Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Sans Ami

James Sweeney
February 9, 1987

Garvey’s horizontal, I’ve never seen him climb anything like this. From the back of the cave to it’s lip, is six-feet. His right ice axe is wedged in a crack on the underside of the roof and he’s pulling out on it. He swings his left axe above the roof shattering the two-inch thick ice that cracks and spider webs for a foot, but the tool holds. His crampon clad feet scratch against edges of the rock underneath and parallel to the roof. Then, cool as a cucumber Garv sticks his right ice axe beside the other one. The ice splinters and the two spider webs join then dissipate into emerald green slabs of vertical ice that thicken as the rock steepens. The sky is made of grey and white low clouds and the rock is black as the raven swirling in the middle of the canyon. In a moment he pulls from this horizontal position up and over the roof. Garvey’s exposed. We have climbed a lot of ice together but on this one, I’m along for the ride. I lean right out and look at him. He’s just a few feet away and if he fell, would pound the ledge supporting me. It’s been a slim winter for ice and this is this least ice I’ve seen him climb. He gives me a wide-eyed look and asks, “What should I do?”

This is my first ice-climbing trip to Valdez. Steve Garvey and I both live in Girdwood Alaska. I am a professional ski patroller and he is a laid off slope worker recently divorced and broke with a big mortgage. I have a big bag of Thunder-fuck and that’s probably why he chose me to go with him. We didn’t get out of his house until 10:30 at night and we drove over here on long straight a ways between dark shapes of big mountains while a green, blue and red aurora glimmered on a raven black sky. The thermometer at The Hub in Glenallen reads forty-two below. This is my first real winter trip in Alaska. On top of Thompson Pass, Steve lets me out and points me west in the faint moonlight that’s wisping through vaporous clouds and I ski the “Road Run” in the dark. Ten minutes later I emerge on the road where Steve waits in his Ford Bronco. Back in Girdwood, I ski and climb everyday, but the run is still tough by headlamp. Just a few miles later the landscape becomes steep and narrow. Garvey says, “Keystone Canyon.” Then the gorge widens and we stop across from two frozen waterfalls that are so big that they’re visible in the dark. Pissing one-handed, Garvey points left saying, “Bridal veil.” Pointing to the right hand falls he says, “Green steps.”

Steve has arranged for us to stay in the basement of two local doctors, Andy Embick and Cathy Todd. As we head down Main Street towards their house at the far end of town, thirty-foot piles of snow loiter in the empty lots around town and the snow-pack is as deep as I’ve seen in my fifteen years of ski bumming. At 4:45 am we get to Andy’s and haul our sleeping bags into a large cold basement. Ice axes, kayaks, backpacks and ski gear hang from the walls and ceiling. A few mattresses lie stacked against the wall, I grab one, drag it into the corner and crash.

Garvey’s a sick sergeant and before I’m even out of my sack he tells me, “Sweeney go out get the gear from the car.”

“Kiss my ass.” I tell him. He moves about as slow as anyone I ever seen. Upstairs, Andy wears an Abe Lincoln beard and is an interesting one. He snatches the bottle of scotch from my clutching hands that I procured before leaving Anchorage. I never got a drop of that bottle, though I drank much of his scotch in later years and he is always good to me. He says Garvey is alumni and on my next trip I will be too. Chuck Comstock, enlists us to help him shovel snow off a roof. Chuck lives in a bedroom built in the corner (Chuck’s suite) of the doctor’s basement. We shovel for what seem like an hour and make 50 bucks each.

Right before dark we head to Keystone Canyon and I climb “Piece of Shit” an ice climb that’s right next to the road. It lives up to its billing and works me.

A raven and magpie soar between me and where Garvey is pointing. It’s a big drip on the top of the Keystone Wall a 1200 foot bastion of dark veri-glassed rock a hundred yards from the road. It looks insane and it’s never been climbed before. On the drive back to town I‘m completely enchanted by the mountains. I’ve never seen so many gorgeous snow covered peaks.

Of course, that night along with Comstock we get hammered drinking beers, tequila with Tabasco and burn an inordinate amount of weed. Comstock is a work of art. I can’t tell who was stranger, Andy or Chuck.

The next morning, we sleep in. By the time we get to the canyon, it’s after eleven. I hump a big backpack full of ropes up Arc in Cleft; an easy ice-climb that leads us to this frozen drip that Garvey identified yesterday. I really don’t know what he wants to climb. It can’t be that detached pillar because it is thirty feet from the wall and looks like it would come down with the lightest touch.

We torch haystacks of weed before Garvey launches off. The last thing Steve tells me after he blows the hit out in my face is, Schweenie, “I want a loose rope and a tight lip.”

The first pitch is difficult but I follow it easy. Steve is sporting a shit-eating grin as I climb into this cave that he’s belaying from. He says, “Mugs would love this.” Mugs, is a famous mountain climber we knew. Smoke contrails underneath the roof and then vanishes into the drabness while Garvey tokes as much of my weed as he can until the pure folly of everything forces him to get after the climbing. He points to a crack underneath the roof and says, “I wish I had a couple friends.”

Steve’s totally exposed on a ten-foot wide two-inch thick sheet of emerald green ice that spreads before him. The climbing looks really hard to me so I tell him, “I don’t know what you should do but, I’d jump.” Before I can say anything more supportive Garvey starts moving and he’s not messing around. After twenty-five feet of mechanical, athletic and precise like climbing Steve stops and places an ice screw. Besides ice screws he is carrying pitons and nuts.

Ice showers down like a curtain over the lip of the cave obscuring the grey bleak day. The cavern is six-foot high and twelve long. I am well protected and run in place wiggling toes and fingers. A bald eagle roars past like a jet fighter. I am 1000-feet off the deck and can see a couple cars in the parking lot that I imagine are watching Steve. Neil Young’s “Comes a Time” goes a round in my head. This is a long belay.

I lean out and look up at Garvey. He’s heading right for the two roofs with very little ice dripping from them. The higher he climbs the more ice falls past the lip of the cave, so I don’t lean out to look.

The rope hasn’t moved for a while and then it goes tight. He has fallen. After a moment I hear Garvey yelling, “Sweeney! Sweeney!” I lean out and look up.

“Garv!” I yell. “Are you ok?”

He is hanging from the end of his rope and says, “ Yeah! It’s so steep I didn’t hit anything. Sweeney, can you see my tool?” Sure enough, thirty or forty feet above Steve an ice tool lays stuck above a roof.

.“No problem, Sweeney. Check it out.” Smoke wafts from where he hangs there. He is burning a bowl.

“Don’t smoke all my weed. You fucker” I yell. I really don’t care but I don’t like him belaying me when he’s smoking pot and I sure don’t like being high on this hard of a climb, though I will admit, I smoked a bit of weed today.

After about five minutes I hear him yell, “Climbing.” He’s carrying a spare tool. He climbs these roofs by chimneying between the rock and ice up to the underside of the roof. Where the ice thickens at the lip of roof he swings out onto the ice pillars. There are two of these roofs thirty feet apart. This is the longest belay I’ve had in my five years of climbing. The ice shower stops and I take a peek. 120 feet above Garvey is traversing left across a series of vertical barber poles of ice that take him to a smear. This leads him behind the pillar that hangs precariously thirty feet from the wall and that leads him to the top of the canyon. It looks like he has it in the bag and it’s almost completely dark when he calls out, “On belay.”

I barely get over the roof and I can’t see anything. I give up after about twenty-feet and blame it on the darkness. He lowers me back to the cave where I wait while he rappels. I’m happy not to climb.

Back at Andy’s that night he and Chuck Comstock interview us for future use in Andy’s ice climbing guidebook. The climb is a big deal and Garvey names it Sans Ami, which is French for without friends. I say, “There’s nothing like it in the world.”

John Krackauer and James Balog are in Valdez doing an ice-climbing story for Smithsonian magazine. They want us to climb Wowie Zowie, which is the second hardest climb in Valdez, and they will films us by helicopter.

Wowie Zowie has a lot more ice than Sans Ami and it totally blows my mind. The helicopter bothers me. The ice is like Swiss cheese. I put my arm inside the climb all the way to my shoulder. They want me to give Garvey my red Patagonia coat and I’m just in a pile coat. Right at the top of the climb, I get screed by spindrift for a few minutes before it lightens up and I can climb up to the ledge where Garvey’s shoving a pipe in my mouth. I have to rappel down past fifty-foot daggers of ice that turn my stomach. We do get some good powder turns from the base of the climb down to the flats. It’s a long ski right to Embick’s house and I’m pretty much shell-shocked from all the hard ice and Garvey-mania. I just want to go home.

We take a long sauna. There is not one inch of fat on my body. I am actually quiet for once. We drink a lot of beer.

Later we are lying on our mattresses in Andy’s basement and I ask Steve, “ Garvey, I’m your friend, why did you call it Sans Ami?”


Blogger Jonathan said...

I never got to meet Steve Garvey. I climb where he has almost every time I'm out. Did Jim give you this piece? I really like how it establishes setting. I really would like to improve in that area myself. Thanks for the fun piece of memorabilia.

10:16 PM  
Blogger matt c said...

How many of these guys are dead now? Andy, Chuck, and Steve Garvey?

2:14 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Steve Garvey passed away in 1999, and unfortunately, Andy committed suicide a few years later.

12:17 AM  

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