Gray's and Torrey's Base Camp:
Today was my first monologue with death. The first time where I felt there was a legitimate chance I could have been killed. It was also my first “real” climb in the mountains. Some may call me an idiot, irrational, or self-centered, others… a climber. The risk was only in my ability. It was the “Lost Rat Colouir” on Grays Peak in Colorado. A 900 ft snow climb we had decided to solo. No ropes. Just ourselves, our axes, and our ability.
We awoke around 1:00 in the morning. We had to beat the sun so the snow would be firm enough for us to climb. In the crisp night air, the monolith silhouetted the night sky as we approached. The only sounds were our feet and our breath. There was no wind. No clouds. Only the beautiful night sky. As we moved closer and closer to the climb it loomed bigger and bigger. Steeper and Steeper. At the base, a frozen lake of ice and snow. We dawned our crampons and started up. After about 200 feet the seriousness of the colouir, of the climb could be seen, could be felt. All I could see were headlamps below me. Not knowing who was who our gap widened. I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t slow down. I was in the moment and I was soloing. Each of us responsible for our own actions. Our own life. Pure. Simple. Free. As I climbed I knew a slip would be fatal. Time stood still. No sun. No wind. Just my axe and the snow. And then there it was. The rocks, the scree. No more snow. No more safety. I was 700 feet up and the snow had melted out. Conditions of the rest of the colouir were good. Solid. But here the last 200 feet of snow and scree the only thing between me and safety...
The sun was peaking over the ridge. The snow still firm. The scree, well, it's never firm. It was only around 150-200 ft from the top but at the time it was still dark, still cold, and I didn’t know if I could climb the 40-45 degree scree field. A hold could break, my crampons slip, any moment I could plunge 800 feet to my death. At that moment I was calm. I was safe for now. Where I stood I had solid footing. I had kicked a ledge in the snow. My climbing partners could not be seen, could not be heard behind me. I screamed their names but they had chosen a different path. A path that I had advised earlier in the climb. For better or for worse I was totally alone.
Dark clouds crept over the mountains. A storm was coming. The sun was rising. The snow would melt. I knew at the time that my footing wouldn’t last forever and the storm wouldn’t stop. I was 800 feet into the colouir. I was almost to the ridge and there was no going down, not now. The down climb would take too long and I couldn’t make it safely. Could I climb upwards safely? I was in crampons with my gloves and ice axe. But I was a climber, at least I thought I was. This is what I wanted right? The crampons would hold. My ability would hold. The rocks? The scree? Well, scree never holds. I couldn’t be sure. A game of chance then? Yes and No. I stood there in the snow for what seemed like an eternity. Considering my options. My life and my actions. I was scared.
These are the moments we live for. The ones that can change everything. The ones, some will never know. It was inevitable I was going up. I dropped my axe (leashed) and grabbed the first loose holds as I moved from snow to rock. I slammed my crampons into the dirty, unconsolidated rock mound. Sparks flew. It held. Over and over again. It held. With speed and care, I went as fast as possible. Rocks could fall on my fellow climbers who were hundreds of feet below me, the rock could slide out from under me and that would have been it.. but what choice did I have? 900 feet of rock and ice, a fall, I couldn’t have stopped. I kept going though. I had to. Knocking rock after rock careening down behind me. Step by step. Crawling upwards to the sky. But I could see the ridge, holds were breaking and sparks flew. The sound of the wind and my axe bouncing off the rocks was all I could hear. I went from all fours to full on running. Sparks flew and the ridge came closer. Ice axe in hand I ran. There it was, the ridge, the sun, the storm. I had made it. I had pulled it off. My first mountain. The feeling pulsed through my entire body. This is where I belonged. This I will never forget. But where were my friends? Where was the trail?
The storm grew and the urgency of the descent loomed in my mind. I had to get down. The gusts were hard enough to knock me off my feet. I had to find my friends before the storm hit. We had to get down. It wasn’t about the summit as I thought, it was about the climb. About 200 feet below the ridge that I ended up on I had found my fellow climbers. This is what I cam upon.