Thursday, November 01, 2012


Happiness, pain, hard work, long days, amazing views, heat and cold, rough hands, beautiful people and in the middle of that circle... me?

Last month I was in Colorado.
For the first time in the States.

As an European I had my ideas on how it would be. Fat people, nationalism, weird expressions on freedom and the immense landscapes.
I saw it all but didn't experience it in the way I'd expected.
It was better, much better.

Already on my arrival, when I asked for directions on how to get to Boulder people were kind, friendly and they had humor.
"So I don't need to change" - I said when the guy at the tourist office told me what bus to take to Colin's house. I dragged the big bag on my shoulders and another one in my hands. Sweat on my forehead.
"No" he said. "You should stay the way you are."
Totally jetlagged and tired of the long trip it took me quite some seconds before I understood what he meant.

I texted Colin that I was at the busstation.
He picked me up with his green car and welcomed me in his climbers house.
Climbing video on the TV screen, climbing gear in the livingroom, a dirty bathroom and the average forearms were bigger then my fat calves.
Guess I felt home already.
I wasn't offered any time to rest. The first thing we did was discuss where to go the next day and what to do before the start of the try-outs.

We visited Eldorado, drytool-Vail and then drove to Ouray.

Curious, excited and nervous I stood there the next morning.
The full moon kept me awake that night and the idea that there were bears around got me excited (wanted to see one sneak around!)
Bryan, one of the advisors for the program, arrived first. No-one of the group actually knew what to say, how to act. Insecure as we were there on that first day. We hardly knew each other (met almost every one with the dinner at Steven's place the night before).
We joked around "we should make a t-shirt that says 'Steve's team'" or "let's get 6 fat kids out of town to show up here".
But then Steve arrived, we almost wanted to 'salute' him, but we didn't.

The week was filled with all kinds of things. We went sportsclimbing on the first day, did a scramble/multipitch on the second, learned new rescue techniques (thanks Vince) did Mount Sneffels (Snæfell) and drytooled too. In the evenings we presented our Alpine expedition ideas and reflected on the days.
The six of us became a close team in less then a week time.

Colin Presenting his Alpine ideas

Yodel arete

The six of us, l. to r. : Steve, Buster, Braden, Kevin, Colin, me and Steven

But two had to go...
A team of six (actually seven) is hard to mentor. You'd have to split yourself in two (or three) I guess.
So eventually four of us were allowed to go on after this try-out week.

I woke up in the night, the moon still bright and big. Still no bears around.
I was out, I thought. I must be. Shit.
Totally disappointed for all the reasons I'd made up in my head I woke up in the cold that morning.
I liked our team, it motivated me, inspired me and I really didn't want to leave.
I my head I was already making plans on what to do and where to go. Yosemite?
And although it's one of my dreams to climb there it didn't look as beautiful as being here with all those super enthusiastic climbers.

We all had a personal talk with Steve again that morning. And I was in!
I'm in, in, in! Am I? Oh, yes, what a relief! And at the same time: oh, my, I'm going to go climbing with Steve and the team for TWO years. This is... (my brain made little spin-loops) amazing!

Time for some restdays after this intense week.

Buster, one of the climbers was planning of going to Indian Creek for a couple days.
Steven would work and Colin too.
So. Indian Creek it was.
I heard about the place, knew that all Europeans that went there got so confused and could hardly climb 6a's.
Funny thing: I expected to only climb Alpine stuff this month and didn't even take shorts and then I suddenly ended up in the Utah desert.
Driving to 'the Creek' was a sweet sight-seeing trip for me. We saw sandstone arches, the real Colorado landscape and life and Newspaper rock was beautiful!

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Indian Creek, ultimate crack climbing from Marianne van der Steen on Vimeo.

The campsite was really dirtbag. Really: Campfires, dust, beer and bad guitar players in the freezing darkness.
The next morning it was time to climb. Buster, local in the Creek smoothly guided me around the best climbs.
The first we did was a nameless 5.10 that felt like hard 5.11 for me as European.
Headjamming felt better then handjamming and although the sandstone was perfectly shaped I always took the wrong cam to fit...
The only crack experience is my local place called 'Ettringen'. Short Basalt climbs in an old mining area in Germany. It wasn't the first time I stuffed my fat fingers in the rock, but this was so different!
After a while I got a hang on it and started to get addicted to the climbing style.
Suddenly I could imagine why people would spent their whole life on climbing in this harsh dusty desert.
After two climbing days my hands felt sore but good and it was time for the next adventure.

The Black Canyon

With a group of five we'd climb ten (TEN!) days in the Black Canyon.
The Black Canyon is a mythical place. If it would be in Iceland I'm sure there would be big Goblins and Trolls living under the big river boulders.
But here we only found poison ivy and loose rock.
The gneiss and schist is old, oxidated and worn by the strong water and it's filled with white pegmatite dikes.
First the walls look small, until you reach the lowst, darkest point at the river and suddenly realise that the little stream you saw from the viewpoint is a violent white river... And thats where you start your climbs.

This doesn't actually mean you'll get a rescue when it's getting dark :)

Buster, Colin, Steven, Steve and I were going to be the team.
We were going to be each others teachers, mentors, climbing buddies and friends.
Goal was not to climb the hardest of the Black, but become efficient, get to know new techniques and systems, be fast through using the right systems and route finding skills.

The weather-Gods gave us just a couple climbing days before the rain started...
We bailed, went back to Ouray/Ridgeway and drytooled with our local guide Steven... in the rain.

The ground was still wet when we went back for yet another week of intense climbs.
Steve was totally high on coffee when he arrived that morning. We were all still sleeping...

This week I was dragged out of what I call 'my comfort zone'. I was feeling better, the cold almost disappeared, and my mind found that my body should train harder.

So we got into Astrodog.
The idea was to do a link-up with another route to get to the top of the Canyon again.
I felt slow, insecure on the strange granite, I was cold and was far from fast. I felt disappointed in my own achievements before I even started on leading. Ashamed for my bad climbing results my mind started to give up on me. Just as usual.
My head is my weakest climbing parter, weaker then my pumped forearms, weaker then my hungry stomach, weaker then my dehydrated body. Weaker then the worst cam I ever placed.
When my mind tries to get involved, thats when I get out of my comfort zone.
And the request for getting out of that comfort zone worked, I got totally out of it... (Thanks Mind for helping out...Thanks for nothing...)
And then we realised it was getting dark. The sun coloured orange on the other side of the Canyon making the shades to become big monsters and finally it all turned into silence.
We had to go down. Now.
Rapidly we build an anchor, left a cam, abseiled down, pulled the rope, abseiled another pitch and another. And... Stuck.
The rope got stuck.
The sky turned black, the moon that accompanied me in the start of the trip had disappeared.
It was just us now and our tiny emergency light.
Steve climbed up in the darkness, miraculously fixed the rope and got down again.
We pulled, and pulled, and pulled, and...Stuck, again?!
We pulled the wrong end...
There we went again, down another pitch, and another...Stuck. Again.
Buster prussiked his way up and down.
We prepared our abseil gear all together with the light, in the darkness we were dragged onto the cold rock until one of us found the next belay.
Meanwhile we were in contact with base-camp through our little radio's.
The rope got stuck twice more before we were finally down. Down in the poison ivy.
There we searched for our bags, lights and food.
Now the Tyrolean, the river and the Cruise Gulley...
That Gulley is meant to walk/abseil down, not to 'cruise' up. We climbed up the two fixed ropes, avoided all poison ivy and loose rock.
Around midnight we arrived at the campsite. Steven and Colin prepared pasta. I never drink beer, but this one, with the pasta was the best I'd had for a very long time :)

The next day was a restday.

Buster and Steven enjoying the restday

But it was not over yet.
Colin had still one route to do, and me too. The longest rock route in Colorado.
The Southern Arete on the Painted Wall.
A challenge again. Not too hard. I thought. Until Colin said "you make it look like it's an 5.13".
Apparently I was still not used to this typical gneiss chimney climbing and got myself pumped in an 5.9
Great. I'll climb the scary traverse, you can do the chimney here :)
I was lucky, I climbed the beautiful finger crack at the end of the route!
Strangely my mind started to bug me again. The loose block at the end made me feel insecure. I was afraid to drop one on Colin whist leading and asked him to take over for me. Asking it made me feel weak, can't I even lead an easy 5.6 anymore (hello mind?!)
In the darkness we walked back to the campsite. We found big deer bones on our way through the bush and found it hard to get back to the hiking path.

Colin climbing the beautiful crack at the end of the Southern Arete

Every evening we had a campfire. Hot chocolate or tea and good discussions about how to improve all we did.
Steve referred to his own mentors and his time in Slovenia.
He told us "climbing is 80% mental."
Maybe even 90% if you just take the Black Canyon climbing or Alpine climbing.
I'm sure my climbing success is depending on my mind. Hard.
And maybe thats also why climbing is such a beautiful thing.
Climbing for me is a combination of many different elements. If those elements all all in the right direction then climbing is perfect. It feels perfect, looks perfect, sounds perfect...
Although my mind wasn't perfect, my body, the surroundings, the new friends I now have, the climb, the rock, the food, the air, the... just everything felt super good.
Especially us five as a team felt super good. All, Buster, Colin, Steven, Steve are original and special individuals all with different strengths. That combined was, as to say in American English; awesome.

And that climbing feeling made this one of the most intense trips I've ever made.

All I learned, felt, experienced this month are things I'll keep with me for my whole life. And I feel that is going to happen again, for the next two years. Two years for a lifetime. That is just worth anything.
It almost feels like love, maybe it does feel like love. Uhhhh, yes...butterflies in my heart, is that the same annoying itchy butterfly that I sometimes feel in my tummy?
Hey there you butterfly, shall we fly together for these two years?

...and what about after those two years?
Then I hope to create those butterflies for others, so we can pass on our new experiences and keep the Alpine Mentor Programme for many next generations to come.

Thanks Steve.

After that last day we said goodbye ( how do you say goodbye?)
Buster and I went on for a couple days. Visited Rifle, Estes Park (Windy Mountains National Park) and  then Colin texted: Alexander's is in.
On my last day in Colorado I got little stars in my eyes and swung my axes in the ice like my life depended on it. Oh, what a good feeling to hold my babies. (read: Nomic iceaxes)

Alexander's Chimney, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado from Marianne van der Steen on Vimeo.

On the airport I had tears in my eyes, if there was anything wrong the lady at the customs asked me. Buster answered for me as my throat was filled with a big concrete block.
No, there was nothing wrong, it was all just good. Too good.
When can I go again?

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