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First Climb

First Climb

by Sean Johnson

The true beginning of my outdoor rock climbing career began on December 12, 2014, a completely unassuming night. I was grabbing dinner at the campus dining hall, my actions thoughtless as I selected my eating utensils, my feet shuffling along until Dasan, my best friend, walked in and asked me what my plans for the night were. We conversed in hasty, hushed tones as if we were exchanging our deepest secrets. He invited me on an adventure and instructed me to go back to my room and gather my harness, mountaineering boots, helmet, headlamp, and gloves. At the command, a hunger awoke in me that could not be satiated by the plate of food in my hands. I rushed to my dorm with the urgency of a man stamping out a fire on the verge of unmanageability and threw all my gear into my backpack and sprinted to his room. Feeling like a child on Christmas, I entered his room, where he informed me that we were going climbing along the highway.

In a friend’s car, we rushed away to the Seward Highway, Against Me! blaring from the speakers of the tiny sedan; we were alive with the night. Wind whipped through the cracked windows, chilling the exposed skin on my face. When we reached the pull-off parking lot at Sunshine Ridge, I had no clue what to expect. I had never even seen this route in the daylight, so my mind was whirling, trying to fathom what lay ahead. As we grabbed the climbing rack, consisting of a few carabiners, cams, a nut or two, and the rope, we began walking to the first belay ledge of the route. Dasan informed me that it was a multi-pitch route with four distinct pitches.  My heart fluttered with joy.

The first belay ledge was up a scree gully and unprotected, meaning if my fearless friend should fall without protection, the rope that bonded our two souls would jettison us both from the cliff into the mess of razor sharp rocks beneath, which seemed to beckon for our demise. But as I watched Dasan climb, an overwhelming feeling of certainty washed over me; I completely trusted his expertise and background, and seeing the assurance in his eyes convinced me that we would succeed the ascent. The wind howled and whistled through the vents of my helmet, muffling our calls back and forth from belay point to anchor. I called out into the dark night only to hear in reply his garbled response hidden somewhere beneath the overpowering gusts of wind. After that first pitch, we resolved that a series of rope tugs would be the best method for communication.

I remained still and shivering in the cold December air as Dasan climbed higher and higher into the night’s gaping mouth. My hands felt numb against the touch of cold rock even through my Gore-Tex shell gloves. I wished I had brought more layers. Once Dasan reached the second anchor, he tugged on the rope to let me know he was safe and that I could take him off belay. Finally, the end of the rope attached to me became taut and I gave a few tugs back to let him know that I would begin climbing. After a few breaths and some brief scanning of the rock above me, I followed the rope that led to the next anchor and to my partner.

Darkness surrounded us with only the occasional headlight of a passing car like a flickering torch a few hundred feet beneath our ledge to mark the earth below. The clouds began to dissipate at the third anchor point; the stars and moon illuminated Turnagain Arm and the peaks that rose from the dark water. Finally reaching the top of the climb, we sat for a moment and took in the breathtaking view of the night sky, the constellations peeking through the thinly veiled curtains of clouds. Exultation leaped from our hearts as we hugged and I thanked him. Then, as if we were two excited schoolboys, we raced down the path to the car and rushed back to the first official Alpine Club meeting in Nikolai and Dasan’s room. Feeling like warriors, we recounted every part of the climb to all the members sitting and waiting for the meeting to start, their faces bright and reflecting our eagerness.

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