Ripple. How many times have you climbed it? Once a season? Twice a season? Three times? For the past two years? For the past five years? 10 years? If you’re a southcentral ice climber it’s that route that you do at least once a year. It’s close, it’s always in, and it’s always enjoyable.
Beginning climbers run laps on top rope, long time hard men run solo laps. Experience doesn’t matter; sooner or later this season you’ll climb it just like you climbed it last year and the year before that. Just like you’ll will climb it next year.
It won’t attempt to count the times I’ve climbed Ripple but whenever I top out on the route one night comes to mind. It was the winter of 1997 and we had spent the day climbing in the canyon. Just before dark we packed up our gear and began the hike out, but when we reached Ripple we noticed the climb was empty. It was a beautiful clear late winter evening and we had no schedule so we dropped the packs and roped up again. 200 feet of sticky ice later we reached the canyon rim well after dark, our ice tools illuminated by headlamp and fingers numb from the dropping temperature. I clipped into the anchors and leaned back to look over my shoulder at the night sky…
…to see the comet Hale-Bopp floating on the horizon.
In the Alaskan winter of 1996-97 Hale-Bopp dominated the night sky. It was almost as bright as the moon and in the far northern hemisphere it was visible for most of the night. I remember driving back from Valdez and staring out the passenger window to the north and watching it for hours and hours. I remember many nights walking home in the dark after climbing in early winter with the comet burning above my head. I remember sitting in silence tied into the anchors at the top of Ripple staring at the comet in the cold night air.
The memory provides links. I think of Hale-Bopp every-time I climb Ripple. I’ve sat at the anchors and described what I saw to multiple partners over the years. Since Ripple always seems to be free of climbers just as the sun sets, I often find myself climbing it right at dusk to sit at the top in the dark looking out at the horizon thinking of that night.
This memory provides a link to the the first comet I ever saw: Halley’s Comet in the winter of 1986. I was 13 and we were living in Bangkok, Thailand. Bangkok, the bright sleepless smoggy city she is, is not the place to witness celestial events, so my father packed up the car for a road trip (25 years ago you could still escape Bangkok sprawl in an hour) and drove outside the city to a large field where dozens of young and old, expats and Thais had gathered. Buddhists love a good celestial event, after all the Buddha stated “in the infinite world spheres are incalculable,” and in the 1986 world of the Challenger Space Shuttle a bright burning comet was a physical manifestation of the multiverse.
We spilled out of the car into the field where people sat around with telescopes and binoculars looking into the sky. “Haley’s Comet comes every 76 years,” my father explained to me as I lay in the grass looking up at the stars. “The last time it was here was before I was born.” My father liked to emphasize mortality as a life lesson at every chance. He paused to make his point, “And I’ll be dead before it comes back.” We sat in silence for a little while my eyes glued to the binoculars pointed at a wisp of comet in the night sky. “Maybe you’ll live to see it again,” he continued. “If you live to 89 you can take your children out to see it like we’re doing now.”
76 years is a lifetime. The comet was past the midpoint of my fathers life and near the start of mine. In our culture the comet’s passing was a moment somewhere between a beginning and end. Next to us the Thais looked up at the night sky. In their culture the passing was just a moment in a continuity with no beginning and no end. Both cultures grasped for meaning in the night sky just like we’ve been doing for thousands of years and will likely do for thousands more.
Twenty seven years after Halley’s comet and sixteen years after Hale-Bopp I sit at the top of Ripple and think of comets come and gone in the night sky. Rapping off into the night my body a moving point between the anchors and the earth. I repeat this motion with the same thoughts again and again, year after year.