Saturday, October 21, 2006

Fine solo mountain climber story

From New York Times.

I post this story for friends in Colorado who like to hike and don't subscribe to the NYT.

But I leave it up for you as a fine example of clear, crisp writing in a short format.

Oakley Brooks sets up his protagonist quickly, someone with a wild hair, perfect Northwest weather and nuts enough to climb steep Cascade peaks in the Pickets by himself. Read on:

Lone Climber Attacks Rocky Proving Ground

Published: October 21, 2006
In the heart of North Cascades National Park in north-central Washington is a saw-toothed line of 8,000-foot volcanic rock known as the Picket Range. The sheer faces and the bruising, off-trail slogs required to get to the Pickets make the mountains some of toughest climbs in the lower 48.

“For a mountaineer, it’s probably the best venue in the lower 48 because there are a lot of appealing climbs that haven’t been done yet,” said Peter Potterfield, editor of and author of a Cascades climbing guide.

In 1980, John Roper, a Bellevue, Wash., physician who grew up climbing the mountains in the national park, went on a three-peak expedition that included 8,291-foot Mount Fury in the Pickets. Walking around the south side of Fury, he passed a jagged, 4,000-foot ridgeline leading up toward the summit. The last spike in the ridge jutted out and cast a finger-like shadow against the mountain. Roper later theorized that, given the difficulty of the Pickets, the spike on the ridge of Fury was probably the hardest place to get to in Washington State. Roper named the line Mongo Ridge and the last tower The Pole of Remoteness.

This summer, the Seattle climber Wayne Wallace decided to ascend the ridge and reach the Pole. Nobody else had done it. Few had even considered it.

“It never occurred to me to climb it,” said Roper, now 62 and one of the old guard of Cascades climbers. But when the two talked about going up Mongo, Roper encouraged Wallace, a sinewy, 5-foot-11 carpenter foreman with a thick grip who had in recent years completed tough climbs in the Pickets.

In late August, Wallace had three weeks free because of a strike, and he tried to rally some climbing friends for an attempt at the ridge.

“I only know three people that really qualify for that trip, but everybody had commitments to other climbs or family,” said Wallace, who is 43 and single. “I had the line on this, I had the approach, I had the weather, but I didn’t have partners.”

On Aug. 23, Wallace attended a slide show in Seattle of a first ascent in Alaska. He returned home, packed his gear and left at 4 a.m., charged up by the idea of tackling his own new route — alone.

“In the daily world, we have so much padding around us,” Wallace said. “When that’s gone and it’s just you hanging there in control of your life, that’s when life is at its clearest.”

Wallace’s planned route was a grueling four-and-half-day trek, including a crossing of the eastern summit of Fury before he even got to Mongo Ridge. On his first day, he hiked 28 miles, the last 14 off-trail, through thick forest and clumps of devil’s club, a thorny plant. The next morning, he crossed Fury’s glacier en route to the mountain’s eastern peak. He reached the summit and stretched out to watch a molten red sunset — a good sign for the next day’s attempt on Mongo Ridge.

“When you don’t have any excuses, that’s when it’s scary,” said Wallace, who took a few sleeping pills, as he usually does during climbs.

Upon reaching the base of Mongo the next morning, he looked at the ridge’s first three major pinnacles using his digital camera. “It was a weapon throughout the trip,” he said of the camera.

After going up some steep rock leading to the bottom of the first pinnacle, he began a moderately difficult climb up the 400-foot first tower. Wallace kept his 45-pound pack on and stayed unroped — which saved him the time of looping back down to retrieve rope holds. At the top of the tower, he set a rope and rappelled some 200 feet over to the base of Tower 2, an up-and-down pattern he would repeat throughout the day.

He climbed the next tower unroped and rappelled to the base of Tower 3, where Wallace photographed one of the more intimidating spots on Mongo: a sheer granite pinnacle that soared into a deep blue sky. A gaggle of other towers lay in waiting behind it. Wallace roped up. The climbing ahead looked more technical.

His calves were feeling the effects of carrying his pack. “You’re working against time and energy,” he said.

As he climbed across the face of Tower 3, he looked down on a thousand-foot drop. He repeated a mantra that every mountain has a way up, and another saying: if you live through this, seek help.

Wallace’s hands began to cramp as he traversed the fourth tower. Reaching the top, he had to move across a sharp ridge to get the base of the Pole. He recalled it as one of the dicier points — “like climbing on loose teeth.”

Wallace had been climbing for nearly 12 hours. He sensed that his concentration was blurring from fatigue. Looking up at the Pole and its sheer headwall, he thought it might be the most difficult climb of the day. But he found a notched path up the right edge that allowed him to keep his pack on and ease his way up.

Once atop the tower, he let out a bellowing yell and captured a vertigo-inspiring image: the shadow of the Pole projected against the rest of Fury, with Wallace’s tiny likeness perched on the pinhead top.

He was not finished, however. In his final rappel that day, Wallace triggered a rock fall that sliced into one of his ropes. He said he had a sense something bad would happen on the Pole. It had been named before he had reached it, something mountain climbers are wary of.

But Wallace safely reached the backside of the Pole and had stamped the ridge with a new identity: his own.

Roper ranked the climb among the most challenging first ascents in the North Cascades in the past several years. “It’s impressive,” he said. “And brazen.”

That night, Wallace found a crack in the rocks with a pillow of snow to sleep on. He filled his water bottles with melted snow, and the next day, he climbed to the top of West Fury, traversed across to East Fury and began the long walk to Ross Lake. He celebrated with a dinner at a small resort at the south end of the lake, then hustled back to Seattle.

The strike had ended, and work was starting up again.

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