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The Good Life


by Matt Selman

September 01, 2002

Reminiscences of Quasi-Epics and Dirtbag Living

For me, real life began with a fifteen foot artificial wall. Who would have thought that a homespun contraption of wood and plastic strapped to a basketball standard in a gym would lead to bigger, grander things—walls of quartzite a hundred times greater, flows of blue ice, and a lifestyle shift from which a twelve year old boy never looked back? Now, only a few years later, I can vividly remember adventures wilder and more exciting than I would have ever thought possible.

Joe's Valley, Utah

I sunk my last swing and topped out just as the sun disappeared over the western mountains. Pablo eyed the last rays of day with a hint of dismay as he clipped me into the belay. Below us, Darren, Reed, and our other rope were barely starting the final pitch. Pablo worked to bring some order to our belay station as we watched the orange daubs of the sunset play across the frozen surface of Joe's Valley Reservoir far below. The wind picked up and carried with it a low, barely audible hum. Far off and mechanical, yet strangely melodic, the distant noises were as eerie and terrible as a moan of lament, and could mean only one thing: the ice of the reservoir was settling in for the night.

The day of ice climbing in Joe's Valley had been excellent so far. We had climbed a thousand or so feet of ice in a gully called Deadbolt, finishing up in the mid afternoon. None of us were satisfied with cutting the day short there, so we drove around and checked out various flows, finally making our way to the reservoir. There we spotted Melty Way, a prime route with a three-star rating and a twenty-foot approach.

Nothing looked three-star about Melty Way when we first saw it. The first pitch, looking more like snow than ice, clung tenuously to the sandstone. I expected it to sheer off at any moment. Darren, though, always willing to give things a go, decided to sink a pick into the first patch of ice. He returned to the car and met our critical gazes with confidence. "That feels really cool. Let's get on it!"

So get on it we did. Pablo and I decided to hike up around in order to skip the questionable first pitch, while Darren and Reed dove into it head on. We met them at the belay and racked up. Pablo headed straight up the second pitch with nary a whimper, although chunks of ice continually pounded our belay. Soon enough he had me on belay and I cleaned up after him. The climbing was straightforward, with only a funky dry-tool move and a very exposed bulge to set me back. Once I was tied in to the tree, we all agreed that we should finish the third pitch despite the approach of nightfall. Pablo again took the lead on a particularly long pitch of perfect ice.

As I sat back in my harness and paid out rope, I saw something that inspired me to move faster. Looking into the west, I saw dark, ominous clouds building on the horizon. They seemed to be fast-moving, and I felt a breeze. A storm was coming. Darren finished the second pitch just as Pablo topped out on the third, so I left him at the tree and started up on the final pitch. It started out easily enough and then turned practically horizontal for a short while. The final wall of ice was dead vertical and looked challenging. My arms were getting pumped, but I knew that it was the last obstacle before I could rest for a bit. So, with weak swings, I attacked it and somehow managed to pull through the last little bulge. I had arrived at the top; however, the crux would be getting down.

Once Darren and Reed had joined us, a brief conference revealed that ALL of our headlamps were in the car, inaccessible despite the fact that they were only four hundred feet away. So there was only one thing to do: rappel into the night. We tossed the ropes and Pablo began to descend. The minutes it took Pablo to rap down that pitch felt like painful hours. Fortunately, I was next in line to rappel. I stepped up to the anchor to clip my ATC on the rope. Only then did I realize the seriousness of my predicament: my gloves, sopping wet earlier in the day, were now solid, encasing my numb fingers in an immobile cage of ice. Nevertheless, I leaned back and started my descent.

Rappelling ice at night is no easy game. My feet fumbled in the dark to find some purchase on the ice. With every faulty foot placement, my crampon would sketch off and my balance would shift, slamming my body into the wall. Finally, though, I was at the second belay with Pablo.

I remember little about waiting for Darren and Reed to descend. My mind kept slipping into some state between sleep and wakefulness. A cold blast of wind would jar me from the brink of sleep every now and again, until I finally realized that I must stay alert. I recall that it was bitter cold, but my body gradually developed some fuzzy, dangerous kind of warmth. Then our two partners arrived. We pulled the rope and set up the next toss, which by some outside grace reached the ground. We were almost there. Again, Pablo went first, followed by me. I didn't even bother to take my crampons off as I stumbled across the road to the car.

That night we dined on Wendy's (feeling as though the meal was fit for a king) and I went to bed content. I knew there was more alpine fun where that came from.

Mount Nebo, Utah

My climbing partner Ben and I found ourselves at the base of the summit cone of Mount Nebo, highest point in the Wasatch. It was an early season ascent, and we were looking for some steep snow climbing. The last two hundred feet to the summit were just what we hoped for.

I led up the first pitch of the thing, and Ben belayed me on fifty feet of seven millimeter rope. I stopped in the middle of the snowfield to bring Ben up. My axe-belay was crap, but I wasn't worried. It was the second pitch that got me scared. As I started up it, rollerballs of snow began coming down all around. I felt beads of sweat on my face as I contemplated the consequences of a wet snow avalanche: Ben and I would be swept down the short face and over a cliff. No sense worrying about that now, I thought. So up it was. I belayed from the rocks on the ridgetop. Ben followed confidently. I don't think he realized how close we were to a bad situation. Good. We reached the summit. The descent was just as treacherous. This time, I tried to bang a pin into the limestone for a belay, but there was no such luck. It was back to the axe-belays. So we made our way carefully down, rollerballs still heralding some great release yet to come. But it was not intended for us. The rest of the descent was absolutely enjoyable.

Funny how survival fills you with life.

Mount Olympus, Utah

The West Slabs on Mount Olympus are a classic, easy mountaineering route. Over a thousand feet of easy slab climbing offer an extraordinary day's climb. Moreover, I had a personal vendetta with the mountain.

It was a game of success and failure when I first climbed West Slabs in 2000. I had been climbing just over a year, the entire time with the same partner. Jon and I free soloed the face without much difficulty, but it was "out of the frying pan, into the fire" when we started the descent. On that steep, brushy nightmare, Jon reconsidered his attachment to climbing. I gained a little tic on the resume with the ascent, and lost a partner on the way down.

Two years later, I returned to Mount Olympus with a new partner: Ben. We drove the sixty miles to Salt Lake City at five o'clock in the morning and were on the slabs by eight. Again, the actual climbing was no problem. We made swift progress and enjoyed ourselves immensely on the super-easy (albeit exposed) climb. I was bent on keeping Ben as a partner, so I chose a descent route on the other side of the mountain ("Is that a trail going down that gully?"). "That gully" turned out to be a thousand feet of steep, treacherous slabs hemmed in on both sides by late-season snow/ice couloirs which met at the bottom—forming a steep, dangerous ‘Y' of snow. Of course, we were unable to discern that until we were in the maw of the ugly trap. We downclimbed the slabs until it became too steep; one rappel brought us to a level with the snowfield.

We were at an impasse. Our soft-soled approach shoes were no match for the ice in the couloirs. A fall on the slippery surface would mean disaster, definite death or injury. We agonized for what seemed an eternity. What could we do? There was only one option. Across the narrowest part of the tongue of snow, there was a wide dish of rock in which we could sit. We had to risk it to reach that spot.

I precariously chopped out steps across the snow with a rock. I muttered profanities under my breath, as ever so often the lip of a hold would break and send my shoe screeching for something—anything—to grip. A few frightening minutes later, Ben and I were both across. From the dish of rock, we could see a narrow moat between snow and rock. How far down it went, or where it led, we had no idea. We followed it nonetheless. It was difficult going, sometimes stemming between ice and rock, and finally I was able to pull over a great quartzite bulge and find easy ledges above. We climbed onto the safety of a ridge, up and away from the nightmare which had so nearly left us puzzled and trapped.

Our bad karma was further evidenced upon our return to civilization. When we reached the rich suburb where we had parked, we asked a middle-aged man (obviously a first-class citizen) how we could get to our car on Zarahemla Drive from his house. He took a few uncomfortable seconds to look us over. We were filthy and covered in chalk, I had a rope strung over my shoulder, and we both still wore our harnesses. Apparently he didn't approve. With a sneer and a shake of the head, he replied, "I couldn't tell you." We waved and thanked him, and found Zarahemla just a block down. You can always count on friendly locals to save the day.

Logan Canyon, Utah

Paxton and I arrived in the Canyon late one night. And I mean late. We could barely find a place to camp in the dark. Early the next morning, we woke up, rolled out of our hammocks, and set immediately to slacklining. I was in the middle of the line, seeking some peaceful state of balance (or maybe I was just having fun. . .) when a mountain biker pulled up to our camp. It was then that I realized that I was still in my capilene boxers. He gave me a strange look and rode off. Only later in the day did I realize that the joke was on me. How was I supposed to know that our campsite was a trailhead?

Payson High School, Utah

"Next," the counselor called.

Paxton and I looked at each other with the terrible knowledge that this could take, well, hours. Others had been at the high school for over two hours waiting to speak to a counselor. It was the last chance to make schedule changes, and we both had some important things to discuss concerning graduation; thus, we figured we would stay as long as needed. Five more minutes passed.

We looked at each other and both understood.

"Screw it."

Flying out to our cars, we made some last minute plans. "Your rope or mine?" "Mine," I said. "Do you have your harness?"

"Yeah. Meet me at my house in a few minutes."

Soon we were at the base of our appointed route. Barely avoiding a tree, I started into a lieback. I shuffled up to a pocket that ate up a big Wallnut. Another stance a few feet up accepted another nut, and I felt solid. The crux moves appeared to be right above me and I stepped up tenuously until my left hand found a deep, sharp two-finger pocket; my right fiddled with a placement in the crack. "This nut is crap, Paxton." The benefits of the placement were purely psychological. It would not hold a fall.

My breathing and pulse quickened, and I felt my hands greasing up. One more move and I would be fully committed. My foothold blew, and I barely caught myself. Breathing deeply now, I downclimbed a few feet to a good rest on the pocket. There I gathered my thoughts. To give up now, I knew, would leave me angry with myself. The near-ascent would haunt me. Moreover, it would take me one step backward from my desire to be a bold traditional climber. It felt as though that moment, that decision, might be the fulcrum in my climbing career. Every climber has—sometimes even seeks for—moments of transcendency. Times when you go just a little further than you thought possible, when you detect a change in yourself. At that stance, that suspended instant, my choice was simple. Up or down. Success or failure. Sensing an opportunity for romantic commentary, the fatalist in me made the decision: I'll send this thing, or die trying.

So I climbed back up to the crux, and stared at it for a little while, trying to break the limestone code. Finally, reaching around a small arête, I found a funky little pinch. Certainly not a jug, but the angle was perfect to balance my move. What had looked like a 5.10 move was, at most, a 5.8 sequence. I emitted an elated whoop.

"It goes, dude!"

Paxton looked up just in time to see me pull to the summit anchor. I clipped in and leaned back. Up. Success. Transcendency. A coveted first ascent. But the day was not over.

After Paxton had led the climb, I decided that I should lead it again, so that we could agree on a rating. I was not at all concerned as I started up the lieback – I had this climb mastered. So it was much to my surprise when, ten feet up and just below my first placement, I sketched.

Earlier, on the crux moves, I had feared that I would fall. I had downclimbed, reconsidered, and, of course, ultimately decided that I could make it. Not so this time. It happened with the force and decisiveness of a swinging mallet. And it happened before I realized what was going on.

However, the fall went by slowly. It has been said that, in moments like these, time slows down for the person experiencing it. I can attest that it is true. The fall occurred with agonizing slowness. My chain of thoughts went something like this: Wait, this isn't right. I'm not on the rock. Falling? What? How? Isn't there a tree behind me? Can I dodge it? No, I'll definitely hit that. Anything else I should be aware of?

Suddenly I felt something burn or tear into the right side of my back and underarm. I realized that I had hit the tree.

My shout rang out and pierced the air around me. Then I was tumbling, and I soon found myself head downhill at the sloping base of the route. I returned to realtime. Above me, Paxton started laughing. I joined him until I remembered the searing pain in my back.

"Dude, I hit that sharp branch right there." I lifted up my shirt. "Can you see anything?"

Paxton grimaced, "Looks like some pretty bad rash, but it's not bleeding real bad.

I looked down to see my hands and knees trembling. Suddenly, the world started to gyrate slowly and I was forced to sit down. I must have been in very mild stages of shock. That point was proven when, five minutes later, I returned to the base of the crack, mumbling something mantra-like and incoherent. Again, I touched rubber toe to dolomite and leaned into another lieback.

My quest for boldness weighed heavily on my thoughts as I climbed past the first pocket, the one that was supposed to accept a big Wallnut. I passed it by. I suppose that I had some idea at that point of what I wanted to do, but I was unsure of my ability to pull it off. My plans were further cemented when I skipped the second placement, as well. By the third, I was entirely committed to finish the climb as a free-solo. I swung into the two-finger pocket and, thinking, looked down to the earth below. It was a hell of a runout. Suddenly realizing the finality of the moves above me, I downclimbed to make a placement. I was chickening out.

I have spoken of the crystal moments when a person transcends what they thought was the standard, when they reach a more ideal level. There, below the pocket, I took myself beyond what I thought I could push myself to do. The fear was gone now. It was replaced by an uncertainty, but it was not inhibiting. I fired through the crux moves and latched the final jug without another thought. It was over.

Back on terra firma, I was met by a strange sensation. I questioned what I had just done. Was I really able to make such an ascent? Apparently so. Then darker thoughts crept in. Is that the type of risk you want to take—heck, was it worth it? I was forced to come to terms with a change in my thinking. It was food for thought on the descent. It wasn't until later, days later, that I decided to be glad for my ascent. I couldn't bring myself to downclimb from the middle of the crux.

Back on that tiny artificial wall, I don't think I could have had any idea of the revolution to come. Climbing has taken me to depths (heights?) unfathomable. I guess everyone needs to take inventory by asking themselves: would I have it any other way? My answer, I think, could only be "no."

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