Floating

Elaina Arenz demonstrates how to fall while climbing, Maple Canyon, Utah. © Louis Arevalo

by Kitty Calhoun

Co-Owner, Chicks Climbing and Skiing

A couple of weeks ago, I arrived at the International Climbers Fest in Lander, Wyoming, and was warmly greeted by a Chicks alumna, Amy Skinner.  She informed me that they were doing a podcast called the Hooligan Narratives (https://www.facebook.com/thehoulihannarratives/),  and wanted me to tell a story with the theme of Float.  I would have eight minutes to tell the story and there would be three other storytellers.

I decided to relate an incident from our 1987 Dhaulagiri East Face Expedition.  We were a team of four – Colin Grissom, Matt and John Culberson, and myself.   None of us had ever tried to climb an 8000m peak and I was the only one who had even seen one.  We were on a tight budget – $3000/person including airfare – and planned to climb alpine style with minimal gear and no fixed ropes.

Our intention was to do the second ascent of the Kurtyka-McIntyre route on the east face, but the ice ribbon was not frozen when we arrived.  In fact, it has never come in again and was an early victim of climate change, as I described in my Ted talk, Last Ascents.  Upon seeing water dripping over the rock, we decided to climb the Northeast Ridge in order to acclimatize. Hopefully the East Face would freeze in the meanwhile.

A Japanese team had fixed lines to a high point of 22,000’ on the Northeast Ridge and we agreed to break trail above for them. We were near the end of their ropes when the wind slab we were on avalanched.  It pulled us down the steep north face.  I made a couple of efforts to go into self-arrest, but each time the rope came tight and pulled me off my feet.  I curled into a ball and put my arms over my head to protect it as I tumbled down the slope.  After falling four hundred feet, we came to a stop.  The Japanese fixed line was anchored with eight pickets and they had zippered out one by one and the last one held.

In dire situations such as this, my senses are finely tuned and time seems to slow down. I do what I can to survive, but I feel a sense of acceptance of what may happen.  It is as if I am an outside observer to the action, a sensation expressed by an old family friend by the statement, “I am flotsam floating on the ocean of life.”

Though we were shaken by the fall, we decided to try to summit by the Northeast Ridge as fast and light as possible.  After a short recovery in base camp, we summited in five days, and hastily retreated back to base camp just before a monster storm enveloped the entire country of Nepal.

Other storytellers spoke of floating in terms of the release that climbing gives them, above the fray of life.  Another spoke of floating on the support of parents during turbulent times.  I recently thought of floating as I practiced falling at a sport crag.

What does Float means to you?

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