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Lessons from the Edge

Extreme Athletes Show You How to Take on High Risk and Succeed

About The Book

You've watched skiers race down the most dangerous of slopes with incredible grace and speed. With a mixture of pure disbelief and fascination, you've seen extreme skateboarders soar through the air with just enough balance and timing to keep their edge. And you can't help but wonder, how do they do that?
Lessons from the Edge is an exciting exposé of the extreme experience, giving you the why and the how of what it means to live on the edge. Extreme athlete Maryann Karinch chronicles the close calls and peak performances of competitive athletes, and shows that being successful is about much more than winning. For extreme athletes, success means cultivating the inner strength, confidence, and discipline to be ready for the next challenge.
Both inspirational and practical, Lessons from the Edge is a how-to guide for tapping into your own potential for greatness.

  • Learn how to develop mental toughness, trust intuition, and channel emotional energy in do-or-die situations
  • Prepare for an athletic challenge with expert advice on nutrition, sport-specific training routines, personal gear and equipment, and dealing with injuries
  • Discover what makes extreme athletes tick, from the bravado and thrill of adrenaline that come with success to the fear and self-doubt that can undermine performance


Chapter One: The Nature of Extreme Sports and Their Champions

"Without adventure, civilization is in full decay."

-- Alfred North Whitehead, philosopher

"Some people have 'hang out' genes and others have 'do stuff' genes."

-- T. J. Lavin, freestyle biker

Fame and wealth belong to great quarterbacks, center forwards, and home run hitters. Society prizes them like the Romans cheered gladiators who crushed their opponent's skull. They're heroes because they win.

Extreme athletes are heroes because they try -- something harder, faster, longer. Anyone can benefit from their insights and relate to them as people. Their goal is often not a score or a medal. In some sports, those widely acknowledged as the greatest never even compete. Money doesn't lure them to the edge, either; multimillion-dollar contracts do not yet beckon most extreme athletes. The prize they want is the full-bodied thrill of accomplishment and the lessons they offer you are how to achieve it.

What Do You Have in Common with Extreme Athletes?

The hunger to be really good at something runs through all of us. It's normal to crave the satisfaction and sense of self-worth that come from success. No one would question the sanity of wanting to perform well consistently and be cool under pressure. All of these urges are key catalysts for extreme athletes as well as people who don't venture near the edge.

There is also something we'd all like to have in common with extreme athletes. The best have developed and discovered techniques that repeatedly deliver the desired results in the face of uncommon challenges. Chances are very good that their tips on mental focus and physical fitness will boost your abilities even if planting a flag on Everest's summit or rotating 900 degrees on a skateboard are not in your plans. They will help you be a little bit more amazing.

A lot of times, extreme athletes inspire us by merely surviving, and sometimes it looks like they must have magical powers to do that. They don't. They know how to run through their options consciously and consistently. That's the first lesson.

A Glimpse at Living on the Edge

Extreme athletes have to develop the skill of effectively evaluating their options because they have a different way of looking at the world. Where other people see only danger, they also see fun. They look for risk in life. People who have this point of view, but don't have contingencies in mind when the unexpected happens, don't last long. For the athletes who do, it's perfectly reasonable to defy conventional wisdom about where and how to have a good time.

The Tsunami Rangers have been doing it since 1984. They paddle at places like Pigeon Point, which juts into the ocean fifty miles south of San Francisco. At the tip is a 115-foot-tall lighthouse built in the days of wooden ships to warn mariners of dangers like rock reefs, which are at or below water level depending on the tide. The hazards those sailors tried to avoid are a playground for the Rangers, a tribe of extreme sea kayakers with Kevlar-armored boats.

Just because they've been paddling in isolated surf zones, complex rock gardens, and dark sea caves for years, however, doesn't mean the risk is gone. Of all the environments where extreme athletes play, the sea offers the most surprises. Chaos is the norm. What the years have given the Tsunami Rangers is not less risk, but rather more practice thinking through options when the unexpected does happen -- like the spring afternoon when a large, breaking wave came around the corner at Pigeon Point and confronted Ranger Eric Soares.

I was inside the corner, unaware of the size of the wave. It was about fifteen feet high. I knew there was no way I could get away from it. Normally, if you think you're going to hit something, you bail out and swim like a seal. This time, I was trapped.

The day before the incident, Eric and Jim Kakuk, cofounders of the Tsunami Rangers, had speculated about what to do if they knew that a wave would slam them against the rocks. Jim's river kayaking background told him to lean toward the obstacle to avoid being pinned against it. He reconsidered. No, he concluded, the ocean withdraws after the wave so you won't get pinned. The greater danger is having your body smashed into the cliff. Lean into the wave; go hull-first into the rocks.

"Hull-first, hull-first." That's all I thought. I had to use my boat as a pad. As the wave hit me, I leaned into it doing a low brace. I had on a helmet and wetsuit, but no gloves. Wish I'd had gloves. I leaned into the wave to try and use it as a cushion. Then I hit the reef -- bam, bam, bam, I started bouncing on it. It was like a road with rocks in it. As I was bouncing, I was relaxing -- conserving my energy so I had everything I needed when I hit the cliff.

I looked at my paddle blade and saw it break off. I was riding on the shaft. It was scraping along and grinding on the reef and getting closer and closer to my hand. I was hoping it wouldn't wear away completely because my hand would be next. I knew I'd have to use my hand if it came to that to protect my torso. The cliff was right in front of me. I took a breath: "Hull-first." I didn't know there was a drop-off at the end.

Suddenly, I was flying in the air, headed downward, hull-first. You don't want to be in the air with a boat. You want to be in the water. My hull took the beating. It died for me. I'd named my boat Elendil. I thought, what a fortuitous name.

Luckily, what hit me was a rogue wave. The rest of the waves that came in after that were not nearly as big so I was able to swim the battered boat away from danger.

If you're prepared for your adventure, the answer you need in a crisis will come.

Keen self-awareness and intelligence give extreme athletes a distinct advantage in averting serious injury or death. Add to that the progress made recently in equipment, conditioning programs, and our knowledge base, and most people would probably agree that extreme sports -- activities in which failure of mind, body, or gear can have devastating consequences -- are not necessarily the domain of wild-eyed asylum escapees.

What Is the Nature of Extreme Sports?

Extreme sports are competitive as well as noncompetitive adventures, such as high-altitude mountaineering. Stunts are just part of the backdrop; some of the athletes featured in this book do scary maneuvers for movies, but these experiences are not the focus of their lives as athletes. As a corollary, doing something outrageous once and walking away does not make a person a great extreme athlete or a credible source of advice.

Some of the competitive sports like bicycle stunt riding and aggressive in-line street skating were not spectator-ready until ESPN's X Games and NBC's Gravity Games, for example, imposed a structure that worked on television and offered a running color commentary. These sports had a history of camaraderie and contests, but not high-profile competitions, when ESPN brought them to TV audiences in 1995. Prior to that, the challenge for the uninitiated public was that the athletes' objectives were not intuitively obvious. (Even those who can't explain what happens between the commercials during a football game know the ball should cross the line.)

Competitive freestyle events are not institutionalized, rule-bound sports, so it follows that their nature is to deviate from the expected. In skysurfing, competitors try to spin upside down. Rodeo kayakers want to get stuck in suckholes. Freestyle bikers must get off the saddle to do tricks.

Increasingly, the best introduction to extreme sports, as well as the most intense coverage for fans, is on the Internet. Web sites offer real-time details in multimedia and links to explanations so viewers can log on anytime to feel the challenge, grasp the objectives, know the players, and learn the vocabulary. For example,'s coverage of the grueling and successful first attempt by Mark Synnott, Jared Ogden, and Alex Lowe to free-climb the Northwest Face of Great Trango Tower in Pakistan in July 1999 featured daily voice mails from the climbers, detailed maps, time-lapse photographs, and much more.

Extreme sports can be categorized in a number of ways, none of which perfectly introduces them. First, they could be discussed in terms of the gear they require; most depend on boards, wheels, ropes, or boats. Not all of them do, though. In some cases, like the Marathon des Sables, a 150-mile race across the Moroccan desert, the main elements are the athlete and the environment.

Classifying the sports according to where they occur -- snow, ice, rock, raging water, air, skate parks -- has value because it implies the strong connection that the athletes have with their chosen venue. On the other hand, it glides past the fact that many sports, by their nature, combine environments.

Finally, extreme sports can be discussed in terms of the main requirement of the activity, that is, what physical limits the athletes must stretch -- speed, balance, timing, and endurance. Using this approach accents what very different extreme sports, and the athletes who do them, have in common. It also lays the foundation for discussions of cross training and reveals why some extreme athletes are superior performers in seemingly unrelated activities.

Speed In these events, the object is to be the first to finish. Style, smiles, and outfits don't matter. Picabo Street, Olympic gold medal skier:

It's the clock from start to finish line. No foul points. Fastest one to the bottom wins. Going eighty miles an hour, you don't have time to care about whether someone dug the way you made that turn.

Speed skiing, mountain bike racing, and many other competitive speed events are extreme because they combine the need to go fast with unforgiving terrain. In ESPN's Winter X Games, the danger of speed on whoop-dee-doos (i.e., a tight sequence of jumps) and banked turns in the skiercross, boardercross, and bikercross events is amplified by the fact that competitors are six abreast at the start. Other speed sports are extreme because the rate and levels of acceleration create a hazardous condition. Top-fuel boat and car racing, stand-up skateboarding, and street luge fall into this category.

Balance and Timing In these events, well-timed moves and exquisite body control mean the difference between a joyride and an ambulance ride. This is what skydiving while standing on a board and soaring over hills on a pint-sized BMX stunt bike have in common. In both skysurfing and freestyle biking, even the most basic tricks demand keen mental and physical abilities.

The list of extreme sports with a core requirement to push the limits of balance and timing includes big-wave surfing, extreme skiing, skateboarding, freeflying, waterfall kayaking, and many others. In fact, many extreme sports fit on that list. Speed is a key element of risk in many of them -- in freeflying, the skydiver might be going 180 miles an hour, for example -- but it is an integral part of the activity rather than the objective, which is extraordinary control of the body and essential gear.

Endurance Endurance events like marathons require a huge dedication to physical training and, without a doubt, the will to put one foot in front of the other repeatedly. Extreme endurance sports require more from the athlete's psyche. The intensity lasts for so long that, at some point, these activities are primarily exercises in attitude, pain control, and tactical decision making. Depending on the challenge, super-fit bodies can go on and on for weeks or even months with just a little rest periodically. Succeeding in that challenge -- and in some cases, that means surviving -- can only happen if their minds and emotions are conditioned to support their bodies. In the words of Robert Nagle of the top adventure racing team, Eco-Internet:

A race like ours is usually seen by people as a physical test, but in fact, it's much more an internal -- that is, mental and emotional -- test. The races last for so long and are replete with so many strategic and tactical decisions. How you make those decisions determines how well you do.

Why Do People Do These Things?

The answers to two main questions shed light on how extreme activities emerge and develop: Why do people do these things? and: How can they do these things and not kill themselves?

Some athletes start doing these things when they're young because they want to be different or they want an adrenaline rush. Commonly, it's a combination of both reasons; they're impulses that a lot of teenagers probably share.

Daring to Be Different Kristen Ulmer, who made the first female descent of Grant Teton, rose to fame skiing off cliffs for movies while she was still in college. In those days, she did unusual stunts so she would be noticed:

When I first started, I just wanted to get attention by taking lots and lots of risks. Everyone was asking me if I was afraid of dying and I just got a kick out of it. I wasn't aware that I could get hurt...

The first stunt I ever did for the cameras, I had absolutely no experience catching air. I had caught maybe five feet of air and all of a sudden I'm catching a hundred feet of air forty feet high. I was totally out of control heading for a tree. I didn't actually black out; I just don't remember anything about it.

Kristen hit the base of the tree and got a bloody nose. She walked away a celebrity. At the time, she got what she wanted.

Arlo Eisenberg, a pioneer in the mid-1990s of so-called aggressive in-line skating, wanted to be different, too, but attention and risk were side effects rather than goals.

I didn't do things because they're dangerous. Being a young guy, you have a lot of energy and want some kind of athletic outlet. For me, and I think for a lot of people in our generation, football and baseball aren't the answer. For some reason, whatever factors went into it, there's an anti-establishment sentiment. We want to do things by our own rules, and we want to do things that are new and different that haven't been predetermined for us.

The Adrenaline Pump Most kids fulfill their need for a thrill by drag racing in their old Honda or experimenting with sex. Others, because of where they grow up or how their friends have fun, find themselves surfing big waves or skiing the backcountry. Chances are good that, if they feel competent enough that the thrill supersedes the fear, they go out for the rush repeatedly.

Getting an adrenaline rush is certainly one reason why athletes continue to go to extremes year after year. Does that mean they have an "adrenaline addiction"? Maybe some do, but it would be inaccurate to say that most of the adventurers, record holders, pioneers, and gold medalists in this book have an uncontrollable hunger for danger, a base desire for bad odds -- that they're junkies, as in, "They can't stop themselves. They have an adrenaline addiction."

The Competence Rush The professional athlete's love of an adrenaline spike should almost never be linked to compulsive behavior or being out of control. Quite the opposite is true. It's more appropriate to say that taking a risk and succeeding because of their wits and skill feels orgasmic. As stunt biker T. J. Lavin says, "I'm more likely to get an adrenaline rush from something that gives me satisfaction than from something that makes me scared. When I know I'm going to nail a trick, and there is no fear, it's the greatest rush."

Pushing Physical Limits Many of these athletes also thrive on extreme physical challenge, like the recruits in boot camp who look at an obstacle course and yell, "Yahoo!" Rat Sult, street luge and snow mountain biking champion, puts it in personal terms: "The more pressure, the harder something is, the more I like it." They relish chances to test their fitness and sharpen their minds in outrageous circumstances.

This is the mentality of an adventure racer who treks 350 miles up rocks, into canyons, over white water, through the desert and mud, and across a vast lake for nine days and labels all that nonstop deprivation and strain "incredibly satisfying." A few weeks later, after my toenails grew back and the intestinal parasites died, I even started to call it "fun."

Self-Discovery For some, the allure of pushing past normal limits is in coming to grips with fears of the unknown and fostering the ability to handle change. World record skydiver Jim McCormick, a motivational speaker by profession, sums up the huge attraction of going to the edge for his audiences by saying "the greatest rewards in life go to the risk takers." Why? Because they learn to accept fear and move beyond their barriers and boundaries.

I don't take risks just for the sake of taking risks. The reason I move out of my comfort zone on a regular basis is that I always learn more about myself in that setting. It gives me a tremendous amount of self-insight. It teaches me how I can respond to adversity, how I can do it better next time. It gives me lessons I can apply in my life.

Environmental Love Affairs These athletes love the environment where they play, and the harder they play, the more they are awakened to the wonders of that environment. It could be a city street, a 20,000-foot peak, or open ocean.

In the 1998 Raid Gauloise adventure race in Ecuador, teams stared at their maps in dread. They had to navigate to a checkpoint at the top of the volcano Cotopaxi in the Cordillera Central of the Andes in the north-central part of the country. At 5,897 meters -- 19,347 feet -- it is the highest active volcano in the world. A cone-shaped mass, the top 3,000 feet have year-round snow cover, yet the volcano continuously emits clouds of steam from its lava-filled crater. Cotopaxi's slopes are covered with ash and rocks from eruptions. Ian Adamson, who has claimed world records as a kayaker and set precedents as an adventure racer, says this is a spot he will never forget.

We struggled up Cotopaxi. There were only two teams that made it. We were racing up this volcano -- if you can call it racing at 20,000 feet -- with everyone in full mountaineering gear. We had crampons and ice axes, we were roped in and all that sort of stuff. We were pulling our way up the hill and finally managed to make it to the top. Just being able to stand on the top of this smoking volcano, having climbed seven hours up icefalls and crevasses and seeing the clouds below us. Looking down onto the clouds, down onto the helicopter that was coming up with the film crew, we were thinking that, by itself, as a single moment in life it is amazing. Then you patch it together with the rest of the race, and the whole thing is indescribable. You can't explain the feeling of emotion and accomplishment that come along with it.

This is the avenue of the volcanoes. You can see all these other volcanoes poking up through the clouds. The clouds hang down at around 15,000 to 18,000 feet. So you look a couple thousand feet down on the clouds. You also look though blue ice -- there's permanent snow and ice -- and perfectly clear blue skies above. You can see forever in any direction. You can see there are little peaks poking above the clouds and little glimpses of the valley below when the clouds break through.

For the most part, the athletes not only love their playgrounds, they also honor them. They consciously connect their enjoyment of risk in their surroundings with respecting and being in touch with them. Scot Schmidt, a renowned extreme skier for more than two decades, admits: "The mountains are dangerous, especially if you go for the big stuff. The only thing that keeps me from being scared -- I don't like being scared -- is having a relationship with the mountain." In a belief that is congruent with Native American spiritualism, Scot tunes into the energy, or spirits, of the mountain.

Sherpas, the ethnic group most closely associated with Mount Everest, worship the mountain itself. Sherpa Jamling Tenzing Norgay, who summitted Everest in 1996:

Everest is Mother Goddess of the world. Mountains are the places where the gods live. When we climb we climb with respect. We perform ceremonies to ask for safe passage on the mountain. The ceremonies are just between us and the gods.

Every time the Tsunami Rangers head out on a kayaking adventure, they stand on the beach and ask the ocean to "Let us pass or give a sign." They look for something like a sudden gust of wind, a huge wave that breaks hard, or a shark fin. Jim Kakuk doesn't consider this a ritual or a prayer, although there are Rangers who do. He calls it a "mind switch." It's a personal moment that helps him prepare to pass through the surf zone and enter the water planet -- to be ready for a complete transition to the ocean and its rules.

This experience of "honoring the playground" does not just apply to nature, either. Louis Zamora, an in-line skating champion by the age of seventeen, has a sense of "making the most of what the streets have to offer" and appreciating them because they offer an opportunity for friendship and fun.

In their own way, all the athletes have a relationship with their world that is fundamental to their athletic success and the key to the sublime pleasure they get out of taking risks again and again.

Living with Passion While "competence rush" or "pushing physical limits" may describe why someone gravitates to a particular sport, there is a more general reason why many return to the edge year after year. They live with passion. If there is any aspect of their personalities and motivation that both binds them with people who are not extreme athletes and inspires anyone who comes in contact with them, it's this.

Big-wave surfer Jeff Clark describes these athletes very simply: "Their blood flows." They know it, they cherish the intensity of their lives, and they try to maintain it through injury, aging, and the demands of "normal" life like parenthood.

Alex Lowe, the first man to climb many frozen waterfalls and unpronounceable peaks like Kwangde Nup in Nepal and Rakekniven in Antarctica, is the father of three boys. As is common for extreme athletes with children, some people chide him for taking risks. Alex keeps a particular story in mind that reminds him of the vital link between his passion for vertical adventures and his role as a parent.

I went over to Nepal and did a relatively difficult new route on a remote peak with my friend Steve, who had a son who was about five or six at the time. I asked him how he felt about being a father, and being there in Nepal, because I was having questions at that time. This was right after my first son, Max, was born in 1988. Steve said, when he was about twelve, he was walking downtown with his father. A friend of his father's that he hadn't seen in a long time came up to him and said to his dad -- a conservative businessman who took care of the family and didn't do anything risky, except risk heart disease by not being active -- "It's great to see you again! Are you still scuba diving?" Steve's father had never told him that he had ever scuba dived and his father's reaction was, "No, I haven't done anything like that since I had children." When Steve heard that, he had an immediate glow of admiration that his father had scuba dived, then when his father said, no, he hadn't done it since he had a family, he was devastated. He thought, here I am, the cause of my father not doing this. To him, that would have been the neatest thing that his father could have done.

As a father, Steve thought about that and decided to carry on, to share these experiences with his kids. Turn them on to things and teach them to be rational people who enjoy exciting situations in life. Make good judgments and enjoy risky activities in a positive way.

That sums up my philosophy. I don't see myself being out of control in doing what I do in the first place. And I want to turn my kids on to the same pleasures I've experienced in pursuing things like that.

Inspiring passion in family and friends has more enduring value than just staying alive for them.

Do These Athletes Have Anything in Common Other Than Risk Taking?

Extreme athletes wouldn't be able to sustain such intensity in their lives without a strong sense of personal responsibility. It doesn't matter if the athlete is seventeen or seventy, one element of character that binds them is that they tend not to point fingers. Right or wrong, they chose the line, paddled the boat, fixed the ropes, or picked the wave.

In January 1999, Shaun Palmer made a well-publicized attempt to take four gold medals in a single X Games. His dominance in snowboard racing was undisputed, but he faced other dominant forces in the free skiing, snow mountain biking, and snowmobile race events. All eyes were on him as he pushed hard in the early rounds of the skiercross event and won his first two heats. Then came the finals; he lost time coming out of the gate and never recovered. At the bottom of the hill as top finishers celebrated, the story of Shaun's slow start circulated. He had snagged a ski tip on a piece of torn Astroturf at the gate -- a legitimate cause for protest. Shaun did not protest; he congratulated the winner. No blame. No excuses.

How Can They Do These Things and Not Kill Themselves?

The companion question to "why" athletes do these extreme things is, of course, "how." Will Gadd, a great multisport extreme athlete, starts down the road to answering it by noting: "Extreme sports improve situational awareness. By doing them again and again, you get better at choosing when to draw back and when to push forward."

The following chapters get more specific with how-to information about visualization, tactical decision making, sport-specific training, injury prevention, and so on. Much of it is information that can make you better at whatever you do, whether it's on the edge or far from it.

Lessons In Action

Storming Fitzroy

Patagonia eats climbers. Swept by strong winds called pamperos and hit by ferocious weather, particularly at higher elevations in the Andean foothills, it treats no one kindly.

Knowing full well that "you can be killed if you're on a peak and there's a storm," Steph Davis went there in 1997 to attempt a new route on a rock formation called Fitzroy with her friend Charlie Fowler. Both climbers have great credentials, but Steph's youth, gender, and versatility make her one of a kind. She flashes extraordinary skills on hard cracks, long rock routes in the mountains, walls, boulders, high-altitude routes -- whatever nature has carved out or pushed upward. The big granite mountain they chose is named after an explorer who, ironically, had a reputation for being adverse to change. For one thing, he interpreted the Bible literally, which is why he had such contentious discussions with the naturalist on his Patagonia expedition -- Charles Darwin.

Steph and Charlie could have timed the trip better: they arrived on December 8, 1996, shortly after ten consecutive days of near perfect weather. For the next two and a half months, they rode out storms. "We were always waiting for the weather, then climbing and praying that nothing happened during the climb because it changes so fast."

From December 8 to February 25, they saw one day of good weather.

They started to go stir-crazy, so they tackled a few free climbs smaller and easier than their target despite the bad conditions. Among them were repeats of three excellent routes, the North Tower in Chile, the Ruby y Azur on the formation called Media Luna, and the Pialoa on El Mocho -- all about 2,000 feet. Unlike Fitzroy, which is also about 2,000 feet but requires a 5,000-foot climb to get to its base, the others start low so they are sheltered from the really foul weather. From the glacier to the top and back takes about a day, whereas Fitzroy takes almost three days in decent weather. And their hearts were set on a new route on Fitzroy.

They eventually went up a couloir, or steep gully, on the west side of Fitzroy, which had not been done before. They calculated that they could ascend in less than perfect weather because of the mixed nature of the climbing there, that is, sections of bare rock were interspersed with snow- and ice-covered terrain. Knowing they will be on snow and ice, the climbers on a mixed route are equipped with crampons and ice tools; patches of icy rock pose no particular problem.

In unpleasant, but not horrible conditions, they got up fairly high to the shoulder of Fitzroy. Having successfully made a new approach to about 5,000 feet, they hoped to speed to the summit on an existing route -- the American Route -- which would require 2,000 feet of rock climbing. On the rock face, they would be wearing shoes designed to stick to dry rock and would ascend barehanded to grab flakes and cracks. A storm would fill the cracks in the rock with ice, making it slippery. It would also make it nearly impossible for them to insert their hardware into the rock because ice would be where the gear should go.

Then the storm hit.

They had to dig a snow cave at the base of the rock because of fierce winds, snow, sleet, and soft hail. In Patagonia, these winds have enough force to blow climbers off rock. As they dug, more snow would fill the cave. It never got better. They got snowed into the cave and ran out of food. Their only choice was to descend in the storm.

We had to go down some ice slopes. It was the kind of ice that wasn't hard enough to put an ice screw in, or to make a thread [two ways you can rappel down ice]. So we chopped out some bollards; you chop with your ice axes and carve a big round blob on the face of the ice. Then you lay your ropes around it and rappel down. The last bollard was huge and in-cut -- so big that we even joked about what a great bollard it was. Charlie went down first off it in this really bad storm. I closed my eyes against the sleet and when I opened them, the ropes were gone.

There were thousands of feet of air below us because we were descending a huge serac -- an ice cliff -- that dropped down far below to a gulley full of snow. If we fell off the sheer edge of the serac, we'd free-fall into that couloir. I thought that's what happened to Charlie. I was sure he was dead or far away, and I didn't have any ropes anyway, so I didn't know what I could do for him, but I knew I was screwed, too. I yelled into the wind, but it was pointless. So I started downclimbing on the ice -- kicking into it with my crampons one foot at a time, hitting with my ice axes one hand at a time. I figured I had a slim chance of getting down the route alone.

Eventually, amazingly, Charlie started climbing up and met me with the ropes dragging behind him. He said, "The ropes blew off the bollard. I knew what you'd be thinking and I knew I had to get up here as fast as I could."

As it turned out, Steph never would have made it downclimbing because, even on the easy snow slopes below, the wind was blowing so hard it repeatedly knocked both of them down. They had to belay each other, crawling, on places where they'd walked before and did multiple rappels where downclimbing wasn't feasible.

It took them twelve hours of fighting to get down, just as it had taken twelve hours of fighting to get up. Normally, the climb down takes a quarter of the time it takes to ascend.

At the time I didn't have any fear about it. A trip like that is so physically and mentally taxing, with so many emotional ups and downs, that I was numb by that point. You always have to be excited about climbing and be prepared to go for it; at the same time you're always waiting, trying to be patient because you're not getting the weather. I was just dealing with what we had to do, which is strange because usually that would be a horrifying situation.

Instead of having a lot of fear, I was thinking, "Charlie's dead. I have no ropes. All right, then." Sometimes in a really big crisis you feel that way -- just dead calm. I figured I was either going to die or not. The alternatives were very clear.

Steph and Charlie allowed themselves one day of recovery, then repeated their approach route and returned to their snow cave. The following day, February 18, they started toward the summit of Fitzroy on the American Route. Snow and ice choked the route and slowed their pace. A little more than halfway up -- about a thousand feet from the summit -- weather forced them to descend to their bivy (bivouac) on the glacier.

Steph's conclusion: "Reaching the summit is always a goal, but the biggest victory is living to try again."

Copyright © 2000 by Maryann Karinch

About The Author

Photo Credit:

Maryann Karinch is one of the few women to have completed the inaugural Eco-Challenge in southern Utah. She is an experienced skydiver, a certified scuba diver and personal trainer, and an avid ocean whitewater kayaker. The coauthor of Boot Camp, she lives in Half Moon Bay, California.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Touchstone (April 6, 2000)
  • Length: 272 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780684862156

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