At exactly midnight, 24 hours after leaving the Longs Peak trailhead, we spotted Erick’s Jeep Wrangler under a foot of fresh snow. Erick, a climbing buddy of mine at Colorado College, and I had just made a winter ascent of Longs’ East Face in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. The ascent had been epic enough: a gale-force blizzard coming in on the first pitch and staying with us for the duration; not quite enough food (we ate our fifth and last GU packet on the summit); and finally an endless rhythm of breaking trail through blinding, blowing snow back to the car, where warm clothes and copious amounts of food awaited us.
I dropped my pack and waited for Erick to open the car doors. Instead, he brushed the snow off his pack and said, perplexedly, “I can’t find the keys.” He proceeded to explain that he’d clipped them to the outside of his pack with a flimsy toy carabiner. They were long since lost, likely in an ice-choked crevice in the perilous Alexander’s Chimney, low on the route. I swallowed the impulse to stab Erick with my ice tool.
“You fucking idiot!” I yelled. “Normal people hide their keys behind the license plate or stash them inside their packs.”
“Maybe they fell off in the parking lot,” he said as he retraced our steps, scanning the snow.
“Forget it Erick … they’re gone,” I said, my anger turning to frustration. Screaming at Erick wouldn’t accomplish anything.
Epics are inevitable, but the cruelest often come just when you think the adventure is over. Now, sitting on my pack fighting back tears, I was far removed from the warrior-like mindset that had propelled me up the iced-filled cracks and wet slabs and down the cold rappels and long snowfields. In the summer, this trailhead would be overrun by tourists, but on this Sunday night in December we were the only human beings for miles.
I’ve always read that those who survive epic situations tap into creative inspiration and superhuman strength. But Erick and I were drawing blanks. We were too exhausted to slog to the nearest houses, especially since neither of us knew how far away they were. We sat on our packs and starred at each other.
We couldn’t remember if we’d told our roommates (all drunk when we had left the night before) of our plans, but perhaps when we missed class in the morning someone would report us missing. I fixated on what I’d say to the rangers and the rescue team, who, expecting to find us dangling halfway up the Diamond, would instead finding us languishing in the parking lot. This had to be the low point of my alpine career.
We sat around a few hours feeling sorry for ourselves. “What a bummer,” Erick lamented. “The keys were on one of my favorite biners; I’ve had it since I was a kid.”
I ignored him, rubbing my hands together as I silently recited a pledge to the universe that I would never go climbing again, if only I could get out of this one alive. The snowfall and wind had faded, replaced by a crispy chill. It was cold, but not cold enough to kill us quickly. Erick burrowed ever deeper into his jacket, occasionally emerging to point out the humor of our situation. This softened the tension between us, and we even managed a few laughs. But sunrise was still hours away.
An hour later we’d begun to shiver violently, and deadly apathy loomed. Then, apropos of nothing, Erick jumped up. He had a spare key in the glove compartment, he announced – all we had to do was get in there.
“Why didn’t you think of that three hours ago?” I said, a bit testily. It was just like Erick to overlook such a detail. He was the perfect philosophy student: able to remember countless useless facts and theories but forgetting more practical details.
Filled with renewed energy, we attacked the car. Erick crammed the nut tool between the passenger door and the window. On the driver’s side, I worked the lock with our v-thread … but, nothing. Desperate, I grabbed the nut tool from Erick, wedged it against the top of the window, and cranked.
The glass shattered with a sharp snap. “Oops,” I said, trying my best to sound convincing. I looked over at Erick, expecting anger, not the big smile on his face. “Nice work,” he said.
One solid punch finished the job and spread a thin layer of crystals across the front seat and floor. We retrieved the key and hauled ass to an all-night diner, the cold winter air howling through the broken window. The greasy hash browns and watery coffee tasted divine.
Ten years later, I still cherish this story. Odd, isn’t it? I remember nothing about the climbing itself. As a matter of fact, I can’t quite remember which route we climbed. What I do remember is suffering and friendship. That sounds cliché, I know, but to me this goes to the heart of why I love climbing. Climbing allows ordinary folks like Erick and me to step out of the routine, to taste raw adventure faster and more thoroughly than any other activity I can think of. In that parking lot, Erick and I were the equals of Messner and Twight. At least in our minds, and isn’t that what really matters?
The physical movements of climbing are wonderful. They demand both creativity and brute strength. But the same can be said of the playing tennis. What makes climbing truly unique, then, is everything but the climbing itself. A little provocative, I know. In my case though, most of my favorite climbing moments have little to do with pulling my body up a cold piece of rock…
Drinking whiskey with that whacky Polish guy in a snow cave on a remote Alaskan glacier. Watching the morning sun illuminate the granite slabs of the Grimmsel Pass in Switzerland. Sharing a PBR on the PBR Ledge on Epinepherine at Red Rocks. Rappelling through the night off a remote granite wall. Rocking out to that obnoxious Quebecois punk-pop on the snowy roads north of Montreal. Getting engaged on that ledge overlooking Chapel Pond in the Adirondacks. And, of course, freezing my butt off in that parking lot after my dumb-ass partner lost his car keys. Ahhh, I love climbing.