The pain of love: Cordes relishes the nasty stuff on Stettner’s, even after six surgeries.
Climbing can take everything from you, but just like being in love you can keep coming back to it…and finding more.
I limp to the boulder where my climbing partner, Weasel One, sits staring at the massive east face of Longs Peak. We’ve hiked for three hours and see a streak of white running down the granite. We grin huge grins.
“Think that’s ice, dude?” asks W1 (a.k.a. Chris Thompson).
The winter and spring snowpack buries the talus field, ice covers Chasm Lake and across the valley sunshine illuminates Lumpy Ridge.
“Oh yeah, totally,” I say, half serious. “And it’d be a great day to be rock climbing.”
It’s mid-May 2012, mid-70-degrees in the valley and we’ve come for Alexander’s Chimney—a moderate mixed route on Longs’ lower east face. It’d be a good first day back to ice climbing on Longs for me. Except that we see this steep streak of white over by Stettner’s… is that ice or just snow-plastered rock?
“How’s the leg, gimpy?” W1 asks.
My cankle—I’ve now got an ankle bigger than my calf—swells on top of scar tissue. Two and a half years ago, I destroyed my lower leg in a freak accident. Four surgeries followed. The damn thing still hurts every day. As my leg got better, I destroyed my shoulder—major reconstruction, bringing me to six surgeries in 13 months.
“It’s fine,” I grumble. “But if I was a horse I think they’d shoot me.”
We snap-on our crampons, pull out our ice tools, shoulder our packs and head for Stettner’s. My grumble turns to a giggle.
Sometimes people seem baffled that I continue after my string of injuries, and I simply don’t understand. They say, “You still climb?!” And I think, Have you never been in love?
Your words of caution are no match for my Disaster Style!” my friend Brent intoned like a kung fu master. This was a different season a decade earlier—September 2002—and we were headed for a different streak of ice on Longs. A freak early season storm, followed by some sun and a cold night, had us sitting on the same rock, deciding to charge ahead.
Our dark humor term for risky climbing, “Disaster Style,” had become a metaphor among our Estes Park crew. It meant we were embracing life in an increasingly sterile society, where risk is what you do in the stock market, fear is something to avoid rather than embrace and materialism seems to consume mainstream values.
Brent lived in the Climb Lab, an ex-police crime lab van he’d bought on the cheap and gutted (but not really renovated). Other friends lived in their cars. My friend The Danimal and I lived in The Shack, a $65 a month bargain with no heat and dozens of mice. After a year, I moved across town to a far nicer shack (per square inch, anyway) for the next three years: The Chicken Coop, a 7×11-foot renovated tool shed. When you don’t want what everyone else wants, time for climbing comes surprisingly easy. No TV, no home entertainment system, no SUV needed. None of that crap is ever ours for the keeping anyway. So, we figured then (as we do now) that there’s one way to live: Spend the money on things you’ll actually remember. Things you do. Things you love. A life you’ll lead.
Mind if I take this first pitch?” I ask W1. He obliges, I grab the rack and scratch my way through steep rock plastered with snow—the stuff we thought might be ice. Shouldn’t I have learned by now, after 18 years of this? Sun washes nearby walls while we climb in shaded corners, battling through difficult conditions, consumed in moments of consequence and focus where I forget about everything but now, forget about myself, forget about daily hassles and worry and mundane problems. A while later, I build an anchor and, as I belay, gaze across to the Chasm View Wall. Something beyond the immediate enters my mind. I think of Jonny Copp.
Around the time of the Climb Lab and my shack years Jonny and I became friends and climbing partners, and the memories soon flowed… running from the campground in the Black Canyon, gear clanking, after taking half the morning eating breakfast—like he had two speeds, stop and go—and my trying to draft off his infectious enthusiasm, the kind that makes you believe you can do more than you ever thought possible.
And that time in Chamonix for a month late winter, five of us piled into a tiny apartment, nonstop laughter, epics, sends, and friendship. When suffering through the north face of Les Droites, way off-route, for some reason I most remember Jonny’s outrageous head bobs at 2:00 a.m.—standing on a ledge discussing where the hell to go when, his body taught to the anchor, his eyes would flutter and close as his head and torso drifted forward to chest height before rocketing back up, bolt upright, eyes wide like saucers and he’d bust into that laugh, breath freezing to crystals glimmering in our headlamps, and the laugh would turn to a smile that stayed as his eyes closed and he’d catch a moment’s sleep while drifting forward again, repeat, repeat, repeat … and when we bumbled to the Frendo Spur one day mid-morning, climbed, raced, but missed the last tram down, yet atop the telepherique station we found an open door and raided the French rescue crew’s kitchen, making cheesy fries and chowing down until busted and banished to the bathroom bivy.
Learning to go for it with him in Alaska, when I’d have been content to sit around—weather isn’t perfect—and do the indecisive Kahiltna hang with everyone else, except you just don’t get away with that with Jonny Copp, and somehow you don’t want to get away with that with Jonny Copp, and so we went between—and partially through—storms, climbing a new route in the East Fork, descending in a whiteout and on the ski back to our empty bivy tent (to save weight, we hadn’t brought sleeping bags). I plunged into a crevasse and he pulled me out, trembling and terrified, and we crawled into the tent cold, wet and scared, huddling together through the night, but I was happy to be there with him—and before getting in the tent, he dug into the snow and handed me the best tasting PBR of my life—he’d carried it from our base camp, hidden from me, all the way in to our East Fork bivy.
And then the time when … well, damn.
Of all my friends who live their lives, I never thought that he would die. And even if he did, I thought he would surely rise like a Phoenix and keep on living.
We last climbed together here, in the Chasm Lake Cirque, the summer before he died. I remember staring at Longs and the Chasm View Wall.
“What should we climb?”
“Maybe something up there?” came Jonny’s characteristic reply. “We’ll figure it out.”
He had an unrelenting optimism. And wild eyes that burned with life. The best hugs. A huge, toothy grin. He was a mystic who embraced the unknown and unknowable. Without a doubt the partner you wanted if, and when, the shit hit the fan. He’d just laugh. The greatest laugh.
Some partners offer an unspoken gift that, just by being with them, somehow makes you better than you thought you could be. And then, sometime, before you even really know it, you begin believing in yourself.
As we racked up among wildflowers, I saw what looked like a weatherworn dowel hanging from his harness.
“Dude, what in the hell is that?”
“It’s a flute!” he said, and kicked steps up the snow toward the wall.
Oh, well, of course.
I tried my best to mock the hippie flute, but I got quiet when the crux randomly came on my lead.
“This is too hard for me,” I thought. But I knew he’d tell me to try, and I knew he’d be right. Toward the top of the pitch, as notes drifted upward from the belay and without even realizing it, I danced.
Later, when the realities of living life leave us heartbroken, we console ourselves with talk of inspiration and memories, and how the ones we lost wouldn’t want us to be sad. We whisper wistful “if onlys,” but it remains undeniable that risks are part of the equation, as are all the experiences that make us who we are—that the close calls and willingness to go come with the love and laughter and joy and inspiration, and you cannot go back and remove one component from an integral whole. It was him. All of it.
The summer of his death—an avalanche in the pre-dawn hours of May 20, 2009 took him, Micah Dash and Wade Johnson below the then-unclimbed east face of Mt. Edgar, in China—I returned to the cirque. While kicking steps up the sun-cupped snow, as firey alpenglow bathed the rock, I stopped. I looked everywhere, studying the air and the wind and the rock, and though Jonny didn’t rise from the ashes, I still heard the sounds of his flute.
The day draws on as W1 and I piece together pitches and get lost in time. The sun drops low on the horizon and I run out of rope. Soon I scrape through snow to find cracks for an anchor, as blue skies fade to black. The Diamond towers above us, casting huge, dark shadows. I love feeling so small. I pause to gaze at the stars, illuminating space with incomprehensible magnificence.
I sometimes think of my casual use of Disaster Style, but my words create no new realities, and I no more believe in superstition than I do in religion. No, the true disaster, I believed then as I believe now, would be to crawl through life, consumed by fear of disaster.
I bring my friend up while I shift from side to side, taking weight off of my gimpy leg. It’s going to be a long night, me hobbling and hurting before we return to our warm beds, back to our loved ones. My breath freezes as I pull on a jacket and look to the east, where I see the comforting lights of the Front Range, flickering in the distance.
Kelly Cordes is always in love with climbing, the mountains and the effect they have on him. Though he continues to chase his alpine dreams around the world, he cherishes returning to his small cabin in Estes Park.