Boundaries Of Self In The Buttermilks

By October 28, 2017Adventure, Climbing, Philosophy

I woke up freezing, that feeling your nose could shatter off your face like a dropped light bulb at any second. Where am I, why do I feel like my legs are tied together? It all starts coming back as I see the stars. I´m in my car, wrapped tightly inside a twisted mummy sleeping bag, looking through an open moon roof lying across my crash pad laid over my rope and a pile of climbing gear.  To stretch out completely I have to get up high enough to clear the dash, so this puts my face a few inches from the open moon roof. I had opened it to breath, which had clearly backfired. I had to pee and wanted to find the key and shut it but risking any air inside my sleeping bag didn´t seem worth it, untwisting the cinch from all that tossing and turning, to much work, back to sleep.

I pulled into Matt´s office complex, a giant telecom company, with tall uniform buildings that I imagined could hold a thousand people each. Every floor perfectly climate controlled with enough elbow room in all the cubicles for the Aeron chairs to spin around silently without disturbing their neighbor through the  padded sub ceiling walls. I was outside, so was he and we didn´t see each other even though we were both at the front door. I was at the wrong building.

As he explained to me how to use crampons and handed me his ice axe I asked him whether he thought we should start at 3 or 4 am. “There is going to be some discomfort, you might as well get it out of the way as soon as  possible.”

As I lay there in the cold looking at the night sky I thought, this surely must have been what he meant. The thought of getting up to pee outside in the dark when it is twenty degrees requires little expounding to qualify. But it wasn’t even close to the discomfort expected, and I knew it, as I drifted back to sleep I grinned just a little thinking about this lesser degree, held tightly in the divine providence of my sleeping bag. By this time I was meant to be at nearly twelve thousand feet, charging across a glacier, toward a twelve hundred foot climb on a windy, freezing, soulless summit of the Eastern Sierras.

It had all seemed so smooth up to this point, my arms hadn´t felt pumped and I was at least half way done. But my focus was slipping, the dawn of discomfort, and I could feel tiny insects crawling through my spine, heading out into the veins in my arms. I needed to stop them before they reached my fingers or even worse my head. They cloud awareness and narrow your vision much like looking through the toilet paper cardboard tube binoculars I made as a kid, all impediment no value. “Focus on your breath” is an all to common mantra for me while climbing, as I sucked in the cold air I felt the warmth of the sun reflecting off the rock onto my cheek just inches away.

Buttermilks Road

Buttermilks Road. Photo: Zac Smith

“How lucky are you? You get to do this! Look how beautiful this place is in this moment. Just think, some people you know are dealing with their house burning down (endless fires in California this week). Valid point but stop there, to far, stay focused, think positive, in fact stop wasting time, what exactly is your next move, keep it together.”

I woke up as the car backed in beside me but had fallen immediately back to sleep. I came back to moments later with a tap on the window. I opened the door to, “I have some good news and some bad news, I don´t think we should go. The reason is that it´s to cold. I was up there today and it was freezing and windy, 30-40 mph. We didn´t even finish and we just got back. The good news is we can just go climb somewhere lower…” Everything in my psyche shifted at the moment and all I heard was that I could turn off my alarm.


A doe and her fawn. Photo: Zac Smith

The sun was coming through all  the windows in the car, still frozen, bladder exploding, still smiling ear to ear about not suffering through learning how crampons work.  But I was starting to feel disappointed in myself, I had driven 7 hours, through rush hour Los Angeles traffic, to try something new with no backup plan for an aborted objective. I figured I should get up and look around a little bit, so I started the car and turned on the heater. It was still twenty four degrees. As I loaded the trunk I was startled by footsteps just a few feet behind me. As I turned, four figures froze and starred directly back at me. It was a mother and her three fawns, crossing the road.

Glacier Lodge

Looking toward Norman Clyde Peak near Glacier Lodge. Photo: Zac Smith

It was a surreal morning with with alpine purples and blues in high contrast as the sun rose shimmering through the orange and yellow fall colored trees. There was an old lodge, a campground and two men bundled up in heavy camo cutting the heads off of trout they had pulled from a stocked fishing pond. They looked at me curiously through sunken eyes, they seemed tired, hungry and kinda rough. They reminded me of people from where I grew up, the type who are here running from modern society or hiding from the law. It didn´t seem presumptuous to assume they were both.

There was a good foot about five feet to my left, it would be hard to miss. From it I might be able to reach the big rail directly above it. I could hear two climbers walking down the path talking, the one was explaining the Peabody routes to the other. “There´s an easy way up an arete, but it´s high… oh look there´s someone on it now, let´s watch.” I could here Roberts footsteps behind me as he was moving around taking pictures.

Zac Smith pondering the Southwest Arete of the Grandma Peabody

Contemplating the onsight attempt. Photo: Robert Wu

At this height there was no reason to spot me anymore. I wanted off these crimps, but the added fear of falling in front of the new spectators gave me pause. What if I air-balled the step cartwheeling to the ground, I imagined my bones crushing like toothpicks between molars, surely they would share it on social media with comments about gumbies and overconfident wannabes. “Why did I decide to onsight this? I climb a lot at this grade but with a rope.” Robert had said if I didn´t feel comfortable not to do it. But looking up at it, in that moment, I interpreted the discomfort as irrational fear. Eyeing it for a few minutes I was confident in my “boundaries of self”.

“…locating beauty and art and magic and improvement and keys to excellence and victory in the prolix flux… a Cantorian continuum of infinities of possible move and response, Cantorian and beautiful because infoliating, contained, this diagnose infinity of infinite of choice and execution, mathematically uncontrolled but humanly contained, bounded by the talent and imagination of self… boundaries of self… infinite roots are self-competitive. you compete with your own limits to transcend the self in imagination and execution… he [the rock in this case] is not the foe: he is more the partner in the dance… he is the excuse or occasion for meeting the self.”—D.F. Wallace. I had read this the night before in my car… in regards to the game of tennis.

Zac Smith on the Southwest Arete of the Grandma Peabody, Buttermilks, CA

Grandma Peabody, Buttermilks, CA. Photo: Robert Wu

It ended with a wave of insignificance but I did have that one thought I hoped that I would, “worth it!” All the discomfort had paid off in a send. The bunny hill of high balls was behind me and somehow I felt like my confidence was justified, my training worked, my head game strengthened, and yet knowing full well it could have just as easily went badly.

I pulled my camera up, on the rope I had carried on my back, to film Robert. Watching him through the lens I could see the calculations in his eyes, backing off if he sensed distress, never making any move in resignation. I learned a great deal in a matter of minutes, most notably that my giant step across was in fact an unnecessary hail Mary.

I had got to know Robert only a little in our home gym Rockreation, mostly a passing hello in Yoga class. He is known there for his peak bagging alpine ascensions, the Sierra Challenge, John Muir trail times, etc. Neither of us really consider ourselves boulderers, yet here we were on some Buttermilks “pebbles” having fun. This unintended adventure swiftly erased any disappointment in our abandoned summit as he showed me around many of the classics.

What I find to be the most profound, yet palpable, parts of climbing is how much you rely on others to succeed. I never really experienced a this community of learning in snowboarding or in surfing, which are largely individual journeys. It´s refreshing, the zeitgeist in the community of climbers so intertwined, pervasive, and necessary. That connection is what I think attracts so many to the sport.

As the evening came the Buttermilks swarmed with climbers from across the globe. I met lots of folks and connected with a group from Salt Lake that sent v9s and 10s with only a few attempts. It was inspiring and overwhelming. I took photos and enjoyed observing the “psych” as the young and ambitious climbers ticked climb after climb. It was electric with waves of frustration turning into progress leading up to sends, returning to insignificance, on to the next. It´s magnetic and I found it hard to leave well into the night.

As I walked to the car I was cold again. I reflected on my perception of discomfort, this melodramatic pursuit of the fringes of possibility, the quest inward to the outer reaches of the boundaries of self.


Additional Photos: (click to launch)