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Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch...


Submitted by roninthorne on 2003-04-12

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From a journal entry dated August 22, 2002 Cloud wisps over the Range; draperies concealing and revealing broken, soaring grey-blue towers of striated, jumbled, jagged granite. They rise above the ranch like sentinels, like ancient gods. Rain cascades down glacier carved valleys, gathering with the steady, icy melt to roam through the talus and house-sized boulders. Evergreens and tiny alpine flora spring from improbable stacks of stone and bits of soil; frozen avalanches, terraces of geological progression.

Our track wound up, throughdeadfalls and fern-covered moss beds, along gently-trickling brooks, the gravel path wide and marked by the tread and passage of many feet. The sounds of vehicles and voices faded into wind and birdsong as we made our deliberate way up the mountain.

In time, the forests thinned into steep open meadows and tree-strewn mountainsides. Stone soon pushed through the sparse soil and scattered talus made the final transformation to boulderfield, a jumble of house-sized rocks riding a sea of smaller stones, all rising inexorably towards the Exxum camp at the Saddle.

We balanced with straining lungs and dripping sweat, awkward overstuffed packs and clattering trekking poles, a group of online friends, lovers of the outdoors gathered from across the country and around the globe. The youngest males, Ben and James, were Yorkshiremen who threw off the last effects of their hangovers (legacy of the previous night's Zoners' Bacchanalia at the AAC Ranch) and charged out ahead like men of iron. Behind them, Mike Gray, Virginian and wandering American climber, your humble chronicler, gimping and puffing along. Only minutes behind me, my Colorado friend DeChristo and his daugheter Ella, a hardman returning to the climbs of his youth and his daughter experiencing the big mountains and high country for the first time. Bringing up the rear came Teton veteran Walt, from Idaho, and climbing newcomer Denise, a SAR ski patrol worker in the Yukon; each moving at their own pace, each lost in their own wonder and thoughts.

(Even now, having met them all and called them all by their given names for a week, it is impossible to separate the online personas from the persons they represent. These folks are exactly what they say, and aside from cosmetic differences, exactly what you expect. Funny, intelligent, honest, insightful, vulgar, farting, belching, sweaty, beautiful human brothers and sisters. Zoners.

After two years of online posts and family feuds, debates and flames and laughter and loss, we had come tigether in this bright rare season, here in the shadow of giants, climbers and hikers and mountaineers from around the globe.

And it was pure magic.

I encourage anyone who has formed an online friendship with a climber or mountaineer to take any opportunity to gather together in community. there is true magic in the feeling of- "We few, we brave band of friends...")

Many pauses, as Denise and I nursed ailing knees, slowly, steadily working our way up behind the others, with Walt helping us along, immoral support at its finest, eager but realistic about our progress.

We arrived at the moraine below the saddle; small, stone-lined bivvies in the jumbled leaving of the glacier, whose remnant still lingered on the slope to our left. Above, a short, broken wall separated us from the shelters of the Exxum camp in the Saddle, and the switchbacked trail leading to the needle, Wall Street, and the Upper Exxum ridge.

The late hour, increasing winds, and our various states of exhaustion decided us on a bivvy there below. Bivvy bags and a tent soon popped into existence, and stoves hissed and roared amid laughter and groans as the Zoners settled in for their first night together on the mountain. Ella, youngest in terms of birthdays and time in the backcountry, shouldered camp duties like an old campaigner, while DeChristo, Walt, Denise, Ben and James kept food cooking and kept each other in stitches. I cooked, snapped photos, nibbled, and laughed with the rest, filled with a glow of something too fine for words. A cold evening of good company under a sky full of stars ended with final "Good night"s and laughter.

[page] Up at "half six" for another laugh-filled meal in darkness, dawn's glow slowly eclipsing the glittering glory of the stars. Daypacks and snacks and Walt's axiom: "Drop the racks!"

Somewhere in all this, the theme of the Spanish Inquisition from Monty Python enters the stream of consciousness as the answer to all the unforeseen or unavoidable obstacles to mountain travel, and soon it becomes our rallying cry, our mantra of hilarious non-sequitor in the face of hardship.

"No one's ever expecting the Spanish Inquisition!" We make our way up to the fixed hawser handline in a grey twilight, marching steadily up, past the Exxum Guides' camp to a spectacular predawn view of Death Canyon, Still dark with the shadows of night. Columned terraces of stone line the flat mesas, stretching away from us, abruptly interrupted at the jumbled, sprawling base of the peaks on whose shoulders we had paused.

More switchbacks, and groups of climbers, follow. Panting, now, as we pass through 10,000 feet and up into 11k.

We thread the Needle, a low boulder cave, with a few false starts and reversals, moments of hilarity and high adventure at last bringing us among the thronging crowd gathered at the base of Wall Street.

Here, the clusterfoxtrot truly begins. Climbers pile up as harnesses and shoes and ropes come out, helmets are donned, groups splinter into pairs and trios, and the conga line slowly inches up the mountain. The shadows are cold, the wind biting, and we stare longingly at the golden light pouring around the corner of Wall Street, highlighting the cluster of climbers waiting there.

In time, we too stand there, a gaggle of Zoners, hurling laughter, mountain wisdom, and abuse in all directions.

(Darkness veils the skies, now, as I sit safely back in the ranch, writing this; bright sun on my shoulders cooled by a rising wind as another storm moves through the peaks of so recent memory, lifting towering ramparts of lightning-lanced cloud across the valley, dwarfing even these mighty mountains.)

Walt is anxious to move, knowing the time and distances that lie ahead, but, despite his impatience, remains in good humor. DeChristo and Ella are glowing; relaxed, uplifted, and joyous. Ben and Jim crack jokes and wind, hip belaying and zig-zagging through slower groups clogging the route. Denise sips on a bottle of Gu, glows, and snaps photos of everyone and thing. I stare up into the mountains shadowed, secret heights, massaging my swollen knee and rejoicing in at last coming to this wondrous place in the clouds.

We spread across the route as differences in pace, ability and temperment define our paths; clumping occasionally at rests and belays, vanishing into the distances of stone, each of us lost for endless moments in a solitary journey across the flanks of a giant. Majestic expanses of stone frame frozen talus rivers, rushing forever towards the valleys below. Ravens croak reply to the squeaks and cries of marmot and pika, tumbling masters of the wind above our slow-moving forms, chained by gravity.

Losing sight of the others, Walt, Denise and I deviate slightly from the route, crossing below the Owens-Spaulding Route towards the Stettner Couloir; Walt almost running up the steep, broken terrain, Denise gamely slabbing and fourth-classing, and yours truly dutifully snapping photos and cracking wise; gathering up the rope and staring about, during rests, in child-like wonder.

I snag a bit of "crag snaffle", a fixed #9 Wild Country Rock unaccountably left in a crack along a fourth class section of the route, then take the lead from a slightly frustrated (and by now admittedly off-route) Walt, assuring him that it is of no great consequence, that we are all safe, happy, and having a blast, and besides that, what else truly matters? Two short, rubble strewn pitches of mostly fourth class later, we gain the true summit.

Meanwhile, the comedy of errors continues. After racing to pass slower groups, the others wait for us at the false summit for almost two hours, spending their time snacking and, as Ella put it: "tanning their faces and hands" in the welcome warmth of the alpine sun. Just out of sight around the shoulder of the mountain and a few hundred feet higher, surprised not to find the group waiting to chivvy us about our slow pace and detour, we settle in to wait for them, chatting with the four climbers there and snapping photos of each other.

[page] Back at the false summit, Jim, our newest inmate, downclimbs "about 40 meters" in search of the missing Zoners, to no avail. He rejoins the others, who resolve to press on and keep an eye out for us, just as we are coming to the same conclusion, moving down towards the rappel.

Just as we reach the last few ledges leading to the slings, a grinning DeChristo calls out from above. We send the others, with whom we had shared the summit and decided to rap, on ahead, waiting for our team, and in a few moments it's "Hail, hail, the gang's all here" once again.

I set the first, single rope rappel, snagging the rope in exactly the same manner as the group before (strictly for the sake of consistency, you understand), dropping down to deal with the tangle as I have before, on so many ridges and walls across the years. The Ends slip through my rap device just as my feet settle into the holds of the short downclimb to the next rap, and I pause to knot the rope tails and call "Off belay" to the waiting group above. The others soon join me and we move on to Act Two of the Zoners' Comedy.

Here, Walt truly proves his great humor and personal integrity. After carefully stacking ropes for the double rap, he moved out to the stance to set lines and toss. Somehow, God alone knows exactly, he managed to create the largest knot since Gordian, all the while being heckled by a choir of Zoners, gathered on the nearby ledges like a murder of crows. That he did not later poison our dinners or smother us in our sleep was truly an act of heroic willpower.

Eventually the ropes relented and fell straight, and, one by one, we descend like ungainly spiders from our lofty perch. While the rest of us trudge down through the switchbacks and reverse the passage of the Needle, Jim runs down the mountain, passing through the incredulous Exxum camp like a dervish whirlwind, intent on securing our bivvy sites from incursion by retreating or newly-arrived groups. He drops pack, marks our territory, and, impatient, returns to the Saddle, in search of the rest, still high above on the path. His partner has joined Walt and I in escorting the exhausted but still-game Denise in her descent of the loose and wandering path.

Somehow, in all this, DeC and Ella become separated from us, and descend the Exxum Gully; an intense series of downclimbs and raps (on webbolettes, no less) that stretch even the normally-sedate DeC's nerves to their limit.

Meanwhile, Jim climbs back down to camp, fails to find us once more, and boulders back up the headwall, sans rope, to find us, once again reunited with DeC and daughter, refilling our water bottles at the hoses just below the Exxum camp. Jim gamely shoulders some of the load for his fifth trip across the slope and down the wall, and, soon enough, we are all safely back in camp.

Clouds, which have shadowed the afternoon, have mercifully refrained from unleashing their burden of rain on us, and we fix a huge and varied post-summit meal with one eye on the sky. After our repast, sighing in contentment, groaning a little with aching muscles and sore feet, we stare in wonder and not a little awe as Walt produces a petite Nalgene bottle of Chivas Regal, apologizing quite un-necessarily that "it ain't twelve-year old". Somehow, we overcome disappointment far enough to indulge.

A warm glow of success, good food and better company, safety and top shelf scotch settles over the camp. Coffee and tea are brewed as we relive funny or dramatic moments of the day; hands gesturing and eyes alight beneath the drifting clouds that alternately obscure and reveal the starry sky. I yield to exhaustion first, shortly thereafter prompting a general collapse into sleep, and silence, broken only by the winds (manmade and otherwise) soon settles over the camp.

[page] I wake to a spatter of raindrops, groaning in sympathy for the unprotected Ben, dossed with feet in his rucksack. DeC, safe in his new OR bivvy bag, groans and mumbles and sleeps on, while Walt and I chat quietly in the growing light.

A clatter from nearby announces the Yorkshiremen on the move, and Grit appears to investigate the cave beneath a nearby boulder. The abrupt arrival of his size 11 boots sends at least one marmot into retreat, and he snoozes for another half hour or so before Jim rousts him with the determined decision to "bugger off this damned hill and down out of the rain." They pack in minutes and we bid them Godspeed as they vanish down the slope.

The decision is infectious, as darker clouds roll over and more drops fall, albeit sporadically. Breakfast is made, after all packs and bags and tents are secured for travel, and we don rain gear for the descent, virtually guaranteeing that it will not rain on us.

Meanwhile, on the trail below, the clouds pace the unfortunate Brits, and they hike on, thoroughly soaked but determinedly descending towards the parking lot, camp, and BEER! In addition, they have been unable to bring themselves to use the provided backcountry "portable toilets" (or "$#!&e in a baggie", as Grit had it), so there is a certain desperation to reach the pit toilets below, as well.

Above them, the rest of us began negotiating the long, steep descent through talus and boulder fields, sun shining down on our slow-moving band now that the storm had followed "the Lads" downslope. Denise and I gimped along on three bad knees, between us; my hamstring aching, her knees sprung and back strained. We paused once in the relative privacy of the boulder caves to shed raingear and insulated clothing for shorts and T-shirts, as Walt and DeC raced ahead, Ella outpacing all of us in youthful exuberance.

Denise and I caught up with the hardmen at the Meadows, where I pressed ahead, leaving her in their excellent care. A few off-route detours and a close encounter with a territorial marmot later, I caught up with Ella, just above the start of the Switchbacks. Pleasant conversation carried us down the last few miles of trail, passing increasing numbers of photographers, dayhikers, and guided Exxum and Jackson groups.

We found Ben and Jim stretched out in the sun behind DeC's truck, their gear spread across its bed and the nearby grass, separated from their beer, in the back of Climer's truck, by only a few millimeters of plexi and a tremendous amount of willpower, which prevented them breaking the glass and blaming it on the Germans, or aliens, or something. They laughed as we related how the storm had apparently chased them down and abandoned us, taking it all with the good-natured curses and cheerful steadfastness we were all coming to know and love.

Ella, hiding in the shade at the side of the truck, remained safely upwind of our bared feet and torsos, smiling all the while.

DeC strode up in about half an hour or so after our arrival, for once behind Ella and I on the trail. Walt and Denise followed a short while later, and Ben and Jim were finally reunited with their beer, while we all shared another round of laughter and congratulations, glancing occasionally at the cloud-wreathed summits where we had so recently played.

Back at camp, showers and clean clothes were the first order of business, followed closely by thoughts of dinner and more BEER! DeC and I shared a shot of Irish before the gang headed out to raid Dornan's for beast, spuds, brews, and assorted necessities.

Back at the Ranch, the Zoners once again take command of the cookshelter. The sound of laughter and conversation fills the air as hands pantomime ridgelines and climbing moves and eyes flash in laughter and wonder and remembrance. The table is spread with roast beast and spuds, bread and veggies, Newcastle and Dead Guy, Moose Juice and Easy Street wheaten ale, Sauza tequila and a few rising clouds of aromatic smoke from the direction of the Chez Ronin. We reminisce about the first night's madness; of Margaret's smile and Stan's delight, Nomad/Norbert's quiet reserve and the Brits infectious good cheer, Phil from New York's steak seasoning and your own humble Ronin's Secret Salad dressing. Strangers and fellow travelers orbit the edges, little dirtbag climbing camp leeches and slacker hardman wannabes drift in and are absorbed.

We are the Zoners. Resistance is futile. You WILL be assimilated.

Beer bottles clink and cameras flash and whir, as the first stars peek through the trees and lightning flickers among the peaks, high above. A full moon rises to smile down on the mayhem. The Spanish Inquisition rides again, coyotes call in the darkness, and, just for a little while, all is right with the world.

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