Thursday, March 5, 2015

Back In The Saddle Again

When I was a kid we played the card game Uno a lot.  When somebody plays the same color or number as you, you can get rid of your cards during your turn.  Sometimes, however, somebody will change the color or number and you will have to pick up cards until you have a card to play just as you thought you were winning.  When this would happen in my family growing up, the smug players who thought they were about to lose would sing 'back in the saddle again' to the poor possessor of a fresh hand of cards.

As those of you who read this blog know, it has been a while since my last entry.  This is because I have been working on oil rigs, and while there are many things I learned in the oilfield – some very beneficial - most of these things I would rather not have known or seen or smelled or lived. Therein lies material for a completely separate blog.  Maybe for a book.  But I do not care to think or write about that which I have lived, for it is over.  Oil prices took a big downturn, as anyone with access to TV, internet or a newspaper and a remote interest in why gas is so cheap right now will know.  I knew the signs from watching the fishing industry begin a downward trend. 

I had been talking to a company out of Canada that did seismic guiding.  When I got the announcement that our rig was going to be laid down (stacked in the company yard) I leapt and accepted the seismic guiding job, even though it was only a month long.  I would spend the month of February walking the steep sides of Canyons of the Ancients with Mexican crews, picking up geophones (stakes in the ground connected to a battery and transmitter box with a long wire that transmit seismic information about what is under the ground), putting them in bags and hooking the bags to helicopters. 

My last night in Williston the sky put on a show.  I walked over the frozen ground to put the cheater bars I occasionally use to break apart a tool in the back of the Toyota Tacoma that I now own outright.  My co-worker Jeff was putting a pulser in his truck to take to the shop in Dickinson the next day.  I noticed something the orange color of a gas flare out of the corner of my eye.  I looked up to see strips of light suspended and shimmering in midair.  “Wow, Jeff, look, I think it’s the northern lights!”  We both looked up.  Trucks went by on busy 1804 and our breaths were visible in the subzero air. 

            The lights were closer and lower than an aurora.  There was movement in them – they hung and shimmered a hundred feet in the air, warm and orange like the gas flares on wells already drilled.  “It must be the flare reflecting off the suspended frozen mist.  Like an ice fog.”

            “Yes, it’s probably foggy and the fog must have frozen tonight.”

            “It gets like this in Jackson when the snowdust is suspended, but it’s sunlight that reflects on it.  I’ve never seen it at night.”

            I walked back along the edge of location towards my half of the MWD living trailer.  The ribbons of shimmering light hung vertical all around the rig.  Was it some sort of alien invasion?  They made me feel vaguely unsettled, but they were eerie and beautiful at the same time.  My mom believes in signs and fate, two subjects we disagree on with regularity.  I am not superstitious, but it was not lost on me that it was my last night in North Dakota after a long journey towards paying off debt, securing my finances, and giving myself a leg up into the life I wanted to live in the mountains.  Strange beauty when I was not even looking for it, in a most unexpected place.  As I moved in and out of my trailer, packing up the clothes, weights, ulu/round cutting board, pictures of my fiancé and cat, organic bathing products and leather slippers I have carried from rig to rig I accepted the shimmering slivers of reflected light as a gift for my long journey through the outer limits of exhaustion and frustration.  My plan had worked.  I was debt-free save part of one student loan and heading towards a life I had made and not just away from the big money of the oilfield and the burdens of my past.  My step became light on the ground frozen firm.  I was leaving.

Between Billings and Bozeman I drove out of winter and into global warming.  Sloppy gray clouds hung over the hills south of Livingston.  It made me want to cry, because that gray was the color of ice melting.  Home was not much better.  Our winter started pretty powdery and has been good up high, but the valleys were sad and melty too.  I unpacked my stinky-petroleum clothes for the last time in our storage area, repacked for Colorado, and drove to Cortez to meet the crew.  The mornings were early and triple safety meetings redundant, but the crew was dialed and full of jokes and good humor.  The job, and the people doing it, opened my eyes to the work available with rope access certification and a new aspect of the guiding world. 

The very best thing about that month in Cortez, though, was the sense that I had emerged blinking into the sun after a long journey underground.  Working long days in the canyons in hard terrain, sitting in trucks spitting sunflower seed shells and watching movies on someone’s iPad on standby or joking with the Mexican crews in a mix of English and Spanish – it didn’t matter so much what I was doing, but where I was doing it and with whom.  Sunlight shone on our faces and on the thousand year old ruins of the canyons.  We were laughing.  I was so grateful to be among people who did not value dollars and material status symbols above the health and movement of their bodies and the amount of time they could spend in the mountains or climbing areas once more. 

At the end of the job I joined a co-worker and two other women for climbing in his hometown of Ouray.  The ice park looked dull and melted.  Where did we go, my third day climbing this winter?  A nice easy water ice 3?  Oh no no.  We went to the Hall of Justice - one of, if not the hardest, mixed crag in the country.  My co-worker had done most of the bolting there.  I proceeded to get spanked on the climbs he and his climbing partner used as warmups. 

It was not bad.  It was a starting point.  The movement was fun, but my strength was not there.  I tried hard and got good and pumped.   One of the women who was climbing with us that day said she was headed to Canada and was renting a house for a lot of people near the Icefields Parkway.  We got along well.  Just like that, I pointed the red Toyota towards Jackson and my sweetie once more to prepare to climb as much ice as I can in the next couple weeks.

So here I am, on the eve of departure.  In the oilfield I watched Facebook and knew that out in the world people were climbing.  During last year’s missed Alaska season I knew people were at fourteen camp, melting water and waiting for a weather window.  Climbing past seracs onto golden granite and summiting via different routes.  In the summer I knew people were bivied on alpine routes, watching the stars move against granite towers in the warm night.  In the fall I knew dirtbags who smelled like chalk and sweat were poised like spidery dots up on the cliffs of the American southwest.  And in the winter, people were chasing pow and ice in our melting warmed-up world.  It was like a train that I was watching go by, the lone climber in the flat fields of North Dakota wishing I could hop back on.  Finally, through work so hard I had to prioritize sleep over exercise (and not getting much of that) for almost a year, I got to the place where I was able to step away from this imposed stillness.  I recognized that train when it came through, and I jumped on once again.  I am not at my former peak as a climber, but these years in the oilfield have removed the burdens that were holding me down before.  The best I can do is to start where I am and keep climbing.  Though I want to despair and beat myself up for being so out of shape and losing so much time I must continue to show up every day.  That’s how it’s done.  That’s how I will get back to that place.

I have a hand full of cards and time to play them.  I am so, so tired.   But I am free.

Sunday, February 16, 2014


Chad Kellogg died.
I saw it on Facebook, posted by two people I know from Seattle.  I didn’t know Chad, but I had met him before a slideshow meant to raise funds for his 2013 Everest speed climb.  I was visiting Seattle, deep in preparations for a climb of Mt. Huntington, knowing I was not quite eating at the grownup alpinist table but not sitting with the little kids, either.   It was one of those weekends in a city I called home for 3 years and darted in and out of for another 3 when I realized I could not possibly revisit everything and everyone I loved in the span of two days, so had to cut it down to the basics.  I showed up early for the show, talked to Chad about who we knew, drank a glass of wine and ate some of the tasty appetizers, saw some other climbing friends, and left to hang out and do some planning with my Alaska climbing partner. 
This was the extent of my time knowing Chad, but I knew his accomplishments.  I knew that he had come up as a fast climber on Rainier and other Northwest routes.  He had worked for one of the same guiding companies I still work for when not caught up in the oil patch.  He started as a young ranger and guide, and kept pushing himself, kept setting speed records, until he was operating at a higher level during the time in life when many people back off and focus on careers or have families.  He found a woman who was also a driven, intelligent, strong climber and athlete and married her.  She died in Alaska while rappelling a route.  He kept climbing.
This post is actually about how I and others learned of Chad’s death.  I was sitting at work, watching the Directional Driller make a slide that would allow us to rotate (drill) at a whopping 30 feet an hour, when I saw the post on the page of the Seattle climber.  Facebook is, sadly, at present a big part of my social life.  I am out here, sitting in the belly of the beast of industry most days, learning to steer the front of the machine that makes holes in the ground.  I briefly pop up in Alaska, walking down the street still defensive and sarcastic from life among rig workers, way too happy to be free and made strong enough by weight training and from spending all my days off sleeping in the lonely camper shell of my Tacoma at the base of various ice waterfalls and parking lots of rock areas.   I have my feet in different worlds, and feel like the weird sister in both of them.  This outsider’s perspective, however, allows me to make some observations that some people miss, or are afraid to say when they seek acceptance and validation from only one social group.
Don’t post someone’s death on Facebook before a family member does or a press release is issued.  Just because you know someone from a place you climbed or camped, met someone at a slideshow or after party, or in some other way peripherally interacted with him/her does NOT give you the right to announce the end of his/her life.  A relative of Chad’s said as much on a comment thread under a picture somebody posted: please don’t post for a few days.  Let the family be notified.  When someone dies in a foreign country, social media allows this knowledge to travel faster to those who are connected to it.  These people are not always the people who are closest to the person who died.  Chad Kellogg had gained fame with his bold and fast ascents.  Part of fame is a shift from being a private individual to being a public figure.  People who have not taken climbing to the level Chad did often feel some sense of ownership and belonging by posting announcements and achievements related to this person.  The public figure’s story becomes owned by the public.

Death is the end of this story.  The last year of my life was heavy with death, up, close, personal.  I see my closest climbing friends backing off from climbing by choice this year for their young families.  I am wrestling with that same question now, and the answer is pointing in the opposite direction despite all my fears that this means being alone forever.  Climbing makes me who I am, and I have played in the big arena just enough to know that at the core of the public figure well known climbers become is the private core of who they really are.  Extending out from that is a constellation of people whose lives are inextricably tied to that core person. Death takes it back to that.  You know in your heart, as you hear the sad news and want to write that post because you are in the know, because you want to inform the community, that giving those core people closest to the deceased climber the space and privacy to grieve until there is an official announcement is the respectful way.  It is kind.  Death is permanent.  There is time.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Rules Of Finding Sweet Ski Town Housing

front porch view of paradise

So…you are planning to move or just showed up to Jackson Hole/Vail/Telluride/Mammoth/Big Sky etc.  Here are some rules to make finding a place to sleep besides the back of your vehicle a little easier (unless that’s what you are going for):

1. Arrive a month or more in advance of the ski season.  There is a magic time between when summer seasonal workers take off and winter gets in gear.  The papers will be (relatively) full of rooms available, and landlords will be more willing to work with you when the supply of rooms is higher than the demand for them.  If you are looking for a place as the snow is falling, you are too late.

2. Use a variety of resources to find housing. There are housing available ads in the paper.  Find out which day of the week new ads are posted, and get the paper early in the morning of that day.  Start calling people right away and reserve that day for going to see potential housing.  Remember, a dozen or more other people are also going to be calling the same new posting.  You have to be aggressive.  Local radio shows often list housing available that isn’t in the paper.  Listen every day.  Also, don’t wait for the housing to find you - take a proactive approach.  Put up a sign at local coffee shops or libraries with your phone number on little strips people can tear off.  Make a drawing or something creative or funny on this sign to catch peoples’ eye.  Put an ad in the paper.  Go on the local radio show and advertise that you are looking for a room. 

3. Please, PLEASE don’t assume (or worse yet financially plan) that you are going to walk into a caretaker position for some rich person’s house.  This is a long shot.  You are probably wasting your money if you put an ad in the paper stating you are available for this kind of position.  People do this, yes, but usually only after building a reliable reputation and references within that ski town.

4. Have first, last, and deposit for a room in your price range saved up and put aside.  This is a lot of money for most people, but it will broaden your options.  If you end up not having to pay F/L/D, sweet!  New skis!

5. Try to have a job lined up before you arrive in town.  People will be more inclined to rent to you if you are already gainfully employed.  This one is not always possible.  In that case, if you are planning on renting a place with 4 walls, running water and heat and not living in your car, have F/L/D and one month’s rent saved up on top of that.  It is a lot of money, but will be worth it in the amount of stress you save.  If you can’t get that much money together, try to hustle as soon as you get to town.  Do anything - work with the temp service (or as a flagger, a leaf-raker, construction site cleanup person, etc) – to get a little money together in case you run out before you get your first paycheck at the winter job you find once you arrive in town.

6. Prepare a small card to leave with potential landlords.  It could be a handwritten card.  Include your name, job if you have one, and two or three housing references.  This will make you stand out from other potential renters.  Little do they know you will soon be doing kegstands in the living room, muhuhaha!

7. If you can secure housing through work, do it, but beware of mixing work and pleasure.  If employee dorms have a no drinking or no drugs policy, you might end up screwing yourself out of a job AND a place to live if you choose to violate these rules (seriously, you think you won’t?).

8. This is one time when networking – however distant – really pays off.  Your mom’s co-worker’s sister’s daughter moved to Big Sky?  That girl one grade below you who was in outdoors club with you for 2 trips in high school now lives in Jackson?  Get those phone numbers, or better yet, those Facebook contacts, and introduce yourself.  Meet and offer to buy this person a beer or coffee when you get to town.  They might not have a room available, but will probably know someone who heard that someone’s buddy does.

9. Be deliberate – and choosy – about the kind of environment you want to live in, even if it seems like the only option at the time.  Are you in a ski town to party your ass off (YAGER BOMBS!!! WOOHOO!!!!) or to be an outdoor professional (like you’re not going to drink yager bombs)?  Be as up front about it as you can be to your potential roomies as possible.  Want to do a job where you are going to be waking up at 4 to throw bombs or work the breakfast rush?  Don’t live with people who are just going to bed at that hour.  Want to be the other guy?  Don’t live with people who are going to be constantly pissed at your party habits.

10. IF YOU DON'T KNOW YOUR ROOMMATES, DON’T PUT YOUR NAME ON THE LEASE.  Oh, did you miss that?  DON’T PUT YOUR FUCKING NAME ON THE LEASE, especially if your roomies are a bunch of (bong-ripping PBR shotgunning pallet burning) partiers.  At the very least, co-sign the lease with your other roomies.  If it is only you on this legally binding rental agreement then when holes get punched in walls and the bonfire in the backyard gets out of control and the cops show up, you will be the one responsible.  When someone loses their job or runs out of money in the middle of the winter, you are still responsible for the entire rent, subletters or no.  Having people point in your direction or your roommates ditch because you don’t have anything in writing is pretty much the biggest buzzkill possible in the housing game.

i am worth the trouble
11. Consider leaving your best four-legged buddy at the home of your parents/aunt/brother/friend.  Leave this person an abundance of food for your furry friend and make sure they have a good way to reach you if your buddy needs to go to the vet.  Always pay vet bills incurred in your absence.  If you find housing that takes pets and you want to be in town for more than a season, take a trip back when it’s convenient and get your dog/kitty/rabbit/chinchilla etc.   If you cannot leave your furry buddy with someone, have a pet deposit (I have seen people ask up to $200 for cats and $500+ for dogs) ready to pay along with F/L/D.  This tip can seem too sad for some, and I myself have broken this rule for 10 years.  It has made things harder for me in the way of housing, but has been worth having my kitty friend Juniper along for the ride!

12. Think about spending a bit more for a totally sweet place.  Hot tub.  Walking distance to the lift or bar.  Huge living room.  The difference in cost between having an awesome place to bring the party back to (or start it off) might equal out to money spent out on the town.  Also, consider all the free beer people will bring to/leave at your place.  Plus, when you are done for the night you are already at home.

13. Try to pick a place with an entryway/tile floor/heated garage where snowboards, skis, skins, helmets, ropes from ice climbing, and all your clothing can drip all over the place and dry.  It might be sunny and 65 degrees when you show up, but that house with nice carpeting or hardwood floors is going to get messy in a hurry when the season revs up to full speed.  Things hanging outside on the porch will not dry.  They will freeze.

14. If you are going to cram as many ski bums as possible into one house/apartment, MAKE SURE THERE IS ENOUGH PARKING.  There is nothing worse than having to shuttle half the cars to the public lot every night or waking up to pissed off neighbors or a tow truck or boot on your car when it’s a powder day and/or you have to be at work.

15.  Make sure there is a washer and dryer.  If there is not, pool your money with your roommates and buy them used.  Split between 2-8-however many people a used washer and dryer are not that much money. They will save you time.  They will save you money.  And if you and your roomies do not have to go to the laundromat when it’s a powder day every day to wash your clothes and sheets your house will smell a LOT nicer.

1. Trust your gut.  You read it right.  It should be #16, but it is in fact the #1 rule of finding shared housing in any town.  If something feels shady or uncomfortable, trust your instincts.  Don't let desperation or discouragement lock you into a situation that you know deep down is going to be wrong, sketchy, or dangerous later.  This is especially true if you are female and get weird vibes from male potential roommates or are very uncomfortable with anything illegal that you know will be going on (cough cough).  Don't put yourself in a bad situation when the door is wide open to walk out of it and into a great one.

I am sure there are many other tips I could give for finding ski town housing.  In closing I will say living in a ski town for at least one winter is totally worth the trouble.  Some of the rules on this list are ones I have not always followed, especially the ones about having a bunch of money saved up for moving expenses.  It has been harder, but I have gotten by.

bottoms up bitches
Don’t wait.  If the mountains are calling, go for it, even if you don’t have a pile of cash saved.  Show up with a willingness to work hard and play hard, don’t expect any freebies, keep your eyes and mind open and don’t be a douche.  Things will work out for you.  May your days be full of sunny bottomless pow and your nights full of good people, good food, woodstoves, bonfires, hot tubs, and an endless supply of high quality beer.  Happy hunting. 

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Pay Attention

headed for new ground

            Sometimes a phrase gets caught in my head and plays over and over again.  Out here in the Frack Lands of NoDak I do a lot of repetitive exercise in places where the scenery is, shall we say, less exciting than my home in Jackson or my second home in Seattle.  The phrase pay attention has been the one on repeat of late.  Part of this is due to the excellent book I am reading on the advice of my friend Matt, The Rock Warrior’s Way, and a fair amount of cross-referencing in other works I have read recently.  I don’t have to tell all of you who practice yoga or do other sports which require a high degree of presence that this mindfulness brings unexpected rewards, a new awareness of the beauty and problems all around us that we miss when we walk around on auto-pilot.
exciting scenery in Watford City, ND
I have found as I venture further into guiding and into the oil industry that this phrase also applies in the working world.  The more I focus on whatever task is at hand – rock rescue, the downhole workings of an oil rig, how to fix my car, how to train for ice climbing – the more I get in return.  I earn more interesting guiding assignments, higher-paying oil jobs, no labor bills from a mechanic , off the couch performance – all from clicking away from Facebook and towards the YouTube how-to videos, by picking up and deciphering each step in written manuals, by asking co-workers or climbing partners to explain something else.   Pay close enough attention and you will get to the meat of how things work.  This will give you the confidence to act on that knowledge (for those females who have mastered your fear of working on your own car, you know what I am talking about!).  
Attention is a commodity, arguably the most important one you can cultivate in an age of that offers you the choice of constant electronic connection.  Attention is something scattered, blown to bits by omnipresent screens and their shiny promises of fleeting distractions.   The distractions offer brief, reliable bursts of emotional response that we no longer get from each other.  We don’t need to.  We have brain candy, a mental diet of little sugar highs.  We never have to be bored again. 
We must re-teach ourselves how to pay attention, those of us still interested in learning after leaving the educational institutions set up for this purpose.  I have stopped saying I cannot afford something, because if I really want to I can borrow and afford most things.  I will not afford more education through debt.  Another degree will not solve my problem of how to get out of debt and learn how to live so I never have to be beholden unto these lending institutions ever again, only postpone this.  Most things taught in a school you can learn yourself.  You can earn that knowledge just the same outside the institution.  The price is focused attention.
We are living in a very different age than that of our parents.  Perhaps a few from a generation that still had pensions and job security and living wages realize that the math doesn’t add up for their 20 or 30-something offspring, but most don’t.  It’s easier to blame us, because that’s easier to understand than what is actually going on.  It also has an easier solution: quitcher bellyachin’ and pull yourselves up by the bootstraps, kids.  They think it is our refusal to start at the bottom, not realizing that the bottom is all most workers can look forward to for the length of their careers.  There are a lot of articles going around about how we are the entitled generation, a bunch of self-important children who grew up with trophies for participation who want high paying jobs without doing the work.  Let me tell you: the world has changed.
 People didn’t always have to take out 20 to 50 to however many tens of thousands of dollars to get a degree.  A degree does not necessarily equal a job, and once taken out student loans are there and you cannot declare bankruptcy on them.   “So what happens if I just stop paying them?” I asked one day to the customer service representative for the company that manages my own student loan.  After several minutes of ‘we try to make your lifetime of debt slavery as painless and affordable as possible so you don’t default and we can keep milking you for interest’ she responded that if I defaulted on my loans my degree could be taken away, any professional licenses that depended on that degree could be revoked, and my wages could be garnished by the IRS. 
I remember my incredulity when I, after two years of temp work and a hesitant willingness to try the ‘working in offices’ path (my mother once told me that if I had ‘worked in offices’ my whole life, I would have everything I needed by now.  I thought where are these mysterious offices?  And what would I do there?), I was offered a job for the whopping sum of 13 dollars an hour with an outdoor clothing company in Seattle.  Really?  How will that pay off my student loans?  How will that allow me to get a mortgage, let alone pay one, for any kind of property in the city of Seattle?  Where is the American Dream?  You can borrow it.  You can buy it with credit cards.  A lifetime of debt is normal, said my family.  Your student loans will always be there, now Buy A House, because that will make you an adult.  Five figure credit card debt is normal, said some friends.  As you get older you get more. 
The belief that you must accept debt is bullshit.  You should get out of debt as quickly as possible.  Banks make money on interest from your student loans and your credit card and your car loan.  They make money off the fact that you get to have those nice things that you have been told you need and that everyone else has right now.   The interest you will end up paying is hours of your future life sold.  It is money you earn but don’t get to use to run your own life, to stay healthy by buying better food and getting outside (of those mystery offices?) and moving, to work less and do more.  I don’t need to tell you this, but I am, because this is my blog for things that matter to me and I am fucking mad as hell that I listened to the voices of family and a few peers telling me what they thought I needed and fell into the trap.  My oilfield work is undoing my mistake: I bought in.  And I want out.
Anger is a motivating force if harnessed at a problem and not, as so often happens instead, at another person or group of people.  Refusal to accept diminished circumstances is the basis for the biggest changes and most inspirational stories we know.  Good enough is not good enough for me.  It’s about time I stop being vague about my motivations and intentions for this oil patch business and share the hard truth of my current work project alongside all the effusive posts about ice climbing and danger and beauty.  Today I just got confirmation that I will soon be starting a much more time-consuming but lucrative job on rigs in Pinedale, Wyoming that will effectively end my guiding career for the unforeseeable future but will allow me to climb out of the debt hole I am in.  Hell, it will allow me to live where I can see a mountain at all, where I can climb or ski without first driving six hours.
 With MWD  (Measurement While Drilling), there is room to advance on the rig, and therefore that valuable attention I was going on about could actually earn me more money for a change (which is what any other MWD will tell you, because everybody knows EVERY SINGLE MWD EVER is going to become a Directional Driller.  Probably next year. I am serious – ask one sometime).  This is something mudlogging will never offer me.  I have the wrong type of degree (not geology), and therefore am not allowed by the company that contracts the one I work for to be the wellsite geologist who steers the well.  I am working in the oil industry mainly to pay off debt, but stagnation in any form still bothers me.  
This next step is a mix of sacrifice and gain.  I am sacrificing time, valuable life hours and days and months, all in one chunk instead of letting my debt fester like an untreated wound for decades, siphoning away my life energy in monthly increments, narrowing my field of possibility.  I am paying attention, and finally have put my life in a pattern in which I have a shot at earning my way out of the trap.



Tuesday, October 8, 2013

How Stanibaby Zee and I got our PhD's in Being A Badass...from Harvard

NOTE: This blog post is a twofer, as it will also appear at some point on MSR's blog. But as I see no reason to re-write the story of this adventure, here it is:

flying down I-94
The voice over the phone was nervous.  I was barreling down I-94 somewhere outside Miles City, Montana, going about 90 on my way to the Bakken oil patch and already tired.  I was telling my climbing partner Stanislav (known in some select circles as Stanibaby Zee), who had just completed a bone dry ascent of New York Gully on Snoqualmie Peak in Washington, about the hip-deep powder my friend Tess and I had found on Teton Pass.
i think you have a powder problem
“I’m worried you are skiing too much and not climbing enough ice.  I don’t know if you will be adequately prepared for Huntington.”
This worry voiced in his familiar Russian accent made me the kind of mad that promotes a flurry of training.  Up at work in the oilfields I ramped up my workouts.  I camped for days at a time in the back of my truck in Hyalite, Montana throwing myself at leads on mixed routes.  I worked through the fear and climbed into the long days of spring until all the ice fell down and I was ready to leave for Alaska.  
training in Hyalite
Stanislav greeted me at his apartment in Seattle, and we proceeded to buy beers to drink while doing our final packing for Huntington.   We were as strong as we were going to get.  We didn’t know if our training and preparation would be enough.  He had climbed Denali three times, including Cassin Ridge,  and I the Southwest Ridge of Francis and guided several Denali trips, but this was the biggest undertaking either of us had tried.  Gear spilled out over the floor.  Five screws with screamers, a set of nuts, a single rack of cams to 3 with doubles from .5-2, a 9.8 60 meter lead rope, for the aid pitch, an 8.1 tag line/spare rope, a BD Firstlight, an MSR Reactor, spare pick each, light puffies, extra gloves, and sleeping bags.  We had lists of lists.    
back in the day (at 14 camp in 2010)
He dropped me at the airport as he had so many times in the various states where we had climbed and traveled together.  Ours was a friendship begun on Denali in 2010.  I was on an expedition with two friends from Jackson.  We were the first team on the glacier that year, along with a Russian who had climbed the mountain solo before and was now going for the ‘triple crown’ – Hunter, Foraker, and Denali.  No one had soloed all three peaks in one season. We kept skiing by his camp as I wondered just who this mysterious badass Russian soloist was.  On the third day of our trip a serac fall avalanche off Mt. Hunter knocked our team of three over and buried our legs while skiing up to the Mini Moonflower.  At the same time, an avalanche carried Stanislav 200 feet down a lower slope of Foraker which resulted in a broken finger.  We all decided to team up as two teams of two, and thus began our partnership.  That year he earned a reputation as the ‘worst soloist ever’ – and completed an ascent of Kahiltna Queen with Bojan, one of our Jackson team, a visit to the North Summit of Denali with me, and an ascent of the Cassin with a guide named Kelly from Colorado who he met at 7800 camp.  We had climbed together since that expedition all over the United States, but had not returned to Alaska together.  Until now.
That's What She Said
Stanislav arrived in Anchorage.  Our friend Lewis, who used to climb with Stanislav in Bellingham and whom we had both hung out with in the endless weather days at 14 Camp in May 2010, helped shuttle our dirtbag asses from store to store in his bright red minivan.  The forecast looked amazing.  We arrived in Talkeetna in the morning of our departure and promptly registered with the Parks Service.  They were not surprised to see either one of us, as we were familiar faces on Denali.  The ranger did not find as much amusement as Talkeetna Air Taxi did in the expedition name we registered under.  The people in TAT’s office chuckled as they registered us as expedition “That’s What She Said.”
Access Couloir
We left the green world of Talkeetna springtime and donned our headsets in the DeHavilland Otter.  After a spectacular view of our objective and a smooth landing on the Tokositna we moved into someone’s camp platform, set up our tent, and slept all night.  
We got a start at the crack of noon the second day on the glacier.  The bergschrund was our first obstacle, but a guided party climbing the West Face Couloir had wanded a clear path over the broken moat of ice.  We had to sidestep a significant distance to reach the base of the Access Couloir.  Firm neve perfect for crampons and hero sticks with our ice tools greeted us, and we simul-climbed quickly up this section.  In the lead - 10 pitches according to the book - I placed a grand total of 5 ice screws.
From the Access Couloir we gained the ridge.  Stanislav led up a mixed bit and onto some snowfields.  We stopped
to brew up at a little platform kicked out at the base of a sheltering rock before the crux pitches began.  The weather was still quite good and warm in the sun as we kicked our way up to the Spiral.  I racked the rock gear with great glee.  “Stanislav.  My dream came true.  I was afraid to say it in case I jinxed myself, but I’m gonna do this with bare hands.”
“That’s what she said."
the Spiral
The Spiral was everything I expected: legit 5.9 in crampons.  The movements were protectable, pumpy, and fun, and the rock was indeed kitty litter at the top of the pitch.  I hauled the packs and then belayed Stanislav up.  I re-racked and set out on the mixed pitch that the book had said was C2.  I climbed through the ice and rock moves and reached a slightly overhanging crack with three big orange pins hammered into it.  I studied it for a moment, clipped a pin, and yarded up on it until I could get a good hook over the edge.  Hauling the packs proved strenuous.  We moved over some easier mixed ground.  Stanislav took the next steep mixed pitch, an M5 chimney with a continuous runnel of ice in the back.   I watched him disappear into the chimney from my protected belay spot.  I heard him as he worked through the difficulties, but did not see him until he emerged on a ledge far above me.  He brought me up.  I led on in the snow that had begun falling as the Alaskan twilight wrapped our world in a blue-gray veil.  Spindrift poured down from above over golden rock that disappeared upward into cloud and storm light.  We climbed step after step of rock, finally reaching a highway of ice that led us up to the Nose pitch at last.
the only night the tent got used on the whole trip
We pitched our Firstlight on a small ledge other parties had chopped.  We melted water and fell immeditaly to sleep after setting up our camp. We slept tied into our harnesses and sliding slightly towards, or at least aware of, the abyss all night.   Daylight greeted us as we awoke, brewed up, ate, and started moving once more.  Stanislav styled his way up the aid lead on the Nose pitch.  As I belayed his lead up the tiny overhanging crack threading up the wall I recalled our days practicing our
aid climbing in Leavenworth in a slight drizzle.  We were ready for this.  So far our training had paid off, though I still despised jugging up the line after his lead.

am i pondering the mysteries of the universe, or dreaming of beer and sleep?
The belay station for this pitch was crowded, difficult, and had stunning exposure.  Below us the Tokositna glacier flowed past Hunter, which towered above us across an open expanse of air.  The next section was a spicy run-out mixed traverse that I dispatched with the knowledge that our mixed difficulties would soon be over.  Indeed, we were happy to return to neve and ice.  We joined the West Face Couloir route at this point and climbed to the top of it and over onto a traverse into a cave.  A sea of solid golden granite soared above, riddled with splitter cracks.  Were this mountain not in the heart of the Alaska Range it would have hundreds of routes on it.  We climbed up into the cave.  The snow floor was the flattest place we had seen since the ledge below the Nose.  We brewed up, took off our packs, and dozed for an hour before continuing.
Stani, with the first mountain we climbed as a team in the background
The thing that makes an Alaska Grade 6 route a Grade 6, we decided later, was that it just keeps going.  We found out why the Harvard Route had earned this grade as Stanislav led out over the mixed entrance to the upper icefields.  When I got to his belay stance I sensed his fatigue, grabbed the handful of screws from him, and continued the lead out over incessant 50 degree slopes.  Swing after kick after swing after kick after swing led us higher and into new realms of exhaustion.  We had been moving for over 20 hours.  Tired muscles were a laughable inconvenience.  Our raunchy sense of humor had gone out the window hours ago.  It was replaced by a care for each other and tolerance of each others’ eccentricities when very tired that I have only experienced between seasoned alpine partners.  We had seen each other stripped bare before (that’s what she said).  We knew when to step up, step in for the other.  Stanislav told me when to eat when my blood sugar tanked.  I grabbed the rack when his energy waned.  So it was we arrived at the gateway to the summit: an overhanging snow cornice.  
“Do you want to lead this, Stanislav?” Oh please say you do.
Grumble. You wouldn’t say it if you didn’t mean it.  Time to rally.
oh shit am i leading this pitch?
International summit success!
I set a screw in the last of the ice before the overhanging snow, stared at it for a while, whined like a baby kitten, then with a feral war cry sunk my mixed picks as far as they could go into the bottomless sugar and swam, groveled, and swore my way up to the relative safety of low-angle snow.  I flopped over like a fish and kept on going.  The sun was bright in the sky.  I belayed him up on a hip belay seated one rollover below the summit.
We summited this peak - the hardest summit to reach in the Alaska Range - together while each in our own unguarded moment of emotional release.  A dream realized.  All our work, all our planning and training, our rambling phone conversations

while commuting to work, all the road trips, the ice climbs, the desert towers – we needed to live all of it to stand atop Huntington as a solid team of two individually strong climbers.  We were surrounded by a sea of peaks.  The golden granite slopes of Denali soared in the distance, marking how far we had come since our first climb together.
gotta get up to get down
In Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums, the character Japhy Ryder (a thinly disguised Gary Snyder) tells the protagonist that when you ‘reach the top of a mountain, keep climbing’.  This applied on Huntington.  We had been awake and climbing non-stop for 23 hours.  We still had to get down the sketchy overhanging cornice and many, many snowfields, a process that would ultimately take us seventeen more hours.  One scary unconsolidated downclimb, several v-threads, armloads of tat, one found ice screw, one exhausting sunny traverse and many, many v-threads later found us at the base of the West Face Couloir, getting drenched.  
A rapid warmup had turned the route into a running stream.  We rapped fast but in control, wanting to get out of the way of the ice pellet avalanches the heat was releasing from the upper mountain and away from the path of potential rockfall.  We had climbed the route just in time.  As I slid down our icy ropes to the slings of the last rap station I found the multicolored webbing was now in a running stream.  With incredulous resignation to our situation I clipped in.  Water ran down the sling to my harness, down my leg, and into my boot.  I gave a thwarted laugh that came out like a little cry.  I was so tired.  I croaked out a hoarse ‘off rappel’ and stared ahead into another Alaskan twilight.  We hadn’t used watches for the climb – as I told Stanislav at the airport in Talkeetna, we were on the mountain’s time – so I did not know the hour.  I had been seeing faces in rock – something that only happens when I am deeply exhausted – since the cave.  
the dream team does it again!
As I had on the summit snowfields, Stanislav had a burst of energy.  He took the lead making a path down the vast snowfield, mechanically kicking and swinging as I followed his bootpack.  Less than 2 hours later we were staggering on the flat trail back to camp.  We were vibrating with exhaustion and adrenaline after forty hours of climbing.  We drank the four Sockeye Red beers that we had brought and power-ate a party size bag of Lay’s potato chips.  We crashed out and awoke to some whiskey generously offered by the small party that had formed in the Posh House next to our camp among a guided party and some personal climbers from Jackson.  
Ask this guy how he really feels about the isothermic snow...
...then ask her.
For the next eight days we climbed…nothing.  The Great Alaskan Warmup  - my name for the warming trend each year during which all the snow gets isothermic and useless for walking – had begun during the last raps of our climb.  We started walking down glacier for some objectives on the other side of the Tokositna, but the crevasse bridges were too spooky with the punchy snow.  We got a flight bump over to Base Camp and tried both the West Ridge of Hunter and Southwest Ridge of Francis, only to find bottomless sugar on both routes.  We ended up eating all our bacon and junk food and drinking all our single malt far too soon.  We camped above but in sight of the runway, sitting on folding chairs with footrests lording over the masses of people waiting to fly out from Denali’s West Buttress.  People Magazine and other reading material generously lent by Basecamp Lisa, our highly refined and extremely mature sense of humor, and the company of some good-natured ice core scientists from Dartmouth got us through this too-warm week in good spirits.  We had sent our objective.  And there was always next year.
lording over the peasants of base camp
do you think we ran out of bacon?

the dirtbag herself