Archive for the Climbing Category

A Hiker’s Foray into Alpine Ice: Mendel Right

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


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.


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.


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.


Return to a World of Blue: Ouray, CO

Posted in Climbing on February 24, 2012 by moosetracksca

The world around me got really quiet as I looked up at the wall above me. The route in the winding gullies was obvious, the steps carved from months of stomping and filling back in. But no rope dangled above me, the leading end tied instead to my harness, the weight of screws, screamers, and draws sitting on my hips. The guides to my left called encouragement to their clients as I took a deep breath and approached the ice. The plan in my head was clear, the effort to get to each ledge drawn into the pattern. “Climbing.”

“Climb on.”

The words I heard in my head were Steve Larson’s, spoken only on the ground between routes two years ago, while he trusted me to figure out the puzzle for myself up on the ice. Use your legs, find the small steps, move fluidly instead of bashing your feet, crashing for purchase. Be efficient with your tools: look where you want to sink it, then PUT it there. One swing, maybe two. You’ll feel it when it’s right. I stood strongly, balanced, working the screw in around my waist level, clipped the screamer. “On belay” came the call from below.

A deep breath, a look up. No hurries here. Be solid, be safe. Smile. Laugh. Focus. Keep moving up.

Damitol, it’s hard to clip the rope with gloves on; to untangle the alpine draw; to place a screw with my left hand.

At the top, the anchor already built, I clipped the rope through the opposing lockers. “OK, Sean, take.”

At the bottom, big smiles and a hug. Pull the rope, do it all over again.

Two days of hanging on steeps, single/no tool drills, hooking and gliding.

And on the third day, she lead the route.


Three  days in a world of blue, memories of a life-changing trip two years ago, spending time with friends new and old. And, just like everyone else, I can’t wait to go back. Even the drive home held so much meaning for me: basins and ranges, the biggest sky, wondering what is off at the end of the thin black ribbon that reaches to the horizon.

Full speed ahead.

Photo by Sheila Romane

Before the Window Closes

Posted in Climbing, Day Hiking on January 19, 2012 by moosetracksca
Long after the sun’s arc had passed beyond the coastal ranges, the mountains of Yosemite’s high country held the pale light, grey warmth exuding from granite faces as the stars crept into position. Tenaya Lake still glowed white as I cruised by, headed to the Valley in January. I chased the final rays west until the Tioga Road intersected the branch heading back east and south, dropping into familiar territory in the dark.

It felt a little strange to be beneath the cliffs the next morning, if for no other reason than the time of year. Ice and frost edged the thin strip of water cascading over Yosemite Falls, only to disappear mid-day when sun finally crested the southern edge of the valley. Thick ice crystals outlined the detritus of the forest floor; skin covered the broad Merced. We walked and talked and laughed our way to Mirror Meadow, where Tom and I gazed up at the approach to the mighty face of Half Dome. Once we reached the turnoff to ascend Snow Creek, we all settled into different paces, either talking or huffing or thinking deep thoughts as we marched up the endless switchers out of the Valley.

I had not been on this trail for years, and, in fact, had never seen it, having ascended in the early morning dark hours the last time. I wish I could say I moved slowly so I could absorb all the nuances alone, appreciate a new vista and perspective. But I am still struggling to regain the bounce in my step, to control my breathing as I pace uphill. The legs wanted so much to bound up the trail, but my lungs had other ideas. And so I leaned into the grade, dutifully putting one foot in front of the other, pausing at the switchback ends to breathe and look around.

The dust smelled of summer as the sun peeked above the east face of Half Dome, its shadow extending high up the slopes of Basket Dome. Brittle leaves coated the trail, obscuring the smoothed granite beneath, the light long and full through the oaks, then manzanita, then pine. I fought against my competitive side as I watched some of the group pull ahead, the little voice coming back again and again to “get going, get up this hill, I can’t believe you let this happen to yourself again, they’re having to wait for you”. It was just too easy to slip back into beat-myself-up mode, especially while hiking with someone with whom plans during the year have been made. I paused at one switcher where two log stumps had been placed as seats, and looked across to Half Dome, standing stoic and quiet in the midday sun, breathing deeply for a few minutes. This place has always allowed me to refocus my energies inward.

Let the rabbits run, Laura, I told myself. It was my line from the Challenge, why I started at the back of the train every morning. Let those with speed get out and away, set your own pace. I had fallen into the trap that morning of expecting myself to keep up no matter what, setting my goals based on other’s abilities instead of my own. It was as if someone had said, “Oh: you’re raising money based on elevation gain? Well I gained 500,000+ last year, that would be a good goal.” I needed to let go and walk my own stride, no matter where that might take me. As I stood from the log, I allowed myself a small smile as I leaned once again into the grade.

“We’re going to climb this afternoon, right?” I asked as the group assembled at the tailgate of the TOF. We didn’t, but the hike up the mist trail above Vernal and Nevada Falls, was both old and new to me. Once again, the only evidence of January was the ice encrusting the cliffs around both, both having thin but strong strands of water coursing over the edges. We sunned ourselves on the slabs above Nevada, trying to soak every ounce of warmth out of the weak winter sun. I caught sunset that night at Olmsted Point on the way home, waved to Rob in his ranger truck parked at Tenaya. The wind was howling on the other side of the pass, and I wondered how much longer I would have to enjoy these heights the easy way.

Wednesday proved another free day, so Kevin and I trudged up Pine Creek to the falls to climb the ice. “I seem to remember this being steeper,” he said between wind gusts. Indeed, when I saw him standing and walking in the middle section, I knew it was going to be a light day. Instead of grunting my way up, the picks and kicks turned out to be light and solid. We simul-soloed the last two 30 foot cascades beyond the tall falls, then sat on rocks in the middle of the creek to eat lunch before hiking down. As I drove home, I could see the Sierra wave forming to the north, the clouds creeping in behind Mt. Humphreys. Tioga had closed, in anticipation of the weather, the night before.

The window was closing.

But now, where are those new skis?

A few pictures from the weekend:

Rest of the pics are here: Snow Creek. Mist Trail. Pine Creek Falls.

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

Tuolumne Dreamin’…

Posted in Climbing on January 13, 2012 by moosetracksca

It took four years for Kurt and I to actually pull off a climb together.

We planned; our schedules and lives jumped around each other; we set dates; we frowned at weather reports; we called each other at two in the morning because it was raining in town. We had almost completely given up.

But at long last, when he texted me last week, asking if I had a day during the week to come out and play, my schedule allowed for it. With no patients to see, I took an unpaid day to head up to Tuolumne Meadows with my globe-trotting friend.

The thin ice fall clung to every curve and bulge of the cliff face of Drug Dome, the start of the route awash with waves of yellow and white ice. What transpired was a gorgeous dance of watching Kurt lead the route, then me trudging up behind, my feet screaming in too-tight boots. But to look out across to the west: to Mt. Hoffman; the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne; trees and blue sky cut only by the occasional jet roaring overhead; to hang from the rope and my tools looking for the next step, the next strike; all of it drove home how special this moment was.

While smiling throughout, when I stepped into the sun beneath the second belay, a WI4 curtain separating me from Kurt’s anchor, I looked up at him and shot the biggest toothy grin I’ve had in a long time. We may have had to wait four years, but we sure hit this one out of the park.

On the way home, Kurt and I stopped at Tioga Lake to skate (only his second time ever!).

Rest of my pics are here.

The rest of Kurt’s pics are here.

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

And this is just the beginning…

Posted in Alpine Skating, Climbing, Day Hiking on January 9, 2012 by moosetracksca

There’s a lot to be said about hiking in the dark. As a trudger, there are definitely times when I just need to put my head down and get the job done. Furtive glances at the stars and the silhouetted trees and mountains are about all I can afford without tripping over my own feet. So, with the moon hiding comfortably behind the mountains, and Brent’s headlamp nearby, we emerged from the trees and onto the rough old mining road of Pine Creek. I paced solidly and slow, trying not to let my breath get too far ahead of me, from getting too sweaty in the cold morning air.

My headlamp flashed against the ground, and I pulled up fast before stepping on a tremendous flow of ice in the middle of the road. In the small circle, the ice glowed yellow and white, bulbous flows overlapping thickly. We picked our way up along the side, slipping in the scree, the smell of freshly agitated sage filling the breeze. As I crested a rise, I caught my breath at the sight of a few springs merging along the wall, the ice looking like melting ice cream along the rock. Just below the trees at the bench line, our way was blocked again by a similar flow, forcing us to bushwhack up the slope to the flattest section, then stepping carefully across, our trail runners sticking and sucking against the wet top layer.

With the coming sunrise, grey light permeated the forest, reflecting off the amazing upper creek, frozen in place as if flooding. The log bridge was clear, although a slip off would be quite painful, rather than the usual soaking of summertime. As the first glow touched the tip of Feather Peak in the distance, we came upon Pine Creek Lake, it’s surface opaque and ruffled but clear of snow. Excitedly, we donned dry layers, and I sat down to tie on my skates. Stepping gingerly down from the edge, I dropped to a knee and turned my 7” screw into the lake in order to measure approximate ice thickness, which I repeated three or four times in different locations around the east shore. Around my neck hung specialized picks for reaching back to the ice should I fall through, a prospect which causes me to shiver in the warmth of my apartment.

The sun’s rays illuminated the striped rocks above the lake, and I turned to Brent. “There’s just a point where you have to be brave, you know?” I breathed deep, plotting a course directly across the lake, looking for smoother surfaces and minimal cracks, analyzing for changes in the ice, which could indicate a problem. As I pushed off, the skates rattled and bumped over the undulations, my body bent, my arms outstretched, not exactly the most graceful maneuvers I’ve performed. Reaching the other side, I realized I had been holding my breath, and I reached out for the rocks, gasping and smiling and laughing.

“Ka-CHUNG kachung kachung… kachung…”

The echo reverberated under the ice, and it seemed the walls around us, as I looked back across the lake to see Brent perk up a bit from his camera. The lake was singing at us as the ice settled a bit. I headed out again, this time paralleling the western shore, headed for the inlet at the southwest corner, the ice piled into a soft knoll. The frozen waves made for challenging gliding, especially during the first turns, and I struggled to find a clear path in the lake.

“Ka-CHUNG kachung kachung… kachung…”

“Oh, for godssake can you NOT do that while I’m out in the middle here?” I asked the lake, knowing that it’s probably 8-12” thickness (my screw never remotely broke through) would be highly unlikely to shatter. Giggling and whoopsy-ing, I stumbled back to the eastern shore where Brent waited patiently, shooting video and pics. We swapped out gear: I lay the 30ft of cord and picks at his side as he donned the skates, while I threw on my trail runners. Brent had skated as a kid, but never on a lake, and he shot me the same look as I had while he maneuvered down from the edge. In no time, he was getting the old hang of things, although the glide was as difficult for him on the ruffled surface.

“KACHUNG Ka-chung kachung…”

Brent headed back, his eyes wide with excitement. “You want another go of it?” he asked. Without hesitation, the skates jumped back on my feet, and I went hunting for more glide. I have been trying to video snippets of skating, but between the bouncing skates and my arms flailing I could barely capture the majesty of the scene. I turned and started striding back to the north shore, bending slightly and feeling the natural glide sink in, my legs gently pumping against the edges of skates…

Until I realized I wasn’t all that great at stopping! Luckily I didn’t land on the screw or my camera with the ensuing belly flop.

Having enough, Brent and I picked our way down the trail, which was mostly clear save for the giant ice patches we had avoided in the morning, donning microspikes to step across the floes. Later that evening, I joined Brent in Mammoth at the Eastern Sierra Avalanche Center Annual Season Kickoff, a big fundraising event for the center and with Andrew McClean as a keynote speaker. Following the talk on skiing in the Arctic Circle and Antarctica, the organizers moved into the raffle. Just before the end, my number was called for a small bit of schwag, which just about justified the extra $40 I had contributed to tickets. The final prize: a pair of Fischer Watea powder skis. The number was called…

I walked out the door with new skis.

Sunday morning I met Brent at the Alabama Hills Café for breakfast, then headed into the hills themselves for a few hours of climbing. Oh, man, am I rusty. Brent wanted to warm up by walking, so I walked straight to the crag and a 5.1 that I had soloed multiple times in the past. Apparently it had been a distant enough past that I managed to get myself stuck half way up. Great job, Molnar. 1, 3, 5, 7, we worked our way across the face, the 7 giving me just enough nerves and pause, and my knee still not liking any sort of tall step up onto my toes. We worked fundamentals, and then I asked to lead the 5-easy routes to finish the session. Clockwork. Now that was another glide I could remember feeling in the past. You see, it’s all work right now, but my body is remembering.

At noon I strode up the NRT out of the Lone Pine CG, finding a pace I could maintain with a slightly elevated breathing rate. If I got going too fast, I’d stop and grab a few leaves of sage, rubbing them vigorously between my hands and breathing deep of the desert; or I’d stick my face into the sharp needles of the pinion pines and breathe equally deeply. While it was a workout, I took my time to really look around at the clarity in the Valley, watch the water tumble under the shimmering ice shields that branched from rock to rock. I semi-jogged the road to descend, it being in sun, and even stretched on the side for a few minutes to close my eyes, then peer down into the canyon from whence I had come. All the while, I was under the watchful gaze of Her Majesty at 14K, and I smiled up to her east face.

Now if it would just snow so I could try out these new skis…

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.


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.