Archive for August, 2011

Surviving Mt. Emerson

Posted in Climbing, Day Hiking on August 30, 2011 by moosetracksca

The rope was in Sam’s truck.

“I can’t do this, Sam! I’m not OK. I can’t do this. I can’t do this…”

Sam’s calm voice from above called encouragement, but I was having none of that. My left arm jammed deep into the crack, my nails scraping the back as I balled my fingers into a fist and tested my weight against the hold. I smelled fresh earth from where I had scratched in between the rock, and I struggled to keep my racing mind calm. On this point, however, I was failing, and the fall below me would hurt. A lot. The rock’s puzzle was daunting at first: the opposite face on which my right foot pressed was slick, the right hold only a lieback to counter the pressure against the face. My left elbow rested on… wait a minute: my left elbow was resting on a ledge.

“I can’t do it… I can’t do it… Ican’tdoit… oh wait.”

With a grunt, I pushed as hard as I could into the right face, yarding back on my right arm, praying my left arm wouldn’t slip, and wiggled my left foot onto the ledge.

OK, drama queen. Time to get over yourself.

I had first attempted Mt. Emerson’s SE face a few years ago with my friend Kevin Trieu, but it was March, and the “waterfall pitch” full of ice. It was my first technical climb in mountaineering boots, and we were forced to bail at the base of the summit ridge within view of the summit. Since then I had climbed to Loch Leven dozens of times as a workout, always gazing up to the crack and face and dreaming of when I might try again. The crack is rated 5.4, and I just didn’t know if I was capable of soloing the route, or if I would find a partner willing to rope up. But that first attempt was in 2009, and so much had changed since then. When Sam Roberts asked if I had some time to play late last week, it was one of the first things to come to mind.

Sam and I found ourselves looking skyward while resting at the base of the climb, squinting at the thin clouds above and the light virga that sprayed across small sections of sky. I knew that once we were in the climb, we were committed, especially since we had opted to leave all gear in his truck at the trailhead. Even the class 4 variation looked somewhat dicey. The blue sky won out, though, and we donned climbing shoes and helmets. Sam struggled a bit with the same move as he headed up first, and I wondered out loud if he was struggling then what the hell was I going to do up there? But with Sam’s encouragement, loud grunts and curses, and a few tears, I jammed my way past the crux and into easier territory. The holds became positive, the rock rougher in texture, and we scrambled our way up the waterfall path to the slabs above.

Up and up and up we moved, past rounded slabs and rock towards the ridgeline. The colorful surfaces sparkled in the shifting sun as clouds drifted around. To the south, the Palisades had darkened, and the occasional wind gust brought us both pause. Rounding the corner behind a turret, Sam commented, “I wouldn’t want to be climbing on this if it were wet!” On cue, I felt the first raindrops, but attributed them to me sweating profusely in the hot sun. “Is it raining?” asked Sam. Dammit.

Just below the summit ridge, Sam found an alcove for us to wait out the first squall, the shifting sand making for difficult footing and uncomfortable sitting. We finished the up to the notch, only to have the sprinkles start again, the slate sky blending with the granite around us. The prospect of climbing the summit ridge on wet rock was more than unappealing, but we had backed ourselves into the corner. I momentarily looked to the spot where Kevin and I had bailed a few years before, wishing for rope and gear at that moment. Sam and I huddled against the wall, waiting with only some patience for the rain to pass. At last, a growing patch of blue sky pulled Sam and I from the rock, the smell of fresh rain all around. Flashing sunshine dried the ridge, and we started up and across, praying for a lull long enough to reach the summit. Sam disappeared in the undulations of the ridge as I pieced together the puzzles in the rock, dropping steeply to each side. I caught a glimpse of him shimmying up the last face to the summit as I came upon two awkward boulders blocking further passage. I knew there was a hand-traverse just below the summit, but I couldn’t see around the far edge. Stymied, I straddled the rock and looked up to the summit, dreading not finishing this peak yet again.

A moment later, Sam reappeared on the summit, and I strained to hear him call above the rising wind. “Go down, Laura!” “Which way?” my retort, thinking the route must drop down to avoid the impasse. Sam pointed to my right, so I carefully reversed my path and started looking for safe step downs amidst the boulders. I gently lowered myself between nooks, landing in soft sand at each level, peering over the edges to snake my way down.

Hail rode the coattails of a huge wind gust, the first thunder rumbling above and behind me. I leaned out to look down the gully below, the grey clouds softening the red of the Piute Crags. A flash of lightning struck the vermillion rock, the thunder rumbling right through me as I flushed myself back to the wall. Pulling the hood of my jacket over my helmet, I tried scrambling down further while the ice accumulated around my feet, whitening the cracks and ledges in the sand and rock. A small corner availed itself to me, and I shoved myself into as tight a ball as possible, ducking my head between my knees and wrapping my arms around my legs. Pelted by the hail, I timidly peeked  up, only to be answered with a flash over my head and the loudest explosion of sound rushing over me. Whimpering, I ducked my head once more, feeling completely naked to the elements as the storm railed around me. Thunder caromed off the walls as the hail ricocheted all around me, tapping relentlessly on my helmet. I was alone in the gully, Sam having hopefully dropped to the far side of the summit to take shelter. I had no idea where he was, or if he was safe. Fear blanketed me like the rolling thunder, and I knew I had to descend.

Below me stretched the gully, full of sand and slick rock, boulders of all sizes. Still in my rock shoes, I picked my way down to the sand, head ducked low and moving as quickly as I could. Gravel poured into my shoes, raking the soles of my feet with each step, my toes jammed against the front of the slippers. The hail had softened below to a pouring rain, but I was strangely warm, perhaps from adrenaline and movement. I needed to maintain focus now, and not panic. I was heading down, the other option of up and over the summit unviable with the surrounding storm. I reviewed the worst case: spending a cold night out in wet clothes and ascending the peak in the morning. Discomfort? Indeed. But in the meantime, I meant to find where this gully would lead.

Wincing, I stepped gingerly among the sand and rock, pausing only once to dump the grit out of my shoes. I scanned the ridge above, watching for rockfall as I could hear the wind blasting through the gaps. The splash of running water surprised me at first, until I realized it was runoff from the storm. Off one large block, I filled my bladder and bottle, tasting the metallic tang of rock and sand in the water. Below, the rivulets had joined to form a small stream through the sand, and I followed the water’s edge to the first rounded drop. As I scrambled down, I noticed a change in the water’s sound, rushing louder above me. At my feet, the creek had turned from clear to muddy, the level rising. High ground, I thought, I have to get to higher ground. Perched on a short rib, I watched the flooding begin.

The creek swelled, tossing small rocks down the gully, flushing sand. I didn’t wait from my perch long as another rumble of thunder, farther now, reminded me of my priority. I resumed my slow slide down the gully, the rain slowing to a gentle sprinkle as I reached the confluence of my gully and the face between the Piute Crags and Emerson. Water poured equally down the white and red rock from above as I sat to finally change back into my approach shoes. Somehow, deep in my pack, the shoes and socks had remained blessedly dry, and my feet were so grateful to be warm and free of sand. I took a minute to compose myself, breathing deeply through the humidity. I could smell the wet rock and sand, the dirt where a few flowers still bloomed. The water’s rush filled my ears. Although soaked, my down sweater was still warm, my fleece tights heavy. I didn’t know what lay ahead, but I would continue as far as I could while I still had good light. I wondered where Sam was on the other side of the mountain, if he was safe.

I resumed my slide down the scree and small rocks, moving right to avoid the slick white rock where the creeks had joined. Crossing a small prow into a small side chute, the wall reared up high above me, and, glancing down, the gully narrowed. The water’s echo between the cliffs below grew louder and more insistent, changing from churning to crashing. There was a waterfall close by, but I wasn’t about to go and investigate. Instead, traversing left would bring me to another rib and hopes of a calmer descent than hanging from a chockstone. The creek tumbled between me and the prow, spurting off an eight foot boulder on the only flat section that would allow me to step lightly to the sand and sloping rock on the other side. So much for dry shoes. The water poured across my back, soaking everything as I crossed under the fall. The new chute was slick with sand and red rock, but at a lesser angle, and brought me to the base of the waterfall in the main, 10 feet over my head. Below me lay a series of step-downs in the cascade, each to be assessed upon arrival, the tall walls prohibiting scrambling around.

I sat in the water at the first step, the rush piling around me and pouring past the chockstone to the landing eight feet below. I felt around for holds, finally digging at the edge of the smaller stone upon which I sat, the creek rushing to fill in my efforts as fast as I could clean it. Flipping over to face the torrent, I lowered myself cautiously to the first foot holds, hoping for the rubber soles to stick. I leaned back to try and see further down, but was met instead with more and more water splashing into my face and chest. I felt around under the chockstone for anything, finding an undercling and stepping cautiously down, feeling blindly for something solid. With a final few steps, I reached the bottom and spat, again tasting sand and grit. Each cascade looked smaller as I waded downstream, wondering where the end of this bloody chute lay. I turned a final corner after a few more easier downclimbs, the view opening past the edge of the walls to the green meadow below Loch Leven. As my eyes scanned up, I spotted a man walking slowly up the scree of the moraine, blue jacket, khaki pants. “Sam!” I shouted. “SAAAAAMMM!!!!” He stopped, glancing up to focus, then raised both arms overhead as he spotted my bright orange jacket in the chute.

Carefully, I lowered myself down the last short steps and onto the moraine, the afternoon sun starting to shine. I hadn’t even noticed that it had stopped raining until I glanced up to see the light dance on the wet rock of spires guarding the chute. I glanced right to see our morning’s route spewing forth its own waterfall as I stumbled across the sand. My left knee finally realized what had been going on, and began the throb with each step down. But I managed to hold it together long enough to reach Sam, his arms enveloping me in a huge hug. Then the tears and shaking started.

Sam had indeed been chased off the summit, his warning, not route directions, had been spurred by the buzzing of the ammunition box in which the summit registers are kept. He didn’t remember climbing down the rocks towards the SW face, but he had found two leaning slabs under which he could hide to shelter him from the worst of the hail. Beyond that, he had descended the scree of the SW face, occasionally looking back in the rain to look and call for me. He knew, somehow, that I would know to go down instead of risk the up and over, but was relieved all the same to see me emerge from the gully. After a short rest together, we descended the trail, pausing only to see the alpenglow warm the Piute Crags.

Over dinner that night, Sam and I both knew that we had burned some serious karma points that day. We were both more than a little shaken, the flashes from cameras at other tables around us made us both jump or cringe. We analyzed where we had gone wrong, from leaving the rope and gear in the car to deciding to continue in the face of a possible storm. I knew I needed better conditioning, to move faster on the rock up high. I lamented being so close yet again, and missing the summit. “As far as I’m concerned, Laura, you have that summit,” Sam smiled.

Oh, he doesn’t know me very well, does he?


From the luckiest girl in the world:

Climb Hard, Be Safe.

The last bit of sun before all hell broke loose.