Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Return to Spire Rock

Posted By on Wed, Apr 4, 2012 at 10:53 AM

Spire Rock is one of countless giant granite boulder piles towering above the dry forest of Homestake Pass, the high divide I-90 uses to cross the Continental Divide just east of Butte. The rounded formations are unmissable by those driving the highway and are a magnet for rock climbers eager to test their mettle on some of Montana's best steep and clean roadside granite. The two prominent towers that make up Spire Rock, "The King" and "The Queen," are climbable from all sides, with a variety of trad and sport routes to fit any climber's ability.

Spire Rock

But while the dozens of established climbing routes help make it a prominent cragging destination, it's the region's oddly dry and warm micro-climate that draw the masses during the shoulder seasons of spring and fall. In fact, when Missoula is wet, or still coming out of winter hibernation, the crags at Spire Rock are frequently dry and inviting. In other words, it's a world away from Western Montana. Like so many zealous climbers before me, I've visited the area perhaps twenty times in the same number of years to climb and scramble and enjoy the high desert goodness. Many have also come since for the same reasons.

This trip, however, would be decidedly different than any other. Arriving at the base of the spire on April 2 this year, I hadn't been there in almost three years—08/09/09, to be exact. I remember the day vividly. I'd arrived with my partner Kara McMahon and friends Jesse Froehling and John S. Adams, and we'd planned to start with the mid-level sport routes on the King's west face. But as we scrambled up the approach, I unintentionally pulled a loose boulder off its perch, an action that ended up crushing my wrist bones and severing most of the tendons, nerves and arteries to my right hand. When I came to a rest after the fall, my hand was 90% pinched off at the wrist and dangling near my elbow. My friends immediately jumped into action, tying off a tourniquet, calling 911 and getting some ATV-ers nearby to give me a ride to the road where an ambulance would eventually pick me up.

After a number of surgeries and countless PT sessions, function has improved beyond my wildest dreams. But I still have mediocre strength and poor flexibility (my bones are fused from elbow to knuckles), a more ingrained fear of technical climbing, and a new-found nervousness about rockfall. And so I'm no longer a technical climber—I still love to scramble around in the mountains, but I don't feel compelled to rely on rope systems to stay safe. Whatever, there's plenty else to do in the wilds of Montana, right?

One month into recovery...
  • Kara McMahon
  • One month into recovery...

Arriving at the empty lot near the base of the climb, I felt a bit emotional—a little bit nervous, a little bit sad, about something I couldn't really identify. We walked up the hill in silence, retracing our steps from three years prior. There's no single approach "trail," just meandering and incipient paths weaving through the sagebrush, juniper and boulder piles before converging at the saddle separating the Queen from the King.

When we neared the base, we split up to look for the rock. Kara found it immediately, an obvious void where the rock once sat, its unmoved neighbors still precarious in its absence. The rock that had smashed my arm was obvious, still clean and pale from it's relatively-recent tumble. The granite slab directly beneath was still white, chipped off by the falling boulder, not yet covered in lichen or duff and gleaming obviously in the sun. I remembered the broken-rock smell.

Kara inspects the fateful boulder

Warm from the uphill approach and the hot afternoon sun, we shed some clothing and sat down on the offending rock—it seemed an appropriate place to collect our thoughts and discuss that fateful day. We burned some dried sage that Kara had brought and I smoked a bowl. We agreed that I had been incredibly lucky, that the rock was plenty large to have done far more damage, damage consequential enough to have prevented me from returning at all. I exhaled into the clean, crisp air and felt fortunate to be here, again.

The rock (bottom) fell from the cliffs at center
  • Chad Harder
  • The rock (bottom) fell from the cliffs at center

It was a powerful, visceral moment, a potent reminder of human frailty, impermanence, of my place in this world. As much as anything, that singular falling rock defined my last three years, altering my work and my play and the lives of many deeply caring friends. But that's just me. On this quiet afternoon, looking out across the grand and unique landscape, I couldn't help but be overwhelmed by the utter irrelevance of that one small rock slide to the part of the universe that isn't me. There are literally millions of granite boulders emerging from the surrounding forest, and every single one of them is under constant assault from the wind, the rain and gravity. That one of them fell and smashed this lifeform's wrist was an inconsequentially and nearly unnoticeable shift in the landscape's endless erosion downward, toward the sea. This realization brought a great sense of peace, and as we walked quietly back to the car we heard a climbing party topping out on the King, laughing and shouting their joy to be alive.

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