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


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.

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