Friday, October 30, 2009

Venture into the new season

It's been a good weekend. What I expected was rain and lots of time spent indoors catching up on chores; what I got was pretty much everything but.

I was in the middle of doing my laundry Thursday afternoon when I first noticed sparkles of sunlight breaking through the clouds. I stopped the dryer and figured I'd just air-dry the load on hangers, later, and hauled Pugsley out of the back seat of my car.

I took a quiet two-hour ride around all the trails of the Valley, rolling and fun with no real destination. A light freeze set in and the trails firmed up nicely.

And, of course, riding the big wheels on the beach is always a good time.

It was a great little breather between shopping and cleaning and laundry and going to see that new Michael Jackson movie. Like a whiff of the sublime amid the mundane.

I lingered for a while on the shore of the Mendenhall Lake to watch the sunset. I see so few of these.

For as serene as Thursday was, today was the polar opposite. I've been wanting to get out and play with my new mountaineering toys, but the weather, which has been seriously wet, just hasn't been cooperating. Today was overcast and windy but at least dry. I've been interested in tackling some winter mountain treks but I realize I need to start small. I decided to head up the Mount Roberts route, which is easy to follow and has a more mellow grade than most of the routes around here. It also happens to be in the windiest area in this entire region. Roberts and its adjacent ridges act as a funnel for Arctic blasts from the Interior. It was probably not the best place to go when the weather forecast was calling for northeast wind, but I figured retreat would be easy and fast. As I approached the mountain, I observed a startling lack of snow compared to the mountains surrounding the Mendenhall Valley.

By the time I cleared treeline, I fully understood why there was no snow ... it had all blown away. I worked my way toward Gold Ridge, sometimes swimming through waist-deep unconsolidated snow drifts; other times walking on barren rock. Crampons would have been useless in that powdered sugar, so I didn't bother to put them on, but toward the top a breakable crust was starting to form. The wind howled and I pulled on all of my layers, which included too much rain gear and not enough warm stuff. But I was warm enough, and there wasn't nearly enough snow to create any kind of avalanche danger, so I relaxed and let myself believe I was having fun.

When I crested the ridge, however, the entire force of the wind funnel broke open right where I stood. I dropped to my knees and clutched my ice ax as the jet stream roared past. Sharp ice blasted my face like thousands of tiny shards of glass. My eyelids clamped shut and refused to open again. As much as I tried, I could not physically open my eyes, as though some subconscious part of my brain that controls muscle movements believed that would be the last thing they would ever see. As it was, the ice shards were scraping the small strip of exposed skin on my forehead with such force that I felt like I was bleeding. Finally, the gust calmed down from what was likely near 80 mph to a more manageable 50 mph, and I was able to open my eyes and stagger to a more protected slope and hunker down with my back to the wind. As I looked back toward my route up, I realized the footprints I had just laid in the knee-deep snow were completely gone; scoured clean by the wind in a matter of seconds.

It was so brilliantly intense that I was gleeful. I tried to pull my hood over my hat but it just flapped around wildly like it was going to tear right off my flimsy little raincoat. My fingers ached from the short period of time in which I took off my mittens to snap some photos, and I wondered about the windchill. Minus 10? Minus 20? There's something about finding myself in an environment that extreme that I just love. Something that makes my whole life seem so small and inconsequential, but at the same time makes my body feel so alive. To be alive is a wonderful feeling.

Of course, I would probably feel differently about it if I had to spend several hours up there rather than the 10 or so minutes that I actually did. I retreated quickly as the lower-elevation wind picked up force. By the time I took this photo, my camera was almost completely coated in ice. I ran down the powder snow and ducked into the safety of the trees. My eyes and face burned, my fingers ached as though they had been smashed and my toes were starting to go numb, but I was happy, because I had faced the blinding winter wilderness, and it allowed me to see so much.