Clyde Minaret, (Direct) South Face
By: Dingus Milktoast (NdP) | Climbers: Dingus Milktoast, "Wild" Bill Hansen |Trip Dates: July, 1995
Photo: Gary Clark
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The Skyline of Memory
I vacillate endlessly from absolute confidence to hopeless anxiety. One moment, suffused with the brittle clarity of a seer, I feel as though I am a master of time itself. The next, suffering the numbing despair of doubt, I know it is I who am mastered. Each new step brings me closer to the beautiful, terrible truth I must face. Each new step takes me farther down the path of no return. I move through the night, waging great silent debate over insignificant detail and trivial concern. The sounds of my footfalls are absorbed into the soft womb of darkness and fade quietly from being. They remain unanswered, as do my doubts. There is but one answer to all of the questions. There is but one course to chart; chosen of free will yet inevitable nonetheless.
In this endeavor I am not alone, but in this universe I alone exist. My companion, inscrutable to the eye, untouchable through conversation, unknowable by the heart, moves with the precision of a drill sergeant, the purpose of a priest. Try though I might, I cannot ingest his drive. I cannot absorb his confidence. His energy remains his alone. The short distance between us casts shadows over the great gulf of silence that separates my existence from his. Still we are both caught up in the same self-made web of ambition and desire. Though we live entirely different realities, for this brief passage we combine our efforts. We seek a common goal and though ultimately separate, we are stronger together.
We slam-dunk five hours of sleep on the way in. The wind howls above our sheltered site along the shore of an alpine lake. I lay in abject silence, humbled by the infinite power of the Milky Way. But sleep is slow in coming and reluctant to release its grip on my mind. I'm stuck in some weird dreamscape, ascending surreal mud towers with oversized ice tools. A voice below me keeps repeating something about a freak show. As strange as this place seems, my mind instinctively knows it's safer than what I face in waking. Ambition again overrides caution and I struggle to the surface, slapping at the plastic Timex, offended by its shrill reminder of civilization.
The first hint of dawn colors the east sky. The coming of the day signals a renewal of spirit. The eternal promise, endlessly offered, often denied, quickens our pace and bolsters flagging resolve. This day, like all before it and all to come, starts with the same clean slate of possibility; ends with the same etched stone of finality. I momentarily set aside all the ambition and all the fear and simply face the daybreak with innocent awe and breathless excitement. No matter the result, I am eager to confront what this day will put forth.
We stand upon a broad shoulder as the sun races toward us. Its first rays hit high on the face. I can't stand here and stare at this thing too long. It seems miles high; intricate, serious. Not a word of doubt passes between us, though. We forge an unspoken pact; I won't give in if you won't! The defiance of that silent decree puts a hard look in our eyes and a quick edge to our voices. We move on after a few snap shots of the sunrise, ascending the vast scree slope to the base of the wall.
I reach the cliff, relieved that fore-shortening has reduced the menace of the wall to manageable proportions. I can only see the next few hundred feet so anything beyond that is non-existent and therefore of no concern. This is a strange place. The rock is brown and shattered. There is no living vegetation anywhere. Rockfall is too frequent, too massive, too terrible, for life. I've seen no marmots, no mice, no birds. Lichens survive of course. Tougher than rock itself, they add color to an otherwise monotonous world. The wind is the only thing moving across this lunar-like landscape; the wind and us. It's haunted and no place to dwell.
We rope up using automation as a tool to keep moving. I respond with deliberation when faced with the massive. I go through the motions, one step at a time. It's how you eat an elephant, one bite at a time. Part of my mind tells me I have no chance whatever at getting up this thing. It says that death will be my reward. Another fixates on the sirens' call of the summit. It says the climb is worth the pain. But the strong part of my mind simply carries on. It tells me to put my shoes on. It remembers to double back the strap on my harness. It sorts the rack. It takes in the deep, calming breaths necessary to prevent outright panic.
I win the toss and the climb begins. We've decided on a direct start up a shallow corner system right in the middle of the face. It's steeper than it appears; nearly vertical. The rock is strangely slick. It vibrates with a loose menace, but it also seduces. The handholds are sharply incut, the cracks easily take pro. I move upward, pleased with the quality of the climbing. The greater world fades from my conscious as I get a dose of what I came here for. I reach the belay somewhat surprised that the lead is over.
I bring up my partner, snapping a picture of him as he stems the final ten feet to my ledge. His curt nod and fleeting smile are all I need to see. Nearly an endorsement; he too liked that pitch! We quickly re-rack and then he's off, stemming overhead with grace and surety. I steadily pay out rope as I watch him climb.
Events occur. Shit happens. It's about to happen to us, though we don't yet know it. He continues to stem up the smooth sided dihedral as I watch with lazy concern. Complacency tells me that whatever he encounters on this pitch is his problem. I look down at an icy lake. I watch a hawk circle a distant ridge. I imagine cryptic sky writing in offending contrails. I pay out rope and pick my nose. My complacency is utterly shattered with the finality of an overdue AmTrack slamming into a fuel truck.
He makes three hard moves back to back, drawn by a large chock stone and an impending under-cling. Feet high, he reaches a hand up under the boulder and pulls...
"ROCK!" He screams as the big mother shifts radically and threatens to drop right in his lap. His situation is not just serious, it's life threatening. He's engaged in a deadly dance with a hundred pound killer at the sharp end of a twenty foot runout. The horror of the moment is echoed by his voice. I can actually hear the rock itself; something huge, something deadly.
I'm tied in short to the bottom of the dihedral. I'm stuck in the base of a funnel! There is no where to go. I watch in terror as the first stones rain down upon me, having tumbled over a hundred feet. I instinctively try to reduce my exposure; try to merge into the wall. I glance up in time to see a baseball sized stone bounce directly at my face. I duck as it smashes into my head! My helmet resounds with the bang of a hand grenade as my head snaps back. I flinch and dodge this way and that, twitching like a broken puppet. Finally the rock fall stops...
Events occur. Shit happens. Yet this time we might escape. I've been able to dodge the worst of the big ones. My helmet takes two more strikes. My buddy somehow now saves my life. I don't know what stores of emergency energy he taps, at what personal cost, but tap them he does. His lower hand remains attached to the rock, three fingers twisted painfully in a partial jam. Using the leverage of a magician, he pushes that Sword of Damocles back into the bosom of the dihedral and wedges it into place. Somehow he manages to stay my execution.
Yet the rock teeters on the brink of the moment and our situation remains deadly. Having stopped the oncoming reaper, he must now gather his wits and continue. Making an impossible move, he escapes the dihedral on the left, climbs another fifteen feet and gets in a solid piece. I'm left looking up at the rock wedged precariously over my soft head.
"I've got to kick this bastard loose!" He calls in a shaky voice.
"NO!" I scream in reply. "You send that thing down, I'm fucking DEAD!"
"I can't leave it like that. The wind may knock it loose!"
I believe him. Yet the break in the action threatens to dissolve my composure. I'm flooded with nerves as my adrenal glands pump a massive dose of panic directly into my blood stream. My hands literally shake with pent up energy. My primitive self wants to get the hell out of here. There's no where to go but up!
"I can't get out of the way! I've got to climb! I'll send it!"
"NO! It won't stay that long! I've got to kick it now!"
What the hell can I do? I try my best to think rationally as my body betrays my intentions. It wants to riot; it wants to run! Were I in a position of action I could harness that power. Trapped in the funnel, tied to the rock, I'm a rat about to gnaw off its own leg. All right... think, THINK! What am I going to do?
"OK! Have you got a solid anchor? Good! Tie in. Pull up the lead rope so it won't get cut. I'll use the haul line to set a self-belay."
I think we are both immensely relieved to have something to do. We work as quickly as possible. I pull one of the three anchors, an Alien. I tie my haul line to the other two. I allow about twenty feet of slack. Out around the lip of the dihedral I go. SHIT! There's nothing here.
I search with growing desperation, constantly glancing upwards, flinching at the slightest sound. There are small edges to stand on, but there are no placements anywhere! I must find something. I must have an anchor. The two pieces in the corner aren't enough. That boulder could very well sweep the belay and pull me off with it. Finally, at the very limit of my short tie-in, I find a marginal placement. I tie into that too.
I watch the lead rope snake up the rock. Talk about feeling vulnerable! I'm standing on a tiny edge about two hundred feet above the talus. Worries flood my mind. The belay will fail. Shattered rock will smash my head. The boulder will bounce clear of the corner and kill me anyway. My partner will fall. The anchors will pull and I'll be yanked from the wall. We're both gonna die! STOP, I scream in silent rage! Focus! What next?
I can't see above. That's good. If I can't see the rock, then it can't get me, right? I'm tied in and helpless, yet I have taken what measures I can to survive. I must now hand my life over to fate, to the Gods themselves. My partner gives me a running commentary, nothing but a disembodied voice. He's also tied in short, trusting himself completely to some cams under a flake. The lead rope is out of the way. He's descending to the rock.
"Get ready! Here it comes!"
I'm silent through all of this. These few moments, tied in to three miserable pieces with an eight mil haul line, completely helpless, are the worst of my entire career. I've been seriously injured. I've been in desperate situations. I've been scared shitless! I've never been this helpless, this inadequate. I've never been so utterly defenseless. I must simply wait, head ducked low; wait for those rocks to shatter the roof of my world. I know they're coming and all I can do is wait. I wait for death! I feel the impotent horror of a combat soldier trapped in a foxhole, about to get shit on. The adrenaline flow continues unabated. The primitive continues to scream. But I wait, mute, for it all to finish.
He kicks the big one free. As it tumbles I actually feel the vibrations in the air as it strikes first one wall, then the other. It breaks up into a thousand deadly missiles, each one with my name written on it. Some of the little bastards escape the confines of the dihedral and pelt my pitiful stance. I duck and they all miss. I watch as they add to the talus below. One large rock smashes my partner's boot lying at the base of the route. The smell of flint wafts on the lazy breeze. I take a deep breath, surprised to discover that I've been holding it for a long time.
He kicks some more shrapnel loose. The deadly assault continues. I positively resonate with fear! I can't breathe right. Fear has constricted my chest; helpless, undiluted fear. It has me now. There's nothing I can do but suffer through it. My arms, my legs, all jelly; my backbone dissolves into quivering flesh. I cringe against the wall, afraid to move; afraid not to. Yet I can't stay here forever.
I'm like a rabbit just surviving a near miss from a lethal raptor. I timidly poke my head back into the corner, not yet trusting my partner's verdict, not yet believing my death sentence has been commuted. I survey the impact zone. There are strike marks everywhere; big ones! I would not have survived. I examine the anchors, examine the rope; intact. It's tough to believe, but we are going to survive. Soon the rope comes snaking back down. I tie in, though with a longer leash this time. I re-establish the belay and my partner continues the lead, faltering for some time at a difficult bulge. Finally, seemingly years after it began, he reaches the top of the pitch.
I break down the belay. My hands still quiver with the after effects of adrenaline and fear. Fumble fingered, I drop my belay device and watch as it joins the talus below. I'm too wired to even be concerned. Screw it! I never did like that damn ATC anyway! I climb the pitch, grateful for the movement, anxious to get out of this killing zone. I stem the dihedral. It's hard! The act of climbing serves to calm my nerves. The difficulty of the moves forces me to harness the chunks hormonal energy still floating in my bloodstream like icebergs in the Arctic Ocean. I reach the hole formerly occupied by the boulder. I dive my hand into it's dark cavity to keep a pitiful tips jam from popping. I too send a deluge of stones bouncing down the cliff. The final twenty feet of the pitch are very difficult. The bulge is powerful and awkward. Then it's over. I'm at the belay.
We are on top of a large pedestal. One more short lead will put us back on line with the regular route. I look into my companion's eyes; he into mine. My breathing has returned to normal. I wish I could declare my psyche normal as well, but I know better. A curious state of mind descends. My rational side would bail from this pile of shit in a New York minute! I know we're only two pitches into a Grade IV, 6 miles from the nearest road, 11,000 feet above sea level. I know we almost died. We've wasted an hour. We're badly shaken. All of this crosses my mind as I look into his eyes. I assume he's plagued with similar thoughts.
"What do you think?" He asks quietly, giving me an unreadable look.
"I'll keep going if you will," I respond immediately, surprising even myself. He nods and we begin the re-rack at once, before either of us can change our minds. Once again the automaton takes over, putting everything back into place. One bite at a time, I will eat this elephant.
I'm troubled to find a vacant cavity where the emotions of the rock fall should be. The ambivalence I feel toward the incident seems indecent or even stupid. Shouldn't I be swearing, screaming and foaming at the mouth? Or should I be blubbering like a lost child? Is it shell shock? Having survived the bombardment, am I inured to further horror? I think it through.
My mind reacts with necessary precision. If I'm to continue, I mustn't dwell on what's just happened. I can't let it shake my resolve! Therefore, my mind simply voids the entire event and stores it whole in some dark basement of my soul. I'll have to dredge it up later. Do I still want the climb? Hell yes I want the climb; more than ever! Can we do it? Of course we can. My ambivalence is required if I am to complete this route. The empty hole will be filled in later. I move up the rock, using the sharp end to blow away the fog left over from the horrors below. I immediately begin to feel better.
The next four leads take us up and right, into the center of the vast shattered face. Rocks teeter crazily, boulders threaten even sanity, the entire mountain seems ready to tumble into the abyss! But there is sane climbing to be found. Solid edges continue to appear, the cracks still take pro. Route finding here is as challenging as any I've encountered, yet the climb does go. We use runners liberally to prevent further mishap as we work our way to the bottom of a great dihedral. The pitches are easy; deceptive in fact. We are now well into the Heart of Darkness. Only our climbing abilities will see us through now. Retreat from here would be very difficult.
I watch as my partner crosses a great void to gain the dihedral proper. I dread following traverses like these. Seems my climbing partners don't always take the same care with my hide as they do with theirs. I need not have worried. He climbs high into the corner before placing his first piece, limiting my exposure while dramatically increasing his. I follow, admiring the lead as if it were a fine display of art safely locked in a warm museum.
My next lead is nearly vertical, continuously difficult and very engaging. I must link the great corner system to the one above it. The face in between is absolutely fantastic. Just above the belay I pull a small roof, then pause on a secure stance to snap a shot of my buddy. Looking down, the entire face falls away. Nothing but clean air below! This way and that I weave a crooked path. I reach the belay nearly humming a tune. I'm finally recovered from the earlier mishap. But wall mentality rules. I don't relax. I don't putter about. We have a long way to go still.
My partner authors a brilliant lead up the next dihedral. I put the finishing touches on the face by threading up the exit chimney. I pass a leaning giant of a rock on the way. I fritter about for several minutes, trying to will the route in a different direction. No way! I must pass the damn thing. Though it's probably solid, I refuse to even touch it. It's perched precariously over the belay. A directional insures that not even the rope will dislodge it.
I sit the belay on a large platform at the base of the summit ridge. We still have several hundred feet to go. It's late afternoon and the stress of the day is taking its toll. We exchange blunt statements about route finding. Finally in the shade after many hours of toiling on a south face, I shiver in the wind. The tough stuff is behind us. There is no real doubt. We're nearly there! I follow his lead up a crazy face to the left of the arête, bypassing unclimbable gendarmes using sloped holds and more loose rock.
We run the final leads into one simul-climbed pitch. I see the summit and I won't stop until I get there! He joins me, a weary smile playing across his chiseled features. We sign the register. We eat. The view is immortal.
To the north stands Ritter. South, the immense backbone of the Sierra stretches to infinity. The deep gash of the San Joaquin separates us from Mammoth Mountain. Michael guards the West, forbidding in appearance. That crazy pile is calling my name! Just looking at it sends chills down my spine, yet I know I must return to climb it. Further west Balloon Dome and Shuteye Ridge shimmer in the haze. I snap pictures and eat, snap pictures and drink, snap pictures and then accidentally expose my film at the end of the roll. Shit! I reload and snap some more.
The climb is but half over as we begin the descent. Neither of us has ever been here before. But I trust the pathfinder in my head. After some crazy scrambling on the edge of eternity, we descend a sloping ledge system leading south. We find a solitary rotted leg of a deer. I snap the Power bar picture of the century as my friend pretends to take a bite! The trudge down the couloir is scary; more loose shattered shit, piles and piles of it. Our rope snags on a long rappel, threatening to knight us. A massive, nearly desperate tug from my partner dislodges the thing. We are finally home free!
"YEAH!" He howls at the god of mountaineers. We've got it in the bag now. All that remains is a long descent to our packs, the trudge back to camp and an even longer haul back to the trailhead. We take in the somber mood of the wall, now in evening shadow. The smashed boot says it all. I cast uneasy glances over my shoulder, up at the face and at my partner. I look at the rubble at the bottom of the first pitch, trying to identify `our' rocks.
We begin making our way down the scree and talus. I stop and look back often. Taking in the specter of the mountain is impossible. It seems miles high, intricate, malevolent. Standing beneath this thing, looking up at that face, I find myself caught up in the events real-time, as if they are all happening still. The wall serves as its own map of my emotions. There is fear and there is despair. Over there is competence. And up there is achievement. I can't stand and stare at this thing too long. I feel as though I am trapped on the edge of waking, still living the dream yet knowing a different reality governs. I turn away quickly, continue the descent. All too soon, I look back up again...
Night takes us exactly where we left it; just above our camp on a broad shoulder. The remaining six miles of trail seem much longer going out than they did coming in. They always do! I'm void of emotion as I walk. No anxieties but no certainties either. I simply place one foot in front of the other. I've eaten the toughest part of the elephant, but six miles of entrails remain. I'll suck it down no problem. This hike is tame in comparison to the gauntlet we just survived. The darkness again absorbs the sound of my passage. The night contradicts the significance of the climb. This country cares not in the least for my accomplishments, nor for my failures. I might as well not have been here at all.
On this walk as in all others I am alone. Only I can see this thing to the end. My partner will not carry me or my load. But something has changed. Before, bonded by convenience alone, I felt only a vague kinship; a climbing partner, nothing more. Two separate universes orbiting different realities. But the furnace of the mountain, the crucible of the climb and the binding experience of a close call have forged a different truth. Invisible, yet plain for those who can see, there stands between us a bridge of desire, ability and commitment.
Our ambition is sated. Our goal has been reached. But the energy remains, adding a spring to our tired steps and a dark humor to our self-inflicted misery. My companion, inscrutable as ever, perhaps remains unknown as well. But he's not untouched! The bond of our climb tells me that. I'm not alone! We have lived this climb together. It remains there, the single, living answer to all the questions. Chosen of free will, inevitable nonetheless, it stands on the skyline of my memory, haunting me with its shattered countenance.