Monday, November 26, 2012

Humbling mountain

Above 9,000 feet the powder became bottomless, a kind of fluffed sugar that scattered under our feet. I might as well have been driving a ruler into a bin of plastic balls for all the good my ax was doing, and every step only deepened the waist-deep trench that Beat and my dad had already cut. We were moving forward at a rate of about four feet per minute, which, to put into perspective, is a 22-hour mile. And still, the upward lunging and swimming was as anaerobic as I ever go, where every minute of gasping motion required another thirty seconds of rest. Beat and Dad had already expressed their skepticism about this exercise in futility, but I persisted, pointing up to the crest of the small ridge we were climbing and saying, "But we're almost there, and then we can at least see what's up there!"

We thought Mount Timpanogos would be an ideal place to stage a longer day hike on Saturday. About three weeks ago, a huge storm hit the Wasatch Front, and nothing has happened since. This single layer of snow on top of dirt means avalanche danger is about as low as it gets during the winter months, and we were hopeful that the warm temperatures since had reduced the snowpack to a manageable level. Plus, the southern approach to Timp is the most traveled trail in the Wasatch, something of a hiker highway during the summer months, and we wagered that there might even be a packed trail all the way to the upper meadow. If the conditions didn't pan out, we reasoned, we could turn around. My dad isn't stoked on suffering and we weren't looking to get into anything "epic."

The hike started out fairly benign. We took pictures of waterfalls.

We marveled at sun halos.

We worked up a sweat.

As we climbed, the trail became less defined, until we were following a set of knee-deep tracks across the steep face of the mountain. Above us was a veritable layer cake of cliff bands glazed with ice. I couldn't discern any rational path through the vertical maze, not for hikers at least. The summer switchbacks had been smothered by feet of snow, and unless the tracks we were following went all the way to the rim, we'd have to pick out the safest route on our own.

We held to the tracks until we reached a frozen waterfall between two cliff bands. The middle ledge was only a few feet wide in spots, off-camber at about a 45-degree angle, and precariously perched above a twenty-foot sheer drop that plunged into a steep gully. One ice climber who was preparing to scale the waterfall informed us that there was about an inch of loose powder on top of glare ice where he stood. We weren't even wearing crampons, and skittering across that section in dull microspikes seemed like a death wish to me. The climber pointed to a tree-lined ridge where the summer trail went through, and suggested we might find an easier route to that ridge if we descended a few hundred feet.

The downclimb became our first little mountaineering challenge, because our upward zeal had taken us up a slope steep enough that we had to descend backward using axes as anchors. I've never had a climber's mindset, and instead of hyper-focus, I often become strangely distracted on exposed terrain. It's as though my endurance-trained brain uses similar escapist tricks to numb the discomfort when I encounter scary exposure, which, although soothing during a long run, is not what I want to have happen while staring through my legs down a seemingly vertical ladder of snow and ice. Still, winter climbing techniques are something I would definitely work on if I had more opportunities, as I do love the buzz of having conquered a difficult problem once I reach the bottom (which is where I was when I took this photo. As you can see, there's still some lesser downclimbing to be done.)

The true slog began as we sought a less-steep, less-exposed route to the rim, which we weren't even sure existed. It was clear my dad had pretty much stopped having fun the minute we pulled out the axes, but he continued to be a good sport about my sometimes overzealous desire to continue up the mountain. I didn't want to torture my dad, and I honestly didn't even care if we made it to the rim. But Mount Timpanogos had suddenly presented us with this intriguing problem, this beautiful puzzle, and I was aching to see whether we could solve it. It didn't help my dad's cause when our route became increasingly more physically demanding, until we were expending vast amounts of energy for a 1,320-minute-mile pace. There are few activities I love more than a good, ridiculous slog.

There's also a sense of realness to winter travel, a truth that I don't find to the same extent in my summer adventures. The ease and predictability of dirt, the soothing prettiness of flowers and leaves, the comfort of warm temperatures — these are all things I cherish. And yet, when winter strips these things away, leaving behind a much starker, less complacent reality, I feel like I'm seeing a new face of the mountain — perhaps the true face. Mount Timpanogos is a breezy (if long) walk-up in the summer. Now that I've seen it in the winter, I know this mountain for what it is — steep, harsh, and guarded by a fortress of cliffs.

A couple of gullies we hoped would provide access to the rim turned out to have short vertical sections that required mixed rock and ice climbing. We found one potentially climbable snow ramp that would simply take us to a ledge below another set of cliff bands, where we'd have to renew the search for walkable gullies. But by then we were well aware of how loose and bottomless the gully snow was. Even though avalanche danger was minimal, I couldn't help but imagine one of us losing purchase and tumbling down on top of the others, an avalanche of bodies. We called it good and turned back without regret. I was satisfied because at least we tried without taking unnecessary risks for our respective experience levels, and my dad was satisfied that maybe he wouldn't have to stage an intervention for his daughter who apparently goes manic over waist-deep snow slogs.

"I've never worked so hard to climb Timp," my dad observed as we made our way back to the valley, which I found to be true myself even though we weren't anywhere near the peak. In all, we were moving for seven hours, "walked" about eight or nine miles, and climbed perhaps 3,500 or 4,000 vertical feet in total over our wanderings. My quads were thrashed, my calves ached, my shoulders were sore, my hands were numb and head was swimming through a beautiful fatigue more appropriate to a very long run than an eight-mile hike.

Three hundred yards from the car, we had our first mishap — my dad took his microspikes off, slipped on ice, and wrenched his knee badly. He was okay, but it added a punctuation point to our day's lesson from the mountain — sometimes the best adventures are unintentionally epic, small in scale, and huge in humbling life experience. I appreciate being reminded how tiny I am, from time to time.