Summer Camp

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

“Are you scared,” I asked?

“No,” came the shouted reply from behind a granite bulge at the far end of my rope.

“I am,” I admitted. “Belay On.” When you’re feeling breathless at nearly 14,000 feet, economy of speech is easy to master.

I had just improvised an anchor by jamming wedges of aluminum into cracks in the rock while trying too keep my grip on the wet, slippery, lichen-covered surface. I tied myself into the anchor and wondered if I was still on route. The small patch of western sky that I could see over my left shoulder looked menacing and we had nearly 1000 feet of climbing left to reach the summit of Longs Peak. Much of it would be easy, unroped scrambling, but a thunderstorm could make things much more dangerous and slow. It looked like we were in for some more suffering.

For the past few years I’ve indulged my passion for climbing mountains. Each summer my daughters go to their respective camps – acting camp, music camp, dance camp – and I take a trip I consider my own camp, a climbing camp.

I prepare for my camp all year, just like my daughters do, with long hours of practice. And there are a lot of skills to practice for traveling over steep mountain terrain. I’ve learned through guided instruction how to traverse glaciers, how to arrest a slide down a snow slope and how to use a rope to protect steep terrain on rock, snow and ice.

Day trips and weekend outings to Devil’s Lake, Taylors Falls, Luverne, Sandstone, St. Paul and The North Shore help me prepare for the bigger trips. But when the climbs get longer, so does the list of required skills. Decisions that are unimportant at home can make the difference between success and failure on a bigger climb. Judgement becomes paramount for safety. And when you aren’t yet adjusted to the altitude, it becomes hard to move skillfully with good judgement. So that’s what summer camp is all about, practice.

Practice and suffering.

Before the engine cooled from our long road trip to Colorado in August, we already felt nauseated and lightheaded from the 5000 foot gain in altitude. The first day we pushed up the 1000-foot east face of the Third Flatiron in Boulder, surprised at our lack of stamina. On the summit we felt sun-baked and exhausted, but victorious. We easily managed the rappels, hiked back to the car and completed our first day, by driving further up the mountains, finding a place to camp, setting up the tent, cooking dinner which we choked down against our continuing nausea, and finally collapsing into our sleeping bags for a fitful night of sleep. It was a good day!

The rest of the week was more of the same with victories, failures and more suffering. Each day we’d call home with our report: “Today we couldn’t finish the last pitch of The Owl because it was too hard and we got too dehydrated and we had to escape off the route.” “Today we carried our climbing gear 15 miles along the continental divide and never got to rope up because we got hit by a lightning storm and had to bail out by hiking across a broken train trestle.”

There are lessons to be learned through suffering, though. Especially when the suffering comes voluntarily. Suffering unlocks the secrets of your soul. Suffering unlocks the secrets of the world. Suffer, and you learn you can run a marathon. Suffer, and you can master a violin passage or make a pirouette look graceful. Suffer in small, regular doses and you begin to accept it, to embrace it, to need it. Eventually you realize you haven’t been suffering at all and your mind is transformed to see beauty where you once felt pain. You begin to see opportunity where you once were blinded by fear. Accept a small amount of suffering and your mind will open and allow your creativity to flourish.

When my partner reached my belay 6 pitches up the Keyhole Ridge on Longs Peak, we decided to go down instead of up. For the next hour and-a-half we escaped the route by a combination of lowering, downclimbing and rapelling. When we unroped, still high on the Keyhole Route, the sky opened, pelting us with sleet. We finally reached the trailhead with open minds and happy hearts, despite our failed summit attempt, at 7pm. We had climbed for 16 hours. We had suffered, but more importantly we had discovered; we discovered new abilities and new emotions. For the small price of some voluntary physical suffering, we discovered that the soul can grow larger than the body. We had discovered another great day in the mountains.


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