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Beneath the large bulge, I stopped to yank loose a hex nut, well placed by Kyle. I hung from a tripod position, leaned on the nut tool and pushed. Nothing. I shifted my weight and hammered at the nut, whacked at it, jabbed at it and pried at it. Still nothing. My calves began to tremble. Each leg began to shake. With an eternity of emptiness beneath me, I carefully reversed my feet and reached for the hex with my left hand. The thing still wouldn't budge, wouldn't slip a millimeter. Against all rational thought, I pushed away from the rock, out over nothingness, and then fell back against the hex. In a quick break of resistance, the nut gave way and flew deep into the crack. I slammed into the rock with my shoulder and without hesitation I grabbed the hex, unhooked it from the rope and clipped it to my harness.
"You're out of your element," I muttered, barely audible over the frozen wind.
There was no turning back now. Kyle was ahead of me, and so was the possibility of being back on route. To descend would mean rappelling from our anchors and leaving hexes behind, and I didn't like the prospect of dangling from a few nuts anymore than I wanted to leave metal garbage on the mountain. With no choice, I sucked in a deep breath and reached blindly up and over the bulge.
The first recorded summit of St. Nick was in 1926 by Conrad Wellen, although the 1966 discovery of his logbook beneath a rock at the Great Notch casts some doubt over whether he actually made the top. In 1933, Robert T. Young and R. T. Young Jr. completed the second climb of St. Nick. The first winter ascent of the rugged horn didn't occur until December 28, 1985, by the Columbia Falls father-and-son team of Tom and Trenton Cladouhos. Trenton was a teenager.
For the past decade, a dozen or so people had climbed St. Nick every year, most using the Coal Creek drainage. The drainage burned in 2003, creating a direct and easy bushwhack to the Notch that avoided what used to be a three-day venture up Muir Creek or Park Creek. Robertson used the new route once, sauntering up and down the mountain, from truck door to truck door, in 13 hours. That wasn't long after Coal had burned, but now vegetation was growing taller and the forest was thickening again.
What baffled me most was that Robertson and Terry Kennedy, perhaps the most accomplished Glacier Park climber ever, had tackled this beast without ropes. With one hand above the bulge, I glanced over my left shoulder and laughed. Talk about exposure! I hung on a near-vertical rock face that buckled back into the mountain, leaving nothing but cold air between me and scree fields thousands of feet below. A slip without ropes and the party was over.
Needing to make my crux move, I prayed that the crack continued far enough above the bulge to keep finding handholds, but I couldn't see up there yet. My gut wrenched at the thought of slipping backwards, groping for purchase, and having to trust the rope as I fell and dangled in space.
"Hold tight," I hollered, not sure whether Kyle could hear me or not.
I took a deep breath. I closed my eyes and opened them. I reached with my toe, blindly stuffing it deep in the crack of the bulge, the meat of my foot wedged in the rock. Then I sucked in one more lungful of air, growled like a bear, and stood. The world disappeared. My focus narrowed with all my energy funneled into the rock. Riding the momentum, I reached and slapped my left hand onto the cold rock. My fingers splayed out, felt the crack. I jammed them in and held tight. I pulled again, then wedged in my other foot. Standing, I reached, found the break, and pulled. Then slung a knee over the bulge. Then the other knee. Then flopped onto my belly and inched along, the slab mellowing, the rope slithering above me, guiding me. Gasping for air, I scampered up three small ledges and found Kyle. My heart thundered in my chest and my arms and legs tingled with adrenaline.
"Holy shit," I yelled, anchoring in beside him. I leaned back and groaned.
"You made it," said Kyle, who had shimmied seamlessly up and over the bulge, like the experienced climber he is.
"Barely," I sighed. "Wasn't sure for a minute there. But, we're too far north, bub. We need to work our way back east."
"I was worried about that, too. We haven't seen a rap station in a while. What do you think?"
"No choice but to keep climbing, right? You're the expert."
"That's what I'd hoped you'd say. Climbing is definitely easier."
"More than one way to shimmy up a mountain, partner."
"Damn straight," he smiled. "Belay me up this way, and we'll cross our fingers."