Sunday, July 07, 2013

What's Really Important - Stress on Harvard and Columbia

On the summit of Mt. Harvard

Each year since 2010, I've led a Tendril Mountain Challenge, where a group from work climbs a 14er. In the past we've climbed these mountains:

  • 2009: Longs Peak - Keyhole Route
  • 2010: Longs Peak - North Face
  • 2011: North Maroon Peak
  • 2012: Grays Peak
This year the peak was Mt. Harvard, the 3rd highest peak in the state at 14,423 feet. I'd climbed Harvard back in 2001. I was training for the Pikes Peak Marathon and ran/hiked the peak and then did the traverse over to Mt. Columbia. I don't recall that traverse very well, but do remember that you have to drop a long ways, going through complicated terrain. This will be relevant later.

The plan was for everyone to meet at the trailhead at 6 a.m. Kevin told me that he'd be starting early, at 4:30 a.m., to give himself every chance of making at the summit. Kevin had been diligent with his training, making every early-morning, high-altitude training hike, but at 260 pounds this was going to be a huge challenge. At least 50% harder than his successful ascent of Grays last year.

Sheri, Danny, and I arrived at the trailhead at 5:55 a.m. and got ourselves ready. At 6:05 there was still no sign of George or Marcel. At 6:15 we started up the trail, sure that the other two had decided against the 2:30 a.m. wake-up time in order to make the trailhead on time from Boulder. I had forgotten what a great trail there is up Harvard. From start to finish, this trail is one of the most enjoyable of any of the 14ers. It has more dirt and is more runnable (not that we ran) than about any other peak, save Pikes Peak and maybe Bierstadt.

We caught up to Kevin after 4.4 miles. He was in good spirits and had progressed nicely. My only concern was that he was breathing pretty heavily, even while resting on a rock. He told us that George was ahead of us, having started at 5 a.m. We encouraged Kevin to keep moving, but at a slow, sustainable pace and continued on. The plan was for me to summit with my family and then descend back to Kevin and guide him to the top and back down. We did the same thing last year on Grays.

At 14,000 feet on Mt. Harvard

The rest of the ascent of Harvard went very well. Along the way I re-learned Taylor series and the equivalent series for sin(x) and cos(x). Danny then taught me the proof of Euler's equation:

I'll leave the proof as an exercise to the reader, but here's a hint: write out the Taylor series for  and then substitute xi for x and collect like terms in the infinite series. I know, typical chit-chat on a 14er. I think we passed a group of ladies discussing the standard model of particle physics and debating the existence of the Higgs boson. 

Just thirty feet below the summit lies the 3rd class crux of the route. Here we found George, enjoying a snack. I encouraged him to make the true summit, but he was more than content to call it good from where he was. We continued to the top, took our photos, relaxed and ate our sandwiches. It took us 3h15m to make the summit and we spent thirty minutes on top. We started down a little after 10 a.m. and just a couple hundred feet down Danny finally convinced Sheri to do the traverse to Columbia. He had been pressuring to do this the entire day, but Sheri resisted. From the vantage point of a little ways down the traverse didn't look so bad and she relented. They headed off on a rising traverse back up to the ridge while I continued down in search of Kevin.

Forming a "21" on top of Mt. Harvard. It takes years of yoga to form a "1" this perfectly...
I first ran across George, who was blocked from further passage by an ornery mountain goat. I pushed past him and eye-balled the ungulate. I knew from experience that once I had a hold of the dangerous black horns on its head, I could wrestle it to the ground and calm it down. I feinted to my left and the wooly beast bit. I lunged back back to the right, grabbed the horns and pressed the creature gently to the ground. Once there I laid my weight across it and whispered in its ear. Soon it was docile and I let it up. It was mine now.

Or maybe the goat just moved off the trail, we took some photos and I moved on. I can't be expected to remember every detail exactly...

I descended to 12,900 feet, getting more and more worried that I had not seen Kevin yet. Then, much to my surprise, I came upon Marcel and his German Shepard. He had obviously arrived late. He informed me that Kevin had already given up and was headed down. I was disappointed for Kevin. I know he had put a lot of work into preparing for this climb. The climbing was just too steep as the trail neared the peak and it was coming so far from the trailhead that Kevin was already significantly weakened.

But what was I to do now? I wanted to rejoin Danny and Sheri, so I made a beeline for the technical ridge connecting Harvard and Columbia. I knew that the ridge itself could be traversed mostly at the 4th class level, with some short 5th class sections and one 20-foot downclimb of a 5.7 crack. Anton Krupicka had recently blogged about this

I contoured the cirque, climbing up and down some small ridges and boulder-hopped and scrambled my way up to the ridge. From here I could see the entire second half of the lower traverse to Columbia  (the ascent portion of it) and all the terrain looked relatively easy. I yelled "Danny!" and scanned the terrain below. I did not see them anywhere. It had taken me about an hour to gain the ridge. How long had it been since Sheri and Danny left me? I didn't take the time to calculate this, which would turn out to be a bad mistake. I knew I had done the traverse in less than 90 minutes years ago and figured they would take two hours. This was another mistake. Back then I was pushing the pace. They were just hiking the peaks. That would take at least three hours for them, if they didn't get lost. This was all off-trail and I knew Sheri was reluctant to go without me. I wondered if they could handle it without me, but seeing such easy terrain below, I figured they were ahead of me. I scrambled along the ridge and called down a couple more times, but heard no response and saw nothing.

Little did I know but they were down there and they both had heard me. Sheri had even seen me and commented to Danny, "Look! There are climbers up there." They couldn't hear what I was saying and figured it was a climber yelling commands to their partner. Danny tried to call back, but I didn't hear anything. They didn't try very hard since they never suspected it was me. They knew I was down on the trail, helping Kevin to the summit.

I continued the tricky climbing along the ridge, finding the 5.7 crux downclimb and noticing a rappel sling above it. I was careful here and really only had to commit fully to jamming the crack for the last five or six feet. I was focused and solid here. Eventually the ridge becomes gentle and easy. The final 700 vertical feet is solid talus and I was on top of Columbia six hours after leaving the trailhead. Still there was no sign of Sheri or Danny and I was sure they were ahead of me on the descent, so I hurried on to catch them.

All the way down the steep, loose, unpleasant descent I queried each person I passed if they had seen a woman and a teenager. The first guy, an older guy, near the summit, said, yes, he had seen them, but a long time ago. I figured that they could be up to thirty minutes ahead of me, so I believed this. But every other person I passed said they had not seen them. I grew frustrated with these other people. How could they not notice them? Maybe they were so fatigued with effort and so oxygen deprived and so focused on their own climb that they didn't register them or at least didn't remember them. 

I flew down the descent, getting negative replies from everyone. I hit the main trail and was a bit surprised I hadn't caught them yet, as I knew I must have come down that peak much faster than Sheri and Danny. I dumped the rocks out of my shoes and continued running down the trail. When I came across a huge group of campers and they hadn't seen Sheri and Danny I finally got worried that they were not ahead of me, but behind me, maybe injured or lost. 

Out of water and still not sure I decided to run to the parking lot to be 100%. I ran continuously, wanting to reach the parking lot before Kevin or George left. I had no cell service and knew there was no service at the trailhead either. I'd need them to drive into Buena Vista and contact others to help search for my family. I continued to query everyone and was quite distraught when I reached the parking lot and they were not there. Logically, I should have known they were just taking longer to do the traverse, since I started so long after them, I just couldn't get it out of my mind that I was trailing them. I did not calculate that they would actually have to drop lower than I did. I was so sure they were in trouble at this point.

Kevin and George were in the parking lot and after I related the situation, they asked what they could do. Anything and everything I wanted, they were there to do it. Kevin and George loaded me up with extra food and water. I packed what extra clothes I could find. I gave them the numbers of the four strongest people I knew. The four people I'd want looking for me. The four people who I knew with 100% certainty would do absolutely whatever it took to save my family: Homie, Tom, Stefan, and Mark. Every single one of them was stronger, faster, tougher than me. Every single one them highly experienced at hiking through the night, off trail, for hours, for days continuously. 

Kevin took off for town as I headed back up the trail alone. Kevin was told to contact these guys but tell them not to leave for Buena Vista for at least two hours. Danny was in shorts with no long pants, hat or gloves. I was carrying his hat and gloves and forgot to give them to him when we split up. At this point I was so sure that they were immobile and possibly worse. By the time I found them, it would be late. I wouldn't be able to get them out alone. I knew Mark would be bringing an army of HAM radio operators and we'd have communications. As long as the injuries were not too serious we'd be out the next day with a story to tell. Yet I couldn't stop my mind from racing to worse possibilities. 

I'd go through cycles of being calm and just working the problem to my mind racing with all sorts of disaster scenarios. The descent from the ridge was probably loose. They could have pulled off a large block that broke one of their legs. It's unlikely that both were injured, but possible. Even if just one was injured the other might have to stay with them or reluctant to leave them. Then I'd think that they were more cautious than I am and were less likely to get injured than me. Yet, where could they be?

I told Kevin and George that my plan was to re-ascend Harvard and then retrace their steps on the traverse to Columbia. I expected to find them somewhere along this traverse. I wanted George to hike up to the junction with the Columbia trail and wait there, just in case they completed the traverse. This was asking a lot, as it was four miles up to that point and George had already done the 14-mile, 4500-vertical-foot roundtrip on Harvard. Yet, he agreed. Above us thunder rolled and it started to spit rain.

The rain never really started and I started up the trail, so hopeful and expectant whenever I spied a person coming down the trail and so disappointed and distraught when each time it wasn't them. The further I went with no sign of them the more discouraged I became. I queried each person, some of whom I had talked to before. Nothing. I met Marcel coming down with his dog and it took little convincing to get him to turn around and come with me. I asked him to remain at the trail junction until George came up to relieve him. Marcel turned around and headed back up the trail with me but after a bit he talked some friendly hikers into taking his dog down with them. Marcel was out of water and worried about his dog. The hikers agreed to give the dog water and put him inside Marcel's car. That's a rather huge commitment, but it was just another instance of people helping me.

We continued up the trail. I became actutely aware that I had not eaten since the summit of Columbia and still had 3500 vertical feet to regain the summit of Harvard. I dug out some water and food to eat while I hiked along. I wasn't going to be of any help if I bonked. 

After 2.5 miles I spotted two hikers. In another moment they were close enough to recognize: Sheri and Danny. I wept with relief, doubling over, then rushed to embrace them. They had no idea what had been going on, mainly in my mind, and wondered why I was reacting like that. Marcel stayed back, giving us some space. 

It was over - an ordeal that existed almost entirely in my own mind due to some false assumptions that became too deeply ingrained. Sheri and Danny had experienced a grueling traverse, but nothing more than that. They were never stressed or worried. They were tired, hungry and dehydrated, but in great spirits having bagged two 14ers.

Marcel headed back down the trail to call off the rescue effort. He'd tell Kevin and Kevin would make another trip into Buena Vista to call the would-be rescuers. It took us another hour to get back to the trailhead, catching George just before we got there. He had been hiking in to man his post. At the trailhead we hung out a bit, Kevin, George, Marcel, and my family. I wanted us all to go to dinner but they had to get going. In Buena Vista I texted the four great friends to stand down and apologized for the fire drill.

Real or not, the stress in my mind made me appreciate how important my family is to me. Mountains are great, but they are meaningless compared to your family and your friends. 

Danny giving his opinion of the terrain he just came down on the traverse to Columbia

1 comment:

Jeff Valliere said...

Glad it all turned out OK. I can sympathize with what you were going through and have had several similar, but less significant incidents with Allison and or the dog. Can only imagine adding your own child to that equation. It is a total mind trip, envisioning all the worst case scenarios and becoming distraught. In the past, we often times split up while I ran ahead for Pikes training, to nab that 2nd or 3rd peak or whatever. Wait here, meet there. We eventually used two way radios (not always reliable) and this helped, but I am leaning more and more toward just not splitting up. Time passes, weather changes, questioning begins, plans change, things happen. Too often a mountain disaster story starts with "we split up and then...."