Archive for May, 2012

A Hiker’s Foray into Alpine Ice: Mendel Right

Posted in Backpacking, Climbing on May 24, 2012 by moosetracksca

“Oh, SHIT! ROCK! ROCK! ROCK!”

Kevin’s voice echoed from the anchor above me. Pat stood at his side, tucked in tight to the wall. I struggled to lean back and look up against my pack, my arms extended above on my tools. All I saw was Kevin ducking a bit as the snow started to roar down the chute. I had nowhere to go, so I pulled in tight, shrugged my shoulders to lift the pack against the back of my neck, and gripped my tools as tightly as I could. I think I remember a few cracks against my helmet, but mostly the world around me just melted into the mottled sugar of snow and rock.

I screamed.

Kevin yelled to hang on.

When Kevin asked me to “go and check out Ice 9” on Mt. Mendel, I actually did hesitate for a moment. My training has been going well, and I’ve ramped up the intensity and duration over the past month, but I am still redeveloping the confidence I had in my climbing after being off for, essentially, a year after the knee injury and surgery. Any route on Mt. Mendel is serious business, and part of my rehab has been on my own psyche and confidence on more technical terrain and scrambling. But with Kevin’s reassurance and vote of confidence, I signed on to haul up Lamarck Col with him and Pat Baumann.

After a leisurely morning at the Moose Lodge sorting and packing gear between sips of coffee and munching bacon and eggs, we three cruised to the North Lake trailhead. The warm spring sun sharpened the contrast between the red Piute Crags and the bluebird skies, a light breeze rustled through the still leafless aspen lining the switchbacks to climb up and away from the campground. I love settling into my own pace, letting my legs swing under the weight of my pack, arms reaching with my poles and pushing up the steps on the trail. We were in no particular hurry on Saturday, and we were met with the gentle rustle of the wind and light cascades to Lower and Upper Lamarck Lakes.

Having popped over Lamarck Col a half dozen times or so, I told the guys to run on ahead, essentially giving myself permission to find a solid pace of my own instead of desperately trying to keep up. But these two gentlemen could be found randomly resting on the trail sides, sometimes together, sometimes alone; each soaking in the moments of being high in the sand and sun and breeze. I gave Pat more details on the lay of the land, when to turn to the Col, but we were in eyeshot the whole way. I just continued my slow trudge on by the guys so as to not fall too terribly behind, but we chatted and laughed just the same. “Have you been following European economics?” Pat asked me as I pulled out of some postholing just below the Col. “Whoa: this shit just got heavy!” I laughed at him.

The boot track angled gently up the slope to the second gap in the rocks, so I turned to head back slightly to the actual Col in order to tap the sign (a good luck motion of my own). Kevin caught me up as I punched through the final steps, but I stopped to gaze over the gap and across to the huge massifs of Mts. Darwin and Mendel. The Darwin Lakes were still frozen almost 1500 feet down, the landscape striped, alternating between snowfields and talus. The trail wound through the boulders for a short distance before giving up to a scattered assortment of cairns, and Kevin and I wound our way through, headed to a single orange tent standing out near a solid flow of melt. We knew Vitaliy and Max had come over the day previous, and were hitting the climbs today, so we were anxious to hear of conditions.

After throwing off our packs and settling onto a few perfect platforms, we gazed across the valley to the right and left couloirs on the north face of Mendel. Ice Nine made me frown: the thought of those sloping ledges covered with snow was less than appealing. We discussed options, including Mendel Right and the north face of Darwin. From our perch we scoured the slopes for signs of boot track from the others, with none to be found. Pat wandered off for a nap in the sun, while Kevin and I sat and chatted, leaning against the warm boulders and munching on melted gummi bears. During dinner, I finally spotted Vittles and Max against the snow beneath the Darwin Glacier, and we cheered them home to our cozy camp.

In the dark of 0400, I shivered in my bag coated with ice and frost following a still and moonless night. I huddled over my stove, desperately pumping the fuel and having no success in maintaining a flame. With a frown, I tucked my coffee back into the bag and tried in vain to choke down a few bites of breakfast against my rolling stomach. At first light, we scrambled down the pass and across the moraine bridge to the steep climb amongst boulders and snow to the base of Mendel. Kevin opted to step up the firm snow, easily surmounting the terminal moraine. Pat stopped to don his boots and ‘pons, then traversing the same slope. I was happy to scramble amongst the boulders, testing the friction of my big Scarpas on the granite. In the sun, we paused to eat and stare up at the steep snow leading to the couloirs high above.

The bergschrund presented as a scar in the middle of the face, the snow like filled in scar tissue across the gap. Kevin was brave enough to test it, sinking hip deep and then stepping out to find the crossing to be easier at climber’s left. Upward we trudged, back and forth across the face as the angle steepened and the runout seemed to be shorter when I factored in stopping speed from such a height. Ice Nine wasn’t “in” in the slightest, so there was no hesitation to head for the right couloir. I heard Kevin call from just above a small rock band above that it was “steep for a bit, but it levels out up here.” Riiiight, Kev. “See how you feel when you get here,” was the reply.

The ice in the rocks made for solid pick placements, and I was across with a little effort. Above, I watched Pat and Kevin finish the solo, bravely frontpointing into the couloir; but I suddenly felt the air beneath me, and I asked for a rope to finish to the first anchor. I climbed up to a fold in the rope above after Kevin set the anchor, tying in with a figure eight on a bight and then scrambling up to the guys. The ice was a yellowish-grey in the shade, Kevin’s tools shattering pieces that rained down the chute to our left. I shivered from cold and more than a little nervousness at the task ahead, my fingers robbed of warmth as I started into the ice. Dinner plates cracked with each whack of the tools, my front points occasionally scraping the ice for purchase instead of sinking. My breathing caught up with me, and I found a small rock ledge to rest and warm my fingers as Pat caught me up.

I reached inside my shirt to try and shock my fingers back into the present situation, then, with a grunt, resumed my climb. It was then that Kevin called in alarm, and the rush of snow roared in my ears against my screams. “Are you all right?” they both yelled down as the chute settled into calm once again, and I strained to look up at them through watery eyes. “You need to hurry,” Kevin offered.

Yeah, right, Kev.

The second pitch devolved into loose snow over ice and rock, my picks bouncing instead of grabbing as I tried to drive them deep for purchase. The rocks offered a few good chances to dry tool as I kicked and stomped in the track up to the next anchor, but more often hidden dangers of ice and scree caused my steps to slide, eliciting a grunt as I struggled to regain purchase. I threaded the rope through my belay device and smiled at Kevin as he readied for the final pitch. “One to go!” I laughed through gasps of breath.

Kevin found the bowling alley just above the anchor: a narrowing devoid of ice above exposed softball- to cantaloupe-sized rocks that let loose as he tried to climb by. Pat and I were perfect targets as we dodged the projectiles, but my thighs and Pat’s right knee had the bulls-eyes painted on them. The first smack into my right lower thigh had me suck in my breath and see stars: “THAT’s gunna leave a mark!” I yelled up to Kevin. Two minutes later, another barrage and my left thigh felt a hard smack. I cried out, Pat grabbing my arm as I bent and sat in my harness against the pain. This time, the tears flowed, but I never let go of the line. “Can you stand up?” Pat asked gently. “Yeah, just give me a sec,” I said through clenched teeth. Pat called to Kevin to hold for 2 minutes while I regained composure.

The final pitch offered a bit more ice and mixed opportunities, the cracks in the rocks offering solid placements as we stepped gingerly to try and avoid launching debris onto each other. The very top narrowed to a rock finish, with the final challenge being a face-y chockstone for a lieback in crampons. “Just get a single point on one of those features,” Kevin offered.

Riiiight.

I reached down to grab my right foot after attempting to swing it up to a nice set of nubbins and failing. With a barbaric yawp, I yarded hard on the top of the boulder, pressing as hard as I could on my foot, trying to drive the crampon point deep into the granite. “YEAH!!! Power through it!” Kevin’s grin said it all, and we slapped me a high-five as I stepped behind him and through the notch to overlook the Evolution Basin, Mt. Goddard standing dark and proud above all.

After a quick rappel down to the southwest face chutes, we scrambled back up to the summit, Kevin offering support and guidance as I had my little panic attacks on the Class 4 moves in mountaineering boots. “Why is your pack so heavy?” he asked.

<sigh>

The summit’s view was spectacular in the afternoon light, but we didn’t linger long. I had had enough exposure for one day, so the guys set a rappel station onto the east face and I happily lowered off to safer ground, Pat staying behind to clean the station and scramble himself down. The ropes pulled cleanly, and we wove our way down the rocks and scree to the mushy snow.

Time to posthole.

The guys pulled ahead as I kept sinking, but stopping was out of the question, and I was not looking forward to the haul back up to camp and Lamarck Col. My lungs started to wheeze and scream as I pushed myself to keep going, grabbing fresh water at the falls between turquoise tarns not yet thawed. The sand of the ascent was almost welcome as I reached out for boulders to haul my ass up the Col, and I whooped to get a bearing on the guys, who were finishing up their packing by the time I reached them. I allowed myself 20 minutes to rest, eat, and pack simultaneously, loading fresh batteries into my headlamp. I knew it was going to be a long night.

I reached the Col as the last light faded, tapping the sign once again for luck, and tromping the boot track down to the flats. The cool of night had firmed the snow at least, allowing for good footing and no crashing through, at least on the face. Part way down the sand and rock flats, I finally turned on my light as I wove through the boulders, occasionally running across tracks from my partners. I could see Kevin’s lamp at the big right turn ahead, and the soft snow of the lower Col forced me into the sand and onto the trail down. Despite my urgings, Kevin occasionally waited, and we wound our way through the pitch black to treeline, across the traverse, and down the switchbacks to the maze near Upper Lamarck Lake. I got turned around only once, ending up north of the trail on some tall slabs, but quickly corrected and strode at a gentle pace that I could handle with my exhaustion.

The stretch from Lower Lamarck Lake dragged on interminably, my macerated feet scratching against my socks and boots, my breath coming hard at any uphill angle or step. My focus was ahead only, one step in front of the other. I stopped only for a moment at the Wilderness sign just outside the campground, weakly smiling and knowing the walk back to the waiting TOF was along a nice, flat road.

The next morning, with huge bags under my eyes, hugging a steaming mug of coffee, I was smiling.

From the luckiest girl in the world:

Climb Hard, Be Safe.

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Mother’s Day Riding God’s Corduroy

Posted in Backpacking, Skiing on May 17, 2012 by moosetracksca

The book reports always came back with plenty of red pen marks, scribbles in the margin, lines through text, and questions in the margin. “Why?” “Who?” “What happened here?” And this all from a Nancy Drew novel. I wasn’t sensitized to the comments, but I always thought back to the earliest comments on my writing. The brown, lined paper, 11×13; the skinny dashed line between the solid ones for forming letters at appropriate heights; the story I wrote in first grade about how kittens got their whiskers. The folds were carefully preserved and fragile, but the comments on the side, collected from my grandmother’s English Department in Michigan, were cherished bits of wisdom. My mother had sent my compositions to her, and, once circulated, they were returned and posted on the refrigerator. My mother was my editor: a relentless perfectionist who wanted everything explained in clear and concise fashion.

The forest due south of the Tuolumne Campground was gradual, easy terrain, and the smell of pine permeated the warmth of the mid-morning air. I liked the feel of the pack weight on my back while I picked my way through the trees, my boots stomping hard against the open slabs while I searched for consistent snow. Streams flowed small but strong in each gulley, emerging and disappearing under drifts edged with dirt and needles, the water tasting of earth and spring. In an unsure moment, I pulled out my GPS to get a bearing, but as long as the landscape remained this gentle, I was happy following the western face of Johnson Peak.

Around mid-day, I swung the pack onto a few dry boulders and kicked out of my skis. Near a tear in the snow, listening to the roar of the melt, and the sun on my face, I nestled into a perfect crook. Arms outstretched, I was soon snoring loudly. The sirens of the High Sierra, those nap rocks. But what was the hurry? I was still looking for winter here, expecting shorter days and long, cold nights. Spring had snuck up on me this year, and I still hadn’t come to term with the long days. My body offered no complaints at the chance to rest and soak in the high country. With a smile and a grunt, I heaved the pack to my shoulders and clipped once again into my skis to continue my ascent.

The foxtails thinned, and the slabs shone out from under the snow at the saddle south of Johnson Peak. Below me spread the Rafferty Creek drainage, Evelyn Lake still frozen, and the north faces and bowls of the peaks around Vogelsang held acres of snow. Behind and below, the Tuolumne River wound and flooded the Meadows. Small puffer clouds hovered above the Cathedral Range, their shadows washing over the grey spires of Cockscomb, Unicorn, and Matthes Crest. My boots clunked heavily across the granite as I strode up the ridge of Johnson, and I had to giggle at my clumsiness on the boulders. What should have taken 20 minutes in trail runners took almost 45 in the boots as I wiggled and turned and reached through the brush for the rocks below. I had to laugh at myself as I pulled up onto the summit blocks through a chimney between boulders, especially when I spotted the easy step-around. I kicked back and absorbed the view from my perch.

We were walking along, I’m not sure exactly where, but it doesn’t matter since she had a knack of doing the same thing wherever we were. My hair was short then, and my mom was able to reach up and pluck a single strand from the top of my head. With a quick pull, and a yelp from me, she could remind me of how tall I was. Great: what every teenage, athletic, and brainy girl needs. But the lesson became clear after a few hundred yanks. Stand up straight, girl. Be proud of who you are and what you can do.

If I were to stay high across the northern slopes of Tuolumne Pass, I might be able to piece together a path on snow to Evelyn Lake, just a few more miles away. On the eastern slope of the saddle, a few old tracks twinkled in the angled afternoon light. With an eyebrow raised, and a mischievous smile, I threw my skins into my summit pack and locked my heels. I could decide better with a few laps under me, I thought.

Well, that was patently obvious, I laughed to myself at the bottom of the first run.

Fun wins.

With each run, my smile grew, the laughter louder. It was a simple slope, but who can complain when the snow looked like this:

 

Image

After two hours of running up and down, I grabbed the big pack and glided back down to the tarn to the west. A chunk of slab provided the perfect campsite not far from open water, and I dug a small hole in the snow to chill my can of Fat Tire before dinner. Snuggled down in my bag, I found myself drifting off as I held the gazed across the topo. I woke a few times that night, turning over and pulling the vast blanket of stars up close under my chin.

“So when do I get to see Tuolumne in winter?” my mother asked. There was an excitement in her voice, perhaps a little regret and longing. My parents made multiple annual pilgrimages to Yosemite, but they were limited to the Valley while Tioga was closed, and summer to the Meadows. That’s yet another amazing thing about my mom: while I know my adventures make her nervous, she wholeheartedly supports them. She really appreciates that phone call on Sunday evenings to let her and my pop know I’m home safely. Technically, she’s still waiting for those “winter” shots, but it’s not as if she’s fixated on calendar dates defining the seasons.

Fwwwiiiiiiisssssssssshhhhhhhhhhhh…

I knew the only way I’d get out of bed that morning was by deflating my pad, forcing myself to get on with the day. I had woken to pine needles tickling my nose, and the sun creeping over the southern ridge of Johnson. My stove was just out of reach, so I reluctantly slithered out, avoiding the drips from melting frost on the top of the bag. The XGK roared to life, and I layered the bacon in the pan, readied the coffee and eggs. I squinted up at the bowl over my head, waiting patiently for the sun to warm the north-facing snow.

From the upper ridge, I was able to view clear down into Sunrise Camp and towards Little Yosemite Valley. A line of clouds crept closer from the Central Valley, and a chilly breeze was a welcome touch on my sunburned face. I warmed up with two laps skirting the bowl, the lower half turning from NE to north, and the snow changed with it, remaining icy and fast and crunchy under my skis. On the final lap I diddled around with entering the bowl from the side, only to find nothing but loose boulders and no platform to don my skis. With my mouth pinned in a frustrated line, I looked up at the top entry from the ridge and knew I “should” have simply scrambled up to the top. But, once again, fun overrode fear, and my right shin, bruised from who-knows-what the day before, screamed on the final set of turns back to the campsite. It was already one o’clock, and time to creep back to the TOF.

I followed the cascade to Elizabeth Lake, finally giving up on trying to connect the sloppy snow patches and just postholing my way down. I finally had to completely unhitch the top buckle of my right boot due to the pain in my shin, but at least the more frequent open lengths of trail allowed for a more normal stride. Unicorn Creek rumbled under the snow bridges and ice, and the air smelled of mud and pine. Doggedly, I kept swinging one foot in front of the other through the trees. Around four I finally reached the campground, then stopped on the bridge over the Tuolumne River to remember the flood stage of last summer. I looked up to see a car stopped in the road, two women smiling broadly at me, waving and giving my thumbs-up as they allowed me to cross the road.

I called my mom from the MoMart in Lee Vining an hour later to wish her a Happy Mother’s Day. And to thank her.

I love you, Mom!

From the luckiest girl in the world:

Climb Hard, Be Safe.

 

A slide show of this weekend’s picture can be found here:

http://gallery.me.com/moosetracksca#100107

Dusting off the Cobwebs

Posted in Uncategorized on May 11, 2012 by moosetracksca

Day 1: The Matterhorn

The single headlamp floated towards me in the darkness of 0430 as I reached into the TOF to light my stove. I froze for a moment, uttering “Good morning?” to the light, and Michael’s accent wafted a greeting back to me. I embraced my friend and offered coffee, learning that he had pulled into the lot at 0200 after a long drive from the Bay Area. As the water warmed, I busily stretched the skins onto my skis, threw too much gear into the simple day pack, and locked my boots into place for the carry away from Twin Lakes. The sun found us trudging up the Horse Creek Trail, wisps of clouds clinging to the peaks to the west end of the canyon below the Sawtooth Ridge. In the morning chill and breeze, we hiked up along the creek, our packs weighted down with the load of skis and avy gear. Michael turned once early on to ask if he was going too slowly. 

Right.

Two hours, 3.5 miles, and almost 2000 vertical feet into our day, we finally reached the snow: a headwall of consolidated hard pack with a small stand of pines lining the bottom. We stashed our trail runners and changed into boots and skis, happy to be rid of the weight. Michael glided out and up an older track across the face, and I gingerly stepped behind him, my ski crampons seeming to not grip the snow at all. At the first switchback, I reached down to fiddle with my bindings, and in an instant I was sliding back to the bottom of the hill, my whippet pinned beneath me as I faced into the slope. Willows near the bottom halted my fall, which Michael later described as “a slow motion train wreck.” I gathered myself, rolling my eyes, and stomped back into my skis to regain all that I had lost.

At the top of the slope, we racked our skis yet again as we hoofed up the ledges, the wind swirling against the granite that bled ice. I kept looking above to Michael, who steadfastly kicked steps into the already softened snow, occasionally leaning forward against the weight on his back. I gasped as we crested a snow-swept ridgeline, the sun sparkling off the hardened pack and a small tarn immediately below us. I stepped gingerly just below the small cornices to a flat just beyond the small cirque, and we snapped into our bindings again to stroll up the slopes to the glacier. 

The air was cold and brisk and rushing against us as we pushed upwards, the snowpack never softening in the light. I began to get a bit nervous as we hit the steeper slopes of the glacier, Michael beckoning to a tall and steep couloir on our left, known as “Ski Dreams.” With the snow running fast, I suggested we stick to the NE couloir instead, although I couldn’t tell any difference in angle. On old avy debris in the middle of the slope, we once again stowed the skis on our packs and slipped into crampons in order to more quickly climb the crusty slope.

I was amazed at Michael: the man had gotten barely two hours of sleep the night before, following a long drive from the Bay Area and sea level.  And yet, without complaint, he happily took the lead for kicking steps, perhaps because, as usual, I’m fairly slow when it comes to the “up” direction. I did my best to hang with him, keeping about 20 steps behind in case of a slip or fall. At the base of the summit massif, we stashed our skis and looked, somewhat forlornly, up at the half-melted-out couli over our heads. The wind by now was whipping around us, blowing old spindrift across the slope and driving clouds fast across the small patch of blue sky above us. 

“Do you want to go to the top?” he asked, and I nodded in the affirmative, since I hadn’t been yet. And so, up we scrambled, crampons and ski boots scraping against scree and rocks, then sinking into crappy snow over ice. The steepness grew in the midsection of the chute, and I was comforted by at least having my whippet to drive into the snow. It was slow progress, but I was climbing! One foot at a time, pushing up, driving my crampons into the step ladder, the wind gusting around us, the clouds rushing overhead, the rock towering above but the angle lessening as we crept towards the top of the chute. I could do this! I could finish this! I could…

“Laura, this isn’t fun any more…”

Crap, he’s right. We were about to get blown out of the chute and I knew it. I flipped around to sit next to Michael in the mild shelter of a large boulder, and I smiled over at him. The summit would have to wait for another day. Already my mind shifted to the classic dihedral climb on the far side of the massif. But that would be for another day. I crept back down the stepladder as Michael bombed ahead, then we slapped the skis on and slipped carefully onto the icy slope of the glacier.

The first turns are always the hardest for me, standing at the top of a long run-out slope, especially if any crust is involved. Michael easily made his turns down the face, then waited patiently while I went through my “scared-then-mad-that-I’m-scared” cycle. After a few minutes of frustration, I finally grunted my way through the fear and we alternated turns flying down the glacier. I finally found my glide and I whooped in joy, turning to shoot a video of Michael before we met up to cruise the easier sections back to our shoes. We were quiet on the long hike out, but we started laughing all over again as we piled into Michael’s truck to enjoy a well-earned brew before heading to dinner.

 

Day 2: Hourglass Couloir

Karl had met us at the MoMart in Lee Vining on Friday night, after he had climbed a few peaks off of Carson Pass, and our threesome loaded up heavy packs, once again, after spending the night at Mosquito Flat. In the early light, we walked along the dry trail, carefully sidestepping the frozen sections and marveling at the extended crystals lining the crevasses between the rocks. The tarns were still and perfect mirrors of the trees and walls high above, any snow on the trail was hard and allowed for easy passage. After 2.5 miles, we finally stashed our shoes and skinned between dirt patches up to the Treasure Lakes. In a small chute, I suddenly started to feel weak and nauseous, and I called just ahead to Karl to tell Michael that I needed a break. On a gorgeous slab in the sun, I plopped down and tried to start eating and drinking, and was suddenly overcome by shivering. My bonk transition had started, and I grabbed my jacket as the guys looked on a bit nervously. “I’m OK,” I stuttered through chattering teeth. After 30 minutes, I settled down, my metabolism kicking back in, and we loaded up for the big climb ahead.

The Hourglass Couloir stands tall and proud at the back end of Little Lakes Valley, Bear Creek Spire just to the south and east. Old tracks switchbacked up the right side of the chute, then a boot track extended high and around the corner out of view. Michael and I swept forward, Karl bending off to doff his touring rig and throw on crampons. Michael kept looking back at me from the skin track, later telling me that he was checking to see if I was bonking again. He was pleasantly surprised to see me chugging along right behind him. The slope steepened, and we stopped to trade skis for crampons. Damn, there was a lot of walking going on.

A perfect step ladder presented itself in the chute: boot deep track and just firm enough for the ‘pons to grab and hold. It’s ease forced me to remind myself to pay attention, as any slip now would have led to a nasty and long slide back to the base. Michael and Karl forged ahead, and I kept my pace steady, resting as I needed after blocks of 20 steps up. Perched behind a large boulder, Michael waved as he stashed his skis and asked if I wanted to head to the top. Once again, not having been there, I opted for the continuation, and we kept lifting heavy boots and crampons up the slope to the top. Once there, a perfect nap rock presented itself, and Michael and I sat to eat lunch while Karl slogged on to the top of Mt. Dade. I wanted to make sure I had enough legs left to descend safely instead of drag myself up another 900 vertical of boulders.

Michael and I stomped down the slope to the skis, and we juggled for position behind the boulder. I almost lost my ski as I pounded it into the slope, so I waited for Michael to finish and I used his platform to step in. Once again, the first turns were the scariest, and I ended up side slipping for a bit until I once again bit my lip and threw the skis around. In the softer snow of the lower half of the couloir, we traded turns, and my smile grew exponentially. “NOW you’re having fun!” Michael called. Karl caught us up after a brief rest and his glissade of the chute, and we sliced and diced our way around the rocks of the lower approach to get back to the trail.

“Don’t forget to grab a beer!” the man at the side of trail called. Michael had walked right by the brightly colored cans, but I had no trouble spotting them, or the sign saying “4U” written in sticks above them. Our packs felt noticeably lighter following a quick downing of cold Tecate, but they felt the best when we finally swung them down at the foot of our trucks in the dry parking lot.

 

Day 3: The Sweetwater Mountains

“Let’s not park here: keep heading up the road until we have to stop!”

Backseat drivers. Can’t live with ‘em, can’t live… well, OK. I was the backseat driver, and I was feeling a little lazy after two solid days of lugging heavy packs up and down snow slopes. Michael’s Pathfinder chugged its way up the slim jeep road, climbing ever higher into the sagebrush slopes of the Sweetwater Mountains north of Bridgeport. I watched the trees thin, huge junipers or pines towering in solitary grandeur above the broken rock and soil. The slopes of Wheeler Peak towered above, sienna in the morning light. At just below 10K and Boulder Flat, a small snow bank blocked just enough of the road to halt our progress, and we chocked the tires after Michael pulled as far to the side as he could.

It was nice to be on an easy road with a much lighter pack, but I could feel the effects of two days of grinding in my legs. Head down, I tried to coordinate my breathing with my steps when a shape and color caught my eye. “Hey, guys?” I said, reaching down for the chipped black piece. Arrowhead! “How did you see that?” I told the guys to keep there eyes peeled, but then chuckled at Michael, since he had walked right on by the eight cans of beer on the trail the day before. We walked across easy ground above a small tarn and headed to the broad, loose face. “I don’t think it’ll be that bad,” Michael grinned, and I rolled my eyes, betting him dinner that I’d be sliding all over the damn place.

A well-packed use trail switchered up the face to a collapsed mine, the adit leaning out from the slope. Beneath our feet, minerals sparkled in the sun, and we spent almost 10 minutes digging through the rocks looking for the best samples. Just above the mine, we gained the ridge, and I gasped as I popped up and over to see the rest of the range. The melting, loose slopes dripped color into deep canyons, pines dotting the lower elevations. Snow drifts added even more depth to the rounded slopes and summits; a road along the ridge was etched softly into the rock. My usual smile burst across my face, and I was re-energized to be up high, as well as gazing across one of the most unique landscapes I had ever seen. 

After a break on the summit of Mt. Wheeler, our hardy trio trudged onward along the road, marveling at the shifting colors and striations. The road stretched up to the summit of Mt. Patterson, with the guys of course opting for the straight-up approach (instead of a long switcher). I could hardly complain: it was a perfect day up high, sunny and a cool breeze, and I was having too much fun exploring and talking with the guys to worry about anything at all. After another lunch break, and glowering at four quad-riders who felt that roads were for lesser men, we strode back down the road to the waiting truck. After an epic back-down, where Karl directed Michael’s driving and I was in charge of lifting and throwing the heavy rocks out of the road, we loaded into the Pathfinder for the bumpy ride back down to the twin Elements in Bridgeport.

With big hugs and bigger smiles, my Bay Area buddies hit the highway, and I turned south for home, my biggest weekend in months under my belt.

 

How the hell did I do this for 10 days straight??

Getting Schooled on University Peak

Posted in Day Hiking on May 2, 2012 by moosetracksca

The big male hopped up the branches of the pine tree, hiding in the sun as his puffed and swelled with each call to his harem scattered in the Manzanita. His tail fanned wide as he eluded our cameras, and we finally shrugged and turned up the Onion Valley trail, his thwump echoing behind us. Snowshoes tucked under the topper of my pack looked a bit ridiculous against the bare ground over which we hiked, but the upper, north-facing slopes on the ridges above Gilbert Lake held just enough snow to make things, well, interesting. As Bob Huey tanked up below Flower Lake, I took three steps up to my knees, punching through the crust, and I threw my pack down in mock disgust. The crampons on the rails bit into the steep slope as we traversed the ridge to Bench Lake.

The sun shone warmly against the light crust, a few sweeps of new snow from the most recent storm huddled in the shade of golden snags. We laughed at our good fortune, once again, with the amazing weather and warmth of the early spring season. Hell, early spring: we never did have a winter. The terrain abruptly changed at Bench Lake, where colors became limited to a chosen few: the white of the snow; the grey granite; brownish sand and scree; an azure sky. Above us towered the great north face of University Peak, its cliff bands on high dark and foreboding. But along the solid edge of Bench Lake, we skipped and stepped our way lightly, smiling in the sun and soaking in the grand arena.

At the base of the chute, we paused upon a great nap boulder to change into crampons and rack the snowshoes. I chomped down a Gu and string cheese, a handful of trail mix as I grinned stupidly at the snow above us. There is just something about this sort of work that makes me dumb with happiness. Huey crossed the snowfield as I threw my gear back in my pack and slowly, solidly, we began picking our way up the mountain.

There is a rhythm to walking in crampons, a little extra swing at the front end of my step to set the points. A gentle lean forward lifts the boot out from behind me, freeing it to be lifted up and forward into the steep slope. I try to keep the weight in my feet, not in the pole or axe, my back staying tall. I struggle, however, with the rest step. I don’t know if it’s excitement, drive, or a deep-seeded desire to move swiftly up the face, but even when following Bob’s perfect cadence, I would find myself moving faster and faster, then having to stop and catch my breath.

But, oh: the chance to turn and gaze across the broadening skyline as we crept up the chute. The slashes of the Kearsarge Pass trail outlined with a touch of snow against the golden sands; Dragon Peak’s blackened, crumbling rock; the stripes on the peaklet between Gould and Rixford; snow filling the Kearsarge Lakes and the bowl on the east face of Mt. Bago; the dark trees lining Bubbs Creek; the Palisades pale and just a trace darker blue in distant haze; and the clouds low in the Central Valley beyond the mountains. I felt the same love and joy last fall from my perch on the opposite wall below the summit of Gould, 5 weeks after my knee surgery. I was home in these heights!

Bob and I topped into the rocky reaches beneath the summit ridge, and, still in our crampons, carefully stepped and scrambled our way to the sand. Third class ledges and fins stacked neatly above us; occasional dykes and cracks reached skyward through the slabs. Nervously, I stepped into the crack system Bob had ascended, searched for an undercling and an opposing outward pull, jamming my boots into the granite. Half way up, hyperventilating from fear, I forced myself to stop and just stand on my feet. “Breathe, Molnar. Dammit, BREATHE.” I yelled at myself, feeling the weight of rope, axe, crampons, snowshoes, trekking poles, and other assorted gear in my pack. I pieced together the final moves, declining Bob’s outstretched hand for fear of pulling him off if I lost my balance.

At long last, the ridge, broken and soft, was within reach, the pinnacle to our right looking sketchy with snow and ice packed between the boulders through which we might scramble. I gave the conditions a hard look: it’s always a bit disappointing to be turned around so close and after so much work, but today was not the day to stand on the summit. Instead, Bob and I shot a few pictures into Center Basin and to Forester Pass, and ate lunch above the steep snowfield between us, and the notch to descend to Robinson Lake.

We had the rope and a few pieces of gear, so we opted to practice some traversing, placing gear, and setting anchors for the climb across the snow to the notch. I led out, the bowline on a coil around my waist as I kicked into the soft snow. On the other side, I found a solid pinch between two boulders which served as another sling anchor, and I worked the rope through the Munter hitch to belay Bob across. It would be our last smiles for some time that afternoon.

The snow slope plunged to the cirque beneath University Pass, but the snow was rotten and crusted. While postholing is a sad hobby of mine, to dive unexpectedly against a rock face and pitch forward into snow through which my axe cut like butter was less than comforting. Grudgingly, I turned into the slope and started the long haul downclimbing the chute. Bob and I both sank repeatedly to our hips, and would be forced to swim and crawl to the surface, only to sink yet again. In agony, we reached the sand of the lower slopes, and looked back up at our track while shaking our heads.

With one final drop to Robinson Lake on the snowshoes, we were at last on trail again, winding amongst the willows and searching for cairns below the moraines of Independence Peak. Even Bob had stopped chatting for a while as we both focused soundly on the beer back at the car. With a final few steps down the switchers, through the aspen, and across the logs, we emerged into the Onion Valley campground.

Our smiles belied the hardship of the past few hours, and we clinked bottles to celebrate yet another grand adventure, the sun shining far across the Valley as we cruised down the winding road.

After a great party with the SCMA folks on Saturday night, I stretched my legs up to Lone Pine Lake with my friend Miguel on Sunday, then plunked down on the patio of The Store for my first burger of the year.

Yup, it’s good to be home.

From the luckiest girl in the world:

Climb Hard, Be Safe.

-L