Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Angry Mountain

I was numb watching the mitten slide away down the steep coulior. "Please stop...come on stop...stop you piece of shit. Fuck you...fuck you fucking mountain from hell." I don't generally personify mountains because part of the reason I like them is due to their indifference, but whole trip had been a struggle from top to bottom and here I was less than five hundred feet from the top watching one of my mittens slide to the bottom of the Y Coulior. I couldn't help but think the mountain had it in for me this time.

I didn't start the week out on the best of feet. I had to move into an apartment because my boss rented his house out to someone who could actually cover his mortgage until it sold. I hate moving, which would be hard to believe since for the past two years I've moved almost twice a year. This time, though, I was keeping the same job and simply moving because I didn't have a choice. So after going to work I packed the rest of my gear and went to bed by myself. My girlfriend had left to visit family in Wyoming and I wasn't super excited to be sleeping by myself again.

I awoke early the next morning and had planned on doing the Y Coulior as a warm up for possible solo ice climbs later on. Arriving at the parking lot in full winter gear, I drove around the parking lot looking vainly for a parking spot. Finding nothing, I sat. Then I sat for a little while longer. I got there around eight and ended up sitting until half past eight when I finally found a spot. Slightly annoyed at this point, I stepped out of the car in full winter regalia and into the sixty degree weather before heading up past the joggers and fitness freaks. Few workouts compare to walking up The Incline, except of course if you're doing it with five pounds of shoes on your feet and thirty pounds on your back. In addition to the hard physical labor I was undergoing, I got plenty of weird looks from people who didn't realize it was a good forty degrees colder at the summit. That and I was sweating like a beast in heat.

I took a rest near the top of The Incline before deciding to move on. I decided to take the path that headed toward the summit as opposed to the path that met Barr Trail on it's way down the hill. After taking one wrong turn, I backtracked and made the correct choice until I came to another junction where I once again made the wrong choice and had to frustratingly backtrack a second time. I pushed on. The miles were slowly grinding underneath my heavy boots. I chatted with the caretaker when I eventually arrived there. For some reason it seems like there's always someone different there when I go. We talked about some of the accidents that had recently happened on the Y Coulior. I had heard of the gentleman who slid down and split his skull. I had not heard that he did not bring crampons or an ice axe and had apparently slipped when he went to turn around. He was also part of the military, so they made their mark on the mountain by flying helicopters all over the place. Someone also tried to kill himself by driving off the summit. Not the first time it's happened.

Rested and satisfied with the mountain's gossip, I moved on. A group of hikers passed by and wished me good luck on my objective. I knew I would find more solitude as I approached the Bottomless Pit junction. I also noticed a few footprints and began thinking of the accident the caretaker had described. I was prepared though. I had everything I might need. Conditions were supposed to be ideal so I pushed forward. Near tree-line, I was surprised by someone behind me dressed in light jogging clothes. They apparently wanted to check out the Bottomless Pit and decided she could catch up with me when the caretaker told her I headed this way. I felt a little bad for her following me because she was in tennis shoes and her feet had to be getting wet, but I didn't feel the need to make safety decisions for her due to her being ten years older than me and likely informed enough to know what the deal was. After a while of light conversation and increasingly difficult snow traverses, she decided to head back down the mountain and I continued on.

The path becomes very difficult to follow near the boulder field. The increasing wind was not helpful either. As I finally rounded the corner I was nearly knocked down by the full brunt of that wind. Leaning into the wind, I headed straight for a boulder that looked to be decent shelter. I checked my watch as I listened to the wind howl past me. It wasn't even three yet. If the wind died down then I could still keep my plan of sleeping on the summit. However, After about twenty minutes of waiting for the wind to die down, I decided my plan was blown and I should make camp. Funny thing about light fabrics and wind and being by oneself: It sucks! The bivy fabric flapped in the wind while I tried to hammer the stakes into the rocky, frozen ground. With the bivy finally stable, I went to find rocks to set on the stakes to make sure it didn't blow away. Continuing with my nightly winter ritual of cooking dinner and melting snow, it became increasingly difficult to keep the stove lit even behind the rock and protected by the wind screen. Eventually dinner was served and I was able to fill my water bottles with much needed water.

Earlier that month I had broken both the plastic straps on my water bottles so I decided to buy some new ones. I bought some made by Camelback because of the fancy hooks that looked like they'd do well for clipping to my pack without breaking. I was partially right. The straps didn't fit very well, but they were on there and not breaking and so that was OK. The problem came when I was boiling water and decided to put that water in my sleeping bag. It seems that the valve meant to let the air in and water to flow through the straw is not a one way valve. The wet suprise was not the least bit fun when I slid my feet into the sleeping bag. Luckily it's a synthetic bag and so it was more uncomfortable than dangerous. It dried up after a while. Unfortunately, it made the night a bit colder for my feet. I already have problems sleeping at altitude with the drier air and the hypoxia, but the cold feet made it near impossible to sleep. Did I mention the eighty mile an hour gusts of wind that sought to rip my bivy sack from it's small corner of the mountain?

Lying there, and listening to the howling wind, I tried to sleep. I sipped my water, shifted in the claustrophobic bag of fabric and looked for the first signs of the day. I must have finally fallen asleep because when I looked up the lighter color of the fabric belied the coming of the sun. I also noticed that the wind had turned to a mild growl.

Breaking down camp, I made some oatmeal and filled my water bottles again. I hate oatmeal so bad. It can be good when you add some maple syrup, some raisins, but this oatmeal had some peanut butter in it and that was it. Belly full and gear packed, I decided to get moving. The conditions were supposed to be ideal. A nice fifteen hundred foot gully full of ice and snow should prove to fall quickly under my crampons and ice tools. Shouldering my pack, I started through the boulder field towards the seemingly close snow gully. I tripped through the sugary snow for an hour and I felt as if I was running in place. Another hour of trying to pick the easiest path through the snow and I was finally at the base of the coulior. Now begins the fun...so I thought. I sat down to put on my crampons and finally get out my ice axe.

The snow, continuing to be sugary crap, provided time for me to practice my uphill swimming technique. The thing is that it's a general pain in the ass to deal with all the boulders when you can see them. It's torture when you can't. Eventually I reached some icey snow and began to make better time. I was also another couple thousand feet higher at this point and sucking wind like a fat man in aerobics class. It felt like I was in a huge fight. I was fighting the pack and gravity's pull on it. I was fighting the lack of oxygen. I was fighting the cold. I was tired and I just felt completely out of it. This was supposed to be fun but for some reason I just wanted it to be over. As I came to the crux rock band, I stopped to rest. The small amount of ice looked like a nice easy path but as I swung my tool I watched large pieces of ice shatter and slide down the gully. Perhaps this was a sign to climb the rock band. I was looking forward to swinging my tools into ice for the first time this winter but it wasn't meant to be, and so I traversed over to the rocks.

Nothing inspires confidence like climbing vertical gravel in your crampons all by yourself up a fifteen hundred foot frozen snow gully after hearing the last person there died when they slid to the bottom, bouncing off boulders all the way down. I haven't done any climbing in my crampons, so I was less than confident in my foot placements and doing this all with the pack on my back made it a wee bit difficult. In all honesty I thought I was gonna have a hernia. The holds were big but somewhat loose, and I felt the pull of gravity beckoning me to the abyss. Working my feet up, I peaked my head over the lip, grabbed my tool, and swung it into the snow. Ding....thunk..thunk...after several tries I found a nice spot in the snow that felt as if it would hold my weight, and pulled over the top. Safe at last, sort of.

Resting a minute, I stood up to take my pack off and get my mittens. Laying my pack on the snow. I slowly opened the top loader and pulled out one mitten, but then watched in horror as the other one slipped through my grasp and slid down the gully. Should I go get it? It cost more than I make in a day of work. It had taken me several hours to get to this point. I had just passed the crux. Maybe someone would find it and return it to me if I posted on some forums. Donning a single glove, I made my way up the last five hundred feet of the slightly less steep gully. I reached the rim at the end and sprawled on a large rock to enjoy the warmth of the sun. That warmth was soon replaced by a cold, blowing wind, so I made my way to the summit house.

Having not brought any money the last few times I summited the peak, I was prepared with two dollars just so I could get something to eat at the summit. Making my way inside I grabbed two candy bars thinking the final cost would be two dollars. I was wrong, they were more than two dollars each. Totally disappointed, I sat for a while resting before deciding it was time to leave. I felt completely uninterested in climbing anymore. I decided I didn't wish to stay another night, so I started the long hard trip to the bottom of the mountain. It is over seven thousand feet from the summit to the trailhead. That, and the climbing up the gully totalled almost ten thousand feet of elevation gained and lost. There was nothing for me to do but go, and so I went. The sun was warm and the snow was minimal while I headed down the Barr Trail. Passing the overlook into the south cirque, I saw a few bits of ice but there was not enough snow to make anything worthwhile so I continued on to Barr Camp. I was happy to know that they sold food at a reasonable price when I got there, and was able to purchase a candy bar.

I sat and talked with the caretaker again, and that made me feel better. I asked him to keep an eye out for my mitten if he headed out there and let him know that the conditions were not as ideal as thought. The bottom third was swimming, the middle was good, and the top third was thin with mostly rocks instead of snow. Then I got up. I knew that if I didn't get up I would not be able to convince myself to leave. I walked and I walked and I couldn't help but feel pitiful as my legs burned and my knees felt weaker and weaker. But I kept walking, and eventually I made it to the top of The Incline right after the sun set. I sat down and rested, looking out onto the city lights, and I couldn't think of anything but pain. Then I got up and walked down. One step at a time. I don't remember much of the rest until I got to the car except the pep talking I was giving myself willing my body down the hill. "Don't stop, don't sit down, keep moving, don't even think of sitting down, don't you fucking stop, walk, move, go, one step at a time." After more than an hour, I reached the side trail that led to the parking lot. I slumped into my car and drove home feeling defeated.

I want to climb big mountains. Alaska, Patagonia, the Himilayas. I want to do huge multi-day, committing climbs of high technical difficulty. How could I ever pull off something like the Cassin Ridge on Denali if I couldn't even climb a relatively easy snow coulior without dropping things and more or less becoming a gigantic cry baby. The weather was bad for a day and it put me off. The bad weather on Pikes Peak would be a summit opportunity in Patagonia and here I was wrecked to the core mentally and physically, practically crying as I made the last steps to the car.

It wasn't over yet. I received no sympathy from my girlfriend as I lay there shivering in pain. It wasn't her fault having never done anything like that. She asked me to help her carry some things for her, which seemed like a death sentence. My heart rate was already almost double while laying still. My breathing was like someone on a long jog. I was completely wiped. After taking a shower and laying for a while, I felt like I could get up and move around a little bit. This wouldn't prepare me for the next day however.

The next day I had to work, and so when I woke up and went to get out of bed...I realized it was going to be a horrible day. Every muscle spasmed while I turned and rolled onto the floor. When I say every muscle, I mean all of them. My feet felt like hamburger, my neck and head throbbed with dull pain. It was like the gift that keeps on giving as the week went on. Not only was I in horrible pain for the rest of the week but as we went to do some light hiking over the weekend I could not find my camera.

A few weeks later, after scouring the apartment and my things for the camera I decided to call on my warranty which I had purchased because of the condition advertised: "You say oops, we say no problem." I figured oops pretty much covered anything, but apparently I forgot to read the fine print. As I walked into the Circuit City store the counter person asked me to produce the camera. When I explained I did not have any pieces she said there was nothing she could do. Ever resolute and having faith in the system I went home and broke another camera which didn't work. After removing any identifying marks I went to another store and lied, telling them I dropped it down the mountain. They then told me that I would have to call the warranty. The warranty company said that they needed a piece with either the serial or the model number on it. Unable to produce such evidence, I asked for them to refund me the cost of the warranty which they said I would receive in six weeks. Take note, if you drop your warrantied camera into a crevasse, a lake, or somebody snatches it from you just suck it up because no one will replace it for you, at least not if you bought it from Circuit City.

In the end I lost about $250 worth of gear, returned $30 worth of gear (Mountain Chalet was great). Worse than that I lost my motivation and a little bit of my confidence. It's been over a month and the only climbing I've done is in the gym. I finally went to Rocky Mountain National Park to check out some ice and snow but that's another post for another day.


Himalaya Trekking said...

Wonderful blog. Very impressed with your articles. Please update regularly.

GB said...

Thanks! We will continue to have regular postings: about once per week during the summer and about once every other week during the winter.

You can always become a "follower", too, by clicking the follow link on the upper left.

Mount Everest The British Story said...

Just found your blog and wanted to say its great, well done!

When you guys get the spare time why not check out my website at http://www.everest1953.co.uk and feel welcome to add it to your Climbing Links, Thanks!

Suzanne said...

I like your blog and the index one for climbing, I want to climb at red rocks at some point so am now following that blog ;)

You are quite right, Edinburgh in Scotland rules, but so does Loch Lomond :)

I love the Edinburgh accent.