Tobin Seagel: A Return to ClimbingWednesday, February 1, 2017
Taran’s voice was calm, but his tone was serious.
“OK, well we’re a little off-route right now, but with any luck this will take us to the top. Just don’t touch that flake … that would be bad.”
I moved delicately, carefully navigating around the flake, which would’ve likely dislodged and cut my rope if I bumped it.
We were near the top of a Toblerone-shaped piece of rock the size of a high-rise. Four thousand feet below, we gazed at the car lights streaking along the highway as the sun began to set. Looking in any direction we could see the tooth-like peaks of the North Cascades, and the golden light of the sky contrasting against the growing darkness over the highway in the valley. We were supposed to be on the narrow side of the Toblerone, but somehow we ended up on the face. The exposure was unnerving and for the first time that day I felt a bit scared. This was my first season alpine climbing in over ten years and I was struggling to figure out if I still fit in.
I grew up on the side of a ski hill in North Vancouver, which my parents used as a baby-sitting service most days after school. As a teenager I took up rock climbing and traveled to international competitions and climbed all over the world. These experiences gave me an opportunity to break free from my middle class upbringing and see the world through a dirtbag lens—and for the first time in my life I had something to love besides skiing. I competed against people like Sonnie Trotter, Chris Sharma and Tommy Caldwell—good people, all of whom even then were doing noteworthy ascents. But eventually my love of skiing pulled me back to the snow. When I quit climbing competitively, I left the sport entirely to put all my energy into skiing.
I filled the next ten years with chasing powder and going on ski mountaineering expeditions to places like the Saint-Elias Range, the Alaska Range and Baffin Island. I was out of the climbing scene, and hardly kept an eye on what was happening. But when I did open a climbing mag, I’d see that friends like Sonnie had turned into seasoned pros and done some inspiring climbs, and that lit a spark inside me. But I was hesitant to get back into it; fear of failing, atrophied muscles, getting old—I had all the excuses down.
It wasn’t until a friend of mine pretty much kidnapped me this summer and took me climbing that I eventually got back on rock. It was hard. It was uncomfortable. It sort of sucked to suck at something I used to do everyday … but I was hooked again. With each passing day, climbing became a bit more enjoyable again, but the crags had gotten way busier than I remembered them. I missed the camaraderie I’d found on ski mountaineering trips. I wanted to get into the alpine.
I bumped into my ski friend Taran Ortlieb at the climbing gym, and I guess I had never asked, but it turned out he spent his summers climbing. He kindly offered to take my weak fingers and shaky legs out to the crag. We started out with a few days of sport climbing and had a lot of fun. We talked about skiing and climbing goals and bullshitted about life. He helped me bridge the two sports and find the friendship in it that I was missing. Though I maybe should’ve become a little stronger first, we quickly jumped into some trad climbing, and soon after alpine. My first trad lead this decade was pretty sketchy. Taran checked all my pieces after I lowered off the anchor and told me I had basically soloed the route. Lesson learned.
Soon after, we set our sights on Life on Earth on Mt Habrich, five 60-meter pitches of amazing granite high in the alpine above Squamish. I dropped a cam on the first pitch (and later bought beers as a penalty) but redeemed myself two pitches later by pulling off a tricky lead. It was mildly scary and I had to try pretty hard, but it felt great to send the pitch. Standing on top and looking out over our hometown felt so good. It was one of the finest climbs I’ve ever done—the situation, exposure and climbing was superb. I wanted more. Taran was keen and so I planned to get more up to speed (read that as better at placing gear—and not dropping any) and go for a bigger trip at the end of the summer. It felt good to have something to work towards.
When the time came to go, the weather was looking best in Washington Pass, so we packed up the truck and hit the road with two racks of gear, a couple of ropes, and more chocolate covered pretzels than two people should ever have (damn you Trader Joes!). We warmed up on a few routes on the pristine granite of Liberty Bell and North Winter Spires. Taran still had to tackle all the hard pitches, but it was great to be up there and getting back into it.
We saved the longest approach and most involved climb of our trip on the Wine Spires for the last day. We hauled our packs onto our backs well before the sun came up, skipped across a precarious log over a river and then grunted up the three thousand vertical feet to the bottom of the spire. In classic alpine fashion the route description was loose at best so we got lost on the first pitch. The next five hours of climbing went much better. Nice exposure on the route, followed by comfortable ledges for belaying. It was fun and things were going pretty smoothly. When we finally got off route again near the top, it almost felt good to have to work for it a little harder and get a little uncomfortable. Topping out felt that much better.
As we sat on top and watched the sun slip behind the westerly peaks, I reflected on my time as a climber and especially the past 10 years away from it. I can’t tell you exactly why I took that much time away from climbing. I’m not sure I feel the need to climb the hardest routes that I can again, but I want to have the movement and friendships back in my life.
One thing I learned is that skiing and climbing have one thing in common: it’s not important how hard the route you’re climbing is, how good the conditions you’re skiing are, or how big a grade you climb.
It’s all about friendships and how you carry yourself in the mountains. Because how you carry yourself in the mountains is how you carry yourself in life.
I’m looking forward to next summer’s climbing adventures. In fact, we’re already starting to plan them from the skin track.