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Grasping at Draws: Ego Kills

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Photo: Brent Fulton/Flickr; CC BY-ND 2.0

I wasn’t that psyched about summer, to be honest. Just as I had recommitted myself to becoming a man of the outdoors, finding a better ratio of real rock to plastic, and ridding myself of the self-ascribed title I detested most: Gym Climber. Just as I had reached some enlightened state of adulthood, tending to my 9 to 5, my relationship, my friends, and my climbing with appropriate energy and effort. Just as I was getting ready for real climbing, or at the very least some laps on well-bolted sport routes—I tweaked my finger in the gym. Woe is me. I craved a sweet, sweet date with Mother Nature, but now I needed ample time for my finger to heal, lest I Tony Romo myself right back into recovery mode.

In order not to regress back into a thick-cheeked nacho-destroyer—lovingly referred to by friends as #FatTower—I’d been running like a madman, hitting the Bay Area trails at 6 a.m. and clocking in 10-milers on minor summits. Swinging heavier and heavier kettlebells at the gym, I felt fitter than I’d ever been, as long as I wasn’t trying to thrutch up tiny campus-board rungs. I looked and felt great, but my climbing was trashier than Trump’s locker-room talk. 

My best friend Adam had recently moved to Salt Lake City, and he, like me, hadn’t been climbing in recent months, thanks in part to our aging bodies slowly failing us. I can’t tell you exactly what was wrong with him, but I know that he couldn’t drive six straight hours without his elbow going bananas. He was on a strict regimen of pulling and twisting giant rubber apparatuses. Instead of dangling off the plethora of granite and limestone crags in the Utah mountains, he spent his summer logging laps on the 11,132-foot Mount Superior and mountain biking. Covering 40 or 50 miles a week on legs and wheels at altitude, Adam had become a cardio machine.

An upcoming work trip to Jackson Hole before my nuptials had me scheming something grand, something big, something outside my normal goal of clipping chains at a tough grade. I wanted to get on top of something, and it didn’t matter how difficult. For my bachelor party a few weeks earlier, I had finally made it to Lover’s Leap, the stacked multi-pitch area just hours from my San Francisco home. I fulfilled a lifetime goal of doing Bear’s Reach, the three-pitch 5.7 made famous by Dan Osman’s filmed speed solo. (Look it up: It will be the best two minutes of your day.) Many folks might not think that a 5.7 qualifies as a lifetime goal, but I’d been too busy clipping draws on roadside cliffs to worry whether doing a route that barely qualified as a warm-up might be seen as valid. The friends, the perfect granite, the summit beers, the view from the top—those three pitches were way more memorable than 98 percent of the mindless 5.12 bolt-ups I’ve done.

Given our abundantly healthy lungs, my commitment to get outside for proper objectives, and my proximity to real mountains, we wanted to find the most summity summit around: the Grand Teton. On Adam’s 37th birthday, we’d wake up super early, tear up the trail, stop for breakfast at sunrise, and continue up the Owen-Spalding route to the tippity-top. A walk in the park, right?

Owen-Spalding was put up in 1898, and even with my recovering finger, I felt I could manage three 5.4 pitches, mixed with a thousand feet of steep but easy scrambling. You start hiking at around 6,700 feet and slog, crawl, and cry all the way to 13,776 feet. I admit, I was worried going into this. I can be a nervous climber on gear and with exposure if I haven’t been climbing a lot, and as I mentioned, I had been climbing zilch.

Then again, this is 5.4 we’re talking about here.

Everything started as planned. Up at 3 a.m., coffee, walking up the trail by 4 a.m. It wasn’t too crowded—an obvious win since most people are intolerable. Plus, Gary Clark, Jr., ripping up blues scales from my iPhone didn’t bother anyone besides potentially hungry bears. Soon, we passed a couple of people who were heading down, which was odd since 4 a.m. seemed early for a descent. One was bleeding profusely—from where we couldn’t tell. She was walking slowly, arm in arm with her partner. A duo ahead of us had stopped to talk to them to make sure they were OK, but then continued on after a brief chat. It was a bit unnerving, so in typical dude fashion, we made morbid jokes about following the blood trail if we got lost.

As the sun began to rise around 5 a.m., we were nearing the Meadow, and only a few switchbacks stood between us and the Lower Saddle. A good sign. Spirits were high, and we were ahead of schedule. I took in the horizon behind me and imagined how righteous this would all look from the top. And they said this would be tough. Pfft. We’d probably be cracking beers at the hotel pool before lunch.

We made our way through steep talus, following a faint trail that seemed to lead directly to the signature dike that splits the east face of  the Middle Teton. That didn’t seem right. Realizing our potential misstep, we looked right to see others snaking their way up a trail toward the Lower Saddle. The scrambling to that point was tough going, and I was having a hard time staying warm. We eventually reconnected with the correct trail and made it to a short fifth-class section.

A winded Andrew ignoring the telltale signs of unpreparation during a hike the day before their attempt. Photo: Andrew Tower

Adam romped up quickly, effortlessly yarding on the fixed line and finding feet. I, on the other hand, wasn’t faring so well. My footwork was clumsy, and I couldn’t catch my breath. Mentally, I blamed our off-route jaunt. My hubris said this lethargy and exhaustion were in no way related to my lack of preparation for actual mountain climbing. Every move felt off-balance, and as I over-gripped the fixed rope, the cracks in my confidence deepened. This was pedestrian to any seasoned climber, yet I felt heavy and nervous.

You’re getting married in nine days! Take a breath, Tower! Take a step up, Tower. Easy now, Tower. I knew I wouldn’t plummet to my death, but I sure as shit didn’t want to take my vows from a wheelchair. When I got to the top of the fixed rope, Adam was gone. I found a flat spot and took a seat to rest. The situation wasn’t dire, yet. But it definitely wasn’t going well either. Maybe my backpack is too heavy. Is this what the climbing is going to feel like? We still have another couple thousand feet to go before we even start climbing! The doubt crept in, and I thought about the section I’d just climbed. Easy, but not without risk.

The scene at 11,600 feet was one of bustling activity. A few dozen climbers relaxed and enjoyed the mountain morning, taking in a little breakfast and coffee before heading out to climb. Wind ripped over the high pass and through the tents and guide shelters. I was jealous of those unperturbed climbers. I was jealous of their energy, of their coffee, of their shelters, of their good night’s sleep. I was jealous that they could eat. Every bite of food I tried to swallow felt like clay in my mouth, a sure sign of dehydration that I noted but pridefully didn’t mention. It was hard to chew and even harder to swallow, both literally and figuratively. It had been seven or eight months since I’d spent any time above 3,000 feet. Anyone could have connected those dots before we left the parking lot, but my stubbornness had kept me from seeing it.

As I sat trying to suck water from my hydration pack, I felt Adam’s gaze on me. Hands casually on his hips, posture erect, unburdened by his pack, he looked up at the trail leading to the base of the Owen–Spalding, squinted, and then turned back to me.

“Look at you,” he said, eyes bright, flashing a grin that teetered on a laugh. A grin I’d seen plenty of times. The grin he gave me when he had to pick me up after I drank too much. Or when I was about to hit the ATM again at the casino. Or when I got in over my head with a girl, an argument, a mountain, anything. That grin.

“You feelin’ alright, bucko?”

Still breathing hard, I looked down at my hands loosely holding a ProBar, legs splayed, not a muscle active save the ones working my lungs. I hadn’t felt comfortable since we left the boulderfield, and my body was staging a minor strike. I looked at Adam, trying to seem confident but actually pleading with my eyes for mercy, or understanding—really anything that wasn’t utter disappointment. I felt horrible, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to move with any skill. I had underestimated this alpine route. Or maybe I’d overestimated my ability. Either way, the result was the same.

“I’m alright,” I lied. One good thing about your best friends is that they know when you’re full of shit. Adam didn’t even have to pretend.

“Alright, let’s get you out of here,” he said, turning back down the trail. I was awash with relief but also shame. Happy birthday, Adam. I could have been honest with myself and you about our objective, but instead I overshot. Ego over preparedness.

Every step down I considered a success. We crossed back through the boulderfield, finding the blood trail from the injured stranger we had passed. A narrow traverse around a boulder gave way to a 15-foot hole below it, and the blood and gore at the bottom were shocking. The scene was a quick reminder that our actions in the mountains have serious consequences—not just for ourselves, but for those around us. My lack of preparation seemed to me like irresponsibility: to myself, my fiancée, and my climbing partner, who expects me to be self-aware, able, and smart. Accidents will happen, rocks will fall, ropes will get stuck, and problems and weather will pop up like zits on prom night, but we should be ready for anything.

Suddenly, I was proud we had turned around. Even prouder of Adam for turning me around. I was an easy sell, but he was prepared for the climb. He knew better than me that sometimes it’s alright not to go for it. Maybe it’s a little wisdom gained over the years. I’ll go back one day. Perhaps a little more prepared. A little less overconfident. Maybe next time, I’ll at least make it to the base of the route. Then again, I’ll just have to see when I get there.

Andrew Tower traded in a core-climber life for a cushy desk job in San Francisco where he fills his time climbing in the gym and complaining about it.