Sunday, January 27, 2019

Mt. Harvard with Homie and Danny


Photos (not many as using a camera wasn't possible up high)

Wind. Besides snow conditions, either too deep or too dangerous, this is the strongest force that climbers must battle. The wind is legendary in Patagonia, but the winter winds in Colorado aren't far behind. The winds we encountered today might not have been the worst I've experienced, but they were in the top five, probably. They were without a doubt the strongest winds I've ever continued to ascend into. I'll try to describe them, but I fear there is no way for a person to understand winds like these without experiencing it firsthand.

All my significant adventures these days follow the same script: Great friends, super strong friends agree to take me along, do all the work, and make it nearly impossible for me to quit, despite my best efforts. Without these partners, my life would be so different. But that's true all throughout life. The people that surround you are the ones that determine the course of your life. Yes, my character has some influence in the friends that I have, but it seems I've been unduly luck.

Homie is one of the all-time Colorado 14er masters. He's 28 peaks through this second pass through the winter 14ers. Danny's done 31 of the hardest 14ers in winter. I've done 26 of the easiest. All of us like to get at least one winter ascent each year. I wanted to write "a few winter ascents", but after today I wonder when I'll be mentally ready for another. This one might have scratched that itch for the entire year. In selecting a peak, we need to find the intersection of Danny's and my remaining winter 14ers and a peak Homie hasn't done in the current month (he's working on gridding the 14ers - a truly insane project). We narrowed the list to Belford, Oxford, Columbia and Harvard. Of those Danny said, "I've heard Harvard is kind of a bitch...so that's my first choice." Makes sense. For him. it would have made it my last choice.
Homie leads and I'm following
The safest route in winter, is via Frenchman's Gulch, a route that is 18 miles and 6000 vertical feet. Of course, Homie had done it before and served as chief guide. Danny was the assistant guide and main workhorse. And I was the client.

We decided on skis for the approach and it is a great choice for this route. The entire route, save the final ridge, is at a gentle angle that allows for reasonable skiing on the way down, despite the single-track trail. The lower part of the trail is on a 4WD road that is wide enough to allow for snowplowing as a speed control mechanism. Even Homie concluded that skis were the right choice and he generally prefers snowshoes. Danny was all hot to use skis, having recently acquired a slick AT setup. Homie and I went without NNN (Nordic) gear, which is light, but much trickier on the descent.

We met at my house (another concession to me at Danny's suggestion) at 2 a.m. We piled all our gear into Danny's car for the long drive to the trailhead at 8600 feet. We were skinning up the road at 5:15 a.m. in our little pools of light. We had to break trail the entire way. It generally wasn't too deep, but was continuous and tiring. We averaged maybe 45 minutes per mile. Homie broke trail for a mile and then stepped aside. Danny, ever the over achiever did a mile and a half. I barely made it through my mile, at a reduced pace. Then Danny again for another 1.5 and then Homie took us to treeline.

We skied up into the basin and atop a hill at around 12,000 feet. Above the snow was intermittent and rock hard or sugary. We opted to drop the skis and continue on foot. Homie and I pulled Microspikes over our skis boots and Danny switched out of his boots into a pair of gaitored running shoes!

We worked up the basin and then across a wind-scoured slope up to the next tier. While it was breezy below, what we encountered above was an entirely different force, an other-worldly force. For the next four hours we'd battle this swirling, unpredictable demon. Gusts would hit with such force that you'd have to drop to the ground or be blown over. They seemed to come from every direction. There were small lulls occasionally and movement during these periods was so much easier that I found myself doing intervals to gain as much ground as I could during these relative easier times. Intervals over 12,000 is not an ideal approach. I'd be so winded at the end of each one.

Danny was leading the way, then Homie and then me, as usual. The wind was so ridiculous and the summit so far away, that I was already thinking of turning around. I just didn't see any way I could succeed. Danny knows me well. He knew what I was thinking. And he wouldn't let me catch up to him because he knew I'd mention retreat.

The raw temperature couldn't have been that cold because if it was, the wind would make things truly life threatening. All of us had cold feet, mostly because of the wind, but also because we all had minimal footwear for winter climbing. We all wore our shells, hoods, googles, and balaclavas. Any exposed skin was in danger.

Progress was slow and draining, especially for me as I spent considerable energy wondering if I should turn around, wondering if my feet were freezing. I took stock of the rest of my body. My hands were okay. I was wearing my big down mitts with chemical heaters in them. I was worried also about my nose, though. I couldn't tell if my balaclava was covering it sometimes. Otherwise I was okay. So, fatigue and feet, fear and frostbite.

We regrouped at the start of the long ridge leading to the summit. It was so far away. It seemed impossibly far. Danny moved on. I told Homie I might turn around and not to wait for me. I wondered which direction to move. Up or down? I wiggled my feet. I didn't think they were numb. I could feel them moving. I was torn between my desire to summit and the damage to my self esteem if I was the only one to turn around. Whether I doing any damage to my feet for a silly summit or whether I was imagining that damage as an excuse to turn around that made me seem smart instead of weak. My buddy the Loobster is still climbing mountains and he's twenty years older than me. I wondered how old I'll have to be before I'm content to sit in my chair on the weekend. That thought made me think of the Bob Dylan song with the line: "How many seas must the white dove sail before she can rest in the sand." Only then did I realize that song was "Blowin' in the Wind." I shed my pack and continued on, going as light as I could.

Movement along the ridge was brutal, with frequent sections where we'd be crawling. We didn't start off crawling. We started by using our hands on steep terrain and staying with it until the terrain was nearly horizontal. The climbing was only 3rd class, but the slopes below us were steep and covered in rock-hard snow and the gusts so strong that being blown off wasn't out of the question.

All of our goggles were icing up. With as many winter 14er ascents that Homie had done, he'd been here before. Ironically, he brought two pairs to the trailhead and left his second pair behind, trusting the weather report. Removing the goggles wasn't an option, as the wind was driving the spindrift so hard that it was quite painful and impossible to keep your eyes open. Homie would clear his by licking on the lens. Danny got some luck with breathing on them. I tried scraping them with my gloved fingers.

Halfway across the traverse, Danny dropped his pack as well. We were all pushed to our limits. After rounding a significant gendarme, I thought I saw the summit - a prominent rock tower. Despite three ascents of this peak, I asked Homie if that was the top. He told me it was on the ridge in the background. The far background. Despair descended upon me. Later, Homie would admit that he considered turning back when we were probably within fifteen minutes of the summit. It was that bad. My goggles got worse and worse until I could only see vague shapes. I crawled the last twenty feet to the summit. The only reason I made the top was because my companions kept going and, this is key, they never got too far in front of me. I'm not sure if they were wasted or waiting for me. Probably some of both, but if they had gapped me by a sizable margin, I'd have turned around. No one could wait in weather like this and I wouldn't have trusted myself to negotiate the ridge alone.

Needless to say, we didn't linger on the summit. Homie made a point of patting me on the back. I think he was as amazed as I was that I had made the top. I can suffer compared to the average person. I know that. But I'm such a wimp compared to these two. On our trip up Antero last year, I was a net negative. Going with these two is a conundrum. On the one hand, my chances of making the summit are greatly improved. On the other hand is the pressure of being the weakest, of contributing nothing, and the fear of failure. The night before this trip I sent Danny an email saying they were stronger without me and that I was looking for an excuse to bail. A reasonable response would have been: "Maybe we are faster without you, but it's up to you." That might have been enough. Instead he wrote back, "Nah, you're going." One can do a lot worse than following in the footsteps of these two. It's going to be up to me to know when I shouldn't tag along. Hopefully I won't wait until I'm a serious liability.

The misery wasn't over at the top. The upper few hundred feet were the worst of all and next 45 minutes were a serious struggle. My goggles were useful only as skin protection, as I couldn't see out of them. I'd lift of the bottom for just a few seconds and try to memorize the next six feet of terrain, then put them down and feel my way. I thought of my blind friend Erik Weihenmayer. He never has problems with his goggles.

Whenever I could cheat, I'd keep my goggles up and go as fast as could until the wind whipped the spindrift into my eyes with such pain I wondered if it damaged my eyes. Homie led the way and I followed as close as I could. I lost a Microspike somewhere along here. If it has been the Hope diamond, I wouldn't have gone back looking for it. I wondered if I had pushed things too far. If I stumbled and injured myself to the point where I couldn't walk, I felt like I'd die there. How could I be rescued when it was all anyone could do to move themselves? At least I wasn't wrestling with the decision of whether to go on or not. I know this sounds overly dramatic and I doubt my partners had such thoughts, but it was running through my mind. Keep moving, I kept telling myself.

Once back at my pack and off the ridge, I knew I'd survive. The wind still pelted us mercilessly, but it was less here and if I got knocked down, it would be on gentle terrain. I still couldn't see out of my goggles, but now the wind seemed to be primarily at my back and I could travel long stretches with my goggles up.

Back at our ski cache we were shocked to see only one of Danny's skis. We had placed all six skis in a pile between two rocks. Danny started looking for the ski down the slope. I started thinking what it would be like for Danny to get out on one ski. Walking wasn't much of an option because, once in the trees, he'd have dropped to his waist for nearly ever step. I've skied on one leg before when I broke a ski halfway through the day. It's an incredible leg workout and I'd switch legs every time I stopped. But that was at a ski area. Back when I was an expert skier. And twenty years old. Danny was going to be in trouble and we weren't going to be able to help that much. It had me thinking how dependent we are on this gear to survive.

Before Danny had searched for even a few minutes, Homie spotted the ski. It was 40-50 feet uphill! Homie wasn't looking for the ski there. No one would look there. He just happened to be walking back to rock and saw it above. We concluded it must have been the wind, that is so crazy that I'm not sure. It just seems to be the best explanation...it seems the least impossible answer, but still seems impossible. It must have been a freak gust...that just plucked one ski and left the other five undisturbed? I wondered if an animal got caught in it and dragged it a ways. We saw elk or goat scat up there, but no animals. It was pure luck that Homie saw it. If he hadn't, we'd have spent at least an hour looking everywhere downhill for it before giving up and watching Danny suffer through an all-night wallow back to the car. That Homie is handy.
So happy to be back down in the trees
We were all weak from the lack of food and water. The wind above didn't allow us any respite to fuel ourselves. Each of us forced down whatever food and water we could. Fueled by a strong desire to reach to the shelter of the trees, we quickly switched back into our skis and started our descent. We kept on the skins for a bit, to control our speed and climb the small rises we knew were coming, but soon the desire to glide was too great for Danny and I. The skiing was pretty fun with nice soft powder to side of our track to provide a speed break. Despite this, I fell a couple of times. Getting back up in this bottomless snow was a real chore. Homie pulled me from one of my falls. The other times I found myself completed winded by time I was standing again.

Halfway down we ran into a group of five or six snowshoers. We knew a few of them. They were doing a 2-day ascent and thanked us for the track. Unfortunately, they had no way to avoid dorking up our nice ski track with snowshoe craters. Danny and I could zip down the gradual trail fine, but any rise was very difficult for us. We had to herringbone or sidestep up the hills and it was tricky to use our poles since if you didn't plant them in the track, they'd nearly disappear into the snow. Homie kept his skins on, preferring the speed control and the grip on the climbs. We regrouped often, to make sure no one had an injury or equipment failure.

We made it back to the car completely exhausted, but quite elated. The round trip took us just over 12 hours. We seem to recycle the same comments about the wind and our doubts all the way home.

2 comments:

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Jeff Valliere said...

scott McRobie, did you read the post? I don't think A/C was what they were looking for!!!! ;)

In all seriousness, great job guys! Sounds brutal! We drove to Breck for the Snow Sculpture fest and just the drive there on 285 (a mistake we made to avoid I-70) was brutal and knew it was bad on the peaks, thinking "nobody would be up there today". Nice job getting it done!