Then I went back yesterday. I was up at 4AM after having awoken 5 times during the night: Is it time yet? I was ready. This time I saw the massif. And how.
I snowshoed the whole approach in two-ish hours, thanking my lucky stars that some other intrepid had made track almost to the entrance to the ridge. (It was a “his;” the tracks were like a giant had stridden/stormed up that drainage.) At this point, I felt so good that I took a look at the connecting ridge to Atlantic Peak and thought, “Hmmm…. Why get one peak when I could get two?”
It was clear to me that I could ditch my snowshoes and hiking poles. It was also clear to me that I wouldn’t need crampons or ice axe for the first bit I could see. Gnarly, beautiful rock lay ever-ascending in front of me, interspersed with the cloud to the silver lining - two-foot deep patches of snow. I began the ridge, rock-hopping where I could, expending energy to punch through those snow patches when I couldn’t. The sun finally met me and I took a break to eat a Gu and drink the last of my Nuun.
In front of me lay the first obstacle, a megalith of black and pink and white rock with a piercing top that pointed skyward. I would skirt around to the right of this thing, picking my way through icky rock. Loose and rotten, having been chipped away from the ridge, it was yearning to make its way down the side of the mountain to who-knows-where. I took the Gu and drank the water, checked my GPS, and thanked the sun for busting up on that 8 degree chill.
I began to work. I hit upon a strategy. I would pick a path up the next 15 feet of shitty-debris-wanting-to-be-downhill-from-here and outline it with my finger. Then I’d put my helmeted head back down and execute the moves. Downward pressure with my hands (or I would be delivering its wish to that shitty debris), precise placement of my feet. Looking, looking for a good hand, a solid foot, among the tumbles of rock and snow.
Upward and eastward I climbed around that first obstacle. And then found the obstructionist part of it: where does it end? Where do I stop traversing and ascend to regain the ridge? In a forest, you can’t see the forest for the trees; on an climb, you can’t see the mountain for the rock. I did the best I could. I consulted the GPS and the route description and decided that I was probably at the point where I needed to “carefully climb back to the ridge crest.” This I did - with more finger painting in the air and downward pressure with hands and feet.
On the ridge, I was happy. I LOVE ROCK. Even not 100% solid rock has its trustworthy sections if you take the time to find them and treat them right. I love the texture of rock - that hard, unyielding density. I also love the bumps and flakes and cracks that make nice handholds and allow me to get a leg up. Even the snow on the ridge had the courtesy to lay flat and not tilt all willy-nilly toward the basin below. (There should be a maxim: everything on the mountain wants to get off - except us humans.) I still had to punch through it one foot at a time, but at least it wasn’t with the fear of sliding to my demise with each step. That came soon enough.
I had to descend from the ridge to avoid another obstacle. In the summer, you would rock hop underneath the obstacle and be around it lickety-splickety. Today it held a steep bank of snow that plunged down onto a tilted slab of bedrock that plunged down in turn to a tumble of rock and scree. For a long ways. I looked at it. I did a risk-assessment. If I slipped, I would get hurt. Bad. So, could I do it without slipping?
My feet would have to go in the snow. My hands would be on the rock above. I scouted the rock for hand placements on this 20-foot section. It had some bumps and flakes and cracks that I could see, then an airy spot between the first rock and the second section of rock. That section was an unknown. And unknowable to me at that point. I couldn’t see if there were holds. But I could start and feel it out as I went.
I did. The first section was solid. My feet sank into the snow and mercifully didn’t slide. Then I came to the unknowable section. I could see a horn sticking out on the second section of rock. It was below me and I would have to tilt to grab it and then move my feet. I would have to trust the snow until I could get that horn. I didn’t think much. I committed and reached for the horn. My right hand grasped it. I exhaled and continued.
I regained the ridge, and the stress lessened for a bit. I made my way around several more obstacles, getting to climb over one especially gorgeous bit of pointy rock that looked impassible at first but yielded under close scrutiny and one-move-at-a-timeism. And then I could see the summit. At last! I checked the time and was amazed to see that it was already 10:57AM. I decided I could give this ridge one more hour and then needed to turn back or risk darkness and fatigue. Already I had signs of fatigue; I forgot that I’d moved my watch to my wrist and searched frantically for it for 30 seconds, I forgot that I’d moved my down mitten to my backpack’s side pocket and cursed myself for having (I thought) dropped it. I took another Gu and sipped still-warm (yay!) water.
I continued another 15 minutes, working that ridge. And then I got a full-on frontal of the class 3 gully that lay ahead of me. I looked at the right side of it. I looked at the left side of it. I didn’t want to look at the middle. It was chock-full of unknowable snow. Ugh. I flashed back to the airy traverse. I calculated that it would be at least another hour to the summit with this gully and the airy traverse and all the other careful, deliberate, brain-sucking moves to make on the way down. The descent of this ridge would go no faster than the ascent. I didn’t think much. I turned around and began the descent. I felt immediate relief.
Which was premature. The descent was tricky. I couldn’t see what was below me as I lowered myself off of shelves of rock, but really hoped a good foot would turn up, or at least a slanted bit that I could place my foot on for purchase until I could lower my hands. I lost my foot track and then found it again. I was sure of one thing: I needed to follow my track on this ridge. It was too cliffy to try out a new route on the way down. So I would search and search for my footprints in the snow between the rock sections. Blank snow meant I had gone elsewhere. It was fatiguing!
My body entered a lurching state. My bad knee was deciding whether to be trustworthy or not. I slowed down and started talking to myself. “What are you committing to in this stretch? What’s your path?” I finger painted and made my body follow.
The worst times were the doubting times. I agonized that I was descending too much and would end up needing to reclimb. I agonized that I was staying on the ridge too long and would cliff out and have to find the exit. I nearly descended the wrong gully but made myself scout the ridge one last time and found my track on the other side of a gnarly rock that I didn’t know I could (and had!) climbed. I committed to traversing a section of icky dirt and scree where I couldn’t see my track but felt it had to be the right level and came upon my track on the opposite side. I didn’t celebrate. I couldn’t. But I did exhale. Then I continued to search and talk to myself and finger paint. I reached my snowshoes and the end of that ridge in 8 minutes fewer than it had taken me to ascend.
Now I smiled. I took photos. I texted my fiancé. I drank water. It was still too cold to bask in the warmth of appreciation and gratitude, but I knew now that I could. I put on my snowshoes and descended into that sunny basin where the Breckenridge and Frisco residents bring their dogs to recreate.
I did not summit Pacific. It has become clear that I didn’t need to. I no longer have the summit fever of old. The summit fever I had when I first moved out here and climbed all the 14ers. I had something to prove. A life to re-define after divorce and ripping, tearing loss. Holes to fill, hungry and driving and blinding.
I didn’t need to summit Pacific yesterday. I am full for having been on that mountain for eight hours. I am grateful for being able to see it, to feel it beneath my fingers, to test it and tuck it away until summer when I look forward to seeing it again in a different light, a different season. I am grateful to descend into sunlight and hear the crunch of my snowshoes. I am grateful to come home and hug the world’s best fiance and tell him what was in my heart for those 8 hours. I am grateful to feel my body, to trust my hands and my feet. And my judgment. I can trust my judgment. I am very grateful for that.
I did not summit Pacific. The story ends there.