Wednesday, October 21, 2009

My goodness, McGinnis!

I feel like I'm getting away with something I shouldn't be.

I blame this mountain, Mount McGinnis, which I first scaled on Aug. 20 as something entertaining and symbolic to do on my 30th birthday. Sure, there were mountains before McGinnis, but I feel like that one trip sparked the embers of what has become a full-flame fall trekking frenzy. I keep pinching myself, waiting for the weather to close in for good. But I also keep monitoring weather reports, wind data and the local radar with my own brand of analysis, and now there's a science to my madness.

Or pseudo-science, if you will. Take today: It was Tuesday, which has historically (since Aug. 20) been a good day for sunshine. Weather reports called for a 40 percent chance of rain. Less than half! Radar was noncommittal - therefore, non-damning. And it was Oct. 20, two months since the trekking frenzy began. Nice round anniversaries are good omens. Based on that data, I knew this: There was an 82.4 percent chance that it would be a good day on Mount McGinnis. I came home from work at 12:15 and set the alarm for 6:30.

Which, at this late date, is before sunrise. Icy fog clung to my eyelashes as I moved through the thick morning. The beam of my headlamp collided with a wall of water vapor and streamed out sideways. The light was nearly useless so I switched it off and broke out into a blind jog.

I rose out of the fog and into the monotone shade of overcast skies. I was not discouraged. I had faith in the sun. The trail steepened and I slowed to a walk, picking my way across a minefield of stream crossings and wet rocks. At about 1,900 feet I hit the ice - a slick layer of frozen rain cascading like a ribbon over the entire rocky route.

My progress slowed to less than a crawl. I veered into the brush, where the slope was covered in its own crazy-slick, frosted rotten groundcover, but at least there were branches to cling to. Every once in a while, I pulled out my ice ax and chipped away at the ice layer, hoping to expose a rock foothold beneath. I wasn't so much annoyed by the effort or how treacherous it was - I just wanted to pick up the pace. Fourteen miles plus 4,228 feet of climbing before my early afternoon meeting meant I was going to have to start moving a lot faster than a half mile per hour.

But I held on to my patience, slowly chipping away at the icy rock face until I finally reached snowline. I turned the ax around and started using it for its intended purpose - as an extra point of contact in the snow. The fresh-fallen, single layer of wet powder was so malleable that I didn't even need the ax, but it's fun to play with a new toy. I just bought the thing Thursday, after weeks of ignoring necessity, and I was amazed how dramatically it improved my confidence while I stomped up the steep slope.

In almost perfect line with my predictions, the sun poked out of the clouds right as I was relaxing into my snow stride, and quickly the sky opened to a dramatic cerulean blue. With its shimmering colors and sharp contrasts, the landscape was so mesmerizing that I forgot all about my tight schedule and stopped frequently to wipe the sweat from my eyes and stare off into a far-reaching horizon. It was a beautiful day.

It was just after 10 a.m. when I crested the false summit, about 500 or so feet below the real summit. It would have been a fairly simple jaunt to the top, but I just couldn't swing it. I budgeted six hours for the hike, three each way, based on how long it took me to reach the summit in August and the fact that it always takes me just as long to descend a mountain as it does to ascend it. Three hours came and went and even though I jogged most of the West Glacier Trail (last time I biked half of it). The glare ice slowed me enough that I was at least a half hour below the peak at crunch time. Late for work is one thing; an hour late for work is quite another.

It's all good. I am pretty much over peak-bagging now. There is so much more to a mountain than the top - like fingers of snow reaching across the talus, pointing the way to a whole new perspective.

I look at them differently, every time.