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

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