Forbidden Rock

Tyler, a close friend who has been rock climbing in Yosemite for the past year, comfortably enjoys the coarse granite and infinite exposure of Forbidden Peak’s West Ridge. I, however, have not rock climbed in almost eight months and the feeling of sticking soft rubber to hard rock is unfamiliar and invigorating. Here in the heart of the North Cascades, on one of the most aesthetic and remote peaks in Washington State, I’m reminded of how amazing it is to dance vertically on perfect rock.

It’s not only amazing; it’s intimidating. I’ve climbed routes like this before. Harder ones too. But it’s been a long time. Having spent most of 2009 mountaineering in South America, Antarctica and Nepal, I’m accustomed to glaciers, seracs and crevasses instead of arêtes, dihedrals and splitters. For this reason, I’m slightly apprehensive when Tyler, Freya and I park at the trailhead—a turnout on the side of a gravel road 22-miles away from anything resembling civilization.

The West Ridge of Forbidden Peak (II-III, 5.6) is an alpine climb in the true sense of the term, meaning that before the rock climbing begins one must negotiate the hazards of a crumbling glacier and a terribly overgrown approach trail. The low alder branches that grab my pack are enough to distract me from thinking about the rock climb ahead, but when we catch our first view of the peak from a talus field on the outskirts of Boston Basin, my apprehension returns.
Entering Boston Basin.
It’s a feeling anyone can understand, the nervousness that drags on your soul before you start a challenging project. You wonder about your motivations. You question the rationality of embarking on such an endeavor. You think, “Should I go through with this?” These are natural questions, especially when 12-hours of ceaseless climbing looms ahead.

So what does it take to overcome this nervousness? Boldness. Knowing that I’ve already committed to climbing this route, my response to these inner questions is to keep moving. Tyler says, “Get low!” as I crawl beneath dense underbrush. Freya, who is shorter than me by more than a foot, has already passed the obstacle and is waiting at a river crossing ahead. One of the best ways to overcome pre-climb apprehension is to forget about it by focusing on the task at hand. For me, this is especially easy when we reach the glacier and the real climbing begins.
Tyler and I search for a river crossing.
The sky, so far, is clear and the stars illuminate our path. We loop around crevasses and steadily ascend towards a narrow couloir of steep snow that ends at the west ridge. I feel at home on the glacier. My rhythm of steps and breaths remains constant regardless of the terrain. I feel no apprehension here.
Tyler though, seems slightly annoyed with all the snow. “Most Californians would be crying right about now,” he says, laughing at himself. “I’ve gotten soft.”
It takes us two hours to ascend the glacier and clamber onto the ridge. And while Tyler is noticeably more comfortable, my nervousness returns.
Chatting at camp in Boston Basin.
In Fifty Classic Climbs of North America Steve Roper and Allen Steck describe the route like this: “On the west side of Forbidden Peak, an elegant and airy spine of rock ascends smoothly from a prominent saddle to the summit.” In order to reach the saddle, we decide to simul-climb a fourth-class gulley. The moves are simple but an awkward pack and coil of rope complicates things. My hands are cold from grasping the dewy rock. There is a short step of blocky granite that must be climbed. All I can do is focus and keep moving, but I can barely control my nerves. Still, I know I must move up.
Freya is having the same trouble. She is stuck beneath the blocky step and is struggling to find a hold. She voices her frustration with hurried cursing that she directs at the wall. While her short stature was an advantage in the trees, here it is a detriment, but she climbs the step elegantly and we finish the gully, reaching the saddle as the sun rises amongst altostratus clouds
Re-racking gear on ridge.

We stash extra gear—crampons, boots, ice axes—in a small cave and begin pitching-out the climb. Now that Freya and I have removed the bulk from our packs and the coils of rope from our shoulders, we climb more smoothly. Tyler places protection every so often in the solid granite cracks that adorn the ridge like grains in cedar. My confidence and comfort increase with every pitch. Freya too seems solid on the rock. Tyler, as always, moves with the precise care and decisiveness that only comes from countless hours spent on alpine rock. Suddenly, the three of us are climbing efficiently and the pitches disappear beneath us.

Anchor on West Ridge

On most climbs there is a moment when boldness must outweigh apprehension. This is especially true on an unfamiliar route that requires the climber to perform moves that he has not practiced for a long time. A climber’s poise in this “moment-of-truth” makes the difference between a summit and a failure, an accident and a lesson, a good climb and a bad one. It seems like the more of these moments that I experience, the more that I pass through safely, the better climber I become and the more fun I have doing it. Without these moments we wouldn’t learn a thing. So having them, no matter how uncomfortable or scary they might be, is absolutely essential.

I’m perched in a narrow belay-stance on the side of a thousand-foot wall. The mountain, the glacier, the entire North Cascades stretch out beneath me. The vastness seems large enough to swallow the world. I look down. A feeling of vertigo catches my heart for a moment, but the apprehension does not return like it might have a few hours ago. Instead, I find myself relishing the exposure. Some people say “don’t look down” in a situation like this, but right now I can’t rip my eyes away from the nothingness that falls out beneath me. My amazement is made more potent because everything—the chalk, cams, rock-shoes, granite—is slightly unfamiliar.
Somewhere close to the summit.

Note: All photographs courtesy of Freya Fennwood. 


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