Sunday, April 24, 2016

Road to Denali, part 14: Return to Training

Tom exiting the top of Martha's Couloir. Hey, what's the face in the background?!

I wasn’t supposed to be able to climb this weekend, but my doctor gave me the go-ahead so I was planning to join Derek and Tom to climb Martha’s couloir on Mount Lady Washington. Derek and were all set and packed the night before and Derek went to bed early to be fully rested. At 4 a.m. the next morning Derek looked at his phone and saw that he got a text the night before about a mandatory presentation for his Senior Research Seminar class at 9 a.m. that morning. He had spaced it out. He couldn’t go. So it was just me that met Tom at the Bus Stop at 5 a.m.

This was my first outing with Tom in a long time, as he was concentrating on the Grand Traverse ski race up until a few weeks ago. We’d climbed many mountains together, though, and had been partners for over 25 years. We were hiking out of the Longs Peak parking lot a little before 6 a.m. One minute up the trail we passed a party of two heading for Kiener’s Route. They were already shedding clothes. Further up the trail we passed a team of two heading for Dream Weaver. Then, just above treeline, we passed a couple of guys descending, telling us, “It’s pretty windy up there.” “Pretty windy” is a relative term and to an experienced winter-Longs-Peak-climber this was a light breeze. I didn’t even need to put on my shell.
Snow galore!

When we hit treeline I was mildly surprised to see how much snow was up there. Tons. The trail, usually quite visible all winter long because of the high winds blowing the snow off, was completely buried and the track leading upwards wasn’t anywhere near it. To go off this track meant plunging in to your knees or deeper. We followed this track to Chasm Cut-off and then followed what looked like a single set of posthole tracks across the steep slopes of Mount Lady Washington. We could see climbers heading up the Loft and figured they must have put int eh track. It must have been grueling and they must be experiencing the same snow conditions over there, but they turned around just above the privy. We never saw the Dreamweaver team and figured they bailed as well.

Tom and I took the high traverse to Chasm Lake, forging our own track. This was very physical, as the snow conditions were about as frustrating as possible. I was breaking trail here and I step onto the crust of the snow and then nearly step up before breaking through and plunging in to my knees. Hence, each step I had to gain the elevation twice. So, the three hundred feet of climbing to Chasm felt like 600 feet, through knee-deep snow. I led us up to the base of Martha’s, as Tom had never climbed it before. He’d do the leading today, as I wasn’t supposed to be jarring my eye, so he was about to take over the bulk of the work.
Tom approaching the bottom of Martha's
We geared up at the base and I drank I drank the rest of my 20-bottle. We had stopped at treeline to drink a bit and eat a bit, but I only ate two bloks and forgot to eat here as well. I wouldn't eat again until we were done with the climb, a thousand feet higher, and I was seriously bonking.
The lower crux
At the start of the couloir it appeared to be mostly snow, so we continued up unroped. We immediately found it be ice underneath about an inch of snow, but it was more neve, then water ice. We discussed things, briefly, and decided to continue unroped anyway, as the angle was 40-50 degrees and we could easily stomp or chop out a step if we wanted to rest.

We continued upwards on this really moderate and really fun climbing for about 600 feet, when we encountered our first water ice section. This was the same location where Charlie, Jason, and I got out the rope last June. This time it wasn't dripping, steep rock, though, it was ice. Thinking it would be a short section or that we'd simul-climb the rest of the way, I had Tom tie into both ends of the rope, so that I'd only be 100 feet below him at maximum. This turned out to be not my best idea.

Tom led upwards and I was treated to a steady raining of ice chunks. I cowered under my helmet and hunched my shoulders to bring up my pack and protect my neck. I thought, "maybe this wasn't what my eye surgeon was thinking when he gave me the okay to hike at altitude..." When I had paid out all the rope, I started up after Tom. 
Tom at the crux. I'm hiding under this boulder.

I cleared the first crux without any issues and was back on easier ground until I got to a short mixed section where I had to move to my left, across some dicey rock to reach the ice on the other side. Tom was protecting the climbing with cams and ice screws. After about three hundred feet he got to the crux of the climb, a ten-foot section of vertical ice. As he worked out this section, I was getting bombarded by ice. I asked Tom to pause so that I could climb up to a boulder that offered a modicum of protection. There was also an ice screw there and I clipped into it and belayed Tom as he climbed the crux. 

Tom struggled to clip a pin on the left and then ten feet higher he got in a good screw. He cranked over the crest and onto easier ground and soon I was climbing again. By the time I got to the crux section Tom had arrived at a small stance and set up a belay. I cleaned the sling from the pin and then got the screw out. As I climbed the vertical section, I got my heels too high and both crampons ripped out of the ice. I dropped, but not onto the rope, onto my hands which firmly gripped both tools, which were buried in solid ice. Still, my heart rated jumped and I struggled to get off my arms. With my crampons tenuously holding, I locked off my left arm and reached higher with my right and sunk the tool into solid ice. A few more moves like that and I was back on my feet, but my arms were gone and my breathing was rapid. I climbed WI3 like it's WI5+. 
Tom about to engage the vertical ice.
Above the climbing was still on ice, but a lot angle. I had to take two short breaks just to recovery my breathing before I got to Tom. He said I could clip in or just continue. After two minutes of just slumping over my axes, I continued slowly upwards on what was now crusty snow. After a hundred feet I stopped on a tiny ledge. Tom said he was fine and unroped. I coiled the rope and stuffed it in my pack. Tom grabbed the gear from me as he went by. He seemed to be quite a bit stronger at this point. I knew I was fully bonked and needed to stop and eat and drink, but my ledge was too small for the both of us and we continued upwards, looking for the good place to stop.

Last June when I climbed this route you could have stopped almost anywhere, but today the terrain was so filled in with snow that there wasn't anything flat, anywhere. We continued until we came to this conclusion and then Tom stomped out a platform for us to rest. Here I stripped off my crampons and stowed my axes. Tom kept one axe out because the terrain was still 50 degrees steep, but I figured the snow was soft enough to kick steps. Oh how right I was.

Tom finishing up the last bit of Martha's.
After eating and drinking Tom continued in the lead. Each step went through the horrible, breakable crust up to his knees. At least most steps were like that. Every tenth step or so, he'd go into mid-thigh, as he hit soft snow near a boulder. Tom grunted whenever this happened and I interpreted this sound as a mixture of effort to extract himself from the hole and frustration with the insufferable conditions. I could barely keep up in his footsteps. And I usually avoided the deep drops because I could now see where not to step. It was impossible for Tom to detect where the holes were.
Brutal postholing to the summit.
It took us 30 minutes to gain 500 feet to the summit, working very hard. We stop for ten seconds or more of rest every ten steps or so. Tom led us directly to the summit and we took another break here to eat more, strip off our harnesses and helmets. The skis were overcast, but it wasn't cold and we didn't have hardly wind on top. I ate more food and downed most of my remaining fluids. It was all downhill from here.

This was my third time climbing Martha’s and the first time that I didn’t subsequently climb both Longs Peak and Mt. Meeker, via the Triple Couloir link-up. At the summit I couldn’t imagine ever being fit enough to link those three climbs. Had I lost so much fitness and so much altitude training to reduce myself to one-third of my previous capacity? I hoped not. Conditions here were much tougher than my previous ascents. I was a bit out of shape and hadn’t been at altitude. And I had bonked because we hadn’t taken the time to eat and drink. All things that I can correct before Denali in June.
Tom on the summit of Mt. Lady Washington
The descent was tedious, physical, and slow, but at least gravity was on our side now. I feared plunging in and bashing my shin on a boulder and hence moved cautiously. I led most of the descent and Tom graciously figured we split the trail breaking chores roughly evenly. Maybe…but I know without him breaking trail to the summit, I’d have taken at least 30 minutes longer. We got back to the parking lot after about 7.5 hours, but it felt more like 10 or 12 to my body. I was really tired the rest of the day. It has me motivated to start training again. I see the eye doctor on Wednesday morning and will hopefully get all exercise restrictions lifted. I had a great time climbing with Tom and he plans to join all our training events from here on out. It will be great to start gel-ing as our full team. Hopefully Charlie will join for some as well.

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