19 September 2012

The wilderness is dangerous. I always knew it; most of us know it. But I saw it for myself a few weeks ago on La Plata. Having the knowledge doesn’t necessarily mean we appreciate the knowledge. Today I appreciate the knowledge, but only because of my experience on Ellingwood Ridge. I walked away from my close call, but that isn’t true for everyone, and it won’t always be true for me. If you’re not just a little bit scared or anxious every time you go out, then you don’t fully appreciate the situation. You haven’t recognized that every trip – wilderness or not – includes an x-factor. Anxiety is healthy; it gives a heightened sense of awareness. It means we’re not taking our environment for granted, but rather looking for things to be out of place, mentally prepared to be shocked or surprised. If we’re not anxious, we’re flying on auto-pilot. You can see how that could be bad news in an environment that is constantly changing, an environment where mountains are perpetually crumbling beneath our feet…designed to fall. A rock that dislodges when I weight it isn’t the anomaly, it’s the norm. Be ready. These kinds of environments can be unforgiving. Appreciating the situation doesn’t guarantee safe passage, but it certainly improves my chances. Expect the unexpected and plan accordingly.

Guinn and I were here a week ago, ready to tackle the summit. This is the kind of peak that could be flawless, or it could end up like La Plata. I was happy to have an extra set of eyes on an uncertain route. Unfortunately that set of eyes didn’t help us spot the subtle split that morning. We hiked for hours at a pace that allowed us to cover four miles on a route that’s supposed to be eight round trip. We were cruising along, neither of us wanting to admit the obvious. We were on trail but off route. At least we weren’t actually lost. We just weren’t where we wanted to be. We bushwhacked trying to get a better vantage but to no avail. Then we backtracked to the nearest trail junction, where we reasoned we must’ve gone the wrong way. But after following the split for a few miles, it became painfully obvious that we were still off track. As it was getting late in the day, we called it, resolving to find the split on our way back to the car. We never saw it. Pyramid won that day.

I made my way back to the trailhead this morning with the intention of trekking to the amphitheater, snapping a few photos, and exploring the possibility of topping out. I wasn’t fully committed either way. The weather was clear when I reached the saddle, as forecast, so I moved along. It’s certainly fair to say that I was fighting summit fever today, but I knew I was, so I forced myself to stop and re-evaluate my circumstances constantly. Yes the rock was shisty, but I knew it would be. It’s also true that it was probably even more so than unusual, given the recent snow flurries. Though there was almost no lingering snow on the route, the freeze-thaw cycle is a primary cause of tearing down mountains, piece by piece. If there had been anything else working against me, I would’ve called it, but in my estimation the existing challenges weren’t unreasonable. There were tons of choices, though some were unreliable and it wasn’t always clear which to avoid. That’s just the nature of the beast on a climb like Pyramid. It was tedious both ways. And it took me about 10 hours to cover just eight miles round trip. I’m sure mom was watching the clock, since she’d expected to hear from me earlier in the evening, and I wasn’t able to call until about a half hour before I’d told her to get worried. At least I wasn’t really running late.

(Thought: though the fear of death keeps us honest, it must be tempered in accordance with the fundamental truth that it’s the only certainty in life. Those of us who embrace that inevitability have the opportunity to truly live. Our responsibility to ourselves is simple: follow our hearts. Our responsibility to the ones we love is perhaps more complicated: don’t be reckless in that pursuit.)

I made the summit around lunch, which is pretty late. The weather was holding beautifully, so I wasn’t concerned. In fact, I spent more time enjoying the quaint Pyramid summit than I have any other this season. Three other climbers joined me after a short bit, and we ultimately decided to descend together for two reasons: (1) we were less likely to kick rocks onto each other; and (2) four sets of eyes are more likely to pick the safest route down.

Part of what got me up and down was skill and experience, but on a route like that, I gotta recognize that some of it was dumb luck. The difference between a pleasant, flawless descent and a tragedy – even on a beautiful, clear day – is negligible. This rock instead of that one, and it could’ve been a different story up there (for any of us). Once we finally reached the amphitheater and boulder field, I considered myself safely back on terra firma, the lovely place where I know my next step is solid. A technical, loose route is both physically and psychologically exhausting. I was definitely ready for some good old-fashioned hiking. Smooth sailing to the trailhead.

Watching the aspens and willows change among the evergreens these last few weeks has been quite a sight. Today was nothing short of awe-inspiring. What color!

Though I hope to make it out to Chicago Basin before the close of our season, I recognize that this may well be my last climb for the foreseeable future. Either way, I’ll be back for the remaining Centennials.