Across The Firn Line

In a few weeks, I’ll be releasing the first episode of The Firn Line, a podcast about the lives of mountain climbers.

Carl Oswald on the lower ridge of Icing Peak. Chugach Mountains, Alaska. 1999

This project, which combines my passion for mountains, music and stories, has been a long time coming, and I have to say it’s bringing me a lot of happiness.  But it’s also forcing me to dig into a past that sometimes haunts me, pressing me to relive memories I tried to bury a long time ago.  It sounds cliché, but in committing to this project, I feel like I’ve stepped across my own firn line, where what lies ahead is both familiar and unknown.

The author below Mount Rumble. Chugach Mountains, AK. July, 1998

Carl Oswald descending the north ridge of Icing Peak. Chugach Mountains, AK. April 1999

Having spent the last 15 years pursuing a music career, most folks probably don’t know that I used to be an avid mountain climber.  From the first time I put on a pair of crampons at 17 years old, I knew I’d found my life’s calling.  In a short amount of time, I went at it with everything I had, and little else mattered. After graduating from high school, I quit college almost as soon as I’d started, just so I could spend more time climbing. Every spare second was spent pouring over topographic maps, looking for the next big adventure in the mountains.  I was hooked.

In my early twenties, I worked as a guide on Denali, climbed classic lines in the Canadian Rockies, travelled to South America, and spent winters rock climbing in the desert southwest.  But my true passion was exploring the mountains in my backyard: The Chugach.

In the Chugach, I traversed icefields, crossed obscure mountain passes, and tiptoed along crumbling knife-edged ridges.  I climbed titanic ice faces above the Matanuska Glacier, developed rock climbs in Eagle River Valley, and swam laps in the green, glacial waters of Eklutna Lake.  These were vibrant times, and the possibilities seemed limitless.

But maybe more important than the mountains themselves, were the lasting friendships that evolved in these vast and wild places.  Like a lot of climbers, I was part of a tribe, and we stuck together through the best and worst of times.  We laughed when things were easy, and yelled at each other when things got tough. We consoled one another through the heartbreaks of youth, and held on tight when death eventually caught up to our friends.  We were raw and intensely loyal to each other.  We thought we would climb forever.

But everything changed for me in the spring of 2002 when I injured myself rock climbing.  At the time, I never could have imagined that an inconspicuous groin strain would manifest into a debilitating chronic condition that would end my climbing career.  But that’s exactly what happened. I was 27 years old.

I now know that it’s normal for athletes who get injured to experience depression, and I was certainly no exception. At first I was just frustrated when physical therapy didn’t work.  Then reality started to sink in when a local (and highly regarded) sports medicine doctor raised his hands in frustration and said to me, “I just don’t know how to help you”.  Over the next few years, I had dozens of tests including blood work, x-rays, MRI’s and nerve block procedures to name a few.  Finally, I resorted to surgical operations. When both of these failed, I erased climbing from my life, and sunk into an insidious depression that lasted many years.  Luckily, I eventually dug myself out of it.

One of the things that saved me was music.  In high school I taught myself to play the guitar, and I even dabbled in songwriting and performing.  When I got injured, I immediately filled the void of climbing by starting a rock band called The Whipsaws.  Over the next 15 years, we would release three albums, and play hundreds of shows across Alaska and the U.S.  Although we are currently on hiatus, we are still “together” and remain good friends.

I’ve also been fortunate to play in another band called Easton Stagger Phillips, comprised of Nashville-based songwriter Tim Easton, and Canadian folk rocker Leeroy Stagger.  Since 2008, we’ve made two albums together, and have toured in Alaska and Europe.  In addition to my work with bands, I’ve also recorded and released four solo albums, and more recently, I’ve gotten into the world of recording and producing other artists.  Needless to say, music has been a gift, and I’m very grateful for the opportunities it’s given me.

But even though music is fulfilling, I’d be lying if I said it was a replacement for the mountains, because it’s not.  The truth is that nothing will ever replace those experiences.  When I sold all my climbing gear in 2007, I was trying to force myself to move on, even though I knew it was impossible. When I packed away my beloved maps, journals and 35mm slides, I was trying to compartmentalize those things so I wouldn’t have to deal with the feelings associated with them.  But I knew eventually I’d have to face them again, I just wasn’t sure when.

Camp below Mount Yukla. Chugach Mountains, Alaska. May 1997

Frozen peaks above the Nelchina Glacier. Chugach Mountains, AK. March, 1998.

That time eventually came last year when I started developing the template for The Firn Line in my head.  I wanted to work on a project that would reconnect me with the climbing community, and utilize my skills as a musician and audio producer.  I figured a podcast would be a good outlet for those goals.

I started doing research on other climbing related podcasts, and realized I might have a good niché; crafting stories about mountain climbers that weaved taped interviews, thoughtful narration, and music I wrote and recorded.  I also thought it would be cool to focus the first year on a place that is dear to me: Alaska.

But first, I needed some inspiration.  So I unpacked my dusty boxes of 35mm slides and started digitally scanning them – eventually about 2,000 in all.  Talk about a trip down memory lane!  Then, I started interviewing Alaskan mountain climbers, and working on the basic structure of how the podcast would be formatted. Soon, I had a logo designed, and a website built.  It’s been a monumental amount of work, but looking back, it’s hard to believe how much I’ve accomplished in just five months.

One of the biggest rewards I’ve gotten is the personal interaction with the people I’ve interviewed.  As you’ll hear in the podcasts, I’m not much into spraying, but rather, I aim to tell stories that deal with the feelings, motives and experiences that shape climber’s lives. I’ve been fortunate that all the participants so far have been incredibly honest about their experiences in the mountains, as well as their lives.

But I’d say the most meaningful aspect for me is the opportunity to contribute again, and to be a part of a community that I’ve missed greatly over the last 15 years.  The climbing world is really one big family.  We get to see and experience things that most folks would only dream of. We understand each other on a level that often times doesn’t need to be expressed through words, and that is a powerful thing.  My ultimate hope is that The Firn Line inspires people in the mountains and in life.  If that happens, I’ll know all my hard work was worth it.