Read Part 1 here: Climbing Taylor Glacier
In the dry, cool gusts in the Bear Lake parking lot in Rocky Mountain National Park, I took off my steamy boots and replaced them with my booties, exchanged the puffy down jacket for a soft fleece, and my grimy fleece cap for open air. I headed for Estes Park with my heat blasting, and as soon as I knew I had cell service, pulled out my phone and called my mom. She panicked when I recounted the details of the day but I continually reminded her that I was safe. It was nice to tell the story from the comfort of my heated car and come to grips with what had actually happened and addressing the mistakes while they were fresh in my head. I guess it was sort of the start of my coping with what I had done. I faced the fact that it happened and I could choose to make something of it and grow or ignore it and shame myself.
I was supposed to be going to a speaking event by Tommy Caldwell, arguably the master of hard big wall climbing in the US after he conquered the Dawn Wall alongside Kevin Jorgeson just a few months ago. He lives in Estes Park where I had been residing for the past few weeks and was showing a video of him and Alex Honnold, the master of free solo climbing, tackling the Fitz Roy traverse in Patagonia.
I had purchased my ticket to the showing a couple days earlier and was elated to meet one of the toughest and most mature, level-headed climbers in the world. Ironically instead of being there, I was stuck out deep in the Colorado Rockies nearly getting myself killed. I skipped out on the tail end of the video and presentation and instead vented to my parents over the day’s mistakes from the McDonald’s parking lot in Estes Park. They begged me to return home immediately and for a moment I considered it. I was scared to death of the possibility that I may not have been able to make that call home that night and was ready to renounce mountaineering and stick to tamer adventures.
But of course the next day I awoke with only a faint memory of the trauma I had been through. It certainly still gives me nightmares imagining being up there, feeling my weight shift backward, and my limp body careening down the slope. But I have an appreciation for what happened and confidence that I can prevent something similar from ever happening again. Had I faced a freak avalanche, I may be telling a different story of how I abandoned the mountains for relaxing vacations to the beach. But instead, this was my preventable error and I wasn’t going to let that end my enjoyment of these incredible places.
I took a day off from the backcountry the next day, did some window shopping in town, and ate copious amounts of ice cream. Despite frigid temperatures, for some reason ice cream is always my go-to for post-adventure binging. To me, ice cream doesn’t need appropriate context to be amazing.
Continuing misadventures in Rocky Mountain National Park
But the day after that I was back out, working my way up the slopes of Longs Peak, the highest mountain within the boundaries of Rocky Mountain National Park. The winds were horrendous and blasted sub-zero air through every seam and crack in my outer layers. It was another challenge, but this time I was committed to proving to myself that with adequate preparation I could avoid any serious danger.
Setting up camp at over 12,000 feet, it took over an hour to get my tent up in the blasting 50+ mph gusts. The wind blew so hard that even my metal stakes would fling off into the distance if I didn’t watch them carefully. I slammed the stakes into the ground using a stray stone I found atop the snow, tightened the guy lines, and crawled into my home for the rest of the day and night. I had a warm car just a few miles away easily within hiking distance that I could camp in, but I knew I needed this; I needed to be here. No matter how absurd the proposition of camping out in such awful conditions, I needed to prove to myself that I could.
I watched my tent walls get blasted over the course of the night and struggled to sleep with the pounding fabric. I had meticulously thought through every possible scenario and had contingency plans if the nylon ripped or is something else catastrophic happened. The next day, after being tent-bound for nearly 24 hours, the wind picked up to full gale force and I decided I had done what I wanted to do and started packing up.
Outside the wind ripped at the little bit of skin exposed on my face and I took down my tent facing entirely downwind, walking around with my back to the wind. My stakes were frozen into the ground and were a lost cause. Half of them broke when I tried to pull them out and the other half wouldn’t budge so I left them. I shoved my tent into my pack and started working down through the heavily drifted snow. I clumsily fell through waist high drifts until reaching just above tree line. There, the wind was funnelled around the mountain and tore at the ground at insane speeds. I could hardly crawl over the bare rock without being thrown over. The wind ripped at my eardrums and the hurling ice tore at my nostrils.
When I finally reached treeline, my nose was bleeding from the abrasion and my ears were ringing fiercely. But I was out of it. The treetops whistled and shook above me but down at my level the air was still. It may have been a meaningless challenge to anyone else, but to me it was a reminder to myself that one mistake shouldn’t end my passion for the backcountry.
A few days later, I left my car and flew home and enjoyed being with my family for the end of November and beginning of December. When I returned to Colorado, I thought I may just hop in my car and speed back home. But the mountains sucked me in again and I climbed nearly twenty 14,000+ foot peaks without even the slightest hitch.
As I sit here writing this, I can’t help but think about Alex Honnold’s memoir, Alone on the Wall, and some of the stories and themes that he recounts over the course of his fascinating autobiography. He tells a story of when he was younger doing something similar to what I did. He was climbing an unfamiliar couloir in Lake Tahoe with snowshoes and no crampons. Albeit even less prepared than I was, it follows a similar theme. Neither of us knew enough about mountaineering to know how little we actually knew and how much danger we were getting ourselves into. Unfortunately he faced much worse consequences and ended up needing a chopper rescue after a horrendous fall. But the lesson he learned was similar to my sentiment.
Climbers often talk about the crux of a problem or pitch, or the couple moves that are the absolute hardest of the route. But more often than not, you’ll only find where your particular crux is and the exact moves it takes for you to overcome it as you’re facing it. The climbing becomes exponentially harder and you fumble around and maybe even fall before climbing above it. And in my over a decade of outdoor adventures, that one day, those 12 hours of fighting my way up and over Taylor Glacier was my crux. It was the moment where I reached a challenge that seemed absurdly insurmountable but instead of dropping back down, I kept on climbing and topped out.
I’m still not sure how I feel about my decision to keep on climbing instead of calling for a rescue. The analytical side of me thinks I was being childishly insecure and unnecessarily risking my life even further out of embarrassment for my initial mistake. But the more sensational side of me feels like that same fierce independence has brought me more good than harm. I’m not sure who I would be right now without the pride of pulling myself out of that situation. I had been pretty down after bailing on my studies for a year and think I needed to overcome something so seemingly impossible that it made passing med school seem tame in comparison. So as much as I’ll likely insist till the end of my days that this episode on Taylor Glacier was the worst experience of my life, I wholeheartedly believe I needed it.