For­lorn Pin­na­cle

( OR HOW NOT TO EPIC)

Climbing - - FORLORN PINNACLE -

We'd sum­mited at dusk and had been rap­pelling in the dark for hours. No idea where we were go­ing, just rap­ping to the end of the knot­ted ropes then search­ing for a new an­chor, the beams of our head­lamps bob­bing across the gran­ite. So far this had worked. We'd sling a horn or slot in a stop­per and rap. But some­where in the mid­dle of a 2,000-foot face in Wy­oming's Wind River Moun­tains, the cracks dis­ap­peared.

“Noth­ing here but a bush!” my climb­ing part­ner Oliver Deshler shouted up.

Far be­low me, I could see the light from his head­lamp pen­du­lum­ing back and forth. “You want to jug back up?” I replied. “No!” He only had prusiks, so I didn’t blame him. He’d find some­thing. He al­ways did. A class V creek boater, mad big-moun­tain skier, and re­lent­less climber with the physique of a Ro­man glad­i­a­tor, Oliver was the best all-around out­door ath­lete I knew.

De­spite re­peated warn­ings about the wicked eight-mile ap­proach, we’d hiked into the Clear Creek drainage in the north­ern Wind River Moun­tains the pre­vi­ous day, lured by new-route po­ten­tial. We’d stud­ied topos and found mul­ti­ple big walls in the val­ley, but Joe Kelsey’s 1994 guide­book only men­tioned two known routes, both 5.8 A2, the de rigueur rat­ing for many early Winds climbs. But get­ting in would be loath­some. Some years back, the trail had been oblit­er­ated by a blow down, the trees piled like pick-up sticks into an im­pen­e­tra­ble thatch­work. It took us hours just to make a few miles—slack­lin­ing atop bouncy 8-inch lodge­poles 10 feet above punji-stick pits, drag­ging our packs through lit­tle caves of tim­ber, cross­ing and re­cross­ing the ice-cold Clear Creek.

It was past dark when we fi­nally popped up our tent. Be­fore dawn, we started up a giant but­tress west of Mt. Os­borne’s For­lorn Pin­na­cle, pick­ing our way up vir­gin ter­rain. Right off the deck, Oliver led a slip­pery, ten­don-stretch­ing 5.11 fin­ger­tip lay­back. Af­ter that, we swapped leads for a half dozen pitches, then took an un­nec­es­sar­ily long, lazy lunch break on an ex­pan­sive ledge. The up­per but­tress looked like it would go fast, but, as is of­ten the case in the Winds, it turned out to be sev­eral pitches longer than it looked from be­low. Hence, we were be­nighted.

Even­tu­ally, Oliver yelled, “Off rap­pel,” and I zipped down to him through the moon­less night. Oliver hung from the bush—ac­tu­ally a spi­dery young pine tree sprout­ing like an alpine flower out of some un­seen crevice. No trunk, just floppy, 2-inch-di­am­e­ter limbs.

“I know it doesn’t look that good, but I’ve slung all the branches,” he said. “Won­der­ful,” I said sar­cas­ti­cally. We didn’t have a bolt kit, or a ham­mer and pitons—that was one of our alpine rules. “I think it will hold,” Oliver said. “Yeah, prob­a­bly,” I said, but my mind was scream­ing, What the fuck are we do­ing!

We pulled the ropes. While I stood atop the tree limbs, Oliver gen­tly low­ered his weight onto the lines, care­ful not to bounce. We both held our breath. If the tree pulled, we died. Even­tu­ally, Oliver yelled, in a squeaky voice, “Off rap­pel.” I took off my pack, laden with gear, and set it on the bush. I was so un­set­tled by this ar­bo­real an­chor that once on the ropes, I for­got about the pack.

This time when I got down to Oliver, I was deeply re­lieved to see a solid an­chor.

“Lit­tle sketch up there,” Oliver said, his head­lamp blind­ing me.

“Lotta sketch,” I replied, my voice weird from the fear. “Hey, where’s your pack?!” I ac­tu­ally looked over my shoul­der. There was no way we were go­ing to prusik back up the ropes.

We aban­doned the pack and the $1,000 worth of gear in­side, but now we had only tat for pro­tec­tion. We kept go­ing, one hor­rific rap af­ter the next, down through inky empti­ness. We didn’t get back to camp un­til 3 a.m., 22 hours af­ter we’d started.

We named the route You Gotta Want It. It was the sec­ond route on Twenty-Hour Tower, first climbed by Paul Hor­ton and Sean O’Malley in 1977. Two months later, we re­turned to put up an­other new route— Alex

an­der’s Band— that joined You Gotta Want It at pitch 10, and re­trieved the pack.

LIKE MOST MOUN­TAINEERS, I’ve had my share of epics. Seventy days on the North Face of Ever­est and no sum­mit. Forced off the Freney Face of Mt. Blanc by three feet of fresh snow. Be­nighted on Cloud Peak in the Bighorn Moun­tains and obliged to bivouac with no sleep­ing bag, bivy sack, or even a damn puffy.

These are the trips that tall tales are made of, episodes we sur­vive by the “skin of our teeth.” Such ad­ven­tures in­evitably make for

WHILE I STOOD ATOP THE TREE LIMBS, OLIVER GEN­TLY LOW­ERED HIS WEIGHT ONTO THE LINES, CARE­FUL NOT TO BOUNCE. WE BOTH HELD OUR BREATH. IF THE TREE PULLED, WE DIED.

“WHEN YOU’RE FORCED INTO SUR­VIVAL MODE, YOU’VE LOST CON­TROL OF THE SIT­U­A­TION,” OLIVER SAID BACK AT THE CAMP­FIRE. I RE­MEM­BERED HOW FREAKED OUT WE WERE RAP­PING OFF YOUGOTTA WANTIT COM­PARED TO HOW CALM AND EF­FI­CIENT WE’D BEEN TO­DAY— THIS WOULD NOT BE A STORY ANY­ONE WOULD WANT TO READ ABOUT.

the best sto­ries be­cause they have drama—things go wrong and the orig­i­nal goal must be aban­doned, with the pro­tag­o­nists reach­ing deep into their psy­chic re­serves and bag of tech­ni­cal tricks to get out alive. Sur­vival, not suc­cess, be­comes para­mount. From Ernest Shack­le­ton to Aaron Ral­ston to Joe Simp­son, each be­came fa­mous be­cause he fucked up, but had the will, wit, and where­withal to sur­vive.

And who doesn’t love a grip­ping sur­vival story? No one wants to read about an ex­pe­di­tion that went smoothly—where’s the sturm und drang? In 1911, Nor­we­gian Roald Amund­sen and team skied to the South Pole and back—the trip so metic­u­lously planned it seemed ef­fort­less—and Amund­sen is barely re­mem­bered. Who do we re­mem­ber? His po­lar op­po­site, Robert Fal­con Scott, who through a pe­cu­liarly Bri­tish com­bi­na­tion of ar­ro­gance, stub­born­ness, and courage, died—slowly, hero­ically—dur­ing his re­turn from the South Pole along with sev­eral of his team­mates.

Ev­ery­one knows about Ge­orge Mal­lory and Sandy Irvine’s dis­ap­pear­ance on Ever­est in 1924, but who re­mem­bers that on that same ex­pe­di­tion, Ed­ward Nor­ton, in woolen breeches and leather boots, soloed to 28,120 feet, just 1,000 feet be­low the sum­mit, sans oxy­gen? Nor­ton lived to 1954 and his al­ti­tude record held un­til 1952.

The truth is, moun­taineer­ing lit­er­a­ture, like West­ern lit clear back to The Odyssey, cel­e­brates epics: reck­less­ness, as op­posed to rigor. In fact, if you’re a new­bie to the ver­ti­cal world, af­ter hear­ing all the bar­room yarns, you’d be ex­cused for con­clud­ing that if you’re not epic­ing, you’re do­ing some­thing wrong. So let me be clear: Yes, the best ad­ven­ture sto­ries are of­ten about epics; how­ever, the best ac­tual ad­ven­tures are about do­ing just the op­po­site.

THIS PAST SUM­MER, nearly a decade af­ter our lit­tle epic in the Winds, Oliver and I re­turned to the Clear Creek val­ley to try a nearby, un­climbed spire. In the in­ter­ven­ing years, we’d put up a half dozen new wilder­ness routes to­gether. “We just went for it on You Gotta Want

It,” said Oliver, pok­ing the camp­fire. “That’s what ev­ery­body says you should do, so you do it. And some­how, usu­ally, it works out. But it’s stupid.”

Oliver is now a nurse anes­thetist. In his for­mer life, he was a ski pa­troller and raft guide. He’s lost friends and has more than once come close to the abyss him­self. He still kayaks and climbs hard, but he’s be­come more thought­ful over the years.

“You have to think about all the peo­ple who love you. Not on the climb, but be­fore. On the climb you have to be right there,” he con­tin­ued.

We started dis­cussing what we’d done wrong back in 2009: Even though we’d set out at 5 a.m., we should have started ear­lier. We’d spent too much time free­ing the 5.11 crux. Then we’d taken a leisurely lunch. We’d un­der­es­ti­mated the num­ber of pitches. We’d taken too much time swap­ping leads. We hadn’t scouted a de­scent route. These were all mis­takes.

In the en­su­ing years, Oliver and I took to de­brief­ing af­ter each first as­cent. What did we do right, what did we do wrong, what would we do dif­fer­ently? Rock climbers rou­tinely talk about in­di­vid­ual moves—a hid­den heel hook, a per­fect pinch, a wide stem—but alpin­ists talk about lo­gis­tics. You each have to carry de­scent shoes, wa­ter, food, and a jacket, so one pack or two? How many ver­ti­cal feet, how many pitches, how much time per pitch? When to simul-climb; when to al­ter­nate leads; when to lead in blocks? Some of this can only be de­cided on the climb, but you must an­tic­i­pate po­ten­tial­i­ties to en­sure de­ci­sions are made rapidly and ac­cu­rately.

“I don’t want to epic this time,” said Oliver.

It was dark and we’d let our diminu­tive camp­fire die out.

“What’s our turn­around time to­mor­row?” I asked. “Three,” said Oliver. “Outta-here time?” “Four,” I said.

SIX HOURS LATER, we weave up through talus by head­lamp. The ter­rain grad­u­ally steep­ens un­til we are ac­tu­ally climb­ing. The sky opens like a giant clam, the light soft and pink, although the air is still night-bit­ten cold. To the west, we can barely make out a dark shoul­der of Twenty-Hour Tower. To the south, we can see the crum­bling ridge we climbed on Flat Top years ago, nam­ing the route Trundler.

We change into rock shoes and con­tinue climb­ing, stay­ing 25 feet apart hor­i­zon­tally to avoid dis­lodged stones. Try­ing to cover ground as fast as pos­si­ble, we scram­ble too high be­fore rop­ing up. We’re do­ing 5.8 face climb­ing when we fi­nally stop.

“Hey, you want to throw me a rope?” shouts Oliver.

“I was just about to ask you the same thing!” I shout back.

We laugh. I get to a be­lay, bring Oliver over, and drop the gear sling over his head.

He as­cends a chim­ney and brings me up; I con­tinue up the chim­ney to a gul­ley and bring him up. We’re al­ready on the moun­tain’s sec­ond tier. We coil the ropes while as­cend­ing a couloir. We pause briefly to take pic­tures of the pin­na­cle above and dis­cuss the clean­est route. Be­low the next wall there is no an­chor, so Oliver starts climb­ing, dou­bling the first two pieces.

We each check our watches reg­u­larly. When we have to tra­verse, we note the best po­ten­tial rap sta­tions and where they would drop us. We wear our own packs so we each have ac­cess to food and wa­ter. We each use an au­to­block for be­lays, so we can eat while the other climbs. No lunch break.

Af­ter 10 pitches, we’re be­low an over­hang one pitch from the top. It’s 2 p.m. Oliver races up, gets into the over­hang, takes a cou­ple short falls, yards on a few pieces, and pulls through. He brings me up—I also grab gear to save time—and I con­tinue to the sum­mit. Time: 3:03 p.m.

It’s a true pin­na­cle so we lop off a chunk of rope and drape it over the top as our an­chor. We rap our route. A dozen rap­pels, the last two in the dark, but since we have al­ready iden­ti­fied the safe rap sta-

tions, it goes smoothly. A zigzag course down through the talus, boul­ders trundling be­fore us, and we’re back at camp.

“HERE’S THE THING,” said Oliver, hand­ing me the plas­tic flask of whiskey over the fire late that night. “When you’re forced to go into sur­vival mode, you’ve lost con­trol of the sit­u­a­tion.” I re­mem­bered how freaked out we had been rap­ping off You Gotta Want It com­pared to how calm and ef­fi­cient we were on our rap­pels to­day.

“When you lose con­trol, you’ve al­ready failed be­cause you’ve got­ten into a predica­ment of un­ac­cept­able risk,” he con­tin­ued.

“Ah, but the worst trips make the best sto­ries,” I replied.

“As long as you live,” said Oliver somberly.

Over more whiskey, the fire crack­ling be­fore our feet, we talked about our other epics in the Winds. The time we ran across a sum­mit with light­ning bolts strik­ing at our heels. The time I in­sisted on the wrong de­scent route and we spent the night wan­der­ing through a boul­der field. The time I pulled off a re­frig­er­a­tor-sized block that came within inches of Oliver. So many great sto­ries!

We didn’t talk about the clean, beau­ti­ful line we’d just put up on For­lorn Pin­na­cle. A deeply sat­is­fy­ing route climbed safely and in good style. That wasn’t a very good story. No near-death falls, no hy­pother­mic bivouacs, no blood or frost­bite. No one would want to read about it. Which is ex­actly the point.

A PHOTO SNAPPED DUR­ING THE DE­SCENT OFF MARK JENKINS AND OLIVER DESHLER’S “EPIC-FREE” 2016 FA ON FOR­LORN PIN­NA­CLE, WIND RIVER RANGE, WY­OMING.

DESHLER GET­TING IT DONE QUICKLY ON THE FI­NAL OVER­HANG ON HIS AND JENKINS’S 2016 FA.

DESHLER AP­PROACH­ING, WITH FOR­LORN PIN­NA­CLE AND FICKLE FIN­GER IN THE BACK­GROUND.

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