Sometimes a 60-Foot Barrier Is Stronger Than What’s Within You
I felt the joy drain out of my body as soon as we rounded the wall and I laid eyes on it. Suddenly, reaching the summit with our 2015 No Barriers Warriors to Summits team seemed painfully out of reach.
Josh, Margaux and I had departed the team’s high camp earlier that morning to scout the upper section of the route for our summit attempt the next day on Gannett Peak. The previous day had been spent eyeballing the upper crux of the route, a left slanting couloir that appeared from a thousand feet below to have an anemic amount of melting ice protecting its access. Even from our camp perspective we were skeptical of the upper flank conditions. If that ramp of ice wasn’t safe to climb, the summit would be unattainable.
Gannett Peak is about as remote of a worthy climbing objective as any in the lower 48 states. Our team of 10 veterans, 5 guides and 2 photojournalists spent the better part of five days trekking deep into the Wind River Range of Wyoming, passing through some of the most breathtaking alpine terrain I have ever laid eyes on. Every one of the 26 miles of the approach was well-earned — not the least of which was the final mile leading into our high camp. The “boulder field” was a linear mile of uninterrupted VW Bug-sized boulders that had the look of middle earth meets the album cover of Houses of the Holy. Our team got their money’s worth climbing up, over and down each of the hundreds of massive rocks.
But in spite of all the fireball terrain and big boulders, we arrived as a complete team into our high camp, tired but satisfied and excited about what lay ahead. All the lead-up work had been done. Training was complete. The long approach was behind us. Only thing left to do was power through a solid summit day and stand on top of our objective.
That being said, my concern for route conditions grew deeper with each glance I stole of the upper route. As the sun cast down on the upper snowfield, the reflection off the snow mirrored a sheer face of what appeared to be very old, desiccated ice with a potentially broken up snow bridge leading to the climbable ice. The inexperienced eye would see it as shimmering beauty, beckoning for boots and traffic. But those of us with dozens of years climbing in variable alpine conditions knew better. We knew that weeks of higher than average temperatures would have melted the seasonal snow away, leaving only the thousands-of-years-old ice exposed. This is the kind of ice that is hard, crumbly and tough to protect. It’s the kind of ice that a few of the leadership team could handle with some minor effort, but the thought of putting our 10 participants on this terrain made my hands sweat and my spidey senses tingle.
Each of our hard charging participants have proven themselves competent and experienced in the theater of war, but their alpine climbing training consisted exclusively of the three training trips we had facilitated over the previous four months.
Not a lot.
Remember, our goal all along with No Barriers Warriors is not to make these men and women mountain climbers. Our mission is to provide them with a transformational experience that uses the mountains and rivers as a backdrop. Even from a half mile away I knew it would be tough to get everyone up and down that section of mountain safely and efficiently.
It was clear that we had to go up and lay eyes and feet on the route. As the expedition leader, the ultimate “go or no-go” decision rested firmly on my shoulders, so I would need to check it out. On the morning of our “rest day,” Josh, Margaux and I departed high camp to go explore the upper reaches of the mountain.
Fun. Just straight up fun. The climbing was complete with low 5th class scrambling, glacial traverses, low-angle snow climbing and splitter blue-sky conditions. We had a blast over the course of a few hours gaining an upper position. We rounded the corner of the “gooseneck” headwall and finally got up close and personal with the upper couloir.
The first obvious eye catcher was the 20-foot-deep sunken bergschrund that separated the upper ice from the lower glacier. Bergschrunds are the features that form as the ice that is pasted to the steeper flanks of the mountain separate from the lower angle glaciers. Oftentimes there is a snow bridge that exists that provides easy access on to the upper slopes. The same little snow bridge that existed when Charley and Josh reconned the route two months prior was still in place. But now it was a sad little 1-foot-thick droopy, unsafe marshmallow.
Well OK, we thought, we can get over that. It’ll take some work to get everyone over and back across that thing. But we can do it.
Then we looked up.
Above the gap we could now clearly see the condition of the ice that protected the summit ridge. Just as I had guessed: Stretching from side to side of the couloir was 60 feet of glistening, 45*, boilerplate hard, 10,000-year-old ice. Dripping water cascaded down its face. Once again I thought of a handful of ways we could get our crew up that section of ice but I continued to stalemate on how we would safely get everyone down this terrain.
But dammit, we knew that if we could just get by that 60 feet of terrain we would have a fairly cruiser ridgeline all the way up to the summit.
Might as well have been made of 2-foot-thick glass.
I sat, deflated, as I contemplated alternatives. Each one ended in the same comment, “We might be able to get ‘em up that way but there is no way to get them down that same section safely.”
In typical Josh fashion, the 27-year-old ex-SEAL continued to suggest multiple alternatives, the best of which was climbing around the ice. “Maybe we can circumvent the entire headwall. Let’s go check it out.” An hour of some fun rock-block scrambling led us to the edge of the headwall… and a 1,000-foot sheer cliff.
Down we went. We had worked so hard to get here as a team and we would be going home without a summit.
Back through the sweet terrain and into camp to join up with the rest of the team. Ultimately to tell them that their much desired summit — the same summit that they had worked for and dreamed of — would remain out of reach.
I wasn’t bummed for my own summit aspirations. Over my 20+ year climbing career I have been turned around countless times due to unsafe conditions. I am accustomed to dealing with the “no summit blues.” All of the common axioms were a part of my long developed alpine mentation:
“The summit is optional but coming home is not.”
“The mountains make the music, we simply listen.”
“It’s about the journey…not the summit.”
And yes, all of this is true, but when I broke the news that we wouldn’t be able to summit, there was no cute little quote that would quell the disappointment the group clearly felt. As much as we had tried to frame up the possibility of not touching the summit, this was still a massive body blow to the group. Tears, frustration, disappointment. We all felt it. For many, it was just another one of the many obstacles that was keeping them from completing the ever-elusive “summit.”
Then the magic happened. The team requested a participant only meeting. All the leaders were asked to step away.
Thirty minutes later we rejoined the team and listened to them request an opportunity to venture up, as a complete team, to this high point — to go as high as they could. To lay eyes on this piece of unsafe terrain and to feel the power of the mountain and let it judge them for who they are. To conclude that they had done nothing wrong in this journey and to confirm that they had done everything right.
Then I knew we had done our work. We had set the table appropriately. We had invited our guests and they had joined us for a lengthy feast. The appetizer was good: It wet our appetite and made us hungry for bigger things. The main course was delicious: We took in all of the miles and smiles and felt full. But alas there would be no dessert. The cake would not be served. We wanted to end on a sweet note but would instead have to reflect on the fact that our bellies and souls were full. We had feasted.
On September 11th the team climbed up to my same high point, took a look at the bergschrund and 60 feet of ice and said, “Yep, I get it. Don’t want any part of that.” Although there was still disappointment within, the team had now faced that barrier and looked it square in the eye.
I heard stories of how each of the team yelled out names of their friends, fellow warriors and family that had been lost or deeply affected by the events of that day 14 years prior. Powerful, to say the least.
My best bro and longtime adventure partner, Erik, is a founding father of No Barriers. From the beginning, the tagline has always been “What’s Within You Is Stronger Than What’s In Your Way.” I know that’s true most of the time.
But sometimes 60 feet of melting, unsafe ice IS in your way. And it IS stronger than you. And it IS blocking you from reaching your desired summit. And it IS NOT moving.
This is a fact of life.
When we encounter these immovable objects, it’s critical to be resourceful, look for work-arounds and think outside the box. Then, once we have exhausted all alternatives, we have to come to grips with it. It’s not that I’m OK with it. I just have to acknowledge its existence. It’s not going anywhere. But we are. Moving on. Setting our sights on the next summit. The next objective.
And so we climb on.