Tuesday, May 31, 2016

High Infatuation: A Climber's Guide to Love and Gravity

There are Adventurers. And then there are ADVENTURERS.

I fall into the former category: Adventurer with a capital "A". I'm comfortable in the mountains. I can survive without a shower for ten days, and I don't mind sleeping on the ground. I'll shoulder a heavy pack over a steep mountain pass, and exalt with joy when I reach the top. I believe a little hard work is worth the effort, and I don't mind breaking into a sweat. Whether that means emerging at the summit of a pass or at the top of a climb, time spent outdoors, for me anyway, is one of the simplest pleasures in life.
Hanging Out Below Forester Pass
 Hanging out in camp below Forester Pass, Sierra Nevada, CA

But then there are ADVENTURERS: those who scale the world's highest peaks. Daredevils who ski off ninety degree precipices, bounding over virgin terrain with the grace of flying trapeze artists. BASE jumpers who soar like eagles over forested valleys at the speed of light. And rock climbers, forced to test the limits of their strength when facing the crux of a vertical wall. Dangling at heights of over 1,500 feet, or even (heaven forbid) ropeless, these types of adventurers make my trek over The Three Passes seem like a baby crawl.

When we shared a teahouse with an Everest-bound group in Nepal, my husband Tom summed it up best: "There will always be people with more demanding goals than yours and people with lesser ones." I resort to this nugget of wisdom time and time again, reminding myself that I need to be content with where I stand; I must find my place in the grand scheme of things.
Summiting Island Peak, Nepal
Climbers approach the summit of Island Peak (Imja Tse), Nepal

But I'm a fool for mountain lore, and the great ADVENTURERS are my heroes. For example, I just finished reading Steph Davis' memoir, High Infatuation: A Climber's Guide to Love and Gravity (2007). Steph began climbing in 1991, and since then she's tackled climbs in Northeastern Canada's remote Baffin Island, Kyrgyzstan and Pakistan to name a few; including, of course, some of the most noteworthy walls in North America. Dedicated to her dog, Fletch, the book is sprinkled with quotes from Rumi and B.K.S. Iyengar that set an introspective tone.

"Undoubtedly, the mind is restless and hard to control. But it can be trained by constant practice and by freedom from desire." --B.K.S. Iyengar

Few alpinists are as hardcore as Steph Davis. One of the best vignettes in the book describes her battle with Fitzroy in Patagonia. Poor weather forced her off the mountain so many times, that she obsessed for five years before finally summiting it. When at last her opportunity arose, she partnered up with a German climber, a man she barely knew. He petered out at the top of the climb in miserable weather that sapped his final shreds of strength.

But Steph would not back down, not when she was so close to achieving her long sought-after goal. Her descriptions of the struggle to the summit are spellbinding: ". . . somehow five years have passed since the first time I tried to climb this thing. Now that I'm actually here again, and this close, you'd have to smash my fingers one by one with an ice hammer to pry me off." She attempted to pursue the lead, although her climbing partner didn't follow, weighting the lead rope from below as he must have agonized over his moment of Truth. "The partnership has dissolved into a battle of wills," she writes. "I appear to be at a slight disadvantage, since Philip is on the same team as gravity. I will not let this climb fall apart." Eventually, the two regrouped, summiting Fitzroy in the dark with only their headlamps to light the way.

I'll never approach the spunk of Steph Davis, but if for one afternoon I can accompany her up the mountain, shivering in the wind and blinking the snow out of my eyes as I hoist myself up beside her, then I'll be able to summit the wildest peaks of my imagination.

"Climbing is really great, we all love climbing. But what's interesting to me is what happens in my head or in my life because of it. Ultimately, I think climbing is a vehicle for exploration--of the world, of the self."     Steph Davis

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Keep a Candle Burning

"Mother Nature has devised her own plans for the planet and those plans certainly do not involve a consideration for the longevity of mankind." 

We go about our daily lives, strolling through front doors into the shelter of our comfortable homes, preparing meals in kitchens equipped with running water and refrigeration, and sending our kids off to modernized schools. But when disaster strikes, the things we take for granted can be disrupted for weeks, months, or maybe even years on end. I think about that a lot, probably more than I ought to, but then again I live in California where the possibility of a seismic event is a matter of not if, but when.

Two years ago when we trekked in Nepal, you better believe I sized up our lodging knowing that the relatively young Himalayas owe their very existence to the crashing of tectonic plates. In Kathmandu, our hotel room on the fourth floor gave me a false sense of security. If there’s an earthquake, I reasoned, we may be able to survive the crush of a falling building since we’re staying on an upper floor. But as recent graphic videos and photos of the Nepalese earthquakes reveal, we are nothing but toothpicks that will snap beneath the inescapable weight of tumbling walls.

Mother Nature has devised her own plans for the planet and those plans certainly do not involve a consideration for the longevity of mankind. All sorts of catastrophes wipe entire communities off the map and in spite of ourselves, there’s not a damn thing we can do about it. Oh sure, we can shore up our buildings, our highways, and roads, but when cities rebuild, like New Orleans did after Katrina, there’s no guarantee. When the cycle repeats itself, be it hurricanes, earthquakes, or floods, some urban centers will again suffer setbacks leaving the rest of us to shake our heads and wonder why.

It could be years before Nepal returns to any sense of normalcy, yet I have nothing but the utmost faith in the resilience of the Nepalese. Even in the face of despair stories surfaced about how, in spite of meager rations and looming uncertainty, meals were offered to rescuers arriving with earthquake relief. Life is and has always been characteristically difficult in remote mountain villages where porters transport life’s basic necessities up impossibly steep trails for lack of roads. Although the earthquake destruction is widespread, incomprehensible in fact, over time people will slowly trickle out of tent shelters into their reconstructed homes and children will begin returning to their newly built, relocated schools.

Life will go on in Nepal, just as it has in tsunami-ravaged Phuket, Thailand, or in Port-au-Prince, Haiti where the death toll surpassed 200,000, or  in Joplin, Missouri flattened by a deadly tornado in 2011. The key factor is to never forget the places and people who have been dealt the ominous blow. As my news feeds and stories already begin to diminish about the clean-up mission in Nepal, and people go back to strolling through their front doors into the shelter of their comfortable homes, I’ll make sure to keep a candle burning in memory of those less fortunate than me.

This essay is a reprint from May 26, 2015. Footsteps of Gopal, a memoir of my April 2013 Three Passes Trek, is for sale on Amazon.com. All proceeds from the book sales are being donated to the American Himalayan Foundation to support schools in the Everest region.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Snow Leopard

Peter Matthiessen's The Snow Leopard collected dust on my bookshelf for over thirty years until I re-discovered it in February, 2013, two months before departing for an ambitious trek in Nepal. The book describes Matthiessen's sojourn into Nepal's Dolpo region, "a foot journey of 250 miles or more across the Himalaya." Somewhere around page 5, I grabbed a pen and began scribbling down some notes. By the time I reached page 301, I had recorded over twelve passages that epitomized my own spiritual connection to the mountains.

". . . I feel at peace among these looming rocks, the cloud swirl and wind-whirled snow,
as if the earth had opened up to take me in."
" . . . in the tension between light and dark is the power of the universe."
"I know this mountain because I am this mountain . . ."

                                        Backpacking Trip Kearsarge Pass 2012 067 copy
(One of my favorite places;  below Forrester Pass in the Sierra Nevada)
(Photo Credit: Elaine Pike)

Matthiessen writes that his Zen master urged him to "expect nothing" on his impending trek. With this in mind, I departed for the Himalayas bearing "no thought of attainment" for the completion of my Three Passes Trek.  No Expectations became my mantra as I set off on an adventure largely unresearched in relation to most of my travels and with little in the way of expectation. Whether I completed the trek mattered not, for it was the process of completing the trek that epitomized my experience. Certainly, that pledge proved to be and more difficult as the days trickled by, and my resolve wore down. In the end, however, I discovered that the rewards of living in the moment far outweighed my attachment to any expected outcome.

My memoir, Footsteps of Gopal, is for sale on Amazon. 100% of the proceeds from book sales will be donated to the American Himalayan Foundation to benefit schools in the Everest region.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

When the Early Morning Alarm Rings

In the interest of shutting down my website, elainepike.com, I'm in the process of transferring each of my blog posts to the Blogger platform. From time-to-time (and in no particular order) I'll be posting each of them on The Signs are Everywhere.


I climb rocks. I don't claim to be a daredevil, an adrenaline junky, or anything close. I'm no Lynn Hill, legendary climber of Stonemaster fame. Not Steph Davis, or anything in between.

I'm an ordinary person who knows the clock is ticking. Better get out there and do it while I still can. At 55 years old, I think I do a pretty good job. Not bad for an old gal who, 34 years ago, dabbled in climbing and then took a decades-long sabbatical from the rock. Working out at the rock gym re-honed my skills and enticed me, enticed Tom and Marcus, too.

(There's routes out there with your name on them! What are you waiting for?)

From the moment I toe-up on the first knobby protrusion and rest my chalked fingers upon the faintest edge, it's just me and the rock . . . nothing more. I trust that the rope will hold me. I trust that the rubber soles of my climbing shoes will stick to the rock. Best of all, I trust the integrity of my climbing mentors, who are uber-cautious when it comes to the placement of protection (equipment), and near-experts at rope management, too.

Those two guys . . . they're nobody's fool.

Tom & Marcus at the base of The Wong Climb (5.8 crack)

Generally, a soundtrack runs through my head, propelling me up the rock. It can be meditative, like a Sanskrit chant; soulful like Led Zepplin: "Goin' to California with an achin' in my heaaaaart"; or my favorite indie band, Roger Clyne & The Peacemakers: "Oh what a sin looks like I slept in and I'm gonna be a little bit late . . ."

Last week, when we climbed at Tahquitz Peak in Idyllwild, a cheery Jason Mraz set the tone: "I know, I know . . . it's gonna be a good day!"

And a good day it was!

             "The Wong Climb" at Tahquitz Peak; September, 2014

So on any given weekend when my early morning alarm bell sounds, instead of burying my head in my pillow, I rise. It may seem more appealing to stay home on a Saturday . . . you know, maybe I'll get some stuff done. PSHAW! A 1,000 foot grunt to the base of the climb awaits me. And if that's not enough, I'll be treated to an obstacle course of tumbledown boulders until arriving at the belay station, where after a long and protracted wait for my turn, I'll be able to tie in and go.

"Get your BUTT UP and get OUT THERE on that ROCK!" I remind myself as I reach for the clock.

"Why?" I muse sleepily and yawn.

"Because you can!"

It's as simple as that. Because I can.