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I took out a bank loan for my first expedition to the Himalayas.
Almost $8,000. I was a graduate-school rube, had no clue how I’d pay it back, just had to go. Our team rode night trains across China, flew to Tibet, stayed in army barracks in Lhasa. This was 1984, there were no hotels, and Tibet still felt Tibetan. We spent six glorious weeks climbing, sent letters out by yak train, and made the second American ascent of Shishipangma, 8,013 meters. Everyone summited, no frostbite, no injuries; we all came home friends. I worked as a steeplejack to pay off the debt.
Every year since then, I’ve done an expedition abroad: Bolivia, Bhutan, Pakistan, Peru, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Siberia, Suriname. Like a moth to light, I am constitutionally drawn to the difficult, dangerous, and remote. Can’t help myself. Give me a solid partner and a blank on the map, a culture where I can’t speak the language and food I can’t identify, and I’m gone.
So I’m the last guy on the planet who should question far-flung adventures. Yet I do. Call me a hypocrite, but last summer I decided that going overseas, just for fun, was an unacceptable indulgence. Carbon guilt and the high price of air travel had finally forced me, like so many other Americans, to reclaim a 1970s mantra: Less is more. I decided to go back to the kind of trip I grew up doing: the micro-expedition.
This downsized journey is to adventuring what the indie film is to Hollywood: It has all the elements of a big-budget expedition–travel, risk, suffering, and a chance at triumph–but in smaller proportions. Travel is by car rather than plane, radically reducing the trip’s carbon footprint; time away is measured in days instead of weeks. The micro-expedition applies to all types of adventure–mountaineering, backpacking, kayaking. My outdoor drug of choice is alpine climbing, so my goal last summer was to make three significant first ascents close to my Wyoming home.
First up, the Wind River Range, redoubt of old-school alpinism, a favorite escape since college, and a mere five-hour drive from the house. Not the Cirque of the Towers, where everybody goes, but an innocuous peak to the north, Mt. Osborne, where I knew of an unclimbed route on the south face–four years earlier, I’d failed on it due to a July snowstorm.
After burgers and shakes at the Sugar Shack in Pinedale–a time-honored tradition–Lander climber Kirk Billings, 33, and I checked in with photographer Fred Pflughoft at The Great Outdoor Shop and learned that a blowdown had made getting to the base of the south face via the standard trail practically impossible. Pflughoft suggested circling in from the north, which turned out to be a sweaty, noon-till-dusk, mosquito-swatting, 4,000-vertical-foot humpbuster. However, en route we spied a heretofore unknown wall on the east face … and the south face was instantly forsaken.
After camping at 13,000 feet, Kirk and I glissaded in the predawn pink down to the base of the mysterious 1,200-foot east face. With no guidebook and no topo, no bolts and no chalk marks, the magnificent wall presented us with joyful, unfiltered exploration.
We moved fast, keeping one eye over our shoulders at a spreading quilt of clouds. In alpinism, there are always doubts, mouthy little imps in the back of your mind–one of us could fall and break a leg, we might get rained off, we might be forced to bivy. Not this time. We summited after a dozen handsome pitches, straggled back to camp, and collapsed in exhaustion and exhilaration. Just a few hours from home, we had discovered and then climbed an unknown alpine wall, doing more technical pitches than you’d get on the trade route of an 8,000-meter peak.
Next up, Montana’s Beartooths. The objective: a speed ascent of the standard route on 12,977-foot Granite Peak, the state’s highest mountain. After one day of groaning up 4,000 feet of switchbacks to gain the Froze-to-Death Plateau, and a half-day boulder-hopping at 11,000 feet, “Laconic Bob” Goodwin, a climbing guide from Jackson Hole Mountain Guides, and I found ourselves staring over at Granite’s north face from the edge of Mt. Tempest. It was noon, we were eating sandwiches, shooing away the ubiquitous mountain goats, and glassing the mountain. Which led to another discovery: There were several routes up the north face, but the central arête, an obvious line that speared straight from the glacier to the summit, had miraculously remained untouched.
Goodwin, 32, had no boots or rock shoes, only sticky-rubber approach sneakers; our climbing gear consisted of three cams and four slings, plus we were eight hours too late for an alpine start. A first ascent hadn’t even been the original plan. But what the hell.
We dropped 1,500 feet in half an hour, Goodwin bounding wildly down the boulders. We then kick-stepped back up a thousand feet of steep snow, unroped, in one hour. Reaching dripping, dangling granite, we roped up and set off simul-climbing. I found the rock unmitigated shite, as the Brits would say, and shouted so on several occasions, but for Bob, a Teton guide, it wasn’t even worth mentioning. A thousand feet of frost-shattered wall disappeared in two hours, and we were back in camp for dinner, grandly naming our new route The Directissima.
With no pack animals, no pitons, no previewing, and no pre-planning, we had put up a new route on one of the more remote mountains in the Lower 48. Bob and I had both seen large expeditions implode from incompetence, arrogance, and ambition–we’d even witnessed deep friendships destroyed. On a micro-expedition, you only have each other. There’s no time for whining, no room for theater. Work together or fail.
“It’s all about partnership,” said Bob. The success of which is not determined by an expedition’s duration or distance from home. Given companions of high character, short and intense trips can forge great friendships just as surely as the long and remote.
Granite and Osborne turned out to be mere training trips for the summer’s final micro-expedition. Two years ago, while hiking the length of the Big Horn Mountains in northeastern Wyoming with my daughters, I’d discovered a massive, unclimbed prow on the east face of Cloud Peak, 13,167 feet. I’d been fantasizing about it ever since. Ken Duncan, a Colorado hand surgeon and climbing legend (Duncan, 51, did his first 5.12 more than 30 years ago) picked me up in his Prius, and we made it to Buffalo, Wyoming, in five hours using only six gallons of gas.
Now, one reason for going on an expedition abroad is to experience another culture, but small-town Wyoming is another culture. In the local fly-fishing shop, everyone had all kinds of advice despite the fact that no one had ever been where we were going–just like in a Nepalese village. At a hole-in-the-wall diner, as in a Pakistani café, the kitchen was out of the first three things on the menu.
The first six miles followed a rocky horse trail regularly marked with steaming cairns; the last six, a treacherous talus traverse. We camped between Sapphire Lake and Diamond Lake, as wondrous as they sound, and got an alpine start.
The prow looked just like the Nose of El Cap, albeit considerably smaller. We swapped leads and cruised: 5.7, 5.11, 5.9, 5.11, 5.11. Halfway up, Duncan took a 30-foot fall on a pitch that I would barely be able to second with tension. We topped out at dusk too exhausted to risk rapping in the dark. We curled up on our ropes and began shivering immediately. The night lasted a month. Once, I arose, hoping that by moving around I could warm myself, but the opposite occurred: My extremities were so cold, any movement pumped cool blood to my core. (If you ever hear someone speak with romance of bivying, you can be sure he hasn’t done it.)
Between chattering teeth, Duncan and I agreed that at first light we would start to descend. But that didn’t happen. At sunrise, we were too rigid to move. Like birds frozen to a wire, we had to wait for the sun to warm us up before we could actually start rappelling.
By the time we reached camp, we’d been moving–if you count trembling violently–for 33 hours. The wind had flattened our tent. We crawled inside a thicket of krummholz, downed some single malt, buried ourselves in our bags, and slept like stones.
The next morning, we walked all the way out and drove all the way home. I was as whipped as if I’d just returned from Nanga Parbat. Our combined ages exceeded 100 years, so we christened the route No Climb For Old Men. Total travel cost: $50 in gas. Total expedition time: four days.
They say the greatest asset of a good mountaineer is a bad memory. And it didn’t take long to forget about that bivy. Not after I spied a few more unclimbed walls, patiently waiting with the promise of punishment and triumph.
Don’t let the glitzy glamour of the exotic blind you to what lies in your own backyard. Study the topos, get off the trail, use your imagination. Adventure is where you find it. And don’t look for me in Nepal this summer–I’ll be in some forgotten corner of Wyoming.
Mark Jenkins’s latest book, A Man’s Life: Dispatches From Dangerous Places, won the Best Adventure Travel Book award at the 2008 Banff Book Festival.