Posted by: trevormeers | April 19, 2011

Climbing In The Dark

14,000 feet up on a Colorado peak, I found the promised Rocky Mountain high, but it was because of a sight I never anticipated. 

Clipped in to a rope at 13,000 feet at sunrise—and still stuck in traffic. We’d chosen the somewhat technical north face of Long’s Peak precisely to avoid the Keyhole Route, where hordes of overmatched hikers freight-train up, only to turn back early when afternoon storms sneak up on them. Every day. Despite all the trailhead warning signs about storms. Yet even here, on the more demanding route that keeps the madding hordes away, I still waited on this Colorado morning, drumming my fingers like a commuter facing the south end of a north-bound Kenworth while the latte grows cold in the cup holder. I ground my boots in a patch of winter’s last snow and tried to wriggle into another layer of fleece while belaying my partner Chad, dangling in his own holding pattern halfway up the pitch.

Alpenglow lights the north face of Longs Peak as we head into the boulder field.

It wasn’t an Into Thin Air pile-up at Everest’s Hillary Step, but it was a delay about 1,000 feet short of the goal, and plenty to leave me muttering at the small group laboring just above, chatting it up like BFFs in line for a Cinnabon. Who could possibly wring so much analysis from this simple route?

Finally, they veered off blessedly to the right, out of our intended line. As we drew abreast of them, I recognized that the middle climber was short-roped between the other two, the mountaineering equivalent of hand-holding, typically used for climbers so gassed they can barely carry on. Every eye in the other group hid behind dark mountaineering glasses, but I didn’t need to see the middle climber’s eyes to know they weren’t seeing anything.

The lead climber took nearly every step with his head craned like a parent yelling into the backseat. As the middle climber raised her foot, the leader called out the spot to aim for, and the woman in the middle gingerly sent her leg searching for a target shaped like his words. The back climber lobbed up steady doses of reassurance with nearly every footfall.

An hour or so later, Chad and I stepped up to Long’s flat, boulder-strewn summit, twisted the lids off fat water bottles and sat on rocks to watch the threesome’s final charge. Even this close to the goal, there was no coasting in. Every step demanded instruction—often chased by a clarifying question—then a step into the void, leap upon leap of faith that every rock would materialize precisely where the voice placed it in the blind climber’s mind. When the team reached the flat, the middle climber disappeared under back slaps and hugs from the other two.

That morning, we had met an ultrarunner darting through the tipping rocks and car-size boulders leading up to Long’s, hopping through the maze quicker than I can navigate toys covering the living room floor. Yet as we all stood on top, it was the blind climber’s journey through that morale-sapping boulder field that monopolized my respect. Every slow step was a process. Analyze. Verbalize. Search for solid footing before granting the trust of weight. Seven miles up, seven miles down. This team enjoyed none of the zoned-out tromping that helps the rest of us burn through the long miles after the excitement of the summit has worn off. The middle climber saw no alpenglow before dawn to quicken her spirits after hours of climbing in the dark.

The blind climber (white shirt in the group on the left) nears the summit right behind me (white helmet on the right).

And despite all that, two people signed up to make this interminable journey with her, turning a 12-hour trip into two long days.

As we readied for the descent, I stared a little longer at the mica glinting from the rocks and at the alpine lakes shimmering like dropped crystals far below. And I remembered for the first time in a long while what a precious thing it is that we get to do in these hills. That every long trail carries us on a chain of 10,000 complex, yard-long journeys that our subconscious minds absorb into a routine that we’re all too anxious to hurry through, despite every step representing a magnificent gift of unconscious coordination.

“So what do you think?” Chad, an experienced climber, asked as we prepared to descend.

“Pretty epic,” I said.

“Well, I don’t know if I’d call it epic,” he laughed.

I guess at the moment, he wasn’t looking at what the middle climber helped me see.

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Responses

  1. Such courage! But the thrill of victory must be truly exhilarating! The truth of the matter is: I’m terrified of heights…I can climb step ladder, but that’s about it… otherwise, looking down makes everything “swim”. Enjoy your adventures and appreciate that you have the ability to do them!

  2. Neat story Trevor…..a blind person climbing a mountain, and I have trouble sometimes just finding my car in the mall parking lot. With you and all your outdoor adventures, you are working your way up to Bear Grylls status….you just to start eating lion kill and snakes.


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