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Mountain High



Idling at Malfunction Junction, I peered out at the waking world through a film clouding both windshield and eyeballs. The clock read 6:04 a.m., and a 16-ounce dose of Bernice’s blend sent wisps of steam through the sun’s first rays. We were headed to the Bitterroots, and I barely noticed the black-on-black Mayor of Truckville Dodge Ram glugging away next to us at the light.

But sure enough, at 6:05 a.m. on a Saturday morning, it happened: a Dodge Ram out-accelerated a four-cylinder Subaru wagon. We sat there for a moment, dazed at the thought of someone investing their scant Missoula paycheck to burn pricey rubber before even the most caffeinated early birds had scored their first garage sale deal of the day.

Soon the cloud of exhaust and burnt rubber blew away and we could make out a flashy silver and red window sign reading “NO FEAR” in 12-inch letters.

Now I’m sure this fellow sports cojones the size of Babe the Blue Ox and is braver than a thousand Ghandis. But the extraordinary emotion that we refer to as fear is one of the greatest weapons we have against going the way of the dinosaur. It keeps us wearing our bike helmets and from standing in front of locomotives. It tells us that the gap between the boulders crossing the raging creek is too great to jump, and it keeps us alive to tell about it at the end of the day.

No, we need fear as much as we need to feel the wind in our face as we test ourselves in the mock battle of adventure, as much as the pull that gets us up at dawn to summit the peaks. A healthy respect for the risks involved with adventure earns an athlete the self-confidence to raise the danger bar according to skill—not because someone brought their video camera. Without fear, we’d dangerously run out protection when climbing and point our boats down unrunnable and deadly drops. The result could be tragic, with the gene pool suffering as adventure-types knock themselves off early.

But we don’t. Instead we apply sound decision-making with a (typically) healthy drive for endorphins and adrenaline. We ski greens before trying blues and ski blues before trying blacks. And as adventurers start to pick off the test pieces of any particular sport (Have you climbed Shoshone? Kayaked the Lochsa? Skied St. Mary’s?) we more acutely realize the importance of having a sound, compatible and attractive partner to share in the adventure.

Books have been written about on-mountain partnerships, as the close confines associated with tents and belay stations can inflame tensions that occur when working through grim situations in less-than-ideal conditions. But of course we typically don’t head to the mountains in search of experiences called “casual” or “mundane.”

Fear is little more than respect for the unknown and uncontrollable. You can be perfectly prepared for most any situation, but out-of-your-hands factors such as weather, snowpack or river levels will ultimately influence the quality of your adventure. We simply cannot control all the variables, and it is ultimately comforting to realize the indifference of weather toward the human condition, no matter how dire. It simply is.

But assuming we prepare accordingly, screen our partners selectively and rejoice in the fickle Montana weather, there still remains one variable that permits us hairless apes to recreate in adverse conditions this far from the equator: gear. We rely regularly on shells, ropes, skis, helmets, sleeping bags, tents, water filters, stoves, long underwear…the list goes on, and if any of these items fails, the consequences can be fatal.

Really, how carefully do you check your friend’s rope before you climb on it? What kind of once-over do you give a PFD handed to you by a rafting outfitter? Do you even know what might be wrong with a packed parachute when you take your first skydiving course?

Recently a friend of mine was on a reconnaissance mission up a Bitterroot peak, snooping about for quality spring ski lines in this first week of June. He wasn’t disappointed. Upon returning to the trailhead, he found his topper lock smashed and a crate holding $2000 worth of rock climbing gear missing, including a climbing rope, cams and rock-specific items to which climbers routinely trust their lives.

It doesn’t take a radical karmic perspective to entertain the thought that climbing on a stolen rope and gear might not be the wisest thing to do. Maybe the new climbing set-up will suit this new “owner” just fine. Maybe they won’t fall to their death, or be responsible for killing their partner when an anchor fails or a nut mysteriously pulls out. Maybe they’ll just go about their sport, scaling rock, clipping ‘biners and drinking beers after long days in the sun. And maybe, just maybe, this climber will realize all of his or her freeclimbing fantasies wearing the three pairs of stolen size 13 climbing shoes they swiped with the rest of my friend’s gear.

In completely unrelated news, The Rocky Mountaineers will be climbing the “steady uphill” on the 10-mile round-trip Cascade Trail near St. Regis. Call Will Butler at 543-6744 to get on board.

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