow.

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Day 4: Steep. The Staircase. Amazing.

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Day 5: This place keeps on giving. Deep Throat. Bluebird

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Day 6: Switch gears. Every ice climber has to go to Ouray once. Thanks Drew and Lindz

newbie ice climber, grit, never say never

Day 7: Never say never. Abigail swings tools. The girl has grit.

alaska air, crested butte, steep and deep, Big Chute

Day 8: Abigail comes to terms with Big Chute. Steep AND deep. Free lift tix from Ak Air.

sunset, BoiseState plane

My version of vacation might not work for everyone, but it sure does for me.