The humble piolet takes a beating, but is unfailingly resolute in its duty. When arresting a falling climber, anchoring the rope in a boot-axe belay, or interned as a deadman, it serves without complaint. To see one in the hands of an experienced mountaineer is to see beyond its Neolithic appearance. Smoke Blanchard comes to mind, leaping, balancing and clambering through the Sierra with his long-shafted mountain axe; in his hands it was more than a snow-bound device.
At the moment, however, the ice axe is little more than an awkward accoutrement to my students as we transition from snow to rock, and back to snow on an ascent in the Palisades. It is constantly in their way unless the going is straightforward -- always occupying the hand they would otherwise use to clutch the rock for balance -- and all too often I have to remind them to return the axe to their uphill hands. Given that their piolets seem intent on casting them off-balance, and the novelty of the axe’s resemblance to medieval weaponry wore off several days ago, my students want to abandon them. I eventually strap their axes in a tight bundle to my pack, reasoning that I am already asking enough of them in braving the thin air and frigid belays.
Resurrected as a prop for our summit photographs, the axe’s function is unmistakable on a choppy, bum-bruising glissade down the “L” couloir. We pick our way down through the piles of rocks to the top of the glacier for a final glissade, but a student narrowly knocks off a block when the spike of his axe jams in a crack and he wrenches it out in frustration. These kids are tired, and I can see their patience towards these hunks of metal has worn thin. Moments such as these, when fatigue has worn away false precepts, are ripe for learning, so I strike, delivering an impromptu lesson on a gravel-strewn ledge of a classroom.
“Here, see how the pick jams in this tiny crack? Or how it serves as a long arm for this reach-across . . .?”
I continue with a reference to Michael Jordan, who as a young man was rumored to bounce a basketball wherever he went, eventually making it a natural extension of his body.
“The piolet is the most functional of tools at this level – you want to feel so comfortable with it that it’s as if there is no tool, only you.”
All I see in response are blank stares. It would be better for us just to get down.
I don’t blame them; openness and connection between mind, body and the landscape can seem a little too far-out for the unitiated. The next morning, however, they leave camp with their ice axes in hand, while mine is on my pack.
It has been 14 years since the first time I took students into the mountains, but they still surprise me in the ways they learn--sometimes with such subtlety and expressionless-ness that you never know if you’ve reached them until they surprise you at some moment by exceeding your instruction.
They no longer seem to notice the piolets in their hands as we descend into the aspen grove at Cienega Mirth, but I notice. I see the ease of their grip and the confidence of their stride; they are proud of their ascent – wearing their scrapes and bruises and piolets like badges. I see them as the next generation of Palisade climbers and wonder if Smoke would see it that way too.