Welcoming Winter With An Alpine Mixed Solo

Justin Willis reminisces and revels in the early-season cold.

I know this feeling. For me, it’s similar to tasting fresh honey or smelling lavender. It makes me think of being young and the innocence and freedom that came with adolescence. The intrusive ice crystals pelt every exposed piece of skin on my body. I’m flush and my face is burning. I can feel the cold on my eyeballs and the ice collecting on my eyelashes slightly impairs my vision. I smile. I am alone and I am home—this place gave birth to the man I am now.

I do the math: Twenty-one miles. That’s the closest I could possibly be to another human. I take a mental note of my comfort in that solitude, remembering my first time here as a teenager and the unease that came with feeling alone. Partly because of this and partly because the wind just tossed me to the ground like a rag doll, I let out a loud “WHOOOIE!”

I climb over snow-covered boulders like a snake, ensuring that I don’t slip into the deep, dark voids between them. The wind calms for a moment and I catch my first glimpse of the snow-covered granite massif that is today’s objective. Looks a lot bigger with all that snow…

First it’s just my boots that disappear into the snow, but as I climb higher, my shins, then my knees, then my waist are all underneath. Before long I’m swimming, digging, fighting for each foot of forward progress. I’ve learned, through years of failures and close calls, that it’s imperative to take a moment before I commit to assess my current situation. I look at the weather: Obviously, that’s not good. I check the snow: Any slabs formed yet? Nope. Then I check myself: Am I wet? Am I cold? Am I thirsty? I am none of the above, but I force myself to drink my mostly frozen water.

Short, difficult bands of rock separate steep snowfields where I tunnel my way upwards. I find myself in a small chimney, the crux pitch just above me. I’ve pulled out all the stops, smearing both crampons on granite and frantically bashing away at the ice above. Thwack! Bomber.

Large spindrift makes a strange sound. It’s equally loud as it is soft, like wind rushing through wheat fields on the plains. It’s a sound that used to have little to no effect on me, but now, after a particularly close call a couple of years back, I grip my tools with all I’ve got as my mind reels in momentary panic. As I hunker down, I focus on making myself as small as possible. This time the spindrift has very little force behind it, so I continue up.

The lighting in here is immaculate. The 150-foot-deep chimney creates a light show like I’ve never seen before. It’s got a certain glow to it. I notice this and slow down. “Why do I put myself in places like this if I don’t take my time to take it all in?” Wrapped in a granite embrace, I glance around and smile.

Upon my descent, I make three rappels and then laugh as I summersault downhill in the eight feet of snow. I’m alone—I have no need to be embarrassed. I am here to play, observe and feel. So that is exactly what I’m going to do.


Happy Winter.