"A blank spot on the map is an invitation to encounter the natural world, where one's character will be shaped by the landscape. To enter wilderness is to court risk, and risk favors the senses, enabling one to live well.

...The time had come to protest with the heart, that to deny one's genealogy with the earth was to commit treason against one's soul."

-Terry Tempest Williams, Refuge

Monday, April 11, 2011

Flashbacks #1-Yosemite Summers, '04 & '05

Jared, on the Sawtooth Ridge

While unpacking boxes at my new apartment in Portland, I came across a CD with "Yosemite for Willie" written in marker across it.  I popped it into my laptop and soon memories of climbing glorious white granite came flooding back to me in picture after picture.  I purred like a cat.  Ahhhhh, Yosemite.  That beloved land I know so well.  I have been fortunate to spend a great deal of time in that amazing park over the years.  I began climbing young, at age 10 in Chicago, and was soon petitioning hard for my parents to take me on trips out west.  Yosemite was the mecca and I read and gazed at all I could, drooling over the unfathomable images, dreaming of the day I'd be there.  By age 14 my coercion had finally worked and my mom, sister, aunt and I headed to the golden state for a two-week trip.  I stayed in Camp 4 alone and put notes on the bulletin board looking for partners while the others stayed in tent cabins in Curry Village.    Needless to say I met many weird and wonderful people and it was a thrilling and awe-inspiring introduction.  The love was consummated, so to speak.  For four more summers after that initial trip, for two to three weeks each, I managed to return to Yosemite from the Midwest, suffering through the tedium of high school while my mind dreamed only of climbing those gleaming faces of rock (well...and girls, of course.)

After college in Colorado, and copious amounts of climbing there, I moved to California and continued my love affair with Yosemite, exploring more and more of the vast park.  The pictures I found on the CD during the move to Portland were from the summer following college graduation (summer 2004) and the one after that.  I had gotten the alpine climbing bug so Tuolumne Meadows and the High Sierra was my focus then, no longer down in the Valley.  

I realized while looking at the photos that some of them that I wanted to share were of objectives that weren't reached, climbed that we hadn't completed.  We had bailed, wimped-out, or otherwise, somehow making the decision to go down.   I realized though that it was all ok.  We still had lots of fun and I was still uninjured and alive, able to happily think back and enjoy the memories.  I had learned so many lessons, about weather, land, and rocks, about decision making and getting down safely, about levels and limits of risk, and about how far I wanted and was willing to push.   And of course, we had plenty of successes too.  But most importantly, the times were good, real and raw, and the experiences soul-filling, all with Jared Vazales, one of my best friends.  'Nuff said.

When we were actually down in the Valley, during the summer after graduating, we climbed the Royal Arches Route one day for a quick way to get up high.  I had climbed the route many times before, that ascent being during that first summer at age 14, en route to North Dome and the airy and breathtaking Crest Jewel (10 pitches, 5.10a.)  The climbing on Royal Arches is easy and you can string many of the pitches together so it's a very fast way to get a thousand feet of air under your heels.  We cruised it in under three hours, rappelled down, and then probably drank beer and swam in the river.  Here's a few photos from that climb and one of Camp 4 living:

The first pitch of the Royal Arches Route, you gotta go behind that thing!

The first of many rappels off Royal Arches

Good 'ol Camp 4

The second bunch of photos on the disc was from when Jared and I attempted the Cathedral Traverse in Tuolumne Meadows.  This was one of the bailouts, and for no good reason really, besides depression issues I think.  The weather was perfect, all the climbing well within our abilities, and we had plenty of daylight, etc, etc.  I had recently broken up with a long term girlfriend and I was having a hard time with the change, even though I'd wanted it.  It was the first time that my emotions prevented me from enjoying the outdoors, for normally they are the #1 remedy.  Hmmm...well...ups and downs, strikes and gutters, man.  
We started with a couple pitches of moderate rock up the wonderful Unicorn Peak (10,823 ft.), then danced along the ridge spine, over snow, scree, boulders, past the small peak they call Al Tuskey and on up to the aptly named Cockscomb (11,065 ft.)  We did steep, overhanging moves to gain its spiny summit, thankfully roped, feeling the air beneath us.  The Yosemite high country is a true playground, a jungle gym of domes and spires, of rich forest over rolling and immaculately sculpted land, all teeming with beauty and pure, striking sublimity.  Combined with the good weather, it is truly heavenly.  From the Cockscomb Jared lead the traverse over the awesomely exposed Echo Crest (the high point of the route at 11,120 ft.), reveling in our position.  By the time we reached the group of Echo Peaks my melancholy set in and we (I) got lazy bagging all their (nine) summits.  The mellow 5.6 route up Cathedral Peak would have been an easy end to the traverse after that but the motivation just wasn't there.  But again, all good, and Jared got to see a bear on the descent.  Well, there's always next time...

Ascending toward Unicorn Peak

Couple of badasses just chillin'

Fun climbing and some good exposure on the Echo Crest

The bear, Good day kind sir!

Jared and I had our eyes on the Direct West Pillar (8 pitches, 5.10b) on Eichorn Pinnacle (10,700 ft.).  Twice we hiked up and gave it a go, neither time making the top.  The first time we wanted to follow the regular West Pillar but couldn't figure out exactly where it cut right after pitch 2.  I launched up the vertical 5.9 double cracks of the direct route and belayed atop a tiny 4" stance, anchored to the great pinnacle with metal wedges jammed in the cracks in the bullet-proof rock.  Jared followed as the sky filled with dark clouds, the daily midday threat of thunderstorms.  We rappelled down, a few times, to reach the safety of the ground and gain cover from the electric sky.  The second time was the same deal.  I was up in the steep corner of the 5.10b crux, the pitch above the 5.9 double cracks, scared with the height and the position.  I forged upward and then down climbed, up and down, up and down, trying to get up the nerve to just fire it, threat of fall or not.  Luckily the sky clouded densely again and I didn't have to; we quickly built a rappel anchor and headed down, alternately nervously eyeing the darkening sky and the two tiny metal stoppers wedged in the crack.  It sucks to bail, and it burns the ego but, as the guidebook says, "this is a terrifying place to be in an electrical storm, so plan your day accordingly and keep a watchful eye on cloud buildup."  I'm not too sore we didn't make it.  

Hmmm....those clouds are a bit sketch

F this! I'm out

Weary and defeated, pointing up at Eichorn Pinnacle

The last and grandest adventure that I came across in the photos was of Jared and my attempt on the Sawtooth Ridge, on the northeast boundary of Yosemite National Park.  We carried small(ish) overnight packs with sleeping, cooking, and, of course, climbing gear.  We tried to be minimal but they still felt pretty damn heavy and we surely had way too much.  We parked at Twin Lakes, by Bridgeport on the eastern side of the Sierras, and set off bushwhacking 3,000 ft. up Blacksmith Creek.  We were still learning the mountain craft and toughening our bodies and minds; that trip was a great teacher.  The hike was exhausting but we finally gained the ridge above Glacier Lake and began to have real fun.  Our plan was to spend the night and begin the traverse proper in the morning, so we began to hunt for a suitable perch to sleep.  We found and settled into an elegant ~5'x10' platform at 10,000 ft., an extravagantly airy little suite with million dollar views to the east and across at the exceptionally jagged ridge line named the Cleaver.  We lounged in the late sun, watched the light and clouds move over to the eastern side of the Sierras, saw the shadows play on the toothy ridges.  We cooked and ate, talked and laughed, loving where we were as we relaxed into our sleeping bags on our sleeping pads, the cold of the night descending upon us.  We rested well with the open air all around.  

Above Blacksmith Lake on the bushwhack up

Loving our position, with the Cleaver Ridge beyond

Looking down on our glorious perch

The next morning we set to work.  We packed up and descended to the snowy gully below, leading us back up to the saddle between Blacksmith and Cleaver Peak.  The snow was hard as it was early still and we slid around a bit sans crampons, forced to ascend precariously, hugging the rocky edge of the steepening chute.  From the saddle we roped up and simul-climbed the moderate terrain to the top of Cleaver.  We relished the summit although the view southeast along the spine of the great ridge, our intended route, was downright nauseating.  The next section--the Sawblade--looked horrifying and after that it didn't look much better.  The motivation and confidence began to waver.   Could we do it?  Well, yes...but do we really really want to?  Hmmm...not sure anymore.  Hey, I never claimed to be the toughest guy around.

But on we went.  The exposure was truly dizzying.  Unfathomable distances to pure granitic chaos all around, like Nature screaming in stone while dancing around an open fire.  Open air that makes your stomach hurt, vertigo.  Rawer than raw, jagged to the utmost.  Like a child smashing on a drum set, transformed into mountainscape.  I remember a distinct feeling of wanting to flee, to wail like a terrified child and run and hide from these grotesque and looming pinnacles; so beautiful and sublime, but plainly inhospitable.  

The Sawblade

On the descent off the Sawtooth Ridge

Not feeling too bad about bailing

The clearest memory, because I was the most scared, was of leading up a vertical wall to regain to crest proper.  My pack weighed heavily and my approach shoes skated on the crumbly granite.  The gear I had put in to catch me if I fell was dubious at best and a fall would have been guaranteed injury.  I began to panic as my hands desperately searched for purchase, sweating as the imminent approached; I went with the only option and charged upward in a last ditch effort.  Pure being then, no thought, only action.  No fear, no life and no death, no "me" or "I", no concepts of "risk" or "danger."  No other option.  

I made the mad dash and reached some more solid ground as the rope ran out.  There was little place to stop and make an anchor, only a short chimney system behind a boulder wedged within and no suitable place for gear.  I worked my body into the crevasse and turned so that my shoulders tightly spanned the width of it, that would have to do.  Ok, Jared, the anchor's set, on belay!  

Up and down, terrifying rappel after terrifying rappel, vertical, loose, and uncertain ascent after vertical, loose, and uncertain ascent.  We reached a notch and prepared to find the route up the other side.  Nothing looked possible, probable, safe, or fun.  Well....hmmm.  Ok, let's bail.  A few sketchy rappels later and we were on the snow and heading down to Horse Creek and the trail back to Twin Lakes.  Tension flowed from us as we fled, relaxing into our defeat.  

My ego was slightly sore for a time but, as usually happens, perspective kicks in and you realize it's all good.  There's always next time.

Hope you've enjoyed the photos!

Enjoy this music video!

Thursday, April 7, 2011


I am here in the ultra hip Ace Hotel lobby/Stumptown Coffee seating area, posting this.  The ambiance is pleasing and everything looks nice but the coolness is pretty intense.  Anyway, I needed to use the internet and the coffee is great.
Since writing the following piece I had to return to the Bay Area to get my car and stuff that was stored there.  I was able to get in some good runs in Marin and the East Bay Hills while there and then had a proper adventure with the infamous Animal Athletics co-founder, Tony Barbero, in the Columbia Gorge after we caravanned back up north in a Subaru/U-Haul truck tandem.  I've included a few pictures from the California trip for your enjoyment.  
And, of course, I'm feeling stronger everyday and patience is the key.  I'll relearn it over and over as long as I live.


Angels Rest, looking west toward Portland along the Columbia Gorge
The Marin Headlands, looking south to San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge

        I have been incredibly fortunate to have gotten in touch with two great ultra runners since arriving in Portland, Nick Triolo and Yassine Diboun.  When I ran with Yassine, in Forest Park, it was the week before the Chuckanut 50k, up in Bellingham, WA.  Luckily for me he was tapering, which meant that he wouldn't be running at his normally blistering pace.  We had a good time and it was a nice introduction to a new friend and an amazing park, my new local training grounds.  A week later, after finding a nice apartment in the Alphabet District, I headed out to the Columbia Gorge with Nick, as Yassine was battling it out a few hundred miles north.  

As we drove out of the city the scenery instantly demanded my attention.  After lots of rain and grey, the sun and blue skies were almost shocking.  Mt St. Helens and other snowy peaks on the Washington side appeared out of no where to the north and Mt Hood looked relatively Himalayan to the southwest.  Huge cloud forms danced on the sky and clung to the peaks, collected in the valleys.  We drove less than thirty minutes, parked at the Angels Rest Trailhead and set off.  Nick led the way, ascending quickly up the steep trail.  It was a fairly stout little climb, ~1,500 ft. in 2.3 miles, the first part of the ~12 mile loop.  I chugged along behind him for a very short while, and then realized that there was no hope.  He fierce pace never slackened and he quickly was out of sight.  Goddamn it! Ahhhh... Go easy Willie, just go easy.  My ego began to cry out like a weak and pathetic puppy as my lack of fitness became brutally apparent.  I tried to relax and enjoy it, which wasn't too hard given the grandeur around me, but my legs and lungs burned and I finally had to resort to a few short periods of hiking.  I felt like a weak little brother trying to tag along.  Don't be too hard on yourself, remember you haven't been training.  You'll be feeling better soon enough.  

The trees thinned and the trail became more exposed and rocky just before reaching Angels Rest.  I arrived to find Nick quietly sitting there on his craggy perch, enjoying the views west to Portland and the glory all around.  I was embarrassed and apologized for my tardy arrival.  Of course, being the good person he is, he simply assured me that he was just psyched to be out there and that I shouldn't worry.  He graciously let me lead the next section, a rolling descent to the top of Wahkeena Falls, one of the dozens of stunning cascades that tumble thunderously into the Gorge.  And then another climb.  Not as big as the first but, as Nick put it, it would "get my attention."  Right he was.  Once more I floundered upward, hiking short bits here and there, feeling the burn, feeling the sting of a wounded ego, as he absolutely motored off into the distance.  Then we hit the snow.  Our high point was Devils Rest, and there was a good bit of the white stuff on the ground as we neared it, then falling from the sky as we pressed on.  Angels Rest and Devils Rest are named for the quality of views from each point; the former being expansive and spectacular and the latter having no real view at all, just a little rocky bulge in the thick forest.  I struggled along, spouting excuses when I could get Nick within ear shot: "Man, I haven't run up something like this since last November," and so on.  After that it was all down hill, no pun intended, but my hobbled body protested even then, beginning to cramp as I tried to keep up.  Normally downhills are one of my specialties, but not that day.  Time to let go.  Let the ego just dissolve away.  There is no me, no I.  Just nothingness and a cramping fool out in the woods.  We took some pictures at Angels Rest on the way down and I finally managed a decent clip as I lead the way back to the car past literally more than a hundred other hikers and runners, inspiring and humbling to me in their own right.  

Nick Triolo and Willie McBride at Angels Rest on the way back down

Regardless of my physical state I had a great time, thrilled at the proximity of such wonderful landscapes and excited to have met another new friend and savage adventurer.  Being humbled, I realized clearly that day, can be a positive thing.  Being humbled can in turn inspire, checking our realities, making us more human.  It gives us reason to push further and go harder while keeping our egos grounded.  Just as in Nature, there is an order, a progression in everything that must be understood and followed.  To put it in mechanical terms, you don't skip from first gear to fourth gear in your car, or start in third.  You must follow the appropriate progression, the necessary steps.  And so it is with training; be patient, do it for the love of it, keep it up and follow those steps, adhere to the thoughtful and logical progression.  Soon enough you'll get to where you want to be.

I corresponded with Yassine after Chuckanut about meeting up for another run.  He wrote: "Dude...that race was ridiculous! I'm completely humbled by the talent that showed up yesterday."  Even at the elite levels people can be humbled by the talents and efforts of others and that's a wonderful thing.  We can inspire some and be humbled by others at the exact same time.  The collective energy put into these activities is infectious, born from a continuum of sorts, free floating energy and inspiration that courses through all our lives.  At any level, strong performances inspire more strong performances, going hard and giving it everything make people want to do that same.  And so my bruised ego heals and I know I must follow the progression, must look to Nature for that wisdom.  The energy is in the air and so I will breath it in.    

I am forever a student and I feel fortunate to have many new teachers.  

a few more pictures of the Marin Headlands, California...

And, once again, enjoy this music video!