I started rock climbing in the early '80s and took to it as passionately as skiing, the sport introduced to me by my parents, and the first endeavor in which I pursued as a profession. Climbing was still a fringe sport and climbing gyms hadn't evolved yet. From bouldering anywhere I could find a rock, and routing at Horsethief, to nailing in wood blocks to the side of the barn and early first ascent-mongering at Pete's Pile, Mom and Dad were as supportive as one could hope. Our local crags were made up of basalt, and many areas blessed with loose/crumbly rock, but the moss-covered zones made up for it. As we increased our skills we spent much of our time pulling on the welded tuff at the now-famed Smith Rock, which had dozens of moderate routes to climb, an actual guide book, and was only two hours away from our home dirt.
I was living in Washington state, working at Crystal Mountain as a ski instructor for the winter. In the Spring of 1986, my father and I planned on a climbing trip together to Leavenworth, to climb the famous Outer Space route on Snow Creek Wall. Our collective sense of adventure drove us to upping the "roped together" ante, so Dad drove up from Mt. Hood, we loaded up my Toyota SR5 and blasted toward Leavenworth, and the famed Icicle Canyon. The granite of Northeastern Washington is of Yosemite quality and only a couple hours from my apartment. The game was on.
Dad and I had shared a few ropes together, but we had never shared space in an epic.
Icicle Canyon is amazing. Steep, granite outcrops soar above old growth timber. Wild. Raw. Perfect for our souls. Snow Creek Wall is just inside the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area, which includes the Enchantments and Mt. Stuart. Big country. Sierra big. We bouldered and top-roped a few crags along the way to whet our appetite. The next morning we hit the trailhead, early squirrely, knowing full well that we were in for a long day. The hike in took longer than expected, but the air was crisp, the sky azure blue, and the stoke level high. The deep forest eventually gave way to granite outcrops, and at one twist in the trail, our goal came in direct view: Snow Creek Wall.
With each step we took toward the wall, the granite seemed to rise higher, wider and more intimidating, eventually taking up our entire viewing screen. Upon arrival at the base of the cliff, there was a group in front of us, so we decided to start on an alternative 5.8 opening salvo called Remorse. There was an easier alternative, but a brief discussion turned our eyes to the right and we quickly dropped packs and begun unfurling ropes and organizing gear. Gear fondling, or Advanced Gear Fondling as we call it, is one of the rituals of climbing. How you rack your gear (carabiner gates in or out, right or left twist), is as individual as one's shoes or choice of music. Or wine. Or whatever. We were soon racked and ready. Knots checked and double checked, a last-minute motivational high-five, and I was soon moving upward toward the top of the first of six pitches.
The first lead was harder than I had expected. It was a short but thuggy left-facing corner. Awkward and strenuous. Protection at the crux was not a slam dunk, and I fumbled and fidgeted, while trying to look smooth and confident. Although short in length, the 80-foot pitch took more muster and technical fortitude than planned. I was secretly afraid that I had made a bad choice. Dad floated up the first half without a problem, but at the crux, where a thin jam and long stem were required, he fell. My belay stance was a bit sketchy, for in order to find solid anchor placements, I was to the left of the hard corner. His fall pulled me off balance, and I was soon pulled to the end of my anchor. Never in doubt of our safety, but an awkward and strenuous start to our climbing day for sure. I was indeed "remorseful" at choosing the pitch, but we managed our way past it, skootched along a sketchy traverse on sloping ledge to finally gain the start of our granite desire. With a slight pause, a bit of extra time to re-rack the gear, we were ready to tackle Outer Space.
The next pitch was a fun and relatively easy 5.7 that ended under a big-capped roof. It was a great way to get our "battle legs" underneath us as well. From a comfortable and protected belay, we were now looking at the crux of the climb, and the move that I had the biggest worry about as it was rated 5.9. Its actual rating was 5.9+...some would call it soft 5.10. Although well within my comfort level, the grade was at the top end of what Dad had ever climbed. Like stepping out of an open window from a tall building, or opening the Bombay doors, the crux move took me out of the roof and onto the exposed granite face of Snow Creek Wall.
Exposure is exhilarating and nauseating at the same time. As a lead climber, I learned to keep my focus on the move in front of me. Look for the sequence to the next rest zone. Don't let the exposure catch up to you. Once at a safe spot, look around and enjoy the view. During the heat of the battle, use laser focus and peel away all unnecessary thoughts. I set up a bomber belay in fear of Dad struggling with the hard crux move. He took his time, pausing several times as he approached the hard move. He was out of my sight, but I could tell from the tension on the rope, he was closing in. When he finally went for the move, he danced it. I could see the struggle on his face, but he pulled onto the vertical and onto the belay ledge like a 5.9+ climber. Awesome moment.
We were now on a perfect granite wall, with a perfect hand crack in a perfect wilderness setting. Everything was perfect. I was enjoying the moment and taking in the exposure. Trees start to look like not-trees when you are hundreds of feet above their tops. You start to feel like you are a part of the mountain. On the mountain. In the mountain. We are the mountain. As I started to grab gear from Dad, re-racking for the next pitch, I noticed that he had moved away from me a few inches. Then a few inches more. He was sitting on the ledge, with feet dangling, looking out into space. He was now too far from his anchor point to be safe, so I told him to scoot back toward me. His eyes caught mine, big as saucers. It wasn't fear that I saw. "Are you OK?" I asked. Silence. Wide eyes get wider. "What's the problem?" I asked.
"I'm afraid of heights," he says somewhat calmly. Fear of heights? What? We are 400 feet above the ground, we had climbed other multi-pitch routes before and this never came up. Vertigo. It's a real thing. His head and vision spinning while on a ledge as wide as a dive-bar countertop, with only a string holding us together. Climbing is a game where you can learn much about yourself. And others. Fear can be terrifying or motivating. It can freeze you in your place, or act like a cracking whip to get you going. Dad was experiencing the former. He couldn't move. Maybe more embarrassed than fearful, but paralyzed by our position in space. My job as an outdoor educator gave me insights to fear and some tricks to fool it. I had helped many skiers face steep and icy slopes and taught new climbers how to lean back on the rappel rope, but never had I faced my own kin, the man that brought me into this crazy world, nonetheless, to overcome such a powerful force.
I had to Outward Bound my own father. Regaining eye to eye contact, I made sure he was looking at me and not the abyss. I talked to him about the gear I was racking, the belay setup, how he was to take it down and what the remainder of our climb looked like. He was sheepish, but I got him to refocus. I rigged up his belay device, paid out 10 or 15 feet of rope, looked him in the eye and said, "I am climbing"...and off climbing I went. I was never in doubt of his ability to finish the climb. I simply wanted him to enjoy it. Enjoy the climb. Enjoy the position. Enjoy the moment. And I was praying that my words of encouragement and commitment to moving upward was all that remained to keep him "in the moment." The last pitches of our route provided some of the best climbing moments I have ever experienced anywhere. Anytime. Classic. Sinker hand jams. Slotter finger jams. Perfect placements for our climbing gear. Holds so solid you felt like nothing could pull you off the wall. Knobs so big you could sleep on them. Well, not really that big, but sizes ranging from doorknob to dinner plates. Dad climbed with fluidity, confidence and expertise on every move. It was the perfect experience, and he was the perfect partner.
We summited the route as the sun began to dip low on the horizon. Pink, orange and purple hues soon gave way to grey. We took a couple of photos, swigged our remaining water and quickly began to look for the decent path. We knew we were in a race against time but had to maintain our cool as it is often on the descent that accidents happen. Climbers' trails are particularly scant by nature, often not resembling trails at all. Zigzagging around trees and through rough rock, we slowly made our way down. Modern cairns are a nuisance and often unneeded or unwanted, but the few we found kept us on the right track, at least until darkness set in. With no headlamps, I thought it best to set up our ropes and rappel through the trees for safety. Brilliant idea to keep Dad safe, I said to myself, knowing full well that there could be a cliff drop somewhere below us. We finally hit the treeline and could hear running water below us. This was the cliff drop I was worried about. I picked up a rock and hucked it into the void. No report. I picked up a bigger rock, making sure not to launch it too far. Still no sound. I set up a final rappel hoping that I wouldn't land in the creek or in some bizarre technical scenario with my father and no headlamps. I eased into the rappel, slowly walking my feet downward, and with each move the sound of water became louder. Eight feet below I landed on a large, soft platform. Eight-foot rappel to a flat, mossy floor. We both shared an exhausted chuckle.
We were down off the cliff but had no way to access our packs as they were at the base of the climbing route, so we decided to hunker down for the night. Did I mention we had no headlamp? Somehow, I magically had a book of matches. There were only three matches in the book. More of a short story than a book I guess. We collected moss, some nearby twigs and leaves, a few strands of cotton thread from my climbing shirt, a small wad of TP and the match book itself. We both considered ourselves Outdoorsmen, and even with only three matches, we felt confident in creating fire. First match fizzles without a flame. Match #2 briefly combusts into flame then dies an early fizzle death. Last match. Last attempt at fire. Last chance. There is no failure for those who keep on trying. Success!
With our climbing ropes as a makeshift mattress, we huddled around our small fire, doing our best not to shiver each other awake throughout the night. The darkness in the mountain forest is surreal. Pitch black. Just like outer space. Mice were frequent visitors to our small flame and would wake us often throughout the night as a reminder that epics typically don't include a restful night's sleep. If we had other visitors from the wild, we were none the wiser. At dawn, I sprinted up toward the cliff base to retrieve our backpacks, where a first aid kit, cigarette lighter, headlamp and extra food spent a lonely night in the Snow Creek darkness. Critters had chewed their way into the food bag, but they spared us a few mini bagels and cream cheese, which seemed a fair trade for our unannounced overnighter. As this was a time before cellular phones or internet as we know it, and the nearest landline phone was in the town of Leavenworth, still an hour's hike away, and 30-minute drive down the Icicle Canyon, we crammed in the last of our mouse-nibbled food and followed the well-worn hiking trail back to my truck.
We arrived at a breakfast spot, and I ordered food while Dad made the safety call to my mother, who had also spent another sleepless night wondering what sort of trouble her boys had gotten themselves into.
The infamous trip to climb Outer Space was one of the most memorable moments of my life. I was sharing time in the mountains with my father, climbing on impeccable granite on a route so wonderful that all climbers should experience it. I was young, but gaining experience as a professional, comfortable on the rock, eager to explore and willing to share my love with others. My parents led me toward the mountains, but it was the mountains that chose me, and for that, I will be forever grateful.