Monday, October 22, 2012

Earned Confidence

I love the mountains.  In particular, I love high, steep backcountry - lungs burning, legs screaming, weather a brewin', rocks flying - that's the shit I live for.   Key emphasis on the word, "live."  This is decidedly why I am paralyzingly afraid of/have no interest in the sport of climbing.  Videos of Alex Honnold legitimately make my pee pee hurt.  Mad respect, but no thank you.

So, as you can imagine, when Dom suggested we take the Mountaineer's Route up Whitney yesterday, I naturally jumped right in.  

I had read about the route, but Class 3… Class 4… blah, blah, blah.  It's all just words until I really get out there and understand what it means on my own terms.  The internet is awesome for information, but I also understand how it fulfills the human need to over dramatize and aggrandize pretty much everything, including mountains.  Especially mountains.  I figured it was high time for me to get out there and make a decision about the relative difficulty and danger for myself.  If I got too uncomfortable, I would simply turn around.  Simple as that.

Interestingly enough, through narrow, exposed traverses, hands and knees climbing, steep, slick slabs, boulder fields and scree scrambles, snow and ice - I never did turn around.  A few times I got a little wiggy - but I simply took a deep breath, made a calculated choice and moved forward.  Confidently.  And as I learned throughout the day, that's really what it's all about.

Class 3, on my terms, now means this:  Don't be an idiot.  But also, don't slip.  So in my book, Class 3 is something that definitely puts me a bit out of my comfort zone, but that I am 100% confident in handling.  In the light.  In the summer/early fall.  Solo, but preferably with a friend.

9800' up, but it's all in the 6" between
your ears.
On Sunday morning, I had to negotiate the Ebersbacher Ledges alone.  I was comfortably uncomfortable, if that makes any sense at all.  What I mean is this:  the narrowness and sheer drops were just heady enough to make me slow down, pay attention and take careful steps.  Doing so, I realized I was in no real danger whatsoever and this gave me the confidence to proceed.  I recalled a conversation I had with Joe Grant at Hardrock this year concerning these photos taken on Kiener's Route up Long's Peak in CO (a route I almost accidentally took last June before being discouraged by some climbers around Chasm Lake).  He explained that there was, in fact, adequate room to cross without roping into the wall - you just had to take careful steps.  Those photos scared me almost as much as the Honnold videos and I took no comfort in Joe's explanation, as it was something I did not yet understand.  After crossing the Ebersbachers, I think that maybe now I do.  And as silly as it may sound, I'm actually really proud of myself for approaching this fear with a logical head and fully and wholly conquering it.  Just as with anything in life, I cannot be convinced of anything.  I must experience, embrace and decide for myself.  F you Internet.

Though I considered turning around, in anticipation of how much worse the route might get - I pressed on to Lower Boyscout Lake, at least wanting to get the view of the peaks.  To my delight, I found Dom there waiting for me, having decided we would continue together.  I felt the apprehension melt away as we picked our way up snow covered rocks and pushed over step slabs of slick granite.  The views were sensational and I was immediately glad I'd chosen to step out of my comfortable world of established trails meant for "soft, succulent people" and into this new universe afforded me by "well-seasoned limbs."  That's a Muir reference, look it up.

View from Lower Boyscout Lake.  Slabs to the left, Keeler Needles and Whitney peeking out right of center.

Dom and I had been warned that a summit might not be possible/safe without winter climbing gear, due to some ice in the chute, and as we approached Iceberg Lake, 'twas confirmed.  Two groups had abandoned attempts even WITH the proper gear, and as such, I had already decided I would not be pushing to the summit.  If Dom had his mind set to it, I would wait at the lake for him to watch and confirm his safety, but seeing how late it was getting/the first clouds of the predicted storm now on the horizon, he decided to leave it for another day as well.  

Route to the summit is Class 3 up the chute to the right to the notch.  Then a bit of Class 3-4 to the top.
We quick-footed our way down the talus and slabs - Dom forging his own line, and me carefully picking out cairns - as the late afternoon glow filled the valley.  We got off route more than a few times, eventually finding our way with only a few obstacles.  Exhibit A was some wet granite on a steep slope - but moving quickly had me across easily.  Exhibit B was some snow packed down to ice on a rocky section of trail/boulder downclimbing - but carefully choosing each step had me down without a problem.  Exhibit C was the worst - momentarily taking the wrong way down the Ebersbachers - but a quick look around found a cairn, a route, and just like that - the worst was over.  

Talus stompin'

Heading down the slabs - Lower Boyscout basking in the Sierra glow
As the route spilled out onto the "succulent" main trail, Dom opened his legs and sped off.  I hung back, casually running down a wide, soft span of carpet and finally allowing my mind to relax.  I was proud of what I'd overcome and accomplished for the day, but I couldn't help but wonder:  What if we'd tried to ascend the chute and gotten stuck?  What if the storm had blown in and covered the granite in water?  Or worse, what if it had frozen?  Oh god…. what if there had been ICE on the Ebersbachers?  What if when Dom had jumped down a ledge, he'd been unable to climb back over to the correct route?  

And then I realized - none of these things had happened, because we paid attention to our surroundings, the time of day, the weather and stayed true to our respective abilities.  Just as I always do in the mountains.  Nothing is ever entirely predictable, but being wholly in tune with one's surroundings, and more, fully understanding the possible implications of one small shift in time, weather, etc. makes all the difference.  And those implications are very specific to each individual.  While Dom may have been able to go further and still get down before dark or climb back up the ledge, I would not have - which is why I made my own decisions up there.  Though we made and often make different choices, we're both always safe.  I'm learning to trust that more and more.  And maybe, just maybe, I can learn to trust that while Alex Honnold's choices are pretty much the exact opposite of mine, maybe he's safe too.*

(*Side Note:  Earlier this year, I struck up an aid station conversation with a guy out crewing his girlfriend, myself crewing Dom. He said we were all "crazy" for running this far. Only after the race did Dom inform me that the Alex i was talking to was the Alex that made stomach turn one YouTube video at a time.  Super nice guy -but I made sure to tell him he incited a fear in me greater than Satan himself.)

For me, for now, I am confident in my feet and I am confident in my hands.  If I can have one of these two things firmly planted, I am ready to party - no matter what (or what's not) going on around me.  The minute I have to trust a rope, an axe or any other object to function properly is the minute I lose that confidence.  Bungee jumping, legitimate rock climbing even mountain biking… not for me.    As Dom pointed out, I even have a problem trusting a car sometimes, because well, it's not my hands physically cranking the engine or physically grasping the brakes.  I was honestly more comfortable hanging from a tree wedged in a crack on a sheer face of granite than I was driving down the 5.  That said, just as I've learned to accept my Jeep's ability to get me from Lone Pine to Los Angeles without a hitch and trust that the risk of a crash, engine problem or fat tire is worth the reward of getting me to the most glorious range of mountains I know; so might I someday learn to trust a rope and caribiner to get me to a peak I could otherwise not reach.  But that trust has to be learned and earned.  Without it, even the best gear or most powerful machine is utterly worthless.  And so I move forward, step by baby Class 3 step.

Did I mention how fabulous the Sierras are right now?


Now, I realize having said all this, there are undoubtedly two camps on either side of my Sunday Adventure.  There's the "Seriously? Whitney Mountaineer's Route is a joke and I can't believe she's making this big of a deal about it" group.  This would likely include the majority of the Sierra climbers and many runners I know, probably even Dom.  This definitely includes the old man at the portals who told us about running straight up the slabs and taking his son out there for a summit in the dark… without lamps.  These are the folks that I feel downright silly around sometimes.  I call myself a lover of mountains, but I'm admittedly too afraid to experience the same "edge."

Ha!  But then there's also the, "Seriously?  Get the fuck down from there right fucking now" folks.  (Hi Mom and everyone I work with.)  These people can't believe I would go running all day in the mountains alone.  They cringe when they hear stories of getting stuck out in the dark with no light.  Many believe I'm taking unnecessary risks, though in the aforementioned examples and many more of being temporarily lost, dehydrated, sick or facing extreme heat or cold; I can honestly say I've been fully confident in my abilities and never truly feared for my life.  

All day solo affair up and down Shepherd's Pass - 10/20
Feet happily on the ground.
Again, it all comes back to that theory of relative safety and only knowing what is possible by self-discovery.  If we make choices based on those principles, combined with a true understanding of our environment - no one else can judge.  If we don't, well… there are the stories you hear of that create all the judgement in the first place.   

One of my favorite things to Google is "survival stories," although ironically, I often encounter the opposite of survival.  One subject that comes up more often than any other is Everest, and as no surprise, many of those tales don't end so well.  Recently, I was struck by one particular article which criticized certain adventure outfitters for making anything accessible if one has the time and money.  In my 29 years of life, I've undoubtedly learned that nothing creates a false sense of entitlement like money and power; and in no place is that more dangerous than a remote, high altitude peak, completely exposed to the elements.  No amount of money can create an understanding of a wind shift, the strength to continue another 20 miles with no food or water or the skill to route find in zero visibility.  These and more necessary SURVIVAL skills can only be garnered through hard work and experience - which leads to confidence.  Entitlement is not confidence.  Know the difference.

I do.  And on any given day, on any given run - be it my hundred and somethingth loop of Mt. Wilson or trying a new, Class 2-3 route up a 14,000+ peak - I never, NEVER feel entitled to a summit.  In any given moment, I am taking stock of the terrain, the weather, the time, water sources, topo lines and often most importantly, the other people I am with or meeting. (i.e. Dom).  At what point past dark will he call a ranger or come looking for me, potentially putting himself in danger… I do know that answer.

So I guess my whole point is that no matter which camp you are in, I am not afraid to tell you that I am fully proud of and confident in what I did yesterday.  I learned a lot about my abilities, knowledge and decision making skills in the wilderness, and experienced the rewards of my fitness, strength and abilities.  All the while, I was acutely aware of my personal limitations, relative to me and me alone, and therefore stayed 100% SAFE the entire way up and down.  It was extremely fulfilling and entirely beautiful.  

I can pretty much guarantee taking this route many times in the future, and I look forward to it.  And as my skills and abilities progress, I can't wait to see what other "hell fucking no's" become "seems reasonable's."  In the mountains and in myself, it can all be summarized by one thing and one thing only:


A "seems reasonable" up icy Shepherd's Pass @ 12,000'

*I'd be an asshat not to mention the fact that a certain oft-bearded, always smiling man has an awful lot to do with encouraging my confidence and teaching me necessary skills required for safely enjoying the places I love most. Unicorn, you make my life better in so, SO many ways and I am forever grateful.

1 comment:

  1. I think it's funny in an interview with Alex Honnold, he says people say what he is doing is risky. But hey said people get risk and consequences confused. Risk is doing something that is beyond your abilities, and consequences are what happen if something goes wrong. So if one is confident in their abilities, then it isn't risky.