As usual, Greg grimaces when I tuck a cell phone into the lid of my pack. “Do you need to check your stocks?” he chides. “Call your mommy?” This is just the mildly annoying banter of a longtime climbing partner, but then he says something that hits home: “I go into the backcountry to escape from all these phones, and here you go bringing one along.” True enough, I think, but you’re partly to blame.
Late winter, several years earlier, Greg had suggested an attempt on the central buttress of Taylor Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park. This 13,153-foot mountain looms above the Sky Pond cirque, and its east face is one of the biggest alpine walls in the park. The hike to Taylor’s summit along the Continental Divide is easy, but the direct route up the east face is rarely climbed, and neither one of us had heard of anyone doing it in winter.
We left the Glacier Gorge trailhead at 4 a.m. with heavy packs, crampons and two ice axes apiece, a 70-meter rope, pitons, cams, ice screws, food and water—and no phone. Seedlings were already poking through the warming soil in my garden at home, but crusty snow still coated the ground at 9,000 feet. We clicked into skis a few hundreds yards from the car and didn’t take them off until we had climbed above Sky Pond, four miles in and 2,500 feet higher.
Caching our skis, we cramponed up a snow gully with a short ice step, then traversed a broad snowfield below Taylor’s East Face to a boulder where we left our packs and extra food. It was 8 a.m. and already warm. We packed light for the climb: a few energy bars, a single water bottle. The route appeared to be straightforward snow climbing linked by short rock bands. We figured we’d be on top by mid-afternoon. The rock steps, however, required surprisingly difficult mixed climbing, ice tools and crampon points scraping for purchase in shallow fissures. And the ramps where we’d expected to move fast were laden with sugar snow—unconsolidated knee-deep crystals that were perilous and exhausting to plow through. As the day warmed, we nervously eyed the pillows of wet snow clinging to the rocks overhead. If they fell, we would be wiped off the face like scraps from a cutting board.
By late afternoon we had reached a sloping snow ledge below a final headwall. We were only 50 or 60 vertical feet from Taylor’s flat summit, but the face was plumb and there was no obvious line through it. We’d already been on the move for about 14 hours. Dull gray clouds filled the sky. We’d have to move fast if we wanted to top out before dark.
Chris, my wife, was expecting my call any minute. When I’d described our plans for the day, I had told her we’d be home by early evening. We had invited friends over for dinner. No problem, I said. I’ll be home, showered and have plenty of time to help set up.
Coincidentally, our friends had already called to cancel the dinner plans, but as the evening stretched on, Chris’ annoyance turned to worry and then fear. Around 9 p.m. she called Greg’s wife, who said she wasn’t too worried; Greg often got home late. Unsatisfied, Chris called a friend, who in turn called Rocky Mountain National Park. After some back-and-forth with the dispatcher, a ranger said he would drive to the Glacier Gorge trailhead and see if my old Subaru was still there.
Some time later, the ranger called back and said he’d found my car at the lot, dusted with new snow that had begun to fall. The ranger had brushed off the window and seen a cell phone lying on the front seat. He said there was nothing else they could do until morning. If we hadn’t returned by then, they’d begin a search effort. This was reasonable, but it was not what Chris wanted to hear. A couple of hours later, she called our friend again, in tears, and he struggled to reassure her that Greg and I knew what we were doing, that, really, there probably was nothing to worry about.
After nearly three hours of attempting various routes through the headwall, Greg traversed back to my belay stance and said dejectedly, “I don’t know, bud—I don’t think I can do it.” I studied the sloping ledge at our feet. It wouldn’t be difficult to stomp down the snow and arrange a bivouac. But we had little food, no water, no shelter and a storm was forecast to move in that night. I had to take a look for myself.
A line of broken granite flakes zigzagged up the vertical wall left of the belay. From the highest foothold, I stretched to the right and cammed the pick of one axe into a crack. With a sense of desperation, I swung onto the axe and, somewhat to my surprise, did not fall. It was now pitch dark. Above was a slot choked with wind-packed snow. Digging with my axe revealed more cracks, and I struggled upward a few feet until I could reach up into the snowy slot. As if a sluice gate had been thrown open, snow crashed down onto my head and shoulders, knocking my glasses to the side of my face. I pushed them back into place with one gloved hand and kept digging until I could heave my body up into the crack. A few yards higher, I swung my axes into the frozen turf on top of Taylor Peak and hauled onto the summit.
Throwing a loop of rope around a rock protruding from the tundra, I pulled in slack to belay Greg. It was after 10 p.m., and snowflakes had begun to drift through the still night. Despite this, I felt a flood of relief—now I was sure we would make it home. I just wished I could call Chris to tell her that.
Over the past decade or so, cell phones have helped save many injured or lost climbers and hikers in Rocky Mountain National Park. When a man fell down the icy Lambs Slide gully on Longs Peak, impaling his neck with his own ice axe, the climbers who came to his aid discovered a phone in his pocket and called for medical assistance that saved his life. A rock climber who had badly broken his foot halfway up one of the crags of Lumpy Ridge called rescuers and was plucked from the cliff face that night, instead of having to suffer until morning.
But cell phones are not a lifeline. Batteries die and service is spotty in the backcountry. Often, one side of the line is clear while the other is mired in static. If you get through to 911, your call might end up in Estes Park or Greeley or even Cheyenne, and then get routed to the park’s dispatcher, and eventually to a ranger. Meanwhile, your bars may vanish. A hiker who got lost in the remote Mummy Range several years ago called rangers and described his general location, but then his calls stopped and it took searchers three more days to locate him.
Had we been in real trouble on Taylor Peak, a phone probably wouldn’t have been much help. Thanks to my wife, the rangers already knew where we were climbing. But that night a two-day snowstorm moved, and if we’d been hurt or unable to climb that final pitch, it easily could have taken rescuers several days to reach us from above. By then, it’s no exaggeration to say we might have been calling home only to say good-bye, as Rob Hall famously did from below the summit of Mt. Everest in 1996.
Like many climbers, Greg feels that cell phones are not only an intrusion in the backcountry, they’re also a crutch that may weaken one’s urge for self-preservation—the attribute that ultimately keeps mountaineers alive. He cites the time-honored climber’s code of personal responsibility and laments stories of hikers calling for helicopter rescues because they’re too tired to walk home by themselves. If we’d had a phone on Taylor Peak, he might say, would we have worked so hard to breach that final headwall, or would we have just called for help and then waited for a rescue?
And here’s another question: Where do you draw the line? If you’re going to carry a cell phone, why not a satellite phone, which can be more reliable in the backcountry? Shouldn’t you carry a personal locator beacon, with which searchers can be alerted that you are in trouble via satellite and begin a search to pinpoint your position? Or does erecting an electronic safety net erase the whole point of wilderness climbing, inviting the overcoddled, risk-averse world into the heart of the backcountry?
In principle I agree with Greg. I treasure wilderness climbing’s opportunities for the escape, for that energizing measure of risk. But there’s another factor: When I’m out there I know how things are going, good or bad, while my wife and friends at home can only wait and worry. After Taylor Peak, it feels irresponsible to leave my phone in the car. I don’t carry it so I can call for a rescue (though I certainly would if I needed help and could get a signal). I carry the phone so I can call my wife when things are going just fine, so I can say, “Don’t worry. I’ll be home soon.”
We coiled the rope, walked down Taylor’s northern slopes, and then turned to down-climb a steep couloir to the east, toward Sky Pond. At the base of the wall, I felt utterly drained. The adrenaline of the climb and those scary hours below the summit had faded; exhaustion had set in. It was after midnight and thick flakes swirled in the beams of our headlamps; we couldn’t see more than 30 feet.
The wet snow collapsed as we skied toward the car, and we fell over and over. Greg was far ahead as we skied over the frozen Loch. Less than a mile from the road, I decided to jettison my pack and those frustrating skis, and just post-hole toward the car. I could come back for the gear in the morning. But Greg was waiting near Glacier Knobs, and he said, “Don’t be silly, you’re not going to want to come back.”
We reached the car at 3:30 in the morning. I plugged my cold, dead phone into the cigarette lighter, and as we neared Estes Park a few bars lit up on the display. I punched our number and Chris answered sleepily. “It’s about time,” she said, cross but relieved. “Why didn’t you call?”
“I didn’t have my phone,” I said. But now I always do.
Dougald MacDonald is associate editor of The American Alpine Journal and author of The Mountain World