Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Eleven Hours, Three Minutes

Eleven hours, three minutes to pull off ascents of 13er Mount Lady Washington and Longs Peak on Monday, Memorial Day. It was beautiful and grueling and scary and fulfilling. I can't wipe the grin off my face even today.

We cruised up the first 2.5 miles, me getting the scope of my cousin whose motto is "Fast equals safe." He lives by it. I am usually not the slow one on a hike. He left me huffing and puffing, but also determined to hang and not cave in to burning lungs.

Snowballs on the way up Mount Lady Washington.
By Chasm Lake, our snow climb began. We rounded the lake instead of crossing it. On the far side, we heard sounds that would accompany us the rest of the day. The sounds of snow and rock fall off of Longs' Diamond Face. We heard it and would spot the area and could not believe that what looked like a dusting of snow and dust particles could echo off the walls and ricochet sounds to our ears. It was intimidating. We decided to stay well away from the face for our approach. Which meant climbing straight up Mount Lady Washington's steep snow. It was so steep that snow balls were peeling free of the snow pack and rolling down as we climbed up. Gravity's victims all. We achieved the Lady and snapped a few pictures, ate some calories. We took some time to case our remaining route.

We saw snow. Lots of snow. But a mountain does not get climbed by looking at what lies ahead. After spare minutes, we descended to the saddle between the peaks. The real ascent began.

I thought I had become familiar with steep 'n' deep snow as we ascended that first snowfield up Lady Washington. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!!!

I had known nothing. This was brutally steep, with sections where I watched my 6'2" cousin sink to his thighs. Conversation was sparse, though at one point he felt it necessary to excuse a stop, "I can't see. My sunglasses are running with sweat." He lead for most of the way, but when he stopped for particularly long periods of time, I'd catch him and offer to lead.

I quickly realized how following in his footsteps, brutal though it was, was child's play to breaking the
We ascended along the right flank of the Diamond.
trail. I developed a method of motion. I jammed my two trekking poles into the snow ahead, weighted them and moved one foot, then the other. Sometimes my foot plant would sink only six inches - HALLELUJAH! Other times it would sink six inches and then with a knee-wrenching thud, give another 6-18 inches. I usually managed another plant of the poles and a shift of each foot before I needed to pause to breathe. I allowed for 5-10 good yogi breaths, mindful to open my chest and let the oxygen in.  On the sinking steps, I managed only one pole-plant, the need to breathe prohibiting further movement.

Then there was the fear. The rock and ice dustings continued echoing around the chasm. As before, we were in such steep snow that snowballs kept rolling down around us. One came with such speed, I heard it whoosh past my helmet. It had several friends that broke loose at this time too, giving the impression that the mountain itself was rolling, dozens of ping pong snowballs rolling down on me. I needed to speak. I turned back at John to ask, "How you feeling about this snow?" He was brief, "It's good." That was enough for me to keep going, and going fast. Getting off of this quickly would mean safety and the end of ragged fear breathing.

I lead a good 100 yards until we we reached the rock where our technical climb should start. Two right-facing corners jutted out from the snow field. This climb goes as 5.4 in the book. We put on harnesses and crampons and swapped out our poles for ice axes. John took the lead, edging his way along the rock, digging in crampons and ice axe. He moved quickly up the first block and turned back to ask if I wanted to rope up. He had made it look easy. I refused the offer and started my own ascent.

My first five or so moves felt secure and I enjoyed the feeling of vertical upward motion. Then I hit a thin part. "Uh, John, how did you do this?"

"It's thin, but there's a good pick with your right hand and a good left toe in the corner. Toe in so you can feel it, then step up slowly to test it." It's such a slow-motion act, climbing is. You incrementally shift your weight into the ball of your foot and then roll ever-so-gently into the toe of your foot. All the while screamin' Jesus in your head, hoping it will hold.

It held. I marveled at the trust I could place in the metal. The tips of my crampons and the tip of my ice pick in those teeny crevices. I was denied the security of skin contact. There was a layer of remove between me and the rock, metal touching rock versus the boot or hand. It is so much scarier. But doable.

We continued to climb the seventy technical feet without roping up. There were two more thin sections to negotiate - the first John coached me through, the second I gathered my forces and figured out.

Left flank of Longs
At last we topped out. I saw John ahead of me - ON FLAT GROUND!!! He saw that I was okay and charged toward some summit rocks, seeking shelter from the blowing winds that are always present on a mountain. I was feeling cold, had to go to the bathroom, and was more weary than I'd realized. I started to follow him and noticed I was missing my right crampon. I called his name to let him know I was going back to look for it, but my voice was lost in the wind. I saw where he seemed to settle behind some summit rocks and turned to find the crampon, hoping against hope it was somewhere on the flat section, not down in that technical section.

It was. I had dropped it right after topping out. With relief, I scooped it up and now, stopped, thought to go to the bathroom, remove my harness, and put on some warm layers. As I was doing this, the clouds that had been approaching arrived, swirling the peak in a white mist with flurries of snow. I couldn't see John and panicked at the thought of being separated. I quickly stowed my harness and the crampon, not taking the time to put it back on. I followed John's track - the only ones on the summit that day - to where he rested behind a rock. We high-fived and bolted calories, feeling the urgency to get off the mountain. It was 1:00 with less-than-ideal weather and a serious descent to undertake.

Another beautiful pic that doesn't match the story. Sorry,
no pics from the heavy breathing sections. Need I say:
oxygen took precedence.
Without speaking, we'd both arrived at the same conclusion. There was no way we could descend as we'd ascended. Snow covered the rappel rings that would have allowed us a cushy rappel down the technical section. We'd have to descend the standard route. Which meant more steep snow and exposure through the Homestretch, the Narrows, and then the Trough, all the way back to the Keyhole. Gracelessly and with no pride, I backed down the Homestretch, digging my axe in above me and backing my feet down. John walked forward down the whole thing, stopping to check I was OK before beginning his next section. Route finding was tricky in sections; we grinned madly anytime we spotted one of Longs' famous bulls-eyes. We reached the Keyhole and were relieved to pick up someone else's track to follow through the Boulder Field. We took off our crampons for the first time in hours, and made the reverse poles/ice axe swap.

It was a cruise the rest of the way out. We relived the climb, talking about the things we'd both noticed - notably the two loud cracks of thunder - but hadn't acknowledged at the time. It was funny how we'd had many parallel thoughts but had needed to breathe more than talk. We made up for it on the descent, talking the whole way. First about the climb and mountaineering, then talking life.

We two cousins grew up separated by 1000 miles and a seven-year age difference. We had scant childhood memories of the other, but used those Longs miles to fill in the years with sibling stories, parent stories, and adult life stories. We covered a lot of territory and I added my respect for him as a person to my respect for him as a mountaineer.

The giddiness that had simmered on the hike set in in the car and then percolated to the top when we reached Lyons and lunch. Our "we're safe" texts sent, we ordered and drank and ate, tasting the best food ever. Which is anything you eat after an 11 hour climb.

And here I find myself, days later, alternately grinning and wiping the sweat from my hands as I write this. Afloat on a cloud of... achievement, pride, knowledge that I pushed and my body and spirit rose to the occasion? Yes.