This post is a continuation of author Connor Griffith's multi-part series documenting his recent experiences in the realm of backcountry alpine bouldering exploration. If you missed the first post, you can read it here.
LATE SUMMER 2016.
7:45 AM. SOMEWHERE ALONG I-70.
On the drive to Vail, the trees blurring green through the windows, I ask Ty if he believes in God. It’s one of those questions you ask a friend. One of those questions designed to disguise the black, slippery personal stuff that you secretly want to bring up. Looking back now I realize I wasn’t seeking an answer to that specific question—I just wanted justification for feeling like hell. So that, possibly, I wouldn’t feel like hell anymore. I was exhausted.
9:05 AM. TRAILHEAD.
The mountain morning glows around us like a golden fog. I try to remind myself not to take days like this for granted. Someday soon the trees will be whitecapped, the air grey and frozen. We won’t even be up here then, confined by winter to the Denver flats. But I’m distracted, and none of that really matters right now.
Ty and I pack everything. His neon orange backpack is full of route-cleaning gear—harness, cams and nuts and hooks, a thin static line, webbing and slings; it looks like a giant mutated carrot. I cram my burrito-fold crash pad to the brim with everything I could possibly need for two days. I’m overcaffeinated and running on 4 hours of sleep, somewhere between a nap and a backflip, squinting into the sunlit sky. We begin the 4.5 mile hike to meet Nate and Wes at the campsite.
10:47 AM. SOMEWHERE ALONG THE FALL CREEK TRAIL.
The mind is a funny thing. It has the ability to analyze itself, as if from a distance. It has the ability to remove its human host completely from the present moment, even if that moment exists in the glory of the Colorado alpine. Fixation blinds me to the wildflowers, the cliffs and boulder piles across the valley, even the trail that winds past my feet like a brown snakeskin. We both find the rhythm of breath that hiking uphill brings. We walk in silence.
11:45 AM. BOULDER FIELD.
The campsite overlooks the entire boulder field. It’s empty when we arrive; we look south into the rubble.
Wes is standing on top of a colossal boulder – or is it a cliff? – flaking a rope. Either he just finished cleaning a new line, or he climbed one. Ty and I woop and holler at our friend, good ol’ boys ready for a boulder hunt. Wes hollers back. “Heyooo! Come on over!” he screams. The man is a Southern gentleman, ever inclusive and inviting, a bastion of genuine personality. Wes would clean a line for you. He would build you a landing. He would give you the beta until you saw it in your dreams. We run over to him.
Wes and Nate are together by the time Ty and I arrive. It’s been five minutes since we first laid eyes on Wes, and the two of them are already gearing up to film another FA. They are machines. “You guys climb anything yet?” I ask. Nate points behind them. “Wes just put up a climb. It’s tall.”
12:15 PM. SOMEWHERE AMONGST FRIENDS.
My friends are encased in reality. This place is a ship in a bottle, and these guys are the crew. Wes and Nate are on an FA rampage, filming everything as they go. Ty focuses on his goal, set one week earlier upon seeing photos of the area—to bolt and climb an 80-foot arete. Keep in mind, this is a wilderness area: regulations require that Ty hand-drill every single bolt, an exhausting process that will take days.
And everything is how it should be. I’m standing in a field of giant gneiss blocks. The air is cool and a breeze runs through it; I can tell it won’t rain today. The pines across the valley stand green and gold, burnt orange in spots of beetle-kill. A creek runs downhill between me and the trees, pooling at the base of the talus field and draining into a pond dotted by fishermen. A small cloud covers the sun and throws us all into shadow. Then it passes.
Even though I’m too exhausted to put on my climbing shoes just yet, I at least have the presence of mind to realize I’m standing in the only place that makes any sense. Leave a man alone in the city and his mind dams up. Leave him in the mountains with his friends and clarity breaks the levees.
I tell the guys I’m going to look around. I walk a hundred yards into a meadow, zip up my down jacket against the mosquitoes, and go to sleep in the sunlight.
2:00 PM. TALUS.
I return to the talus field after my nap and find myself in the middle of a video shoot. I look down into a depression in the boulders to my right—and there’s Ty, establishing a new V6. This is the Holy Cross Wilderness, and we decided weeks ago to theme the names of our boulders around the Bible. After Nate and Wes give Ty a hard time for showing up and “snaking” this new line from them, Ty decides to call it Esau’s Inheritance.
6:00 PM. TALUS.
The day continues with little change. Bolts and hangers continue to sprout from Ty’s office building-sized arete project. Chalk appears on unclimbed boulder problems, and flat landings materialize beneath them. As the sun goes behind the western cliffs we set our sights on a beautiful project, a looming cut of stone that swoops rightward, scarred by angled edges and seams.
We all try it, and we all realize that it’s hard. It’s reachy, with low feet and wide reaches. After about ten tries, I call it quits. I know I won’t be able to send it today, maybe ever. Nobody will send it, at least on this trip.
Sometimes, when you know it’s the right thing to do, it’s okay to let go. It’s okay to give up. Unless you know for certain that your efforts will succeed, forcing something might just cause you pain. Apply this to climbing. Apply this to your life. Apply this anywhere. Know that your present choices greatly affect your future—and in order to give yourself a chance of success, a chance of happiness, you might have to choose to fail right now. And when you choose that, it’s not really a failure at all.
9:00 PM. CAMP.
We don’t make a fire—dinner takes priority. After a full day of scrambling around talus at high elevation, no amount of food seems to satiate. I eat as much as possible. The day has been long and physical. I open a beer and drink it. My mind feels dull.
The boys want to return to the boulder field for a night session. By this point I’ve nearly dissolved completely into the soft foam of my pad. I can’t go. There’s no way I can go. I’m too warm, too comfortable, too sleepy. I wish my friends luck and walk down to my tent. I tell myself that I’m okay, that I just need to rest.
And that’s the truth. It’s been a 24-hour journey through a kaleidoscope. My emotions bounced around today like light in a house of mirrors. I’ve suffered before, and have walked away unscorched each time. I might not feel them right now, but I know the feelings of hope will return. All I have to do is hop around talus, breathe in the scent of the wildflowers, laugh at the jokes. All I have to do is keep my gaze ahead, tell myself a story, tell myself I made the right decision. All I have to do is keep climbing. Tomorrow will be different.
SEE IT FOR YOURSELF
“A picture is worth a thousand words”––we’ve all heard that a million times. So how many words is a video worth? I could write all day and not even come close. Here’s another video from Nathaniel Davison documenting the second leg of our expedition into the Holy Cross Wilderness area of Colorado.
About the Author
I’ve been climbing for 13 years, primarily as a boulderer. I’ve lived in Colorado for the past 10 of those years. I’ve climbed up to V11 and established new boulders up to V10 outside. I am a professional route setter, a student of climbing movement, and a coach.
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