I recently watched the movie Dirtbag, about the northwest climber Fred Beckey. It tells the story of our famed local adventurer whose guidebooks to the Cascades have greatly aided all Northwest climbers. About midway through the film, there is a beautiful panorama of Forbidden Peak near Cascade Pass, and with dramatic music soaring in the background, the narrator extols the grandeur and daunting nature of this magnificent mountain. On the movie screen, the mountain’s ridges stand out boldly above the icy abysses below.
I was shaken out of my reverie concerning the exploits of the intrepid Beckey with the sudden recollection that I had climbed Forbidden Peak as well, back in the early 1970s. And the weird part was I had once stood on its summit, alone.
All the next day, I felt queasy, as if the world was somewhat out of whack. I am not a rock-climbing legend—anything but—however, there was my strange experience of summiting Forbidden Peak without a partner or protection. Free soloing, I guess you would say. Only this was during a time when nobody was free soloing, or at least when it wasn’t the thing it is now.
Even though I would never choose to do a risky thing like this, I had no choice here, and that fact somehow allowed me to completely surrender to the sheer joy of moving over the rock.
Had I been nuts? Not at first. I started the trip with a partner, someone I had known since high school. We were college-age at the time. Russ had distinguished himself by being part of a group that designed one of the first expedition tents having the now-common design that uses flexible rods in sleeves to support its thin rip-stop nylon covering. On this trip, we took one of his “Omnipotent” prototypes to Boston Basin. I’m not sure how much climbing experience he had under his belt. I had been rock and glacier climbing since the previous year after taking a university course on mountaineering.
On August 2, 1972, we set off from the parking lot at a fast pace, each of us thinking the other had set (this is how young men hike). After a night in the basin, we traversed westward and upward to the south face of Forbidden, which, in those days at least, was a reasonably straightforward snow climb, but nowadays may require a more complicated and time-consuming rock scramble. Forty-plus years ago, though, we quickly dispatched the climb before skirting the East ridge and preparing to take the final summit from the north face.
It was about this time that Russ stopped, laid down on a rock, and began punching his stomach while moaning. He complained he had stomach troubles and felt like puking and fainting, worrisome symptoms to observe in a climbing partner which dictate taking stock, resting, and perhaps planning a slow trip back to the tent once the person feels up for it. On the other hand, it was a sunny, windless day, perfect conditions for our planned climb. The part of the route I could see didn’t look easy but appeared manageable. My twenty-year-old brain weighed the options. I untied Russ from the rope that had joined us up to that point, settled him in a safe place, and headed for the summit.
I gave myself up to the vividness of the challenge with all cylinders firing and all antennae up. It was a curious feeling, climbing past all the webbing people had anchored in place to use for their downward rappels. If all went well, I would be heading down the same route without any such assistance. That thought continued to grow in my mind the longer the climb continued.
Eventually, I reached the top, spent a few minutes enjoying my accomplishment and the view, before I decided it was best not to linger and started the descent. Down-climbing is always harder than ascending, and there were many steep gullies and chimneys full of loose rock to navigate. At one point, I sent stones bounding down one of the chutes, causing a great deal of racket. When I eventually returned to where I had left Russ, he wasn’t there. I hurried along the traverse to the East ridge, where I was surprised to see a pool of vomit. A little further along, I found my buddy lying pale and listless. He had heard the noise of the rockfall and, after calling my name repeatedly with no response, feared I had fallen. He had scrambled back along the path we had taken, but the whole experience had been too much, and he couldn’t go on.
So much for unplanned free soloing. It reminded me of the cameraman not daring to watch as Alex Hannold performed one of his crux moves on El Capitan in Free Solo. Just as I imagine Alex may have done, I had tested my abilities on a once-in-a-lifetime adventure while at the same time causing someone to worry themselves sick over it. And now here I was, all these years later, shaken by the idea that this had actually happened.
Several months after writing the above account, another memory bubbled out of the recesses of my mind: I also had once witnessed an unplanned free solo by someone else. It was on a trip to the Sangre de Cristo range in Colorado with a friend I had taught to climb but who subsequently did things way beyond me, including several ascents of El Capitan. Years had passed since Brian Povolny, and I had climbed regularly, and now here we were camped at the base of Crestone Needle just before evening. We chose to climb the Ellingwood Arete route, a soaring buttress that ends at the rocky summit of the 14,000-foot peak. We were unsure exactly where to start the climb and decided to hike up to the base of the buttress before dinner to find the route. I was absorbed in deciphering the possibilities when I realized Brian was no longer in sight. There was no response when I called his name; he had disappeared.
Hours passed. There was no answer when I occasionally called Brian’s name. Holy crap, I thought, I hope he’s OK. I made dinner in the dark, feeling sick to my stomach. This reunion climb had suddenly turned into something completely outside the scope of what I had imagined. Finally, very late at night, Brian returned.
Here is his account of what happened: “As Tim and I scouted the buttress, I found a possible starting point for the route and climbed up a few moves. Alarm bells should have gone off because I didn’t really have the confidence to reverse them. I suppose I thought Tim would be impressed that I’d not only found the route but had done a bit of it on my own. What to do now? Call to Tim for assistance? Or, if I climbed a little higher, maybe find another way down? Guess which I chose.
I climbed further, but there was no exit. I now reasoned (using that word loosely) that I could escape on some 4th class ledges where they intersected the buttress, about 400 feet higher. When I reached the ledges, one look told me they were a bust, no matter what they were rated. As I took in my predicament, it dawned on me that there was only one way to get off this peak: climb to the summit and descend the normal but complicated descent route. I knew the ascent and descent routes only from the description in “50 Classic Climbs of North America”.
Oh shit, this is not at all what I had in mind.
I climbed carefully and deliberately, paying close attention to signs of previous parties—pitons, scraps of webbing, evidence of walked-on vegetation—to be sure not to get off route. I was wearing a thin cotton shirt, pants, and rock shoes and had no harness, rope, food, or water. My primary recollection of the climb now is a feeling of great exhilaration. Even though I would never choose to do a risky thing like this I had no choice here, and that fact somehow allowed me to completely surrender to the sheer joy of moving over the rock. I felt a deeper connection between my body and the rock than I’d ever experienced, and I think I learned a little of what makes free soloing seductive enough for people to repeatedly risk their lives doing it.
I chose a variation (now rated 5.9) on the upper part of the route because it was a chimney and a crack, things I was accustomed to from climbing in Yosemite. Exiting the chimney, however, was a delicate and exposed move. I recall looking down into a void through the bomb bay chimney: that put a scare into me, and I promised myself that this would be my last free solo. Soon, however, I could see the summit, and easy scrambling was all that remained. I could hardly believe that I’d climbed the whole 2000-foot route in just 90 minutes! As I crested Crestone Needle, I released all the tension of the climb with a tremendous howl of triumph. To the west, I could see the sun setting over Great Sand Dunes National Park and the Rockies.
I needed to find my way down quickly. I took off in the direction I thought was the descent route and got about 300 feet down a gully until it became apparent that it was heading in the wrong direction. Uh oh, I had missed the descent route at the summit. Current route descriptions caution against entering this gully and tell of unplanned bivouacs and numerous rescues of climbers who’d made this mistake. The obvious choice here would have been to retrace my steps, but suddenly I felt too weak to climb back to the summit in time to avoid darkness. The real descent route had to be off to my left. The terrain over there looked steep, and I didn’t know if it was passable since I couldn’t see all of it. But the temperature was dropping rapidly, and spending the night at 14,000 ft in a cotton shirt seemed suicidal, so I struck off traversing on this unknown ground, knowing that the margin for error was slim.
I traversed the mountain, found the complex route down, and somehow made all the right choices as darkness fell, stumbling into our camp at Colony Lake after dark. Tim was not the least bit amused by my story and felt that I’d ruined our adventure. He’d suffered several hours of anxiety wondering if I was dead or injured on some ledge somewhere on the mountain, and now that I was alive and well, he got downright pissy. I sure can’t blame him, and today I can hardly believe it was me who did that climb so unprepared. I was lucky then and still am because I count Tim as a friend to this day and my free solo of Crestone Needle is now just a memory of an amazing experience!”
So, I guess I have been on both sides of free soloing: the thrill of accomplishing it and the fear experienced while witnessing it. Together they capture in high contrast the nature of the event, something that may not guarantee a long life if indulged in too often, but certainly a striking moment for all involved.
Tim Ahern is an avid hiker, backcountry skier, and kayaker, focusing mainly on the Pacific Northwest and East Greenland. His college degrees are in biochemistry, oceanography, and Russian literature, and in addition to writing travel articles, he is an illustrator and has published three books on James Joyce.
Brian Povolny is a retired orthodontist who indulges his love of moving through nature by rock climbing, backcountry skiing, cycling and windsurfing. A longtime resident of Seattle, he also enjoys writing about his experiences in our beautiful region.
Born in Anacortes, WA., Rick Lindberg has held day jobs in the roofing, waste management, package delivery, graphic design, and filmmaking industries. In spite of, and because of this, he has spent much of his spare time in the North Cascades. He also continues his attempt to paint with oils.