Saturday, October 03, 2009

Into October

OK, I've already done the post where I talk about how amazing and un-fall-like the weather has been. And I've already done the post where I talk about how much I love walking around areas that are a little higher than the place where I live. And I've done the post where I publish an obnoxious number of pictures with cursory captions to justify their exsistence. I've done them all, a lot. And here I go again. Be annoyed if you want to. This is my blog.

Today I set out to slay some peaks. How many, I didn't know. I was feeling ambitious, but I knew I was heading into snow, and the possibility of a large chunk of terrain that was unknown, and I was alone. So I expected, even early in the day, that restraint would trump ambition.

I headed up the Mount Roberts trail, later in the day than I really should have. I had this crazy idea about looping around the Clark Ridge and connecting up with Granite Creek Basin. If it was early still, I even had grand illusions about hitting up Mount Olds. The whole thing would have involved six peaks and more than 10,000 feet of climbing. I didn't even begin to anticipate how much the new snow would bog me down while subsequently freaking me out. In hindsight, my original goal seems ridiculous.

But that didn't even seem to matter while it was beautiful and bright and I had all day to bask in the sun.

Gastineau Peak. 12:11 p.m. Elevation 3,666 feet.

Here's the part where I have to admit that I still don't own an ice ax and crampons. I didn't anticipate needing them - it was only 1-6 inches of soft snow, with a few deep drifts in spots. The gear wouldn't even have completely helped with the obstacles I met later, but they would have been nice to have, for sure.

Mount Roberts. 12:42 p.m. Elevation: 3,819 feet.

The stress started when I made my attempt on Sheep Mountain. I've only been up here once before. I'd forgotten how steep and exposed it can be in places. Much of the route up would be class 3 or 4 scrambling when dry, and today the rocks were covered in all manner of rotten rime, wet glare ice and crusty snow.

I didn't take any big chances, alone as I was, but I did spend more than an an hour working my way up to an unmanageable spot, inching back down, and then wandering around the perimeter of the face looking for the "easy" way up. I wasn't stoked on heading back the way I came, and still had the grand illusion of making it all the way around the loop, which wasn't possible if I couldn't summit Sheep.

I was less than 100 feet from the top when I was inching my way along a not technical but exposed spot and made the mistake of looking down. It dawned on me that if I slipped, at all, I was going to plunge 15 feet and break my legs or worse. The thought hit me like a brick, and I froze with the kind of focused fear that is aboslutely debilitating. I was paralyzed. I clung to the rocks for a few mintues, head spinning, eyesight dark, before I finally relaxed enough to slowly back off the ledge and regain my senses. All that time, I had good footing and a four inches of soft snow to hold me in place, but the fear of falling was amazingly acute. I didn't want to go through any more of that, so I made the decision right there to go back the way I came. But as I started working my way down, I spoted a fairly straightforward, deeply drifted ramp to the peak.

Sheep Mountain. 2:56 p.m. Elevation: 4,065 feet. I dropped the camera in the snow, so there's water all over the lens.

I'm bummed I didn't make the Clarks Loop this year, but it wasn't meant to be. Even with the right equipment and a partner, it still probably wouldn't have been a good idea. As soon as the sun started to sink enough that parts of the mountain fell into shadow, the wet snow froze solid almost immediately. I was lucky to have my own deep tracks to follow.

As always, I learned a lot. I'll be better prepared next time, or at least more cautious.

The day slipped away just the same. I was back at the tram just before sunset. It's closed for the season, which was disappointing. I was exhausted from stress and a day full of stomping through the snow. I could have really used a ride down.

Three summits. About 14 miles round trip. Total elevation gain according to GPS: 7,062 feet. Total time: 7.5 hours.