– Just a few years ago, I was learning the ropes to climbing, literally and figuratively. Each outing was a new experience, learning new tricks and techniques from the diverse pool of mentors I began learning climbing from. My stoke was always cranked up to 11 each and every time I touched the rock.Fast forward four years, and I still have the same eagerness and excitement towards climbing, but as I study more technical rope skills, I sometimes forget what its like to have fresh eyes and new experiences every time I tie in.
The other week, there was a clear weather and work window that allowed myself and two friends, Patrick and Willie, to go climbing. With a day of crystal clear weather and an fast drying high country, I knew an alpine climb was in my future. For me this is the pinnacle of the climbing experience; testing your skills and abilities deep in the high country, truly embracing the mountains and all their beauty.
What made this a truly unique experience? Giving young climbing homeboy Willie his first climb deep in the wilderness. As Patrick and myself discussed the details for the day, Willie inquisitively asked a valid question, “Hey guys, what’s Alpine climbing?” Being as this was his first of what I hope to be many high alpine climbs, we simply told him to “shut up, put your pack on and follow us.” Young Willie fully put his faith in Patrick and myself, believing we would not ask him to do anything we didn’t think he could achieve.
Our approach took us up the scenic and popular hike towards Gilpin Lake in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness. This mission was more open ended then most. Patrick knew of an old route that use to be guided up the picturesque Palmer-Hoyt Peak, all we knew is that it was the Northeast Ridge and it went at 5.FUN. As our objective came more into view we realized it was going to be a stellar day. Standing below the beautiful granite wall, the immense dihedral lured me in like a siren of the sea. Unsure if this was the old route we expected to climb or just a sexy chunk of rock that needed to be climbed, we began to rack up.
I led up the first bit of mellow climbing, surmounted a grassy ledge, navigated a quickly evaporating snow field to a gorgeous corner that went on for about 100 or so feet. As I quickly realized I was running out of rope, I began to look for a belay stance. Finding a nice solid crack that sucked up a few cams and I built a solid anchor. Before hollering to my partners that the belay was on, I peered a few feet to my right to notice an old rusty fixed piton driven deep in a thin seam. This discovery excited me more than an old piece of rusting metal should. It assured me that after a few years of climbing, I was able to look up at a rock and say “That looks radical, lets send it” and knowing that some old time steamboat climbing legend, possibly Rusk or Higby, maybe even Covington, had the same thought.
As my partners arrived at the belay, they too were excited to see the old piece of pro and know we were not the first to climb this amazing feature. Patrick would lead up the next pitch of more fun climbing, bringing up Willie first, followed by myself. Being a thoughtful and experienced climber, Patrick avoided the obvious balanced rock that was just waiting to dismember anything in its path when gravity and a little kinetic energy were applied to its artful balancing act. Lucky for me, I came up third and had the pleasure of trundling this obvious hazard, clearing the way for future parties to safely climb this rock. I do have to admit, the rockfall was quite tremendous, folks hiking up to Gilpin Lake surely had to hear it from miles away.
Patrick’s pitch put us near the two summit blocks of Palmer-Hoyt. Understanding we were out of our weather window, I began to scout out our decent with my next lead which would put us just near a 3rd class gully we chose to down climb. Soon we made the decision not to summit, but to play it safe and descend as afternoon clouds began to roll in. Although the rain held off, this was a good decision, and a great lesson to Willie, regardless of how close you may be to the top, safety is most important, and avoiding rain and lightning is a critical part of staying safe in the high country.
Being there for Willie’s first alpine climb was tremendous. I could see his curious mind analyzing each decision Patrick or myself made. Asking questions along the way, constantly admiring and seeking knowledge for his own personal benefit, knowing someday he would be on our end of the rope with a young eager climber. I’m sure this is an experience he will not soon forget, and it excites me to know that someday this strong kid will accomplish great feats in the mountains