Sunday, February 24, 2013

A Breed Apart

On the sliding scale of interesting things that happen in the world, the recent meteor blast over Russia’s Urals ranks pretty high, at least from the perspective of a distant observer who does not count himself among those who were injured.  As an event that is over a week old by now, it has largely passed now from the newspapers and become a distant memory.  Curiously enough, a large portion of the media coverage was not focused on the physical science aspects of the story or probing the inherent questions of our mortality as a species.  (Anyone seeking a brief but sobering overview of the planet’s impact history could do worse than Bill Bryson’s treatment in A Short History of Nearly Everything, with his implied and express conclusion that our time is imminent—at least on a geologic timescale.)  The media rather turned its attention to the important question of why so many Russians captured dash-cam videos of the meteor blast.  See  The short answer: dash-cams have become a necessary defense to living with the worst drivers on the planet.  As the above-linked article points out, “Russia’s motorists are a different breed.”

I cannot argue with the Washington Post’s position.  I spent a couple of years between graduate school and law school living and working in New Jersey at a time in my life when I was an active climber.  I was a member at my neighborhood climbing gym, where I met Dimitri.  Dimitri was a solid climbing partner.  We were well matched and spent a lot of time together on plastic in the gym, on rock at the Gunks, and on ice from the Catskills up to the White Mountains.  Dimitri was well connected with the Russian ex-pat community in New Jersey, a community that was, as near as I could tell, made up exclusively of computer programmers and climbers.  As a result, it was not unusual to find myself on climbing trips with a number of Russians, often car pooling.  On those occasions when I found myself in the passenger seat, I quickly learned that, to the Russians, there was no gap in traffic too small to accelerate through and no excuse not to pass no matter the absence of passing lane or sightlines.  We would pull up at the Gunks, my forearms warmed up and ready to climb from having spent the entire commute gripped tightly to the grab handle.

But truly it was not just their driving that established the Russians as a different breed.  These guys could suffer.  Case in point: ice climbing in the White Mountains.  Dimitri and I set off from New Jersey to New Hampshire one winter with the goal of climbing Pinnacle Gully on Mt. Washington, a popular ice climb up the highest mountain in the Northeast, a mountain made famous for being the location of the highest wind-speed ever measured on the planet.  After a day spent climbing waterfall ice in the vicinity and a night spent in a nearby hostel, we woke up at 4 am, commuted to the state park visitors’ center, shouldered packs, and set off on the approach hike to Huntington’s Ravine.  It was cold.  The air temperature was -20 F, and the wind picked up as we worked our way up the approach trail, feet chilled inside double plastic mountaineering boots, bodies draped in down.  The last part of the approach was exposed to the full brunt of the wind as we crossed the open ravine to the base of the climb’s first pitch, a rope-length’s worth of steep ice. 

We dropped our packs, slid into harnesses, attached crampons to our boots, and started flaking the rope.  We were interrupted by gusts of wind that would grab hold of anything unanchored—packs, a helmet—and send it sailing back down the slope we had just hiked.  Everything needed to be tied off and anchored to screws hastily sunk in the hard pack snow, not sufficient to hold a fall but able to keep our gear from disappearing into the open bowl below us.  I was chilled.  More than chilled, in fact.  We had stopped moving to rack up, and stowed the down to be hauled up in climbing packs.  My hands had numbed and it was difficult to maneuver harness buckles, rack quick draws, tie knots, or otherwise do anything useful.  While living in Fairbanks, I had spent time walking to and from school at forty-below.  I took climbing trips to the Alaska Range, deep in winter, finding ice that shattered with a single tool swing, brittle from weeks of sub-arctic conditions.  I was cold on those trips.  It was unavoidable.  But I had never been as cold as I was standing at the base of Pinnacle Gully, face in the wind, pack flopping like a prayer-flag from an ice screw.  The wind was crushing my spirit.  It hurt to move my arms.  I could imagine no fate worse than having to actually start to climb, alternately draining blood from my hands and arms with each over-head swing of my ice tools on lead or standing motionless on belay, slowly paying rope, trying to focus on my partner rather than my shivering, tied off to a pair of screws and unable to stomp my feet to generate warmth.  I passed an internal barrier in the waiting, overcame my reluctance to let my partner down, and bailed.

“Dimitri, this is fucked.  I’m too cold.  I can’t do this.”

This is never an easy statement to make.  Climbing really is a partnership, two people, tied together, one unable to proceed without the other.  Ideally, when conditions are bad, you look each other in the eye and silently reach agreement: we’re out of here.  Neither lets the other down; both want to turn tail and head for warmth.  You’ll never find that ideal climbing with a Russian.  No matter how bad conditions are, only one of you will quit.  And in fact, Dimitri was ready, eager in fact, to soldier on.  Luckily, another party had arrived, a group of three, and similarly started preparing to climb.  By matter of coincidence, Dimitri recognized one of the three, a group—as it turned out—of Russians from New Jersey.  Computer programmers.  Dimitri digested my failure and came to a quick resolution.

“Ok, give me minute,” he said, and trotted across the bowl to consult with his countrymen.  In climbing, two teams of two move more efficiently than a single team of three.  Dimitri made the arrangements to join with the other three Russians, none of whom thought it was too cold to continue, all of whom embraced the suffering.  “No problem,” Dimitri said, returning from his consultation to grab his gear, “I’ll see you back at the visitors’ center.”

And that was that.  I hiked back out the approach while the four Russians roped up and started the ascent.  I imagine they had a good laugh at the soft westerner, bred and raised weak, afraid of the cold.  No matter.  Before long I was tucked back into the trees, protected to a degree from the wind.  And I was moving, heart pumping, blood flowing.  I started to warm, my spirit rising with my core temperature.  I ultimately settled into the visitors’ center, unprepared for a day-long stint of inactivity.  I read and re-read every brochure I could put my hands on.  I found a magazine, read it from cover-to-cover too.  I ate my trail food, drank from my thermos, and tried to nap.  And in time, later than expected, Dimitri and team appeared back at the visitors’ center.

Am I disappointed to have missed the climb?  Not really.  Among them, one team member dropped an ice ax, unable to maneuver it in the cold, the tool skittering off into the void below the climb.  The wind was hammering the Alpine Garden (as the area atop the gully is known), creating whiteout conditions.  Bodies went numb.  They struggled to stay standing, knocked by gusts of wind, as they tried to find the descent.   No one looked good as they came in out of the cold, eyes turned within, skin tanned like leather, bodies stripped of all moisture by the wind.  They suffered.  But then they would have had it no other way.  Just another quality day in the mountains for four programmers from New Jersey.

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