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!

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