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

Sometimes, I suppose, imagination is a poor predictor of reality.  Sitting on that ledge, I forgave myself and stopped resisting. My gratitude to Alex drove me on, thankful that he possessed the wherewithal to calmly lead through the challenging crux pitches while I Eyored along behind him. Words from Mark Twight’s Will and Suffering trickled through my head: “The great climber recognizes when he’s having a bad day and admits it to his partner, then he relinquishes leads where he might slow the team and follows as fast as he can. He does all the cooking that night.” So I shouldered the heavier pack.  Within an hour we were through the difficulties and climbed out onto the sunny south face and up to the summit.

It was another five hours before we were on the valley floor, hiking through the dark woods by headlamp towards the 1400′ pass that led back to the car.  In the dark, in the repetitive and painful drone of blistered hiking, coasting along in a small cone of light, I felt myself finally relax, and relax deeply. It felt as if the invisible hand that had been squeezing at my very core all day long had relaxed its grip, allowing warmth and life to flow back into my center. The twisting switchbacks of Longs Pass wound like a snake up hundreds of feet of scree.  I could look back and see Alex’s light a few hundred feet below me, bobbing in the dark.  As I crested the hill that hides Mt Stuart from the trailhead, I looked back on the mountain, now bathed in moonlight.  I shivered in the light breeze, enjoying the unjacketed cold of the night.  Turning my headlamp off, I stood and reflected and wished that I had let myself relax while on the climb and then let that wish go. Like John Kabbat Zinn says, “This is it”. I let myself fall into that moment, forgiving myself of my shortcomings and letting them dissolve into the night before turning to shoulder my pack and descend to the car, at peace and with no regrets.


Mt Stuart, from Ingall’s Lake


Category: Climbing & Mountaineering


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