Alpine Start Crop

Antithesis of fun, or gateway to wonder?

Alpine Starts


fun  [fuhn]

noun

The 37th International Edition of the Official Dictionary of Alpinism lists two definitions for this term, which is often used by mountaineers with a sardonic facial expression, as if to note that high-altitude fun really isn’t fun,at least not as our sea-level brothers and sisters know it. The dictionary notes that climbers may experience Type I and Type II fun for extended stretches or in quick succession, depending on the mood of the mountain and the quality of the company. These types of fun are defined as follows: 

  • a climbing activity that provides deep satisfaction and giddiness layered over the unavoidable sting of long-term suffering involved in all mountaineering activities
  • a climbing activity that offers a modicum of retrospective enjoyment through post-climb tales of agony, misery, and character building

Peter had a Type I day guiding. Perfect weather, a straightforward route, and highly conditioned clients who laughed at his jokes. Fun!

Peter’s type II day included high winds, bitter cold, and a crevasse fall and extraction...he also forgot to put one foot bed back in his boot. Yeah, fun. 

My watch alarm goes off. I try to wriggle my arms free (damn this bag is tight) to slide my beanie up off my nose so I can see. Oh yeah, it’s still pitch black. And serious cold. I sit up and set off a shower of frost. It’s 1 a.m., and all around the world smarter souls than me are snuggling up to a cold beer or warm tush.

But not me. I’m climbing a mountain. In sub-zero temperatures. At an altitude that sucks away my appetite and air. With life-threatening risks that will increase the later I get started. Next to a hairy dude who smells like mildewed stinky cheese. Gawd, this sucks.   

I should crawl out of my warm sleeping bag and take a crap before cinching up my climbing harness. But chronic high-altitude dehydration has me a little, um, constricted, so I give myself another 60 seconds before leaving my warm down nest to pull on stiff, frozen boots. Few words are spoken at this ungodly hour. Stinky Cheese is suffering, too. (He thinks I smell, but that’s a dirty rotten lie.) There is no joy here, no need to verbalize it. 

1:30 a.m. Snap! I clip into the rope and begin moving. My headlamp beam illuminates a small circle in front of me. All else is black. Crampons crunch the frozen snow. I feel like we are sneaking up under the cover of darkness on a sleeping giant. Movement brings warmth. Progress, but still not fun.

2:30 a.m. A rest break. I throw on a puffy to trap the heat, sit on my pack, try to chew a frozen candy bar without cracking a molar. A sip from my water bottle is full of ice. Stinky Cheese and I have found our rhythm, but we don’t break the silence with chatter. The stars are spectacular, the silence massive. To a city slicker, the absolute solitude up here would be frightening. For us, it’s nirvana. Just two guys, a mountain, and no civilization as far as the eye can see. For those of you keeping score, we’re tentatively transitioning from Type II fun to Type I.

4 a.m. Damn, not so fast. A stiff pre-dawn wind kicks up, and my toes go numb. It’s the coldest part of the climb, and my face feels like leather. Or does it? I can’t really tell, because my fingers are frozen, too. 

4:15 a.m. A slight illumination appears in the east. I become hopeful. Now, if only hope could bring blood to my extremities.

4:45 a.m. Holy shit! In minutes, the sky went from dark to psychedelic! Purple, pink, streaks of orange, all reflected in the crystals of a thousand snowflakes. Was there psilocybin in my oatmeal? Suddenly, I am feeling pretty awake and alive…even a little giddy. The horizon looks curved from this height, and the sun surges across the mountaintops like it’s racing to embrace two lonely souls who’ve shunned beer and sex for a higher pursuit. The celestial show is crazy good.

5:15 a.m. The sun just popped over the horizon. How amazing was that? One of my top 5 sunrises ever, seriously. Man, I love mountaineering. It’s so cool to be up this high when the sun hits us. It touches the top of the mountain first…and we are there to greet it, to be warmed by it, to bask in the knowledge the few humans will ever experience pure Type I fun. 

6 a.m. Lounging, luxuriating, lingering just a few more minutes more before we descend. The snow will soften, and the avy danger will rise, so we can’t stay forever. But I wouldn’t trade these hours for a lifetime of sound suburban sleeping. The cold and suffering has made this moment sharper and sweeter, and every sensation just seems richer. Fun? You kidding? Maxed. Definitely a full Type I finish. 

And there you have it: the miserable, magical progression of an alpine start. I hate them. I love them. I will never, ever get enough of them. But I may need to buy Stinky Cheese a bar of soap. That guy stinks.

Type 1 Fun Vid Cover