Friday, August 16, 2013

Mountain A La Mode: On Climbing and Pie

“She’s a psychopath,” Ryan said.  The Carbondale local introduced himself over beers at the Pour House bar when he heard talk of the pie baking contest. “My mom’s been judging the contest for years.  I’ve heard of Judy Harvey.  She’s absolutely obsessed.   If you win, she may kill you.”
Cover Model status thanks to Tara and Andrew
Two years ago, I was Fruit Number 1.  During a summer of Rifle sport climbing, I dropped off a granny smith all butter crust apple pie, the first entry into the fruit category at the Carbondale Mountain Fair annual pie baking contest.  I dreamed of being on the cover of Martha Stewart’s Home Living, wearing an apron and holding an apple pie. I dreamed of being a handsome climber boy killing it in the kitchen.

This spring, my long term girlfriend and I broke up.  To deal with it, I threw myself at free climbing a new big wall route in Yosemite.  I toiled, tried, and worked. After a few months, the route fell to my tenacity.  With no goals left, no girlfriend, and no direction, I felt lost.
The Final Frontier in Yosemite- Mikey Schaefer photo
Remembering my dream, I packed quick draws, a harness, shoes, a rolling pin and my pastry blender into my Saturn station wagon with plans of returning to Colorado.  The competition in Carbondale would provide direction in my life, somewhere to invest my energy, and a chance to be a cover model.

Before leaving, I prepped for the contest by baking a chicken pot pie in Yosemite.  Traveling east, my friends in Salt Lake City loaned me their kitchens to bake a mixed fruit pie, an apple pie, and a strawberry rhubarb pie.   
A perfect apple pie at Nik Berry's house
While traveling, I studied endlessly, devouring cookbooks and searching the ends of the Internet for recipes. On July 1st, The New York Times published an article about tarts, crisps and most importantly, summer pie recipes. I read the piece fifteen times.    In Salt Lake, my friend’s mom provided beta on cold butter, on shredding apples and how to crimp the edges for the best presentation.  When she was out of the kitchen, I snapped pictures of her grandmother’s 100 year old apple pie recipe. 

With a solid technical foundation, I drove to my friend Hayden’s house by the confluence in Carbondale. Hayden’s kitchen provided a perfect place to bake a second apple pie, a bourbon pecan pie and a chocolate bourbon pecan. I tailored my Rifle climbing towards pie baking.  
Me climbing on the long 8th Day in Rifle photo by Tara Reynvaan
The steep limestone routes provided core training.  The small edges allowed me to crimp until my fingers cracked.  The sidepulls worked my hand strength. By the end of the month, I used an ab roller to press out the pie crust.  I crimped the edges of the pie to perfection.  I broke apples in half.   Beyond the training, I sought advice from master bakers.   

For the past 20 years Judy Harvey has dominated the Carbondale Mountain Fair pie baking contest. White and dark chocolate mousse. Boysen berries. Caramel coconut creams peaked with translucent amber spikes of macadamia nut brittle. Judy mastered these recipes and the subtleties of pie baking.  In 2005, the Aspen Times featured Judy in an article about the contest.  Her husband, Roger spoke of Judy’s determination describing trial run pies stuffing their garage refrigerator and inviting friends over at all hours to test the pies.  On competition days, Harvey wakes at 4 am to begin baking. I wanted her obsession.

The Carbondale phone book provided her number. Judy shied away when I first rang.  “My family is setting up camp for the 4th of July.  Can I call you back?” she said.   After 3 days of silence, I dialed again. The call went straight to her voicemail. The master baker ignored my pie enthusiasm.

Despite Judy’s reluctance to share pie secrets and the rumor of her homicidal tendencies, my mission to bake the perfect pie held true to course.  A climber’s BBQ offered a chance to serve a strawberry rhubarb pie and a third apple pie. Jen and Andrew, a pair of local Rifle climbers, allowed me to bake a peach pie at their house.  I baked until I only saw imperfections in the pies.  The crust that Andrew left, the extra peaches that Jen pushed to the side and Hayden stopping at his third piece became the objects of my obsession.   I baked until I hated pie. My climbing schedule, my life revolved around my next chance to bake.  I transformed into the obsessive Judy Harvey.    
A flower catching the sunrise on Mount Sopris
In between baking pies and climbing rocks, I shuffled along the edge of Thompson Lake, stubbing my toe in the dark.  From the edge of the water, the summit ridge to Mount Sopris, the highest peak in Carbondale’s Elk Range, hid behind the impending sunrise.  A week of insomnia wrecked me.  The alpine hiking helped alleviate my angst and aimlessness.  While wandering lost around the lake at 3am, I fixated on a conversation a fellow lifestyle climber and I had. 
Colette McInerney working on Cryptic Egyptian
“Don’t you think it’s weird that you just climb all the time?” Colette asked me.   We could see Sopris from the confluence where we sat, splitting the last piece of chocolate bourbon pecan pie.  A full-time climber, Colette had begun a transition towards a career, a life beyond rock.   I poked at the pie crust, unsure of how to answer. This trip was supposed to be about more than just climbing.  My travels east, the pie baking contest were supposed to provide direction, to provide a distraction while I found something more permanent. After the contest, I’d be back where I started- driving my car to climb at another sport crag, to find more boulders, or explore new big walls. Climbing, like pie baking, is amazing but ultimately pointless.   There must be more to life than rock climbing and pie baking.   What was it?
Hayden climbing
On Saturday, July 28th at 6 am, I hustled over to Hayden’s house, where I preheated the oven.  The butter cut into the flour perfectly.  The melted chocolate mixed with pecans.  Maple syrup and bourbon provided sweetness and taste. The ingredients filled a 9 inch pie pan and baked in the oven for an hour.  At 10:30, I entered my pie into the exotic category at the Carbondale Mountain Fair Annual Pie Baking Contest.  The exotic category contained a half dozen entries. A meat pie with hotdogs woven into the lattice seemed suspect.  The other pecan pie appeared weak next to mine.  The meringue.  That looked good. The fruit category contained nearly a dozen pies from apple to cherry to pear.  The crème category held just a few pies. I nervously waited for the judges results.

That night, climbers from across the US gathered in a Carbondale barn for Jen and Andrew’s wedding. Thunder, lightning and afternoon showers dissipated moments before the ceremony.   Jen’s father walked her down the aisle. Andrew’s father gave a heart felt speech about new love and old love. The two climbers made a life long union, they were making more of their lives than just the rocks they climbed. It was beautiful.

The wedding offered me a chance to stop fixating on the contest.  Watching these two friends in love helped me realize that perhaps there was more to life than climbing and baking. Jen and Andrew discovered something special in their relationship.  Climbing, while pointless, had brought the two together.    My respite from my obsessions was short lived.  In between the ceremony and the dancing, a dozen different climbers asked me about the competition. 

Andrew and Jen photo by Sam Elias
“Did you win?”  “Did you beat the blue-haired grandmas?”  “You send the gnar at the fair bro?”
“No.” “No.” No.” I answered, explaining the training, my alpine start, and putting in my best effort.   Baking pies while living out of a station wagon proved difficult.  My lackluster excuses did little to negate my loss.  The hardest part to explain was that I never wanted to win the contest.   I wanted to find direction.  If I’d been asked if I was still aimless, then I could have answered, “Yes.”

For six weeks, baking and climbing consumed my Colorado life. I expected an answer to my aimlessness, an answer that would come without having to consciously think about why I was wandering.  I expected an epiphany while rolling out pie crust.   Flashes of inspiration happen slower than that.  They are the product of circling around an idea, drawing closer and closer to it.      

While Judy Harvey sat in her kitchen shuffling through recipes for next year’s contest, I packed my Saturn station and prepared to orbit another climbing destination. I buried my pastry blender beneath my old climbing shoes.  I left my pie pan at Jen and Andrew’s house.  The weather in Yosemite would cool soon.  I drove east from Colorado knowing Judy and I would continue our pointless obsessions.  Maybe someday, we’d figure out why we did it.        

Despite the storm, the Saturn continues its orbit


Unknown said...

Excellent article James! Two things I love combined into one beautifully written article:)

Eric O'Rafferty said...

Thanks, I enjoyed this tasty post. Just a hint of tartness (definitely not bitter) with subtle sweetness.

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