Mountaineering Winner: Walter
TALKEETNA. “It’s fine, don’t worry about me. You guys have done enough. It is just a couple of blisters.”
I stared at the tips of Walter’s black fingers. They looked like lollipops from a science-fiction movie.
“Frostbite, not blisters, Walter. You froze them.” My work partner, another guide, attempted to reason with him. “You need to get it checked out. There’s a clinic here in Talkeetna.”
Walter was stubborn, though. After seeing heavy combat in two wars, he might have had enough demons inside that the cold of Denali felt insignificant. He fumbled those swollen fingertips into his back pocket, and I winced. He pulled out an old leather billfold and handed us a few big bills. They smelled like bitter guilt as I accepted them from frostbitten fingertips. “Best trip of my life, guys, you truly blew my mind. You always got a place to stay in Reno, Nevada. Just give me a call.” I stuffed the Benjamins in my front pocket. I felt sick.
14,000 FEET. White noise. Wind consumes all recognizable sound. The fog opens briefly, and I see Windy Corner towering above the group. Granite boulders stacked precariously on slippery slabs. A rush of wind hits my face. I scrape the frost off my goggles, and the boulders disappear behind another veil. I know they are there, looming over the rope team. As I step forward, the wind picks up my footprints and throws them in the air. I pull my hood back up and continue leading.
TALKEETNA. Walter was at least 20 pounds heavier at the start of the climb, and he looked good for being 70. “I tried on the plastic boots, but they just weren’t as comfortable as mine, so I returned them,” he said. Red flag. We had just done our pre-trip meeting and were starting the gear check. “You can’t bring leather Cabela boots on the mountain, Walter, unless you want to lose your feet.” He looked disappointed. What can a ponytailed 28-year-old from the West Coast tell a war veteran about boots?
“Walter, I think we should look at a brand that is more suited for Alaska mountaineering than Cabela’s.”
He appeared shocked. “But all my gear is from Cabela’s…”
17,200 FEET. White lines. The white cloud stretching across the top of Foraker looks like a tight rubber band. Lenticular clouds are stacking up and cutting across the sky with violent force. Foraker floats like an iceberg in a sea of clouds. To the west, it’s getting darker, slowly changing from white, to gray, to black. I know what is coming. There is no time for the summit.
15,000 FEET. Walter falls for the eighth time going down the ridge. The whole team has to stop. There are thousands of feet of exposure. I have my pack on my back and his pack on my front; I walk in a side-step shuffle down the ridge in order to see my feet. We stop frequently so Walter can hack something out of his throat. He leaves a trail of oysters in the snow. I take consolation that we are heading in the right direction. Walter’s pee was a color I had never seen before, something that looked like it would take paint off the hood of a car. It takes him hours to find his feet, but as he does, I watch him gaze out at the view. He is the only one on the rope team that is smiling.
I used to be angry when people like Walter entered the mountains. They eclipsed my hardcore cross-fit nature with the bingo halls of Reno. I became elitist, thinking everyone on the mountain should be putting up new routes in alpine style. I scoffed at the crowds of midlife-crisis males on the West Buttress, lying on top of one another like sea lions.
As I move on down the ridge, however, I look at Walter and realize he is having a great time. He may be slowly dying, but he also might be the only one of us who truly feels the power of the mountain. I remember when I used to feel that power. I remember when I stood next to the abyss and felt utterly helpless. I yearn for that feeling again. Bill Dwyer lives in the greatest town on the planet, Juneau, Alaska, with his wife and dog, when he’s not walking slowly uphill around the world.
Sometimes reaching a physical low reveals a new perspective, and in Bill Dwyer’s case, watching someone else reach that low did the job. Thanks for sharing, Bill. We’re hooking you up with the GOAL ZERO SHERPA 50 ADVENTURE KIT (goal0.com) for those times at base camp when you need to recharge anything from your GPS to your MP3 player. This handy tool is solar-powered and can withstand temperatures as low as –40°F.
Rock Climbing Winner: Engagement Night
By Amy Alonzo
“Will you marry me?” I looked at Bill in the fading light as it began to snow. We were several hundred feet above the valley floor, and the everpresent noise of tourists and honking cars was almost drowned out by Yosemite Falls. Bill’s marriage proposal would have been perfect… if we weren’t bailing off Selaginella, the final pitch a virtual waterfall, with no fixed anchors in sight, and one end of our rope stuck 100 feet above.
Moments earlier, Bill had taken a nasty fall while laybacking up the last pitch and had hit a ledge. We later learned that he’d broken his ankle in several places, although at the time we hoped it was just an ugly bruise. Looking up at the water streak running down the layback crack, I had suggested we bail. I hoped there would be enough bay trees and manzanita bushes to get us back to the ground, 400 feet below.
I lowered Bill off a nut and a scraggly manzanita, and then rapped down after him. I looked back in sorrow at the nut I was leaving, one of my favorites, and met him at a decent-sized bay tree growing out of the cliff side, more confidence-inspiring than the miniature manzanita we’d just left behind.
I fed one end of the rope through a sling and biner I’d slung around the tree and began pulling the rope. In my head I chanted the mantra that fl ashes through all climbers’ heads as they pull the rope: “Please come down, please come down.” Then, when it doesn’t, there is only one word: “Shit.”
We looked up at the single strand of rope running up from us and wondered where it was stuck. Behind a block? In a crack? It really didn’t matter—neither of us was going down until one of us went up to retrieve it.
“Hey,” I joked, thinking of the best possible bribe to dodge rope-retrieval duty. “I’ll marry you if you go get the rope.” I flashed a beseeching smile. The smile froze as Bill started fumbling with his pack, then melted off my face into a look of shock as he pulled out a ring. Both our hands shook as he placed the ring on my finger—mine in a mix of excitement and fear of what I was agreeing to, and Bill’s as he tried not to drop the ring into the darkness below.
A minute later, I sat alone in the bay tree with a ring on my left hand, shivering in the dark and watching Bill’s headlamp creep back up the wall. The weight of having agreed to marry him didn’t hit me until much later, as we snuck into Camp 4 at two a.m. and threw our tent down in a patch of snow. At the time, I simply glanced down at the ring, thinking, “Thank goodness I don’t have to go back up for the rope!”
Later, one rap from the ground, Bill’s injury started to take its toll, and he shivered uncontrollably and checked out mentally. With only a year of climbing under his belt, he’d never been in a situation like this, and I worked faster to get him down to the ground. I pulled on the rope, ready to set up our last rappel.
I looked at Bill, sighed, and launched myself up after the rope.
Amy Alonzo and Bill Rozak spent their first anniversary on Eichorn Pinnacle, and at press time were climbing the East Buttress of Mt. Whitney for their second. They live in Sonora, California.
Amy Alonzo’s silver-lining tale is one of the most unusual climbing/proposal stories we’ve ever heard, and in appreciation we’re sending her a BLUEWATER PULSE 9.9MM ROPE (bluewaterropes.com). Hopefully, adding this sturdy-but-light cord to their arsenal will prevent Amy and her husband, Bill Rozak, from getting in such a pinch again. Firm braiding on the sheath extends rope life and prevents flattening over time. Next time, Bill will want to retrieve the rope, even without a marriage proposal on the line.