Rock Climbing

Why I Can’t Quit Climbing

Each of the three times that I’ve come back to climbing after a break this summer, I’ve thought about how I want to quit. I especially want to quit trad climbing, with its fiddly gear and unknown safety margin, but also, I want to quit climbing above bolts and pads. I want to quit climbing because it’s so damn uncomfortable. Climbing forces me to stare out beyond my comfort zone, and with plenty of time for contemplation, forces me to step beyond it with trembling legs. That, too, is why I can’t quit climbing.

The last time that I thought about quitting, I sat astride my other summer love, a mountain bike. Having waited out a thunderstorm and suffered through hail and lightning beneath a shrub of a tree in the high desert outside of Bend, I was pedaling hard and fast down the bermed corners and rock drops of the Funner trail, sprinting for warmth and drifting the corners through piles of hail balls. Cornering left at a fork towards the more technical downhill section, I opted for the largest drop on the left and pinned it off into the air. Flying far and landing with absurd softness at speed, I laughed aloud at the ridiculous fun of freeride mountain biking. I wondered: why on earth would I choose to climb when I can fly on my bike? And why (for the love of the sweet baby Jesus) would I ever choose to climb ice rather than go skiing?

Mountain Biking Flagline in Bend, OR

Mountain Biking Flagline high above Bend, OR, on the slopes of Mt Bachelor.

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West Ridge of Prusik Peak in a Day

The West Ridge of Prusik Peak can change a fella’s mind. One week ago, while setting a top-rope at Rocky Butte with a wicked hangover, I was thinking about selling most of my climbing gear. “I like sport climbing”, I told myself, “The movement is fun, and the fear is all of the benign its-in-your-head kind. Why do I repeatedly make myself get scared over trad gear in mediocre rock? Life is short, and mountain biking is way more fun than trad climbing.”

…It is a route of purity on marvelous granite.     (Fred Beckey)

There’s a cure for this kind of thinking. It’s called, in the words of guidebook author Fred Beckey, “a route of purity on marvelous granite”. The West Ridge of Prusik Peak in the Enchantment Lakes wilderness is the polar opposite of the terrifying and mediocre rock that Nick Till and I had climbed on Illumination Rock just a few weeks before. In particular, the precipitous south face and exposed west ridge of Prusik peak sport immaculate and solid granite divided by a run of beautiful human-compatible cracks. Add to this that Prusik sits light a lighthouse in the middle of one of the most beautiful alpine environments in the lower-48, and it’s hard to argue against giving it a go.

Prusik Peak

Prusik Peak from just below Prusik Pass. The West Ridge traces the left skyline to the summit.

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Climbing Illumination Rock

Approaching Illumination Rock

Approaching Illumination Rock

Memory is a poor record. Four years ago, Alex Ragus and I decided that it would be a good idea to go rock climbing on Illumination Rock.  We went, and I swore that I would never repeat the experience.  But memory fades, and yesterday I found myself once-again climbing Illumination Rock.  Read on →

Releasing the Grip

Two Climbers Cross the Stuart Glacier


I was sick and tired of eating humble pie.

I was hundreds of feet in the air on a tiny perch of stone, teeth chattering in the freezing shade, and I’d just given up.  The sun was just around the corner, tauntingly warming the NE face of Mt Stuart while slyly dodging our slow but steady upward ascent.  I’d planned on leading the pitch that I was now belaying, as I had belayed or followed all other pitches on the route, but this just wasn’t my climb.

Three weeks earlier I was in Portland, my new home again, and I was pulling out my hair trying to finish the last week of a summer course of physics without giving up on that too.  It was the kind of week when I’m tempted to buy a plane ticket in the wee hours of the morning, out of ill judgement and the bursting need for escape that grows under the pressure of unshirked responsibility.  It was during that week that I’d started to browse Nelson’sSelected Climbs in the Cascades and Fred Beckey’s Cascade Alpine Guide, hunting around for a dream.  The North Ridge of Mt Stuart caught my eye.  Just two hours later, the physics was forgotten and I’d drawn up a plan, complete with maps and hourly breakdown of the approach and climb, to pull off the route during a two-day window between shifts in the ER. One day and an one email to my long-time partner later, the trip was scheduled.

In the weeks preceeding, I climbed at the gym wearing a pack, traversing for hours rather than pulling down hard on boulder problems as I usually do.  I went running, biking, gave up beer, packed and repacked. I thought that I was prepared. I felt lean and mean, and I was excited to go after the biggest climb that I’d yet attempted. I studied the topo, trip reports, maps, and I visualized successful and calm movement over the climb.

And now, sitting at the small belay perch between the first and second crux pitches of the Upper North Ridge of Mt Stuart (IV 5.9, 17 pitches, 1600′) I forgave myself and gave up hope of regaining my dignity for the day.  All day I’d followed Alex along the ridge, simul-climbing rhythmically, sometimes haltingly, but never feeling at ease.  The terrain was easy, even with a pack, and though I’d felt invincible and fit on the approach, I now felt like I needed to crawl out of my skin. The exposure around me should have been thrilling, but I resisted it and grew stressed by the remoteness and commitment of our position.


Alex Catching First Light on the Bivy Perch, North Ridge of Mt Stuart, WA

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Jubilant Song

There are moments in climbing that come to fully embody and realize all of the work that led to that instant.  These are the times outside of our thinking monkey minds, when the realm of what is possible is investigated and expanded.  They are the moments of hard-earned bliss that justify all of our effort.

In October of this year, I traveled to Red Rocks, NV for the first time.  I had just lived at Indian Creek, UT for eight days, learning the self-contained art of crack climbing.  I had pushed myself there, and was satisfied to have chosen appropriate challenges, and to have engaged with the unknown several times, with surprisingly good outcomes.  I felt prepared for new experiences in the Nevada desert.

My climbing partner from the Creek accompanied me, but had tweaked his knee and didn’t feel like he could climb.  Thankfully, my long-time climbing mentor cum partner Rodney Sofich flew in from Portland to join us.  His experience with the intricacies and unique challenges of Red Rocks was welcome.

Though they are within view of the glowing city of Las Vegas, the climbs of Red Rocks have an alpine feel.  They’re long, committing, and often the descent offers its own cruxes.  Approaches can be long, the sun hot, and the vegetation quite unwelcoming.  We set to the job of climbing and in just a few days had climbed almost thirty pitches in the park.  We mulled over our choices for the following day while cramming down blue cheese burgers at the campsite, and we settled on a remote but interesting climb called Jubilant Song on Windy Peak.

Windy Peak lies down a long and bumpy BLM road in Black Velvet Canyon.  The following morning, parking on a gravel strip, we took off along a winding trail through strange conglomerate boulders and spiny cacti.  The trail rose and steepened, gaining several hundred feet in the heat of the desert morning, but it was surprisingly clear and easy to follow– a blessing on an approach here.  The face was impressive, rising in broken crack systems and imposing roofs out of view and into the sky.  The first ascent was established by Joe Herbst, a prolific Red Rocks climber, and one who’s routes I’ve come to really enjoy.  They follow lines of natural weakness and require a creative, open mind to solve their various problems.  They hold in them a true sense of adventure, the unknown, and even a sense of humor. Read on →

Split Decision

Split Decision – Self Portrait, V2. This was taken during a solo bouldering trip to the Big Bend Boulders outside of Moab, UT this past Tuesday.