Gambling is a game of risk and reward and it doesn’t seem to matter if you’re ahead or behind. Walking away is never easy. The “what if” goes off in your head, chirping like a smoke detector for hours or, if you’re me, for weeks.
I felt like I made the right decision when I first walked away from this pillar, but the great thing about climbing, unlike Las Vegas, is that the odds that are tangible are always changing. I first walked away from this pillar on my last day to climb in my own backyard for a few weeks and I knew there was a chance I might never see the pillar again.
A few weeks later, I returned home from my trip hearing the constant chirp in my head. Although the chirp turned into “better get back up there before it falls down,” it was still annoying. I rushed up the valley to find that the pillar had gotten bigger and now it was game time.
I enlisted Daniel Burson and Tanner Callender to join me on the death march up to the pillar. I was able to dangle a little fruit in front of the boys to get them motivated and committed to the approach. The day before, I noticed a possible two-pitch first ascent that would lead us to the base of the cliff band that we wanted to hit in order to traverse to the base of the pillar.
The approach didn’t seem so bad after we ticked off a fun new route along the way. It also seemed to fill the appetite of my two partners, who didn’t want to sign up for another “day hike with Mulkey.”
We quickly traversed across the ledge system toward the base of the pillar, but as soon I laid eyes on the route, I was crushed.
As I said in the video, when things seem bad from afar, they usually are. The crack in the pillar was obvious from far away, which at the time seemed like a no-brainer decision. As I got closer, I started to think it wasn’t as bad as it looked. There was a fresh bit of ice on the right side, which looked like it had re-attached the pillar to the upper portion of the route. I wanted this pillar really badly and tried to weigh my decisions like a parent instructing a 7-year old. Do I need this or do I just want this?
I eventually made the decision, just like a 7-year old would—I need this!
No, not really. We all analyzed the pillar and came up with a group decision that it looked okay to give it. If Daniel and Tanner had said “No way,” I would have known I was only listening to my inner 7-year old, but I value both of their insights.
One of my rules is to never climb skinny pillars when the temps are in the teens. On this day, it was about 13 degrees, but we were in the direct sun, which made things seem much warmer than they were. While we were at the base, the temperatures were fluctuating a decent amount, between getting chilly when clouds passed in front of the sun and feeling like I should be laying out on a beach. It looked like the sun was not going to be covered by any oncoming clouds and the base of the pillar was very secure and fat.
I decided that despite the crack, which I fully understand is a big deal, the pillar was secure enough to climb. I also knew that I could climb it without pushing my limits at all.
I began by throwing my axe a few times into the base feeling out the ice density. Everything sounded and felt great. I was still being very cautious, as I began tip-toeing my way up. Feeling like the pillar was very stable about half way up, I placed a screw and kept going until I reached the top of the fracture. Once at the fracture line, I realized that what we had thought was re-connected was absolutely not connected. At this point, I was committed and down-climbing the pillar was a much more frightening option.
I got a nice tool placement above my head in the roof where the ice was bonded to the wall and I felt much more secure. After a few slightly overhanging moves, I was standing on top of the fractured pillar. I went ahead and began to place a screw in the ice attached to the rock, feeling like this would finally allow me to sigh in relief. As I began placing the screw, I repositioned my foot and the entire pillar began to shift forward. I felt like I was standing on the top step of a wobbling ladder. I pushed my feet back towards the wall, and as the ice hit the wall, it began raining down on my belayer. I regained my balance and continued to keep the pillar pressed against the wall, as I quickly put in a screw. The ice was very airy from the constant wind sculpting and my first screw was not the ship anchor I was hoping for. The outcome of this situation seemed certain to my belayers, as I scrambled for another screw placement to anchor this ship about to set sail. I gained a second screw that was worse than the first. I fought through visions of myself riding this ice tower to the ground like King Kong and finally got a decent screw. I equalized them and clipped into my anchor point.
We worked quickly as a team to get my ropes out of the system below so that, if the pillar went down, it didn’t take me with it. Once the system was straight into my new anchor, my belayers lowered me down the pillar very slowly as I kept constant pressure on the pillar, pushing it toward the wall.
Once my feet were firmly planted on the ground below, we celebrated with a huge smile. I realized I just escaped a very bad situation and it cost me one of my 9 lives. I only have 5 left.
I climb a ton of ice and I have realized my comfort level in sketchy situations grows like I’m a cobra handler. As I gain experience and time in my craft, I get more comfortable. Unfortunately, eventually the snake is gonna try to bite me and I better be ready to act quickly.
Walking away is sometimes harder than the climb itself, but the experience gained in walking away is priceless. Being smart and knowing when to say when isn’t just common sense for the bar.