Last Tuesday, Ben Collett and I hiked up the barren western slope of Mt. Evans, just as we had this time last year. As we walked, we parted the same alders we had 12 months before, our boots treading among the same tufts of brown grass. A thin layer of the season’s first snow layered the ground, flowing eastward and rising up the slope in waves following the fierce gusts of wind. The well-etched image of the Mt. Evans’ Black Wall flashed in my mind, an image I had perused so many times over the past year, memorizing every rivulet, every crack in the grey-golden granite.
A pristine, candle-like icicle that hung from the belly of the roof to the left of Silhouette (M9 WI6+), our new route from the year before, had lit my sub-conscious since I’d first seen it. Was it there, waiting for us, as I hoped? I wondered.
Arriving at the rim of the cirque above the Black Wall, we peered beyond a large cornice. Thin, nascent, chaotic chandeliers trickled across much of the buttress, lacking the bold, definitive lines of last year. It took me several moments to discern Silhouette, the daggers now just a cascade of jagged crystalline-white icicles, which hung from the lips of the overhangs, the curtains now mere sheets of translucent verglas.
To our dismay, the icicle that 12 months before had formed to the left was now absent. But a gash that dropped down the face like a mineshaft, a line that had been dry last year, was coated with glossy black ice. The base of the cleft fell through a giant ceiling, one that hung with a tiered skirt of white icicles, like the upper jaw of a great white shark’s wide open mouth.
“What do you think?” Ben shouted over the wind.
“There’s ice in the chimney. But, it’s so thin. I don’t know. What do you think?” I replied, lowering my voice between gusts.
“Well, we could just call this a reconnoiter. I’m fine either way.” Ben said with his customary diplomacy.
Deciding to rappel down the side opposite the ominous cornice, we reached the base of the route and stood looking upward at parallel roof cracks. The roof was rimmed with the starbursts of white icicles. We racked up in silence before climbing into the uncertainty that hung above us.
Secure dry tooling up into the gut of the ceiling allowed for excellent rock protection. Climbing out to the base of the shaft, 10 meters into the pitch, the transition from rock to ice presented an eerie sequence of lock-offs on tools placed in verglas, each move both savage and delicate. A balance of power and precision. With every upward motion, I was carried farther along the lip of the roof, away from the security of protection.
Eventually, I moved beyond the constraints of the chimney’s base, high-stepping onto a smear for stability–crossing the point of no return. Reversing those moves likely would have been beyond my ability, and I had climbed beyond my gear to the point where a fall would be catastrophic.
Above lay the psychological crux: 20 meters of vertical verglas with overhanging steps. With it came the terrifying conundrum of ice too thin for screws and rock too iced up for reliable gear. I continued upward, having faith that eventually protection would be found.
After twice stopping to place gear that was almost certainly worthless, I tapped up the last bit of verglas, petering out to wafer-thin ice. I reached a ledge with a clean, dry finger-crack above it and a bulge of ice at its back. I placed a solid screw, two cams, tied myself off and screamed in euphoric rage. Ben followed, and the second pitch went quickly, with some awkward chimney moves off the belay and then easier climbing to the top of the wall.
At the top, I sat in the sun behind a boulder, buffeted by wind. I laughed at myself. Having spent countless hours over the last 12 months writing about my experience on the Black Wall and its importance to my values as a climber and my understanding of life and death, here I was, having repeated the process. I realized that it is impossible to accurately recount or recollect such an experience. An uncertain climb is, for a time, the only thing in the world, the sole occupier of the consciousness. For the effect and meaning of an unpredictable climb to be fully understood, it must be experienced; to be fully appreciated, it must be repeated.