My hips throb as I sit impatiently at the belay, eyeing up the crack system looming overhead. Exhausted, I check one last time to see if the number of razor blade like incisions on my hands, a product of multi-day route cleaning, had somehow dissipated. To my despair they were still present and in abundance. I grab the blunt edge forming one side of the gaping off-width and begin tiptoeing through the tenuous layback guarding the pod above. In the back of my head I’m consciously aware of the clock, which was ticking away in more ways than one.
Pump clock aside, my partner and I only had two days left to complete our objective, located in the Cochamó Valley of Chile. Two days were spent equipping the route, and in typical Cochamó fashion two weeks were spent cleaning it. We were fully invested. I try to regain focus, but often, while climbing I find the crux to be suppressing my internal realism. My brain likes to remind me when I’m about to blow it. Instead, I try to quickly rationalize through an alternate mantra: “just trust the rubber and believe.” It quickly became apparent that believing wasn’t adequate as I went sailing past my belayer. Perhaps it was lack of skill, I’m still not sure. Fortunately, round two would produce a different outcome. Proper footwork granted access through the pod to the overhanging number two’s roof that would subsequently lead to an ever-narrowing tips crack. ‘Cochamójo’ (12a/b, 11pitches) became a realization.
I hiked out of the valley that season feeling like I was riding high on the perfect wave. Little did I know, my first international climbing expedition would be my last for years to come.
A month later, that wave started sent me crashing down to what felt like the bottom of the ocean. My return to the states quickly led down an unknown path of rapidly deteriorating health and doctor’s visits, eventually leading me to a diagnosis: Lyme disease. My luck had run out. I was forced to move cross-country to my home state of Indiana under crushing medical debt. I struggled to gain a better understanding of my illness. Climbing merely became a reflection of the past. Settling back into the flatlands I longed to escape from was a tough pill to swallow.
Eventually I hit what felt like rock bottom. It’s difficult to translate that feeling into words, but the idea of losing everything climbing had brought me instilled a deep seeded fear.
That fear lit a fire deep inside that incinerated any remaining part of me that even thought about quitting. The weakness inside saying that it was ok to give up had effectively been cremated. As Mohandas Gandhi so succinctly put it, “Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will.” From that moment on I knew that if I abandoned my dreams I would have to relinquish a part of my soul in return.
Believe in your dreams
Fast-forward through two and a half years of struggle and determination: I find myself post-holing through the thick pine forests of the Uinta Mountains with my friend and climbing partner Madison Goodman. The day marked the anniversary of when two legendary local climbers, Kyle Dempster and Scott Adamson, went missing in the Karakoram Range of Pakistan. Our psych quickly grew as we recounted some of their mind-bending accomplishments nearby; and how we aspired to follow in their footsteps, exploring the greater ranges of the world. Our day of early season ice climbing yielded two things: first, it was the birth of a plan to test ourselves that Spring in one of the greatest alpine arenas in the world, the Ruth Gorge of Alaska. Second, it was the addition of a new ice route we dubbed ‘Training Wheels’ in honor of our newly established climbing plans.
As I sit here typing away on my computer in what closely resembles a gear closet to most, everything is sprawled out, and there’s less than 24 hours separating me from a flight to Anchorage. Yet, amidst the chaos of prepping for this trip, I feel overwhelmed with gratitude. The realization of the next big adventure, something I thought I’d never see again, has finally arrived. At some point we’ve all had to take a hiatus from doing something we love, and if you’re like me this change combined with the accompanying uncertainty usually evokes emotions consistent with the apocalypse. However, if the experience of losing something you love has taught me anything, it’s that there’s no greater place than the present moment. You know, the whole cliché about the journey versus the destination.
The last stretch before taking off
The last three months have been filled with rigorous amounts of training, and by that, I mean having fun. Ice climbing, ski touring, powder days, ridge traverses, and lots of mileage in the mountains have become the foundation of our trip to the Ruth. I’ve made a concerted effort to not take any of it for granted, to relish in the moment, and to not take life so seriously. The work has been put it, the preparations have been made, and now the only thing left to do is see where the journey takes us. And pack, I still need to do that…..
Nick Rothenbush is back to calling the Wasatch in Utah his home and training ground. When Nick and his climbing partner Madison aren’t off exploring new terrain, they work at a local gear shop, The Gear Room.