Beauty and the beast

Luke Mehall - 07/21/2016

As I write this, creeping up on deadline, my friend Shaun and I are driving back from Wyoming, having just emerged from the Wind River Wilderness. My story is already late, and Shaun is signing papers for his new house in Gunnison in less than 24 hours. (Yeah, his wife is really cool for letting him go.) You could say we’re both cutting it close. I am writing this from the back of my Subaru, while Shaun drives, and our homie Keith rides shotgun. We’ll see how this goes.

I’ve fallen in love with Wyoming over the last week. We were up in Lander for the International Climbers Festival, promoting my books and zines, drinking as much beer as possible, and climbing and recreating to the fullest. Lander is a charming town that possesses the kind of friendliness many Colorado towns must have had before they got too busy and second home mansions started getting built. Everyone in Lander wants to chit chat. At first you think they have an agenda, but they are just nice. A little niceness goes a long way.

Lander is perfect for the climbing bum in the summer. There’s free camping, friendly faces and endless rock. These days too, there are groups of women in the climbing world, a thrilling new development. In short, for the last week, there’s everything in the world I need in Lander, and it was a work trip!

As the festival closed, and we woke up with hangovers from partying four days straight, we had about one full day to play before we bee-lined it back home. Keith and Shaun suggested that we blaze into the wilderness for a quick alpine climb. I’ve always wanted to see the Wind River Range, so naturally I obliged. Plus, I figured it would be good to sweat out some toxins before the 11-hour drive back home to Durango.

I am not much of an alpine climber. I like being in the mountains, but I don’t really care for rock climbing in the mountains. I like Yosemite style climbing, and most of all, I like the sandstone of the desert. I go with what speaks to me, and unlike John Muir, the mountains do not call, and so I don’t go.

Once in a blue moon my friends will suggest an idea, and I’m stupid enough to accept it. Last time it was hiking in the Cascades for 17 miles just to climb 200 feet of dangerous rock. I always feel like death and doom are one move away in the mountains. I can only hide my Midwest roots so much, at a certain point I cling to comfort and security.

So, haggard and weary late Sunday evening, we stumbled into the wilderness. Last-minute stops before heading in included water-treatment tablets and bug nets for our faces. Bug nets for our faces, I asked? You’ll see, they said.

We hiked at a brisk pace, and the week of intense socialization and partying faded into the peace and calm of the wilderness. Pine trees stood all around, until we reached a series of alpine lakes and craggy granite faces. Small ripples appeared everywhere in the lakes, with fish jumping out of the water; happy hour in the mountains. We lamented the fact that we didn’t bring a fishing pole. It was good to be there. A full moon rose between two peaks. The stars came out, and we went to bed.

The shit show that is me in the mountains began in the morning. Sleep deprived and disoriented, I stuffed instant oatmeal into my face and wondered how I would operate all day on this sugary junk of a breakfast. Soon we were standing below a thousand-foot granite face called the Haystack, which from camp was more pointy than horizontal. It looked pretty, and the guidebook fully endorsed the route, calling it one of the best of its kind around. It wasn’t.

We started the day by getting off-route on the very first pitch. Keith climbed up a hundred feet of loose, insecure rock in a dihedral before we realized we’d missed the correct start of the climb. He nervously climbed back down, risking big falls on less-than-ideal terrain. I’m sure his mind was brought back to a major fall he took on The Diamond on Long’s Peak years ago when he fell 70 feet, broke his wrist and punctured a lung, leading to a helicopter rescue. Soon we found the correct start to the climb, and Keith started up again.

Quickly, he passed the lead to me, and I managed to get off route. Soon, I found myself falling out of a crack, the rope quickly catching my fall. I was safe but rattled. I wanted off this damned rock, and we were only a hundred feet up. I passed the baton to Shaun, who was the only one left with a positive attitude. Shaun quickly took the role of leader, launching off into the unknown, wanting nothing more than us to have a successful climb in the mountains.

Soon, we saw an object flying through the sky. It was a shoe. One of Shaun’s hiking shoes had come unclipped from a carabiner, and we watched it bounce off the rock and land on the ground next to a small patch of snow. Perhaps an ominous sign, but before long, Shaun had motored up the wall, past the point of no return.

As fate would have it, shortly after I started leading again, a storm rolled in, with thunderclouds building and winds a whipping like they do in Wyoming. I wished I was anywhere in the world but on this stupid rock. This was not a climb worth risking dying for.

Fortunately, by the time we reached the summit, all the imposing storm could muster was one, lonely clap of thunder. When we hiked off the summit and were back at camp, the experience already seemed fun, but I announced to the team that I was officially retiring from alpine climbing. I’d stick to the crags around Durango, and the Moab desert.

As we walked out amongst the pristine beauty of the wilderness, one of the finest things that the United States has to offer, I knew my alpine retirement would only last a year or two. After all, beauty always calls you back, and that call is a hard one not to pick up.

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