Core Shot: A rumination on the metaphysics of wilderness travel

Last Friday I found myself in the center of the Isolation Traverse with a core shot in my rope. If this first sentence is baffling to you, let me explain. The Isolation covers the rugged country between Eldorado Creek and Diablo Lake in the North Cascades National Park. It takes in six glaciers over roughly 20 miles of alpine and treeline country; it's a high traverse through a landscape virtually unchanged by humankind. And a core shot is a breach in the protective sheath of a climbing rope.

Like a bone or tendon, the core of a rope not meant to see the light of day. It should be protected by the tough nylon sheath that surrounds it; we care for the rope fastidiously, but rocks can be sharp. A core shot is not only tantamount to a physical injury to the climbing team, it's also a huge practical hassle; with a knot tied to isolate the damaged portion of rope, it gets hung up easily on rock protrusions and won't flow through carabiners, which is essential to certain maneuvers. At the crag, you might just go home or grab another rope. But we discovered the damage while descending Isolation Peak, a deceptively modest looking mountain at the heart of our itinerary. When I pulled the rope following the first rappel, I found the big, ugly white bleed in the rope. Unfortunately, we were now committed to a steep and somewhat loose buttress of rock, with a crippled rope. In the middle of nowhere.

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It's hard to explain what draws a person toward mountain wilderness. The knowledge that you are far from help is a strange thing to crave, and so is the knowledge that you are visiting a place where people seldom go. These seem at first like utter abstractions, mere ideas that push us out into the empty corners of the map. But I don't know if they are simply abstractions. The frame of mind I enter in remote terrain feels different than the one I enter on day excursions. And feelings--especially strong ones--are not abstract. They are very real.

Consider the feelings that may arise standing at the top of a cliff. Though the ground may be flat as a sidewalk, the experience is different because of the adjacent void, which you see, hear, and feel. Your relationship to the potential of the place, which is to say the potential of falling, is not simply cerebral: "Logically I know the consequences of a fall in this location." It is far more than that, a sweep of emotion that may encompass freedom, fear, joy, nausea, or a host of others. Standing atop a cliff is also different for our sense of balance--without near objects to focus on, we may feel wobbly, which in turn makes us feel vulnerable. People who habitually work at heights adapt to this, ceasing to rely as much on visual cues for balance. They develop a new equilibrium.

To take this back to idea of wilderness travel: on a high mountain traverse we sense the potential at our feet, so to speak. Not just the potential for mishap and protracted suffering or death while waiting for rescue, though that potential clearly plays a role. I mean also the potential to get lost, the potential that we underestimate what the terrain will demand from us physically, the potential that we will be caught in poor weather and have to forge a retreat, the potential that we will meet wild animals, that the conditions will be poor, or that our equipment will be inadequate, or worse, our skills. We sense uncertainty sprawling out before us like the windy void that surrounds us on a rock spire. The emotions we feel in response to that uncertainty set wild traverses apart, because they are so robust and immersive. And the adaptation we make in response--like the improved balance of the high-rise steel worker--is perhaps easy to overlook.

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After the first rappel, unfortunately, I needed to lower Michael a full rope length. The knot won't flow through a munter hitch or belay device, the normal ways of braking the rope. Typically one would execute a knot pass with a cordalette, and things would be pretty straight forward. The problem on this day--in the middle of the wild North Cascades, remember--was that all of my cordalette was used up on the anchor. I could find no other acceptable anchor, so I wracked my brain for another solution. And from some dark recess of my mind, it came: an arcane technique that involves muscling the carabiner out of a fully-loaded munter hitch (If you do it wrong, it could probably break your finger). When I remembered this trick, I knew it would work. I got Michael down the 60 meters with our damaged rope, and then made a pair of rappels myself.

The intensity of that hour is irreplaceable for me. Two humans  surrounded by the mountain solitudes, the sun beating down on them, stuck on a mountain with a broken rope. The blue sheath moving through my hand, the weight of another human on its far end, the texture of the lichen on the rock edges as I inspect them for hidden sharpness, the stretch of the cord on the anchor, the smell of hot metal from the belay device. Like lines in a beautiful love letter, these details move me: this is why I am here, for these feelings.

My sense of balance in relationship to the wilderness has grown, as I think it grows in each person who travels these places. The sense of depth and potential that surrounds us brings out strengths that may lie dormant in the city. In the wild mountains, your skin may be broken and your core exposed, but we tie a knot around the damage and find a way to carry on. Because it's not about cheating death, but rather about feeling alive.

I'll end with a favorite quotation from Rene Desmaison, the celebrated French mountain guide, in his book La Montagne à Mains Nues:

"White clouds slide through the sky. The great slabs of granite rise toward the blue. The slender ridges of ice, fragile and glinting, tear apart the winds up high. The glaciers sprawl right down to the forests of larch. The immortal mountains, sovereign, reign over your hearts, even in the depths of those somber cities. Because you can't forget, isn't that right? If even once you have seen, from the summit of a mountain, the sun emerge from the earth. If even once you have seen the great wheel of stars in the night sky. If even once, inside a wood cabin, terrified by the storm, you have heard the long lament of the wind. If even once, holding onto the mountain with all your strength, you have felt that your life depended only on your two hands.

Your two bare hands, gripped desperately to the rock. "