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

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.


One Response to “Something New, Be Safe, Have Fun: Mt. Muir 10-16-10”

  1. Congrats to both of you! BTW I think you’ve outdone yourself with the pics. You caught some incredible alpenglow!

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