Climbing Lessons

This is a story about the consequences of waiting until tomorrow, of not wanting to let go, and of the value of holding on.  These three lessons were all etched indelibly into my soul while plastered up against the face of one rock or another, somewhere in the mountains of Virginia, West Virginia, or California.

Back in High School, I had been an avid rock climber,  mostly in Great Falls Park, Virginia.  The park is a truly beautiful place, with 30-60 foot cliffs all along both sides of the Potomac river.  Climbers drop ropes from above, walk to the bottom, and provide safety for each other as they pry their climbing skills on the various rock faces for miles.  Below, in the river, kayakers can be seen playing in the waves just below the Class-VI rapids that give Great Falls its name.  It was at this place where I developed my early skills in climbing, and first experienced the joys of pushing myself hard, striving always for the simple joy of overcoming obstacles on my ascent to the top of an arbitrary point of earth.

Eventually, however, I wanted to climb higher and harder mountains — to climb places where I could not simply drop a rope from the top, but instead had to start from the bottom, place equipment in the rock during the ascent for safety, and climb in segments of 100′ to 150′ at a time.  This was known as ‘Lead Climbing’, and it was through that process that I would gradually arrive on the summit of something far larger then myself.  And so it was, with a buddy of mine, that we traveled to Pendleton County, West Virginia, to climb Seneca Rocks — a 980′ rock face that stands out starkly from the surrounding area and is a local Mecca for climbers.


At the time, my buddy and I were only just beginning our slow process of learning how to ‘lead climb.’  Between the two of us, we had barely enough gear to ascend the simpler routes, but it was a breathtaking journey nonetheless.  Seneca rocks is divided into two main buttresses, with a gun sight-like formation in the middle, known as the Gendarme.  The Gendarme  is a single spire of rock, maybe 60 feet high and barely big enough to stand on top of at its apex.  It is said that you haven’t really reached the top of that climb until you actually stand upright on its razor’s edge.

In any event, we had already been climbing all day just to reach the base of the Gendarme, and were both tired and at our wits end from the adventure.  We had been climbing at our physical and skill limits, and it was starting to get late.  As much as we wanted to continue up the Gendarme, we also knew that safety and prudence dictated that we head down, and plan on ascending that particular rock another day.

Alas, as so often happens in life, one thing lead to another and prior to actually making it back to Seneca rocks, the Gendarme, that massive piece of rock that had been standing for millions of years, finally fell from the face of the mountain.  In that simple event, I learned my first lesson: Never count on the ability to do tomorrow what you wish to do today.  For if even part of a mountain, a massive piece of rock that had stood for eons could suddenly give way and crumble to dust, what assurance is there that the simpler, more ethereal joys and pleasures in life will wait for the day I am ready to partake of their bounty?

*    *    *

The second lesson, coincidentally, also took place on Seneca Rocks.  This time, however, it was many years later with my younger brother, Darron.  On this fateful day, we were climbing a route which sloped slightly backward, and made its way diagonally upwards to the right.  It was called "Ecstasy Junior."  At the time, the climb was very much at my limit of skill to lead-climb successfully.  My progress was slow and arduous, and fear often trembled through my legs, making basic stability considerably more challenging.

Out of that fear, I was placing considerably more "pieces" of equipment into the rock to assure my safety should I fall.  Unfortunately, there were two drawbacks to my approach.  First was that by the time I was nearing the 70′ mark, I had nearly run out of equipment I could use to continue in safety without a longer run-out of rope.  Second was that many of those pieces were poorly placed in fear,  rather than being more strategic.  That meant that there was a great deal of friction in the rope along the face of the rock.  So much so, that it was now physically difficult to pull the rope any further as I tried to ascend.  Lastly, the wind, shape of the rocks, and distance between my brother and I made communication physically difficult, even with shouting, as we were no longer in line of sight.

The final obstacle was that perhaps 20 feet from the top of the climb, I was completely stuck.  I was nearly exhausted from the effort I had expended, I did not have the strength to make the remaining 20 feet, I was out of equipment to make that distance safely even if I did have the strength, and like a treed cat, I found myself unable to climb back down what I had just ascended.  I had come to the conclusion that I would have to "peel off" of the rock by letting go, allowing myself to fall, and then having my brother simply lower me down from the last piece of protection that I had placed in the rock serving as a pulley.

The problem was that I had placed that piece maybe 10′ below me, and I did not know if it would hold.   And since I was unable to climb back down to that piece to reduce the distance, that meant that when I fell, I would drop close to 20′, (double the distance) and still had no assurance that the piece would not pop out.  If it did, there was another piece an additional 5′ below that which was more secure, but that would still be a total drop of 30′, so I found myself in quite a bind.  I could not go up, I could not climb down, and the most sensible thing (HA) was actually to just let go of the rock and fall.  That negative slope at least meant that I would be falling into free-air rather than banging against the rock, but I simply could not bring myself to let go.

So rather than saving what little strength that I had left and simply pushing away from the rock, I instead chose to cling desperately with my hands to a tiny nub of a hand-hold about the size of a golf-ball.   That hand-hold was big enough to grab hold of when I first pulled myself up to it from below, but it was slowly getting smaller and smaller.  My grip was beginning to weaken, and there was a torrential battle in my mind between logic, which said to just let go, and animal reflex, which said "Not on your life!"  Literally, I was staring at my fingers, and I could hear both voices ringing loudly and clearly in my skull: "LET GO!!", followed by "NEVER!!".  That left me in the position of fighting with myself mentally, and then physically as I kept switching my grip — from clinging with one hand, then the other, and then trying to cup that nub with my palm as my fingers rapidly lost some, and then all of the strength that was left within them.  At the final point, after having exhausted my hands, my wrists, my forearms, and my patience, I found myself with one hand cupping the nub with the other cupped on top of the first, only to watch my sweaty hands ever so slowly slide off of that rock.  My eyes were as big as saucers as I stared in near disbelief that my body could betray me in that final hour with an unknown fate awaiting me below.

At that precise moment when my hands finally slipped off of the rock, I took a deep gasp of air as if falling into a pool and turned my gaze immediately downward to that tiny piece of aluminum 10′ below upon which my life would soon depend.  As if in slow motion, I could see it rise from below as I descended through the air in freefall.  I swear that I got one final look at it as I passed below, now accelerating at 32′ per second, per second.  Despite the terror in my heart, that was only the half-way mark on my descent to the end of my rope, at which point my weight would begin to take up all the slack in the system, putting tension on every piece of protection along my route, focusing probably 800 pounds of force on that thing in the rock made from the same material as a soda-can.

Despite what had seemed an eternity in which I fell in near silence, the rope finally drew taught, the system absorbed its load as it was designed to do, and I heard resounding KA-CHINK as everything came to rest under tension.  Then and only then did I let out that gasp of air I had taken from above.  I was hanging in free space and  I ached with every fiber of my body.  I drew my head close to the rope and expelled a mixture of laughter and tears.  

That was my first "Leader Fall", and it was obviously quite memorable.  However, after it was over, I was still suspended on the side of a rock, and I was completely unable to move my hands from the torture I had put them through clinging to that nub now 20′ over my head.  My brother lowered me down, and it was all that I could muster just to remove  and retrieve the other pieces of protection from the rock as I was lowered down.  In the end, we did not make it to the top of that particular climb, and I had left two pieces of equipment in the rock above from which I was lowered.  It was a small cost for the safety of my life, of course, but in that adventure I learned my second climbing lesson: Do not waste time, strength, or energy trying to avoid the inevitable.  Allow myself the grace and trust to let go, so that my resources will be available to me for recovery rather than wasted on a battle I cannot win.

*    *    *

The third lesson the rocks taught me was in California, while trying to reach the base of the climb for Half Dome, in the Yosemite Valley.  It was many years later, and I was again with my brother who had just graduated from college in Colorado.  We had rented a car and made a fateful road-trip out West with our sights on something really big.  He had heard from a friend that there was a short cut via a series of climbers trails from the parking lot in the valley straight to the base of the rocks.  The alternative was to take an 11 mile  hikers trail up the back side, only to swing around the front at mile 9.

The problem was that we didn’t really know where these trails were.  We found what looked like a trail and started taking it upwards, but soon it petered out and we found ourselves nearly bushwhacking up a very steep incline.  We could still see our destination on Half Dome, so we blissfully told ourselves that we were heading in the right direction and pressed onwards.  It was at that point when I thought to ask my brother what kind of First Aid training he had acquired, since our route was rapidly taking us farther and farther off the beaten path.  I had been trained as an Emergency Medical Technician, but should anything happen to me, that training would be useless unless my brother knew what he was doing.  So as we continued, I proceeded to give him a crash course in first aid, focusing especially on what to do should I become unconscious.  We tried not to think about any foreshadowing involved in learning First Aid immediately before attempting a big-wall ascent, but by golly, he was going to learn this stuff!

We were carrying all of our food, water, and gear on our backs.  Wherever we were, it was most definitely NOT a trail, and as we got closer and closer to the base of the climb, things obviously got quite a bit steeper.  Soon, our steep hike turned into a scramble, and from there it turned into some free-climbing without ropes as we continued on.  More than once, we came to an obstacle and asked ourselves whether we needed to pull out our gear and rope-up to get to the next ledge in what should have been a "trail" but was most definitely not.  Each time, we sized it up and decided "Nah… we can climb that!"  So we took it slowly and made our way up without ropes, since to pull out all of the gear would slow us down considerably, even if it was in the interest of safety.

Alas, there came that one fateful time when choosing to forgo the ropes was the wrong decision.  The section of rock was only about 50′ high, and was full of easy hand and foot-holds.  I went first, while Darron waited below.  At the very top of this climb was a moderate sized tree, which I grabbed hold of as I tried to pull myself up over the top.  The problem was that I still had my backpack on, and it had become inextricably caught in one of the branches.  I had tried to wiggle and pull my way loose, but I was stuck.

Despite the considerable drop, I was really quite calm during all of this.  I was hanging onto a tree branch with both arms, my legs were swinging freely below me, I had a 50 pound pack strapped to my back, and I was unable to move one way or the other.  I remember telling Darron quite calmly that I was definitely stuck.  For some reason, I kept thinking of Winnie the Pooh, stuck inside of the door to Rabbit’s house, unable to move one way or the other.  Darron had suggested simply dropping my pack, except that I would have to hang by one arm, and then the other, just to unclip the thing in the first place.  I was not strong enough to hold myself and the remaining 50 pounds by one arm.

Unlike when I was stuck at Seneca Rocks, this was NOT a time when letting go was an option.  There was no safety rope attached this time, and I knew full well that I did not have the luxury of simply "hanging out" while I figured out what do.  Darron had dropped his back-pack below and began the free ascent on his own to see if he could help, but I knew that he would not reach me before some action on my part was required.  Plus, since he was directly below me, if I did fall, there was a risk that I would end up taking him out with me, so I told him to stay clear.

I pushed and pulled to no avail.  My feet could kick at the rock face, but only managed to toss loose stones below onto Darron, and I was unable to catch any grip or purchase with my feet.  My arms were clearly getting tired, I was breathing heavily and sweating profusely.  The thought of simply letting go had crossed my mind, but that option left zero doubt that the outcome would not go well.  Ironically, my thoughts were really not about my own death.  Instead, I found myself thinking about how horrible it would be for my brother to have to deal with such a thing, and worse, the though that I would not die, but simply be terribly injured in a heap of rubble 50′ below.  So clearly, I was not in a good spot, and I was highly motivated to do something, but I had no idea what to do.

And so I began to swing from left to right with my feet.  I remember Darron asking what the hell I was doing, and in a fit of incredibly deep focus and concentration, I simply screamed at him to "SHUT UP!!".  I knew that my voice was quivering in terror.  My younger brother was clearly worried, and all he could see was that I was in serious trouble, and was beginning to swing from the main branch like a chimpanzee.  Now with quite a bit of arc in my swing, my pack still firmly caught in the branches, I began to kick and hoist my feet upwards like a sit-up from below.  I had no idea what I was doing, except that panic was setting in, I was clinging to the branch for dear life, and squirming like a trapped animal fighting for its life, which in a very real sense, I was.  At that precise moment, SNAP!!!

The branch that had tangled my backpack finally broke, freeing me from its clutches.  It still hung from my pack, adding maybe 10 pounds to my weight as I clung by my arms to the main branch, but at last I was able to kick my legs up and over the branch and pull myself to relative safety.  I quickly pushed myself back from the ledge, still gasping desperately for air and water for my parched throat, but I had managed to extricate myself from the danger.  And it was in  that moment that I came to my third climbing lesson: When you are stuck, continue trying new things…  It doesn’t matter what they are, so long as you keep moving.  When the alternatives are stagnation or death, absolutely all directions are more appealing than standing still.   Most importantly, choose life.  Always and forever, choose life.  But when it came time for Darron to make the ascent, you can bet your ass that I put him on the end of a rope!

Ben Nevis, Scotland

Ben Nevis — the tallest peak in Great Britain, stands at roughly 4,400′ above seal level.  Since the base of the five mile climb is actually near sea level, hikers get the joy of actually ascending nearly all of that elevation.

The hike starts out simply enough — along a flat trail beside a river, sloping gently upwards towards rocky sheep pastures.  The trail crosses over a sheep gate that people can climb, but sheep usually cannot.  Just in case some of the sheep are exceptionally bright, there’s about three of these gates in all.  After the last one, the trail gains a little altitude, and "Fort Williams" can be seen — it’s not much of a fort now, as most of the rock structures lay in ruins.

We are fortunate enough to be hiking in good weather, under mostly cloudy skies.  The air is cool, and we’re wearing just one layer of polypropylene and our backpacks as we ascend.  There’s another smaller peak called Mt. Meall that stands at 2,000′ and blocks our view of Ben Nevis at the start.  We have to climb part way up that before we can really see our final destination.

However, as we reach about 1,000′, the wind begins to pick up considerably.  At first, it’s just a stiff breeze, but as we continue, it gets stronger and stronger, to the point where gusts begin to kick up dust and literally throw us off balance.

To the sides of this rocky trail, most of the hillside is grassy with a few granite boulders strewn about amidst the high and scattered sheep.  The wind can be seen traveling across the surface of the land by means of watching the waves in the grass.  But seeing the waves coming is little help, for their intensity is now such that we have to crouch down or grab hold of a boulder along the trail to keep from falling over.  Despite the growing wind, however, the skies have not changed appreciably — the clouds are clearly moving across the sky, but it’s generally still great hiking weather.

As we reach the half way point, at the saddle between the Mt. Meall and Ben Nevis, there’s a mountain lake between them the size of maybe two football fields.  On finding a 5′ tall rock wall that was constructed for shelter, we hide briefly from the wind to have some lunch.  Despite all the wind, the hike is actually quite enjoyable, and the wind simply adds to the challenge of the ascent.

Leaving the saddle to continue upwards, we can see a pair of long, very steep waterways flowing through multiple ravines on the face of Ben Nevis.  They are not quite steep enough to be called waterfalls, but looking upwards, we can see that the wind gusts are literally lifting the water out of the stream bed and scattering it about the hillside.

So we continue onwards, striving for the summit against what is clearly going to be ever-increasing resistance.  By the time we reach 3,000 feet, the views of the valley and town below are just spectacular.  This is why we hike these mountains — for "the mountains reserve their best views for those who are willing to climb by their own effort to the summits."  (Rene Dumal)

At this point, we are high enough to see the shadows that the clouds cast upon the hills and valleys below.  We can also see the speed with which those shadows traverse the surface of the earth, going over rocks and hills as if they were nothing at all.  Unfortunately, the clouds are also becoming larger in both size and number, and the patches of sun fewer and farther in between.

Starting upwards again, the added resistance of the wind becomes increasingly palpable — as if we were actually walking through water up to our waists, having to force our legs through something we cannot see.  The gusts, on the other hand, make it more like walking through the ocean in that there are waves that keep coming and coming, almost knocking us off our feet.  Ocean waves, however, come at almost regular intervals, while the gusts are completely unpredictable in frequency, strength, direction, and duration.

On the few cases where the wind is actually at our backs as we climb, we are literally pushed up the mountain.  On more straight and level parts, the added boost of wind power propels us forward with such force as to make us almost glide across the ground like a figure-skater.

By the time we are within 300 vertical feet of the summit, we are nearly touching the ceiling of what had formerly been a layer of stratocumulus clouds.  It’s not clear from where we stand just weather we are ascending into the clouds, or weather they are descending towards us.  In a matter of moments, the answer is clear enough — not only are the clouds dropping down to our level, but they are also rising up from below.  In fact, they are nearly racing up from all directions, up and over boulders on all sides at greater and greater speeds.  I watch in astonishment at how fast, ferociously, and furiously the wind and clouds are traveling across the surface of the ground, as if they are angered to be inconvenienced by this mountain of an obstacle in their path.

Soon, the summit is less than 50 yards away, but it continues to come into and out of view.  It’s as if it were a magical, ethereal destination, trying one final trick in its attempts to allude us.  At this point, we’ve struggled far to long and hard to let something like visibility get in the way of our goal, so we press on, and reach the summit after roughly 4.5 hours of effort.

Now lest we imagine that to be the end of our expedition, victorious in our quest, we still have to get back down again.  Simply turning around and repeating the same experiences in reverse would be far too easy.  So to make the trip a little more interesting, not 5 minutes into our descent, it starts to rain.

At first, it was just a few drops here and there, and we thought that perhaps by dropping below the dew-point, we would return to the relative comfort of the blustering winds.  That, however, was far from the case.  Instead, that gentle rain soon became a deluge, which upon combining with the wind, turned into an extremely cold shower from which there was no easy exit.

We could still see the trail, and fortunately we had extra layers to don for protection from the elements, but it was rapidly becoming less and less enjoyable.

My rain jacket is hooded, and I could hear the pelting of the rain on the back of my head as loudly as were I under a tin roof.  Further, I could actually feel the wind driving the rain into my back as if it were small rocks and stones, which upon turning around, was exactly what they were.  The rain was now hail, and we tried to expedite our pace to lower ground where we would merely get the wind-blown rain instead.  Fortunately, the hail was not that big, and it did indeed subside after dropping a mere hundred feet or so down the mountain.  The wind, however, had merely redoubled its efforts to move the mountain.

There were parts of the descent where the force of the rain on our faces was physically painful.  I had a baseball cap with a long bill on under my rain hood, and only by looking almost straight down at my feet could I protect my face.  I still had to look up now and then to make sure we stayed on the trail.  During those times, I could see sheet after sheet of rain being blown about, including a rather ominous one coming right at us.    Standing on the trail as this massive wall of white water approached at high speeds left me with a sense of being a deer caught in headlights — there was nowhere to go!  On a positive note, the formerly invisible gusts of wind could now be seen quite clearly.

Wave after wave of rain and wind pelted us on our descent, but we continued downward.  At one point in what was a series of steps in the rocks on the trail, I put my foot out to step downward, but gravity simply failed to pull me down against the force of the wind that sought to push me back up.  I’m quite sure it was only momentary, but it seemed to last several seconds as I stared at my overhanging foot, wondering when or where it would actually touch down on the step below.

When the trail happened to turn such that the wind was again at our backs, it no longer provided the assistance in our travels that it had on the ascent, but rather forced us to be all the more careful of our footing on the way down.

By the time we reached the lake around the midpoint again, we began to get cold, and our feet were soaking wet.  We stopped briefly to put on yet another layer of cloths, and pressed forward. 

We could see large groups of people coming towards us who were actually still making their ascent.  Whereas we had traveled through breathtaking beauty on the way up, and only faced the harsher side of the journey on our way back down, these travelers would just be entering an environment that  we could not leave soon enough.

By now, however, we were almost as wet as we were going to get, we still had food, water, and adequate warmth, and were merely trudging through whatever was left of the elements as we began to enter the valley below.

Around 1,000 feet, the wind died down.  By around 500′, the rain gave us a welcome reprieve, making it almost pleasant to complete the final part of our journey.  Soon, we crossed the sheep-gates, followed by the river trail, ending finally at our car.  We were very wet, very tired and sore, and glad that we had made the endeavor to climb Great Britain’s highest peak and return in basically good condition.

Olympic National Park

Kristen and I went on a hike this weekend in the Olympic mountains. The original plan was to try to go to the summit of Mt. Olympus, which is about 7900 feet, but the avalanche risk was too high. So instead, we followed most of the same route, and went towards "Hoh lake".

Friday night we took the ferry over Puget sound to the Olympic peninsula, drove into a town called Sequim (pronounced Squim) and stayed at a hotel. Saturday morning we finished the drive and started on the trail about 10:30a. The trail goes all along the Hoh river, through an incredibly dense temperate rain forest. We were fortunate enough to have really great weather and fantastic views all around. Our campsite was just over 10 miles into the trail.

The second day (Sunday), we left our camp set up where it was, and hiked with lighter packs for about 5 miles up hill towards the mountain lake. However, we hit snow-pack, and that slowed us down. This was low-angle snow, so avalanche risk was not an issue (greater than 30 and less than 60 is the risk zone). I had brought my mountaineering boots (the ones that accept crampons) thinking we’d climb Olympus. Since we changed that plan back at the car, and these boots are VERY heavy and hard to walk in off of snow, I left them behind and just took my running shoes. (Mountaineering boots are almost like ski-boots, except the ankle moves a little more). Anyway, running shoes were not the best for the snow. We had some plastic bags, and I put them between my socks and shoes, and we kept going.

We had to stop when we got just below a huge water fall and a difficult creek crossing. We were about 1/2 mile from the lake, and probably ‘could’ have made it, but it was getting latter in the day, and falling in would have compromised our margin of safety far too much. So we turned around at about the 5-mile mark on this hike and went back to camp.

We got back to camp just as it was starting to rain. We threw up a tarp so we would have something to cook under, since it’s not a good idea to cook in a tent when there are bears around. We even saw one of the foot prints on our hike, and the print was well bigger than my outstretched hand.

At camp, we cooked dinner on the camp stove, and I put my shoes next to the it as I cooked. I could hear Dad’s voice in my head as I looked at these rag-tag, mud-laden, seam-busted, leather-ripped running shoes, and he was saying "You know, this would be a great time for one of those unfortunate sneaker fires I keep warning you about…" But they dried out reasonably well, and we had a nice dinner of bean stew.

Monday, we woke up to a torrential downpour, broken periodically with bits of hail. Motivation to get out of the warm tent to cook and pack was difficult, except that we still had the 10 miles to hike just to get back to the car. I got out and fetched our food from the ‘bear wires’ about 30 yards away and started making hot water for oatmeal and coco, while Kristen started packing up the stuff inside the tent. After breakfast, we took everything out of the tent and put it under the tarp so that I could collapse the wet tent and stuff it into my backpack (yuck). 

I was thinking for a moment what my folks would do in that place. 
a) find a hotel
b) call a cab
c) they would never go that far into a rain forest in the first place.
OK, so it’s option C, but they would also miss out on the shear beauty and splendor of one of God’s many finer creations.

All over the place, there were trees covered in with an incredibly dense canopy of moss. Nearly every surface you could see in all directions was covered with something in various shades of green. Here and there, trees had fallen to the ground and were being rapidly consumed and re-used as other plants and animals re-used all available resources to perpetuate their own cycle of life. There were trees on the ground that were many times wider than I am tall.

So we packed everything we came with back into our packs, and began our return trip to the car. With all the rain from the night before, the trail had become a near continuous mud-pit. On the bright side, it meant that the walk back looked completely different, and was less like back-tracking. At one point, we came to another stream crossing, and Kristen laughed and said "Look at this stream… we’ve walked through mud deeper than that!" so we just kept going.

At one point on our hike we even heard a distant tree fall in the forest. I can’t answer whether a tree that falls when nobody is around makes a noise or not, but if people ARE around, I can testify that it most definitely makes a noise akin to thunder.

As we walked, the weather was continually changing from momentary periods of bright sunshine, to downpours, to hail, and back to sunshine again, all within 10 minutes, and repeating over and over again. There was one spot along the river where we could see across the river to the steep mountains on the other side. They were covered with an incredibly deep shade of green and had clouds scattered about rising out from the ground, climbing up the slope back to the sky like the Phoenix rising from the ashes.

Eventually, we made it back to the car, plenty tired, and plenty dirty. We had hiked about 30 miles over the weekend. We shed the outer, dirt-laden layer from our bodies, threw all the gear into the back of the car, washed up a bit in the rest rooms at the ranger station, and headed out on the road, destined for the first place we found that made pizza.

Copyright 2001, Ashley Guberman

Grand Canyon National Park, AZ

1/26/98, Monday Night.
Bright Angel Camp, Bottom of the Grand Canyon

Oh, to ache in every muscle, so much so that any movement at all produces a peculiar, involuntary groaning noise, much like father used to make. Reaching for an object involves a grunt. Something more complex like bending over to pick something up involves a near symphony of noises, as though each muscle and joint felt an undeniable need to voice its disapproval for doing anything other than succumbing to gravity in a somewhat controlled fall onto the ground, where at they could at last all be still.

And of course, when that wish is finally granted in the form of climbing into my sleeping bag, those same muscles and bones let loose with a sigh of relief. It takes five, maybe even ten deep breaths just to get enough air to let loose with enough ahh… And it is indeed well deserved.

I got a very leisurely start this morning, having stayed at a lodge last night. I slept until 10AM, got breakfast, back-country permits, packed my backpack, and hit the trail head just before 2PM. To hell with "Alpine" starts — I’m here on vacation.

The canyon has several peculiar qualities to it. One of which is that from the top, there’s not a damn thing that makes it stand out at all. But approach the rim at one of the overlooks and the sheer grandeur of this place is overwhelming. I took a few photos, but knew intrinsically that no photo could do this place justice.

The upper part of the trail, at 7,260’ was covered with ice, making travel quite difficult. Much to my chagrin, the only true indication of the likelihood of slipping on the ice was the amount of mule droppings one could hit upon falling. Fortunately, that part only lasted about 1/4 mile. After that, the trail became more walkable, though it was indeed rather steep, filled with one switch back after another.

All along the decent, the rock would change from one formation to another as I traveled through older and older periods in geologic time. There were signs along the way indicating the Devonian, Algonquian, pre-Cambrian, and other periods, but I mostly notice that the color of my boots kept changing as the soil transitioned between periods.

In about 4 1/2 hours, I’d managed to walk 6.4 miles, descending 4,860 feet, and crossing 6 million years of geology.

So it’s no wonder that I’m tired. But when I finally arrived at Bright Angel camp, there were other things to do, despite my desire to simply go to bed. There were the chores of cooking, making camp, eating, and cleaning up which needed to be done. So with more care and dedication than I typically spend at home, I made spaghetti with green peppers, tofu, tomatoes, and two cups of hot cocoa.

While eating by candle-lantern, I noticed this peculiar set of ears across the picnic table from me. They looked like they belonged to a cat at first, until this tiny paw reached up, followed by a tiny face and eyes more like an overgrown hamster. I turned on my headlight in time to scare it away before it absconded with my muffins. It had a long, slender body, and a big puffy gray tail with black rings on it. I later learned it was a "Ringtail," which I had never seen before.

* * *

1/27/98 Tuesday Morning
Bright Angel Camp, Bottom of the Grand Canyon

By morning, I’m well rested, but could easily sleep in until noon, were it not for the need to use the restroom. Slowly, begrudgingly, I exit the warmth and comfort of my cocoon-like sleeping bag, pound my feet into cold, stiff boots, take one step forward, and land on my face.

My feet and calves are not at all happy about what I did to them last night, and they just wanted to make sure I knew about it before I did anything like that again. They probably don’t know about the uphill part yet, and I’m not going to tell them.

For now, I’m sitting at a picnic table across from a gently babbling brook that feeds into the Colorado river. There’s about 30 yards of grass, shrubs, and small trees on either shore before the land takes a sharp turn upwards towards the sky in what is literally a mile of vastly spread out vertical rock. But from most any part of the canyon, it only looks to be a few hundred feet high.

It’s like for an ant standing at the base of a wedding cake, seeing only the ledge of the first layer. Once crested, there’s still another layer that was not visible from below. Except that here in the canyon, I am the ant, there are more layers than I can remember, and they range anywhere from 200 to 1500 feet high.

It’s difficult to imagine that this vast macrocosm of the canyon could have been deposited as a sea-bed, then carved away by something as simple and soothing as the stream now before me and others like it which join the Colorado river. It’s a question of scale — from the towering rim, the river can barely even be seen. It is but a tiny trickle running through the channels between these vast walls. How could the walls themselves have been carved by something so very far away?

Except that it has not always been as it is now. Those placards I passed along my hike to the canyon’s belly "explained" the milestones and the history of the canyon’s formation, but it is an explanation by man. To examine, analyze, explain, and compress centuries, if not eons of history into a few mere signs along the descent is absurd.

The geologic layers on the canyon walls are as the rings on a tree — those rings are not the tree itself, but mere markers of its history of life. So too are the layers of this canyon markers of the life history of this part of the planet.

* * *

1/27/98 8:30PM Tuesday Evening
Ribbon Falls

There are few things more intrinsically satisfying than partaking of a reward for something well deserved. Lying down at the end of a long day is one such thing. Today’s hike brought me 6.4 miles up along Bright Angel Creek, gaining 2.600’ in the process. Following the water course, my grade was much more shallow, and the life along the way more abundant.

My original destination was another 1.3 miles further down the trail, but I decided to pitch camp here by ribbon Falls instead, because at 5:30PM I was already pretty tired and loosing daylight. So because of my location, I had to find a spot that met all the usual criteria for a campsite, but also was reasonably hard to see, should a ranger come by in the morning before I’m out of here.

There was a lovely rock and sand spot, beneath an overhang, around a corner from another rock outcropping, just 30 yards from the sign that said "Day use only." Knowing that part of my responsibility is also to know my limits and take care of myself, that spot is now home for the evening.

My legs were pretty stiff this morning when I got up, and they’re good and sore now. Knowing that tomorrow I go back the same 6.4 miles I came today, then have to go up the 4,860’ the day after that, I’m concerned that my last day to get out of the canyon may take 8-12 hours of grueling uphill push.

Then a demonic voice in my mind calls out "Yes! You must push on! Further! Harder! You’re on vacation, remember? When will be the next time you have another opportunity to torture yourself like this? Pain is weakness leaving the body. Now quit whining and enjoy yourself. This is fun!"

Well, the hiking is fun. Knowing I’m a completely self contained unit is satisfying. The scenery is spectacular. The weather is near perfect. The stars at night are incredible. But the pain I could do without.

Bounded by one candle power, my immediate world is indeed full of splendor. To my side lay my empty boots. Old and worn, they are like trusted friends, for over the years we’ve done a great many miles together. Surrounding my body is a combination of goose feathers and nylon, protecting me from the evenings cold. Over my head is an arch of rock, forming an amphitheater with room enough just for one. Twenty and forty feet away are small trees and shrubs illuminated by my candle, but casting no shadow, for beyond them is nothing but black emptiness.

Off in the distance, the sound of water rushing downhill to the sea can be heard. There are many sounds hidden within the water, all blending together, yet still distinct. There is the sound of the waterfall around the corner as it tumbles over a 50’ drop; there is the steady and constant rush over small obstacles and bends as it passes not far from my feet; and there is the sound of this small tributary as it joins up with the larger stream just out of sight.

And overhead are the stars — my own private planetarium. Orion is directly in front of me, with such clarity that the whole constellation can be seen, not just the belt and sword. Equally clear, to the left is his dog, Canus Major. And to the right, Taurus and the Pleiades.

* * *

1/28/98 3:20PM Wednesday Afternoon
Bright Angel Camp

Having awakened several times during the night, my first sight was that each time I opened my eyes, the sky had changed, sliding all the constellations off to the right a little each time. Then finally, I woke to see the stars slowly fade out of sight against the brightening skyline, and the edges and contours of the canyon walls come into focus again. Being awake for the transition, it was clear that the stars were still out there, continuing their circumferential journey around the pole-star, only masked by the dawning glory of another day.

I made myself breakfast and packed my belongings into my backpack. While doing so, I heard a chopper coming up through the canyon. It stopped briefly over my campsite, but by that time it was no longer clear that I was there all night. My first thought was that they take the regulations pretty seriously here! But the chopper continued on, and was really only there to drop off some workers and equipment to fix a water-line break.

By early afternoon, I had made it back to Bright Angel camp, and still had plenty of daylight left, so I took the opportunity to have the mandatory Mac and Cheese dinner. All camping trips greater than two nights long are required to have this at least once, otherwise the nature gods get angry and give you rain, harsh winds, or the runs. Take your pick. Anyway, it’s quick, easy, tastes good, but it’s a mess to clean up. So the extra light came in handy.

I was actually thinking of heading out towards Indian Garden Campground after eating, to get a head start for tomorrow’s journey. All I had to do was stand up to realize that was simply not going to happen. I’ll go to bed early tonight, with hopes of an early start tomorrow morning. So far, I have yet to hit the trail by 9:30AM. Tomorrow, I really need to be walking by 8AM to make sure I’m out of the canyon before dark. I’m giving myself 10 hours to get out, and may very well need all of it.

It’s not pleasant to be amidst all this beauty and have my mind focusing on fears that tomorrow is going to be a long, difficult, painful day of nothing but uphill climbing.

* * *

1/29/98 Thursday Afternoon
Bright Angel Camp

I now have a new found appreciation for watching toddlers try to walk. The basic problem is that their legs simply won’t do what they are told. So as I waddled along the camp trail to the restroom, it occurred to me that that was exactly how I must have looked. I can imagine being pulled over for a random DUI check and being asked to walk a straight line, and failing miserably.

However, most of the pain was gone this morning other than my calves. Whether it was acclimatization or senselessness, I could not tell. Some stretching took care of the calves, and I was ready to head up and out of this thing.

Though I saw the same canyon on my way down, it was all the more impressive on the way up since I had to work so much harder to get there. I basically gave up trying to figure just how much further it was — each plateau only giving rise to the next one in what seemed an ongoing series of ledges without end.

First thing in the morning, I had looked at my bag of remaining food, and could only see it as fuel, not as something tasty to eat. And of course, my choice of what to eat from that bag has always been guided by one principle: eat the heavy things first. Just the other night I was asking myself "How can this thing still be so damn heavy?" The answer, of course, is that it takes a lot of fuel to get out of here: 3 packs of oatmeal, 2 hot cocoas, 1/4 pound of peanut butter, 2 apples, a power bar, two tomatoes, two English muffins loaded with jelly, a hunk of cheese, and a handful of crackers. And when finally out, I was ready for dinner.

The trip out took me 6 1/2 hours, including rest stops. As with the rest of this trip, there were very few other people, save for the campground and the 2 miles near the top. In fact, just as sea-gulls are a sign to sailors that land is not too far away, running into those pitiful excuses for hikers known as "day trippers" let me know I was getting close to the top. Unfortunately, the last 1.5 miles gains 1,500’ of elevation, the grade is steeper, the air colder and windier, and of course there’s the fact that just when I need it most, mother nature decides to make the air a little thinner and to start dumping snow on me. Not just the whole Southern rim, I’m sure — this snow is meant for me personally.

The real Irony is looking forward to the extra difficulties I know I’ll run into, because I know the worse it gets, the closer I am to the egress. So when I finally reached the shit-laden ice field, I knew I was home free! Just 1/4 of this and I’m out of here!

So as I’m walking oh so gingerly, I have this flashback to Kung Fu, where Master Po asks Grasshopper to walk barefoot across a floor covered with rice paper without tearing it. Po says when you can do this, it will be time to leave. Except that my challenge is far less spiritual. All I have to do is go up an ice-covered hill with a 50 pound pack without falling and sliding downhill through the manure. Cain got plenty of time to practice. I, however, had no desire to do this more than once.

So I finally got to the top, and there’s this couple in their late 40’s getting ready to go down at around 3PM, with street shoes, and these tiny day packs. I overhear one of them mention just making to Phantom Lodge by dark, so I asked them "You do have a water filtration device, right?" No, they say. The lodge has water. "Not since this morning it doesn’t. Water main broke." So they turn around and leave. Gee… no point inn going down then, is there? Day trippers — completely unprepared.


Copyright (C), 1998, by Ashley Guberman

Caddy Ridge, WA

Friday, November 28, 1997

I have discovered the ultimate meaning of life: it is to stay warm and dry. Actually, staying dry is a lost cause, but it serves to occupy time while one fights for the larger goal of staying warm.

Now, under ordinary circumstances, this is not such a big deal. One simply goes inside, or grabs the nearest towel. But these are all byproducts of modern society. When out in the woods, one is in closer contact with the elements, and learns what’s really important.

But perhaps I should back up to the beginning. This trip was supposed to have several purposes. For one, it was my annual solo camping trip. For another, I had planned to take all the papers from my divorce, and ceremoniously burn them on a mountain top to symbolically let go of their weight and burden on my life.

I left Seattle Wednesday night, with the intention of parking near the trail head and starting up Thursday morning – Thanksgiving day. However, at some point I crossed the snow-line, and driving became a little difficult. I went into the trunk to pull out my chains, only to discover that they were not there. OK, Plan B: keep going until there’s a place wide enough to turn around.

Unfortunately, that was another mile down the road, and by that time I had become firmly entrenched in the snow, necessitating attempts to extricate myself in the rain. After about 30 minutes, I remembered that I had all the food and clothing I needed for a 3 day camping trip, so I simply spent my first night here in the car. If anyone came along and I was blocking their way, then they could give me a hand getting out of there.

By morning, the rain had changed to snow, and I was desperately missing the days when I drove a 4-runner instead of my Nissan Sentra. Just as I feared, things didn’t look any better in the daylight than they had at night. I pushed and shoved as best I could, but I was most definitely stuck. I did, however, have my ice-axe with me in the trunk. It has an adz about two inches wide, and that would have to be my shovel. Not the most ideal of tools, but it was better than using my hands. Also, since it was Thanksgiving day, I knew that if I didn’t do something on my own, I could end up being there a while.

The fact that my front tires had next to zero tread did not help. I made a mental note: get new tires. So as I was busy digging trenches to drive through, and lining them with sticks, I could not help but remember that I’d been in this predicament before. Except that last time it was in the middle of summer in the Utah Salt flats in a rental car. Eventually, I managed to get myself turned around and pointed South down the mountain again. I went just below the snow line, parked, and figured I’d just walk that part back up to the trail head.

So as I got my pack all loaded up and started walking back up the hill, the weight of that 16 pound mass of papers hit me right away. I began to see what a good analogy that sack was to my former marriage. First off, it was heavy and did not contribute much to the journey. It provided a slight amount of warmth because the day-pack it was in covered my front side, but ultimately it just made me work harder. My spouse had never shared my enthusiasm for the outdoors, nor even gone on a trip with me. So this sack saw more of the woods and my dedication to ideals than the mariage ever did. And of course, there would be the fact that by letting go of the emotional baggage symbolized in that sack by burning it, I would be 16 pounds physically lighter too.

My backpack was already 50 pounds, so the extra 16 brought my weight to baggage ratio well beyond the customary 20%. Tightening the analogy, it had a definite impact on my speed, as my progress up the mountain was dismal.

When the snow got deeper, weight became more of a problem since I kept sinking in the snow to my knees, and it was hard to see over the front pack. So I came to a stream crossing, and decided that there was no merit in letting that sack drag me down any further. I found a suitable rock, and planned to burn them on the spot to lighten my load. Except that all that paper takes a good while to burn. I was struck by the amount of attention it took to keep feeding that fire, and how much energy was given off in its destruction. Amazing. After about an hour, I’d only gone through about ¾ of it, and realized that I was loosing daylight. So I threw the remaining 4 pounds in my backpack, and kept going up the mountain.

My goal was to go the 3.2 miles to West Caddy Ridge, then about another mile down the other side to camp at a gap. However, I still kept falling in the snow up to about my knees, and progress was slow and arduous. As 4:00, then 4:30 rolled around, as best I could tell, I was still about 2 hours from the ridge at this pace. It was beginning to get dark, and had been raining the entire time. I decided that this was as good a place to pitch my tent as any.

But that’s when I realized that I didn’t have my tent with me. I must have left it on the back seat of my car when I pulled my sleeping bag out the night before. This was not a pretty sight. I was wet, it was getting dark, the snow was soft and mushy, and I had no tent. Better think fast, because it’s going to be one long night.

So I found a grove of pine trees, which are known to cover large holes in the snow around their base. I deliberately plunged in, making an indentation all the way up to my waste. Then, climbing out, I did it again, and again, until I had stomped out an area big enough for my bivy sack. The hole I had made was now protected from the wind on one side by my snow wall, and on the others by the trees. The down-side was that being under the trees meant a near constant dripping of water, even if the rain should let up.

So I inflated my therma-rest mattress, threw it and my sleeping bag inside of my bivy sack, and stared at the contraption dumb-founded. That’s it? That’s going to be my home for the evening? Sure its small and light weight, but it was supposed to be a heat supplement for my summer solo tent, not my sole provider of shelter and warmth. I thought of the many days I’d spent outside in the elements with a tent no more than 6’x4’ wide, and realized that comparably, those were days of sheer luxury. It’s amazing what reality can do for one’s sense of perspective.

I thought about starting my stove for dinner, but became acutely aware of how cold I had become now that my level of physical exertion had dropped. I gathered everything so that I could reach it from the opening in my bivy-sac, stripped off my wet cloths and climbed in. The bivy sack is just barely bigger than my sleeping bag, with two short poles by the head to keep the nylon off my face and make it easier to breath Basically, it’s the ultimate in a full-body condom – thick enough to keep the elements out, but thin enough to feel the rain above and snow below.

After a short while inside my goose-down bag, my shivering stopped, and I could turn my attention back to food. Cooking was definitely out – too much effort, and I’d have to get out of my bag. So I rummaged around inside my food sack, and pulled in whatever looked good. Umm, yes! Honey roasted cashew nuts – light weight, covered in sugar and salt, and loaded with fat. Just what I needed right now. I ate them one at a time in rapid succession, trying not to spill any inside my sleeping bag. Oh, they were so good!

More rummaging revealed some dried apricots. I snarfed down six of those, followed by a pop-tart chaser, washed it all down with some Gukenade, then it was time for bed. But not until after "Now I lay me down to sleep…" You know, that one never seemed quite so poignant as it did this time. It was about 6pm, dark, cold, raining, and I was inside of a pile of nylon and goose feathers, hoping I wouldn’t freeze before sunrise the next morning. I had the distinct feeling it would be a long night.

I woke up again around midnight, munched on a bagel and cheese, then went back to bed. At 2am, I had to go to the bathroom, and did not want to leave the comfort of my cocoon. Even though it didn’t take long, in the time it took me to go 5 feet from my sack and relieve myself, I had gone from toasty warm to freezing cold, to shaking violently.

Around 7am, I woke again, knowing I had survived the night. Except that it was now pouring rain, and I could not muster the motivation to get out of my bag, put on cold, wet rain gear, stuff everything into my pack and head back to the car. Never mind my planned 17 mile route – if it took me almost all day to go this far, perhaps this was a trip better done in the spring.

Fortunately, if my mind lacked the motivation to get out of my sleeping bag, my bladder did not. So I carefully thought out what to do and in what order to maximize my efficiency in getting into warm cloths and packing up. By rapidly stuffing everything I could into my compression sack, I was able to cinch it all together and into my pack in almost no time.

With gravity on my side, the trip back down the mountain should have been easier than the way up. However, most of my steps sent me plunging through the snow up to my waist. Oh how I longed for the trip up where I only fell in to my knees! But eventually, I did make it back to the road, and continued my hike down to where I was parked.

My plan was to just open my trunk, throw everything in the back, and head home. So imagine my surprise when I opened my trunk to find everything in there soaking wet. I don’t know how water got in there, but it did. At that point, I didn’t care, so I just splashed my pack into the middle of it, closed the trunk, and headed for the drivers seat. Again, more water. I opened the door and was promptly greeted by a brief but distinct waterfall as it washed the mud off from the tops of my boots. The window had only been opened about 1 millimeter, but that was all it took. Somehow, my seat was dry, but the floor well was a veritable swimming pool.

I tried to ignore it, but the splashing at my feet was just too distracting. So I went back into the trunk and got my cooking pot, and began to bail the water out of my car. I can honestly say that there was more water in my car than has ever been inside my Kayak, and something was definitely awry.

But at least I was headed home, and I was warm.

And that last 4 pound of paper? I can safely say that it’s just garbage now.


Copyright (C), 1998, by Ashley Guberman

Fantastic Pit

Ellison’s Cave, Georgia

Fantastic Pit — a 510’ vertical free-fall drop, deep within Ellison’s Cave in Georgia. A waterfall runs off to one side, and my flashlight lacks the strength to penetrate the mist to the bottom. There are two separate 600’ ropes rigged for the decent through the pit, and I prepare to go down the first one wearing full rain gear.

Standing on the edge, just before committing to the rappel, the size of my world shrinks to encompass nothing but the hardware, harness and rope immediately in front of me. All parts are meticulously examined before I release my safety tether, then step out over the free-hanging emptiness.

My weight is supported by the combination of a brake rack, a Speelean Shunt, and a good dose of faith. Fear and caution led me to set more friction than necessary for the start, so only after releasing one of the bars on my rack do I begin to move.

Shortly, the ledge is lost from sight and the mist from the water fall grows heavier and louder. My rope goes almost directly through the center of the fall, and in a short while, so will I.

When in the fall, visibility is near zero. I am bombarded with water pouring from above, and heavy spray from all other directions. The noise from the water is almost overpowering, yet I can still hear the buzzing whine of my rope sliding through my brake rack. My only perception of speed comes from the pitch of the brake rack noise, and the water that shoots out towards my face as the rope is squeezed between the bars.

When I finally reach the bottom, from out of nowhere two of my comrades jump out from behind the rocks to help free me from the rope and hardware contraption that safely delivered me to the ground. I stand in awe of the sheer magnitude of this pit and its surroundings. It is indeed a "Fantastic Pit."

* * *

Note: This above article was published in "Table Rock Views", the North Carolina Outward Bound staff newsletter in the Spring of 1995

Copyright (C), 1995, by Ashley Guberman

Spring, 1994

Table Rock, NC

Today is the first day of spring. Though I fettered away the better part of the afternoon, in what remains of toady’s daylight I have taken to the hills.

I’m perched on a rock beside Upper-Creek Trail. It’s strange to think that a short drive and hike can take me from roads, buildings, shops and other conveniences, right to the edge of a 50’ vertical drop with a roaring water fall and nary a sight of man’s mark upon the land.

The rhododendrons and pines along the banks are still green, and scattered about the distant mountainside are isolated hemlocks, but for the most part, the forest appears unaware that today holds any special significance.

Over the next month or so, the barren multitude of leafless branches shall shoot forth their buds for the next years growth, but today they are dormant. "March 20, 1994" — as if the forest were supposed to keep track of modern-man’s calendar.

The forest will wake from its winter slumber when it is ready, and not before. It will happen day by day, a little bit at a time. And then, on some warm afternoon a few weeks from now, I’ll remember to actually look, and it will seem as if the forest awoke overnight.

* * *

A waterfall is like a playground for a creek or river as it makes its continual journey from the mountains to the sea. Though water will forever move down-hill, a waterfall punctuates an otherwise uneventful passage with joy and excitement.

I need only sit at the base of a fall and look up to be overwhelmed by the amount of activity before me. From the top of the fall, the water almost knows a drop-off is coming, and begins to take a running start — it leaps out and away from the rock, forming brilliant cascades in the process. Gravity kicks in, and the water comes crashing down onto the rocks again, only to dance and laugh all the way down the jagged slope. All along the vertical drop are small pools here and there where the drops of water begin to gather. But more and more keep pouring in, and those that have been there the longest are forced to move on.

There is a gentle breeze here at the bottom. The air is cool and heavy with mist. As the sun has already set, the wind grows rapidly stronger and colder. And though I could easily sit on this rock for hours, visual details are fading one by one in the diminishing light. That’s OK… I’ll come back.

Copyright (C), 1998, by Ashley Guberman

Ass Holes on Ice Hills Yosemite National Park

After two days climbing through brambles and over obstacles nearly vertical, we arrived at the bottom. Having made the decision that we were well over our heads, we decided to take it easy and not climb the 5.9 route.

Working on the assumption that any route down would be better than the one we had ascended, we then made our way around the side of the north face of the dome. It involved still more climbing and we had been warned about a massive glacier field we would need to traverse.

Upon approaching the field, still wearing tennis-shoes, we did our best to kick foot holds through the snow and maintain our balance. the field became increasingly steep, and upon cresting the ridge, we were looking out at a 1/2 mile traverse across a field where one slip would send us sliding downward over 3,000 feet, pausing only momentarily where the ice changed to granite at about 5,000 feet elevation.

We did not have the proper gear for this. We had grabbed several long sticks to use as stabilizers and for "protection." I went out first, trailing a line to my brother who was anchored as best he could be given the situation.

Slowly and deliberately I stepped out onto the ice. Using the sides of my feet I’d kick hard to break through the hard packed snow, and test each step for sturdiness before committing my weight to it. There was a large section of the ice wall that showed signs of collapse and fracture nearly 1,000 feet below. Pieces of snow larger than automobiles had simply let go of the main block and fallen — their own underlying supports having already melted and washed away.

I faced up-hill, and tried to keep my mind focused on the section of ice that directly effected my well being. Kick-Crunch-Step-Transfer-Breath… over and over, I repeated this process as the line of rope grew longer and longer. Even with the rope, a slip at any point would send me tumbling downward like the weight on the end of a pendulum. I took one of my sticks and drove it deep into the snow. I draped the rope over the top, and knew full well that in the event of trouble, that stick would be little more than psychological protection.

There was a large tree about 40 feet away, and I could only hope that I would reach it before coming to the end of my rope. Despite the fact that larger trees had already been toppled by the weight of sliding snow, this one still stood tall and served as a gauge for my progress.

Continuing on, the snow beneath my left foot suddenly gave way and sent me sliding. I instantly dropped to my side and punched my fist deeply downward through the snow with speed, strength, and determination. I came to a stop only 10 feet below where my feet let go, but it served to harshly reinforce the realities of the danger we were dealing with. I was lucky, and I knew it.

So it was with great relief that I finally reached that tree, and the sound of my carribiner securely clipped to a quickly tied anchor was music to my ears.

Yosemite National Park
Vernal Falls
Ass Holes on Ice Hills

Copyright (C), 1998, by Ashley Guberman

Yosemite National Park

Simply overwhelming. Nothing I can say even comes close to representing the sheer grandeur of the world before my eyes.

For the last three hours, we have been hiking towards half dome. Here and there, we struggled over various rocks and scree slopes that had yet to find their final resting place in the valley below.

Our only guide has been ‘up’ and ‘towards that massive rock, far above us’. As we make our way generally East, we come to a spring — two, in fact, both cascading over the rock, forming a series of smaller water falls.

At some point, we would need to traverse across the streams, so we decided to cross at the base, which was a large pocket of snow and ice maybe 75 yards wide. "Avalanche", I thought, but the snow was quite packed. The other possibility was a cave-in, since it was clear the stream cut under the bed of snow.

Slowly, we made our traverse, and shortly before the end, decided to descend rather than move forward. Upon reaching the ‘land’ again, we saw we had only barely missed crossing an incredibly intricate network of tunnels and passageways carved by the water. The snow had formed a dome 10′ over the water, and chances are good that we would have fallen through.


It’s dark. Very dark. Though we pushed on and on, I was simply unable to go any further with any safety. Like a gauge, I saw my reserves go from ‘warning’ to ‘critically low’ to ‘Danger! — find water and stop immediately.’

I do not recall ever pushing myself so far out on physical limits. Breathing was labored, and balance was beginning to fade.

At our ‘bivy ledge’, I got a terminal case of the giggles — everything was just so absurd. We’d been hiking since 2:45p, dusk was upon us, and I started moving rocks around to make a more comfortable sleeping area — moving rocks! "Lets see… this one would go nicely in the kidney, and this one is ideal for my ribs…"

After diner, we were better. We have a good bit of food — we need to eat it to lighten our load. We had planned to arrive at the base of the climb tonight. We are about an hour away.

I had one real scare on the ascent today. My pack had gotten caught on a branch in a rather precarious spot. I knew I was in trouble. I was not afraid of dying, just of getting badly hurt. It shook me up a bit, and I’m not fond of certain trees now.

From where we now lay, I can see scattered campfires from the valley below, oh so very far away. The sky is amass with stars, and a waterfall tumbles 20′ away from where we have decided to bed for the night.

On the ascent, there were a great many details to observe, and each presented its own unique challenge: rocks, trees, talus, and dirt. But now, with everything shielded in darkness, my world is bounded by the width of my flashlight, and the sounds from all around.

I am several thousand feet high, but can see no more from here in the darkness than those in the valley below. It is as if not only am I about to sleep for the night, but my whole world is sleeping too, and will awaken me in several hours when the sun finally comes around again.

Yosemite National Park
Vernal Falls
Ass Holes on Ice Hills

Copyright (C), 1998, by Ashley Guberman

Spring, 1993

Sunrise, Saturday morning. For the last 10 minutes, I’ve been watching the sky reveal ever more detail of the splendor she holds. As daybreak proceeds, the blanket of darkness is pulled back, and an incredible picture of rapidly moving clouds and changing patterns begins to take its place.

It has rained for the last 2 days, and everything is covered in a fine sheet of ice. The grass makes a brittle crackling noise as it reluctantly bends under the weight of my steps.

Yet despite the cold, the morning has the feel of an early spring day — the number of birds calling from afar fills the air with a variety of unique and intricate sounds.

And slowly, the call of morning doves begin to fade, and a dog can be heard barking in the distance. As I write, a whole flock of tiny somethings fly overhead, each and every one calling out to its neighbor in flight.

On the edges of this field, in front of the houses, a few people step outside momentarily to fetch their paper or let out their dog. The people are bundled up like Eskimos — their bleary eyed bodies not yet ready to face the day.

But the animals — they are out in force. For they know that just as sure as the newly melted ice beneath my bottom, winter is on its way out, and spring is almost here.



March 21, 1993 — the first day of spring has finally arrived. Though there have been several days in the last few weeks when spring gave the appearance of having already arrived, winter then dumped a foot of snow on us last weekend to violently assert its power and right to be here.

So spring waited quietly around the corner and upon the duly appointed day, with equal strength and beauty did banish the snow and cold for yet another year.

I awoke this morning at the crack of noon, and knew that it was time to go for a run. The moment I stepped out the door, the light was blinding, and the air simply forced its way deep into my lungs, exclaiming "Breath me! Come alive and be free!"

As I walked through mounds and puddles of lingering snow scattered about along my path, it crumbled and let out an agonizing CRUNCHING sound beneath my feet. It tried desperately to cling to my leg and hide in my shoe, but as I burst into full speed on the pavement, the snow was hurled to the ground as drops of water, destined to continue its never ending journey back to the seas.

In fact, as I continued on my path, every crevice, gully, and curb side was over flowing with the water from melted snow that simply could not run fast enough to escape the energy of the fresh spring weather.

At the entrance to roadside sewers, the snow had formed gigantic overhangs where the rushing water had eroded the base faster than the crown. At the slightest touch of my hand, a 2-foot section of ice collapsed, falling flat on the ground and shattering. Defeated, the winter has no choice but to retreat.

There is no pre-defined path I am following today — I am simply running, going wherever I fancy. The road comes to an end, and I decide to continue forward through the forest until I again intersect a more navigable path. Along my way, I pass playgrounds that are teaming with children yelling and screaming their hearts delight. They are covered in mud, but one would think they were just let out of prison, and have more energy than they know what to do with.

Eventually, I cross a wooden bridge that I have never seen before, due more to my lack of exploring than its desire to remain hidden. An old crow lands on the railing close enough to me that I could touch it if I tried. It seems to be staring me in the face as it CAWS out at me with volume I have never before experienced. It stayed for only a moment, then flew off into the distance.

In the cracks of the railing beneath where the crow perched, there are a few dead leaves left over from last autumn. As I reach for them, they crumble into dust and slip through the cracks of my fingers. A gust of wind carries the fragments to the forest floor, and I know that as the cycles of nature forever repeat themselves, those pieces will one day live again.


Copyright (C), 1998, by Ashley Guberman