Sometimes advertisements have a catchy slogan that withstands the test of time, and though many MBA courses are happy to break down the elements of such phenomena, often we’ll never know exactly why some lines stick with us and others don’t. Budweiser held a campaign years ago and created such a memorable moniker to make being the designated driver more acceptable: ‘friends know when to say when.’ Most children consuming media in the 90’s probably don’t remember this, but for those that do, the idea transcends proper drinking etiquette - and thanks to youtube, the impressive mullet footage provides an ancillary wide grin 14 years on.
Flash forward to a 2015 spring alpine season in the North Cascades that was one for the books – low snow meant that driving to the trailheads was more like summer, with some late season precipitation and freeze-thaw conditions providing the perfect recipe for alpine ice throughout the range. The Polish Route on Colfax Peak [a sub-peak of Kulshan] had been on Jeffrey’s radar for a while, and with the route seeing only its second, third and fourth ascents in the four months prior, it quickly rose to the top of the objectives list.
Jeff’s recount of the outing is worth a read for its conciseness, but in the hours and days that followed, it was the theme that resonated on my end of the rope that kept my thoughts churning. Budweiser is barely palatable to this beverage consumer, but their slogan ‘…knowing when to say when,’ rekindled the fond thoughts of our King of Beers [and perhaps the author’s atrociously long hair at the time of climbing]. The start of the route didn’t go as planned, as my multiple attempts just to get on the proper ice were all thwarted by the paltry, rotten matrix protecting the lower traverse. Efforts to span the mixed terrain only shattered what ice was left on the warm rock leaving my forearms worked, confidence dinged and mouth cotton dry, so Jeff took over with his mammoth wingspan to get us to the start of the cold, real business.
After a full pitch of ice and some post holing, both of us stood below the steep apron and hanging dagger denoting the crux of the route. The lurking variable ignored all morning was how throughout all of the 6+ hours of effort to get us to that anchor, neither of us had consumed any water or calories since leaving the car. That wouldn’t be much of a problem if it was a cragging day, but there we were, 150 vertical meters above a sizable bergschrund, affixed to the ice by two screws whilst standing on our respective 2-square-foot platforms on a 50-degree hard snow slope, dehydrated and calorically deficient.
Before the overhanging dagger, there was dead vertical ice for a few body lengths, and even that was a struggle bringing a level of fatigue that is unsustainable for proper lead climbing on ice. By the time detritus was cleared from the base of the dagger for proper crux protection, I stared at the route’s hallmark feature and bowed my head in despondency. The morning’s efforts lower down and lack of nutrition combined for profound lack of confidence in tackling the route’s hardest moves. Pondering the effort needed, there was no doubt it would be ugly, and though style and grace aren’t always essential when climbing, when perched in the alpine on ice with potentially questionably protection, cavalier sentiments of a miraculous send should be hedged. I yelled down to Jeff’s patient belay that I didn’t have enough gas in the tank, set a v-thread and did the best I could to prepare him for a try at finishing things off.
He did so in style. With some time back at the belay, I too partially rehydrated, got a bump from some sugary plastic food, and when it was my turn again, drafting my own pick placements and those of Jeff’s on the curtain above, followed the segment without failure. The rest of the route went smoothly, followed by a successful summit and descent.
I’ve always considered one of the best aspects of climbing the unique and fleeting opportunities where everything unimportant in life evaporates in the face of real danger and risk. It can be disheartening to step up to fear and challenge and back away, but it’s critical to consider all factors at a climb’s zenith, and to decide if the risks are manageable. On the Polish Route that day, out of all options available, the best path forward – in this climber’s judgment – was to back down before taking on the overhang. A lead fall could have turned a relatively casual day in the mountains very sour – as when the likelihood-consequences algorithm is high on both fronts, pride should appropriately be checked and rational decisions should prevail.
Lucky for us, Mr. Go-go-gadget ape-index took over and laid the vertical trail to frozen Elysium, albeit with some provocative and memorable moments along the way [hello, spinner leashes!].
This can no doubt be construed an embellishment of a few pitches of alpine climbing in the Cascades, but it’s a reminder to the author of another great part of climbing: learning from the experience, and learn I did. Firstly, knowing when to swallow your pride, letting your partner know your honest dissatisfaction and backing down from the crux in favor of safety in the mountains. Secondly, nutrition is critical, and even more so on long days in the hills. The next weekend on the very same peak, the lessons of fuel and hydration were applied and the results were remarkably tangible. And lastly, of course, pick the strong, handsome, fun Swedish climbing partner with the 2+ meter wingspan and knowledge of obscure Jay-Z-bollywood mashups.