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Answering Climbing’s Oldest Question

If reaching the summit isn't the most important thing in the world, then why do it? This climbing satirist thinks he knows.

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This is a story with no beginning and no end. And no middle. It’s a story as old as Fred Beckey and as timeless as “Endless Love.” It flies on the backs of ravens and sings with dodo birds in the mystic. This story makes molehills out of the highest, most demanding mountains—those rarified places that touch you in that special area and pose the oldest question in the book, the one every mountaineer has struggled to answer.

“How’s your father?”

This is the story of two boys who cast off into a metaphor and learn how to become metaphorical men. Tough guys, with ice tools and crampons, who can tie a butterfly knot with a single hand and rig a Z-pulley from here to Kathmandu, a city the size of the hole in their hearts. This is a story that goes to great lengths to elaborate the very essence of who I am.

Indeed, who am I? Call me Manchode. The mountains are my church and my Wal-Mart. I am of a fraternity of like-minded men. Our group, the New Age Mountaineering Bros Lovin’ Alpinism (NAMBLA), has its own Facebook fan page that is so bitchin’ the FBI wants to shut us down.

We Bros sometimes chat on Facebook about dry-tooling teenyboppers who actually train and climb on wood and wonder, in our self-awareness vacuum, how they manage to diminish our importance so greatly. Why don’t they try climbing 5.8 in crampons and gloves? Dab! Effin’ dab!

At this point, I need you to know that I’ve had many women. I’ve also climbed many mountains, but it’s always been a choice between the two. I’ve never expected a woman to understand the fathomless depths of my tortured existence. As a child, I played with trucks and swords. The girls played with dolls and stuffed animals. How could anyone—God, Buddha, Dr. Phil—ever expect man and woman to get along considering these initial and incompatible circumstances? Mountaineering has been my only escape from this Norman Rockwell suburban capitalist nightmare.

When any relationship meets its bitter end, as they all have, I go soloing. In fact, I solo any time I don’t get my way. Out of the wellspring of this
manic cry for attention have blossomed some of my proudest ascents.

Read More Andrew Bisharat

My most renowned work of art—and that is what my climbs are—Manchode Direct, was a route so ephemeral it crumbled and blew away as I climbed it. This crucial ascent was the result of the time I went to Chilis only to learn they had run out of baby-back ribs.

Life is pain. Life is loneliness. But out of this pain and loneliness are moments of angst-solo brilliance. I. Am. Immortal.

I completed my apprenticeship in that dojo of the New Zealand Southern Alps, once called a training ground for the Himalaya by some old bastard. The SoAlps are a “crucible” of mountaineering. Unlike a regular crucible, which is actually a ceramic pot used to melt and mix metals, these soaring peaks have rocks and frozen water. “Crucible” is the smartest, most poetic metaphor to describe an alpine area. I can’t believe no one has ever used it before me.

The first time I saw the SoAlps, I cried. An entire forest of mountains lay before me! My first objective would be the Minarets, a pair of twin peaks,
milky-white with snow. I hoped to summit these beauties and then drink the elixir of life found at their tops. Only in this rarified position, sucking in the mountaineer’s rewards, would my soul be nourished.

Now, if only I could get there … without dying.

My partner for this pilgrimage to Mecca was Jésus, a scruffy hippie known for his ability to produce Phish on demand. He listened to the band constantly, like a man possessed. Jésus thought I was a pretty awesome climber. We’d spent many days practicing for the Real Thing at traditionally bolted sport crags. I established topropes for Jésus, and would then force him to climb in his Koflachs. One time he couldn’t even follow what I had led. He was soooo impressed with me. Anyway, enough about him!

Getting to the top of the Minarets is no cakewalk. It’s more of a glorified hike. First you must cross a football field of talus, five miles long in parts. Unlike the authors of most mountaineering stories, I wasn’t surprised by the difficulties of crossing the moraine and navigating the ensuing icefall that led up to our first bivy spot. Why is it so surprising that just getting onto the mountain is so difficult? Out of this ignorance, many overwrought descriptions about, of all things, talus, appear in trip reports.

Well, in this tale, I’ll spare you that painful fate. But first, a poem:

O talus! My talus! Our grand trip is just begun;
Yet deep within my plastic boot, the bunions have already won.
Our hut draws near, didn’t send
Living in Fear, and Jésus is moving too slowly.
But look at my hands, my Crazy Hands; I’ll strangle him tonight at dinner.

Jésus and I surpassed the talus and icefall by dusk, and reached an old hut built by the New Zealand Alpine Club in the 1970s. While Jésus chopped an onion, I dug through my rucksack [Fart Noise] for a few Cadbury chocolate eggs. I snuck one into my mouth and let out a little squeal of delight, but covered my mouth with my hand. The weather could turn at any moment, and if I were to survive the worst, I dared not share the happiness factory that is caramel-filled chocolate eggs.

That night it snowed. We lay on musty wooden boards, and listened to the thundering noise of avalanches washing down a mountain, like a wave crashing into shore, only much louder. I dreamed I was a eunuch in ancient Egypt who built a pyramid for the pharaoh’s daughter.

The next day dawned clear, and the real climbing started. We navigated up a steep ridge, post-holing through, what’s that Italian word for snow? Ah, yes: neve! [Fart noise.]

The ridge soon became too steep for anyone but my hero, Peter Croft. Jésus and I entered a crevasse-ridden glacier, and roped up. It was like walking through a minefield, only it was a snowfield. The snowfield was steep and icy and rose-colored from the midday alpenglow. We walked across the 50-degree ice, first in pied canard then in pied a plat, and finally in pied allegro.

Danger was everywhere. I was the route-finder, while Jésus, attached to me via a 30-meter rope, acted as a counterweight that I fully expected at any moment to pull me down into that eternal abyss in the sky.

The ability to plod forward mindlessly is actually what it means to be a mountaineer. You must remain present, create a tempo and hope no ghosts from your past life as an altar boy come back to haunt you. Sometimes I’d just be moving one foot in front of the other. It was like walking, only slightly more difficult. Strange, I thought this was climbing. After all, I was wearing crampons and a warm-when-wet action suit.

When the boredom of walking up snow became unbearable, I recited my mantra.

I am the best alpinist in the world at not having an ego.
I am the best alpinist in the world at not having an ego.

Then … it happened! I heard a muffled cry, and turned around to see Jésus rocketing down the snowfield toward a crevasse. He was sliding, like an upside-down turtle, on his rucksack. His frustrated little arms and legs punched the air.

“Self-arrest, dumbass!” I yelled.

The rope came taut and pulled me off my feet. I accelerated down, totally out of control and shocked. I managed to hero-roll into the piolet ancre position.

Time slowed all around me. An apparition appeared in my periph. It was Royal Robbins. … Hey, look! There’s the rest of the gang from Camp 4, too! They all look so happy and warm. There’s ol’ Chongo, drinking all my bourbon, snapping his fingers back and forth to explain time travel. Hey, I understand physics, too! Pappy’s there as well! Hey, Pappy!

They were counting on me. I knew I could do it. I pressed all of my shoulder into the ice axe, self-arresting with the determination only found in someone who wants to live.

Suddenly … we stopped!

Our senses sharpened, making us feel more human than human, like Rob Zombie. We both laughed about how, this time around, Jésus Got Saved.

Though shaken, we were filled with new motivation to suffer. That night, we bivied under a little awning formed by a rock wall. I popped a chocolate Cadbury egg into Jésus’ mouth, and that filled him with glee.

The Grapes of Whatever, Or, Why We Really Climb

We slept a few hours, and rudely woke up around 1:00 a.m. How glorious! A true alpine start! I said a prayer of thanks for those three hours of sleep, and continued to freeze my nuts off in the dark. It’s for these moments that I climb. I cranked up the tunes in my head from the night before.

Hold me closer, tiny dancer.

After being on the move for five hours, we came to the realization that we were totally lost. It was very scary. We decided to wait until the sun rose above the ridge before doing anything else. We spent an hour stomping our feet to warm our toes and telling jokes about mixed climbers.

“So, a mixed climber walks into a Chamonix bar …”

When the sun rose—I mean, when the sun kissed the mountain with its tender alpenglow lips, rosy light beaming down from the heavens—we realized we were on the wrong side of the ridge. [Fart noise!]  The snowfield leading to the Minarets’ summits was on the other side. That would involve some serious backtracking. Pouty-faced, I stamped my feet. I hate it when things don’t go my way!

Another plan formed in my mind’s eye. You’d have to be crazy to do it. But … we “could” climb up and over the “dead-vertical,” rime-plastered wall of this ridge, which was about “50 feet” tall.

I immediately recognized a fantastic opportunity to contrive adventure, and decided to free solo the wall. Then, just like the good old days, I would belay Jésus up on a tight toprope.

All of our training had come down to this one moment. I felt a warm, wet sensation within my gloved hands, my Crazy Hands.

Palms are sweaty, Mom’s spaghetti. —Eminem

I cast off into the unknown, free soloing moves as difficult to climb as they are difficult to grade. Soon I reached a belay perch. Now I could see the perky twin summits of the Minarets just off in the near distance. I let out an enormous whoop, and cried down to my partner that we were almost there! It wasn’t just that I had done it … I had done it without being killed by Jésus!

“You’re on belay, Jésus,” I shouted, feeling the rapture. “Climb when ready … partner!”

Thanks to all the training he had completed with me, Jésus got up the wall. It was good that he had a toprope, however, because he barely made it up this thing that, don’t forget, I had just free soloed. He joined me at the belay. The summits of the fetching Minarets were within grabbing distance. We embraced … for a long, long, looooooong time.

Reaching an “actual” summit, however, would require some more tedious plodding in the snow. We were both really tired, and decided to call it quitsies.

The thought of our hut, with its warmth and Cadbury eggs, made the decision easy.

Besides, we had completed our route … by our standards. This was the logical end to our journey, and no matter what anyone says, reaching the summit is not the most important thing in the world.

Achieving immortality, however, is.

Andrew Bisharat walks through the valley of the shadow of death with rose-colored glacier goggles on.

This feature first appeared in Rock and Ice’s column, TNB (for Tuesday Night Bouldering.)