Why do I climb mountains? It’s a question I’ve contemplated quite a bit — in so many ways, traveling to the lofty, dangerous places of the world makes no sense. But still, for some reason I am impelled to climb.
Climbing deepens my sense of self-reliance in every way, developing my physical fitness and emergency preparedness and pushing my ability to survive in harsh environments. But the true enjoyment I get is sourced in the camaraderie I feel with my climbing partners and the value I find in the exploration: to survey the land from above with great friends provides me with a great sense of accomplishment. I also climb to get away from society, to see the world at its wildest. These are reasons enough for me to continue visiting the alpine.
El Pico de Orizaba
18,491 feet, Estado Libre y Soberano de Puebla, Mexico
El Pico de Orizaba will always stand out in my mind as the ideal summit experience. It was a goal we immersed ourselves in, Baby James, Zach, and me. Because of this team I enjoyed the entire experience: waking up early to run the Harvard Stadium stairs, checking Steep and Cheap every 2 minutes to get our kit together, poring over maps and books in the Wren Hall suites at Tufts while audio bytes from Super Smash Bros drifted in from the common room. We forged an enduring friendship on that mountain; these two became climbing partners for life because of our experience.
Initially, I wanted to go to Mexico because my dad had made an attempt on the mountain in the 90s. Citlatépetl, the native name for El Pico de Orizaba, is the tallest stratovolcano in Mexico and the highest point between Canada and the Andes. A glacier that may not be as permanent as it once seemed forms an icy cap on the citadel. This was our first real experience using crampons and Zach almost died on our descent: a nasty cough developed into something more serious just as we reached the base hut, where we could get him a ride down to safety. The Mexican volcanoes are stellar climbs for those considering moving up into high alpine travel: high enough to get a real taste of altitude, but quite accessible and usually non-technical.
The most incredible moment — sunset at high camp, when the mountain cast a perfect triangle of a shadow on the Mexican land.
1,801 feet, Ossippee Mountains, New Hampshire
Bald Knob is a short hike, but a steep and sometimes sweltering one in the central New Hampshire summer. We’d sail the Rigadoon out of Windleblo Cove on Lake Winnipesaukee in the morning and by 2 we’d be picking blueberries on the exposed granitic knob, really just a spur off the southwest ridge of Mount Shaw — we never bothered to climb any higher though. Uncle Bill and Nana would make us pies when we got home with berry-full water bottles.
14,411 feet, Pierce County, Washington
Zach at it again, with Brandon this time. Our first roped glacier obstacle as a team was the Emmons-Winthrop Glacier on Rainier’s northeast face. Camp Schurman at Steamboat Prow was a real treat, the coolest little perch, stashed safely amongst three grinding glaciers. Rainier is iconic, you can see it from most anywhere in coastal Washington as long as the day is clear. An alpine start put us astri the summit at 10:30 or so; 5,000 feet is a big climb even in near-ideal July conditions.
By the time we were nearing the tent on descent the snow had turned corny and we were able to swiftly plunge-step down. The racking exhaustion of such an effort took hold the moment we reached our tent and we zonked out for about an hour and a half, nibbling as much as we could.
At this point we made a poor decision. We’d hoped to reach the car that evening, another 5,000 foot descent — we wanted to get back to Seattle for a day of fun. We decided to go for it, roped back up, and traversed the left edge of the Emmons to get down to the much smaller Interglacier.
We unroped — we were descending what seemed to be a snowfield and wanted to glissade!! Plunge stepping resumed as the pitch steepened. We really hadn’t spent much time on real glaciers, and weren’t familiar with their tendencies. For example, we didn’t know that obstacles in the slope — a little spur in the upper basin, say — would cause the ice to pile up around it and crack at the edges. We headed for the steepest section with glee. I dove off the spur and started sliding. Zach above continued his plunge stepping when his leg struck a hole through the snow and onto a ledge. He pulled it out and looked down to see what was supporting him: “Upon further inspection, this was in fact a hidden crevasse and could have just as easily claimed my life as not.”
Somehow we made it to the car without injury and collapsed into a sclerotic state of sleep amongst the redwoods, the result of the visit to the edge that we only subject ourselves to once every year or two. The gravity of the experience only set in the next day, when we realized just how treacherous and unconcerned a mountain like Rainier is.
This drives at a key realization I’ve made about the mountains: their apathy is supreme. They could care less about the insignificant travelers that step on their slopes, driven by what drives them. Their experience is so much grander than anything we humans can fathom. If we tread carefully, we can taste that experience, and be better beings for it. But we must always remember: the mountain does not care about us. For this, we must take responsibility for our own fates.
Red Mountain Pass
11,018 feet, Million Dollar Highway, Colorado
This one was on a bike, with Benjamin Smith. It had been flurrying in Silverton that morning but we decided to see how it’d go — little snow accumulation and a disdain for climbing the same hill twice propelled us forward. The 12-mile descent into Ouray made for icy fingers — sleet in the lower canyon above the ice park didn’t help. On our Durango hosts’ advice we warmed up at the Wiesbaden vapor caves in Ouray, then almost finished a game of chess at the Ourayle House. The next day we’d ride to Sawpit, the Telluride Ride far from over.
This trip tipped me from an infatuation with the San Juan Mountains to a true love for the range — a major reason I chose to set down here two months ago.
The Wilson Group
Mount Wilson (14,252 feet), Wilson Peak (14,023 feet), and El Diente (14,165 feet), San Juan Mountains, Colorado
My dad and I were on our way down to run the Grand Canyon at the end of the best summer of my childhood. We stopped off up the West Dolores to make a base camp in Navajo Basin. We got both of the Wilsons the same day, though we were almost turned back by a profoundly exposed final ridge to the summit of the taller Mount Wilson. Vertiginous: the summit approach has 2,000 foot drops on either side and a summit the size of a conference table.
To bag El Diente the next day we climbed a 3,000 foot couloir to the jagged approach ridge. The memories have come flooding back now that I’m living in Telluride: the iconic massif dominates the southwest view from the resort on clear days. These are some of the wildest mountains in the lower 48: isolation and exposure call for exceptional focus and intentional footwork on these peaks.
7,713 feet, Haute Savoie, France
This lovely mountain is perched on the eastern shore of Lake Annecy in Haute Savoie above the 11th century Benedictine priory where I was living — from her summit one can see Mont Blanc clearly. I never climbed her from the lake; we’d drive up to the Chalet de L’Aulp, an alpine cow hut, and hike from there.
Bernard played guide, his oversized moustache cartoonishly matching the flask of Suze he’d carry to warm us up on the chilly, misty upper flanks. The route was cool — complex, difficult, but not technical by any means. Stairs at the crux pop atop the blocky summit with views from Italy to the Rhône.
The French Alps have a certain quality, incredibly wild mountains that humans have learned how to live closely with. I love exploring these mountains, climbing a treacherous path and popping out in a hanging alpine valley where some of the finest cheese to be had is made by a family of merry farmers, abiding on high. They also are the birthplace of modern mountaineering, the place where men first gazed up at the towering pinnacles and inexorable glaciers and thought to go and to see.
13,497 feet, Himachal Pradesh, India
My most foolish foible to date. I’d been in India for four days and made my way up to Himachal Pradesh — Manali, to be exact. I convinced a man I could ride a motorcycle (I’d read the Wikipedia article), so he arranged a Royal Enfield for me. I took off up into the “foothills” of the Himalayas, bound for Leh.
These mountains make the Rockies look like a pile of pebbles. I’d never experienced anything like them. “Rohtang” literally means “pile of corpses”, named after the poor travelers foolish enough attempt the pass in stormy conditions. I didn’t know this at the time…
I had a chai at the last tea station before the road switchbacked up the headwall to the 13,497 foot saddle, the first passage to the high Himalayas. Looking upslope, gray clouds were descending and the road was exceedingly busy, literally bumper-to-bumper traffic. As the rain started I put on my feeble rain jacket and fired up my beat Enfield.
The road was a torrent of mud, far from paved. On the bike I was more agile than the cars, trucks, lorries, scooters loaded with families of 6, and so on — so I made good progress. Halfway up the face I crashed into a ditch, breaking off my footpeg and cracking the weed guard. Two kindly Sikh gentlemen leapt from their car and helped me and the bike up; I fired her up and continued on my way.
At the summit I took a celebratory moment, then made to ride down into the next valley. This side was paved, thank goodness, but not before I encountered a 30 foot long murky lake in the road. I counted my blessings and rolled into the obscured water. Luckily I crossed without event and happily descended to dry off, warm up, and crash out on a hard $4 bed a few thousand feet below.
I didn’t make it to Leh, but the after-party of the annual Devil Dance at the Shaspur Monastery above Keylong made the trip worthwhile. I paid a wizard of a mechanic the equivalent of $6 to weld my bike back together and treated myself to a room with a hot shower. Then I took off to see the rest of India.
In 2010 the Indian government began constructing a tunnel through the mountain, a key link to the wild northern parts of the country. The tunnel is expected to be completed in 2017; I suspect it will dramatically change the character of the land accessed.