October 06, 2014

Life, Death And Mountains

Climbers on the Rebuffat Route, Pointe Lachenal, Chamonix.

Near the end of August, Dylan T and I climbed a combination of routes on Pointe Lachenal. We started up Harold and Maude for the first few pitches and then drifted left to the aesthetic 2-pitch variation of A L'Oree du Bois. It was a great day out with an old friend. It's not always easy to find a climbing  partner in the middle of the guiding season, so it's a real treat when it happens.

Over the years, Dylan and I have done some good climbing, skiing and flying together. In 2006, we traversed Alaska's Neacola mountains, and in 2008 we skiied across the Tordrillo Range. In 2012, we smartened up and went on a much more civilized paragliding trip to Olu Deniz, Turkey.

Despite the fact that we all know working and playing in the mountains is dangerous, when accidents happen, there is still an element of disbelief. When Andreas Fransson, JP Auclair, and Liz Daley died in two separate avalanches in South America last week, I was stunned. Andreas and JP were masters of the sport and although I didn't know them personally, their online presence was so strong that it was hard not to know them. 

Whether we think about it or not, those of us who have made a lifestyle of being in the mountains, are part of a community. When the community suffers a loss, it's important to honor the individuals involved. It doesn't have to be a big show. At the ISSW (International Snow Science Workshop) in Banff last week, the participants took a minute of silence to honor the fallen skiers. Although the act is small, the statement is large. People often say, "It's only climbing... It's only skiing." But what they are really saying with this statement is that the acts are not meaningful - that somehow, in the great hierarchy of meaningful acts (you tell me what they are), climbing and skiing are low on the list. Well, I suppose that if we allow the lifestyle to be meaningless, it will be. But if we make a conscious effort to glean meaning from experience, it won't be. To take from David Foster Wallace, the capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death.

Here is a blurb that Dylan wrote about an incident earlier this summer:

One month ago today I had my closest brush with death. I’d often figured that a climbers' worst nightmare would be getting avalanched into a crevasse then buried. Then it happened to me, and somehow I survived the hour-long, 2-meter burial with severe hypothermia, a helluva lot of bruising, a relatively un-injured body, but a lot of heartache for the one who didn’t make it. It’s been a month of recovery and reboot. Thanks to all who’ve helped along the way, and apologies to all who have called and written - I haven’t been the quickest to respond over the last couple weeks.

Our lives hang by a fragile thread and it can all come crashing down in an instant. Ten days after I got out of the hospital, a drunk driver side-swiped three of us as we were driving up the autoroute blanche. Fortunately, I regained control of the car and drove away without serious harm - just a dent and an insurance headache.

We spend our lives taking risks (some of us more than others). Maybe we toss that word “managing” around a little too much? Shit happens to us in seemingly asymmetric and random ways, and luck, being luck, is applied to us unevenly as well. What hurts one can kill another, and can give a memorable “close call” to yet another. I escaped what I was convinced would be certain death with scratches, bruising, and some psychological trauma. I’ve lost friends in the mountains to events seemingly more benign than my own. I don’t understand why I’m still here, alive, and walking and talking. But i'll take it. I saw my life flash in front of my eyes twice in two weeks. I can’t find a satisfying conclusion to take from this, other than that Life is simply cruel, unfair, yet beautiful, unique, and shorter than we wish. Don’t take it for granted, no matter how cliche that statement sounds.

A couple weeks after the accident I made it back outside into the vertical world again. In the process I’ve had a couple of excruciatingly vivid, unforgettable moments of clarity. To describe them here would not do them justice. But they couldn’t have happened to me in a risk-adverse lifestyle. These moments alone make life worth living. Add these moments of punctuated stimulation to everything else we love in life and we’ve got something pretty damn special.

I hope to see you all around in Life, part II.

Climbing the A L'Oree du Bois variation on Pointe Lachenal back in August. Dylan Taylor Photo.

Dylan back in the element and wearing his best rock camo gear.

Hanging with DDT in the Aosta Hospital .

October 01, 2014

Climbing the Kuffner Arete, Mont Maudit

Sunrise on the Kuffner Arete, Mont Maudit. Photo: Chris Wright

On Saturday, Sept 13, Chris Wright and I left the Torino Hut at 5 am and headed towards the Kuffner Arete. The Kuffner is not an overly technical or difficult climb, and it seemed like a fun route to simul-solo with a buddy and a wing. I teamed up with climber and photographer extraordinaire - Chris Wright - for the adventure and he agreed to indulge me with the plan of flying off the mountain. Since I was carrying about 11 extra pounds of  gear (harness 1 kg, wing 2.5 kg, reserve 1.1 kg), I warned Chris that I would have to pace myself.

I really struggled with the decision of whether or not to carry the reserve. Before crashing last year, I was more inclined to leave the reserve behind. But nowadays, I feel that if I'm strong enough to carry the extra weight, I should make the effort to do so. Plus, I looked at this mission as an experiment. The route was easy enough that a few extra pounds wouldn't kill me, and I was curious to know how I would feel with the added load. 

Five and a half hours after leaving the Torino, we summitted Mont Maudit. Although we carried a rope, we only used it for the approach, the bergschrund, and a short rappel while weaving around Pointe L'Androsace. Since Chris is a beast, he agreed to carry it for most of the route and I'm sure that he could have topped out an hour before me had he wanted to.

Unfortunately, I never flew off the mountain. The wind was a little stronger than I'd hoped for and I decided to walk down. It was a frustrating end to an awesome day. With things like this, timing is everything. The forecast showed that the following day (Sept 14), would be the ultimate fly day, but unfortunately, Chris had to work. So we went a day early and I blew my chance at combining the passions. Oh well. 

One guy who took full advantage of the forecast and conditions was Julien Irilii. On the Sept 14th, he took the 8:10 lift up the Aiguille de Midi, launched the north face on his Ozone XXLITE, crossed the ridge back to the south, flew to the Grande Jorasses, soloed the Colton Macintyre, and flew back to Chamonix from the summit. Oh man, I cannot imagine a much better expression of excellence in both flying and climbing than this feat. Massive respect, props, and awe for this beautiful link-up. Here is a link to video of him on the flight home. 

Morning approach. Photo: Chris Wright

Lookibng back at he Dent de Geant Massif.

Crossing the Schrund. Photo: Chris Wright.

Topping out the approach couloir. Photo: Chris Wright

The Brenva side of Mont Blanc.

The traverse leading to Pointe L'Androsace. Photo: Chris Wright

The crux of the route traversing around Pointe L'Androsace.

Some steeper climbing higher on the route. Photo: Chris Wright

Heading for the top.

Cumbre! with Mont Blanc in the background.

Descending the Maudit face.

The kit: Gin Yeti 19m, Sup Air Radicale harness, Sup Air extralite reserve.

Well, I did get a short flight in from the Plan de L'Aiguille back to town. Better than nothing! Thanks to Chris for the great adventure!