Friday, November 20, 2009

Mountaineering 101

My friend Bjorn is teaching me how to climb snow-bound mountains. It is not an enviable task. First, you take this rank beginner person whose natural inclination toward vertigo has led her to avoid climbing all of her adult life, then drag her up to a cold and barren environment that is completely unforgiving of any error. I certainly don't try to hang out with people who may turn out to be liabilities, and yet Bjorn was the one who called late last night and asked if I wanted to accompany him on a November trip up Mount McGinnis.

We both brought snowshoes but never took them off our backs. The snow was weird and unconsolidated, meaning I was slipping on frozen grass even as I stood in knee-deep fluff. We picked our way up a thickly wooded area between two large avalanche gullies, using tree branches as pull-up bars to lift ourselves over chin-high bluffs and grabbing at thin blueberry twigs when the footing gave out underneath us, which happened frequently. It was surprisingly strenuous, more new stuff that I'm not quite in shape for, and a couple of times I had to concentrate hard to direct all of my power to my quads just to thrust my body over another waist-high step. Feel the burn.

We broke out of treeline and entered a very steep, icy slope. It was the kind of snow slope that as recently as three months ago would send fleeing downhill for fear of slipping, and this was during the soft, slushy summer months. Now these slopes were covered in a hard crust, so much so that Bjorn had to use his ax to carve out steps so we could climb. I waited patiently behind, watching low-level clouds move in fast from the south, quickly losing heat because I was not working very hard. I started shivering but I didn't want to take off my pack and pull out more layers, for fear of throwing off my balance. We reached a wind-scoured saddle, with exposed rock and grass and a lot of solid ice, and decided it was time to put on the crampons. My first time in crampons. I never actually took the time to practice putting them on before, so I played with the straps and fiddled with the adjustments while my fingers quickly went numb in the strengthening wind.

The storm moved in as I sat there. Temperatures and visibility both plummeted, and streams of snow hit us sideways. I was worried about descending our ice steps in low to zero-visibility, and Bjorn agreed that it would be pretty sketchy, so we decided to turn around shy of the summit. I didn't feel sad about that. After all — it's just McGinnis. I didn't feel all that afraid about descending, either. Bjorn gave me a tutorial about walking in crampons, and how I needed to take extra care not to cross them and spur a big fall. Then we saw ptarmigan fluttering around the ridge. Bjorn wanted to get pictures, and I decided to take a few admittedly bad ones with my point-and-shoot. As numb as my hands had gotten putting on my crampons, as a cold as it had become and as low as my core temperature was getting, this was a stupid idea. I lost all feeling in my right thumb. I've done this enough to know the difference between numb and partially frozen. I put my mittens back on and braced for the downclimb.

McGinnis in all of its wind-scoured glory. We slowly and methodically worked our way down. Despite the security of the crampons, I did much of it backwards, tracing my way down the snow steps. It felt just like climbing down a ladder, and was somewhat disorienting in the way ladders can be when you spend all of your time looking for the next step rather than observing the terrain around you. Just as I was doing this, my thumb starting to come back to life. I had mixed feelings about this. On one hand, I was happy because I knew the thaw meant my thumb was still very much alive. On the other hand, thawing body parts is remarkably painful. It's like having someone hold a hot iron to a crucial appendage while you're trying to concentrate on something difficult and scary. My thought process for the next 10 or so minutes went something like this: "OK, feet apart ... GAAAAAA thumb! ... pant, pant .... Ok, step slow .... UGGGGGH ... feet apart ... thumb, thumb, thumb, stop, hurting, please ... OK, down .... GAAAAAAA!"

It finally dissipated just as we were getting back down into the subalpine. My thumb is a little sore and shiny red now, but for the most part it's fine. It was a little refresher course on the perils of too much skin exposure when I'm already shivering. And I learned a little about the wonders of crampons. Many valuable lessons were learned today. Thanks, Bjorn.


  1. Awesome post as usual. I've never had frostbite, but the one year that I rode through the winter I had a little extra weight on my bones to keep me warm. I gain weight every winter, so hopefully I'll be doing some winter biking again. You Rock, keep going girl.

  2. Hi, I have a question,

    Is this the quasi end of your biking? Are you still "cyclist Jill"?

  3. Wondering the same as Sara...

    just asking.


  4. It's a wonderful experience to expand ones experiences. Especially with so many mountains so close at hand. I miss my climbing days.

  5. I don't think a person has to ride a bicycle every single day to call themselves a cyclist. But, yeah, I do anticipate it being less of a focus this winter. Bicycles, even Pugsley, are fairly limited in their applications, and there are just so many winter opportunities around here. I'm more excited to go new places and learn knew things. I still consider myself a cyclist first and foremost.

  6. We never stop riding, and we most certainly never stop riding :-)

  7. It's really been fun to read your posts when you get off the bike and start climbing up! Thanks! The daily bike grind seems like such a grind at times...being active in all the things you do is still inspiring!

  8. Absolutely crazy.




Feedback is always appreciated!