There’s a strange beep popping into my head, the haze of the night before cut by the sound of an incoming text message.
“You up? Be there in five.”
Andrew and I are heading out to try the Culp-Bossier route, a seven-pitch 5.9 up the straight vertical side of Hallet Peak, in Rocky Mountain National Park. I’ve never tried an alpine climb, and the fact that I just crashed for an hour and a half before sleeping through my alarm doesn’t bode well for our upcoming adventure. It’s 3:00am, and Andrew’s on his way.
Thankfully I’ve already packed my things, so I get myself dressed and my teeth brushed without too much delay. We get in the car, and I’m not sure if the fuzz in my head from one too many beers and too little sleep is going to go away. Andrew pulls into a gas station in Lyons to let me grab an extra liter of water, and I pound it as we drive.
It’s a trek out to the foot of the Culp-Bossier – an easy two-and-a-half mile stroll on good trails in Rocky Mountain National Park up to Hallet Peak, right up until the half mile of boulder hopping and scree scrambles. We start hiking predawn, headlamps cutting small pools of light into the cool morning fog. The crunch of gravel under our feet is muted, the morning pulled in close. Looking back, I think I get the expression “blanket of fog” a little better, the land still, content to stay quiet and wrapped comfortably in a sleepy quilt of clouds. It’s a good start, my head clearing a bit as we walk, the landscape starting to wake up around us.
Soon the sun is rising, not yet cresting the rolling mountains behind us, but throwing enough light our way to put the headlamps into our packs. We shed our jackets, and peer at the fog; small lakes, streams and beautifully swirled granite boulders slipping into and out of existence as we pass, rolling back into the morning as quickly as they appear in front of us.
Soon enough the trail ends at Emerald Lake, and we cut onto a boulder field, traversing the bottom of the valley, its size hidden in the haze. Raspberry bushes dot our path, and we stop at each one, picking a few and moving on.
The hike turns steep, and the boulders give way to scree, the stones small and loose. We’re careful not to slip as we follow a confused set of paths up a sharp slope. We’re angling in the general direction of where we think the climb will be once the clouds we’re traveling through are pushed off the mountains by the rising sun. The travel is hard, the air thin.
The sun begins to make itself known, peeking over the valley behind us, a golden glow added to the haze. In moments, a great vertical stretch of rock materializes in front of us, and we break through the clouds into clear morning air, the clarity breathtaking and sudden. The face is huge.
We get to the foot of the climb quickly, and begin to rack up, eating some food, drinking some water, and getting our heads in order. Mine’s in a sorry state, thumping along with my heartbeat in the altitude. I should’ve gotten some sleep. Ah well. We’re here, and it’s 5.9. We’ll be okay. Behind us, the sun casts itself over rolling clouds that obscure the valley through which we’d just hiked.
I take the first pitch, a large, slabby corner up to an easy traverse past two old pitons. The anchor is twenty feet above me, near a small, scrubby tree fighting to survive at 11,000 feet. I spy what I think is the line of weakness, and cast off, facing a swinging fall onto a ledge if I blow it. I am wrong – this pitch is supposed to be 5.6, and I find myself pulling on thin 5.10 edges, looking at a hard gaston off of a good left foot, and a right hand built from a three-finger wide, quarter-inch, incut flake that’s a little too thin for my comfort. If I reach my left hand out to the next edge, and my right hand breaks, Andrew and I could be in a bit of trouble, a long way from help, and a thirty-foot fall past a ledge guaranteed.
I don’t want to reverse fifteen feet of thin .10 climbing, and tentatively commit to the move. Just before my left reaches its target, a good horizontal edge, the hold under the index finger of my right hand breaks with a crack, popping off into space. Thankfully, the section under my middle and ring fingers stays intact, and I latch my left hand. I reach the anchor, and take a moment to calm myself as I plug gear into a horizontal break. Andrew follows with no trouble, taking a line five feet to the left of mine, and I kick myself for my mistake.
The next three pitches follow an array of fun, varied climbing past slabby traverses, hand cracks, technical faces, and overhanging flakes. Andrew encounters some serious runouts on pitch four, pulling fantastic moves on a massive white crystalline band offering up cracks that come and go behind a fifty-foot long flake, and handholds built from fist-sized cobbles decorating the granite interspersed between the quartz.
I arrive at the anchor running low on energy. I drink some water, take the gear, and start up to begin pitch five, one of the cruxes of the route. I am tired, my legs twitching on every rounded foothold. This section is long, following a swath of rock forty feet wide, with no discernable features to point the correct route. I climb slowly, fighting the shaking of my calves, their trembling making my feet feel unstable. I am runout, and not just a little. I am a long, long distance from my last piece of gear, and I can’t get my goddamn legs to be still.
I have a moment.
Here I am, clinging on to a vertical face, 900 feet off the deck, breathing harder than I’d like in thin air, no car, no girlfriend, no career. I don’t know where I’m going. The climbing appears the same everywhere I look – thin, and nothing to protect. The farther I push it, the more danger I’m in. But that’s where we are, right? It’s not like I can go back. There’s a tiny overlap fifteen feet away that might take gear. The rock looks like it might get me there. I’m moving, hands and feet on granite that’s just a little rounded, and a little slippery. I’m aware that every foothold I weight may have never been tested. I get to the overlap, and fiddle with the smallest gear I have. An iffy micro cam kind of fits into a flare, and I keep moving. Fifty, sixty more feet to the anchor. No gear. Sometimes the safest thing is trust in the unknown, which right now, is as much myself as my direction, and if you’re not sure whether I’m still talking about climbing, well, neither am I.
Some metaphor, huh? We all want to slay the mountain, conquering heroes and all. I think we move from these moments to those moments, sometimes in the sun, a splitter second on top of a peak, a minute later skittering down a scree field hoping as hard as we can that we don’t crash and bring our friends down with us. And sometimes, we can only breathe, stuck on the sheer side of a cliff, our options limitless and terrifying, every line ahead given to us by our past, and every line’s outcome unknown – safety, danger, hope all wrapped into one more tiny foothold, and those next few promising hands.
I keep moving. What else is there to do?
The belay appears in front of me, a thin vertical fissure that takes tricky gear. Andrew comes up, grinning at the pitch – in immediate retrospect, it was fantastic. “How was it, dude?”
“Man, so good!” he says. “Nice solo.”
We finish out the last two pitches, Andrew pulling the route’s crux through a series of overhanging blocks and jams. The summit is beautiful. I belay Andrew up, alone on the top of this climb, the Rockies stretching out in front of me, jagged, rolling triangles waving into the horizon.
We pick our way down past two rappels, and onto a steep five-hundred foot gully, mixing dangerously loose third-class scree with the occasional fourth and fifth-class downclimb. We go slow, to avoid dropping blocks down on each other. The gully deposits us back in the valley beneath the Culp-Bossier, and we hike back up to our packs. A little more food, some water, and we’re on our way back to the car, stopping off at Emerald Lake to wash our faces. We get back to the parking lot at dusk, the day long, our bodies tired. I found something valuable in the movement, some honesty. There’s no better way to wrap it up – we’ll be back in those positions again at some point, so the trip is never really done.