Saturday, May 3, 2014

On Turning Around

Mt McLoughlin, Oregon

The howl of the wind ripped through the treetops above us, as we hadn’t quite reached treeline yet, even though it was almost 11:30 in the morning. We were on Mt. McLoughlin, one of my favorite, underrated late fall/winter/spring climbs located in what would be Northern Jefferson, but technically still Southern Oregon. It had been hard work to get up here. Unlike the easy summer trail, climbing McLoughlin in snow means attacking the ridge in a series of steep steppes, all of which were covered today with a somewhat slushy snowpack. We followed up the footsteps of some descending climbers who were probably there a day or two earlier. In several spots, they had postholed down a few feet in the soft snow, and I even spied one posthole that resembled more of a crevasse - it must have been 6 feet deep. We avoided these pitfalls by donning our snowshoes - our trusty old Denali Ascents, which made the climbing easier, but also meant that our trekking poles remained out and our axes stayed in our packs.

I break down the McLoughlin climb this way. There is the approach, through the thick Oregon forest. I’ve heard others describe this as a sparse forest. I’m not sure what forest they are walking through, but the forest to the southeast of McLaughlin is far from sparse. It’s a chaotic mess of fallen trees and limbs. We were lucky to have the trailblazers’ tracks to follow, as they more or less followed the summer trail (in spots it was visible through the patchy snow of this less than normal winter’s snowcover). After that, the ridge has 3 distinct levels - these all with ample snow coverage. I call them the Lower Ridge, the Middle Ridge, and then the Upper Ridge which all leads up to the Summit Bump. That’s just the way I break it down in my head, I’ve no idea what the actual names, if there are any, of the features of the mountain are.

We were just about to top out on the Middle Ridge, the same area where the treeline peters out. Above this it would be all exposed climbing in the wind, and I could tell already that maybe today would not be the day to summit. We’d already climbed this mountain a couple of times in similar but less windy conditions. As far as lists go, we had already checked off this box on the “Cascade Volcanoes”, we didn’t need to go up there, this was just a training day for bigger things to come later in the season. It was also close to our home, within a 3 hour drive or so. Heck, if we really felt like it, we could come up here again next weekend. All these thoughts were already going through my head.

That was when the wind blast struck. The huge gust barrelled down towards us. I looked up just in time to see a small chunk of ice hurtling at me, and did my best “matrix-move” to get out of its way. My wife behind me let out a small scream split seconds later as the charging current of air hit her. We both stopped our ascent for a moment, me to assess my wife’s condition and my wife to catch her breathe and calm her heartbeat down.

Looking back at her, I could now more clearly tell our predicament. We were on a slope at roughly I’d say a 35-40 degree angle. Had my wife or I fallen, it was a clear unobstructed line to about 500’ below - far enough to gain considerable speed and likely would terminate by withstanding at least a minor, if not major, injury. It definitely wasn’t a good spot to be hit by a rogue wind gust. With one last push, we did our best to hurry up and get off the slope to a semi-protected area underneath a patch of trees.

We have been climbing together for as long as we've been climbing. So we really didn't have to say anything, we both knew the climb was over. The risks in continuing far outweighed any benefits we would have to continuing. We both felt like what we had climbed so far had been a good workout, which was all we were really looking for. We had summited this mountain twice before. To continue on would mean a late finish, possibly after dark, and the weather was worsening, with no tree protection from the wind from this point forward. Slam dunk- we were done.

But it's not always so clear cut or so simple. A couple of years ago we were on Mt Hood. It was late in the season, for Hood, early July. The week before the overnight temps were freezing, but now the freezing level was well above 14,000’ on an 11,000’+ mountain. But it was our first try, and we were stoked to give it a shot anyway. I drove from our house, somewhere in the neighborhood of 400 miles. Instead of getting a hotel for only a few hours stay, we decided to sleep in our 4Runner in the parking lot. This turned out to be a terrible mistake. There were not one but two weddings going on at the Timberline Lodge. I ended up with maybe one hour worth of sleep. But we still wanted to climb!

Me, looking up dejectedly from the Hogsback, Mt Hood 2012
The climb was going swimmingly at first. We made good progress and dodged many of the snowcats bringing the cheaters err… guided climbers up. Just as daylight was hitting we reached the famed Hogsback. There we encountered the guided groups… turning back. Conditions were sloppy, slushy and unsafe. Rocks tumbled unprovoked down the Pearly Gates and the Old Chute/Mazamas route looked more unstable than a Slurpy on the beach in August. My wife seemed resigned (rightfully so) that this would be our highpoint of the day.

But I couldn’t get myself to accept it! I wanted to climb on. I felt strong, good and ready to get up there. Continuing would have meant putting myself into an extremely dangerous position. There was literally no one climbing above the Hogsback. I searched the crowd for just one group that might continue, one group who I could point to and say “Well, they’re going for it, so that must mean I can too.” There was a group of guys who climbed up (roped) to the ‘schrund. I thought they might give it a shot. But it didn’t happen. After all the hardship we had put ourselves through, it seemed a huge blow to turn around here, so close from the summit. After some time, I had no concept of minutes, the reality of the situation took hold. We took some photos for future reference and descended. As defeated as I felt, it was still the right call, I knew. If only we had tried the climb a week earlier.

When we first started climbing it was easier, because we learned to climb many times by going on guided climbs. It was always the guide’s decision who continued and who turned around. When you’re at that stage of your growth as a climber, it’s like Mountaineering For Dummies. All the important and critical decisions are made for you, and frankly that’s the best because I know me personally, I had no idea what trouble I could get myself into by pushing limits too far.

As you gain experience though, ultimately you climb on your own and the decisions about turning around are all on you. It’s natural to second-guess a mountain guide who turns you back. But once you have hit that point of autonomy in your climbing, it’s not as easy to say you made a mistake. You have to take a hard look at what you’re doing and be as honest with yourself as you possibly can. And yes, sometimes you may push too far, especially in the beginning. In those cases, it also helps to be a little lucky.

One such occasion happened to me in one of my earliest Shasta climbs. I had summitted Shasta a couple of times, but I was still very new to the mountain. We had only moved to the area about a year before. We had some out-of-town guests we were climbing with, one of whom was a very friendly guy named Tony from Australia. He was touring around the US, and was very happy to be climbing Mt. Shasta, and getting over 4000 meters for the first time in his life. But as it is so often with out-of-town climbing guests, fickle Shasta decided to let the nasty weather dominate the weekend they showed up. High winds and the chance of precipitation were in the forecast, but of course we had to climb anyway, they had schedules to keep.

Camped at Helen Lake, we woke up per usual at 2am, but the winds were roaring like a freight train. Deciding to stall for a while, we dozed off hoping the weather might change a little for the better with time. At 4am, things did seem to calm down, but not enough for my wife, who decided she would not be climbing into these questionable conditions. Our other friend agreed. But Tony really wanted to press on and so I agreed I would climb as well. For the first few hours, it looked like we had made a solid decision. Progress was made up the Avalanche Gulch route as we made our way up through the Red Banks and beheld Misery Hill.

That’s when things went south. While the wind was no longer a factor, Misery Hill and all points above were wrapped in a thick blanket of cloud. I could see some climbers up ahead, and I kind of thought that I knew the way (having climbed it a whole two times before) so we kept going. About half way up Misery Hill things got worse. The snow started falling on us, chunky wet flakes and quickly we were laughing about having icicle beards. But it didn’t let up. The wind soon resumed it’s battery and coupled with the snow to make a truly tenuous situation become damn scary. Only at this time did we make the decision to turn around.

But it was far too late. We were too high and the conditions were very bad. Had we turned back before ascending any up Misery Hill, we would have been able to just retrace our steps in our descent. But now, our steps were gone. Obliterated from the hillsides by a sea of white, wind and wet. We struggled to find landmarks to gain a handle on our position. I thought I knew where I was a couple of times - I had no idea where I was. We came across a group of other climbers who were struggling with the same predicament. One guy was saying how he had a gps and knew the Red Banks were this direction. I felt like he was completely off. It didn’t seem right. Tony and I made a decision that some other rocks we could spy looked more like the correct direction. We walked on.

We walked off the wrong side of the mountain…

I started to get an inkling we were in the wrong place. Nothing looked familiar. The skies below cleared enough and we could see tents and a camp below us. But it didn’t feel right (later I figured out we were looking at folks camped on East side routes). The snow started getting steeper and steeper too. Suddenly I shouted to Tony that this simply couldn’t be the way. We were almost falling, I was having trouble keeping my crampons to stay on my boots (because I was a bit inexperienced at strapping them up) and I was just getting damn scared. We agreed to retreat up and get back to where we were before, the wind and clouds having died off enough that we could go back up there and re-asses.

This time we figured out our mistake. We could see now new climbers, who had waited in camp even longer than us, making their way up around the Thumb area and being a feature I recognized we now were back on route for a descent. (Many of the climbers coming up would stop there as well, the winds were back and forth between being slightly bearable, and being hurricane force.) That’s when I spotted the GPS guy.

When you ascend the Gulch route by the Thumb, there is the upper extent of the Konwikiton glacier directly to the western slope right there. Climbers navigate on a ridge between the end of the Red Banks and this glacier where some years there is a distinct bergschrund that forms at this location to be avoided. GPS guy had walked right down that glacier and was now perched on a little outcropping of rocks. All by himself, who seemed confused which way to go. We had almost gotten into huge trouble walking on the upper Hotlum (I know these names now, back then it was just “Mt Shasta” to me). He needed rescue in a big way, or we were going to watch someone fall to their death. I was exhausted, but luckily Tony was still strong and risked life and limb to walk out onto this top area of the glacier untethered and retrieve GPS guy. At the end of the day, we all walked out together, living to climb another day.

But I never will forget that lesson. Maybe some people can read about close calls and steer clear of dangerous situations their entire careers, but some of us are a bit hard-headed and can only be scared straight by coming face to face with the consequences of a bad decision. That for sure was not the last close call I’ve had, and I’m just as certain that in the future I will have close calls again. But I do know that these experiences all put together give me more and more knowledge of how far I can, and more importantly how far I cannot, push my own limits.

If we turned around every time there was a little bad weather, or every time the wind picked up a bit, I would probably never get to at least half of the summits I’ve seen. These are mountains, and weather and objective hazards go hand in hand when we seek out these lofty, lonely places that we worship and strive to reach out to and share in their tidings. As the old quote goes, there are old climbers, and there are bold climbers, but there are no old and bold climbers. Well, I  think we all want to get as close as we can to being both old and bold. In the end though, it’s much more important for me to (one day) just be an old climber.

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