A Cautionary Tale
There are places I do not revisit, unless by unbidden memory. A shiver in broad daylight, a cold sweat at midnight. How many of my nine lives have I now used? I fight with writing – afraid to glorify my foolishness. These stories, I know, are the most sellable. You can’t turn away. For each time I have wondered, ‘what in god’s name am I doing here’, I have questioned my motive for recounting and sharing my brashness. Is it to forewarn, or to boast? Is it to dissuade, or entice? One may argue that cautionary tales help to keep others from following in ill-advised footsteps – but I doubt it is true. Stories of near-misses cause the hands to sweat, the pulse to quicken, the blood to boil. One sees visions of mountains, and in spite of good sense, finds oneself longing to be in the author’s shoes. And yet, like climbing itself, I cannot put the story off interminably. It comes creeping back to me through the years, weaving itself into my psyche, reminding and inciting me to pay heed to my own tale of caution – even if others never will.
When I arrived in Cochamo in 2013, I had no partner. But I did have a plan. I would hike up, straight away, to el Anfiteatro – a vast granite cirque I had not visited before. There, I would pick out the most eye-catching line or feature that I believed to be unclimbed, and I would climb it. Partner or no partner. At this point, I had never done a proper pitch of aid climbing, and had rarely pulled on gear. I was a couple FAs deep in experience there in Cochamo, but both times had been with more experienced partners. Now I was on my own.
At the back of El Anfiteatro is a large bivy boulder. On the downhill side lies the teeming forest, and on the uphill side lies a large open screefield from which one can see all the walls in the area. My first time topside, my eye caught a distinct and obvious arete, jutting out into the valley like an Arabesque sword. The bottom was heavily broken up, and the top had multiple summit bumps, gendarmes, and sections of 4th class. But the middle was a razor’s edge, curving like a scythe into the electric blue sky. My mind was made up within 5 minutes of looking around. This was the line. Come hell or high water, I wanted that arete.
I had a couple people on the fence about joining up whom I had accosted in a semi-sleepless state on the Cochamo bus nearly a week before – but they were in the valley basecamp far below. I returned to the bivy boulder, made myself dinner, and vowed to “see what I could see” in the morning. I knew myself well enough, though, to know what that meant. It meant I was going to onsight free-solo previously unclimbed terrain as far and as hard as I could, throwing caution entirely to the wind. At least that was what past precedent seemed to indicate. So I set some safeguards into my plan of action: no food, no water, no layers, no climbing shoes, and no chalk. If I couldn’t trust myself to do what was prudent, at least I could try to disincentive myself from foolish exploits.
In the morning another clear blue day dawned. I realized shortly upon leaving the boulder that not only was my route unclimbed, but indeed, the wall itself must never have been attempted. For over an hour, I fought my way through dense jungle bamboo, and bushy understory in sweltering heat. The vegetation was so thick that at times I could only make progress by setting my back to the stands of cana colihue, and falling backwards through it, rolling uphill as I went. As I finally entered an open scree gully, I laughed at my absurd persistence. I have problems turning around, even when it makes all the sense in the world. Looking back now, I should have been able to recognize the state of mind I was in at the time. But I didn’t. I brushed myself off, and stared up at the toe of the buttress. I felt drawn, as if by a tractor beam.
This day, like many others before, I found myself captivated by an irrepressible hunger for upwards progress. The phenomenon is similar to eating extremely spicey foods. The hotter your mouth gets, the less you can stop to breathe. You shovel in bite after bite of what is actually the cause of what is quickly becoming an intolerable situation. The situation gets worse and worse, but it is nearly impossible to stop. With spicy foods, you can turn to milk, yogurt, or other dairy products when the going gets tough. With climbing, I have found no cure for the irrepressible hunger except a horrifying experience. When I am so afflicted, I gobble up meters greedily, entirely void of inhibitions.
The toe of the buttress is clearly 5th class, but not terribly hard looking. The gully rises high up the west side of the buttress, leading to 4th and low 5th class ramps which zig and zag their way up to the base of the true arete – about 500 feet off the deck. From where I stood this day, that much was clear. But I didn’t want to pick my way up 4th and low 5th class terrain – that wasn’t what I hungered for. I wanted to climb, not walk. Though discontinuous, the northwest flank of the buttress was riddled with intermittent sections of low angled slabs covered in kitty litter, and steep moss-filled corners. The climbing neither looks good, nor easy – but my stomach growled as I gazed up eagerly. Hardly with a thought, a pause, or a breath, I began climbing up the low slabs. I fell back to the scree almost immediately – peeling off some dirty 5.9 terrain.
My fall back to earth elicited only a laugh, and a minor reroute – not a second thought about what the hell I was doing up there. I tied my approach shoes up a bit tighter, and made my way up a neighboring slab past where I fell before, past where I could fall and laugh about it, past where I could fall and hobble away from it, past where falling was an option at all. In a quick five minutes, I had far overstepped the boundaries that yesterday’s self tried to put between me and free-soloing. Cruising up mostly easy terrain, I felt neither fear, nor uncertainty about what I was doing. I only felt hungry, and I climbed quickly.
A couple hundred feet up, my progress became stunted by steep escarpments, corners, and buttresses. What had mostly been loose mossy steps and short sections of 5th class gave way to real rock climbing – middling 5th class, tending towards the 5.8 to 5.11 range. None of the outcroppings were terribly tall, nor was what I had climbed thus far terribly steep. But 4th class terrain can be as deadly as 5th if you fall down it unroped. I started to feel the first familiar pangs of anxiety start to arise. You’ve been here before, I thought to myself. You know what you are doing.
Yet I had too much momentum to slam on the breaks. It is hard to describe what it’s like to make that final move in difficulty upwards to the point of no return. Paul Preuss outlined a strict climbing ethics that forbade climbing up anything one could not also climb down. That was in the 1920s – before the advent of nylon ropes, cams, generous bolting, and falling all became the norm. Now, falling is a huge part of climbing – I tell novices that all the time. You need to fall to learn how to trust the equipment, to trust yourself.
But when falling is not an option, the habit of climbing up moves one cannot climb down is a dangerous one. Sometimes there is a single move upon which the pendulum swings – like a dyno that can’t be reversed. But sometimes there isn’t. And of course, it is all a calculus of probabilities. There’s rarely a moment in free soloing in which up and down have either a 0 or a 100% success rate attached to them. Instead, there are vague notions, skeptical sentiments, and percentages of fear. At the same spot, down might feel like 30-70 odds, and up like 50-50. One can arrive at numbers like that in a nonlinear fashion – after cruising hundreds of meters of terrain that feels like 90-10 odds – abruptly, and without warning.
On this day, I found myself a mere 5 meters up a 10 meter dihedral, above a fall that would spell certain death. Above and below me lay mostly easy terrain. To the right was a mostly 4th class route which I might have taken instead. How had I miscalculated so poorly? Or had I miscalculated at all? Wasn’t this the feature I had aimed for from the start? My hands sweated profusely as they dug jams out of a moss and mud filled one and a half inch crack. My feet splayed out on opposite walls of a 90 degree dihedral – approach shoes praying for purchase on lichenspeckled stone.
I pulled up on a slippery half-hand jam, pasted both feet on the wall in front of me, and started laybacking. I’ve never been any good at crack climbing, and typically revert to face-climbing techniques when things get serious – a foolish habit even on a rope. Instead of digging out more jams, I crimped the exposed edge of the crack, and walked my feet up the wall to my left. I could see the lip at the top of the gendarme. I growled, pulled hard with my left hand, and shot my right hand up for it dynamically. The hand latched the positive hold, and I uttered something primal and guttural as I clambered up on top of the promontory. Just like that, the hard section was over. Odds went back to something like 95-5, as grassy slabs led upward and right to the walk-off route. What the odds were back there, I don’t know. I didn’t stop to reckon them then, and looking back, your guess is as good as mine.
I’d love to say something like ‘I remember thinking what a horrible place to die this would be’, or ‘I thought of my parents, my girlfriend, everyone who invested time and energy into my life’. But I didn’t think those things. I didn’t think anything. I only felt emotions. I was angry – not at myself for being so stupid, not at the crack for being full of mud, not at the approach shoes for not being climbing shoes. I was just angry. At one point, I was crippled by the fear that I might fall. I think those two feelings – anger, and fear – are part of what got me through. It’s amazing how hard you can pull when you know your life actually depends on it, and you’re pissed off at being in such a foolish situation.
After catching my breath, and stilling my heart, I padded gingerly over to the base of the knife-edge arete. In spite of the obviously hard climbing (it turned out to be 5.11+), part of me yearned to continue upwards. But common sense had finally gotten the better of me, and my appetite for stone (or was it for fear?) was sated. I walked over and descended the grassy slabs, trod back down the scree gully, fought my way through the forest, and returned to the bivy boulder, exhausted, tired, hungry, thirsty, and ashamed for being so foolish.
When I returned to the bivy boulder, a couple of other climbers were standing out in the open on top, taking in another beautiful Austral sunset. They had been climbing on the wall opposite me all day, and had watched my progress periodically at belays.
“Looked like you were having an awesome time!”, Seth said to me. We were soon to become good friends. At that time, though, I answered gruffly, and sternly.
“That was the stupidest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” I said. “I wouldn’t wish a time like that upon anyone.” That was it.
Without taking another look back at the beautiful arete, I ducked back under the boulder, made and ate some food, and went to sleep.
I returned to the buttress a day later, passing where I had climbed the day before and instead climbing the 4th class ramps that I had descended the previous afternoon. This time I brought ropes, gear, shoes, a bolting kit, and water and food. I solo-aided up mostly easy terrain to the top of the knife-edge arete, took some pictures, fixed the rope, and rapped. Eventually, those pictures won over the climbers I had met on the bus (Chris Moore and Cooper Varney), and over nearly 3 weeks of working, cleaning, and climbing the route, we had opened a 16 pitch 12b to the summit of a previously unclimbed wall in the back of the Anfiteatro. We named the route the Doppler Effect, in honor of the way the line changed between our notions of it at the outset, and our memories of it looking back. The line is a proud one, and features no R or X rated climbing. When you look at the Doppler Effect from the bivy boulder, I believe any climber can’t help but want to climb it.
What I free-soloed in my approach shoes that first day, however, still looks like a pile of unimpressive choss you would have to be crazy, or possessed to climb. Perhaps I was both. I never named it, never graded it, and never gave it a topo. As far as I know, it remains unrepeated. Unlike most of my routes in Cochamo, I hope it always will.
As I look back on that day, I try to imagine what people would think as they scraped away chunks of hair, flesh, and bone from the scree gully below. Looking up, they would wonder how I got there – hesitant to believe it was from climbing such a worthless looking pile. My parents, my girlfriend, my friends – they would wonder what had compelled me to do such a thing, if I wasn’t perhaps secretly suicidal. Those who didn’t know me would fancy me insane – ‘only a madman would risk his life for that‘, they’d think to themselves in quiet consternation. And of course, they’d be right.
Having survived that day, nobody thinks any of those things about me. But I know what happened, and I know that I was just plain lucky to beat the odds. My palms still sweat when I read about near misses. I still long for the pulsequickening feeling of being off rope. I still call myself a climber. But after having burned through so many near-misses, I find myself playing the odds a bit more conservatively these days. And I hope that can be of guidance to someone, anyone, who might not get so lucky.
When I see younger climbers doing all the things I use to do, I find myself longing to tell them something. I want to shake them gruffly, grab them by the shoulder, and whisper in their ear. “Here’s the secret that they don’t tell you in the literature. Here’s the truth that the dead take to their graves. It wasn’t worth it. Never was, never is, never will be.” But I don’t know if that would help – it wouldn’t have helped me. For people like myself, the unfortunate truth may be that getting lucky is a rite of passage, and requisite for attaining circumspection and inhibition. Still, it can’t hurt to try counseling people I care about. Or people I don’t. Or maybe I’m just trying to get published. Your call.