Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Expeditions 1 and 2

I started cycling as a means to get somewhere.  In the spring of 2002 I really wanted to go climbing in the Grand Teton Mountains in Wyoming.  It's only 500 miles from Missoula, MT.  So my dad gave me his old mountain bike and told me that I'd be there in a little over a week.
"Stop whining about what you can't do or don't have," he said, "and you just might enjoy it."  Little did I know at the time that I would become hooked on the absolute freedom that I felt out there on the open road.  Long distance cycling has a similar feeling to backpacking for me.  Where everyday I'm traveling out in the open, seeing the lakes and rivers and mountains.  Communicating with the birds and the insects and the animals.  Setting up camp in a new spot every night, and breaking camp early every morning in anticipation of an exciting day ahead.
On my first big trip I did very little training.  Only a couple weeks worth of cycling to get ready.  I was working for myself at the time as a house painter.  Which I've done on and off for nearly 20 years now.  I started commuting to work with all my equipment on my bike by towing a trailer to haul all the stuff.  The plan worked and I was in pretty good shape by the time I left Missoula.  The only thing that gave me trouble was my arse.  It wasn't until 2004 when I rode to Mount Rainier in Washington that I learned I  could buy happiness for about $35.  That's when I bought a comfy saddle for my myself.  It made all the difference in the world.
While I was in the Tetons I had a great hook up at the American Alpine Club Climber's Ranch where I stayed for almost a month.  Plush digs for someone like myself that is usually hiding from the camp ranger in a ripped up old tent.
The Tetons are phenomenal in so many ways.  The size of the mountains, the quality of the rock, the perfect snow couloirs.  I was blown away by the experience.  Skiing the Skillet Glacier route on Mount Moran was a goal that I had had five years earlier when I lived in Jackson Hole.  Coming there and climbing and skiing it by myself was a milestone for me.  Then climbing the Grand Teton, the Middle Teton, and Baxter's Pinnacle drove it all home for me.  I mean it.  Except for the 'drove' part.  It 'rode' it all home for  me.  The entire way back to Missoula on that trip I was beaming with new found glory.  I kept talking to myself.  Over and over I'd repeat "I just rode here on this bike and climbed 3 of the 5 highest peaks and skied one the most sought after lines in North America."  And I did all this for less than what I usually pay for a months rent somewhere.  Wow!  This has got to be the ticket.  Everyone's going to be doing this next year.
Looking down the Skillet at dawn.

In 2004 I rode to MT. Rainier.  In my pocket I had a permit that said I had qualified for a solo climb and ski descent of Liberty Ridge route on the north face.   Climbing solo on Rainier is very dangerous and it is illegal with out a permit.  This trip did not go over as planned.  I didn't even set foot on the Liberty Ridge.  The weather was tremendous, and much stronger than myself.  After a week of waiting there was finally a break in the weather.  I jumped out of my tent and went over the edge of the glacier to get my first view of the route.  In about ten seconds, the time it took me to look at the route from the bottom to the top, my dream of skiing that route that season washed away.  It looked horrible.  There were brown stains from wet avalanches everywhere.  Ice showing where I'd hoped to see clean snow.
How could this be?  I'd trained for 6 months.  I was ready to do this thing.  I'd ridden my bicycle all the way here.  Spent a lot of money.  I was psyched.  And in no more than ten seconds it was over.  I was going home.  Or maybe not?  Maybe the conditions would improve?  Maybe it's not as bad as it looks?  I wanted a reason to ignore what I was seeing, and just go for it anyway.  But I couldn't.  Then I saw one avalanche, then another.  There was no denying it.  The route was a total death trap.  Go home.  It's a long way, but don't worry you have a comfy seat.  Nobody will heckle you for not even stepping foot on the route.  They'll believe you.  They'll trust you when you tell them it was pure suicide.
I tried to comfort myself, but it was useless.  My dreams where crushed.  It took years to get over.  I'm sorry, but it did.
By the time I got back to Missoula, four people had died on that route.  Why?  Why couldn't they see what I saw?  This didn't help at all.  I didn't need four people to die on that route to make me feel that I had made the right decision.  Two of them where from Missoula.  That definitely didn't help.  I didn't know them, but that didn't matter.  It sucked all the same.  Nobody talked about Rainier all that summer without grief.  I kept asking myself why.  Why do we do it?  I didn't have an answer.  Not then at least.

Ice climbing!  A great way to train for the madness.