Sunday, February 11, 2007
Dave Shively's outdoors column appears Sundays in the Steamboat Pilot & Today. Contact him at 871-4253 or e-mail email@example.com
Steamboat Springs resident Charles Horton's near-fatal experience in the Flat Tops - one in which Horton was stranded for nine days in the woods after breaking his leg while skiing alone in April 2005 - reminded me of a similar, albeit more extreme, story of solo survival.
Joe Simpson found himself in a frightening predicament after reaching the summit of Peru's Siula Grande in 1985. He broke his tibia on the descent, and climbing partner Simon Yates had to lower him down the mountain using a 300-foot rope. When Yates unknowingly lowered him over a cliff, Simpson's dangling free weight slowly dragged Yates toward the edge as well, forcing him to cut the rope and leave his partner for dead.
If you haven't read Simpson's account in "Touching the Void," or seen the documentary, I'm going to spoil it for you: Simpson survived the fall, lowered himself down a crevasse, and was forced, like Horton, to pull and drag himself to physical exhaustion.
The situations beg the question of the benefits and pitfalls of solo and partnered technical wilderness journeys.
Apparently, I'm not the only one fascinated by the question. Steamboat's Dan Smilkstein re-read the book and watched the film before making his own journey to the Andes.
At a CMC Alpine Enrichment Program on Wednesday night, Smilkstein, 56, showed slides from an impressive 110-mile trek he took with his wife that led him through Simpson and Yates' base camp.
The display of shots from the mountain's west face - where the infamous episode took place - were all the more interesting considering that Smilkstein went there alone before the trek to summit a string of towering peaks in the glaciated Cordillera Blanca range.
Smilkstein doesn't recommend climbing alone, and he didn't plan to do any solo climbs until his partner canceled. And although he was in a remote part of the world, the climbing routes did have a moderate flow of international climbers.
But while all the other climbers Smilkstein encountered were roped in on the climb to 19,785-foot Tocllaraju, the only time he clipped in was to rest momentarily between two steep pitches of ice.
"I enjoy the solitude and the pacing," Smilkstein said about the unencumbered travel. "You go to know how to be independent."
Assuming Mother Nature cooperates, Smilkstein's type of reasoned solo approach in relative remoteness bolsters the self-reliance necessary for establishing that outdoor IQ: "It's being within yourself and never pushing. I just go slow and steady. Once you're beyond that, you get in trouble. If I felt comfortable, I moved. If I wasn't secure, I backed off. :You're careful about every step. There's a certain aspect that's spiritual - more focus than you ever imagine."