The Cleanest Line

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    Cover Story

    by Kelly Cordes

    Kc - 99, 06, 07 AAJs

    What makes a good cover? Well, as with most things, that depends. What do you want? Sex appeal? Eye candy? Or are you hoping to convey something more? The story behind the image means something. To me it does, anyway. Since 2000 I’ve been one of the editors of the American Alpine Journal, and we try to capture the previous year in big new routes, worldwide, in our annual edition, as we’ve done since 1929. Right now we’re frantically trying to wrap things up and get the 2011 book to press.
     
    What to put on the cover? It should probably be from one of the feature articles – we select features based on what we (with consultation from others in the serious alpine community) consider the most badass, interesting and inspiring big climbs of the previous year. And after sorting through the barrage of butt-shots, we find some gems and make a decision.

    [From left: Covers of the 1998, 2006, 2007 AAJs.]

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    Picture Story: Competency

    A photographic exposition, in which the photographer herein pontificates on the significance of sufficient competency in the face of ample conditions . . . -Ed

    Competency

    The joys of competency and individuality – The Chief and I seemed to have the latter down pat, anyway. I suppose we delude ourselves, which is part of the beauty of escape and climbing. Back in the mid 90s, midway up the north face of the Canadian Rockies’ classic Mt. Edith Cavell, rated an old-school 5.7 (we’d have been wise to check the weather and conditions before leaving, and to have scoped the approach and the route, have not arrived after dark and too many road sodas, have…well, you get the point), a full-on blizzard engulfed us. I began to shiver uncontrollably, and indeed The Chief showed true competency and took over, leading us to the top and down the whiteout descent. By the time I’d warmed enough to become functional, the next day had dawned and we intersected a highway of a trail off the descent scramble. We started hiking the right way, convinced ourselves it was the wrong way, turned around and hiked a couple of miles toward the Tonquin Valley until a couple of bewildered hikers – bewildered like, “what are these two idiots doing out here?” – eventually set us straight. “Uh, yeah – YEAH dude, totally, I thought so!” The Chief told them. “Thanks for clarifying it for us!” Back at the high-speed pod 30-some hours after leaving, we reveled in our adventure. At least until we read that infamous guidebook line: “A competent party can climb the face comfortably in a day….”

    And still, we celebrated.

    [The Chief, back at the high-speed pod, celebrating our incompetence. Photo: Kelly Cordes]

    Bean’s Battle

    Kc - helen bean P1000813 Our friend and fellow Patagonia climbing ambassador Bean Bowers just finished his second round of chemotherapy.

    It all seems so weird, so different. One of the best things about climbing is the feeling of control in unknown, even chaotic environments. I love that. We all do. The most adventuresome among us—people like Bean—inspire with their willingness to embrace wild situations, and they return with a glow that tells us everything. It’s such a contrast to a world that feels huge, cold, corporate, corrupt, where we feel powerless. In wilderness we escape and live, we get to control our selves and our destinies. Not everything is like that. Waking in the middle of the night puking, writhing with crippling headaches, your body suddenly racked with tumors is not like that.

    So this is where we try to help.

    [Helen and Bean in El Chalten, Argentine Patagonia, where they scraped by in a small cabin for several seasons. Photo: Kelly Cordes]

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    Choose Your Own Storytelling

    Kc - siyeh P1030455 The comments got me thinking. I’m talking about the comments on my last post, about adventure and youth. So many shifts, twists, turns, contradictions and evolutions that keep life interesting, and keep adventure and individuality alive.

    How do these shifts interplay with our desire to share our stories? Several commenters – here and on the Facebook repostings – mentioned the climbing media. Indeed there’s likely some truth to the climbing media paying more attention to the more popular and quantifiable forms of climbing. People want it. Ratings and numbers have always had the ability to capture and categorize in ways more easily understood than any attempts to articulate adventure. That doesn’t mean that adventure climbing is dead. Maybe we just don’t hear about it as much.

    Or maybe, like adventure itself, we just have to search harder for it. The stories are out there.

    [An awesome adventure, but I can’t tell you where. Photo: Kelly Cordes]

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    Choose Your Own Adventure

    Cordes - DoniniChileIMG_0404(LR) While gazing into my navel and pulling out lint the other day, I wondered about adventure. It seems to me that, based on my admittedly unscientific observations of news reports and the ascents I encounter in my American Alpine Journal editorial job, refinement ascents are all the rage. By refinement, I mean something other than bona fide first ascents and new routes. Things like fastest ascent, new enchainment, first alpine-style ascent, first one-day ascent and first free ascent with its endless sub-denominations (onsight, redpoint, continuous free, team free, individual free, and so many that I can’t keep them straight – and, notably, as with everything that is a work in progress, the standards keep shifting).

    I don’t mean for “refinement” to sound derogatory. You can’t fault today’s climbers for the reality that fewer obvious virgin lines exist. But we’ve got so many more advantages now, why not make the extra effort? Why aren’t the young whipper snappers doing like the royal “we” did? Uphill both ways with frostbitten toes and an 80-pound pack, baby? (80?! Hell, we had 100!) Well, for one, it’s probably true that the young whipper snappers aren’t as inclined to trudge to the middle of nowhere – they’re too busy climbing hard.

    It’s just a shift. Things evolve. And who’s to say that a first free isn’t an adventure? (Though there can be little dispute that, all else equal, heading onto previously untouched terrain presents a much greater element of the unknown.)

    [Jim Donini, mid-approach in search of virgin climbing terrain in remote Chilean Patagonia. Photo: Kelly Cordes]

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    No Exposed Bone (and a Marg recipe)

    Cordes - JW rap2 Shingu(LR) First off, I’m talking about my ankle. My cankle, still swollen from my broken leg and part of my next round of surgeries on Monday. My final surgeries, inshallah, making six in a little over a year. I’ve had enough. Should be minor, removing most of the hardware store in my lower leg, trimming my knee and cleaning-up my ankle. Should help my mobility. But there’s a chance they’ll find exposed bone on the weight-bearing surfaces of my ankle and have to micro-fracture, putting me back into a hellish recovery. Again. Doctors Hackett and Clanton, world-class surgeons at the Steadman Clinic, who focus on high-end athletes (thus begging the question of how I got in…), fully get it, know my climbing plans, and we’ve got a good plan. Clanton suggested we print T-shirts saying “No exposed bone.” I love it. But I started growing a hemlock tree, just in case.

    It’s just that I’ve been, I don’t know, down too long in the midnight sea. Like those times when you feel like you’re the Last in Line. It’s like being stuck 3,000 feet up something and you have to get down, but you just chopped one of your ropes. In which case, here’s a trick I’ve used to still do full-length rappels:

    [To getting down safely and enjoying good margs. Photo: Kelly Cordes]

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    Bigger than El Cap - A (totally unscientific) search for the lower 48's biggest rock faces

    Kc - meadowIMG_2816(LR) Introduction

    Little compares to Yosemite's El Capitan in majesty and sustained steepness. But contrary to popular lore, it’s not the Lower 48’s biggest rock face. It’s not even the biggest in the Valley – the south face of Mt. Watkins is bigger. Well, maybe. How do you measure? (OK, I feel the urge to crack wise about size vs. usage, but I am hereby officially restraining myself.) Several rock faces are bigger than both, but you can’t take peoples’ words for it. Climbers exaggerate worse than fishermen. I see it all the time in the reports I receive and edit for my job with the AAJ; I think some climbers measure cliff size starting from their driveway.
     
    We need an exact, unambiguous climber definition. Here goes: It can’t have too much 3rd-class terrain. Ummm, how much is “too much?” It has to be sustained (how do you define that?) technical climbing, bottom to top. I think that “technical climbing” is fairly defined as 5th-class climbing; hikers and peakbaggers consider climbing to be what we consider hiking and scrambling, and that’s fine, but this post is about legitimate rock climbing (are the stacked blocks in Glacier legit?). How much 3rd-class scrambling or how big of a treed-ledge disqualifies a face?
     
    Perhaps sub-categories are in order. But that makes my brain hurt.

    [El Capitan. Photo: Kelly Cordes]

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    Second-annual Copp-Dash Inspire Award

    Copp-Dash1 Micah and I had been making more trips than usual to Eldo, trying to cross some of the more obscure, difficult routes off our list. Always working his weaknesses, Micah was on a ‘hard single-pitch redpointing’ binge at this time because he knew it would make him strong for the ‘real’ mountains. We’d had to make several return trips to finally redpoint some of the harder routes that had thwarted us. With Micah standing about 5’6” with little “chisel tip fingies” as he’d say, and myself at 6’4” with paddles for hands, our noses were about the only thing of comparable dimension, and for that reason we could never share the same beta on routes. Fortunately, this was a great excuse we’d commiserate on when neither of us sent the route, leaving us to come back another day.

    We knew logistically we weren’t ideal climbing partners for this beta-intensive single pitch stuff, but we always told ourselves that our difference in size would make us great partners in the mountains. “There’s no crack size out there that wouldn’t take one of our hands, feet or limbs,” we’d say, as ‘perfect hands,’ after all, always depend on whose hands you're talking about.

    Applications are now being accepted for this year's Copp-Dash Inspire Award. Hit the jump to continue enjoying Kristo Torgersen's story about climbing with Micah and find further Award details and application deadline. - Ed

    [Jonny Copp and Micah Dash enjoy the high point of their 2008 attempt to set up a new route on the feared West Face of the Petit Dru, Chamonix, France. Photo: © Jonny Copp]

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    Fighting Forty (pt. 5) - Anniversaries

    The 5th and final installment in Kelly Cordes' series about perils and pleasures of aging gracefully while slaying stereotypes (the first installments are here:1, 2, 3, and 4). A series of significant injuries - the most recent a severely torn shoulder - forced Kelly to bow out of an exciting trip to Patagonia. In this final segment, he marks the one-year anniversary since the string of misfortunes began. -Ed

    Packsled A year ago last week I sat grimacing in the snow in Hyalite Canyon, my shattered leg pointing east. I'd been feeling good and climbing strong, had just spent a terrific few days in Cody, and looked forward to big summer adventures in Alaska and Pakistan. In an instant, everything changed. Three surgeries, a haze of pain meds, crutches for three months, learning to walk again... Adapt, deal. Never mind my shoulder surgery and my pending "touch-up" leg surgeries - anniversaries are times to reflect. Times of growth, times of...enough of that crap. I wish it never had happened. But it did.

    Early in my recovery, my cousin asked me how I handle the uncertainty of it all. Truth is, I don't know. It's weird in a way - alpinism has everything to do with the unknown, embracing uncertainty, and I love that. It used to scare me, but I guess I'm used to it with climbing. Now, different uncertainties scare me.

    [Broken in the snow, Hyalite Canyon, MT. Photo: Cordes collection]

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    Fighting Forty (pt. 4) - Stumbling on Balance

    Part 4 in Kelly Cordes' series about perils and pleasures of aging gracefully while slaying stereotypes (the first three installments are here:1, 2, and 3). After a series of significant injuries - the most recent a severely torn shoulder - Kelly was forced to bow out of an upcoming trip to Patagonia with fellow climbing ambassador Tommy Caldwell. In this segment, he takes stock of training strategies past and future. -Ed

    Kc - gimpy hang 2061(lr) On my daily walk I got to thinking.

    Wait, stop. What? Daily walk?!

    Yes, I also get a chuckle imagining the look of abject disgust my 25 year-old self would give me now. Run, bike, climb, push, sure. GoGoGo. Walking is what old people do to get their mail. But injuries and rehab force me to reflect, and as I strapped on my protective arm sling – it officially came off Tuesday, but I’m being careful – I smiled and recalled a tale. It has to do with pace, I suppose, as there’s this old bull and a young bull standing atop a hillside, looking down upon a herd of pretty cows, and the young bull goes, "Hey, Dad!"  . . . er, sorry. This isn't the place for it.

    I also recalled a time many years ago, when I went for a simple walk at Lumpy Ridge. No climbing shoes and chalk bag, just a walk. On my way out I passed two friends on their way back from climbing, and they didn’t say much, just stared at me with these puzzled looks. I thought nothing of it, said “hi” and kept walking. Later at the bar, one of them asked, incredulously, what I was doing. “Just going for a walk, that’s all. It’s nice.”

    “But dude,” he said. “You don’t have a girlfriend.”

    [Kelly working on his “Hangboard for Ants” last winter, after severely fracturing his lower leg. Photo: Cordes collection]

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