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Leaving Indian Creek

April 10, 2019

I often wake around first light when the glow in the east has not yet vanquished all the stars. There’s no reason to rise early in the Creek, no one climbs until late morning, so I sensibly roll over and go back to sleep. When the sky is bright and the sun is working its way down North Sixshooter tower on the western horizon, I will likely wake again. I’ll typically be groggy and delay getting up until I have to poop. Then it’s time to leave the covers and gradually start the day.

For some reason this morning I wake early with lots of energy. Instead of drifting back to sleep, I spread my tarp and pad on flat sandy ground in back of the campsite and begin to stretch. The red sandstone cliffs become more vibrant each moment of increasing light. The cottonwood trees, still bare from the winter, are loaded with tiny buds and ready to explode into a dazzling green any day. There are few sights that both soothe and energize me more than green-leafed cottonwoods perched beside a meandering stream through a red sandstone canyon. These corridors of life are full of secrets that beckon. I love to wander through their enchantments and rest in their shade.

Two days ago Clinton and I took an active rest day and hiked down Big Spring Canyon towards the Colorado River. On our way down, the few cottonwoods we saw were nothing but sticks. The day was so warm we stopped twice to dip in seasonal pools. The first pool was waist deep and fed by a two-foot trickle of a waterfall, mossy and fecund like an alter to Demeter or some other more watery earth-mother goddess. The second pool was in a rock fold and deep enough to dive in. We eventually became cliffed out and couldn’t descend farther without a rope, so we reversed course. On the way up, the previously bare cottonwoods were covered in fully formed bright light green leaves.

I had planned to be in Yosemite a week ago, but a stormy weather forecast for the Valley has delayed my departure. It may be a blessing in disguise. Maybe I will get to see the cottonwoods that line Indian Creek in full bloom.

Yesterday, too sore to climb, I was content to stay in camp, read, and watch the changing light as high cirrus clouds moved across the sky. That peace was a gift, but this morning I feel a stirring, not a desire to leave, but a sense of imminent change.

As people begin to wake and make their first coffee, I drive to the Canyonlands Visitor’s Center for internet. Yosemite weather is on the verge of clearing. I need to leave today.

Every year it’s the same. I never want to leave the Creek. There’s nowhere I would rather be in spring than this high desert canyon country. Arriving early March always feels like coming home. As April approaches the weather continues to get better. My friends will stay for another few weeks. I’m finally in crack-climbing shape and strong enough to do harder routes. Each year I only depart because I know that Yosemite Valley in April is the most extraordinary place on the planet. Winter snows melt. In every recess water tumbles, cascades, and tumbles again. Waterfalls, numerous and in full flow, generate negative ions that reverberate throughout the granite canyon. The whole valley pulsates with their energy. It’s documented that negative ions have a mood enhancing effect. Maybe that’s all it is, but the Valley in April feels like a temple where proximal spirits inspire accomplishments that seem impossible.

Before I leave the Creek, I need to make one more attempt on Annunaki. It’s a splitter crack on the underside of a slab that overhangs maybe 20 degrees beyond vertical. The crack starts three inches wide and gradually narrows to half an inch in about 50 feet. The first 20 feet are straight up. Then it zigzags like a lighting bolt moving up and slightly right. Near the top it cuts left for eight feet, than straight up again. The last move is the most difficult. It requires standing high on the overhanging wall and clipping the chains off a finger lock.

I have a long history with Annunaki starting five years ago when I couldn’t pull the final moves. Victoria and I worked on it two weeks ago and agreed to try one more time before leaving.

My Impreza doesn’t have enough clearance to cross the river or roll over the rocks on the Bridger Jacks road, so we take her van. Her passenger seat is covered in cat hair. I’m allergic to cats, so I sit in back on my pack trying to avoid touching anything that might have cat hair, which is everything. Vic picked up the cat in Mexico this past winter. It’s orange like a little tiger, and all the women in camp who like cats ogle over it. Anytime a dog walks by, the nasty little thing arches its back and hisses. If someone is holding the cat at the time, they wind up with claws dug deep into their skin. The cat and I look at each other and keep our distance as we bounce up the road.

Lots of climbers seem to get their pets off the streets of Mexico. It clearly improves lives of animals previously on the verge of starvation, and maybe it’s good for the people as well. Last winter in El Salto, Dan from Calgary showed up hoping to take home a dog. He acted every bit of his 20 years around a Rock Camp fire by brashly chiding people to party. Carlos, Rock Camp’s owner, said, “Dude, maybe you should go to Potrero (a popular climbing area more known for partying than rock quality). We’re all here to climb.” Dan sheepishly left the fire. Two days later, Dan sent his first 5.13 proving he could be serious about both. This spring Dan arrived in the Creek with a Mexican puppy and a Dutch girlfriend. He seems practically a family man, with the maturity of someone much older.

I’m not sure the benefit applies to Victoria. Having this cat may just mark her descent into becoming some weird cat lady. She admits she has it in her.

On my first Annunaki attempt of the day I get flash pumped about half way up and have to hang. It’s disappointing. I rest, continue up, and have to hang again before the end. Victoria looks strong and confident but freaks out at the end and hangs just before trying the final move. We take a long break as other people climb the route. Half way up my second go, my feet cut loose and I’m surprised to not fall. I get my feet back in the crack and take it to the end. I scream. It’s my first 5.12 in the Creek and a perfect end to the season. Vic also succeeds. It’s a wonderful feeling to work on a project with someone and both get it the same day.

Dan arrives and wants to try the route completely naked except for his harness and shoes. Everyone laughs and cheers him on. Good to see that having a puppy hasn’t changed him too much. He starts and is surprised how cold the gear is next to his bare skin. The owner of the rope he borrowed suddenly takes issue with it touching his junk. More laughter ensues, followed by congratulations on his successful ascent.

Late afternoon Victoria gives me a ride back to my car. I stand in the wind and try to get all the cat hair off my clothing and pack before beginning the 15-hour drive to Yosemite.

By the time I reach the freeway around Green River the sky is brown with dust. A cross wind is so strong I have to fight the wheel to stay in my lane. I hope to rise above the dust and wind when I get in the mountains.

As the road climbs, daylight fades and snow starts to fall. Soon it’s dark and I’m driving through a blizzard. I see little and am blinded by my own headlights reflecting off an onslaught of falling snow. Using high beams makes it worse. I don’t even think to stop, Yosemite calls. Anyway, the storm should let up. But it doesn’t.

For hours I stare at bright white specks attacking my windshield from the darkness. My eyes burn, and I’m afraid to blink. The speed limit says 80 but I go between 30 and 40. Suddenly I see that I’m straddling the line dividing lanes. Now it’s on my left. Now it’s on my right. Now I can’t see it. Where the fuck is the road? I slow and spot it on my left. After hours of driving, I catch up with two snowplows running in tandem at 25 mph, clearing both lanes of the freeway. It’s snowing less and I could go faster but can’t get around them. This drive is going to take a lot longer than I had hoped. About midnight I’m beyond exhausted. I pull over somewhere in the desert to crawl into the back for a few hours of sleep.

Twenty-four hours after leaving the Creek I arrive at the south Yosemite entrance gate a bit blurry. The ranger looks at my Golden Age park pass, smiles, and says, “Welcome home.”

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Indian Creek with Ellie

I just returned from a weekend in St Louis with my former in-laws. It was the first time I had seen or spoken with them since Donna and I divorced seven years ago. Now I just want to go to the Creek.

The forecast predicts another set of stormy days. Two hours after landing, I leave Berkeley and dash across the desert expecting to get one day of climbing in before the weather hits. All of Nevada is covered in snow with intermittent flurries as I drive, but Indian Creek is dry the night I arrive.

I locate Ellie, my niece, and move into the site she has with Reuben, her friend from Bowdoin College. Ellie is on the verge of graduating and can’t wait to be done so she can be a full-time dirtbag climbing bum. Reuben seemed like a good kid, likable, with many natural talents. He is also young and a bit full of himself in that defensive way the untested are.

I’m sleeping in the back of my Subaru Impreza with the door open. About dawn, I wake to a pitter-patter of raindrops. Without opening my eyes, I reach over and close the door. Within a minute the sprinkle turns to a downpour. Seems that the storm has arrived a day early. There will be no climbing today. Solid sandstone crumbles when wet. Holds break off. Sharp edges round. Protection placed in cracks can slide out. Even if you successfully ascend, the climb will likely erode and be damaged. I’m here for the season, one climbing day doesn’t make much difference. I roll over and go back to sleep.

I wake to sun streaming in through the window. The sky is half puffy clouds and half blue. Up valley it’s raining, and the precipitation appears to be slowly moving this way.

Ellie has already had a bunch of coffee and is charged up to go on an adventure. That’s typical of spring break kids, but it’s also Ellie’s nature. I’m in no hurry to go somewhere just to get wet. Besides my back is sore and body is stiff. It’s not from anything in particular, it’s just how my body is now.

No one who lives in Indian Creek for the season moves fast in the morning. Even with good weather and a lot of psych, most climbers rise about 8 a.m., after the sun starts warming their vans or tents. They hang out, brew coffee, bullshit, and maybe watch the younger dogs chase each other around for a while. Then they make elaborate breakfasts that often involve potatoes, vegetables, eggs and sometimes bacon. Then there might be more coffee, and everyone has to poop, before the day’s where and what of climbing will be settled. Typical departure time is about 11 a.m.

It’s starting to sprinkle again. On rainy days I often go into town. I go to Moab when I want to resupply and take a shower. If not, I go to Monticello which is closer and has comfortable library with good internet. The other option is an exploratory run or hike. Since this is day one, I’m clean, fully supplied for a week, have nothing to write about, and need exercise. It seems like a hiking day. The problem is that I feel lethargic. Ellie looks like a puppy with leash in its mouth begging for a walk.

She taunts me, “Come on old man.” Then she apologies.

I say, “No, you’ve earned it.”

We had an agreement from when she first started climbing that she did not have the right to call me “old” until she climbed harder than me. Last July we climbed together in Squamish. She had taken the spring semester off school and had been climbing steadily since. I was out of shape, having not climbed since April. We both led Wild Turkey, a long strenuous chimney. She took her time, had excellent technique, and made steady progress to the top. I know the technique but was off the couch and lacked endurance. I struggled and fell. She was happy to gloat. I took the humiliation with joy at her accomplishment.

In truth, these days I feel like an old man. I’m not as fast or strong as I was. My body is achy more often than not, while even a year ago it was the opposite. Worse, I don’t have the same passion to push that I’ve had most of my life.

Needing to overcome my sluggishness, I brew a strong cup of Peet’s coffee. Then to enhance motivation, I break out some dank sticky flower buds from my friend’s garden. Soon we are all quite motivated to explore crags up Donnelly canyon.

It’s a cool rain but not freezing. Two layers of wool and a rain shell are perfect. We start out the trail, and I break into a light jog. My hips and lower back hurt and I hope that endorphins will kick in and make the pain go away.

Five minutes in I look up to the next crag past Donnelly and see a wide crack angling up and left from the ground to the top of the wall. Most routes in Indian Creek don’t top out so I’m intrigued.

“Ellie, look at that chimney.”

“Wooh. That’s beautiful.”

“Let’s go check it out.”

We all work our way up several hundred feet of loose dirt and rocks to the base. Once there we scoot up and down boulders to get better views from every angle we can. My back is cranky and I groan as I push over and under obstacles.

The chimney looks doable from what we can see. We’re surprised there isn’t the usual plaque at the base indicating a name and grade for a route. Ellie and I both want to come back and try it when it’s dry.

We drop back to the trail. Reuben starts out at a quick jog followed by Ellie. He keeps looking back to make sure he doesn’t get too far ahead. I bring up the rear, my body wanting to walk, but I’m so high running is just fine.

We follow the drainage uphill taking right turns at each confluence. As expected we are eventually stopped by a steep sandstone layer that blocks further passage up the wash. These places are never vertical but always cave-like over-hangings where water has eroded the wall behind the fall. Often there are also overhanging walls well downstream of the pour-overs.

We stand under a bit of overhanging wall to stay out of the rain and admire a waterfall. Water is flowing off the 30 foot pour-over in a half dozen steady but migratory streams that drift back and forth left and right in into six-foot diameter splash zone.

The water looks pristine. Ellie announces that she’s going to get a drink. She stands just out of the splash zone, leans forward, and tilts her head up. Water pours into her mouth and all over her head. She returns with a full face grin.

The water looks irresistible so I go next, just ducking in for a quick taste to not get soaked.

We are looking at the falling water and Ellie says, “It’s so tempting, I want to get in.”

I reply, “It does look good. I wish I was dirty. But it’s just the first day.”

Reuben say, “Looks cold. I’m not getting in.”

Ellie says, “I can’t pass up that shower.” She then starts to remove her clothing.

Last summer Ellie and I were coming back from a climb on a hot day. I stopped at my favorite pool, a discrete place deep enough to wash off the sweat and dust. Ellie disappeared. After I got dressed and returned to the trail, Ellie was there with her hair wet. She said she bathed down stream, not wanting to be naked with her uncle.

Knowing she spent most of last year on wilderness trips with her father, presumable bathing in lakes and steams, I asked how that worked. She said they picked different spots, and then she laughed.

Evidently being naked in front of her uncle is not an issue now, but I suddenly became uncomfortable. It’s not about nudity, I’m fine with that, but some sense of propriety says I shouldn’t see my niece naked. I turn away and start to walk toward a larger overhang we found just down stream. Then she starts to hoot and scream so I look back. Rather than making a mad dash through the waterfall she stands her ground for serious bathing. I’m in awe. There is something pure and beautiful in her bathing under that waterfall. As she gets out and heads back to her clothing I continue down stream again. But something stops me. What’s wrong with me? That used to be me. I was always the first one to drink from a spring, and I could never resist an enticing mountain lake or stream, damn the ice. It’s rare to see waterfalls in the desert. Ellie’s right. That shower is a gift.

As Ellie heads down the hill I go back up, remove my clothing and step under the waterfall to receive its blessing. The water pounds on me as I wash all over. It’s cold but not too cold. Rather than removing sweat and dust, I feel the water wash away the sedentary lifestyle I had been living the last two months. It washes away the awkwardness and discomfort of the previous weekend with Donna’s family. It washes away the stiffness in my body, not the actual ailments but the part stuck in my mind. It washes away the civilized, house-trained me, and leaves the feral me, clean and raw and ready for a climbing season in Indian Creek.

Post script 1.

Ellie also can’t resist the second waterfall we find. The water falls about 60 feet. This time she dances around it and dashes through it once but doesn’t stay in. She passes on the third waterfall now that she is a bit cold and wet and presumably clean enough.

Ellie looking at 2nd waterfall

Ellie contemplating the second waterfall before getting in.

Post script 2.

Ellie and I return to the chimney on her last climbing day before returning to school. While the guidebook shows that the other prominent cracks at the crag have established routes, there is no record of the chimney having been climbed. Ellie wants to lead it and gathers an armload of bulky protective camming devices for wide cracks. She also carries the normal array of cams making all movement awkward at best. After climbing the first section she finds a bolt in the rock that some other party left to retreat. (If it were an anchor on an established route, two bolts should have been placed.) The next section is an unprotectable squeeze chimney, big enough for her body, but not big enough for her to turn around. It’s a strenuous wiggle at best. All her wide gear is too small to fit. Though her progress is slow, she keeps shouting down enthusiastically, “This is so good.” No bolts on top are a further indication it’s not an established route.

After she gets to the top I follow her up and remove the few pieces of protective gear she has left. The climb is an honest grunt fest. Though the squeeze is unprotected, it’s safe. It’s hard to ascend but impossible to fall out of. At worst you could slither down. Turning sideways would get you stuck. On top she describes the experience as “cosmic” and says, “It was like being inside mother earth’s vagina.”

Back on the ground, she exercises her rights as the presumed first ascensionist and scratches out a name plaque at the base. She calls the route Cosmic Vagina and rates it 5.9+, a true Yosemite grade, a sandbag rating for the Creek.

El Salto Part 2

The walk to Techalote cave takes about 50 minutes and the return takes the same. Most of the walk is through a winding, sheer-walled limestone canyon, in a dry wash, over river rocks. Just before a dry waterfall that rages in the wet season, a jeep road climbs and then drops several hundred feet to rejoin the wash below. Around the next bend a steep, rough, rocky footpath ascends though scrubby woods for almost 10 minutes to the cave. Lots of climbers won’t do this approach. I don’t particularly like it but do appreciate having the moderate aerobic workout twice a day, except on weekends when Mexican tourists driving cuatro-motos and dune buggies fill the canyon with noise and dust.

I have been working on the climb Nosferatu (5.12c) in the cave for three weeks. The line follows a prow centered between two deeper sections of the cave, overhangs about 45 degrees, and is defined by stalactites, tufas, and long powerful reaches between features. The grade equals the hardest I have ever climbed. I’m only physically capable of one serious attempt a day. Then I need a rest day to recover.

Two climbing days ago I made it halfway before I fell. I hung on the rope for a long time gasping for breath. After climbing a little higher, I had to rest on the rope again for another long time before continuing. Convinced that I would likely never have the power or stamina for a clean ascent, I was ready to leave El Salto with the climb undone and no intention of returning.

I’m not enamored with El Salto. The town is dull with no street tacos and only one mediocre restaurant, which is only open on weekends. With the exception of Nosferatu, the climbing doesn’t suit me and only working on one route is not that interesting.

A bit after the new year I plan to join Rob, Scott, and crew and go south. On January first I decided to give Nosferatu one more go before leaving. I borrowed some thigh pads to help manage kneebar pain. Kneebars give you a bit of a rest and are critical for arm recovery on radically overhanging routes. You slot your knee against a bit of rock and push with your toe against another. In a perfect kneebar you can let go with both hands, but most of the time you don’t want to. Kneebars tend to be tenuous, painful, or both. Typically you hang on with one hand while shaking out the other, back and forth, trying to recover. The position requires core tension. As you rest your arms, your overall energy gets drained.

Since it would be my last attempt ever, I decided to give it all I could. I milked all the kneebars, ignored the pain, and tried to hold until the optimal moment of maximum arm recovery with minimal overall energy decline, hoping my arms could get enough back to make it to the next kneebar. Close to the top, on the last hard move, I fell.

It’s January third and my post New Year’s plans have been delayed. Today will be my twelfth walk to the cave. The first was exploratory, but the other ten have been Nosferatu days.

I leave early with Victoria. She has been working on Nosferatu too. In town the sky is clear, but the canyon is filled with a thick grey fog. The fog rolls out of the canyon’s entrance and pours over a low spot in the canyon wall, tumbling down as though it were a waterfall.

“What do you think Vic? Is the fog a good thing or foreboding? We gonna get sending temps or damp rock?”

She doesn’t answer. She’s in a dark mood and hasn’t said a dozen words all morning. It could have something to do with her gear being on Nosferatu and getting worn out by a bunch of Mexican climbers gang-banging the route over the last few days. Or maybe she’s mad at me for complaining about her stinky farts. We have been sharing a house with a bunch of other people and she’s been making all kinds of crazy concoctions. One day it was cookies made with beans instead of flour. Another day it was cauliflower blobs that were meant to be some type of bread roll. Yesterday she whipped frozen bananas with orange zest, topped with a date-sweetened granola. That was really good. I guess I should ask her what’s wrong. But she’s not my girlfriend, so it’s not my responsibility. On the other hand she is my friend, so I ask.

She doesn’t want to talk about it. I take her response at face value. We walk in silence.

In the last days I have dissected every detail of my last attempt on Nosferatu. That attempt was close. I assessed why I fell and what to do next time. I don’t expect to necessarily get it today, but intend to put in a good effort. Maybe I will manage two goes, one early morning and one late afternoon. I review the entire climb, over and over, with a special emphasis on the end, assuming I get there again.

Another party is already at the cave climbing something far to the left. I crank up the first quarter of Nosferatu for a warm up and drop to the ground. The other guys want to get on Nosferatu too but will do another route first, so I chill for a half hour.

When I hear more climbers coming up the trail, I strap on the kneepads. My goal is to just climb well: stay calm, focus on foot placements, and maximize rests.

At the first move I become engaged in a precise dance. Micro movements matter. Body position and generating the force required to launch up the radical overhang is everything. Where to grab a hold and how tight to grip are key. A slight shift of the hips makes all the difference in how secure or strenuous kneebars are. In the last kneebar I review the final sequence before executing. Suddenly I’m clipping the summit chains and howl at the top of my lungs.

I receive hearty congratulations and fist bumps from the dozen climbers now at the crag. Victoria takes a top rope burn to remove her draws. After she cleans the last draw, she comes to the ground, packs up, and leaves quickly.

With no more business, I slowly pack and head out the canyon, grateful I never have to do Nosferatu again, and even better, never have to do this walk again.

Back in town, the day has turned warm and sunny. Some friends invite me to Santiago, a town at the bottom of the mountain, a 45-minute drive away. There’s the promise of street tacos and a café with internet, all of which sounds enticing and celebratory. But I still have energy to burn. Now that I am free of Nosferatu, I want to try another route at another crag. Honey Bear (5.12b) caught my eye on a rest day hike and is only a five minute walk away. It’s a grade easier than the climb I just did. Maybe I can learn it quickly and send it in a few goes.

A fall from the crux looks like a potential ankle breaker, so I opt to top rope this first attempt. It turns out to be wise. By the third bolt, well before the crux, I’m struggling. The holds are small and slick and I can barely hang on, much less move up. It seems like I fall after every move and multiple times attempting the harder moves. Luckily with each fall I only slip down a little. The climb takes me forever, with more falls than I can count.

I return to the ground humbled and wonderfully worked, a great contrast after the ego boost of the morning.

The temperature drops in the evening and cold settles in with the dark. Sitting around the fire Carlos offers me a hit off his vape pen with THC oil. As a rule I never get high at night, but what the heck.

“You push the button and suck on it,” he says. He doesn’t say for how long.

I suck in feeling nothing for a long time and stop at the first hit of harshness. Too late. The harshness is a momentary hint at the bomb that suddenly goes off in my lungs and sends me into a coughing fit.

Carlos laughs, “Oh, you took too much. I should’ve told you. I’m sorry.”

I assure him that it’s okay. Within a few minutes I’m far too stoned to sit by a fire and need to head out into the night for a walk. I have the presence of mind to grab a headlamp and take a big drink of water. There is already ice formed on top of my car.

I leave town for the wash, headlamp off. Looking up into the mid-winter moonless starry sky, I savor the sight of Orion rising. What a gift to be outside.

I have no idea where I am going but suspect it might be back to the cave, though it seems crazy and too far. Black canyon walls rise all around me and end at a strip of stars overhead. The road reflects enough light to follow, though I see no surface details. My feet find their way over river rocks.

The going is slow as I stumble over stones. The cave seems to be calling me or rather I feel compelled to revisit it and show it proper respect and appreciation, for I left without doing that this morning.

Out of the corner of my eye I see a strange luminescence. I turn and the light lingers. It seems to have a calm animate presence, like a benign spirit or an angel, and then it disappears. Wow, I’m so high I’m seeing angels. The strange light beings continue to appear and disappear as I walk deeper into the canyon.

Suddenly I recognize nothing and have no clue of where I am. Seems best to turn back. I reverse 50 feet and see the trail.

The cave has a welcoming cold stillness. My headlamp shines on Nosferatu. I examine each feature and recall the shape and texture of each hold as my body recollects the passages between them. I make the first moves into the first kneebar and feel grateful for having been worked by this stone.

As I start down the trail, I can imagine returning to try other harder routes at this crag.

On the journey back through the canyon, I review my progress on Nosferatu and realize it was not that many attempts, twelve or fourteen at most, a good piece of training. Rest days had value too. The lack of stimulation and missing Donna made me discontented and lonely, which drove me into my feelings and opened a channel for writing. As for the town I have called dull and lifeless, it is also calm and safe. People are friendly. There are even a few hidden gems, like the guy who makes roasted chickens on the weekends. He only makes five a day. It’s a half hour process to get one even though they’re already cooked because he is always forgetting something and going back and forth to somewhere. But his chicken is succulent and delicious.

The narrow band of stars seems to gather enough light to cast a hint of shadows. Orion is perfectly framed high in the sky. The canyon is beautiful, the day blessed, and my El Salto experience transformed.

El Salto Part 1

The glass inside my car is clouded over and starting to drip. At least today it’s water and not ice for a change. In about three hours I will stretch in the sun with no shirt, but now the ground is dew-soaked and two layers of wool plus a puffy are barely enough to keep out the damp cold.

El Salto is known for steep limestone sport climbing. There are no easy routes and few moderates. Warm-ups at most crags tend to be hard 5.11s, with the majority of routes being 12s and 13s. I was hoping for radical overhanging climbs with big holds like in Kalymnos or Thakhek. There are a few of those routes. Most climbs require crimping (small holds that put intense pressure on finger joints), which leaves my fingers swollen and knuckles aching. The only climb that will provide a worthy challenge without risking finger injury is Nosferatu, graded 5.12c. That is equal to the hardest grade I have ever climbed, achieved only after more than a month of climbing a progression of routes of the same style.

The crags are a short walk from Cienega de González. Cienega means small mountain town, and González is the last name of just about everyone who lives here. It’s basically a summer vacation village for people who live in Monterrey, an hour and a half away. I’m told that it’s the perfect elevation because, unlike Monterrey, which is sweltering all summer, here you never need air conditioning. Set in the wide part of a canyon, for half a mile the road is lined with rental cabins, a few small stores, fewer small restaurants, and cuatro-moto rentals (small four-wheel off-road vehicles). This time of year the town is dead; rentals are vacant and all the restaurants are closed. The exception is on weekends when people from Monterrey come to kick up dust on cuarto-motos and dune buggies equipped with bright flashing lights and mariachi music blasting at full volume. Then the town almost comes alive. A few street venders sell elote (boiled corn-on-the-cob) smeared with the toppings of your choice: crema, mayonnaise, an orange liquid cheese, chili powder, and cheese flakes. One restaurant is open Friday evening though Sunday. It serves fried fish and hamburgers.

Most climbers stay in campgrounds. The older campground is beside Dona Kika’s store. For 50 pesos a night you get tent or van space, a cold shower, and toilets with no seats that you have to hand-flush with a bucket.

Dona Kika is a respected matriarch with six grown children and nineteen grandchildren so far. She is well liked by the climbers and always offers a pleasant greeting when I enter her store. Unfortunately she only speaks Spanish with a local accent that deemphasizes enunciation and tends to leave off the ends of words. I never know what she is saying.

The newer campground is Rock Camp. With flush toilets that have seats, a hot shower, and a clean kitchen it is well worth 100 pesos a night. It’s owned by Carlos and Fernanda, two warm, personable, well-educated, and well-traveled climbers in their 30s. Carlos always seems calm and reflective. Fernanda has boundless energy, starts each day with a run, and never stops moving. She also makes delicious vegetarian Mexican pizza on Saturday nights. The clumps that look like sausage are actually fluffy clouds of refried beans, which are not bad (though sausage would be better).

The third option is to sleep for free in the dry wash. Though there have been no recent problems, most climbers prefer having the security of a compound.

The forth option is to rent a house. When I first arrived, my friends Rob and Scott plus five other people had just found a house and invited me in. I met Rob and Scott last summer in Tuolumne. Rob is an excellent chef and his cooking tipped the balance for me to join them in El Salto. Their crew formed recently in Potrero Chico, a climbing area about 2 hours south of here. It included Derek, their friend from college days in Texas, Kelsey, Rob’s new love interest from Ontario, Lilly, from Quebec, who weighs about 90 pounds, and her 100-pound drooling mastiff with a giant head named Goofy, plus Leon and Naomi from the Netherlands.

Eight of us ate breakfast and dinner family style every day. Meals were mostly Mexican food though one night we had pizza and one night we had vegetarian sushi. Rob and Kelsey made fresh tomatillo salsa every day. Evenings Scott broke out his banjo and guitar and we played music. Leon and Naomi had a good selection of books, which stimulated a lot of reading. Lily’s computer provided movies for movie nights. We would all line up under blankets including Goofy the dog, who was technically not allowed in the house but we made an exception on movie nights.

Our group dissolved before Christmas for home visits with plans to reassemble after the New Year, possibly at another climbing area farther south. I moved into my car at Rock Camp.

On Christmas eve I return early from climbing with shoulder pain and swollen fingers. Nosferatu seems beyond me. Assuming I work out the moves for the final crux, it will take me at least another month to develop the necessary strength and endurance. That wouldn’t be so bad if there were other routes I could use for training, but there aren’t. Climbing the same route over and over is not that interesting, and there is little to inspire me on my recovery days, which is every other day. Typically on climbing trips, the pain in my joints, discomfort from long cold nights, and missing Donna are offset by something extraordinary. Often it’s the environment. I think of Indian Creek and its vast colorful landscape that sparks my spirit. I have walked the hills and canyons here. The limestone walls, regrown oak forest, and dead branches draped with gray Spanish moss are pretty enough but neither soothe nor move me. As for the town, it doesn’t even offer a street taco.

I think of leaving every day. But where would I go? Back to Berkeley? As much as I would love to see Donna, there is nothing for me to do there. Without climbing or meaningful work I fear slipping into lethargy or a low-grade depression. As for finding another area, I picked Mexico to be warm. Anywhere north would likely be colder. Flights to Asia are expensive now, and I’ve had more than my share of plane rides this year.

The discontent makes me reconsider this lifestyle. I crave being fully engaged. I crave a meaningful challenge. Yet I can think of nothing that would be simultaneously stimulating, aligned with my values, satisfying as a day-to-day activity, and also allow me to climb.

A climbing day with little progress still leaves me hungry. There are rumors of a Christmas Eve feast at Dona Kika’s, but I can’t wait. I cook what I have: eggs with onion, tomato, cheese, avocado and tortillas.

A couple of hours later I go to Dona Kika’s for a Snickers bar. Several climbers are hanging out in front drinking beer and she invites all of us to her family fiesta. Behind her store, in a compound where much of her family lives, several barrels have blazing fires. Twenty people are sitting around nowhere near the fires. No one is eating. We learn that the party really begins at about 11 pm. Then there will be a feast. At midnight the kids will open presents and beat the candy out of a piñata.

One of Dona Kika’s daughters sees that the climbers are hungry and gives us cups of a delicious bean soup with bits of fatty pork. Evidently some climbers spent much of the day helping make tamales. They are given a big pot to take back to the campground. I follow the tamales. There were three kinds: pork wrapped with one string, mushroom with peppers wrapped with two strings, and bean and cheese with no string. All are tasty, but the pork are best. After eating several I head back to Rock Camp and sit around a barrel fire there. Conversations about climbing are going on in Spanish and English. As it gets later, the sounds of fireworks and gunshots increase. Rockets explode into bright colors that rain down over town. I think of the Green Climbers home and wonder if the town will catch on fire. I am asleep well before 11 pm.

A couple of days after Christmas I find a series of moves that allow me to pass the last difficult section of Nosferatu. A good climbing day changes my perspective. Maybe it is worth staying here until I can red-point the climb (lead climb without falling).

Carlos the campground owner is pleased with his progress on his climbing project as well. He says, “Giving it your all is the important thing. Sending it . . .” he shrugs.

He says that he had been working on a 5.14a and almost got it when Fernanda started working on it too. That caused friction in their marriage. For the sake of peace, he decided to give it up and let her do it since she had the opportunity to be the first Latin American woman to send a climb at that grade.

“We can never climb the same route. I just let her go. Instead, I became a stoner.” He smiles. With resigned sadness in his voice he says, “It’s hard having a girlfriend who climbs.”

I respond, “It’s hard to have one who doesn’t. It means time apart. My girlfriend wouldn’t like it here. There’d be nothing for her to do.”

He agrees with solemnity, “Oh. You can only be here if you have a (climbing) project.”

This morning before getting out of bed, I reviewed every move of Nosferatu. I know all the holds. I know every body position. I know every knee bar, thigh squeeze, and scrum where I can shake out one arm at a time and get a little back. Unfortunately, no rest is good enough for full recovery.

My initial attempt of the day is a disaster. First I can’t find the proper knee-bar rest and when I do it feels like I am pushing on a bruise. Pain saps my energy and I can’t get enough weight off my arms. Fully spent, I fall and return to the ground feeling humiliated.

Three hours later I try again. This time is better. I make it to my previous high point but am exhausted. I hang on the rope with half the climb still to go. After a long rest I flail and hang my way to the top just to train and rehearse the moves. Then I’m drained; that’s it for the day.

Tomorrow I will need to rest. Hopefully the day after my fingers won’t be too swollen, and I will try again. Or maybe not. The mystery of movement is solved. It’s down to power and stamina. With days off dull and nights cold, the time between attempts is too long for a climb that means so little.

November in Indian Creek

November 11, 2018

The glass appears etched in featherlike patterns. The only source of moisture would be my breath, so it must have formed inside on the car windows. How long until the sun?

The need to poop forces me from my sleeping bag. I pull on a sweater and puffy. The outside air is invigorating and numbing. It’s probably in the mid teens again, too cold for living outside.

The cottonwoods full of golden leaves two weeks ago are now half bare. Some branches are just sticks, others still hold enough brown leaves to delay the sun from hitting my table by 20 minutes. The water bottles contain solid ice. Sites just up hill get sun sooner. I should change sites for earlier sun and an earlier morning thaw.

Matt my site mate emerges from his car and throws two slices of bacon into his pan. He uses the grease to fry the rest of his breakfast. Today he makes a sandwich with bacon, sausage, hamburger, an egg, and fried cheese with a bit of onion and one leaf of fried kale. I tell him that I can’t keep bacon. Every time I buy bacon, I cook it all of it with the intention of eating a bit and saving the rest. Then I eat all of it right away. I have never had leftover bacon. It doesn’t matter how much I cook, a pound, three pounds, I can’t stop eating it until it’s gone.

Matt says, “I’ve got rules around bacon. I have to eat it at least two meals a day.” Then he laughs.

A high fat diet seems right when it’s this cold.

Once the sun is out, it can feel hot. Sometimes at the base of a crag, in full sun and out of the wind, shirts come off. But never for long. If a climb is in the shade belayers wear puffies. And once the sun goes down people wear all the layers they have.

The only warmth for the long night comes from fires. I guess if you have a van, you can post up inside and maybe run a propane heater. But then you miss being outside. Even sleeping in my car feels a bit antithetical to living outside, which is why I slept with the door open until it got so butt cold. I sometimes visit a couple of fires a night. Each fire seems to have its own culture. Sometimes there’s witty banter. More often people talk about climbing, which is tedious but a companionable way to be in community. I’m often happy to stay silent and stare into the fire as the chatter swirls around me.

There is something about the fire that draws me in, almost like I’m genetically programed to gaze into the coals until the last remaining light. One night while staring deep into red coals I realized that if you added a story you would have TV or a movie. Mike my fire companion remarked that a story would be a distraction. He liked a fire because it helped him look inward and spend time with his own thoughts.

I’m not sure I want to spend time with my own thoughts. A distraction sounds pretty good. However when stories are available, I passively gorge on them in behavior somewhere between avoidance and an addictive illness. Maybe staring at a fire is healthier, except when the smoke blows in my face.

The sun goes down at five-thirty. When there’s enough wood to last all the way to nine o’clock, I only need to be in my bag nine hours until it’s light again. That’s a long time. Then it’s another hour until the suns rays touch my car.

Most fires are warm enough to heat your front while your bum gets cold. But on Halloween there was a raging fire. Alicia had a box of costumes. A bunch of people sifted through the contents and tried stuff on. I succumbed to the pressure and put a pink tutu over my climbing pants and a plastic tiara covered with red, orange, and yellow silk flowers over my wool beret. I got a lot of complements, to which I said, “feels like the real me,” and kicked off a poorly executed jeté.

A bottle of bourbon was making the rounds. Someone put a waxed produce box on the fire. The chimney effect of the box sent flames about fifteen feet into the air. For about two minutes it was so bright and hot that everyone had to move back. Not to waste the warmth, all of us in the know lifted our shirts to feel the fire’s heat on our bellies.

More wood went on the fire and more alcohol made the rounds. By the third waxed box people were pulling off their shirts. There was a bit of cloud cover, which made the night warmer. In the glow of the fire it was like day. Soon a dozen people were naked and another dozen were on their way. You would never find a more beautiful collection of male and female bodies. Everyone was looking young and fit. Then people started taking shots of whisky off each other’s bodies. An indentation would be exaggerated on the back, belly, or clavicle. Someone would pour and someone else would slurp. As titillating as it seems, it all stayed amazingly asexual. The slurpers never lingered over body parts as they diligently chased stray drips.

Another box went in. I was standing shirtless taking a pull off a bottle when Victoria decided to remove my pants. By then I didn’t care and let it happen. It was the most chaste pancing I have ever had.

She said, “I have been waiting for years to do that.”

Victoria, who is a bit over 30, sometimes introduces me as her 60-year-old crush. We flirt sometimes but our only physical exchanges have been limited to greeting hugs when we run into each other at the start of a season. She knows I’m with Donna and has always respected boundaries. When we lived together in Kalymnos for a month, I never saw her naked. She even changed in the bathroom. That night at the fire was the first time I saw her body. Her meaty labia were a surprise and alluring.

I spent the next hours wearing nothing but the pink tutu and partook in the whisky, rum, and tequila making the rounds. John talked about returning to BASE jumping. Last year he crashed into a cliff. He said he was not afraid of death but was afraid of another injury. Kate spoke about body image. She is full figured and beautiful but self-conscious in a place where most women’s bodies range between tight and perky to clearly athletic. Lots of people talked about climbing.

Though I saw little of Victoria, the image of her vag region stuck in my mind. Donna had once said she would give me a pass for Vic. At the time I assumed it was part in jest and in part a way to manage her fears. As the night progressed in the company of so many beautiful naked women and as I consumed far more booze than I was used to, I wrestled with immediate desire, a knowingly adolescent fantasy, and my long-term commitment to Donna.

At some point someone else needed the tutu, so I gave it away. By then Victoria was gone to my disappointment and relief. A bit later I found my clothing and stumbling back to my car alone, wanting, and grateful for having dodged a potentially glorious fleeting moment, pain to someone I love, and at least embarrassment if not a devastating mistake.

Days later a solo cross-country pilgrimage took me to the Colorado River. High on a silt-formed bank was flat ground with a few trees and freshly sprouted green grass. A dark red sandstone cliff sheltered it from the wind and held the warmth. It was like stepping into a fecund place designed for mating. Donna have would love it and I wished she were there.

I often think about Donna. I miss her laugh, miss her body next to mine, and miss her companionship. Why am I sleeping alone in a freezing car when I could be in a warm soft bed with her?

I wonder what holds me in this stark landscape with all its discomforts. Perhaps it’s something in the vastness, so big I don’t feel contained, that makes me feel connected in a way I don’t in the city. Maybe it’s that everything feels raw and present. Maybe I don’t need to know, other than to recognize that being here feels right.

Not Quite There and Back

I wake in the desert to golden light. The sun has just risen above the red sandstone cliffs and its rays are being filtered through bright yellow cottonwood leafs that flutter in the early morning breeze. I’m happy to wake here, alone, and to drift back to sleep and wake again several times before actually rising. There is no rush. No one is in a hurry. There will be plenty of climbing, and hanging with friends, and a fire tonight. It’s good living outside, at home for the season in Indian Creek.

Creek in Oct

I was supposed to be to Sikkim on a trek to Kanchenjunga with Donna. She is my ex-wife and current girlfriend. Donna took a year off from work and I from climbing. Going to the Himalaya was our last planned trip and the one I was most looking forward to. We both love walking in the high mountains. Twenty-five years ago we walked around Annapurna, village to village before there were roads. My desire was for another such walk, a journey long enough to establish a daily rhythm that feels like a lifestyle.

Usually Donna takes care of most of the planning. By most, I mean all. For our two treks in Italy this past summer she bought books about the routes. She figured out how far we would walk each day and booked the accommodations. In part, it’s because she likes planning. In part, it’s because she has higher standards than I do and prefers to be comfortable. For some reason she decided to let me do the planning for our trip to the Himalaya.

I’m not much of a planner. We had discussed the walk to Kanchenjunga but I also was hoping to explore northern Sikkim. I wanted to venture into some of the more obscure valleys where tourists typically don’t go. I had read that permits and guides were required. Not wanting to carry heavy packs, pony support would also need to be arranged. My plan was to start in Gangtok where most of the local trekking companies are based. We could talk to people for a few days, find someone to work with, and figure out the details from there. I booked us a direct flight to Delhi and a connecting flight to near Gangtok — a four-hour bus ride away. Planning done.

This is supposed to be the dry season, but a few days before we left the forecast showed rain for the next ten days. That was as far as the forecast went. It seemed like the monsoon didn’t want to end. Donna emailed a contact she knew from trekking in Bhutan two years before and found out that there had been 14 feet of rain this year in Northern Sikkim. All the roads were washed out. Maybe we should have waited for the rain to stop before buying our tickets.

The afternoon before we left we had lunch with our friends John and Colleen. John gave a rousing endorsement of the samosas in the Delhi airport based on his experience 30+ years ago. See—you don’t need Yelp food recommendations when you can get information like that.

Our flight from SFO left at 1 a.m. Donna wanted to catch an Uber at 9 p.m. to make sure we had lots of time. At 8 p.m. we walked up to Peet’s to say goodbye to our son Sam. He was working late shift on the espresso bar and offered to make me a decaf mocha. As he handed it to me he said, “Aaah ya know, I’m not sure I made it decaf. Maybe I should make you another one just in case.” I declined. With a 16-hour flight ahead of me there seemed no harm in a little caffeine.

In the backseat of the Uber Donna said, “It doesn’t seem real. I don’t believe we will get on the plane.”

I reassured her. In spite of the likelihood of a very wet trip, I was feeling good about it all. There was definitely caffeine in that mocha.

The ticket agent for Air India said, “I’m sorry, without a visa we cannot let you on the plane.”

I protested. I had read on line that it was possible to get a “visa on arrival” at the Delhi airport. To me “visa on arrival” had a specific meaning as in – you arrive and get a visa. In this case it meant that you could get an e-visa on line and have the actual visa placed in your passport at the Delhi airport. Silly me. I went from disbelief to frustration and embarrassment with a bit of self-loathing.

Donna remained calm, practical, and remarkably even-keeled. She didn’t blame, and together we worked on solutions. Maybe a ticket from Delhi to Kathmandu would allow us to stay in the international transit section of the airport and avoid needing a visa. Nope. All sold out. After several attempted workarounds we admitted defeat and retreated back to Berkeley.

I was wired as fuck and couldn’t sleep until 5 a.m.

The next morning after an hour and half of sleep, Donna was a bit less forgiving about my cavalier planning. I will confess that after a year with multiple transoceanic flights I was not excited about another one. Also, missing a mud trek with little chance of seeing the high mountains didn’t feel like a great loss. I suggested that we rethink the entire plan with fresh eyes to see what was truly calling. Donna said her heart was set on walking to Kanchenjunga.

A Kanchenjunga trek from the Sikkim side takes 8 days plus two days of transportation. From the Nepal side it’s 18 days of walking plus 4 days of transportation. There are also teahouses along the way, so pony support is not required. This sounded even better to me. The forecast weather on the Nepal side looked good. By 8 a.m. we had tickets to Kathmandu through China leaving at 1 a.m. the next morning. All it cost was and extra $1000 and a 24-hour delay.

After 36 hours of travel we were in Kathmandu. In the early 1980s, Kathmandu was a great walking city. There were few motor vehicles, you could walk in the street, and the air was clean. Maps showed roads within the medieval city but not the alleyways. I wandered narrow passages and got lost in the maze for hours. Hidden courtyards with shrines to Hindu gods were carved into corners of buildings and adorned with colorful wax drippings, burnt incense, food offerings, and fresh flowers. The window shutters on random buildings were among the most beautiful and intricate carvings I had ever seen.

When I returned in 1992 the streets were full of cars, trucks and tuk-tuks all spewing exhaust. You could barely move on the sidewalk, the roads were a hazard, and the air was not fit to breathe.

The tuk-tuks are gone now, but the roads are even more crowded. We had no desire to re-see the sites and focused on preparing for the trek. This seldom took us out of Thamel, a tourist area closed to cars, which felt like a big shopping mall specializing in trekking. The morning air had a brown tint, but an afternoon breeze cleared much of it away. One afternoon on the roof of our hotel, we saw the mountains that rimmed the valley and colored paper diamonds dancing high in the sky. I watched young men on adjacent rooftops pulling on strings attached to kites that hovered kilometers away. Why we saw several young men with kites and only two boys working one kite I cannot say.

After a couple days, we had hired a company that arranged the requisite guide, permits, and transportation. We flew with our guide to some town in eastern Nepal. I was surprised that Nepal could be so hot and flat. The air was heavy with smoke and dust. Rice was growing and people spoke Hindi. Our guide arranged a car, and we had a half hour bumpy ride on dirt roads to a hotel. Its walls could have benefited from fresh paint or at least a good scrubbing. The bathroom had no sink but a bucket on the floor below the faucet. A cockroach scurried across the floor. No way I would sleep on these sheets naked. I looked at Donna expecting her to demand something nicer while doubted it was possible. She said it was fine. Though she likes her luxuries, she can also be rugged when need be.

Dinner was rice, assorted vegetables in different sauces, and a chicken curry served on chipped enamel. Donna had a few bites. I wasn’t worried. She didn’t eat for the first week in Pakistan or Guatemala or Morocco, until hunger relaxed her standards for spotless plates and sterile spoons.

One reason for all our air travel this year is that Donna’s father is old and ill. It has been important for her to call him every couple of days and visit him every two months. She had assumed that we would have internet connection most places along the way. Our trekking company told us that this was not the case. We would have outside contact in one village on day five. We would pass through the same village again on day eleven. This was a stretch for her. I asked her before we left Kathmandu if she wanted to continue, and she said yes. At dinner we learned that there was no internet or cell service in that town, just a landline.

That night she didn’t sleep. She worried that the phone might not work. She worried that if her father were to die, not only would she miss the funeral but she would not even know. Not that he was on the verge; he will likely live many more years. Doesn’t matter. If he did die, she worried that her family would never forgive her for not being there. How could she go away at this time, when he was so ill? At least if she knew he had died, even if she couldn’t get back in time for the funeral, she could immediately turn around and be on her way. But with no internet, that wasn’t possible. “Where’s Donna?” “Trekking, having fun.” “Is she coming back for the funeral?” “She doesn’t even know he’s dead.” If something happened she could never forgive herself, and maybe her family would never forgive her.

In the morning she was in tears. It was evident that logic and reason would do nothing to change her perspective. She would be fretting the whole trip and it would overwhelm her enjoyment. Her emotional need, though irrational, was profound. I felt myself struggling to balance her fears against my desires. I could recommend that we take it one day at a time, but doubted her panic would subside. This day was to be a seven-hour jeep ride to the start of the trail. If I ask her to try one more day it would likely add two days of uncomfortable jeep riding for nothing. I let it go and suggested that we turn around. Sixty hours later we were back in Berkeley.

On route she was sad to miss hiking in those mountains but happy to be going home. I said I had no such home. Her house is her house, not mine. It was uncomfortable to talk about.

She said, “I hope you’ll stay with me.”

I replied, “I don’t want to take advantage of you just because it’s easy. I did that once with a sort-of-girlfriend. It caused a lot of pain and I felt bad about it. I don’t want to do it again.”

“Where else would you stay?”

I wondered about our future together.

The essence of a good partnership is that both people can accomplish more than either person can alone. I called the trip a breakdown in our partnership. We failed.

Donna called our partnership a success for how we were after our failures. That’s what counts. We all succeed when the wind is at our backs and the gods are for us. Those are times it’s easy to shine. But when it all turns to shit, we show who we really are. After my fiasco with the visa she didn’t blame me, but took it in stride. I was able to attend to her need when it was greater than mine. We were able to discuss difficult things. We never could have done that when we were married. A girlfriend is much better than a wife.

 

Nine Days on Alta Via 1

Day five we woke to almost a foot of snow. I lobbied hard to stay put for the day. Refugio Nuvolau, high on a mountain ridge, was warm and cozy. Why not wait for the snow to melt? We could continue tomorrow. Outside it was blowing; inside there was espresso and apple strudel.

Donna wanted to go on. She has trouble sitting still. We had hard-to-come-by reservations that night for our only non-dorm night on the walk, and she was ready for a hot shower. Plus, it’s her nature is to push through adversity.

At 10:30 a.m. I conceded that embarking would not be “dangerous,” except for maybe the first kilometer down an ice covered rocky ridge. I put on my running shoes, psyched up for a day of cold wet feet, and wondered how we would navigate trails with snow-covered markers.

in the snow

Leaving hut (Photo Beth Hewes)

It was not our first weather event. Day two we reached Refugio Lavarella early, and I decided to bag a peak with a short section of via ferrata near the top. Via ferrata literally translates to “iron way.” Sometimes they are iron ladders built into rock walls; sometimes they are just steel cables. Via ferratas were first used by the Italian military in WWI to move troops over mountains in this region.

Donna joined me for the first hour along a trail that meandered through an alpine meadow and then up to a pass. Storm clouds were gathering. We parted ways and she headed back to the refugio. I ascended a steep hillside that had a few technical moves near the top and emerged onto an exposed ridge to the sound of thunder. Some Germans coming down warned me it was not safe to continue. Of course they were right, but it didn’t seem dangerous—yet. After twenty minutes I reached a steel cable designed to assist ascending slabs along a narrow ridge. Half way along it, not 100 feet from the end and maybe 5 minutes from the summit, I saw a few raindrops hit the rock followed by a flash of lighting. It dawned on me that I was grasping a giant lightning rod. Time to get out of there. I ran down the exposed ridge and got past the climb-y bit when the rain started to come down hard.

day 2 hike

Looking up toward the ridge from pass (Photo Donna)

I arrived back at the refugio damp but energized. The owners were Ladin people, a tribe that occupied South Tyrol before the Italians and Austrians. Over the centuries, the Italians and Austrians have swapped control over this territory many times, the latest being when Italy took it back from Austria after WWI. It made me think about how we humans migrate. We claim land and fight, but everyone’s progenitors once lived somewhere else. There is no such thing as an indigenous people, except we are all from planet earth. Evidence shows that even people we call Native Americans migrated from Asia, and they were not the first humans to occupy the Americas.

Day three we reach Refugio Lagazuoi in a deluge. I missed the worst of it because on the final hill some clean-cut looking kids in their twenties were coming up behind me fast. I assumed they would pass, but I wanted to make them work for it. Though they slowed, I didn’t and reached the shelter barely wet. Donna was three minutes behind and got drenched. (Thanks kids!)

Refugio Lagazuoi sits on a ridge that was the Austrian defense line during WWI. The region is riddled with tunnels where the Austrians built fortifications. The Italians, employing mining technology, dug through kilometers of rock to attack the fortifications from below. The whole area is a living WWI museum. Despite the weather, I got a bit of time to explore. It was strange to wander through trenches with young Italian and German tourists and think about how 100 years ago they would have been trying to kill each other—for what?

The forecast called for rain the next day, and snow fell the following night.

The day’s trudge through snow was beautiful. Getting a late start turned out to be fortuitous because other people had blazed the trails. We used the track when it suited us, but typically avoided it on the descents, preferring to charge down the soft forgiving clean whiteness, which often came up to mid-calf. Cold wet feet be damned. A hot shower and clean sheets awaited.

me in sneekers on snow

Walking in snow (Photo Donna)

mt view with snow

Finally below the snow at end of day (Photo Donna)

I had thought of the Dolomites as a single region and geologically it may be. The AV1 trail goes from the northern edge to the southern, typically a ten-day walk. It occasionally dips into forest but spends more time on alpine slopes below towering limestone cliffs. Some walls are thousands of feet tall and are reputed to be solid. The stone is slightly chalky to the touch and definitely says, “climb me.” However, crossing from what used to be Austria (admittedly 100 years ago) into what was then Italy was like changing countries. Suddenly there were more beds per dorm room. The food was slightly lower quality, and infrastructure not as developed. I had read, “as of April 2018, all refugios on AV1 take credit cards.” We were surprised when Refugio Tissi demanded cash. I assumed it was an anomaly. Luckily we brought enough euros to pay for one night as a precaution.

valley

Just a meadow along the way (Photo Donna)

Day seven, two hours into our walk, we heard what we initially thought was a jet. Looking up we saw a base jumper in a wing suit flying overhead. About 1500 feet above the valley floor he pulled his chute, let out an adrenalin-charged scream, and floated down to a wide flat area far below us. In the next half hour we saw at least a dozen of these daredevils. They launched from a mountain several thousand feet above us. Most took a direct line to the parachute zone. One flew along the cliff, around a mountain feature, and farther down valley, only to circle back and pull his chutes closer to the ground. Even watching was exhilarating and terrifying.

After a long walk we arrived at Refugio Carestiato exhausted. But the refugio sits at the base of a famous via ferrata and I couldn’t resist. After charging up with (you guessed it) espresso and strudel, I put my sneakers back on. The route started on a narrow ledge, maybe 30 feet off the ground. A steel cable went 20 feet almost straight up a vertical wall and then veered off to the left. There were some rock moves to be done beside the cable, but they seemed too hard and exposed to attempt unprotected. Of course I had no via ferrata gear (typically a harness and way to clip into the cable). After five minutes at the base debating what to do I reasoned that I could try anything that I could reverse. I moved left along the ledge, found some acceptable rock moves, and climbed to the cable as it traversed left. From there I was on easy slab.

The next 45 minutes was pure fun. Sometimes I used the cable to assist, and even hand-over-hand climbed the cable for a 20-foot vertical stretch, but mostly I scrambled up the well-featured limestone off to the side. The full route went to the top of the mountain (about 3000 feet up) but most of the top half was hiking and I only had a couple of hours, so I took the loop that offered a bailout trail half way up. This trail had its own beauty as it followed narrow grassy bands between bands of vertical rock. Free of a pack, I ran much of the trail back.

Dinners at the refugios are typically either a bland beef stew called “goulash” served with polenta, low-grade sausages and polenta, or cheese and polenta. We saw few vegetables, though the strudel was always good. This night we were served the most overcooked and desiccated leg and thigh of chicken I have ever seen. Beneath its greasy skin was tough, dry, stringy near jerky. If served in a restaurant, any normal person would refuse and it sent back. Yet that night everyone raved about how delicious it was, including me. After so many days on the trail, anything different was welcome.

Donna thoroughly enjoyed the walking everyday, but by then she’d had more than enough of dorm life and the food. People we had met along the way were quitting early for the same reasons. I met her complaint by saying, “I would prefer to continue to the end, but your happiness is more important.” She expressed the same to me and we kept going.

mountain view

Approaching Pamperet and looking back (Photo Donna)

Day eight we arrived at Refugio Pramperet mid afternoon. Breakfast that morning had been particularly lacking, leaving us very hungry for lunch. I ordered soup and Donna ordered pasta. Both tasted vile, and we couldn’t eat either. I broke out the maps to look for a bailout. Donna was not happy there but worried about finding other accommodations. After about a half hour of discussion we decided to stay.

I pulled my climbing shoes from my pack for the first time since we started. A large boulder with flat grassy landings sat two minutes away. After a while the guys who ran the refugio came over. Luca, another Luca, and Alexander were all strong climbers. We had a great session, talked climbing, and had a beer after.

Luckily dinner was much better than lunch. After dinner, Alexander brought a couple of glasses of their homemade grappa to us. One was made with caraway, the other with pinecone. Both were excellent.

The guidebook said that the last two stages were the most wild, remote, and beautiful. Donna had been reluctant to commit to completing the trail from the beginning. She doubted she would last that long in dorms, and the refugios at the end looked particularly primitive. We only booked space for the last night the day before. Then, on reviewing the guidebook, Donna saw that there were some parts of the next day with a lot of exposure, which freaked her out.

Donna didn’t sleep well or eat much breakfast. I went to pay my bill and found out that they didn’t take credit cards. Donna had wanted us to have more cash, and I said it wasn’t needed. Now she was mad at me.

I asked Luca what happens when people don’t have cash. He said they make bank transfers. Donna had looked into that before and said it cost $40 from the US. Luckily between the two of us we had enough US dollars, which Luca accepted. He then called the next refugio to confirm that they also only took cash. Um, not good.

I was drinking a last cup of coffee and having a nice chat with Luca about the technology challenges of using credit cards in a remote region, when Donna informed me that we had to go. Not only did we have to walk all the way out, (an estimated seven hours, over two passes), we had to reach the road early enough to catch a bus to Belluno, where we hopefully could find accommodations. Not only that, weather was coming in again, and it was supposed to rain by 11 a.m. Plus, the route goes over a pass that required some scrambling and had a lot of exposure, two things that made Donna nervous at best.

As we walked toward the first pass of the day, clouds drifted in and out, sometimes obscuring the terrain above us. I was concerned about a whiteout and route finding. I was also worried it would be wet and slippery on the exposed part. Was it a mistake to go on? Should I have yielded to Donna’s desire to end earlier? I sincerely offered, and she declined, but maybe I should have insisted. So hard to know.

Donna said, “I can’t believe you were just standing there drinking coffee and talking.”

“Yeah, you’re right. I just got caught up in talkin’ with him.”

“You’d probably still be there if I didn’t say something.”

“I’m sorry. I know you’re angry. All your complaints are legitimate.”

“I know they are, but I still don’t like feeling this way. I keep telling myself – the anger is about the past, fear is about the future.”

I was in awe of her self-awareness and loving her all the more for it. She insisted I walk ahead of her. I kept glancing back to make sure we were moving at the same speed, ready to assist or respond to whatever.

Up ahead on the ridge someone appeared as a silhouette against the mist, a shadow puppet, standing at first then leaning forward using hands to ascend the section, then gone, lost in the cloud.

When we reached that place, Donna moved over the rock with no hesitation. The mist was below us in patches. Between the tops of clouds we could see parts of the valley below and parts of distant mountains. As we crossed over a narrowing of the ridge where the land dropped sharply on both sides, she seemed to not notice. She didn’t realize this was the part she most feared. Even after we had dropped down the other side and were comfortably striding through a green alpine bowl with marmots scurrying across the meadow, a herd of 14 chamois grazing on the slope above, and mountain peak weather behind us, she worried the hard part was still to come. I just laughed.

donna in meadow

Donna in the mist

The guidebook was right about the last stages. The landscape was exquisite. It only rained a few minutes. Another espresso and fruit tart each (they had no strudel) at the last refugio took us to the road where we caught the bus to Belluno. Both of us were happy we completed the whole trek and glad to be done. Donna found us a hotel and two places for dinner. We ate at both. First we ate chicken donar kababs. We followed that a block later with another dinner of vegetable sushi and greasy rice noodles with shrimp and vegetables. Delicious.

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