Solitary Refinement by Steve Price

“…has metastasized” are the last words I hear.

I know he is still talking but have gone numb and my hearing is temporarily nonexistent. He stops, the gravity on his face replaced with compassion. The corner of my eye catches a tear track down my wife’s cheek. The bomb explodes. Just a short time ago remission was the order of the day. It has been a few weeks since hearing that.

Time for a head-clearing trip to the alpine.

Ellingwood Arete (different trip)

A change in the weather stirs me from a fitful sleep. The wind has picked up. Pushing back my hood I glance at the watch. 2:11 am. Overhead are patches of clear sky. A light snow is falling. I can see below me for the first time since moving onto this ledge. The clouds that have enveloped all for the last thirteen hours are moving out. Just a few more hours and the warmth of the sun will reach here.

This perch is directly below the crux pitch of Ellingwood Arete. I am alone.

The route is a beautiful line on Crestone Needle in the Sangre de Cristo range. A classic, first ascended in 1925 to a gorgeous summit. Gotta pee. Keeping my back on the wall I stand and stretch.

The dark world around me is wet but no longer socked in. The snow stops. Silence broken by the click of the headlamp. I relieve myself then take stock. Pint of water, a small chunk of cheese bread, two energy bars, an empty pack of tuna devoured hours ago, and my one hit. Take a hit, check the temp and click off the light. Thirty-six degrees. Wrapped in raingear and poncho I am comfortable. Life is good.

The drive across the San Luis Valley was marred only by an inability to focus my thoughts, drifting from upcoming treatments to the beauty of South Colony Lakes. Far to the northeast, the Crestones rise almost 7,000 feet above the valley.

A fleeting doubt makes me question the choice to solo this peak at this time. The latest round of treatments has robbed some of my energy, the weight of the battle tiring. But doubt leaves me be as I pass south of Blanca and continue on.

The forecast showed a twenty percent chance of weather. For now sun and blue dominate all overhead. With four decades in the area I know a forecast can hold no relevance above the trees. The abrupt rise of these peaks above the valley create their own storms more often than not.

For almost two decades this poncho has lived in the bottom of various summit packs. Lightweight waterproof shell, built-in hood, reflective interior and hand pockets on the inside edge make it a great “oh shit” shelter. As I lean against the wall with legs pulled up, it covers me well.

For now I choose to stand and munch on some bread. An hour passes and I sit down, sky above now clear. At 5:30 a glowing tent appears down by the lakes. Fifteen minutes later, wishful thinking has convinced me I smell coffee. It has to be wishful as the winds are coming down from the peaks. I wonder about their agenda for the day and try to sleep. End up just waiting on the sun and picking out constellations.

Only one truck at the trailhead when I arrive. A text from my significant other. Be safe, have a great time, and drive yourself home. She always says that. A pic of her and our dog. I pop a beer and make lunch. It is only a few miles to the lakes and being in no hurry just chill. Today is for relaxing, tomorrow the climb. This is my fifth time on the route. Second solo. Confidence rises as I pop another beer. Two go into the pack, two left in the cooler for my return.

As the rosy fingers of dawn light the sky, my thoughts meander to a favorite saying posted on the wall of a hangout back in Pagosa. In the gray below two figures emerge from the tent and lift their packs. I watch and see they are headed for a different route. It seems the arête is to be mine today.

With the arrival of the sun I strip off the poncho and do a little dance. Vibrancy returns to my stiff bones as I eat and stretch, waiting for the rock to dry. For whatever reason I overslept yesterday and got a really late start. The rain came in around one in the afternoon. It stopped in thirty minutes but the clouds and occasional drizzle remained.

I had climbed to this ledge to wait for the return of the sun. Turned out to be a long wait. Should have set an alarm. Normally I have no need for one. Oversleeping seems to happen more often lately. Go figure. With the arrival of the sun the rock begins to steam, glowing orange and red with the refracted light. The Blood of Christ. I am overwhelmed with emotion and tears fill my eyes. Such beauty.

Since my original diagnosis a few months ago I have not allowed self pity to darken my thoughts. It has caught me here on this ledge and I weep openly. Death does not scare me; the battle ahead to keep it at bay does.

Just six years ago I was standing tall with my father as he struggled with the same battle. That journey was the toughest I have experienced. His last words echo through my consciousness. “Be good, strong, and true to your inner compass. Kiss your wife everyday.” Then he was gone. Needing some time alone my brother leaves the room. I bend down and kiss dad’s cheek. The journey ended on a beach in South America. His favorite place. I reach up and touch the shell I picked up that day. It has hung on a chain around my neck since spreading his ashes.

Suddenly I no longer feel alone.

Time to go. Shouldering my pack I take a minute to absorb the surroundings. This may be my last time here and need to savor it. With a calming breath I turn and climb.

The Head Crack pitch is the crux of the route. The crack is wet but easily manageable. Clarity encompasses me as I move right onto the crux holds. I am fully engaged in the moment and movement and the summit arrives as a surprise. Alpine splendor shines in every direction and through my soul.

After a leisurely time on the summit I slowly pick my way down the South Face back to camp, elk stew, and a cold beer.

As I descend the couloir, windswept voices reach me. An argument is in progress somewhere below. I see no one but hear them clearly. An emphatic “We are going down.” Then silence. Five minutes later they come into view. Announcing my presence with a loud hello they both look up, mild shock on their faces. His eyes are cloudy with fear. Hers, disappointment. We chat for a few minutes but mention nothing of their plight. My input is definitely not needed. I say be safe and continue on. Everyone you meet flutters around my mind as I leave them.

Fed and smugly satisfied I take a hit and open my last camp beer. The couple arrive back at their tent, drop packs, and wander off in different directions, fighting a battle I know nothing about.

Tomorrow I will head home. After that more treatments to continue the fight. Rust never sleeps.

Just outside of town the phone rings. It is my wife. She is at happy hour with the usual suspects. I’m ten minutes away I say and hang up. Upon arrival they are sitting on the deck, laughing and playing guitar. I join them and give my wife a kiss. A beer appears in my hand as I sit down and grab a guitar. Over my shoulder on a wall inside hangs a plaque. I know the words displayed there by heart.

With a song or two left in me I take a sip and begin to play.

Steve “Booner” Price lives in Pagosa Springs, CO with his wife, dog, cat and too many guitars. Climbing since 1980, he enjoys pebble wrestling, plugging gear, clipping bolts, top notch bourbon, and trying not to suffer in the high peaks. 

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