Sunday, October 11, 2009

Mount Olds

I seem to wake up these days with single-minded purpose. The cell-phone alarm rings out. I groan and nuzzle deeper into my down comforter. My cat wanders over and plops down my my chest. I exhale involuntarily, grab her, and sit up, blinking vacantly toward the window until I remember my name, my location, the year, and finally, the fact that the weather is supposed to be good today!

I carry my cat over to the door and throw it open. Outside, a thick blanket of fog hovers over Auke Bay, shrouding everything beyond the driveway. "What do you think, Cady?" I ask my cat. (Oh, yes, I talk to my cat, because she is the vocal type who always answers back.) "Do you think it'll clear up?"

"Meow."

"Yeah, I don't know either. But it is Sunday, so I don't have to go into work until later. I have five hours, maybe six. But what to do?"

"Meow."

"Maybe, Cady. You think I should go for it?"

The final indifferent glare from my cat as she struggles to free herself and dart outside is my answer. I dress quickly, grab my pre-packed Camelbak - pretty much just hoping there's enough water and food left after Friday's Camping Cove cabin trip - and go.

I used my newly remodeled Road Monkey to shuttle myself up the Perseverance Trail, stashed the skinny-tire bike and started up Granite Creek with a single-minded focus on Mount Olds. The fog was lifting quickly, but the peak was still shrouded in clouds. But Granite Creek Basin, always a smorgasbord of color, did not disappoint. Streaks of crimson and gold swept over the basin like brush strokes.

I crested the upper basin and started scaling a rocky drainage the became progressively steeper until I was climbing with my hands more than my legs, finding plenty of good holds but willing my head not to turn around and look down. I gained the ridge, vowing NOT to return on that same route, and yet I was a little uncertain how exactly I would get down (I knew Olds had been summitted before, by lots of people, so I figured there was a way it could be done without down-climbing a virtual cliff.) Still, I had a little bit of that anxiety that hits me when I realize my skills don't exactly live up to my alpine dreams.

That anxiety swirled around as I made my way up the face of Olds. The week-old snow had melted and refrozen and melted and refrozen to a solid sheen. The final 100 feet of the mountain looked steep - as steep as the drainage I had just climbed up - and was glazed in the same icy snow that was barely making an imprint below my feet. I stood on that final saddle, just a couple hundred feet from the summit, with a frown stretched across my face. I remembered how much I struggled on Sheep Mountain last week, and the scrambling up Olds looked even worse. I still have yet to obtain a pair of crampons (not for lack of trying. I really need to figure out when Foggy Mountain is open.) But I was weaponless, facing a ladder of rock and ice with bare fingers and rubber-soled hiking boots.

I knew before I set out this morning that snow conditions might turn me around, but it wasn't easy to let that happen when I was so close to the top. Summit fever gripped me and I paced back and forth, dropping a few dozen feet and then returning, double-back-tracking and stewing, squinting at the mountain and wondering if it was really so bad or if I was just being a chicken. A fierce wind drove up from the valley and cold-slapped some reality into me.

"It's OK," I told myself. "I'm a lover, not a fighter. I don't need to slay this peak."

I admit mountaineer aspirations have slipped into my dreams, but such things take practice and also take time, and not taking chances until I have more of both is probably wise.

I down-climbed a narrow notch filled with loose shale and found my way back to the ridge. I figured at worst, I would have to climb the next peak and regain the regular Juneau Ridge route on the other side. I found a less-steep drainage into the basin and started down, only to discover it confluenced with a waterfall halfway down. Undeterred, I worked my way down the wet rocks, soaking up large quantities of frigid water through my clothing as a below-freezing windchill whipped by. The scrambling was never too sketchy, but now I'm really curious where the "normal" route up Olds is. In hindsight, I probably should have just stayed on the Juneau Ridge and looped back down.

As always, I learned a lot. These solo mountain adventures have been great at forcing me outside my comfort zone, learning to breathe and trust and love in the grip of the indifferent unknown.