Friday, January 22, 2010

Baby steps

I had a rather unsuccessful weekend of beginner mountaineering - mainly unsuccessful in that I didn't meet my objectives, didn't really push myself too hard, and don't feel like I learned much of anything. Such is the drawback of being your own teacher. But life circumstances have left me without a viable partner who has similar hours to mine. I was just going to give it up, but I better liked a friend's recommendation to "Slay peaks anyway."

So on Thursday I got a fairly early start (cough, cough, 9 a.m.) on the Grandchild approach. I was hoping to summit the first Grandchild peak. I think her name is Jennifer. I forget who is who. Anyway, in the summer, this hike involves a 1.5 mile approach along Montana Creek followed by a ~4,000-foot climb in about three miles up the ridge. It's strenuous, but it can easily be done in an afternoon. I thought the seven-odd hours of daylight I had would be plenty.

But the weather was not conducive to fast movement. The temperature - at sea level, nearly 40 degrees - was so warm that even on the relatively flat trail along the river, I was in full-on slog mode, slopping through shin-deep snow that had the consistency of wet cement. My heart was pounding, and I hadn't even started climbing yet. As I started to gain elevation, I was sweating so profusely that I stripped down to my short-sleeved T-shirt - in January!

The heat was not doing me any favors. Because it was so warm, the snow remained heavy and soft even at the higher elevations. I had become so accustomed to cold crust that I couldn't believe how hard I was working for what felt like a snail pace. The cement snow caught my snowshoes and threatened to hold me in place with every step. My calves and thighs were burning, so I leaned hard on my trekking poles until my biceps were burning as well. In the distance I could see the Chilkat Mountains. Such a beautiful range. If and when I am ever good enough for this remote and rugged span of mountains, I would love to explore them.

Finally on the summit ridge, the wind-scoured slope became easier to navigate but much more daunting. I took off my snowshoes so I could walk on the frozen tussocks and gravel. The snow to the right is little more than a huge cornice. I don't think I took a very good picture from the bottom, but it overhung by several feet and I was terrified to touch any snow for fear the whole thing would break off.

This is the part where I struggled mightily with what I acknowledge is a fairly straightforward scramble. But the windblown snow wouldn't consolidate under my feet, and once I ran out of gravel to scramble up, I became very nervous about my footing on the loose snow.

Here is the crux point I couldn't surpass. This picture is taken from a ways back, so it doesn't look nearly as daunting as it did standing right underneath it. On the bottom left you can see my footprints where I first got spooked by the unconsolidated layer of snow on a steeper slope and turned around. I did this on several aspects, often backtracking two or three times before I reanalyzed the situation and worked up the courage to continue. (The angle was about 45 degrees. Funny how straight-up that looks when you are standing right on top of it.) Anyway, I finally got over that obstacle only to be shaken up by that next pitch. On the right is crumbling rock that I wouldn't scramble around even if it was completely ice-free. But on the left is that overhanging lip. No way around it but to punch right through. I hemmed and hawed on the prospect for nearly a half hour (it was warm enough that I could stand around.) I don't have the experience to accurately read snow, and all I could imagine was the whole cornice breaking clean off that knife ridge and plummeting to the bowl far below. Whether or not that was a realistic scenario, it's very difficult for me to take risks when I am all alone. I finally psyched myself out. It was 2:30 p.m. already and sunset was in an hour and a half. In defeat, I turned around.

But at least the sunset was nice. I finally stumbled out at 6 p.m., after nine hours on the Grandchild, completely spent. A similar hike during the summer would take me four hours, tops, at about half the level of effort. I'm beginning to appreciate more and more just how many challenges winter can dole out.

Today I decided to do something "easy" like Gastineau Peak. However, I don't have Internet access at home and neglected to check the weather before I left. Turns out it was a windy day. Northeasterly winds. And on days like that, there's pretty much no worse place to be in Juneau than the Roberts ridge.

It was crazy windy. I think it was blowing steady at 50 mph and gusting to 75 mph. I bundled up every square inch of skin so the windchill didn't bother me, but I had a difficult time staying on my feet. A gust would kick up, and I'd drop to my knees and plant my ice ax. The whole time, I scolded myself for being overly cautious. "Real mountaineers deal with wind so much worse, on actual steep and exposed terrain," I thought. But the lecture rang hollow when I could stand up and lean into the wind at a 45-degree angle without falling over. Snow pummeled my coat and if I turned to face it, even through my balaclava, I could feel the blast of ice shrapnel.

I kept at it for about an hour, until I was sufficiently mentally worn down, and those little voices that say "what the hell are you doing?" started to win out. Someday, I'm going to figure this out. But I suspect that I may not be able to do it on my own.