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Raggedy Man

[This On Belay story by Scott Coldiron first appeared in Alpinist 64, which is now available on newsstands and in our online store. Jess Roskelley wrote a story for about a recent first ascent he and Coldiron climbed on “A” Peak in the Cabinet Range, titled “No bull: Too tired to see right after a first ascent in Montana’s Cabinet Range.” Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Be sure to pick up Alpinist 64 for all the goodness!–Ed.]

Scott Coldiron climbs next to the route Raggedy Man. [Photo] Marlin Thorman

Scott Coldiron climbs next to the route Raggedy Man in Montana’s Cabinet Mountains. [Photo] Marlin Thorman

MARCH 2017: I inch across an icy log high above the raging creek. Jess trails ten feet back. In front of me, a waist-high ridge of snow has built up and hardened through months of freeze-thaw cycles; I kick and stomp at the frozen fin, battling to keep my balance as I shuffle forward. Slanting rain cuts through the dense canopy of western red cedar and hemlock trees. Jade-green moss creeps up the trunks of thousand-year-old cedars. The forecast for Montana’s Cabinet Mountains called for only a twenty percent chance of showers, but I’ve bet on the wrong day. Rain has long ago defeated my hard-shell jacket; underneath, high-tech knit layers bunch up with water.

Four hours ago, my climbing partner Jess Roskelley and I parked the snowmobile at the end of the road and shouldered seventy-pound packs for the six-mile ski to Granite Lake. Most days of the year, this section of trail–rising gently along forested side hill–has no creek crossings. Today, every small ravine has swollen into a roiling stream of muddy water. The outlines of tree branches are dissolving into shadow with the coming dusk, and we’re only halfway there.

Swirling lines of dark turbulence draw my gaze to the water. I look to where I might land if I slip–a muddy wave pulses against a log-jam–and I know the creek would sweep me away. When I reach a small island midstream, I’m relieved to step momentarily onto solid ground. The next channel is wider. A ten-foot fir dances in the current to a frenzied rhythm. A spray of muddy water shoots through the air. “Holy shit! That looks committing!” Jess shouts. The thunder of the creek is too loud for talk. I nod and turn to follow Jess as he shuffles back across the log.

Truth be told, I was perhaps too determined to succeed. Ten weeks ago, well above my last ice screw, I was swinging my axe desperately, trying to get it to stick in the rotten ice, when my right crampon ripped out without warning. I fell. Twenty-five feet down, I hit a ledge, my crampon points drove into the ice, and my knees buckled. I felt my right fibula snap as I flipped over and my upper body slammed into the ice. I slid face-first until the rope came tight.

It was the best Northwest ice season in years, but I spent the winter housebound, tantalized by photos that my friends posted on Facebook as they completed one new route after another. By the time I could climb again, March was almost gone. Jess had just returned from an expedition to Patagonia, and we had one last chance at a route I’ve been dreaming about for years: a thousand-foot frozen waterfall hanging on a slate-grey rock wall.

In search of safe passage, Jess and I keep hiking up the side of the flooding ravine. Trees, logs and brush litter the wide, low gully. Dark water courses through three or four channels, splitting off and joining back together in a chaotic web. After ten minutes of bushwhacking, I see no way across. Ahead, however, Jess lets out a whoop. A newly fallen cedar tree has neatly spanned the water, and its rough bark gives sure footing while we cross. The rainfall softens. A breeze stirs, and cold evening air cuts through my wet clothes. As the snowpack stiffens under my skis, they glide easily over the frozen trail.

Then the wind comes. Trees whip back and forth with a sudden and shocking power. We’re trapped in a microburst: an intense downdraft has struck the ground and created an outrush of gale-force winds. When the first tree falls, animal instinct tells me to run. But running on skis feels like a familiar nightmare–feet heavy and sluggish, and no place to hide. I turn to check on Jess, and I’m transfixed by a surreal picture: an eighty-foot Douglas fir sails through the air on a sure collision course with my climbing partner. The trunk slams into the snow at his feet. Jess freezes–his sandy hair dripping water, eyes squinting, jaw clenched. His mouth curls at the edges, and he’s laughing. There’s no escaping the wind. I laugh with Jess while the wind howls and the crack of falling trees rings through the forest. With each reverberation, I feel echoes of the din of past years.

Five-year-old Coldiron with his brother, Darrin (center), and cousin. [Photo] Courtesy Scott Coldiron

Five-year-old Coldiron with his brother, Darrin (center), and cousin. [Photo] Courtesy Scott Coldiron

JUNE 1972: A train whistle pierced the air, but I was pretty sure the men who worked on the tracks couldn’t see me. I was five years old. My playground was the railroad siding a block from where my family lived in Missoula, Montana. I leaned out the open door of an empty freight car to reach for my three-year-old brother. My older sister boosted him up from below, while I held his hands tight and pulled him onto the train car. Our favorite game was to pretend we’d run away from home, and we were hobos riding the rails.

Next to the tracks, there was a collection of dirt-floored, wooden dwellings without plumbing or electricity–the “wino shacks,” as Missoulians called them, built during the Great Depression. There, we befriended an actual hobo, Mack, a grey-bearded man who gave us a skinny, brindle-colored puppy. We named the puppy Mackey, and he became our constant companion.

Sometimes my siblings and I imagined we were riding the train to find our dad. He had left that summer. With three kids, no job and no car, my mom had moved the family into a one-bedroom, yellow clapboard house. My sister, my brother and I shared a single mattress on the floor of the bedroom. Mom slept on the couch. After a few months, we were evicted. I remember a sense of hope and adventure with each temporary home: a church basement, a school bus, an unfinished building with a concrete floor. My favorite was the faded-blue bread truck, where we stayed when I was in second grade. It was outfitted with a wood stove, and we three kids were cozy in one bunk. Later, I would come to know how small and powerless I was; but that winter, I told bedtime stories to Elaine and Darrin every night, and I believed that my stories kept them safe.

In the summer of my sixth birthday, Dad showed up to take me hitchhiking for a week. We stood together on the side of the highway, his tall, lean frame bent in a nonchalant slouch, his thumb casually stuck out to signal a ride. I copied his posture and stuck out my own thumb. I studied my dad’s long brown hair and shaggy beard, wishing I looked like a mountain man, too.

The Eighties are known as the decade of greed, and we were as uncool as you could get. We wore hand-me-down clothes and we couldn’t talk to the other kids about TV shows or video games. Life had taught me to fear everyone, but I watched with longing as other kids went to sleepovers and roller-skating parties. Darrin and I kept to ourselves, taking refuge by exploring Missoula’s rivers, fields and vacant lots. A year or two passed between visits from our father. By the time Dad ended up in a federal penitentiary for selling drugs, I was nearly finished with high school.

SINCE CHILDHOOD, I’ve found solace in harsh landscapes. Friendships formed on mountains insulate against a howling emptiness. Last season, Jess and I spent a night making forty rappels down Fitz Roy with Ben Erdmann to escape a Patagonian storm. Jess managed to make me laugh at nearly every one of those rappel stations. But each time I heard the eerie buzz that signaled a rock falling from above, I sucked close to the wall, gritted my teeth and closed my eyes in anticipation, fully aware of how illusory any sense of shelter might be.

Coldiron, Jess Roskelley and Ben Erdmannon Aguja de la Silla during a linkup with Fitz Roy (ca. 3405m) in Patagonia. [Photo] Scott Coldiron

Coldiron, Jess Roskelley and Ben Erdmannon Aguja de la Silla during a linkup with Fitz Roy (ca. 3405m) in Patagonia. [Photo] Scott Coldiron

This trip would match the night on the Fitz Roy in terms of pure misery. In the far northwest corner of Montana, the Cabinet Mountains rise from the banks of the Kootenai River and form a line of glaciated peaks that run thirty-five miles south to the Clark Fork River Basin. While our objective, “A” Peak, is at nearly 9,000 feet, the trailhead is only 2,700 feet above sea level. By the time warm spring air coalesces the alpine snowpack into a hard mass, the approaches are often beset by rainstorms and valley-scouring avalanches. Jess once told me, “I’ve climbed all over the world–Alaska, Patagonia and the Himalaya–and I’ve had lots of epics in the mountains. The Cabinets are responsible for most of them.”

The Cabinet Mountains Wilderness includes some of the wildest country in the Lower 48–home to cougars, wolves, wolverines, lynx, mountain goats and moose. Long before the arrival of Europeans, the Kootenai Tribe hunted big game here, and they went to Chicago Peak as a sacred place for vision quests. In 1938 accomplished alpinist Hans Moldenhauer fled Hitler’s Germany to travel across the United States. He settled in Spokane, Washington, eighty miles west of the Cabinet Mountains, where he recorded many first ascents. In the 1943 American Alpine Journal, he wrote of these peaks, “They hold all my mountaineer’s heart wishes for: from snow and ice to rock face, talus slope and ridge–the wilderness of forests, and brisk air above the timberline; lakes, alpine meadows, solitude.”

Jess’s father, John Roskelley, one of the top alpinists of the previous generation, roamed the Cabinets for over fifty years, establishing several classic rock climbs, but I couldn’t find records of steep ice routes until 2011. John explained that in his day “there was an unlimited number of unclimbed drips near the highway still to do. Looking for ice in the Cabinets, where the approach would take a full day of backcountry skiing or snowshoeing, didn’t even enter our minds.” Yet with the long-held tradition of Montana climbers avoiding publicity, we can only wonder at what else might have been done in years past.

IN 1988, while John was exploring the Cabinet Mountains, between his trips to the Himalaya, I was a twenty-year-old college student, trying to scrape together enough money to stay at the University of Montana another year. Most of my buddies found summer jobs on construction sites. I hired on as a tree planter in Libby. The work was brutal, and the crew just as rough: ex-cons, drifters, loners. But for a broke and directionless young man who wanted to prove himself, working in the woods held a timeless appeal.

I don’t remember it as a happy place, though most nights we drank at Happy’s Inn, a squat roadside tavern clad in rough-sawn pine boards. Happy’s had a good chicken-fried steak, a couple of pool tables and a three-dollar shower. Afterward, we’d straggle back to our campsite for a short night of sleep. Six days a week, we were up at 3:30 a.m. to hop in the crummy for the drive to logging units high in the mountains.

Ask someone in another part of the country what a “crummy” is, and you’ll likely get a blank stare. In logging towns, schoolchildren know the term. A crummy is a truck that transports work crews. Ours was a one-ton pickup chassis with a box-like passenger compartment in place of the bed. It careened, always too fast, along the narrow roads. We monitored the CB radio to avoid the eighty-thousand-pound, seventy-five-foot log trucks. To meet one of those head on–barreling down one-lane gravel at forty miles per hour–was a heart-stopping experience.

At the landing–a flat spot dug into a hillside to store logs–the crummy spat out our twelve-man crew, most of us hungover. Each man strapped a fifty-pound bag of seedlings to his waist and set off up steep, slash-piled slopes for long hours of dirty work. We were paid by the seedling, but the money was good if you were fast. I could plant 3,000 trees in a day. To do so, I had to bend over 3,000 times to swing a long- handled digging tool called a “hoedad” at the duff, scrape down to a patch of black mineral dirt, and dig a hole deep enough to slide in a seedling as long as my forearm. Then I’d tamp the earth back into place.

Sometimes I could catch a glimpse of the Cabinet Mountains to the west: the dark, blocky peaks shone gunmetal grey, and the morning sunlight glinted off striated bands of white. I’d read Heinrich Harrer’s book The White Spider, and I had a macabre fascination with the image of Toni Kurz hanging from a rope on the North Face of the Eiger, slowly freezing as rescuers struggled to reach him. As I gazed into the distance, I marveled at the plumes of snow that blew across the sculpted white cornices, and I imagined myself climbing serrated ridgelines far above the woods. To a poor kid from Missoula, technical rock climbing seemed about as accessible as lacrosse or sailing.

By spring, my grades had dropped, and I was deeply in debt. An Army recruiter offered a station in Germany. The allure of the Alps and the GI Bill were enough to get me to sign. In August 1990, our company commander called a formation to tell us that Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait with more than 100,000 troops. I knew that we would soon be going to the Persian Gulf.

Coldiron receives his Combat Infantryman Badge from Lieutenant Colonel Michael Deegan in 1991. Hans Moldenhauer recalled the end of his pre-war climbs in the 1943 American Alpine Journal: While we anticipated the new winter...war came to our country's shores, unasked, unwanted and with cruel suddenness...The dangers which we undergo in climbing, we take voluntarily. But war is must, and must is always hard. [Photo] Courtesy Scott Coldiron

Coldiron receives his Combat Infantryman Badge from Lieutenant Colonel Michael Deegan in 1991. Hans Moldenhauer recalled the end of his pre-war climbs in the 1943 American Alpine Journal: “While we anticipated the new winter…war came to our country’s shores, unasked, unwanted and with cruel suddenness…. The dangers which we undergo in climbing, we take voluntarily. But war is must, and must is always hard.” [Photo] Courtesy Scott Coldiron

NINE HOURS AFTER LEAVING the truck, Jess and I ski through the shadows of fir trees until they recede to reveal the bluish-white glow of moonlight on the ice of Granite Lake. We pitch our tent on the shore, change into dry clothes and unload our heavy packs. Memories of howling wind and driving rain dissolve amid the warmth of a fire, sirloin steaks, mashed potatoes and Canadian whisky.

At daybreak, we ski across the frozen lake under clear skies. Warm spring air has melted the snow. Cracks run for hundreds of feet across the ice. The fissures are blue-tinged at the edges, and I look straight down and see the blackness of lake water a foot or two below.

FEBRUARY 1991: The desert was shrouded in darkness, but in my thermal gunsight, the Iraqi soldiers showed up as snowy, luminous figures. “I’ve got troops at 600 meters, maybe two dozen,” I said. Standing out of the turret by my side, Platoon Sergeant Fred Young held a pair of night vision goggles. The pale silhouettes shifted in my gunsight–and one was holding a long object at shoulder level. The radio crackled to life with voices from other Bradley Fighting Vehicles. “RPG! That’s a goddamn RPG…light him up!”

A cacophony of noise filled the armored vehicle: the rattle and slap of the track rolling across the desert floor, the turbo roar of big diesel. I switched the fire selector over from my 25mm cannon–my finger on the trigger of the coaxial machine gun. Eerily absent was the familiar popping of small-arms fire. Some- thing didn’t feel right.

“Bravo one-one is going to engage!” Over the radio, the Lieutenant’s voice was insistent and edgy. “Bravo one-one, this is Bravo one-four. Hold your fire!” Sergeant Young barked through my headset, startling me. He was a drill sergeant for years–when he issued an order, you instinctively stood up straight and pulled your shoulders back, even if you were a lieutenant. Sergeant Young ducked his head to look at me. His voice dropped to a friendly drawl. “It’s your call, buddy.”

I took a deep breath, squinted against my sights and forced the scene into sharper focus. I blocked out the radio’s squawk–the other commanders, primed for battle, were coordinating movement into firing positions. It was my target–we were in position–they’d wait on me to fire. Sergeant Young broke in, his words measured and calm, “I can’t see, Scott. It’s up to you.” He trusted me. I relaxed my grip and slid my finger off the trigger.

It was easy to mistake the five-foot wooden pole for a rocket launcher; the makeshift white flag tied to the end was invisible in our thermal imaging sights. We’d come within a hair’s breadth of obliterating twenty-five surrendering Iraqi soldiers.

OUR LAKE CROSSING, later, reminds me of the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous words, “And when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you.” Jess hates water, and he swears loudly when the ice groans underneath. CRACK… “Christ!”… CRACK… “Sunavabitch!”… CRACK… “This is bullshit!” We put down our heads and double the pace.

Before us, on a high bench between “A” Peak and Snowshoe Peak, Blackwell Glacier is the sole surviving glacier of the range. Its meltwater streams run down rock slabs before plunging over a massive precipice into Granite Lake. Three tiers of quartzite cliffs rise above the ice sheet and arc around the south shore for a third of a mile, culminating in a 1,780-foot buttress. Fringed with turquoise curtains of ice, the slate-grey amphitheater has an otherworldly character. On our first visit, it brought to mind the battle arena from the iconic Mad Max movie, and we named it “The Thunderdome.” The film’s dystopian, post-apocalyptic wasteland has come to seem, increasingly, familiar.

The Thunderdome and A Peak behind Granite Lake. In March 2015, Coldiron, with Erdmann, Jonah Job and Beau Carrillo, climbed a new route along A Peak's northeast face. Coldiron described Unprotected Four-Play (AI4+ M6 R, 2,000') to Alpinist: Hero sticks in neve and bomber alpine ice, punctuated by scary runouts and thin vertical ice...perhaps a moment of panic scratching through sugar snow over featureless rock. [Photo] Marlin Thorman

The Thunderdome and “A” Peak behind Granite Lake. In March 2015, Coldiron, with Erdmann, Jonah Job and Beau Carrillo, climbed a new route along “A” Peak’s northeast face. Coldiron described Unprotected Four-Play (AI4+ M6 R, 2,000′) to Alpinist: “Hero sticks in neve and bomber alpine ice, punctuated by scary runouts and thin vertical ice…perhaps a moment of panic scratching through sugar snow over featureless rock.” [Photo] Marlin Thorman

JANUARY 1993: After the Gulf War, my life changed, and I gave up my dreams of snowy white ridgelines. Instead, I became a dockworker in Los Angeles, loading semi-trucks–the only job I could find when I finished my Army service in 1993. One day, I woke up to find my hands painful and swollen. I couldn’t afford to miss work. I’d been married for two months, and my wife was pregnant. When the pain didn’t go away after a week, I went to see a doctor. After inconclusive testing, he ordered a muscle biopsy, which showed extensive nerve damage. He couldn’t explain the symptoms, and he suggested that I should go to the veteran’s hospital for treatment.

Months later, a letter came from the Department of Defense stating that I’d been exposed to sarin and cyclosarin when Army units destroyed Iraqi weapons at the Khamisiyah munitions depot. Another notice arrived, this one from Veterans Affairs: my disability compensation claim had been denied because my medical records were missing from my Army personnel file. It was my responsibility to find them, the VA letter said. I was too overwhelmed and too proud to keep asking for help. By then, the skin on my arms and legs had turned hard and shiny, and I wasn’t able to use my swollen hands much anymore. These hands are all I have, I thought. They will have to see me through.

AT THE BASE OF THE WALL, I pull on my tight-fitting, mixed-climbing gloves, and I grasp an ice tool in each hand. Jess and I race up the first four pitches of sixty-degree ice. I’m feeling strong today, and a satisfying thwack resounds with every swing in blue ice. Above us, the black-and grey-striped rock turns vertical, one side covered in a thin, frozen shell. As I crawl onto the ledge next to Jess, I can see that the rock runs dark with water behind the ice, and the shell peels away in delicate plates. “Your turn,” Jess says.

I move out left, circumventing the steep rock, and I go straight up steep, knobby ice to a stance directly under the pillar of Blackwell Falls. A steady shower cascades off the ice. To avoid being soaked to our skivvies for the second day in a row, we opt for the thousand-foot rock wall to the left of Blackwell Falls. I follow Jess around a corner to a wall of mottled grey rock speckled with patches of burnt-orange and pale-green lichen. A dark, irregular cleft splits the bare stone above. We’ve packed for an ice climb; our selection of rock gear is meager at best: four small cams, four pitons, two Peckers and a set of nuts. With 600 feet of rock climbing above, we’ll have to sling trees or chockstones whenever possible.

I’m twenty feet above the ledge when my legs begin to tremble. Where I’d seen big holds from below, the bulbous, dark rock is slick and downward sloping, and the cracks too big for our small cams. I drive in two pitons, and then I place a solid nut, but I catch myself glancing back at each piece of protection. I can’t shake the memory of my fall–the cracking sound of bone breaking and the agony of smashing my body into the mountain.

JANUARY 1995: As my illness progressed, the pain in my arms and legs became searing and untouchable, as if fire ants were crawling through my veins, consuming me from the inside out. I moved a ratty armchair into the dirt-floored, wooden shed in the yard. It was quiet and dark in the toolshed, and I could sit through the pain without troubling my family. With a new baby and no money coming in, my wife had enough to worry about. The only thing I could do was endure.

When I couldn’t work anymore, I decided to use the GI Bill to go back to college. We moved to Butte and I enrolled in Montana Tech. I’d just been diagnosed with systemic sclerosis, and it appeared to be moving quickly. My doctor said there was a chance I’d be in a wheelchair in six months, and that I might die in the next ten years. It didn’t make sense to be in school anymore, so I dropped my classes. My wife was planning to take our daughter and move back with her parents. I didn’t have a backup plan. When I ran out of GI Bill money, I figured I would end up on the street. The thought stirred the same desperate loneliness and fear that I had run from since my childhood–a feeling that rattled like the night wind beyond the thin, metallic walls of the bread truck.

Two years and two diagnoses later, my disease was identified as eosinophilic fasciitis, a rare autoimmune disorder. The VA has attributed my illness to exposures during Desert Storm. It may feel better to say that I got sick because of the war, but the truth is, I’m not sure. The etiology is still unknown.

JESS MUST KNOW that I’m climbing scared–my ragged breath and jerky motion are a dead giveaway. Words of encouragement waft up from below. Breathe. Relax. Straight arms. Shake out. The gear is good. You are strong…. And soon enough I’m taking rope in as Jess climbs up to the ledge. “Ni-i-ice! You got it dude!” Jess says. His eyes crinkle when he breaks into a big smile. “You’d never know you broke your leg.” I don’t believe him, but his confidence already makes me feel as if I’m climbing better.

“You’re a raggedy man, take a break,” he intones, in a false British accent. He has been lightening the mood with lines from Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. “I’ll lead a couple pitches,” he says, and he continues higher up the slate-colored wall, with a tireless, fluid grace. “But he’s just a raggedy man!” he sings out again. By the end of the pitch, “Raggedy Man” becomes a sure choice for the route name.

Coldiron leads a hard mixed pitch on The Thunderdome, named after one of the Mad Max movies. On his blog, Carrillo describes Coldiron's invitation to the area: He raved about ice conditions in a little-known range called the Cabinets...Scott had just put up several ice lines...and his grin suggested infinite possibilities. [Photo] Matt Cornell

Coldiron leads a hard mixed pitch on The Thunderdome, named after one of the Mad Max movies. On his blog, Carrillo describes Coldiron’s invitation to the area: “He raved about ice conditions in a little-known range called the Cabinets…Scott had just put up several ice lines…and his grin suggested infinite possibilities.” [Photo] Matt Cornell

Across the lake, the last rays of afternoon sun cast an amber glow on the snowy ridgeline. Overhead, a grey headwall stretches for another ropelength. Scraggly subalpine trees hang, silhouetted over the edge. We’re close.

Jess hammers a piton behind a block that appears detached from the wall, frozen into place only by a layer of ice. He scraps at the eggshell snow above a bulge until he snags a dimple in the rock. Soon, he’s teetering on crampon points atop a slab. Our belay anchor is nothing more than a four-foot, cone-shaped snow hole that I’ve wedged myself into; if he falls, the block will rip out and we’ll both be pulled off the wall. I burrow deeper.

“Goddammit!” he shouts down, “It doesn’t look good! You got me?” He reverses the moves, snagging tiny edges and little crystals, and I barely breathe until he’s safe on the ledge.

I clamber out of my belay hole and let out a sigh of relief. Jess traverses along the ledge to where it narrows to nothing, and he steps up on an arete. “Hey! I think this will go,” he shouts. The rock shimmers above in a dark grey patina.

“I don’t know Jess, I don’t see it,” I say. But it looks better than the wall Jess just attempted, and it’s my turn. I hammer home a piton to protect the belay, while Jess crams himself into the snow cone. Scanning left, I glimpse what caught Jess’s eye: a broken line of small cracks and edges that rises diagonally across burnished stone to a big ledge. Five feet across, and low, a patch of ice is frozen to the rock in a slight concavity. I slot my pick into the crack, kick a leg out, and swing across the grey slab until I can sink my crampon points into the icy crust. Carefully, I transfer my weight to one foot.

I feel my foot drop before I hear the snap of ice breaking, and my crampons skate off polished rock. I lunge, and snag the edge. A disc of ice spins into the void below–crystals sparkling as they catch the light. I remember the single piton at the belay. Now, if I slip, I’m the one who could drag us both off the wall. My forearms begin to throb a dull ache.

JANUARY 1997: After a temporary reprieve, the pain was back. Lying alone on the floor of my darkened bedroom, I considered taking my own life. The phone rang–my little brother was on the other end. He knew I was in bad shape. “You and I have been through hell together,” Darrin said. “Inside, you’re stronger than anyone I know.”

I got up and went outside to walk in the sun, and then I made an appointment with a naturopath. Whether because of new treatments or some other reason, my body healed slowly over the next three years. Meanwhile, in 2000, Darrin was hired as a firefighter in Spokane Valley, Washington. When he was still in the fire academy, he already loved the job so much that he kept trying to convince me I should become a fireman, too. I told him I’d never work for the government again.

When I went to watch my little brother graduate from the academy, however, I spent time at his fire station. I saw how the fire-fighters treated one another like family and trusted each other with their lives. I was hired by the City of Spokane in 2001. Today I work as a lieutenant on a downtown ladder truck, and I have found the camaraderie that had been missing in my life since my days in the 5/5 Cavalry.

In his book Tribe, Sebastian Junger hypothesized that veterans experience a sense of disenfranchisement as a result of leaving a small unit with a common purpose and returning to a divided society, where they struggle to find community: “Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it,” Junger wrote, “what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of not feeling necessary.”

Coldiron climbing on The Thunderdome. [Photo] Brian White

Coldiron climbing on The Thunderdome. [Photo] Brian White

JESS IS ON THE OTHER END of the rope, and right now, I am necessary. I straighten my arms and relax my grip. You know how to do this. Dig deep. You asked for this. The trust that binds me to Darrin, to Sergeant Young, to Jess–this is the connecting thread that makes me one of a community. The trust that I have in my body and my mind–this is the strength that I’ve earned by not turning away. I kick at shards of ice over stone, revealing an edge that is barely a sliver on the rock–just enough to hook a crampon point. I ease my weight carefully onto the tiny ridge, and I reach for the security of a one-inch crack. I slot a cam deep into the fissure and take a breath.

I squeeze the handle of my ice tool and I feel the pick lock behind a flake. With a crampon point poised on a pebble, I reach as high as I can, set my other pick and pull hard–and I’ve gained a rhythm, the joy of moving powerfully over stone. Lost in the moment, I find myself under the stunted fir trees. Bone-weary, but content, I flop onto the final ledge. When I sit up, at last, I look across the lake, past the snowy ridges, to the undulating green patchwork of foothills below. I smile as the thought hits me: thousands of those trees were planted by my hand, some thirty years ago. Shades of purple darken the sky. A fringe of orange and pink lingers. “Off belay, Jess!” I yell into the bruised sky–a raggedy man, on a raggedy climb–but my mind clear and free.

–Scott Coldiron, Spokane, Washington

[This On Belay story by Scott Coldiron first appeared in Alpinist 64, which is now available on newsstands and in our online store. Jess Roskelley wrote a story for about a recent first ascent he and Coldiron climbed on “A” Peak in the Cabinet Range, titled “No bull: Too tired to see right after a first ascent in Montana’s Cabinet Range.” Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Be sure to pick up Alpinist 64 for all the goodness!–Ed.]