Friday, January 05, 2018

I Find Grateful

I did not summit Pacific Peak. The story has to begin there. My first attempt was last Thursday. I did not even glimpse the massif that day. I hightailed it off the approach when I heard the distinctive “whoompf, whoompf” of snow collapsing - an avalanche’s signal. Still, I was happy. Three hours of snowshoeing in a basin where Breckenridge and Frisco residents come with their dogs to backcountry ski is not a bad day.

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.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

13er Reflections

Dallas Peak, 13,809 Summit
Gladstone Peak, 13,913 Summit
Lizard Head Peak, 13,113 Attempt

Dallas Peak
I did climb the two thirteeners that I just summitted. It was my legs, my lungs, my sweat, my panting on unrelenting slopes. It was my crampons, my ice axe, my wet feet, and my chilly-cold fingers.

But it wasn’t my routefinding. It was my much stronger cousin who led the way, who pointed out the peaks and the path to them. Who tested icy class 5 upclimbs and sketchy snow traverses. Who then waved me on - hearing my whimpers on the former - but staying still and quiet for me.
Setting up rappel off Dallas, Sneffels looks on

I don’t know if I can claim them. I want to go back and get them for myself. I want to study those damn mountains and be able to pick Mt. Wilson from Wilson Peak and know Sneffels from every angle like he does. I want to spy a couloir from a mile away and pick a path that leads me to the base of it. I want to be the one to kick steps up the couloir - or at least take my share of doing so.  But I don’t want to do that for class 5 anymore. I don’t belong on class 5 snow climbs, especially since I don’t lead trad. If something happened to Jack when we were out, I would be hard-pressed to facilitate a rescue.

I am great on rock. I should stick to that and never put myself in a position to have to rely so heavily on a (albeit, willing) partner. I don’t like it. It’s a point of pride at this point. But it could become a matter of life and death. It was so cold on Dallas Peak. My hands and feet were soaking wet. So were Jack’s. If the weather had changed, if one of us had slipped… I felt the potential impacts of the potential errors as I stood in the shadow of a chock block, waiting for Jack to scout. I don’t want to die on a mountain. I want to be able to rescue my partner if something should happen to them. I want to learn more and be better.

I want to be stronger, and I will get stronger...

  1. Routefinding. I wil learn to draw GPX tracks and use my Garmin. I will study the map as I’m ascending. It will take me longer to summit, but I will start early and turn back if weather moves in -- even if it means I don’t summit at first. I can trust that I will get better with practice, and in the long run will summit more peaks in a way that makes me feel like I’ve really summitted them.
  2. Routefinding. Yep, I’m that bad at it. I almost think I shouldn’t go with Jack again until I am better at it so that I don’t let him take over. He’s too dang quick. In both routefinding and pace. I have to do these for myself.
  3. Knots, anchors, and rescue techniques. Read up on them and practice them.
  4. Crampon technique. I am great in snow, but I need practice at mixed climbing. I would la-dee-da across a traverse and then lurch my way across the rock sections. It’s like wearing a stinkin’ pair of high heels! Jack said place your whole crampon on if there’s space or finesse the midsection (no points) onto the edge of rocks. Which I pretty much figured out after 45 minutes of struggling!

I am good at:

  1. Rock, blessed rock! I love the way I can trust myself to pick a path through a thorny ridge. I love the way I know when to use downward pressure on slippery slopes. I love the way I place my feet. I love the way I hop boulder fields. I have a  bit of a thing for rock.
  2. Lizard Head, the one that got away
    Judgement. When we were up at Lizard Head, I knew the wind wasn’t gonna quit. I told Jack I would not take more than 10 steps in the hellacious stuff. I like that I am clear in communicating my (dis)comfort levels, even with a partner like him who I am trying to impress. And it’s also good that I know the difference. On Dallas, he offered to tie me in, and, after studying the path and tabulating my abilities, I followed him without a rope. On Lizard Head, it was clear to me that we’d both be in danger. Ahem, Jack, when you’re walking in a crouched position and still falling to your knees, it’s too windy to hope for a leeside to ascend a 4-pitch, 5.8+ tower!
  3. Drive. When I want a peak, I am willing to suffer for it. Dallas Peak was haaard, and scary and snowy, but I did it. I felt exhausted and defeated and dreaded the descent of Gladstone the next day, but I dug to some deep place within (by the way, what the heck is that?) and did it. And I made myself keep up with the three strong climbers I was with. Booyah!
  4. Nutrition and hydration. I have this pretty much dialed in. On peaks, I want formulated foods. Nuun, Clif, and Gu are my friends. Taken early and often, they chase away nausea, headaches, and prevent bonking.
  5. Confidence in and reading of my own abilities. I know the pace I can maintain for 10 hours. I know the rock and snow I can climb.

Monday, April 17, 2017

The Best of Me

With a forehead kiss
I gave you the best of me
all the tenderness
maternal love
a daughter can give to her mother

Whose own mother was

Placed it
at the peak of your widow
lips delicately
for the teensiest of bits
but with the accumulation of years
of gratitude
of forgiveness
of understanding
of wishing
and ultimately,
of appreciation for the moment
and for the woman who is Mom

The end of the head massage
you let me to give
just for a small,
small moment
the best of me.

Thursday, March 09, 2017

When He Was Good

When he was good, we had the world by the tail. He helped me have a deeper relationship with my mom. When we were good, sunlight and laughter kissed us every day. We kissed back. When we were good, we were each other's bright spot, soul mates, friends till the end, our minds were connected and we made light of everything. When we were good, we floated through existence. I felt almost guilty for the blessed existence that we had - happiness that knew no bounds, that was a giddy and playful and stayed up nights late. When we were good, we were invincible. People stopped us and commented, prognosticating the future that would extend into decades of marriage...

When we were good, I ached for him in the pit of my stomach when he had to go to work. He would come home and tell me how he caught my scent in the air as he turned his head and wiggled it back-and-forth like a wild man trying to catch it again, wanting me. When we were good, we needed nothing but each other. In a one bedroom apartment, we never entered the bedroom because we couldn't be farther away from each other than the full-size futon in the living room. We named recipes for our love, wrote a language of inside jokes. We completed each other.

When we were good, we were so good. It made the bad hurt all the more. When we got bad, I didn't have a partner. When he was bad, I came home to an empty house. There was another person living and breathing, but not giggling, in it. I came home to closed doors and loud saws and things that stopped up human contact. Blocking out human contact I could accept. He had done it before, isolating us so it was just him and me. This was new. He now excluded me. When we were bad, it hurt deeply, gouging out my insides. I failed to reach the one who had been laced into my tissues.

Now I'm out and eight years have passed. I still feel what I lost, but I also see what I gained. I am grateful for when he was good.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

One Climb

Just one climb is all it took. To remember all that I'd forgotten. To remember how climbing stretches time. Time waits for you to calibrate. A second stretches as you look at footholds and envision just which part of the sticky-rubber climbing shoe toe box you're going to place on which part of the climbing hold and with what amount of pressure. How much of an inch extra can you eke out of alternate placements? Tick, tick, tick. You aren't even aware of how Time lets you think.

It is generous too when you move your gaze to the handholds. You gauge the solidity of each and intuitively calculate how much your hip must turn into the wall to elongate the side of your body and get millimeters out of your fingertips, enabling that perfect efficiency, the balance between stability and speed - the constant warring factions in climbing.

Your muscles begin the motion, seamlessly agreeing with the mind and eyes, slowly and deliberately snaking out to just the right touch, that  right amount of contact with the rock. And even then, Time is letting you see the next move...

Just one climb is all it took to remember the slowness, the presence of mind that climbing demands. Just one climb is all it took to remind me of its application in other other areas of my life. Just one glorious 10- gym climb with yellow tape awakened the memory: the how of doing things matters so so much.

Monday, January 02, 2017

How to Climb a Mountain

I had climbed 104 mountains. I learned something new yesterday on #105, Mt. Silverheels. I set off late in the day, leaving the trailhead at 1PM, something I have never done before and certainly not in the winter. I knew that I would be coming off the mountain in the dark so was careful to note landmarks and times between them. I was also careful to make tracks in snow. Given the choice of taking a path that went through grass or rock or snow, I took snow so I'd have something to follow on the way out.

Well. I underestimated a lot of things. First, a headlamp is a poor device for spotting landmarks that are more than 25 feet away from you. Ridgelines and snow pack, cairns, the mountain peaks themselves -- all are rendered invisible once the sun goes down. I could see rough shapes of massifs but couldn't distinguish the one I'd dubbed Skater's Ramp from the one I'd called Cheops. I could see that I was traversing below Hoosier Ridge but couldn't see the ridge well enough to know where to get back on it to avoid avalanche danger - an easy task in daylight. Instead I had to painstakingly retrace my steps. Lesson #2: choosing to make track in the snow was smart, but there wasn't enough of it to make what you'd call a breadcrumb path to follow. I'd lose my print and backtrack to pick it up again. I had to double back to pick up the snowshoes I'd stashed. It also became a time management exercise. I couldn't double back every time I lost my track, so I made judgement calls. At one point I just knew that I needed to follow a particular contour on a more-grassy-than-snowy hillside, so I did -- and struck my trail minutes later.

Another thing I learned is that navigating by time on a mountain yields only approximations. I had read that one should make note of where to exit the summit ridge because it was hard to spot the safe rib from the top, so I hit the lap split on my watch when I topped out on that spot and marched to the summit. Seventeen minutes. I figured that descending I'd go faster so I turned downhill at 10 minutes. After descending for a bit, I realized that I'd overshot the correct rib by about 150 feet. And they were an icky, steep, mix of snow and rock 150 feet. Breath coming in gasps, I chastised myself for not trusting my eyes when I'd spotted what looked like the entrance to the right rib earlier. And gathered myself.

"Careful, careful, slow, slow" became my mantra as I placed my feet, controlling my breathing and quelling panic as I traversed my way back to the path. Daylight held for that portion of the hike. I was able to get off of the nasty stuff and onto the gentler slopes connecting to Hoosier Ridge. I made myself stop and put on warmer layers, my headlamp, and gather all the gentleness and patience I could -- for myself and the journey I knew lay ahead. I had already messed up in my panic to get off the windy, cold, darkness-coming summit. 

I took stock. I had many more layers of warm clothing. The night wasn't dangerously cold if I kept moving. I felt tired but had plenty of strength left to hike out, even if it took several hours. I needed to be careful, to pick the path and breathe. I needed to not twist an ankle. My biggest enemy would be my impatience. I needed to focus on finding the path and careful foot placement.

I began the work. Distances stretched. The darkness and my fear of the cold messed with my memory and tangled with my notion of how quickly I should get off this mountain. I had to strike the right balance between moving quickly and being careful. It took constant vigilance. I also knew that Boyfriend would be worried about me. I prioritized stopping for precious minutes to check cell reception. I got cell signal and called home to say I was safe, but would be descending slowly, picking path by headlamp and sporadic footprints in the snow. I told Boyfriend not to worry unless 2.5 hours passed without word from me. This would be, I figured, plenty of time for me to descend the route that had taken me 1.25 hours to ascend in daylight.

Hiking in the dark is tricky. I continued my slow process. Bathed in exhilaration and pride every time I re-found the path, I breathed "Good girl, good girl!" At one point, I congratulated myself, "You are a good mountaineer!" But then I'd temper the excitement, caution myself to stay calm and focused. The work would not be done until I struck the well-trammeled path that comprised the very last mile of the hike out. That was 1500 feet of elevation and who knows how many miles distant. The drive to get out was so strong that it over-rode all other desire. I made myself stop to drink. I made myself stop to add layers. I made myself turn off my headlamp and lift my gaze to the cloudless sky and the silver quarter moon. I made myself focus, but gave myself rest stops to gauge my body and appreciate the beauty of what I was doing. I could keep myself safe by being smart and deliberate.

I traveled along the top of Hoosier Ridge, dreading that I'd miss the exit west down the hillside that led to my car. I had noted earlier that another trail led north to a different peak. I so didn't want to squander time starting that hike. At 6:40 PM I spotted lights that had to be the parking lot. They were far distant and a descent of about 500 feet. A quick check of my compass helped validate the assumption. It was my hillside! I didn't have track, so I made two sweeping treks across the hillside in an attempt to strike it. Failing to do so, I decided it was safe to fix my path to that light and go straight downhill. Knowing I would lose sight of it as I descended, I noted the position of the moon - 10:00 - and sited on a star. I took plunging steps down the hillside, my snowshoes eating up the snow, but whenever I stopped to re-calibrate, the dark and the cold were still working their dirty, stretching-distance trick. The light was only marginally closer. I shook off the pique and rallied. I could do this. I was getting closer. I would be at the car soon and call Boyfriend and tell him I was safe, safe, safe!

At 7:10, I struck the well-trammeled path and saw the first trees I'd seen in hours. "Well, hello tree! Hello bushes!" I smiled at them. I picked up speed and looked for the landmark that would indicate I was about 10 minutes from the trailhead - the spot where I stepped off the trail to urinate so many hours ago. I listened to the darkness, watched the trees turn from dark looming objects to tree-shaped, looming objects. At 7:41, two hours after my phone call to Boyfriend, I was at the road. I stowed snowshoes, poles, and backpack into the car. A jittery, out-of-myself-me called Boyfriend and told him I was safe and coming home! 

I felt like after my Ironman. It's an odd, out-of-body feeling. I'd been maintaining focus to the exclusion of all else for so long that it was hard to shake, to come back into thoughts of non-mountain and compelling-safety things. It thawed out of me slowly just as my seat heaters thawed the chill in my body. 

Then I thought all the way home. I thought in what-ifs. I thought in what-could-I-have-done-betters. I thought in would-I-ever-do-this-agains. (No!)

Then I thought of how far I've come as a mountaineer. Especially in terms of my sense of direction and ability to pick path up a mountain. I have acquired a certain amount of ability to "read" mountainous terrain, to discern the so-called weakness of the mountain that will give the summit to us humans. I also appreciated the adage, "Getting up is optional, getting down is mandatory." That same terrain-reading ability enabled me to find my way down the mountain. It was a mix of intuition and memory from the ascent, and painstaking work to find the path I'd left - and knowing when to trust which so that I could get down expeditiously.

How to climb a mountain? Gently. Truly. A bit at a time. Painstakingly. Lovingly.

In the daylight!

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Huffle Puff

Training climbs build strength. Training climbs are painful and fun and wickedly tricky. I went on just such a training climb last weekend. I felt strong. I felt competitive. I felt as though I was auditioning for a role on an expedition. I also felt like I would be the Hufflepuff on that team. Huff and puff my additions to the crew. All the same, I want that spot.