One beautiful October day I was bouldering a perfect set of finger locks at the bottom of a route at Vedauwoo when I reached a flared hand jam, groped and fell. I heard my ankle snap like the rap of a gavel, and I broke out in a nauseous sweat when I saw my foot, completely detached from my ankle, turned in 90 degrees to my knee. Alone, I crawled half a mile back to the car, which sucked but I did it, then experienced a second crux in realizing I couldn’t drive a standard shift with a broken left ankle. I finally got the car moving in second gear but ran a terrified young couple off the road after they ignored my frantic waving. As I hopped and fell after them, they recognized my pathetic state and drove me to a hospital.
Another day, during a long, hungry winter in Jackson, I was ice climbing with George Austiguy in Death Canyon, the Tetons, when I reached the last hard moves on the last pitch of the first attempted ascent of Dread Falls. The pitch was capped with chandeliers, and my last two pieces had sunk into airy ice, but I was so close to the exit that I dared the long step onto sloping ice—and then I was in space. The two pieces failed, and I fell 50 feet back to the belay. As I hung above George, a volley of baseball-bat-sized icicles pounded me, bloodying my head and shoulders. We rappelled into the sub-zero temperatures, and skied back in silence, reaching my tiny truck only to find that the battery was dead.
The event that ended my stint as an ice climber, though, occurred on Funeral for a Friend in the Beartooths. Matt Schrowe and I were climbing this icy slot on a cold November day when I clipped the last anchor, plopped down under a huge chockstone, and saw everything go black. It took a second to realize that I was under the roaring belly of a major avalanche. The event lasted long enough for me to wonder if it would ever end, and how I could ever call Matt’s wife to tell her. When it was over and his voice wafted up, I screamed with joy. He had been just far enough in a corner to be plastered white, but out of the way of the killing mass. Bailing, we were caught out by a second slide, and dove against the rock wall, sure that all was lost, but that avalanche was much smaller and only dusted us.
I think epics are relative to each climber, as if on a sliding scale, with a big “E” epic on one end and a little “e” on the other. Just about every route I do is a little “e” epic, while other climbers might have a big “E” every few years, the measuring gradient subject to the climber and situation. Curiously, things that I should consider harrowing I remember objectively, and recount as if they were funny or absurd, while memories of other events that might seem minor make my palms sweat and my guts twist.
More so than injury or sudden calamity, the slow burn—the long grind of the psychological epic—is the one I consider most epic: being on pitch 11 when there are only supposed to be nine, and the climbing is a lot harder than it should be. Or in that storm where all you can do is keep moving confidently—in what you hope is the right direction. Or on the lead that stays at your upper limit for the entire pitch.
I can epic over a scary route description. This usually occurs the night before a long route, in the anxious seclusion of my own head. I am so good at epics that most people don’t even know I am in the middle of one. Some of my partners still mistake my terror for zeal, when I am actually just trying desperately to get the ordeal over with. My wife is more perceptive, and she often says, “We really don’t have to do this, you know.”
I believe most epics are totally commonplace; the most horrifying epic my wife and I ever had happened 20 minutes from the car, just a few months after entering parenthood. We were both still totally psyched on climbing, although Dana missed out on longer routes because she was the one lactating. Even so, we could still pull down a decent ascent now and then.
We were living in Laramie when Dana’s sister came to visit and offered to tend to Emma while we went up to Estes Park, Colorado, to spend the night and go cragging. I favored crashing illegally in the dirt, but Dana drove our Ford Escort up to the front door of the Stanley Hotel and gave me the look that said to keep my mouth shut. Over dinner, we looked through the guidebook and chose Romulan Territory. A nice, responsible, three-pitch 5.10, well within our limits. A route that could leave us with time to attempt something shorter and harder.
Even with breakfast in the dining room, we were away by 8:30, hiked to our route with smiles on our faces, and launched up it under blue June skies. I was familiar with Lumpy Ridge and well aware of its oldschool caveats. Still, I was probably light on the rack, and we only had one rope, because who would ever rappel from a three-pitch route? The first pitch went quickly. On the second, I was reminded of how stiff the ratings could be and wishing I had more small stuff.
I was stalling about two-thirds up the second pitch when Dana shouted that a storm was coming, but I knew that was impossible because it was still mid-morning. Then I felt a chill as a cloud came over us, and seconds later I was ascending a waterfall. The rain and hail fell so densely that I could feel water in the air I breathed, as if I could drown on vertical terrain. The gear, which had been hard enough to set in dry rock, was now hopeless. As I was too far out to lower, I could only continue. The first crash of thunder came a nanosecond after the blinding flash of lightning. The physical concussion passed through my entire being.
Endless salvos followed. I reached the belay soaked to the skin. Water was running into my shoes. I rigged the best anchor I could manage with white, waxy fingers, stretching the rope to clip it. There was no retreat down the pitch, and communication was impossible, so I gave the two long tugs that meant, “Climb.”
Dana is a fast climber and even more impressive when yarding on gear. I still have no idea how she did a full pitch of waterfalls so quickly, but she was on the inadequate ledge in a blink.
The percussion of lightning and thunder around us interrupted our argument about either waiting it out or rappelling. Though shoulder-to-shoulder, we had to shout to hear each other. We squinted in the blinding flashes, amazed not to have been struck, and astounded to be alive still. Finally, I said we were waiting it out—that to rappel and rig a hanging rap anchor on such poor gear was impossible. Dana looked into my eyes, and I knew that I was what stood between a formidable female mammal and the path to her offspring.
“You have to lead us out of here,” she said. She was not yet leading again since giving birth. I had already secretly known I would have to lead this pitch. The climbing above rippled with water and ended in a traversing layback I had to protect for Dana. I looked around for a hole to crawl into, but there was nothing; so I led off into the exact scenario I spend so much time fretting over. I choked down my fear and climbed my best, pulling on flared, crappy placements when I could. Reaching the section just under the roof, I found the layback damp, but at least the rain and hail couldn’t pound on me quite so hard. I clawed and rattled my way across as only the truly desperate can, using every piece of gear to protect the second. At the end, with no pro left, I slid down into a slot, braced my back and feet, and tugged twice on the rope.
The storm never let up, neither as Dana climbed nor as we descended. We rappelled and downclimbed rivers of slushy runoff and hail. I left gear gratefully, happy for anything that got us 100 feet farther down the gullies. By the time we reached the bottom, we were beyond words, and didn’t even pack our gear away, just found our shoes and splashed back to the car, almost oblivious to the stinging hail and the lightning still flashing and crashing around us.
At home, Dana cried when she picked up our daughter. She has always been strong, and I was shocked the following morning when she went to the hospital because she had broken out in shingles in the middle of the night from the stress.
Although a minor route, Romulan Territory became a major fork in the road for us. It was not the end of climbing, but it was the end of the old days, of casually climbing one route and then looking for something better. It was the end of the innocent recklessness of accepting our epics as simply our own.
Jack Clinton (jackclinton.com) lives, climbs and writes in Red Lodge, Montana, where he moonlights full time as a Spanish teacher. He is the author of the just released environmental / dirtbag climber novel Clovis (Harvard Square Editions).
This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 249 (April 2018).