New Terrain


"Putting up" a new rock climb out here on the west coast of Canada is a dirty and hazard filled business; along with being hard work. I have not had an expansive career of climbing new rock routes; but there have been a few notable efforts. One named "the Ardent Heart" in the Ghost river area on the east slope of the Rockies. It is a serious climb up an eight hundred foot face that Brian Spear, Keith Haberl and I climbed through several rainstorms one day in the summer of 1999. We pulled one out of the hat that day, applying skills we had spent 20 years gathering.

            The intriguing, and frightening part of new routing is that the is risk is higher. There is loose rock, unknown severity in movement difficulty or ability to secure the climbers to the cliff. The face above is uncharted and therefore, relies more deeply on the ability to route find, assess and accept what the rock is trying to say, and then to listen. It is a balance of pushing forward into the unknown and staying grounded in safety. All out do or die efforts are not what one is ultimately looking for, if one wants a long climbing career.

            This week Lyle Fast and I took on the task of a starting a longer project. A 250 metre or a 750 foot face in Strathcona Park on Vancouver Island. It is not finished, but it is the process that I find fascinating. We started by eying the line from every possible perspective in order to concentrate our effort in the desired direction. We picked out landmarks, trees with dead tops, rock features like overhangs or a white patch we called the pac man. We created a language.

            Then, having the exact equipment we needed, I started up the rock, pulling moss off to find hidden holds below. The drill slung over my shoulder, so I could drill bolts to protect myself as I moved up the rock devoid of cracks for other protection. I climbed only forty feet up, but was pleased with my effort for the day. There were some difficult moves and I was organized, calm and measured: one part of me always in the safe zone. At the height of forty feet I sensed that it was becoming a game with much greater risk than I was willing to accept. I descended and felt pride about my measured effort.

The next day, we organized ourselves to come in from the top. The aim was to get belay anchors drilled and knock off any loose rock we could from the safety of being above it. One could think that this process is the coward's way. It is less risky, but it still requires courage, skill and awareness to manage people in a wild environment: recognizing hazards and applying gathered wisdom. There was still an element of unknown as we slid down our ropes into uncharted terrain. Vertical chess, managing ourselves so as to not get "taken" from something we failed to see.

            We found what we came for, a climbable line that offers us a chance to practice the craft of setting up a new climb. It will be much more work than I anticipated and may take all summer to clean up and prepare for others. However, this is the way things are going in my life right now. I seem to be in a place where I am being asked to enjoy the process, instead of the destination. Lyle calls it being a "Good Ancestor." He likes to make a contribution to future people, in whatever he does. I get that.

            I discovered, at the end as I got to a point just above my ground up effort, that my intuition was spot on. Just above my high point I knocked off a huge loose rock that had I touched it on lead the day before,  could have had disastrous consequences. This was my gift to myself from our two-day effort. Confirmation, without a doubt, that I made a good decision. Listening is a skill that is critical in risk environments.

             From the outside, taking risk in the mountains may seem foolhardy. People have asked why about climbing since the beginning. My answer is that climbing has saved my life a number of times. As a youth it gave me focus, passion and direction that rescued me from depression and a sense or purposelessness. Over the years it has taught me to keep moving through the difficult bits and find life beyond them. It has instructed, and still coaches me in resilience. There is no death wish, only an understanding that my life must be lived with one foot in the unknown, and the other, well planted in safety and self-love. The the sweet spot for growth to occur is to traverse into new terrain. This is true of my adventures, love, and my relationship with myself.