What the fuck am I doing here?
Sometimes asking that indicates a great day. Sometimes it means I’ve made a mistake.
Seriously though, what the fuck am I doing here?
Sunday, I went ice climbing with Katherine – after a gigantic gear walk up Evan Thomas creek we ended up looping back to the same climb I’d done the day before – two pitches of mellow ice. Should’ve been no sweat. I mean, I climbed it the day before. I could probably use the same placements.
Except it had dumped snow overnight. There’s no appreciable avi hazard above the route, so it should’ve been fine. But then at the bottom of the route we watched two big sluffs come down off the face beside it, the powder clouds wafting over us. And then as I walked up to the base of the first pitch, a 5m wide sluff came down the middle of the route. I convinced myself that was great, it had just cleaned the snow accumulation off the route.
But then I was a pitch up and Katherine was calling a heads up. I shifted my focus from placing and clipping a screw to the route above me in time to see the powder cloud of a big sluff bearing down on me. I sucked in to the ice as the snow rushed over me, momentarily struggling to draw breath from the snow saturated air.
What the fuck am I doing here?
As the air cleared I went to hastily clip my momentarily forgotten screw but no slack came, Katherine just yelled at me to hold. A shoulder check at my climbing partner showed me that while I had avoided the worst of it, Katherine, in her exposed belay stance was nearly getting knocked over by the air and snow rushing past her – she simply couldn’t feed me slack for my clip while maintaining her balance. These are not small sluffs. These are getting big. Seriously, what the fuck am I doing here?
We’d chosen a hilarious conservative line in light of the cold temperatures (-25oC overnight) having made ice brittle and the significant avi danger due to the fresh snow. Conditions were tough, but we’d make it work. Who’s ever heard of avi danger up Evan Thomas? We saw the sluffs and we kept going – it’s just sluff, it’s loose, not deep enough to bury us. Being primarily a skier, I barely think about sluff, you just pull to the side and let it wash by when it gets bad. But ice? I can’t get out of the way, I’m committed to a line. What are the odds of one coming right down on top of us when that line had already gone? Hazard cleared right? We can manage this. Soft people spend the day in the city when conditions aren’t ideal. Real mountaineers mange the hazards and make shit work.
As mountaineers, the name of the game is moving through terrain that necessitates significant technical skill and experience to survive. It’s part of the fun. It’s liberating to realize that you can get dumped in the middle of nowhere in the mountains and with a pack of gear you’ll just make shit work.
It’s possible to only do things that are well inside your ability envelope. It’s possible to go out only when the conditions are ideal. It’s possible to keep things comfortable.
But I want more than that.
I have a tendency towards being too cautious. I don’t push myself or the conditions. I don’t want to be reckless, I like coming home at the end of the day, but I’m also trying to better appreciate the fact that just because conditions aren’t ideal, doesn’t mean I can’t go do stuff. Or at least make an attempt before running away. I think I can push my comfort zone a bit and still be within an acceptable margin of safety.
There’s two cases when I ask myself my hazard mantra. What the fuck am I doing here?
There’s the laughing type – like when Katherine and I climbed Plutonium Shores despite an obvious rain system moving in and then sure enough ended up trying to climb rock while getting poured on. We identified the hazard, we managed it by picking a route well within our pay grade that also offered easy bail options – so when the rain got too ridiculous to climb, we bailed. We pushed conditions for sure – but everything went according to plan. Nothing was scary.
What the fuck am I doing here? I was laughing as I asked myself that on Plutonium Shores. I wasn’t scared. I was climbing a route I could safely retreat from if the weather wasn’t ideal. Yea, we didn’t top out, but it was safe and a hell of a lot more fun than sitting in the city.
But a pitch up a route well below my grade, yet hoping Katherine wasn’t going to lose her balance and pull me off, hoping another, bigger sluff wasn’t going to come down on me when I wasn’t ideally planted to shrug it off, I wasn’t laughing. What the fuck am I doing here? I was scared. I didn’t want to be there. The number one rule of ice climbing is don’t fall. Will Gadd just wrote an article about how there is no such thing as easy ice, a fall always has consequence. Don’t take shit for granted. This isn’t rock climbing a sport route in the rain. There’s consequence here.
If I can ask myself that question ‘What the fuck am I doing here?’ and laugh, then the answer is easy – I’m having fun. I might be in a weird, complex, spicy spot, but I’m inside the acceptable risk range. I’m using my skills and experience to manage a ‘different’ situation. If I ask myself that question and I’m scared – that means I’ve fucked up. I’ve gone too far outside my comfort zone. It’s time to bail, get out of there as quickly and safely as I can and then it’s time to appreciate the lesson I just learned.
I yelled down at Katherine that I was retreating. Sank a couple of screws to secure myself while I built a v-thread in the least crappy ice I could find, seriously glad that we’d picked such moderate terrain so I didn’t have to go far to find a rest stance where I could get all of this done. I hate trusting an untested v-thread. I briefly considered if I should abandon a screw. I was trying to move quickly, efficiently. I was continuously glancing above me, expecting to see another powder cloud bearing down on me, quietly reminding myself that I had half a rack of screws sunk to the hanger in the ice in front of me so I’d be fine regardless.
Placing a v-thread isn’t exactly second nature for me at the best of times, so trying to build one while crapping myself was extra fun. Intellectually I knew if more sluffs came down I’d be fine. But I was also intensely aware that the snow was clearly wildly unstable. I was better my life that there was no avi slope up there big enough to pull something serious onto me. I was 99% sure there wasn’t. Was I willing to bet my life on 99%?
What the fuck am I doing here?
Grumpy, cantankerous, wildly opinionated and so much more! Getting really tired on skis is what makes me happy.