Travels with Joe

Considering the tone of my last two posts, I want to make it absolutely clear that my former brother-in-law Joe is not dead or losing his mind.

I think he's skiing today.

Unfortunately, he does have cancer, and it's quite serious. If you're thinking "Oh, well, if he's skiing it can't be that bad" I would just tell you that standing and moving are the least painful things he can do right now and if you're in pain all the time, you might as well go skiing. I've had cancer. It was frightening. It was humiliating. There were adult diapers involved. There were catheters in unpleasant places. Don't get me started on the anal probes. Compared to what Joe is going through, my journey was a pleasant Oxycontin fog filled with cool robots, leg massages, and lovely, caring nurses.

We're all worried of course.  If you've been around Carolyn and me, we've told you we're worried. We've told you many times. You might wonder why we care so much about our ex-brother-in-law. I can't help but think in most cases, ex-brother-in-laws fade away in the rear view mirror pretty quickly as life goes on. Not Joe.

I went out for a short ride up to the top of the ridge today to think about that. As I was grinding up the hill I got thinking about the time he took me up Mt. Hood.

I think it was April 1994 or 95. We were living on Belmont Street in Portland. I remember the weather was great, the snow was good and it was something I really wanted to do. Joe had climbed Hood a number of times and I think he really wanted to show me the mountain. I went to REI and rented crampons, an ice axe, winter boots and a helmet. He and my sister drove up from Ashland (I honestly can't remember if Maddie was born yet)*. Joe and I went up Saturday morning to Timberline Lodge just a few hours from home to start the climb.

We registered at the lodge and Joe spent the afternoon teaching me to self arrest and how to hold him if he fell. He even went out of his way to put me on a snow cornice and then deliberately collapse it so I'd know what it felt like. It seemed a bit much for a kid from upstate NY but I was certainly game. He'd decided to skip the standard South Side route and go up the West face via Leuthold Couloir. It was a busy weekend and the South route would have been a conga line up and down. Joe thought the West route would have a more "alpine" feel.

As the sun set we made dinner and climbed in the tent to get a few hours sleep. At midnight we got up, broke camp and started up the mountain. It was a dull slog up the ski runs by headlamp. We passed the Silcox warming hut and continued on cresting Illumination Saddle just at sunrise. We descended a bit onto the Reid glacier and started a pretty long traverse through deep snow. I think this is when Joe started getting bored. He broke right and started going straight up the Reid glacier, eventually passing the bergschrund, the long crack that separates the glacier from ice headwall of the mountain. Up we went.

Joe leading up the Reid Headwall. So Alpine.
I had a feeling we weren't in the right chute but we were going up which, when climbing a mountain, is generally the correct direction. And it was spectacular! I'd climbed technical rock in my youth but this kind of mountaineering I'd only read about!

It was also getting steep. When Joe moved right out of the chute we were climbing, I was worried. He was out of sight for some time before he called for me to come up. I got over the gully and we were on steep ice. Maybe 50 degrees. He'd cleared a lot of snow so I had clear ice to toe my crampons into. It occurred to me that self-arrest practice might come in handy. I moved right some more and looked up. There was Joe sitting on a tiny ledge he'd hacked out of the ice to belay me. Over his head was maybe 80' of overhanging rime ice silently informing us our ascent was coming to a stop. Joe looked down at me and said "You should come up. I think we need to reconnoiter." I'm thinking "I think we need a helicopter" but I didn't have a better plan so I climbed up.

To this day I still say "I think we need to reconnoiter" at any chance I get. I think it's the punch line of my life.

I'm pretty sure if Joe had a few more ice screws and a better partner, he'd have tried to get over that wall. Instead, we decided to rappel down to gentler ice and traverse over to the upper South Face above Castle Crags. To do that, he pulled off the most amazing piece of mountaineering magic I've ever seen.

There's a way you can drill a hole in ice, plant an ice axe as your rappel anchor with a sling tied to the point. You double your rope around the axe securing the other end of the sling to one length of the rope. You rappel down and then tug on one side of the rope and if the Heavens are smiling, it will pull the ice axe out and you can pull it in with your rope. (I'm sure this was thought up by Germans in the 1920's looking through telescopes at the bodies hanging off the North Face of the Eiger: complete madness.) I donated my rental ice axe and went down first. Joe followed and when we were sure we had a safe traverse line, he tugged on the rope. Down came the ice axe. I don't think Joe's day got any better than that moment.
Our retreat from the Reid Headwall


By now it was after noon and getting hot. We hustled up over the ridge and picked up the Old Mazama route to the summit. It was beautiful but we'd been climbing for 12 hours and I was pretty spent. An hour of climbing and we joined about a dozen people and one German shepherd at the summit. We didn't stay long. I was exhausted, windburned, dehydrated, a bit demoralized because a dog had beaten me to the top, and I could see our car in the parking lot miles away below us. There was beer in a cooler there and I wanted one.

We glissaded down the steep snow and joined the line walking down to Silcox. We had a sandwich and a soda there and walked the last half mile to the car. While Joe went to talk to some friends from his mountain rescue days, I nursed my long-coveted beer in the passenger seat of the car and tried to get my head around the fact that we'd been on a day hike.

Above Crater Rock. Your day hikes aren't hard enough.


Over the couple decades we've known him, it seems everything we've done with him was a little like that climb. Intense, probably ill-advised, occasionally life threatening; and it changed who we were. Even the bike I was sitting on while I thought about that trip, was a result of Joe nudging me back into racing 9 years ago after a 12 year absence.

I suppose that's why Joe's illness affects us so deeply. We all move on and often not together; but Joe will never really be an "ex-brother-in-law" to us. He'll always be Joe, who has given us so many experiences that have shaped who we have become. And we love him.

And that trick with the ice axe. Worth the whole insane trip.

*My sister has informed me that Maddie was 7 months old, so it was 1995. 

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