Archive for October, 2010

Something New, Be Safe, Have Fun: Mt. Muir 10-16-10

Posted in Day Hiking on October 19, 2010 by moosetracksca

The sun was whispering its early pink glow above the Inyos as we crept up the wall above Outpost Camp. Betsy’s breathing was steady and even, and I kept stride right behind her as we glanced at the 4mile marker painted in blue on the side of the trail. “I hate to break it to you, Bets,” I said, “but I think the sun might just come up again today.” Stepping up onto the outcropping where the trees faded away, we were treated to a second sunrise as the sun, indeed, rose from behind the low clouds across the Valley, sparking the Crest into full flame behind the east face of Wotan’s Throne, fingers of light brushing the tops of Pinnacle Ridge and the south face of Thor. The air was calm and slightly chilled, small cloud puffs raced high overhead, giving both of us pause and a knowing look to the heights as we both remembered a similar fall day two years ago that ended at Trail Crest with snow flying. At Trailside Meadow, we tossed our packs onto the flat (and dangerous for being lulled into napping!) boulders near the stream, pulling out snacks and smiling in the timid morning light as it reflected off the trickling waters. Jack danced his way up the trail not far behind us, and then Rick Graham appeared as well, breaking in his new mountaineering boots for a soon-to-happen trip to Mexico. I had to laugh at Rick, tripping over his toes every few steps, warning him that, sooner rather than later, he’d be wearing a full pack and spending the night out like the rest of us backpacking crazies…

Betsy and I let the boys run ahead, as we cut up and over the slabs to enter Trail Camp, catching Rick as he donned a warmer hat and gloves. A flock of ptarmigan fluttered in from the south somewhere, at once startling and then confusing us as to what they were. “I guarantee you they’re not grouse,” I grumbled, wondering how they might taste for dinner. At least ten birds, still in fall colors, strutted around the camp and watched us head into the switchback portion of the climb. Betsy’s pace was flawless: steady, strong, taking a short break here and there as she needed since she hadn’t been to altitude for a few months. Wisps of clouds were being brushed across dark blue autumn skies, the southern sun’s rays emphasizing the redness of the granite on the Crest. A thin sheet of snow blanketed the face, dry polemonium lined the trail’s edge, straw against the white. At the cables, the snow had been trampled and compressed to a solid path, making for easy walking, but Betsy was more comfortable donning her microspikes for added grip. Someone had written “80” in the crusted snow, “except, that’s not the 80th switchback!” proclaimed Betsy. I quickly grabbed my pole and scribbled, “You’re lying!” beneath the error. A few minutes later, we stopped in a nook just shy of Trail Crest and out of the wind to have another snack and talk about what was to come.

Turning the corner, we were treated to a fantastically clear view into the heart of the Sierra, the Hitchcock Lakes calm and reflective below; the Kaweahs a jagged red-brown mass to the west; the heights of Mineral King rising like a choppy, windswept lake to the southwest; the Great Western Divide acting as the cloud-gatherer to the northwest. I stole a few moments to gaze deep in at Table Mountain, pointing it out to Betsy, and shook my head once again at the temporary insanity that led me to join in the day hike a month ago. The snow on the trail thinned as we reached the junction with the JMT and started up the switchers to the crest traverse, stopping after a 1/4 mile at the base of the climb to Muir. The loose scree and talus perched precariously above the trail as we stashed our packs, and I pulled out a JIC rope (35m of 8.2mm) and a small rack of slings and ‘biners to build a basic anchor if needed. After slogging up to the base of the rock, I showed Bets a few different options to start up, and she jumped right in. A few moments spent on hand and foot holds, and up she came, her smile growing bigger and broader as we gained the final few feet to the summit.

A slight breeze puffed Betsy’s hair as she pulled out her radio to call Jack and alert him to her success, and to get a “careful on the way back down” from him. We both smiled, knowing there were a few tricky spots, especially with a few grains of snow thrown into the mix. I scrambled down first, blocking Bets as she reached for the first step off the summit block. I tried to avoid the snow as the tricky hand traverse just below the block, and at once I found myself getting nervous for Betsy. I knew how to place my feet surely, but I didn’t know how sticky her boots were, I couldn’t brush all the snow off, and I had no solid place to provide a spot if she were to slip. In short, I went through the old emotions for her that I would, and occasionally still do, hold for myself. I could see she was a little nervous as well, and it didn’t help that I had spotted Jack waiting at the base of the slope pointing his camera up towards us both. Despite my own drama, Betsy was able to safely swing around, and we high-fived at getting one of the trickier spots out of the way.

The rest of the downclimb was smooth and fun, Betsy even willing to pause on the main hand-traverse for pictures, her grin spreading wide. We never used the rope or gear, and Betsy showed excellent composure and an excited willingness to learn. As we descended the clouds billowed in from the west, a sheet of snow sweeping down towards the rock but not quite reaching. Downy flakes floated around us all as we walked the trail back and forth across the face, the light dancing across the Crest and through the basin behind Trail Camp and Wotan’s Throne. Betsy was out front, a lightness to her step; Jack and Rick behind, chatting quietly; I assumed a place in the middle of the pack of four, looking around at such a familiar place, watching it transform. I touched the rocks and ice as we passed the cables, felt the chill under a thinly gloved hand, a small smile of knowing on my face. There was an ache in my legs, and knees, and feet, but it was better than a few weeks ago heading up Convict Canyon, a sign of recovery.

I had been away from so many friends this year, working hard to prepare for my own goals. Coming back to the Zone is rejuvenating for me, someplace that is comfortable and comforting. I feel, although I have so much left to explore, so much to do, that I know this place, and it knows me. When Bets asked me to accompany her, to reach her own goal, I was thrilled to come along. My reservations on returning to the Zone are my own, but each time I do come back, I leave feeling so much stronger, so much more confident. And to see that in Betsy as well, striding down that trail with purpose and conviction, as well as a notion to reach the Store in time for a celebratory burger, was a wonderful gift.

Happy, happy, happy birthday, Bets. Thanks so much for an incredible day.

From the luckiest girl in the world: Climb Hard, Be Safe.

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The Trouble with Tourons: Yosemite Valley, 10/9-10/10

Posted in Day Hiking, Random Thoughts on October 14, 2010 by moosetracksca

I recognized how spoiled I am, living in the quiet of the Eastern Sierra, hiking and climbing in mostly solitude among the heights. I was, I thought, prepared for the barrage of humanity that comes with visiting one of the most over-adored spots in the entire country. My family has been camping over the Columbus Day weekend in the Valley for as long as I can remember, and, after a year of training and getting ready for the Challenge, I was excited to spend some quality time with my parents. Sitting, as well, does not come naturally to me, but I looked forward to the opportunity to quiet my mind and start thinking of where I would like to go and what I would like to do in the year (and years) to come.

And so, on Saturday morning in the dark, I loaded the TOF with a few simple things and jammed my foot on the accelerator as I turned her north, the dark outlines of the Crest in silent slumber as I guzzled a mug of fresh, warm coffee. Being out a lot, and having been awake for so many sunrises, you can count the stars as they fade into the grey shades of early morning, the first signs that the sun is threatening to, once again, mantle the horizon. In the weak and growing light, I could make out the fresh snow on the ridges below Mt. Dana, the white finally reaching the road around Ellery Lake. It’s always such a melancholy feel to see all the campgrounds closed for the season, the Tioga Pass Resort boarded shut, the thin sheen of ice growing on the surface of the lakes at the Pass. By the time I reached Olmsted Point, having passed on the yellowed expanse of Tuolumne Meadows, the gentle pink of dawn was hovering above the crowns of Clouds Rest and Half Dome. I strode down from the parking lot, the only car there, and out onto the slabs of the Point at various angles to try and capture the slow growth of the new day against the polish and boulders around me, a slight breeze keeping me from getting to comfortable as I sat under one of the pines perched in the cracks. I could hear a small trickling stream diving beneath me, the summit ridge of Clouds Rest tantalizingly close. I thought back to the summer day and hiking down Tenaya Canyon with my friends, swimming in every freezing water hole, jumping hand in hand with Amy into one as the guys watched and laughed with us. After the first light finally edged onto Half Dome, I scurried back up to the warmth of the TOF, only then noticing a few more people on the slabs just above the parking with their tripods and lenses.

The trees whizzed by as I ducked and wove along the dry road down and across the hills, a few deer scurrying into the forest but never crossing in front. I pulled into the empty lot at the Tuolumne Grove, relishing the last few minutes of alone time that I knew would be mine for the rest of the weekend. The sign on the road/trail offered a few laughs, warning of the “moderately strenuous” nature of the road down which I was about to walk. Sorry, I just can’t see 400 vertical feet over a mile as remotely steep or strenuous anymore. Different perceptions drawn from the endless hours of plodding up, down, and around my high mountains. With a sardonic grin, I set off down the pavement, enjoying the first rays of sun stretching through the trees above, smelling the soil damp from the night’s dew and recent rain, the emerald brightness of dogwood and mosses hugging the dark brown decaying trunks. The only noises were my footsteps as I half-walked, half-jogged the slope as it wound to the grove below.

I was shocked at how small the grove was, maybe a dozen trees, none of any advanced age, their high “branches” thick and bent, rising to the sky. Fences protected them all, allowing their shallow root systems to continue to absorb the moisture and allow moderate stability. Along a small offshoot trail, the skeletal remains of one such giant reaches silently, its base carved out to create a tunnel for the amusement of men. Fire scars blackened the inner walls of the remaining bark, the edges of the trunk worn smooth from so many visitors petting and sitting on the soft cover. I wandered about for a bit, looking for light play and listening for others, either animal or human, before starting back up the road back to the TOF. Other visitors started trickling into the grove by then, paper coffee cups in hand as they wondered out loud if they were headed in the right direction, a few teenagers looking bored as they were dragged around the park by their parents. It was odd, but no one was making eye contact. No one wanted to say good morning as I strode back up the hill. No one was even smiling. I got a distinct feeling, a chill, almost, that this was a chore, not something they really wanted to do.

The rest of the weekend just got more and more crowded. I was able to escape a bit by heading away from Bridalveil Falls, into the meadow across from Yosemite Falls. A few cool angles on the cliffs, light pouring through the trees, and air broken by the rush of cars rushing… around the Valley floor. People in a hurry to get somewhere first and fast and peering up as the rock and meadows and forest flew by. I could feel myself want to slow down, almost in an antagonistic sense to the bustle around me, but the bubble around me was penetrated too easily by the noise that reminded me of my apartment in west LA. I arrived at the campsite about an hour ahead of my parents, and sat quietly for a few minutes while I munched on a sammie and downed a few cold brews. As I looked around me, though, my eye started to catch a twinkle here, a sparkle there along the forest floor: the site was covered in litter and garbage from who knows how long. Bottle caps, cigarette butts, tent stakes, twist ties, and the most common pieces: the plastic wrappers from juice box straws. I spent at least 30 minutes bent over and scraping the site as clean as possible before my parents’ arrival, finally sitting down next to the fire pit with my paperwork for a few minutes before they arrived.

I really, really was hoping the transgressions would stop there, that I would be able to just spend some time with my folks and quietly sit and enjoy the grand cathedral that is the Valley. Then the two guys walked by, each on one end of the log as they carried it from the area by the stream and back to their campsite. Really? Really? If mom hadn’t been so mortified at the thought of my approaching the cidiots I would have said something, something about how apparently the rules didn’t apply to them and how do I get on that list? Argh. Scarily, this same scene repeated itself at least once more, this time with two climbers wandering through the campground loaded down with wood scraps and branches. Freakin’ IDIOTS…

So, here I was, sitting around the campfire with my parents, glass of wine to their martini and scotch, laughing and catching up on the insane year, hearing all the news and tales from back home in the Bay. It seemed so incredibly far away from what has become my mountain home. We ate and drank and laughed, I made breakfast and coffee for them to wake up to Sunday morning. I pointed out climbers on the cliffs above, only part of me longing to be up there at that moment. I wish I could get them to really understand the amazing sense I get from being up high in so many different ways. But they were happy to just walk with me in the sun across the Valley floor.

On the drive in and the drive out was were I got my quiet time for the entire weekend. As the road tumbled and turned through the high country, I flashed on plans for next year, when the snow and ice thaw and rock stands warm and true. What are they going to be? I have a list at home.

Stay tuned…

There’s Magic in the Rain: Convict Canyon 10-3-10

Posted in Day Hiking on October 6, 2010 by moosetracksca

Drops pattered against the windshield as we pulled into the parking lot, the crescent moon bright above the breaks in the clouds to the north and east, stars visible in the gaps to the west. I had a feeling right then and there that Red Slate was off the agenda for the day, since we wouldn’t be able to tell what the weather was doing to the neve and ice already in the north couloir. But John and I headed out anyway, eyes adjusted to the darkness, the rocks in the trail glowing grey and easy to follow without use of the headlamps. Our packs were laden with boots, ice tools, crampons, helmets, and a small assortment of other gear for building an anchor in case we needed to rest on the snow. But otherwise we were planning on soloing the gorgeous stripe of ice, lying at 40 degrees up the north slope of the mountain.

At first light we had reached the creek crossing, which hadn’t seemed to slow down in volume since my last visit here two months prior. I looked at the rock to which Sean had leapt and somehow landed without slipping and grunted, deeming it completely unfeasible whether I was carrying the big load on my back or not. With John sitting quietly watching the dawn on the far side, I set my left foot in what looked like a solid crimp between two stones. The instant I weighted the foot, however, I was airborne, crashing onto my ass in the water, my left shin banging some unseen edge in an effort to not tumble fully into the stream. For a moment, I sat and slumped in the rush of water, feeling it run down the backs of my legs, almost resigning myself to the totality of wetness and damp I was to feel that day. The trees and sage had already pre-moistened my legs on the hike up, so I just shrugged, rubbed my shin for a minute, then carefully finished the crossing towards John’s smile and a little laughter at my clumsiness. We turned and crossed the remaining stream and picked our way up the rocky trail crossing the moraine to gain the upper reaches of the canyon just as the light crested the Whites.

John and I turned to face the canyon just as the sun crept up the undulating walls of Laurel Mountain, a cloud perched and breathing in the gentle currents rising among the cliffs. As we stood and stared, snapping a few photos, it was hard to turn from the spot and keep going. The light kept shifting, touching face after face, the cloud curling and dancing along the rock. I started giggling: first at the prospect of being where we were and in the weather instead of warm and cozy from inside looking out; then at the light play all over the twisted and crumbling faces around us. It was serene, sublime, and silly all at once. John cocked his head at me, wondering aloud what I was laughing at. And all I could say was that my giggle button had been pushed, the thought of having exposed myself to dark and cold and wet to see such a grand display in person touching just the right buttons inside. While the pack still weighed heavy on my shoulders, and my feet ached from the cold and the wet, there was nothing anyone could do to wipe the smile off my face.

With a few more steps, we crested the headwall to Mildred Lake, and looked directly up to the north face of Red Slate. The couloir reached directly up in front of us, a white stripe against dark stone, and into the cloud deck. The canyon stretched before us, dark yellow against the grey skies, a steady rain falling into the water. Donning our shells, we knew the climb was out for the day, but I hadn’t been above Mildred Lake, so we continued our hoof up the good trail to the shores and around Dorothy Lake, finding a wonderful campsite on the south end. Golden willows, droplet-filled pods of Whitney locoweed, dried strands of summer stalks stark against blackened slate lined the lakes edge, the smell of pine weighting the cold breeze dropping from the surrounding walls. These colors only really show on a wet day. I shivered quickly once we stopped, my sweat-soaked head once again the source of all the cold despite my rain hat. After dumping a few snacks into my mouth, John pulled out the map, and we studied the continued approach for a few more minutes to Bighorn Lake and beyond before deciding to call it a day. We retraced our steps along the aquamarine waters of Dorothy Lake, then back down the canyon to the waiting truck.

I was soaked through, my legs and back aching terribly as we had descended, as if I had hiked 40 miles. I didn’t know why I was so tired, except for the weeks of tough hiking and long days that I had put in, but I should have recovered by then. Perhaps I was finally running down after the work and training of getting ready for the Challenge, then all the activities that continued following its conclusion. Maybe my shoes were worn out after only three trips, since the trips were over Taboose for 3.5 days, and the 22+ hour day hikes to Observation and Table Mountains. Maybe I’m old. Maybe I didn’t eat enough. Who knows. What I do know is that as we descended, the clouds continued to breathe and dance and play up high on the cliffs. The rain pattered down, growing stronger over the course of the day. I came home to the scent of the first wood fires burning in the homes next door to my apartment building. Darkness consumed the peaks for multiple days, and lightning ripped the sky as thunder tore along the earth. Wednesday morning, the skies began to clear, revealing the work that had been completed in transforming the mountains. My mood lifted as I witnessed the storm, paralleling it to what was happening in my own tired legs. Changes — in plans, in the weather, in the rock, in life — is inevitable. Learning to roll with them, like the thunder, is hard. But accepting each moment for its glory just makes me smile.

A Scotsman and a Hungarian Go for a Walk: Take 2

Posted in Backpacking on October 2, 2010 by moosetracksca

Originally posted on the WPSMB on 6-28-10

We leaned into our packs in the golden morning hour, the trail path winding through towering pink penstamon and rounded shrubs of sunny buckwheat. The air was blissfully cool as we made our way through the burn area, parting the deep scent of white lupine like a curtain. The undergrowth of sage, ferns, and other low plants were making a strong comeback beneath the skeletons of pines, the bark now spongy and disintegrating, leaving black streaks on hands and legs as we brushed past. The creek rushed and tumbled to the south, a low roar upon reaching the snow around 10K. Pushing on and up, we gazed across the valley to the couloir on Diamond Peak, the steep snow arcing up and behind the summit ridge. Together we decided to save it for another day and turned to clear the final 1000 ft of the pass. My jaw collapsed on reaching the ridge, looking into the Baxter basin and north, the heart of the High Sierra.

Scott had hiked this route many times with his best friend, fishing the high lakes and climbing the peaks in the area, and he had wanted to show me the area. When I wandered up the lower part of Baxter Pass a few weeks ago with my friend Paul to try Diamond, Scott had admonished me: “Don’t you go and explore all that before I show it to you!” was the reply. We had kicked each other’s asses running around Red Lake and the Basins below Mather Pass last summer, and now, a list of peaks and beta in my hand, we charged forth into the high backcountry, still coated with snow and ice.

After slipping and sliding down from the pass, we finally donned gaiters to keep from getting too wet in our (OK, my) postholes, then plunged and glissaded to the shores of Baxter Lake, finding a dry camp between the trees but not quite out of the chilling wind that was gusting all around us. After locking down the tent, we scrambled for sun and warmth, trying to dry boots and socks before the orb dove behind the high ridges of Acrodectes Peak. It was only mid-afternoon, and bursts of laughing conversation was interspersed with comfortable silence, as we both swung our eyes up and around the upper cirque in which we sat. The necklace of open water around the lake riffled in the breeze, snow drifts in the middle of the lake hollowing, and glowing pale turquoise in the afternoon light. Beyond the small trees, Scott found a space sheltered from the wind, and we were finally able to fire up the stove for me to make dinner. (Grilled chicken and veggies with pearled couscous over mashed potatoes, and, oh yeah, the bottle of red wine). We fought to sleep as the wind snapped and smacked the tent, sometime in the middle of the night awakening to the sagging nylon and dead calm.

Morning dawned cold and clear, but the wind calm and hot water an ease to boil for coffee and oatmeal. My stomach roiled at the prospect of the packaged meal, and I choked down the oats as if it was the last thing I would ever eat. The coffee went down more easily, but something told me it wouldn’t be the last I would see of breakfast. We packed lighter loads and scrambled up the slabs and ledges north of camp, headed to the base of Acrodectes Peak. To our west, a long and tapered snow slope climbed the first chute, with even a mild angle reduction for a rest half way up. The snow steepened, but held the beginnings of nieves penitents, making perfect footholds for stepping and using ice axes for touch balance. Again and again I was overcome with rapid breathing and nausea: the oatmeal was reeking its vengeance upon my gut, which growled in anger. But we plowed ever higher, escaping the steepest sections of snow by escaping to the Class 3 ridgeline and scrambling our way to the summit.

An unbelievable scene to the north, where undulating snow still covered the ridges and passes, the lakes still frozen but at least showing their edges in the morning sun. To the southwest, Mt. Clarence King’s spire rose immense and tall above all else, pulling my eye to it again and again. To the south, we could make out the familiar north wall of Whitney, sandwiched between Williamson’s summit and those of Trojan and Barnard. I ate hungrily, fighting off the nausea from the nasty oatmeal, drinking deep, and then rising with renewed energy for the scramble down and back up the west ridge of Mt. Baxter.

In comparison, Baxter was a yawner. Blocky, loose talus crumbled under both of us as we walked up, and I tried to keep a pace of 50 steps before resting. From Acrodectes, the summit appeared to be across the plateau to the east, so we strode across to the edge, gazing down into the Sawmill Pass area and scouting for our descent route in a few days. Finding no register, we clambered back across to a tall bump to the west to find the canister tucked between the rocks. After photos, more snacks, and bundling up in the breeze, we started the tedious descent, stepping carefully through the talus. At last we reached the lower snow, donned crampons again, and ran the tongue all the way to camp. We quickly packed, fighting tooth and nail to stuff the tent into its sack, and meandered west across the suncups.

The creek ran to the south, and we knew the trail headed that direction, diving to the JMT far below at Dollar Lake. Avoiding the early wet crossing, we stayed on the north shore, cutting around trees and through damp hillsides teeming with wild onions, not yet ripe for harvest but smelling fresh near the thundering falls of Baxter Creek. Rocky ledges allowed for quick descents, our speed hindered only by bushwhacking through the young aspen, their leaves quivering but trunks and branches unmoving. The marshes of Baxter Creek led us to the crossing, where we decided to leave our boots and socks on, each taking a pole and fording the fast-moving water. On the far side, in full view of Woods Canyon, we rested and dried and warmed on the slabs, laughing at the prospect of such a well-defined trail to stroll along in the afternoon.

The trail drops along the slow descent of Baxter, pouring its waters into Woods Creek. I tickled my nose with plunging it deep into the shaggy bark of the incense cedars lining the lower trail, Scott and I deciding the merits of sleeping at the crossing that night versus pushing on to Twin Lakes. Upon seeing the bear box, we knew we had had enough excitement for the day, and we dropped packs to the west of the bridge, under a stand of aspen and near the River’s violent edge. I unpacked the second night’s dinner of sausage and veggies and rice pilaf and mashers, and we sipped our Gentleman Jack. Scott whipped out the first of a “tiered” birthday present: Moose Munch for dessert, and after crawling in the tent, we closed our eyes to the river’s roar.

I was anxious to climb back up to the Sawmill Pass intersection, but my legs, and my mood woke cranky on Sunday morning. “You had better warn Bob Burd about this in a few weeks,” Scott warned under a twinkling smile, since I had tolerated his being depleted and cranky the day before. After swaying across the suspension bridge, (one at a time, please!!), the trail rose ever so slowly along the north banks of Woods Creek, the morning sun twinkling in the new growth leaves of aspen. Rivulets tumbled everywhere, in every gulley, under each snowbank, crossings early on were wet or nothing. My last pair of new, fluffy socks were reduced to a compressed, squishy, wet mess within the first hour of hiking. With Scott firmly on my heels, we strode in lock step along the steep embankments of the river, heads down, not speaking much, just putting in time and hoping we didn’t overshoot the turnoff. After the longest 4 miles ever, and as I finally cried out to Scott to ask if we had indeed, missed it, the sign appeared. “Unmaintained trail” shouted the sign.

Dunh… dunh… duhhhhhh…

I still think we made faster time off the trail than on it, because in what seemed no time flat we had reached the plateau of the Woods’ Lakes, the trail fading in and out of snow berms and across bridges hiding raging creeklets. But the higher cirque revealed vast slopes beneath high faces, cornices dangling thousands of feet above, and then the sea of sun cups across which we stepped gingerly, slipped, postholed, grunted, stumbled, and balanced. Within sight of the final climb to the pass, I asked Scott if he had a plan for camp, even dropping a hint that I was ready to be done with the pack for the day. “Woods Lake,” was the reply. “Which is over there,” I countered, pointing back up and over my shoulder. Scott took a quick look around, and we both smiled, knowing we had overshot our intended target. But the next group of trees revealed both a site and a fire pit, running water across the way. We had found home for the night.

I was almost overcome by an attack of the lazies, the sun so warm and comfortable and the ground seemingly soft as we sat and ate lunch. One more peak beckoned, though, and we loaded up for the walk up the slabs once again towards the snowy slopes of Cedric Wright. A huge lake, melted out despite the lower frozen surfaces of the Woods Lakes, greeted us at the rise, and Scott asked if we were performing a simple scouting mission or if we were going to finish the job. The lazies still grabbed my ankles, and I dragged them along on the traverse to the rocky outcroppings at the base of the chute, postholing a few times for good measure. Scott told me later that if I had bailed, he already had a plan in place to shame me into climbing the thing. “OK, well I’ll be right back after I climb this…” Dammit…

So I “let” Scott kick steps into the soft snow as we ascended the face. Not a bad job, this second in line thing. We never donned crampons on the ascent, relying on solid foot and axe placements as we broke our stairwell. I took my turn, my boots sliding a bit as we strove ever upwards. We reached the final scramble to the ridge, and the amphitheater to the west and north opened to our gazes in the clear skies. We dug out the register can, but had to use one of Scott’s business cards to leave an entry (and a few treats). I scrambled to the western summit to stand proud, axe overhead, steep drops and the blue haze of the western range as my backdrop. We laughed again as Scott told me his plan to shame me into climbing the peak, laughed more at our crankiness, laughed for the sheer joy of being out, on high, and working hard with dear friends. We leapt down the slopes of soft snow to reach the banks above the lake, then walked down the scree to join the sea of sun cups near camp. As Scott walked about 100 ft south of me, I turned and narrowed my gaze. At the same moment, Scott lifted his head, smiled, and we were OFF!!

We dashed across the webbing of sun cups, the orange tent bouncing in my field of vision between the trees. Screeching with laughter, we jumped from edge to edge of the cups, sliding and running and flailing and falling towards camp. With only 20 yards to go, I suddenly (really? Suddenly?) postholed to my knee, my foot braced in the icy slop as I screeched to a halt and Scott danced into camp. Head down, I limped on sodden boots into the trees, only to see Scott doubled over. “I think I blew a lung.” So was the outcome of the first annual “SunCup .1k”.

After dinner, sitting in the last rays of day, Scott busted out the next phase of birthday gift, brownies and a candle, which only half-heartedly lit in the evening breeze. We each frowned at the prospect of eating freeze-dried dinners, especially after the culinary delights of the past two nights. The Gentleman Jack warmed us from the inside as we bid adieu to yet another amazing day.

Sometime around sunrise, we rose in camp, Scott stumbling first out of the tent to my cries of, “five more minutes…” I bundled into my down parka and rousted myself from my sleeping bag, only to find a “Happy Birthday” sign hanging from two nearby pines. A card and hat rested against my frozen boots. Scott was waiting with hot water for coffee, and a granola bar so that I didn’t have to eat oatmeal. We waited, anxiously shivering and toes screaming at the attempts to thaw the boots, for the sun to mantle the crest before we packed and headed up to Sawmill Pass. We had 10 miles, and somewhere around 700,000 vertical feet to descend, so no time was wasted. The snow was perfect for walking down from the pass, and the trail revealed itself early. We strode in unison down the sandy path to the waiting TOF.

I wore the party hat all the way home.

A few of my favorite pics from the weekend:

Rest of the pics are hereherehere , and here .

Scott’s pics are here .

Scottie Mack, thank you so much for sharing this part of the Sierra with me, and for being such an incredible friend and mentor. All I wanted, after last year’s adventure, was to come back stronger. Now, with your help and support, I feel ready for the grand adventure that awaits. This was indeed one of the best birthdays I’ve ever had.

From the luckiest girl in the world: Climb Hard, Be Safe.

-L 

Overdue: Feather Peak’s North Couloir

Posted in Backpacking, Climbing on October 2, 2010 by moosetracksca

Originally posted on the WPSMB on 6-16-10

I stirred to the sound of crows, light tumbling through my blinds, the fan drawing thin breaths of cool morning air into the bedroom. Knowing I wasn’t even remotely close to finishing my packing, I stretched and sat up on the edge of the bed, smiling with the thought that my friends were asleep in the living room and we were headed on a grand adventure. The guys roused around 0630, and after a few hours of banter, gear sorting, grumbling about pack size, and loading the truck, we blinked into the mid-morning sun and headed to Pine Creek.

Paul strained to look from the back seat of the TOF as we cruised up the canyon, the towering granite walls of Wheeler Ridge flying to the north, Mt. Tom’s crumbling north ridge diving to Pine and Gable Creek. Sun shifted between clouds of the moving storm system, unsettled air creating pockets of sky and puffs of breeze over the roar of the creek. I donned Paul’s boots, as my new ones had been sent back for the next size up, and we turned our stride towards the trail.

The shaded, deep green of spring greeted our senses as we leaned into heavy packs laden with ice tools, pickets, rope, and other gear. The cool of the passing storm had softened the earth of the trail, intensifying the emerald aspen leaves as they twitched and fluttered. The ground cover was new and bright, flowers opening dewed petals to what little light would break the trees. The clean smell of spring permeated the air, hints of sage and pine and soil as I worked on breathing deep under the load. I kept my stride long and even, my legs feeling strong and wanting to run. The trail switched back and forth up the grade, meeting the old mining road and climbing the southern face of the canyon. I stopped to rest on my favorite old stump just below the upper mines, waiting a few minutes for the guys to catch up. New snow on White Mountain was down to 9000ft, clouds hovering around the summit. We continued the tromp up, reaching the first Pine Creek Lake in just over 2 hours, crossing a few snow fields and the log bridge, almost consumed by the raging upper creek.

On the far side of the lake, just beyond my favorite 10K sign, we stretched out on the rocks for lunch in the wan sunshine. The trail was swamped and messy, deep and sucking mud lining each rim. At last above 10.5K or so, we reached consistent snow and Honeymoon Lake. I realized that the times I had been up this far, including my first solo winter overnight, I had never actually seen the trail, and it had always been under snow. In my wanderings that trip, I had traversed to the foot of Royce Pass, so I led out from Honeymoon up to Golden Lake. The snow was solid from the recent drop in temps, but allowed for solid footholds with boots alone. Wandering too close to rocks was the only challenge, as each of us, in turn, sank up to hips after breaking the crust. In the mid-afternoon we finally reached the Pass, and, after escaping the gaze of an angry pigeon, I turned to gawk at the grandeur of the frozen Royce Lakes Basin.

My eye was immediately drawn to the north buttress of Merriam Peak, its steep and smooth granite catching the direct beam of sun through the clouds. Royce Peak’s rubble-strewn face was covered with shifting waves of snow, a steep chute leading to the left and up to the summit. Ray’s and my objective, Feather Peak, stood the furthest west, it’s ridge of towers reflecting more light through the clouds. The lakes stood silent and frozen before us, a turquoise necklace ringing each. Wind whipped around the boulders as we set up camp, Ray hunkering down with his bag and tarp, Paul and I guying out his tube-tent as it cracked in the breeze. I ambled down to the lake’s edge to determine if we would be melting snow for the night, immediately cursing myself for leaving the camera back in camp. A flash against the thin ice, snow crystals whispering along the lake, and the pulsing light of late afternoon along the rocks awarded me a few moments of feeling impossibly small, deep within the heart of the mountains.

The three of us were able to dunk and drink directly from the lake, then headed back to camp to heat up the treat of the evening. Of course, what trip would be complete without a Moosie meal? Stew of ground turkey, spinach, portabella mushrooms, onions, garlic, and tomato bubbled in one pot, instant mashed potatoes in the other, while Ray boiled water for tea or hot chocolate and bottles to throw into warm sleeping bags. We laughed while huddled out of the wind under a huge boulder, occasionally quieting to look around and watch the fading light of day against the granite. Sunset touched both the pinions of Feather and the tip of Merriam, an inner fire of the rock glowing as the embers of day faded away in quiet.

I was startled awake by Paul, and sunrise, mainly because my watch had completely died overnight. Shadows of the peaks guarding the gates of Royce Pass settled beneath the early light’s fire on Merriam, Royce, and Feather. While Ray and I sorted our gear, Paul headed out to climb Royce and Merriam via their shared snowfield to the southeast. The snow was firm and crusted after another cold night, as we traversed towards the north couloir of Feather, gazing up to the Royce-Feather chute that we would be descending. Plenty steep, that one, filled rim to rim with snow and running all the way to the lake. I pulled out a bit ahead of Ray as we trudged onward, turning to frame him against the ridge to the east, the corniced snow above cresting like a great wave about to break. I switchered up the slope, French-stepping my way to the base of the north chute, and my jaw dropped at the line we were to take. Ray joined me shortly afterward, and we both gazed up, smiling with excitement. “Do you think we can solo up past that first set of rocks?” he asked. Feeling the solid crunch of snow under my boots and crampons, I took a deep breath and grinned.

As the slope steepened, I fell in behind Ray, claiming to have kicked enough steps for the trip already, but knowing that I was a little nervous about the exposure and that I have never attempted a self-arrest with an ice tool before. Ray and I had also talked about anchor building, and I described exactly what Rob had taught me last summer and fall. Pickets were a new concept, though, so Ray took a moment to drive one home, describing how to chisel out a path for the ‘biner and strap to avoid pistoning once the rope was clipped. The snow was perfect for front-pointing, and we both were able to drive almost half our boots in as we ascended, hands near the heads of our tools. A few hundred feet up, we finally roped up, Ray leading the climb up the 60 degree slope. After Ray put me on belay, and knowing how good the snow was, I played a bit with speed and flow, trying to move quickly up to the next station. The angle steepens again just below the top of the chute, our third pitch, but I called out to Ray that he was about out of rope. “Then we’ll simul-climb for a little bit. But I’m only moving about 10 steps at a time!” After breaking down the belay station, and hanging the pickets on my pack, I called up and we started moving towards the top. A few minutes later, I topped out to find Ray had built an anchor of a picket and ice tool and put me on belay for the final stretch. Excellent! A short slog in the scree later we gazed south and west from the notch, the sun warm, the winds calm.

Gemini, Seven Gables, the lowlands north of Selden Pass, Mt. Hilgard, Ritter, Banner, Gabb, Mills, Abbot, Dade, Bear Creek Spire, Morgan (S)… all spread before us, deep snows still outlining dark ridges, indentations of lakes speckled throughout the basins. We ate lunch in the sunshine before scrambling up the 50 feet of easy class 3 blocks to the summit ridge, walked along the snow to the blocks. I let out a great Moose call down towards Royce Pass, only to be answered by Paul as the echo bounced down the canyons. It was somewhere around 1400, and Ray and I had a long way to go to get off this great peak.

We followed the rocks down the south face, scrambling between boulders and watching for movement in the rocks. To our right, snow filled most of the chute, a few patches of dirt and rocky ledges stood bare but a bit shiny. We were trying to stay on rock as much as we could, our stiff mountaineering boots proving to not have the greatest traction on the slabs. Finally at an impasse, blocked by snow, we realized just how wet and icy the slabs were, that they were in places covered by only a few inches of snow with ice and running water underneath. Looking around, the rappel possibilities were limited: everything moved; horns were sloped; flakes were crumbling. We scouted and slapped, kicked and wrenched every possibility, rigged up one rock only to have me return to the station after descending about ten feet, and Ray saw the flex in the granite. With only one rope, we slowly, at times agonizingly, descended the chute, 6 raps in all, usually with about 50 feet of scrambling between areas, hoping we could avoid another rap. We would test the snow, only to find it falling apart and melted clean through to the slabby rock and ice beneath, and so we stuck with rock and raps. Ray set up anchors while I flaked the rope, tying knots in the ends to avoid flying off the end. Tosses were immediately caught up and tangled in the blocky chute, the snow was rotten from the effects of the sun. I would descend first, untangling the evil rope while postholing to my crotch in the huge sugar crystals. I was swimming downhill while on rappel, grunting as I dug each foot out from a deep tomb at the base of each slab. While we each had our moments of sheer frustration, we worked as a fluid team, moving as best we could in the trying conditions.

At long last, a whoop from me upon landing on a dirt spit between the rocks: I could see directly across to the Royce-Feather Col and there was an easy sand path winding through the rocks. After Ray reached me, we stowed the rope and started scrambling across, slogging up the sand for a hundred feet and reaching the snow once again. The snow pile ended in a steep drop-off, and had been in shadow for a few hours, yet I was still fearful of approaching the edge without Ray being there yet. The later afternoon sun was creeping ever westward as we donned crampons once again and we gazed down into the chute. The snow was firm but grabbing the ‘pons well, and we quickly discussed how to descend the steep chute. Perhaps 35-40 degrees, it would be a long down-climb, knowing it was close to 1000 feet down to the lake. I wasn’t as comfortable, once again, with the exposure, knowing it would be a fast trip down and into the center of the lake, the blue edges convincing me that the ice wasn’t necessarily all that strong. Ray rigged an anchor, handed me the pickets, and I was lowered down a rope length, setting pickets and the anchor, then belaying Ray as he down-climbed and cleaned. Darkness caught us mid-way through the second of three pitches, the only light sparkling from Ray’s and my headlamps. I looked up to watch Ray descend, the first star staring bright above the ridge. The mountains and rock faded into shadow, outlines of black against a sapphire sky filled with the diamonds of the universe.

And still we down-climbed. Three pitches had brought us to 400 feet above the lake, perhaps a bit more, but the angle lessened and we stuffed the rope into my pack, hung the pickets off my harness. I felt comfortable enough to turn and start to walk, traversing the slope beneath the wave of a cornice we had passed that morning, looking over my shoulder to see Ray still making his way slowly across. We both guzzled water from the lake’s outlet upon reaching the rocks, knowing we had less than a mile to go to get back to camp. Paul had placed his headlamp on the tallest boulder, and in strobe mode, it served as a homing beacon to which I responded like my usual beer-dar. My pace was faster than Ray’s, but I kept turning to ensure his light was still moving towards me, and I know the clang and clank of the pickets made me sound like a herd of high-altitude cattle moving across the slopes above the lake. Within 200 yards of camp, I must have found the warmest boulder still hidden under the snow, as the day gave me one final frustration as I sank to my hip once again. With an aggravated grunt and a great heave, I hauled myself up and beelined it for camp, Ray arriving just a few minutes later.

It was 2300, and all I wanted to do was get in bed. Worried thoughts pierced my addled and tired brain, as I knew I wouldn’t be showing for work in the morning, and that it was going to upset them. But it would be madness to pack out now, in the middle of a moonless night, Ray and I exhausted from the descent. I slapped myself, thinking of my decision to leave my SPOT device at home for once. But the point was moot, and I knew I was in for it the next day. The guys were in agreement to get rested before packing out, and we fell into bags warmed by Paul’s hot water bottles he had prepared. I started to shiver, probably chilled by the exertion of the day, sunburn on my face, and the relief of stress knowing we descended safely, although painfully slowly. Sleep did not come easily to me that night as I cuddled the bottle for warmth, sipping a bit to try and ease my body into relaxation.

The next morning, I hugged Ray good morning and we both smiled at each other. He paid me the highest compliment I could imagine: “You know, Laura, there are a lot of people who, in the same situation, would be dead right now.” We made solid decisions, maintained our focus, and kept moving. Leaving gear behind was no problem if it meant we were going to be safe. We knew the only thing we would have done differently that day would have been to descend the same chute we had climbed, sparing us the suffering of moving between rock and snow and ice. I couldn’t have asked for a better partner that day, his calm demeanor helping me stay true to the tasks at hand. The three of us moved out at last, heading down the slopes to Honeymoon Lake, finally picking up bits of the trail above Pine Creek Lake #2 and trying to avoid the slop in the warm day. By noon we had at last descended the switchbacked old road and the TOF waited patiently at the trailhead.

Ray and Paul had both noticed my anxiety as we had descended, an urgency to get back and report in. They didn’t quite understand until we passed my boss’ husband, Bob, driving up the Pine Creek Road, and telling us the posse had been called into action. “Who was that?” they asked me as we rolled eastward. “My boss’ husband,” I replied. Just then, my cell phone regained reception and literally jumped from the dash, beeping and whirring with the multiple voice mails and text messages. One look over to the guys and I knew they finally understood what was going on. Sara met us lower on the road, throwing her arms around me in relief after we pulled over. I was put on speaker-phone at work, the first call I made to let them know I was ok. We were home. We were safe. The word would spread.

You know, words don’t often fail me. In fact, I’m entirely too verbose for my own good, a trait inherited from my Pop, the master of the “long-story-short.” But how do you describe what happened on the outside while we slowly made our way home? I still can’t fully comprehend the frantic phone calls, the tears, the concern, the connections. And we had done everything right: left an itinerary, pulled a permit, instructed my work that if I hadn’t shown or called by 1000 to initiate the SAR. To answer Dale’s questions directly, I haven’t set any rules about my SPOT acting differently, so my friends wouldn’t necessarily know what to do, I suppose, except to initiate SAR. And that’s what I would hope they would do. I, for one, do not rely on my SPOT for all of my hikes; I’ve only had it for a year and I still don’t take it every weekend.

I really don’t know what to say here, except thank you to everyone. To Bob and Pat, my Bishop mom and dad and the best boss I could ask for. To Maryanne and Sandra and Sue at work, who made all the right calls to all the right people. To Jeff, my knight, for spending so much time on the phone with Pat and the sheriff and whomever else to get things started and headed in the right direction. To Stace, for following up as well and verifying that I was indeed up Pine Creek. To Michelle, my dear friend at SMI, who also directed the posse to Pine Creek and described the gear we had. To DougSr, my eastside dad, for having the Board in the first place. To Paulie, once an instructor, now a dear friend and climbing partner, for the beacon and the hot water bottles.

To RayRay: I haven’t got a long list of people with whom I’d want to epic. I’ll haul that gear and share that rope with you anytime. Because I know, with you, and together as a team, we’ll be coming home.

Thanks for all of the well wishes, prayers, and good juju from everyone. Believe me, I could feel it.

Photos from this weekend’s adventure are here.

From the luckiest girl in the world: Climb Hard, Be Safe.

-L 

Moose and Burd Tearing Up NV’s High Country

Posted in Day Hiking on October 2, 2010 by moosetracksca

Originally posted on the WPSMB on 6-1-10

“…if you’d like to do a bit of high desert peaks with us, it would be a gas.”

I nearly fell off my chair as I read the email from Bob Burd. Had I just been invited on one of his trips? Seriously? I mean, this guy’s been everywhere, hiked everything, and written up the most amazing array of reports I know. Me? Really? I know nothing he was proposing was out of my league, but my nerves went into hyperdrive the moment I imagined being out there.

Then I remembered that I could read a map, judge weather and conditions, proficiently scramble, independently route-find, and move solidly at my own pace for hours and hours. What the hell was I worried about?

Hero worship aside, I had a blast with Bob, Bill Peters, and Adam Jantz. As we huddled in the Burd-mobile Friday night over brews, discussing wake-up call and driving options the next morning, I felt just as at home with these guys as with my other climbing companions. The only difference being that Bob’s almost done with day-hiking the Sierra Peaks Section list, Adam has won the Under-25 group of the Sierra Challenge, and Bill holds the record for the most time out on the trail during the SC. Fighting back a bit of an inferiority complex, we strode out along the road leading to Mt. Jefferson Saturday morning.

Great, wide basins separate rugged, towering peaks. Snow capped ridgelines snake upwards towards 12K, wind-swept cornices double back on themselves where the rock dives down to briar-choked creeks. Temperature gradients dove precipitously along the top, soaring with a return to the desert floor. Pronghorn antelope pranced out of the way of the caravan as we cruised an hour between camp and the next “trailhead”. Huge skies overhead filled with brushed clouds and sweeping virga. Rainbows of wildflowers in all directions between greenest sage. I even found, after a few hours reflection on the photo, found the Great Basin rattlesnake to be perfectly gorgeous.

Four peaks in three days, possibly more if you count all the bumps in the ridges. A chance to hike (in the vicinity of) a hero of mine, and to have him say, as he’s hugging me goodbye in Austin Monday afternoon, “We’ll do it again.”

I’m still soaring.

A few highlights:

“Where’d you leave my boy?” –Bob Burd to me on the summit of Mt. Jefferson. I turned to see that Bill wasn’t behind me anymore… oops…

The guys brought snowshoes. The only shoes that fit me were my trail runners, and I forgot both pairs of my snowshoes at home. The Posthole Queen triumphs again!

I swear the snake was sleeping, and I was glad none of the guys were around to watch me quiver and shake and cry as I tried to take pictures.

“Did I do OK today?” –Me, to Bob, after the first day. Sheesh, what a freakin’ neub…

“Where’d you leave my boy?” –Bob, back at the car after Toiyabe Dome.

“Are we seriously discussing the risk assessment for mosquitos?” –Me, to Bill as we were getting eaten up at the base of Toiyabe Dome.

“I would have poked it with a stick.” –Bob, after ogling my pic of the Great Basin rattler I came across on the descent of Toiyabe Dome.

“I’m not at all fast, just incredibly stubborn.” -Me, on the summit of Bunker Hill.

“Bishop.” –Me, in response to the locals’ questions in the saloons of Belmont and Kingston. Guess who got our little group a little mountain cred… “mmm… Bishop… yeah, that’s rugged…”

The guys are still out there all week, so I can’t wait to hear of the rest of their adventures. To Bob, many thanks for such a grand opportunity. To Bill, I hope the color coding comes out OK. To Adam, I’m so glad I could finally make you smile. Hope y’all didn’t get stuck in Floodville this week.

Pics are hereherehere , and here .

A link to Bob Burd’s trip reports .

little slide show of the adventure.

From the luckiest girl in the world: Climb Hard, Be Safe.

-L 

Moose Over Taboose: Cardinal Mtn’s East Ridge

Posted in Day Hiking on October 2, 2010 by moosetracksca

Originally posted on the WPSMB on 5-17-10

The rabbit just wouldn’t get out of the way, hopping madly in the brights of the TOF as I rumbled along the Taboose Creek road towards the trailhead. Stars hung layers deep in a blackened sky, the Milky Way absorbing the bulk of the sparkling overhead. After swinging the nose around in the empty parking area, I shut everything down, allowing my eyes to adjust to the darkness, the dust to settle around the truck. Setting my SPOT on the dash, I leaned back and closed my eyes for a few more minutes, quieting my fears of walking into a den of Mojave Greens between the swollen rounds of sage and lupine lining the desert floor.

Close to 0400, and I finally extended my poles, grabbing my pack from the passenger seat, flicking on the most brilliant headlamp I could find and scanning the dirt for any signs of slithering. I was smothered by the sweet smell of the night flowers as I strode out along the trail, slowly, cautiously, ears perked to any noises in the moonless night. In 30 minutes I hit the toe of the ridge, rising dark and ominous to my right; I could make out the thick brush and rocks in the slim shadows of starlight. It’s now or never, Laura, I pleaded with myself. But it wasn’t just the snakes I was afraid of. Ahead loomed another challenge I have been studying for two years: the East Ridge of Cardinal Mountain.

Stepping off the trail, I wove carefully around the brush, traversing the first bump to reach a slight saddle, the sand shifting with lesser-placed steps, seemingly solid rocks dropping under my weight. The poles steadied each step as I tried to follow the deer and goat paths up the slope, the boulders above standing black against a speckled sky. It was silent, still, warm, my breathing the only louder noise against the sliding sands. The sky warmed in the east, the ridge grey now instead of black, stars to the west fading against the lowering alpenglow falling to blanket the peaks of the Crest. No wind harkened the rising of this sun, and there was nowhere to hide from its brilliance as it reached forth from beyond the Inyos. In the cradling roots of a huge yellow pine, I dropped pack to rest and eat breakfast, already 2 hours and over 2000 ft up onto the ridge.

The terrain drew me north, traversing steep scree that dumped clear back down to the Valley floor, with minimal shrubbery to impede progress. I found my first patches of snow around 7500ft, tucked in the recesses of boulders and pines, dirty and crusted with the windblown sand and needles of the hillsides. Up and up again, rising now in dirt and pine sap to the tree belt, towering giants still in the morning air and smelling clean in the heat of direct sun. The steps were soft here as the angle lessened for a brief while, the snowdrifts’ crafty fingers reaching down through the slope ahead. Even here with the melting snow, there was no running water, as if the shallow rootstocks simply absorbed every ounce as the ice disintegrated.

An abrupt wall of mountain mahogany guards Stecker Flat, but paths of old wind through holes and weaknesses. Here at the half-way point, I paused to catch my breath and stare at the powerful presence of Split Mountain, guarding Red Lake and its drainage, its capstone gray rock layered over red and cream. Stuffing my water bladder full of crystalline snow, and my mouth with granola bars, I stepped onto the continuous snowfield that would take me to the summit of the day. I could see old descent tracks of skiers winding along the face, knowing of the old road that rises from the Red Lake trailhead. I stomped out along the traverses, picking trees and rocks as landmarks for brief rests. It was 0900, and I was already starting to posthole. Of course I was.

Stomp. Kick. Step. Plant. Reach. Pivot. Stomp. Trudge. Head down. Head up, look where you’re going. Where’s the next rock, next tree, next Manzanita poking up through the thin skin of spring snow. Smell the sap on my hands as I brush past, feel the snow melting into corn and heat reflecting off blinding slopes. A series of bump ups, benches for rest, breathe, look around, orient myself. A single puff of cloud hanging, then gathering between Split and Tinemaha to the north, then blowing apart like the first draft thrown into the trash. I donned crampons for the slope reaching to over 12K, although the soft snow would have cradled any stumble or misstep. At last to the final bench, and the meadows of Taboose spread to the West, Arrow Peak guarding the entrance to the South Fork of the Kings River. Immense cornices dangled precipitously across the cliffs of the Pass, the undersides edged and layered with the passage of winter.

Ahead, the final traverse and climb to the summit loomed, talus diving over 2000 feet back to Taboose Creek and the trail. Either my footwork has been dramatically improved or it’s perhaps one of the most stable talus piles in the Sierra. Crampons dangling from my left hand, poles in my right, I tiptoed in heavy boots across the boulders, trying to keep steps light and quick. Approaching the snow chutes, they towered above, twinkling in the afternoon sun. 700 vertical feet to go and the snow was melting before my eyes. The right towered above, steep and serene, so I traversed to the left, hoping for a little gentler approach to the top. My steps headed left, the edge of the chute rounding high and to my right. In the pillowed and wet snow, every step became three, a rhythm of driving my axe home, followed by my pole, my foot replacing where my knee had rested a moment before.

Ten steps would send me into groans, but the axe and feet held solid. I couldn’t tell the angle, but I was sure that mom wouldn’t have wanted to see the pictures. I kept driving up, reaching, pushing, pulling, imagining downclimbing. A light leveling to the rocks above, but it wouldn’t yield easily. I sank repeatedly to knee or thigh, the black rocks beneath the blanket absorbing heat and collapsing holes. At last, I swam onto the summit ridge, exhausted and plopping down to rip the crampons off my boots, then turn to see the grey blocks within reach. I stumbled to the top, peeking over the north wall plummeting thousands of feet to the snow below. Throwing my pack and helmet to the ground, I leaned back and threw out a great barbaric yawp to the heavens.

But then, just as I reveled in the joy of triumph, I was doubled over with painful sobs erupting from deep inside. In the still of the air at 13.4K, the tears streamed from behind my glasses as I gripped my gut and sat among the summit blocks. I couldn’t stop crying. I curled into a tight ball, gasping in the thin air, clutching my legs to my chest in an attempt to quell the onslought. Breathe, dammit, breathe! My shoulders finally relaxed in the sun, and my head rose timidly with eyes closed tight. As I cracked them open, slits filtering the light through tears, the basins below flashed white in the sun, clouds shadows danced along the undulating snow. And the entire Sierra smiled back at me. The air descended as the clouds rose, embracing me on the summit. I was home at last.

Instead of downclimbing the chutes, I opted to descend the first chute to Taboose Pass and catch up with the trail. Beneath drifts 20 feet high and now gazing up to the cornices which had bewitched me from the ridge, I jogged and slid down the gentle slopes to the creek, stopping to tank up around 9000ft. The lower portion of the trail was trivial, plenty of soft snow to posthole, some minor willows, none of it annoying, merely funny, as if the loop were trying to throw it’s last bit of sick humor my way. I crossed the creek around 7000ft, entering the desert zone once again and the sands and grasses of the trail. My eyes and ears perked once again, expecting to see one of the many sticks on the trail suddenly turn to look at me, but none ever did. The trail spat me back out onto the purple and green desert floor, and at last the TOF, waiting patiently by the creek. As I drove away, the building clouds of the afternoon faded into gold behind the Crest.

Pics are here.

On Sunday, my macerated feet and I tried to tour a bit through Rock Creek, looking for friends that were climbing Mt. Dade and camping. Unfortunately, my feet swelled inside my ski boots, leading to blisters and raw skin, so I was limited to the Lake Basin. But a beautiful day nonetheless, and the furthest I’ve explored into that Basin. Sheesh, I’ve got work to do in there…

Pics are here.

From the luckiest girl in the world: Climb Hard, Be Safe.

-L