“I don’t think I’m going to be able to make it,” Matt’s tired voice reached out to me from his DC hotel room. I pictured him sitting down on the fancy bedding, his scattered bits of life spread out across the room. We were set to leave for our trip the next day and I was running out of time trying to convince Matt to join Steve and I.
I opted for the soft approach, “We really would love to have you there. We will have fun on our own, but the three of us… we were made to do this.” I felt the tension as Matt weighed out his responsibilities, his desire, and his fear. On more than one occasion, Matt had asked me how hard the climbing was going to be. After reassuring him each time, he would again worry about his lack of climbing fitness.
“I just have one more promotion before I can cash in on all the time off, whenever I want. Just one more step and I am golden,” Matt countered.
After putting up one last plea, I relented, “Okay. I understand. If anything changes, you let us know,” and hung up the phone. Dejected, I walked back downstairs to the small gathering of people at my house.
Steve cut through the crowd and placed a hand on my shoulder, “Was that Matt?”
“Yeah…I don’t think he is going to make it.” Steve just nodded knowingly.
Matt spreads himself so thin between life and work that he so often has to bail at the last second. It has become an inside joke. We just got Matt Spohn’ed. And normally we would just laugh about it and move on, but this time it felt different. This trip was big. It felt more important.
Steve and I switched gears and began thinking about this as a trip for two. The itinerary wouldn’t change.
- 3 days.
- 1,600 miles of driving.
- The East Coast’s biggest wall at Cannon Mountain, New Hampshire.
- Climbing and running in Acadia National Park.
- And a route that I have been dreaming about since I started climbing – the Armadillo Route on Mount Katahdin in Maine.
We still had a big weekend that would push us, but we both knew that it would not be the same as getting the team of three across the rock, trail, and finish line. Steve and I turned our attention back to the group of people at my house.
We were hosting a going away party for our good friend Michelle. Michelle was often part of previous climbing adventures, and now she was leaving for her next adventure of travel nursing. Thinking of the adventures that Michelle was part of, I couldn’t help but feel sad not only for her departure but also for Matt missing the adventure to come.
Michelle and the people gathering for her party were often part of the experience of being in over your head. From somewhat illegal border crossings into Mexico, to setting the lofty goal of topping out one of the famous spires in el Potrero Chico, we often set goals slightly beyond our reach. We were often inexperienced and ill prepared for the journey, but maybe because of that fact, they have left an indelible mark on me. The bond in this group of friends was tight. And just as I was reflecting on the bonds that were created through adventure, a text came in from Matt. He was in. He would fly to Portland and meet us on the way North.
Steve and I made our way north, sleeping in the back of my Subaru at the base of Cannon Mountain in New Hampshire. The main goal was the Armadillo Route on Mount Katahdin in Maine and this would be the perfect appetizer for Steve and I. I was excited to get Steve on his first true wall climb. The route we chose was one I had done a number of times and I knew exactly the right pitches to hand Steve the sharp end. We simul climbed through the middle part of the route and reached the two crux pitches in short order. These two pitches were pioneered by the legendary Fritz Wiessner and given the grade of 5.6. A Wiessner 5.6 will certainly keep any climber awake as I have climbed plenty of easier 5.8’s. Steve took the sharp end without a moment’s hesitation and even took the time to look around and take in the views while leading. I smiled broadly following Steve’s lead. This was going to be a good trip.
I have only been climbing for a few years and Steve for even shorter, and to see him float up those pitches, 800 feet above the scree field below, was sensational. We topped out before lunch, and as we descended, I thought about Katahdin. Katahdin, technically had a similar difficulty and fewer pitches than the climb we had just completed, but at Katahdin, we were going to feel the weight of the wilderness more. The hike would be much longer. The approach would have many more hazards to navigate. And the climb would put us in a far more committing position. After watching Steve dance up the crux pitches on Cannon, I was confident in our team.
I was going to need Steve to be independent and strong on Katahdin. If Steve and I were beginner climbers, Matt was a true newbie. Steve, Matt, and I had done a few climbs together but we had barely scratched the surface of experience. I knew Matt would be nervous on the approach and the climb and there may be times where I would need to rely on Steve to help get Matt through. Steve and I made it back to the car by noon, and I kept smiling on the drive to get food and beers.
We picked Matt up from the Portland Airport and kept driving North. We stopped in Acadia National Park to climb a bit and do some beach side running. It made a perfect stop on the way to Katahdin and helped break the ice on a few months that Matt hadn’t been able to climb. After finishing our route, Matt again asked how hard the climbing on Katahdin would be. This time, after seeing Matt struggle a little on a sandbagged route, I told him the truth, “It’s only 5.7 at the hardest.”
“I thought you said to be ready to climb 5.9!” Matt said, wide eyed.
I replied quickly, “I only told you that so you wouldn’t be pissed at me when it felt harder. It seriously is only 5.7. I promise.”
Matt looked at me skeptically for the rest of the day, our drive to Katahdin, and as we set up camp just outside of Baxter State Park. I reassured him one last time before going to bed for the night, but I suspected that it was more than the persistent mosquitoes that would be keeping him awake that night.
We awoke to absolutely splitter weather, the heat and humidity from the previous day burning off in the early morning. We hit the trailhead at 6:30 am, just after the gate into the park opened. We immediately started up the trail to Chimney Pond at the base of Katahdin. I knew we had to make it to Chimney Pond by 8 am, as I heard that the sometimes strict rangers at that station would not allow anyone to climb later than that. We half-jogged the 3-½ miles and 3,000 feet of vertical gain to make it to the station with plenty of time to spare.
After the ranger told us that she had never climbed in Katahdin before, she spent a solid 15 minutes lecturing us on the dangers of climbing. As we listened, I watched Matt’s face turn gloomier and more concerned. Mercifully, we were let out of the ranger station with the green light, and I again let Matt know that there was no reason to worry as we head off to the crux of the day – the approach.
We scrambled through scree filled gullies aiming for the start of the Ciley-Barber ice climbing route. The approach to the Armadillo route on Katahdin skirts the ice route to the left, avoiding the rotten rock by jumping up through brushy and chossy ledges. The shrubs provided ample hand holds as we scrambled higher and higher. It wasn’t clear how exposed we were getting until the shrubs and brush gave way to a pocket of rotten rock. I looked back towards Chimney Pond, over a drop of 100 feet through the brush below, and back up at Matt just above me. He had frozen midway through a small scramble to the next ledge. The rock handhold to his left had just peeled loose and fell at my feet, sending small fragments cascading down through the brush below us. Matt looked at me and through me to the drop below. Steve was a few meters above Matt at the safety of a ledge. He did not need to be asked; he was already removing the rope from his bag and setting up a stance from where he could give Matt a body belay. In short order, Steve had Matt through the scary bit of the approach and back onto solid ground, but the panic had set into Matt. If the approach was this bad, how bad was the climb going to be?
We made the remaining bit of the approach and got to the base of the climb, and I sat down to have a talk with Matt before we roped up. I could tell he was second guessing everything.
“We can back down if you aren’t feeling it,” I said. I let him know that finishing this climb wasn’t as important as everyone’s enjoyment and safety.
Matt looked back down the way we came and I could tell that going down may scare him just as much as going up. What he didn’t know at the time is that he was no different than any other climber. Even the famous Royal Robbins once said, “You climb because you’re scared.”
Matt shook his head and tentatively looked at the vertical rock above us. He paused, still a little bit unsure of himself but said, “Let’s give this a try.”
Authored by Andy Munas