I haven’t written anything in a while and it’s hard to say quite why. The simple answer is that I’ve been busy. This quarter was spent working on a chapter of my dissertation and teaching a sophomore seminar on climate change. While writing and revising a discussion section on stable isotope records of Neogene climate and temperature change in western North America from the clay mineral smectite was as tedious as writing this sentence, the payoff for the upfront struggle was huge. I’m finishing revisions on the final required chapter of my thesis and looking forward to maintaining the momentum I have with my PhD even during the expedition. In addition to work, I moved out of my apartment before I ship off to Kathmandu (tomorrow!!), to mention nothing of expedition prep…countless meetings to coordinate with our research team on data collection protocols; a constant barrage of phone, email, and skype conversations sourcing equipment, working out expedition logistics and finances…even a five-day trip to Salt Lake City for the Outdoor Retailer show, the catch-all meeting of the outdoor industry. In short, it’s been hard to even conceive of writing about mountains because I’ve been working so hard to pull this off, the last thing I want to do when I come home is write about climbing. Yes, just as with high altitude climbing itself, there’s a lot of effort for that distant glimpse of the great unknown: Maybe, just maybe, it’ll all work out and I’ll briefly visit the summit of Lhotse. Regardless, I’m in for a quality adventure, an amazing cultural experience and an unforgettable season.
OK, enough with the editorial…the past few months have filled me enthusiasm and strength for what’s to come this spring, and it’s time to fill you in on what I’ve been up to with this little side project.
Winter rock and alpine exploration
It hasn’t all been office work, schmoozing and dreaming…I’ve been out to climb a fair amount. Mostly small trips out rock climbing in the area, but I’ve made a few forays into the alpine as well. Hmm, let’s see…Just after the New Year, I spent a few days up in the eastern Sierra climbing with my good friend Brad. In a little under a year, Brad has become a wonderful friend and trusted partner. Just as with a romantic relationship, it’s really hard to find the right fit, and things just clicked between us. We have similar style, objectives, and get along well together, not to mention that Brad has a bit more skill and experience than I do on technical rock and ice.
On our first day, we went ice climbing up in Lee Vining Canyon, home of California’s best ice. Shortly after leaving home, I realized I’d forgotten the camera (sorry!). I tried leading the first pitch of the day, which ended up being pretty hard with brittle vertical ice “dinner-plating” pretty badly. Later, we moved to an easier wall which Brad led beautifully and I had a fun time following. We then headed up on a challenging but spectacular approach into the high alpine above Bishop. We tracked up gorgeous drainages above Lake Sabrina hoping to attempt the North Face of Mount Darwin the next day. That night, my sleeping pad had developed a nuisance of a leak the night before which required me to reinflate the pad hourly to keep me insulated from the snow. After ascending a beautiful snow couloir the next morning, we soon realized that we were one drainage north of our intended summit and opted to take in the views on the Sierra crest just south of Lamarck Col and hike out. We had a hell of a bushwhack on the way out, that’s all I’ll say. Climbers define this as “Type II fun,” a euphemism for “pleasant only in retrospect.” And really, that’s all I was after in preparation for this expedition..some character-building willows buried under a few feet of powder just waiting to rip a snowshoe off.
I also got out to Pinnacles National Monument with my good friend Mike to try a cool adventurous traverse of the largest feature in the park, Machete Ridge. This wild traverse on so-so rock was a great way to spend a beautiful day. I think it also has the distinction of being the only route that I’ve done that’s a net drop in elevation–the route traverses the skyline from right to left. And certainly the crux was the mungy, poison-oak-covered descent. Good times!
The biggest climbing project of the winter was a route Brad and I had been eyeing for a while…the Northeast Ridge of Mount Williamson, California’s 2nd highest peak. I’ve managed to climb 14 of California’s 15 14,000 ft peaks, all either in winter, solo, quickly, or via a challenging route. Williamson, however, has thwarted my advances a grand total of five times, mostly due to lack of motivation. It’s just a beast. Brad and I planned on 3 days to climb out of Owens Valley and up the several miles of technical, serrated ridge to the summit. Our first day was an absolute monster. Even after stripping down the weight to what we thought were the bare essentials (Brad brought only a 32 degree bag and slept on the rope for extra insulation, I jettisoned the extra fuel and only took thin jackets), our packs were still unbearably heavy. Our ascent began by meandering through sage brush in the Owens Valley, then ascended several thousand feet of loose sand, decomposing granite and soft snow (more type II fun).
We ended up having a somewhat difficult night, as we were unable to find much of a ledge, I was feeling the altitude, and Brad was cold in his thin summer sleeping bag. The next morning, we brewed up and immediately started up the knife edge ridgeline above. This portion of the ridge was made of excellent granite and was a joy to climb. After a few technical sections, the route gave way to an easy portion of talus, then required us to climb up and over or around several prominent towers.
After nearly completing the middle portion of the ridge, we were finally staring at the huge talus slope leading to Williamson’s East Horn, a 14,000ft subpeak. Beyond that, we knew we’d reach a point of no return. Feeling a bit committed as we were running low on fuel and motivation, we sat in the sun and deliberated. Both of us have “gone big” before, and both of us have bailed. As we were sitting around in the sun just feeling it out, it was clear that neither of us was going to make an impassioned plea to continue. Soon thereafter, Brad scouted and rigged a rappel to get us off the snowy ridge into a snow couloir which we glissaded and downclimbed to Bair’s Creek.
Lastly, I’d been planning a run up Green Butte Ridge on Mount Shasta as the perfect trial run for myself physically and mentally. I also needed to test my updated layering system and footwear system in an alpine environment to see how things worked together. With an excellent weather and avalanche forecast this past weekend, I drove up to Bunny Flat, shocked by the lack of snow for this time of year. I settled into my sleeping bag for the evening with winds gusting to the extent that they rocked the car. By the time my 3AM alarm went off, I knew there was no point in attempting the summit–winds this high at the trailhead would mean that conditions would be unreal on the ridges. In the morning, as I was suiting up, a ranger came by and told me the winds registered 92mph at a nearby station, so I’m sure they’d be well over 100 on the ridges. I opted for a nice snowshoe up to treeline, and had a nice time testing out my footwear system and some of the other new clothing and tech items I’ll use up on Lhotse.