Saturday, July 4, 2009

El Diente - 14,159

Sunrise over Navajo Lake, July 5, 2002 (El Diente rising above to the right, Gladstone hazy in the distance)


In the summer of 1973 I climbed the North Face of El Diente with Jeff Blagg.

How many of these trip reports are going to begin like this? The thought leads me to some conclusions.

First, I like seeing someone else's name along with mine. Not that it makes the climb better in any way. Sometimes it helps having a partner, sometimes it doesn't. But climbing has always been a way of getting outside yourself, and that's usually more noticeable when there's somebody else in the picture.

Second, someone will notice that the photo above was taken at a later date - 29 years later, in fact. In this case the reason is simply that I didn't bring my camera along. In others it is because I lost all my photos a while back. For years I tried for years to reconcile myself to this unfortunate loss. At last I think I have found a way.

I used the words trip report above. The trip report (or TR) is an established way of narrating a climb while focusing on those practical details that might interest anyone planning to be in the area soon, observations on weather, rock quality, snow conditions, etc. The snow conditions on El Diente 36 years ago, however, are barely of consequence today. The focus in these TRs lies elsewhere, namely on the dynamics making these particular outings memorable. Memory is in charge, and as long as that is the case there's no telling where these anecdotes, accounts, stories may wind up. It will be hard to talk about one without reference to another and thus, if there be any upside to the sad fate of my earlier photographs, it is in how this hodgepodge of images mirrors the way memory arranges things.

I'd known Jeff since elementary school. We'd skied together several times at Hesperus before parting ways going to different Junior Highs. But we met up again in high school to rekindle our mutual interest in the out-of-doors. Deciding to climb El Diente was Jeff's and my way of confirming our commitment to climbing. He made good on this commitment in his years at New Mexico Tech and I did the same while at UNM. But always there was this first.

We were in fact two of six high school buddies who, in varying combinations, headed north from Farmington on every possible occasion into the Southern San Juans. Some of us had been into the Navajo Lake Basin below this trio of 14ers - El Diente, Mount Wilson, Wilson Peak - a year or so earlier but without climbing anything. You couldn't call us unprepared this time out, as I seem to recall bringing along my brand new rack of hexcentrics, which we spent our first evening placing in boulders around camp, though I'd like to believe - as blatant overkill - that it was left behind on the actual day of the ascent. Certainly not left behind was my ice axe: a Stubai Nanga Parbat with an ash shaft in the preposterous length of 90 cm. I would remember this because that axe is going to be very important to Jeff and me.

Some six years later with sister Kim our route would be the prominent buttress falling straight from the summit (visible rising to the right in the photgraph above). In 1973, though, Jeff and I opted for the snowfields of the North Face proper. Fair weather attended our ascent, our friends being often visible in the basin below. But suddenly they were gone as the mists moved in. Spending little time on the summit but beginning the descent promptly, we lost our way in the clouds and wound up in a gully below and left of the summit. Feeling our way blindly, we kept going until a sudden clearing of mist revealed the massive drop. A few more feet and there would have been no going back. It was the stuff of nightmares. Turning back, me in the lead because Jeff had been ahead on the descent, I had just mounted the safety of a large pillar where, seated, I watched Jeff follow from below. To this day I don't know why, just as he came in reach, he asked for the end of my ice axe. But he had no sooner grasped the handle than the pile of rocks he was standing on gave way. I closed my eyes against the dust but the noise was deafeaning as I clutched the axe in both hands, vaguely aware of Jeff climbing hand-over-hand up the shaft of my axe, like it was a baseball bat we were using to decide who batted first, or better, like that scene in The Swiss Family Robinson when one savage is clambering over the other savages to escape the burning end of a rope. All I know is Jeff was below me and next he was above me, looking down while I checked my forehead for Vibram tracks.

El Diente's fairly bare North Face with part of Mt Wilson connecting ridge.

It's a good story now, but I shudder to think what would have happened had he not asked for my axe. The rest of the descent is not memorable - which is how it should be. We climbed no more 14ers together. None of us did again until college, which for me included winter ascents of Kit Carson Peak, Blanca Peak, and an abortive attempt on Long's.

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