I do it for the Rope Team

It’s a stormy day in May and my climbing partner Chris has just pulled through the route’s crux, an ice chimney on Martha Couloir in Rocky Mountain National Park. One of those spring days when persistent rain showers have soaked all of the rock among the towns of Colorado’s Front Range, but up here in the high country the winter snows are hardening into alpine ice, so we’re wearing crampons and swinging ice tools.

The ice pitch was the wildest lead of my life — as a vicious updraft blizzarded on us from below, then brief pauses in the storm allowed the upturned snow to again obey gravity and pummel us for a second time in spindrift avalanches from above. I clawed my way delicately from one ice tool and crampon placement to the next, neurons firing, a terrified but calm smile on my face. I placed ice screws to attach our rope, our lifeline, to the mountain and cowered as waves of snow from all directions washed over us. I have been gripped while climbing many, many times, but this was the first time conditions were so ridiculous that I collapsed into hysterical laughter as I pulled onto easier ground. With the route’s difficulties behind us, we untied and I coiled the rope, with only a well-earned fist-bump and long slog out to finish our climbing adventure for the day.

I am supremely happy. These are the days I live for; this is why I climb. These #RopeTeam missions into spectacular alpine arenas, these climbing contracts that are created when you physically tie into one end of a rope with another human being attached to the other end and a few widgets in between connecting you to the mountain. Climbing does not give me an adrenaline rush akin to whitewater kayaking or skiing. It is a slow, cerebral pursuit, allowing time to analyze risks and to process fears, to weigh likelihoods and consequences. Your actions and decisions mean the success or failure of the #RopeTeam, where success is defined as the ability to climb another day.

There is a ritual that takes place when you and a partner tie into a rope at the base of a climb. You check each other’s knots, confirm harnesses and belay devices are proper, and take a deep breath before launching into the vertical world. “On belay?” “Belay on.” “OK, climbing.” And the #RopeTeam contract has begun. You each trust that the sum of your parts has created a #RopeTeam greater than the whole, where your fears will be overcome through your partner’s courage, that shared suffering and a synergy of skills will be enough to get you up the climb. You trust that you have each prepared for the challenge before you, that your bodies are fit from years spent in the mountains, that your minds have overcome similar barriers before.

There are stretches between climbs, when the rope lies neatly coiled in the corner, and “real-life” work gets done. These are the interludes, the times when I plan with whom and where my next #RopeTeam adventure will occur, when I dream of mountain paradises to be visited and experiences with friends to come. From the comfort of home it’s easy to forget the frozen fingers and toes, the hunger and thirst, the exhaustion and the moments gripped with fear. It’s easy to forget all of that and convince myself that I really do love climbing. But deep down I know why I keep coming back: I do it for the #RopeTeam.