When I look back at the last three months, it’s taken a similar form as the previous two years’ autumns: foliage in both the west and east, harvest season, a return to road biking, mountains and rocks, spending time with friends [old and new], family, and perhaps most salient, celebrating being around great people. When the days get shorter, and the objectives change shape, more time otherwise spent on logistics [travel, approaches and trails of our country’s landmark wilderness’, and preparation for- and recovery from goals] are spent catching up with those we hold dear, and 2014 was no exception.
Only a week following my first technical alpine ascent of the summer, and a backcountry appointment to scamper up Middle Pal’s improbable East Face, it was back to the road and the air – another Sierra sabbatical to visit friends and family, to hit favorite stops in our great country, and to keep things fresh leveraging the flexibility I oft take for granted. Sure there were a couple of work trips in the mix, but even KC has become a welcome stop on a US tour with its charming people and superb cuisine. There was plenty of time spent rock climbing, getting served healthy doses of humble pie, extended disconnection from ubiquitous networks, and lots of golden hours with the big glass. I even got to wear ski gloves on a 60 mile road bike ride in Vermont’s NEK with the good doctor who reminded me “if it’s not below freezing, you won’t get frost bite.”
But floating to the surface this year were three themes: weddings, presence and exploration.
“Do you like weddings?”
“I love weddings.”
I’ve never been to such a high concentration of nuptials as I did this fall, and having never been married, I can’t speak to the planning involved, but being a gracious attendee at a few now, I can only express my appreciation of the logistics it takes bringing together both disparate and familiar people from across the globe. Who doesn’t want to dress up once in a while, mingle, hobnob and imbibe whilst sharing stories with new and old friends, finding out what you have in common with everyone, the link to the uniting couple, and an embarrassing history or two? All one needs sometimes is a catalyst, and weddings are a great one. Two of the ceremonies this autumn were more pre-planned affairs where I even got to take a few commissioned photos, but for two I became only slightly more formal than a stereotypical wedding crasher, but my reaction to all is the same: I am deeply grateful for the opportunity take part in the union, and enjoyed every minute of attendance.
One certainly doesn’t need suits, elaborate dresses, open bars and tents to celebrate people, but it certainly adds to the ambiance and lends an emphasis to the occasion. We may not remember all of the great times we share with friends, but the added efforts to make a ceremony unique and meaningful all combine for unforgettable memories. I bared witness, and I am very thankful.
Presence. My year isn’t complete without a pilgrimage to Southern Utah’s sandstone desert. I’ve spoken before how one of Indian Creek’s best attributes is its dark territory reducing its visitors to primitive communication, and 2014 gave the annual dose reinforcing the sentiment. When you descend below the rim, you’re unshackled from the ball and chain that is omnipresent connectivity, freeing you to be immersed in the gorgeous Wingate canvas still being painted before you. Also, due to the logistics of the climbing there, you’re almost forced to be part of a larger group of people than you’re used to [how else are you going to scrounge up 12 #2 C4’s?!] so company is guaranteed. Stunning surroundings and wonderful people are a great mix, but the dynamic can be crushed if each person feels pulled to check their digital devices of the latest goings-on in the greater world around them. Take away network, however, and you remove the compulsive touch screen second takes, leaving ample time to learn more of the people you’ve surrounded yourself with and setting you’ve sought to absorb.
One of the defining technological advancements of my generation – I would argue – is how incredibly connected we can be – anytime, anywhere. This is powerful, and wonderful, but it comes at the cost of being everywhere, and nowhere at the same time. If we’re more concerned with spraying pictures of our location and letting our distant friends know our whereabouts and epithets, are we really experiencing our situation for ourselves and living the moment? I lack the philosophical credentials to debate this further, but I can speak to my own experiences: It is a most welcome feeling to be engaged in conversation and attentive to the people and places directly around me, and better still to completely forget about the technological tether sitting in my zippered pocket. Spending at least 24 to 48 hours ensconced in the present is a gift worth giving yourself regularly – whether that be on a merciless granite spire, scaling a towering sandstone wall or focused on a charismatic and infatuating person. I will stand by and support this for any and everyone.
Exploration. I firmly believe that baked into each one of us is a desire to explore and see something new - evolution shaped us this way, and we evolved because of it. Simultaneously, change is something we’ve evolved to avoid and fear. Seek comfort - we learn - stability and consistency for the sake of spreading our genes to future generations. So there’s a conflict we all have to resolve, or at least mitigate as we live in an era where through innovation and ingenuity, homo sapiens have started to bend Darwin’s theory to our liking. It comes as no surprise then, that there is first apprehension when facing an unknown destination, sensation or climb, but then an almost drunken euphoria when the mysteries are revealed and we see or experience something completely new. This ‘Magellan’ feature is prominently displayed in some, but seemingly absent in others, but I bet if you scratch the surface a bit, or crack the shell we all create for ourselves it’s in there yearning for sunlight in each of us.
This year I got a chance to do some of that exploring – getting off my well-trodden Utah path to see the White Rim, and oh how rewarding it was. Silence, darkness, unobstructed beauty, solitude and a sense of remoteness combined with a fantastic climb and even better climbing partner are all ingredients to an unforgettable outing – and Jesse and I are already hatching plans for a return. The objective was Washer Woman Tower, and the climb was well worth the price of admission. The logistics behind just one climb in the desert were not trivial but not difficult to overcome – neither of us had a suitable vehicle to access the approach and permits are necessary to even drive on the road, let alone camp – and we were planning this last minute.
It all came together and the result was pure magic. I had never been tied to Jesse on a multi-pitch climb, but he came highly recommended and I can confidently declare that won’t be the last time we rope up together. The tower was of great quality, the climb well protected and fun to scale and the views breathtaking. There are many more towers like it on the White Rim road, and I can’t wait to go back.
Themes aside, other things resonate. I’ve never been a disciplined climber, and perhaps one result of this is I’ve never had a ‘project.’ In my home range, I can count on one hand how many alpine routes I’ve repeated, and only after psychological attrition [or delightful incentives] do I submit to a day doing laps on familiar climbs at a local crag. For the first time, however, I found myself subscribing to a ‘project’ climb, and fortunately, I got the gleeful reaction of completing it. I owe thanks to the colleagues in my periphery who all worked hard to first find the object of their undying concentration, who dutifully worked on them, whose discipline rubbed off and who were there to encourage pushing everyone’s limits, including my own.
The first attempt at Scarface this year resulted in falling – not even a whipper to give the route its due justice, but the second attempt revealed a major reason why I climb in the first place: the process. Set a goal, attack your weaknesses with concerted efforts, and confront your problems head on. Return to execute the goal, and when you’re right on the jagged edge between success and failure where the only thing preventing the latter is your conviction, kick your weakness down, stick that heroic hand jam above the crux and prepare to swim in the chemicals of relief and elation.
Back on the White Rim, perhaps most noteworthy about climbing its towers is the level of difficulty and commitment – just looking at the improbable fingers of sandstone is worth the trip, but to be in a position to scale them safely and in good style takes discipline, strength and experience – more than the single pitches afforded in the greater Canyonlands area. With this goal in mind, and the knowledge of what it takes to get on top, perhaps having a couple of projects to help bridge the gap between now and then is a good thing [and believe me, I have a bunch now]. Coupled with the gumption to get stronger and be subject to the inevitable exposure, the aforementioned relief and elation should be repeatable, but on an even grander scale.
So there is Autumn 2014 in a nutshell. A diversity of outings – from seeing the Canadian border bountifully bundled in layers on a road bike, to sipping a home-spun cocktail overlooking Vermont’s flaming foliage at a fantastic wedding, munching on the world’s best barbeque while watching the hometown team nearly take the world series, to sweating out the crux in shorts and a tee-shirt whilst placing a #5 on desert sandstone. With few exceptions, however, all outings shared the great people I get the good fortune of calling friends, and though the events were memorable by themselves, it is the people that make them worth celebrating.