West Ridge of Mount Hunter, AK
Climbing with Jon A is a guide's dream come true. While I have rambled on about the experience before, dishing out the platitudes over the years (Palisade Traverse '12, Evolution '12. Not documented: Palisade Traverse '09, V-Notch '10, Tetons '13), it still blows my mind to spend time with such a hard-charging, tough-as-nails, mountain fanatic. He is strong and mentally driven. He trains like a fiend and takes direction like a good soldier. Like most mountain fanatics, he tackles life's big questions with action and drive. That being said, I won't embarrass him to say that he needs my guidance just as much as any guest. He has his strengths and weaknesses. Long days of action are no problem. His residence at altitude works in our favor time and again. His pursuit of the finish line is deeply motivated. But he also pushes and scares himself sick and is happy to delegate technical skills and high-mountain risk management to this grateful pro.
Jon and I have been fortunate to tackle big things together. And we've mainly succeeded. Our first climb together has been our only "failure". Not one of our endeavors has been undertaken in perfect conditions, but each success shares common themes. Stepping it up to the Alaska Range this spring, we merely adapted a familiar set of tactics. Safe, friendly, and successful return from each climb we've done, whether it's stormy ice climbing, sunny Sierra traversing, techy Teton-ing, or big and old school classic alpine climbing, can be attributed to the same set of guidelines.
We go light. Each climb we have "stepped it up" until on the West Ridge of Hunter we carried a total of under 5 pounds of group camping gear. That's right: tent, stove, pads, sleeping bag all together fit in half of one pack. Key to this mission is patience, close living, and the Feathered Friends Spoonbill bag. This double bag, and the willingness to do a little snuggling, meant for Jon and I, (as well as for Ian and I on the Winter Palisade Traverse) that we could keep ourselves insulated with about 2.5 lbs. To achieve a similar comfort level with standard gear, we'd each bring zero degree bags. No matter how you slice it, this would mean about 3 lbs each. Score sheet: traditional strategy 6 lbs, Spoonbilling 2.5. Major advantage. Other weight-saving tips: get proper alpine tools. Techy ice tools are too heavy and don't plunge well. Your walking piolet won't swing as efficiently into firm stuff. We had great luck and saved weight with matched pairs of Petzl Sum'Tec tools. Same for crampons: no need for techy ice spikes, but you need more than 10 points and material beefier than aluminum. Pack clothing for action and belaying. Get in the tent for cooking and chilling. Go light and instant with food. Think critically about avalanche gear...
We leave plenty of time. On most of the trips Jon and I have planned, we've allotted more time than is "standard". We almost always finish early and in this case we finished well ahead of schedule, but we have the option to wait a bit for excellent conditions (or "give 'er a try" in marginal conditions, knowing we can bail, rest up, and try again if need be). Time is precious, but safety is more precious-er. Put time on your side, and decision-making feels far more reasonable. When decision-making feels easy, the resulting choice is almost always safer and more effective.
We go, safely, into questionable weather. While the Alaska Range is experiencing (still… a week after we "sent") an historical high-pressure spell, we didn't have perfect conditions. We slept very poorly in gusty winds on nights 1 and 3. Our summit pitches, up and down, were in a white out. We had fitness, food, caffeine, and knowledge to spare. This cushion allowed us to go a little more vulnerable to weather and such. On other climbs, we've had similarly "marginal" weather. We've waited out lightning in the Tetons, tackled rare Sierra white-out in October, and snuck through a rare rainy spell in the Evolution group. Intimate knowledge of weather patterns, some upper-level decision-making, and a little luck has gotten us through.
We start well-prepared. Do your route research, make a plan, a contingency plan, and a contingency to the contingency. Know your tech skills, but don't neglect the more subtle risk-management and judgement based knowledge. Tap in, somehow, to the wide world of knowledge out there. Internationally recognized tactics, training, and techniques make a difference.
We go fast. Jon is fit. I'm no slouch either. One can never have power in excess. Stopping because the campsite is awesome is better than stopping because you are collapsing. Duh. I've been working with a trainer. Jon trains for 100 mile trail runs. (and is enrolled for a 200 miler. Dude!). But speed isn't just fitness. Sure, if need be I can break trail at 2000ft an hour, for hours at a time. But I can also route-find and hydrate and think at that rate. Learn to walk and navigate at the same time. Sure, it's harder than walking and chewing gum, but it is worth it. "Analysis Paralysis" costs more time than any amount of weight on the pack or heaves in the chest.
We know one another. We know that if we are each quiet for a few hours, we're just in the zone. He knows my stories and drama and quirks. I know his. He's been there as I have motored through a tumultuous personal life. He's come climbing with me while tackling growth in school and family and work. We both know now that if his stomach is protesting on night 1, it'll be all better by morning 2. If one of us is dragging-ass by the end of the day, we can count on an overnight rally. This isn't rocket science, but the confidence and knowledge go a long ways. All the scheduling, gear choices, and tactical discussions are built on a foundation of personal comfort and familiarity. We've each grown in the 5 years we've climbed together. And we'll continue to grow, regardless of how much more we climb together. Each trip we plant the seeds of the next (Don't think for a second, Jon, that I missed the reference… "I guess I gotta do Foraker next") but one sad day one or both of us will "move on". That is part of this journey too. The knowledge that partnership and fitness is ephemeral enhances its value. The mountains are forever, but our opportunity for sending is short. When the planets align, go for it!
Jediah Porter is a full-time part-timer. He works as a mountain guide, does some writing, and climbs and films with the SmileysProject.com. Guiding work requires an even mix of rock shoes, approach shoes, ice boots, and ski gear. He goes by Jed and takes pride in using the right mountain tool for the right mountain job. He has lived most of his adult life in the Eastern Sierra and makes yearly voyages to the corners of North America. Every year he gets to the red desert to rock climb, the white north for big mountains, and the green northeast for family time. Learn more about Jed's climbing, skiing, and guiding at www.jediahporter.com.