I can’t faithfully say I’ve experienced pain in my lifetime. Sure I’ve shed all three of the literal blood sweat and tears, but there are many I know who have endured much worse. I’ve gone through some painful experiences - psychological and physical, but balk at calling any of them ‘true pain.’
In steps the holiday travel season. Red eye flights crossing the continent in middle seats are rough, but that’s only for a few hours, and with modern technology, the time goes by in a flash. Plus, with the carrot of spending time with friends and family in New England – or wherever your travels took you, it’s easy to push through the temporary discomfort knowing the brilliant light waiting at the end of the tunnel. Spending some quality time in the Green Mountain State doesn’t need anymore hype from this end, so I’ll just say I enjoyed a period of indolence, and all the Cabot, Citizen Cider and homemade cooking I could get out of Kathi’s Kitchen.
Then came the travel day to meet my crew in Cody, WY for our annual ‘ice festival’ among the icicles painting blue and green the South Fork’s normally brown and grey rock canyons. The forecast for Northern WY was for freezing fog, so I can’t say I was surprised to see the last leg of my travel cancelled. What was also not surprising was that there are only two flights into Cody daily – word from the airline was at least a two-day delay in getting me to the ‘cold fear’ awaiting in the Shoshone Wilderness, with subsequent flights already overbooked. That was not an option, knowing the band of fellow climbers would be there for only four days of climbing total – time for a plan b.
We all experience rough travel days, but I make it a point to watch a Louis CK skit that anyone who boards a commercial flight should review periodically. Being nonplussed by the airline behavior, I had to watch it after a travel debacle having me cross the country 1.3 times and dropping me in the industrial Armageddon that is Billings, MT, only to face a three hour drive to the ice. First world problems are not problems after all, so I’ll cease my rant here and say I flew in a few airplanes and found the winter I was anxiously waiting for, caught up on podcasts and enjoyed some retrospective vehicle time to contemplate the lessons of mortality and personal direction periods with family so often provide.
For the cherry on top, for the first time in memory I was gripped by the Bombardier turbo prop landing in Billings, and the pilot received a rousing ovation from the fuselage for delicately touching down in 40+mph sub-zero crosswind gusts. Flying frequently out of the Mammoth Lakes airport where it seems flights in less adverse conditions are routinely cancelled or diverted, the bookend to my miracle of human flight was impressive. It helped attenuate the glum circumstance of burrito-ing myself fully clothed in a comforter at the local Motel 6 out of fear of bed bugs as the boreal winds raged outside.
Rather than arriving late on night 2/4, I was at the doorstep of the Double Diamond X ranch at 10AM sharp on day 1 ready to snag Jeffrey and get on the best that Cody had to offer us as we closed out 2014 with a cold bang. We turned lemons into frozen lemonade as we shook off travel fatigue and sent Moratorium, including the delightfully steep upper apron – a finish taunting for years since the first try in 2011.
In a quick recap, Jeffrey and I were able to successfully scale Moratorium, Sendero Illumnoso, Animal Rights Activist, Hunter Creek Falls and Joy After Pain [JAP] during our four day stint in the Valley. A great but brief stay, and perhaps most memorable is the resonance our last route gives. Let me explain.
This being the fourth annual trip to Cody, I have never experienced as much snow in the South Fork as this year, which meant the approaches to climbs had a steeper price of admission, replete with cursing at inanimate objects, wallowing up to our armpits in unconsolidated and faceted powder, countless ankle twists and painful toe stubs on the hidden treasures below the surface and 30+ degree temperature deltas. Not pain, but still, a discomfort lending greater satisfaction that we earned the joy of ice climbing this season. And oh how joyful it was.
Out of 11 roped pitches of climbing, only the first pitch of JAP had tenuous picks and hooks, and even those were short-lived. The rest of the flows were thick and sticky – the stuff dreams are made of. Sure the approaches involved much post holing and some morale-busting ‘ice-fueled hate,’ but good fortune graced us yet again with fantastic conditions on our chosen objectives.
Even better this year was the small posse we had to share the beauty of the area, the ups and downs inevitable with this sport, and the antics of chasing such improbable passions in such remote environs of our country. Ice climbing is a bit of an eccentric pursuit – where else do you look forward to standing still for an hour in sub-zero temperatures to wait your turn swinging your metal-clad appendages at chunks of ice that can and will harm you when liberated [which is frequent]? The sport chooses you, and armed with gumption and the right gear, its tough love pays back in droves. This year, Kelsey and Brittany joined the hunt for the goods, and enjoying our libations and victuals in the cozy confines of DDX’s Absaroka cabin after our days marching through the South Fork’s big sky country, the experience was that much better with their presence.
Multiple times during the trip I was in awe at the vigor of the area’s first ascensionists knowing they combated cold nights in tents at the Deer Creek Campground with worse weather forecasting and archaic gear but who were bolstered by their vision and passion to scale the drips dotting the valley walls previously unsullied by human hand, foot and tool. The four of us had a dry, warm cabin with all the modern amenities and the best technical gear all conspiring to help climb the same routes as our predecessors. Pain? I should say not.
Three straight days wandering past the South Fork’s majestic wildlife and stunning vistas, trudging through waste-deep drifts to scale classics and b-listers, we were tired while pondering our fourth and final day. Joy After Pain was something we had both climbed last year, and if Jeffrey and I share nothing else, it is our inveterate desire of seeking terra incognita. As we mulled over the options, the fickle nature of JAP’s seasonal appearance, its aesthetics and length were out-stripping the relative malaise of ‘doing the same thing again.’ We knew the ‘Joy’ of the route, and whatever ‘Pain’ we had endured during the week gave a denouement on one of the area’s best licks of ice, the name of which ostensibly symbolized our trip.
Flash back a year: JAP was in, but different, the first pitch was broad and thick, the second pitch pillar airy and hollow, and I encountered gear failure before the final 55m WI5 breath-taker. With a defective crampon and setting sun, I would not be following Jeffrey’s brilliant lead on the top-most pitch, leaving a mild bitter taste on my pallet when thinking of the capricious classic, albeit with the hidden excitement that I would just have to climb the splendid thing again at a future opportunity. 2015 brought such an opportunity, and it was not to be missed.
Jeffrey remained sanguine after a cold soak at the base caused a vicious attack of the screaming barfies; he rebounded to scale the fat second pitch pillar, and we waded through the deep upper gullies, ice-bouldered and threw in a few more screws for mileage to deposit ourselves at the base of the uber-aesthetic and uber-fat WI5 upper pitch. We paused for a spot of lunch to bring back the verve, and took extra time on the last moves to ensure completion in good style, with each swing and kick taking more time. We hit our last highpoint of the week in a bit of incredulity: great weather, good health, strength, beautiful company and stellar conditions for four straight days; we had both experienced discomfort over the course of our journeys, but the joy far eclipsed any of the hardships getting us there. Even getting our rope caught on the last rappel requiring a head-lamped re-ascent couldn’t extinguish the flame.
And perhaps that is yet another reason for loving this sport: even the same route was different this year: Sure, water freezes at a given temperature, but when you throw in the variability of weather and terrain, the drips, smears and pillars we seek seem to change every year – or not show up at all. 2015 was no exception and there was plenty of variety on JAP to make it seem like an almost entirely different route. Further internet scouting revealed even further fickleness year-over-year, and a profound respect for those willing to get even further out of their comfort zones in particularly meager years.
So was there pain? No, more a little modern discomfort, something we should all experience as a reminder of how good life really is. But that last route leaves a strong impression: without a little discomfort, or some pain, is the joy really that good?