Confessions of an Ex-Mountain Maggot

IMAG0059Yes, it’s true, I was once a lover of mountain adventure with hopes and aspirations of climbing the tallest peaks of the world. I believe being raised in the flats of lower Michigan made the concept of climbing mountains so ridiculously, impossibly challenging that I knew I would have to try it someday. I compare it to my desire to recite Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” by memory at age 11 as part of a literature assignment in the 6th grade. It became a necessity after the teacher, Mr. Hanlon, recommend to the class NOT to attempt it…

Devil_s_Tower_-_1980Fascinated by the idea of reaching the highest places on our planet, as a young adult and able to chose my own path, I promptly fueled the passion with a six week long Wilderness Use Education Association (WUEA and now WEA) run by the man himself, Paul Petzoldt. I was all in after that… hook, line and sinker.

Devil_s_Lake_WI_-_1979Soon after, I moved to Teton Basin, Idaho. I learned to survey land for my existence and found myself trekking in, around, up and down mountains every spare moment. I learned to ski, scramble, tumble, boulder hop, boulder flop, glissade, tip toe up vertical rock and hack at dubious chunks of ice. I wasn’t content until I had stood atop the Grand Teton no less than 50 times, and in pretty much every month of the year.

Heading_Out_to_Ski_the_Teton_Divide_-_1984During that time I somehow managed to learn the craft of mountaineering through a combination of patient partners and the “school of hard knocks” without killing myself. They say it’s a sign of intelligence to learn from our mistakes, but a sign of real genius to learn from the mistakes of others. I’m not a genius, perhaps not all that intelligent, instead I consider myself to be more of a lucky SOB! Survival through blind ignorance. Beginner’s luck? Ignorance is bliss?

Perhaps this is a common theme among mountaineers. Paul Petzoldt once related a classic story that says it all. Our entire group of aspiring future mountaineers sat listening from the edge of our seats, seats which were more likely boulders strewn about somewhere high in the Jedediah Smith Wilderness Area. Paul kept us spellbound with his personal recount of the second ascent ever accomplished of the Grand Tit. He described a harrowing bivouac to us, which took place after reaching the summit late in the day. During a night spent in what are now known as the Petzoldt Caves, with temps well below freezing, dressed only in jeans, cowboy boots and flannel shirts, Paul and his brother somehow manged to survive the night. They huddled close together while shivering profusely until daylight arrived, allowing them to stagger down the rough terrain of Garnet Canyon to the safety of the valley below. At the moment in the story when we weren’t certain they would survive, despite the fact that the protagonist was right in front of us telling the tale post wit, Paul hit us with the punch line… “We’d have died of hypothermia had we known what it was!”

Thor_Peak_-_1979I spent the better part of my early “adult” life wandering the mountains. Beyond the Tetons, Sawtooths and Lemhi Range of Idaho, I expanded my knowledge with trips to the Cascades, the Pacific Coast Range and eventually made my way up to Alaska to climb the Cassin Ridge on Denali. Each quest became loftier. Each adventure brought me closer to that line you dare never to step across. I began to lose friends, partners and comrades all too frequently. Several souls later I made a serious assessment. I realized (rationalized?) that my real passion lay within the gymnastic movement of the rock pitches. I was not truly fond of long approaches or carrying a heavy pack, pregnant with gear. I loved movement. The more gymnastic the movement, the more excited I was.

I truly admired the stronger and much younger generation of gymnastic climbers that were soon dominating the scene with seemingly impossible feats of dynamic strength on rock. Sport climbers. Rock jocks. True athletes. As Conrad Anker once confided in me when I caught him climbing at a local sport crag, “Anyone can slog up a mountain. This shit’s hard!” I soon found myself making the metaphysical journey back in time. Back to the flatland of Michigan. The desire, nay, the stubborn inability to ignore a lofty, seemingly impossible, challenge once it confronts me. Hooked, I became, smitten. Bitten by the sport climbing bug.

My old alpine friends said I was selling out. They chastised me heavily. They taunted we with lines from Mark Wilford, “Sport climbing is neither.” They called me a wuss. A skirt. A pussy. Many thought I’d lost my nerve. Many claimed I had lost my “head” for the game. What they didn’t realize is that I had been born again. Not in a religious sense, instead, I discovered something far more spiritual. Heaven on earth. Eternal ethereal enlightenment. With sport climbing I was not only following my personal bliss, I was now facing my greatest challenge and greatest fear ever… the fear that I might fail.

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Photo: John Evans
And, indeed I do fail. Repeatedly. Success comes far and few. It’s random reward when it happens. It’s hard work to attain. Days of training. Repeated efforts without goal attainment. Settling on small increments of progression. Sometimes taking two steps backward to gain three forward. Eventually, yes, eventually, the epic journey, which is part of the process and rewarding in itself, leads to success. Climax. Spiritual release. Nirvana.

Suffice it to say, I’m hooked. I can now see myself sharing this lifestyle with Maggie, and our two pups. Ultimately, I can see myself dying sometime after my 100th birthday has passed, trying to hang onto steep stone in a beautiful place like Spain, France, The Red, Maple, Kalymnos, Mexico, Bishop, Hueco, Thailand, Norway, British Columbia, etc., etc. So much rock… so little time.

“Quoth the Raven, ‘Nevermore.'”…


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