What You Go Up, You’ve Got to Come Down

Or, How I Ruined My Shoulders on Whitehorse Mountain

When I think back on all the hikes I’ve done over the years, there are a few that stand out:

The first summit of Mt. Baker, when we were too excited to sleep; finally making it up Glacier Peak, after bailing out on multiple earlier attempts due to the weather turning to shit; John, Nick, and I stuck on Sperry Peak, where we took the wrong route and found ourselves on a high ledge, choosing between two bad options—keep going up, or try going down; my fall on Merchant Peak.

Dawn as we prepare to go up the Roman Wall on Mt. Baker

Those last two are the closest I’ve come to … well, I don’t want to be melodramatic and call it “death,” because who knows, but certainly the closest I’ve come to serious injury. There’s a good story about all of these hikes.

Whitehorse

The funny thing is, the climb on which I had my most serious injury goes down in my mind as one of my absolute favorites: Whitehorse Mountain, which John and I climbed on May 23, 2009, where I ended up tearing the rotator cuff on both shoulders and the labrum on the left. My shoulders have never been the same since—but this story isn’t about my shoulders.

When John and I set out that May morning, we didn’t really expect to get to the summit. We were out for a “conditioner,” just something to give our legs a workout without going up Pilchuck for the umpteenth time. When you call something a “conditioner,” it kind of lowers your expectations; we expected to get to Lone Tree Pass for sure, maybe High Pass, but not the summit. Since I’m expecting you’re going to go out and do this soon, here are just a couple route description links: WTA and Mountaineers.) But then we got going, and everything just kept going our way: we hit snow early and the snow quality down low was not bad (meaning, not too wet and slushy), and then as we got to the back side of the ridge and started up again, a group ahead of us left such a great boot path that it made our work “easy” (watch the video to see why I put easy in quotes).

Soon enough we had reached the second, higher ridge (High Pass) and were looking at the summit and we said, hell, why not. It was just one of those blue-sky days where the snow was beautiful and our legs felt good, like we could go on forever. It wasn’t until we got to the bottom of the last stretch to the summit that we understood why people roped up. Damn, it was steep! But it wasn’t far and there was so much snow and we felt good so, why not? And off we went, digging in with the ice axe, kicking in hard with our crampons, until we made the summit.

Up top, we met another group, four or five climbers who had roped up. And we started to talk about the difficulty of getting down.

The Downclimb

One of the things that you learn when you start stretching your climbing skills is that it’s easier going up than going down. I say you learn this, but really, it’s something the mountains teach you. Facing the mountain, looking into it, you keep your feet planted beneath you and you probe with your hands and your eyes going up. You can easily do more than you should. But head down the same path and it’s a whole different ballgame. Suddenly you’re facing the void, keenly aware of the depths beneath you—the space you could fall into and through. It’s harder to see the footholds, and you can’t probe with your feet the same way. Gravity wants to pull you forward. It can be fucking scary. So over time you learn that you never want to go up something you don’t want to come down. So you calibrate in your mind, how will this be going down? And if you’re smart, you find a route that will provide a safe return.

We did this little calibration on Whitehorse and we concluded that we could make it down. In truth, I’d probably make the same decision today. 

As we prepared to head down, the folks who had rope offered that we could use their rope on the downclimb. I liked that idea; John preferred to turn his face into the mountain and downclimb, kicking steps and using his axe. Turns out his was the better decision.

I didn’t have a climbing harness, so I decided to do an “arm rappel.” I had never done this before so I made it up and it went like this: I held the top end of the rope in my right hand, looped the rope around my back, and then held the bottom end of the rope in my left hand, holding enough tension that I could kind of lean back into the rope. The idea was I’d kind of “bounce” my way down the steepest part of the mountain this way, until the slope started to mellow and I could get off the rope. It sounds easy enough, doesn’t it? But given the steepness of the pitch it wasn’t easy at all. I’d feed myself some slack, reset the rope, then drop backward—fifty or a hundred times, jerking myself to a stop, taking the full weight of my body onto my shoulders. I felt a bit like a puppet, holding to the strings of some cruel puppet master who kept dropping me and jerking me to a stop. (Experienced climbers will observe that there are techniques to make an arm rappel easier, the Dülfersitz rappel being the most common. What can I say? I didn’t know.)

But soon enough the slope let up, and I left the rope, waving to my friends at the top, calling out “thank you.” As I watched John cautiously, methodically downclimb the same slope–facing the mountain, kicking in, planting his axe–I rubbed the shoulders I had just thrashed. They hurt! But what was I going to do: we had seven miles and 7,000 vertical to hike out, some of it in steep snow. We packed up our ice axes, lengthened our poles, and off we went. It was a spectacular climb, such a worthy summit, and every time I see Whitehorse I remember it fondly.

But my shoulders have never been the same. In 12 years, I’ve had two surgeries, stem cell injections, multiple round of physical therapy … and still, a couple tough yoga poses and I’m back into full-on pain, my shoulders aching with any rotation.

One great climb; years of aching shoulders. Still, I’d do Whitehorse again, if any of the Caribunkle Boys are up for it.

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