April 21, 2006


My Summit Problem: What would you do after you'd been trapped in the wilderness and forced to cut off your own arm? You probably wouldn't try to become the first person to climb all 59 of Colorado's 14,000-foot peaks in winter—and alone. (Aron Ralston, April 2006, Outside)

TO SAY I WAS UNDERQUALIFIED at the outset would be euphemistic; I was an overambitious kid, with far more enthusiasm than talent or skill. When I conceived the idea, I'd never held an ice ax, put on crampons, gone snow camping, dug a snow cave, or even skied off-piste. And my plan was to go unsupported and unmechanized, meaning no partners, no snowmobiles, no chance of avalanche rescue. Without training, as my concerned Intel friend and mountaineering mentor Mark Van Eeckhout pointed out over the phone one night, the project would likely kill me. This wasn't news to me: I was well aware of my inexperience. But I also knew how to learn.

For an engineer, little is more satisfying than a well-defined objective with easily tracked milestones, and, beginning in September 1999, when I transferred to Intel's Rio Rancho plant, just outside Albuquerque, New Mexico, I committed all my resources to the project. I read mountaineering book after mountaineering book. I enlisted Mark to teach me the basics of backcountry travel. I volunteered on the Albuquerque Mountain Rescue Council, attended the Silverton Avalanche School, in Colorado's San Juans, and spent my summer weekends reconning the peaks. I also bought some polypropylene.

It's easy to find people who are young and stupid. It's harder to find someone older and still stupid. I didn't want to be that guy, but sometimes it seemed like my destiny. I made just about every mistake possible, some of them more than once. A few (like forgetting the toilet paper) I seemed to like so well that I repeated them every season.

But I got better—even though I rang in the millennium with a Gorbachevian blotch of frostnip on my forehead. (That was a Christmas gift from 14,172-foot Mount Bross, where I'd cluelessly worn my headlamp all day, allowing the 100-mile-per-hour summit winds to conduct the cold straight through my hat and headband.) Almost every weekend for three winters, I'd drive north from Albuquerque to Colorado, careful to leave word with friends about my plans and to put a detailed note about my route on the dash of my car, legible from the outside. My strategy was to start with the easiest, most accessible peaks: the Mosquito and Front ranges, closest to Denver, then the Sangre de Cristos and the Sawatch Range, flanking the San Luis and Arkansas valleys in the center of the state. I'd leave after work on Friday, climb Saturday and Sunday, and return post-midnight in time for work. I figured I was running about $300 per summit in gas, gear, and expenses—about $18,000 over the course of the project—not to mention the $6,000 I spent fixing my truck after I hit a deer one night south of Leadville.

The personal costs were harder to quantify. I hadn't turned into a hermit—I still saw my friends on weeknights, road-tripped with my high school buddies, and visited my family in Denver—but I was vaguely aware that I was holding even the people closest to me at a subtle distance. I realized I'd made a conscious decision to defer having a serious girlfriend; I couldn't be fully available to someone when my passions were so wrapped up in my quest. However, I also saw altruism in my goal. I figured that if I, as unremarkable and average as I am, could do something historic, it might inspire others to dream big, too.

After three winters, I had 23 of the 59 under my belt. My mountain-rescue friends had taught me to telemark, and skinning up the peaks and skiing down was both a huge improvement over snowshoeing and an opportunity for spectacular ass-over-teakettle crashes. I progressively minimized my bivouac kit down to a lightweight down jacket, stove, fuel, pot, and lighter and quickly figured out which foods were most readily swallowed sans saliva. The best were Odwalla super-protein drinks or Gatorade, warmed up and kept insulated inside the jacket in my pack; gels like Clif Shots that I could thaw in my glove, as long as I had some unfrozen water for a chaser; and—my favorite—soggy, dashboard-thawed Patio-brand burritos.

By the end of winter 2002, I was up to 36, and I started planning my endgame. For a year, I'd been ready to move to Colorado and leave my engineering career behind; that March, I got a sign. At the edge of a willow meadow on the west side of 14,421-foot Mount Massive, I stopped short as three gray wolves loped down a hillside not 30 yards to my left—this in a region where wolves had supposedly been extinct for 60 years. The two summits I reached that day were superfluous. For weeks, I replayed what I'd witnessed like a hayseed abducted by aliens; the Forest Service representative in Leadville even responded in a strained X Files whisper: "I knew it—I knew they were out there." If those wolves could migrate from as far away as, I imagined, Yellowstone, then I could make the move, too.

A few weeks later, I quit my job at Intel. Actually, I called it my retirement. I sold my furniture, rented out my townhouse, bought a camper shell for my truck, and traveled around climbing for six months. That fall, I moved into a low-rent group house in Aspen and got a job at a mountaineering shop.

I had 23 mountains left—the toughest on the list. I was getting to the good part. During the winter of 2003, I climbed Longs, Holy Cross, and the seven summits of the Elks Range, around Aspen—including Capitol and Pyramid peaks and the Maroon Bells, whose steep slopes, technical ridges, complicated route finding, loose rock, and avalanche exposure made them the most dangerous of the lot. The scariest moments of the whole project came on a weekly basis: I fell a sobering six feet off the pinnacled summit ridge of Pyramid, pushed through a brutal night storm on Holy Cross, got frostbite on eight fingers on Capitol, and, on Longs Peak, slipped while descending a steep slab of verglased granite just below the summit and slid toward the nothingness below.

In that eternity before the pick of my ice ax caught on the bare rock, I was more terrified than I'd ever been. But my guardian angels were working overtime that season. Indeed, my closest brush with death came not as part of the solo project but when I was on vacation from it.

Jeff Long's thriller, The Wall, is a surprising antidote to all the climbing stories.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 21, 2006 12:09 PM

Climbing's a great outlet for mania. I just wish the taxpayer didn't get hit with the rescue tab so often.

Posted by: ghostcat at April 21, 2006 5:41 PM