Young doctors looked up with me at Jim. Larry, an intern at the
University Hospital in , said, "You'd get some interesting facial expressions with a telephoto lens on him up there." Portland
His friend Hugh didn't answer. Cold, impatient, he swung his arms and flexed his manicured hands. We waited in the crooked fissure where a snowfield beneath us had melted away from the base of the rock face. Midmorning already, this was only the first pitch of the climb.
I kept noticing Hugh's white, physician's hands. They were scrubbed, dexterous. Mine were battered with scars and strawberries from weekends of climbing abrasive granite. Of course, Jim and I were the fanatics; we didn't have anything else. Just then, these guys with medical careers must have thought Jim was, at least, slightly insane. He had assaulted the first pitch of our climb in a way that made you think he should confine his athletic feats to a stadium someplace.
A pole-vaulter at the
, Jim had lost his scholarship because he wouldn't cut his hair. The renowned Bill Bowerman was the coach then. A bit of an autocrat, he made Jim feel like he was part of a circus with trained animals who did their tricks on command. You could glimpse a mania in Jim's eyes. He seemed a wild ass of a man, but his gentle voice was disarming. Wine-soaking binges with disillusioned climbers in the valley didn't interest him. He was a seeker after enlightenment. Up on that wall he could have no meditations, transcendental or otherwise. University of Oregon
Inner space at my end of the rope harbored its own reflection of existence, here so jammed at the horizons. Jim's vital spectacle had made an impression. Larry and Hugh had their reasons for being here. However we conceived this impulse to climb, there was exhilaration in the naked energy of rock and glacial ice. But climbing a north face in September was neglecting something basic. We had plenty of time to realize it as we stood waiting in this bone-cold notch. Jim had to take the proper precautions. But it was peevishly cold.
In general, the weather that autumn in the Tetons had been splendorous. The previous day, bush-whacking up the steep ravine south of Nez Perce Spire and the
Grand Teton, we had grumbled about the heat as we thrashed through autumn-leaf vegetation and scrambled over acres of boulders. We startled a bull moose in the brush, and he ambled instead of ran into the shade of the pines. When a cool spray began to light on us from whitewater on the rocks above, we paused and let it soak into our shirts.
We continued over moss-covered granite, and our packs strapping weight bore down on us. As we neared the top of the falls there was a sense of accomplishment. We slouched over the uppermost slabs and collapsed exhausted in the grass. A languid stream slithered around boulders then gorged the grizzly throat of the rapids that had thundered in our ears all afternoon.
was sheltered, remote, full of sky-deep reflections. The high brink of a glacier loomed over the west shoreline. Our clunking about making camp amid wildflowers was muted by the persistent sound of moving water. Drifting out of the lake like a soul leaving its body, the stream we had followed to its source sought its inevitable release in the rapids ecstatic rush. Lake Taminah
From this vista we could see the entire length of the ravine in which we had hiked all day. It bottomed out to a flat expanse under the eastern haze--
Jackson Hole. Above us, a presence like God, in every direction, were the granite-buttressed peaks of the Tetons, their wind thundering summits seemingly growing toward the sun.
Anticipating the stress of climbing, we had joked about the French explorers who named these peaks the Big Tits. After a trek across the continent, horny fur trappers projected libido on these beautiful mountains. It must have been a lonely journey.
Jim had tied himself to a flake of stone on a steeply sloping ledge. He squatted on his heels like a savage, and hauled up rope. I felt it tighten around my waist. When he yelled, I shouldered my pack to follow his lead marked on the rock by a trail of iron. It took a moment to loosen up. The rope was reassuring--at this stage all I could have done, even if I had fallen backwards, was skin my knuckles. I reached Jim's first piton and untied a loop of nylon, then hammered the pin back and forth until I could pull it with my fingers from the crack where he had driven it.
"Up rope." Jim took up six feet of slack.
The first charge of energy on a climb is strong enough to lift you out of the physical apathy in which most people live their entire lives. Under the influence of adrenaline, I glided upward effortlessly. I was where I wanted to be. In the rapture of it, I was going up and watching myself going up at the same time. Grasping the rock made heat flow into my fingertips.
A kind of counter-tension can be used to keep you on the rock. Trying to find the angles, I hesitated. Jim yelled, "Keep moving! Don't hang on the wall."
Being too careful will just wear you out. But I didn't spend all my time climbing; I had to think. I strained to get a boot up--a difficult move. Jim had nerve to lead this.
Balancing on a wet sloping foothold, I bang out another pin. Hot chips of stone fly at my face.
Climbing again. Higher! A careful balance move puts me on top of a sharp-edged pillar near Jim's perch.
"Good," he says. "Hang on, I'll give you the iron."
I looked down the hundred feet of rock we'd just climbed, and beyond, down the steep striated snowfield sweeping out toward
. Cold air flooded out of the valley and in and out of my nostrils. Larry and Hugh were looking up at us. Larry yelled, "We're going to have to leave you. It'd take too long with four of us in the chute, and we're not equipped for a bivouac." Lake Taminah
I yelled down, "Are you going up the ridge?"
"It's easy, class four," Jim added.
"Maybe we'll see you on top," Larry hollered back. A surgeon in training, he would understandably not want to risk freezing his hands.
To me, Jim says, "Can't blame them. This is no place for standing around."
"Too bad, though," I answer, "I'd hoped they could get in one good rock climb, so they'd have stories to swap over cadavers."
"We'll be the cadavers," Jim says, "if we don't get moving."
Larry and Hugh traverse west across the snowfield, miniature men with packs and ice axes. Their boots crunch as they pick their way in the shadow of our steep face.
"They'll get a workout on the ridge," Jim says. "Anyway, they climb for the same reason they run up stairs in the hospital--for the heart."
I suppose I was doing it for the heart, too, though in a different sense.
"Ten thirty already," I say as Jim puts the sling of iron over my head. I shift it under my arm.
"Not a good start," he answers.
"You ready for me to go?"
Up! Iron jangles across my chest. The earth seems to sway far behind me, beyond the dangling rope.
On awkward ledges with loose shingles of stone, I veer west, creeping toward our objective, a broad fault opening hugely in the variegated granite. Once there we can climb about ten rope lengths up the most formidable section of the wall.
When the ledges peter out, and high-angle rock rears enormously before me, I take the best line up I can find. There are cracks to place pitons when I need them. I'm glad to get my feet off the trashy skree that collects on the ledges. Looking up into the sun glare, I can't plan everything, but the movements that take me up seem mostly under control. "Spiderman! On Christ the solid rock... . Mmmmmm. Stop talking to yourself." It's scary. Even the rock has the cold sweats. Beads of ice infest the handholds.
The rope begins to drag through the carabiners in the protection I've placed. I yell, "How much rope?"
Who started this waterfall in my ears? Two more moves! Up. Up. I opt to straddle an uncomfortable but solid bulge, and anchor in.
Jim's answer is faint, lost in the gusts of wind that dust the face. He leaves his secure ledge. I watch as he climbs and try to keep the slack out of the rope.
"Who the hell's dumping their garbage!"
A chunk the size of a bucket smashes down end over end, then the impact of one bounce explodes it into a barrage of odd-shaped projectiles that whine past and off into space.
"One of those would soften you up, man. That's meat tenderizer!"
By two in the afternoon we had established a position high in the fault. It opened sometimes, when you looked down, to nothing but blue sky. Struggling between the walls, I had scraped my back, and sweat burned in the scratches. In spite of a warming flood of air, we had reached that point on a climb where exertion and exposure make you reconsider everything. We had committed ourselves--it would now be easier to continue than go back down--to grunting up more than a thousand feet of granite, nothing but rope and iron to intermittently pin us to the wall. The rock felt solid, but I was an audacious interloper here. The shift of one block of the peak's enormous weight would crush me, a tremor shrug me off to be dashed to pieces. A pebble falling from the heights would air out my brain.
To control one's reaction to objective dangers with such monstrous force requires continuous effort. Jim goes out on the edge of the fault to get around blocks the size of gravestones jammed inside. There, he can see how out of hand things have gotten and mutters, "Good place for sky diving." He joked around like that. The worse it got, the funnier he was.
Up. He feels around with his free hand. His breathing hovers like the changeable wind currents circulating over the face.
Slamming a piton until its head sizzles, he works violently to get some protection between himself and the awful drop. The dust of his struggle falls in my eyes. His tense fingers fumble with a nylon hero loop. Then he clips the rope to it with a carabiner, and he's safe for his next few moves.
In the sun now, he goes up the corner of the fault until he can mount the highest chunk lodged in the opening. Thirty feet higher, he disappears. I sit in the shade playing out rope.
He takes it up and yells. I follow his line of rope.
When I can see him again, I say, "We're going to have to sprint. This crack would be plenty cold at midnight."
"A fucking refrigerator!" He answers.
I make one last lunge toward where he's waiting with the iron. He hangs it around my neck and says, "Keep on going."
I climb, and the wind drives tiny droplets of mist up the face. They seem to flow right through me. My loose nylon slings stand up flapping as I search the rock above.
Synthetic colors catch the eye instantly up here. At first I think the patch of orange I see is a climber. We could be overtaking another party, but I haven't heard any voices. Climbing signals seem to carry well to everybody on the mountain except the person on the other end of your rope.
The patch of color didn't move. When I reached it, I found an orange nylon rucksack caught right where I wanted to sit to belay Jim up. I drove in a piton and hung the pack and myself on it. While Jim climbed, I examined the contents--a few slings, an empty water bottle, an old can of tuna, and a down vest. The weather had faded the nylon; the pack had apparently been there many months.
When Jim got up, he turned over the spoils for himself. On the inside of one flap on the pack he found the owner's name--Rupert Warner.
"Rupe shouldn't have left this behind," Jim said. "I hope we don't find him next, if he's been up here as long as his gear."
We leap-froged up, extending the rope between us repeatedly. The fault widened to a windy couloir with occasional patches of snow. Sometimes I could scramble free for an entire rope length and save time. We weren't cold anymore. Even sitting, belaying, I scarcely had time to rest before Jim would come up beneath me, and I would have to start up again. We shouted signals back and forth, going as fast as we could, but our late start and the autumn shortening of days were against us. This north face was getting cold, even while the sun still shone on the peaks across the valley.
was in the shade of the ridge. I looked down to the glacier for movement that might be Larry and Hugh going back to camp. Lake Taminah
When Jim comes up under one of my belay points, he is alarmed that I have climbed the last pitch without placing any pitons. "That was too hard to do without protection," he complains. You want to rip us off the mountain!"
"Win a few, lose a few," I answer. "I was just as scared following you down there." I point. Maybe he's not convinced. I give him the iron, and he's off. Why argue about it?
It seems this gully will never end. It bends above us toward the darkening sky. When we get over one bulge of stone, there is another. The sun glows momentarily on the tops of distant peaks, and then is gone.
Twilight overtook us as we engineered our assault on the first false summit. Several of these formidable blocks could have been the top. Finally, one of them cut away on the sunset side, and we scrambled up a climactic spire--the top.
New peaks were visible to the southwest, huge jagged icebergs in a black sea. The valleys were flooded with darkness. In the windless expanse of the sky, the clouds had retreated to the horizons or settled as mist on mountain lakes that reflected a last radiance.
We continued to wear the rope as we descended the upper west ridge. I wanted to rest, savor the elation of our ascent, and gaze on the mammoth earth in convulsions beneath us, but we had to negotiate our descent before it was completely dark. We ran down the blade-edge ridge, silent depths falling away on both sides.
A prominent geological formation that struck me, even in my haste, was a monolithic granite wall meandering along the crests of a range of mountains. It was like the
Great Wall of China, but this Wall of the Tetons is more immense than the work of the Imperial Chinese. Though not as long as the Great Wall, it runs for miles, a geological formation so symmetrical you might be able to walk along its squared-off top, if it weren't for the abrupt drops that eons of the earth's breaking and folding have caused.
I hadn't time to stop and look. I had to keep lunging down the ridge. Some of it got too steep to scramble down forward, and we had to climb down, turning our backs again to the sky. Far below us was our objective, a broad sloping field of talus. To get off the ridge before everything went black was the thing. Then we could grope our way back to camp.
The rope went slack, and I came to the end of it. Jim had untied it for a faster descent. He apparently was even less interested than I was in getting caught up here for the night. I coiled the rope.
It was nearly flashlight time already, dark enough that I almost walked past Jim where he sat on a huge block at the top of the talus field. Startled, I looked up at his figure against the dim sky.
"We're going to have to cross the glacier on the low end to avoid the icefalls," he said. "We'd never find our way through the broken stuff in the dark." He'd been studying the glacier for a while, from the convulsed ice on the high end to the cornice that hung over the lingering sheen on
. Lake Taminah
"I don't want to get close to that lip," I said.
Jim looked at the acres of boulders ahead of us and said, "You might not care after a mile of this graveyard."
We felt our way and crawled through the talus in the dark. My shins and knees were taking a beating. It was like trying to hike in a herd of buffalo. If you moved too fast, they stampeded. I couldn't see Jim, only the spot of light ahead of my flashlight. When the batteries went dead, the stars blinked at me from above the towering silhouettes of the peaks.
Finally, out of nowhere, Jim whopped, "Aiee, a springboard into the lake!" We had reached the glacier. "Start sliding, and make a high dive when you fly off the edge. You can swim back to camp."
"I don't even like the thought of it. How close to the edge are we anyway?"
"You'll know if you find it."
"Want to wait till morning? We could walk this stretch in half an hour in the daylight."
"Who wants to shiver out here all night!"
We rope up again and take it nice and easy. Granular snow crunches under our boots. The broad surface under us glows eerily, confusing my eyes.
"I wish I had an ice ax," Jim says.
"I wish I were an Oscar-Meyer wiener. Let's just get this over with."
"Don't rush me."
We carry a few loops of rope to delay the shock if one of us slips. I could probably stop him, if he started to slide, or he could stop me. Probably. Twenty minutes or so of stepping and slipping got us across the snow. Then it was off with the rope, and back into the rocks.
It's a wonder these high lakes aren't filled up by the landslides that tumble down from the peaks. Our seemingly negligible progress is exhausting. Jim waits for me, and we sit down panting, trying to get enthusiastic about the rest of the ordeal.
"Another mile?" He asks cynically.
"You can see the campfire," I say. "They're trying to make it easier."
"All I see is black rock and ice."
"Don't get hostile."
We drain our last water jug. Jim says, "At least we got off the mountain. If we poop out now, the night won't be nearly so cold."
"If we had been slower?"
"We'd be up there getting numb as tourists at the South Pole."
"When we were still below eight thousand feet at noon, we should have rappelled off and gone back to camp for a pot of soup."
"They serve three meals a day at those dude-ranches in
"We played it loose this time and came out all right, but I think we should at least consider there being a more conservative way to climb."
Another hour or so bungling, half the time on our hands and knees in the dark, put us on the meadow above the falls. The water rumbled out there someplace. I hoped Larry and Hugh and the rest of them had left something to eat. I was as beat up as a football player after the Super Bowl.
They heard us coming, stumbling through the brush, Jim poking about with a stick he had picked up to feel his way like a blind man. Jack Barrar who was then a freshman climber came out to meet us. We could see his lanky body against the red glow. He has since outdone all of us in the mountains.
"You could at least have picked a moonlit night," he said. He handed me a plastic bottle, and I gulped the cold water.
Jim said, "Sorry to keep you up waiting, Mom."
I give Jim the jug as we clump toward the fire. He washes dirt and sweat from around his eyes. Larry and Hugh are standing by the fire. A pot of food steams over the coals.
"Dark out there?" Larry asks.
"Why don't you two take up spelunking!" Hugh adds.
"Just pass the botch, Doctor," Jim says. "What is it tonight?--cirrhosis of liver?"
They grin at me in the red light, both of them in down parkas. Larry is wearing a knit skiing hat. In only a wool shirt, I'm still sweating. I throw the coiled rope over a boulder beside one of our tents. The aluminum pan I fill with rice and beans quickly transfers heat and singes my fingertips. Jim and I stare at one another through the flames.