Some places are special. I struggled to write this first paragraph to describe what I mean by special, because it’s something very specific but hard to put into words. When I say special, I mean it being in the place gives me a feeling with a specific and unique quality not found anywhere else. Each special place has a different feeling.

Yosemite is like this. Same with Jackson in Wyoming, Lofoten in Norway, Rio in Brazil, and the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska. They all possess this indistinguishable quality that shows up in my gut when spend time there. I think the quality of the feeling comes from what is unique about that place in particular. For example, some of them make me feel “out there,” and others make me feel like I’m participating in the long, ever-changing history of the place.

A few weekends ago I hiked up to Lone Peak to do some climbing in the Cirque. Everything about the Cirque demanded more than I usually give. We started at 4:45 am with a 6-mile trek up over 4000ft of elevation. Many parties spend a weekend camping up there to break the long hike into multiple days and spend more time up there, but we decided to pack light and make it a long, grueling day trip.

In the photo, taken from the very summit of Lone Peak, you can see that the city is close by, despite the alpine feeling you get from being there. You get this view from the summit, but when you’re down in the Cirque, you’re much more contained by the magnificent granite walls surrounding you.

The hike is deceptively long and deceptively difficult. Despite how close it looks to the city, the trek puts you pretty far from food, water, and help, so the necessity for self sufficiency adds to the adventure.

We gained most of our elevation and during the latter part of the hike we traversed through bright green meadows filled with colorful wildflowers. I could see the city in the distance, but all I could hear was the flowers, birds, trees, and streams weaving in and out of the granite rocks. It was at this point that I caught a sense of Lone Peak’s special feeling. It’s a contained alpine environment – close to home, but the wilderness is all-encompassing when you enter its domain. It was quiet and tranquil on this peaceful sunny day, but the high altitude granite walls told me of their capacity for chaos and destruction for travelers less fortunate with the weather. Truthfully, it’s a place humans don’t really belong. So when we enter, it’s only for a short time that we can bear the wildness of the place.

After a long, tough morning, we made it to our wall – the Question Wall. This is the main wall across the Cirque in this photo, marked by what looks like a light-colored “?” carved in the darker patina just below and to the left of the highest point on that wall. Our line was just to the left of that marking, roughly where the shade cut the sunlight. That sun/shade line starts at the bottom of the wall, trends upward and to the left, and tops out to the left of the question mark. It’s a pretty moderate 5.8 trad route, meaning we’re using our own protection, nuts and cams, to clip our rope into as we make our way to the top, rather than clipping into previously installed bolts.

Being up on this wall was one of my first real alpine experiences. An alpine climbing experience, I learned, is characterized by being far away from help, high up a wall, and likely to face unknown variables. Clipped to the side of the wall with nowhere to go but up, your choices for problem-solving are limited. We didn’t run into any major issues, but being new to this kind of situation, all the unknown possibilities were front of mind.

I took my lead on the second pitch. I struggled to find the right route as I made my way up the rock, connected to my partner not via line of sight but by the rope that we were both tied into. I placed gear in the few places that allowed, and made my way through what I thought was the route. My heartbeat sped its pace and each breath grew shorter as my gaze fell on the hundreds of feet between me and the ground space. I began to think about falling, I doubted my gear placements, and questioned my navigation. I knew that my only choice was to go up and keep protecting my line turning back was hardly an option.

I’m more than confident climbing 5.8 any other day, but on this day I struggled with very simple 5.8 moves as my body was hyper aware of my height off the ground. After much hesitation between each move, I inched my way up the pitch. Eventually, I took a moment to close my eyes and take a few long, deep breaths. My heartbeat slowed, and I caught sight of the anchors (my finish line) and realized I was almost to the top. My fear of falling dissipated under this newfound confidence as I began methodically moving my arms and legs up the wall like I already know how.

It was a special experience in a special place. We topped out after the 3rd pitch and I took some time to reflect on my lead. I thought that if this climb was closer to home, if we hadn’t hiked so far to get here, and if it was protected with more bolts, my doubts would be almost imperceptible. I psyched myself out because I was aware of where I was, and it was a place I was unfamiliar with. But those doubts and fears can be mastered. I can face them lucidly, accept the reality of the situation, and move through them with reliance on myself and my abilities. I gained so much more respect for some of the professional mountaineers and climbers I look up to, and as I got back to my car after that long day, looking at the setting sun, I felt drawn towards my next alpine experience – towards my next opportunity to stare into those fears, smile, turn my focus inward, and move forward one breath, one movement at a time.

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