Friday, September 18, 2015

Sneffels Part Two: The Climb

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Before this, I'd never climbed a fourteener. I'd never really cared to. But there was something about that mountain that had drawn me to it, that made me desperate to stand on top of it. 

I was mildly confident we could do it. After all, hundreds if not thousands of people successfully climb to the top every year. If they could do it, why couldn't I? I did a fair bit of research, I had a route guide printed out complete with pictures, and I'd read blogs and trip reports. It was intimidating, but I was sure we could handle it. We're in pretty decent shape, right? But no. Those pictures, those trip reports... nothing could have prepared me for what we were about to do. I seem to have a habit of underestimating nature. I should stop that.

We walked up the trail a ways and dropped our packs. We stuffed some necessities into a day pack, put on our helmets and gloves, and started up. It got hard, fast. It doesn't look that steep until you're standing at the foot of that first slope. It's long and it goes straight up. There's what looks like a sort of trail, but as soon as you get to it you realize there's no way on God's green earth you're going to use it. It's slicker than even the Blue Lakes Pass trail. You take a step, and your foot slides out from under you as the gravel slips all around. We moved over to the left. The rocks were big, some even boulder-sized. That seemed much better. I was on all fours, using my arms as much as my legs to propel myself upward. (My gloves were the best thing I'd brought with me. I'd taken trekking poles, but didn't use them long.)

 Every third step or so, whatever rock your foot was on would drop out from under you and leave you desperately trying to find another spot to put your foot while that rock made its way down the mountain. At some point, the boulders turned into talus - rocks about the size of my hand, loose and ready to slide at any moment. There was a moment when I couldn't find anything solid to hold onto. My heart was back up in my throat - it spent a lot of time there on this trip - and I just laid on the rocks until I could get my courage back up. And then we kept going. It took an unreasonably long time to make it to the top of the slope. But then we sat there on the saddle and looked around, and it was absolutely incredible. There was only one other group of climbers at that point - they'd made it to the top just before us and had continued on. We watched them for awhile, soaked in the view, and breathed some of that thin mountain air before continuing.

What you can't see from the bottom of the scree slope is just what the Lavender Couloir actually looks like. You make it up to the col, and you think you've done great. And then you turn, and you look up. It's shorter than the first slope, but it's twice as steep and twice as rough. Back on all fours, we made our way up, hand over foot. I'm a hiker. My leg muscles are pretty stout. My arms? Not so much. And they were getting one hell of a workout.

We made pretty good time, considering. And then I remembered The Notch. I'd read about it. Everyone made it sound so scary. But I'd also seen pictures, and it didn't look so terrible. And then I got there.

"Exposure" is the word they kept using when they described it. What is exposure? Apparently it's a 100 foot sheer drop off only inches away from where you're expected to climb. It was at this moment that I developed a fear of heights. I sat against the wall and declared to my husband that I didn't really care to get to the top, after all. There was no. way. in. hell. that I was going to climb up through that God-forsaken notch and risk my life to get to the top of some silly mountain. So I sat there. And I cussed a lot. I had hit a psychological barrier and there simply would not be any going further. I wanted to cry. I almost threw up.

And then I sucked it up, and I started up. Andrew was behind me, helping me find footing. Being a short person at that notch is not ideal. But the hand holds were solid, and using some of the upper arm strength that I only managed to muster because I really didn't want to die, I pulled myself up and through it. And he followed, with no trouble. Apparently, this is a Class 3 climbing maneuver. I know now that I'm very comfortable being a Class 2 climber. Physically, I was perfectly capable. Mentally? Not so much. But I did it.

They say, "Once you get through the notch, it's easy." They lie. I think maybe it really was pretty easy, but I was still freaked out about the exposure and I was flat out terrified as we climbed the last 150 feet. It's a long way down if you screw up.

And then, there we were. On top of the tallest mountain I'd ever stood on, a solid 2,000 feet higher than I'd ever stood before. I was dizzy and elated and scared to death and so freaking happy I couldn't contain it - all at the same time. We visited with a couple other folks who had made it before us. I thought about eating something and decided that would be positively stupid. We signed the summit log and took some pictures. We stared all around us. It felt like we were on top of the world.

The views we'd enjoyed as we'd hiked through the basin were nothing compared to the way it looked from the top. It was breathtaking. It was dizzying. You could see for miles.

And then, only because there really wasn't any other option, we headed down. Down is not easy. Down is, in fact, harder than up in a lot of ways. Going through the notch was equally as scary as it was the first time - this time I was on my belly and couldn't see what I was doing. Going down the couloir was a whole new experience, one that used new muscle groups. I quickly decided the easiest way down was sitting on my butt. Most of the way, I "crab-walked" down, my arms and legs holding my butt a couple inches off the ground. (There's not far to fall if you do it this way!) On the slick parts, I'd just sit down and go for it, sliding till my feet hit a rock and stopped me. I felt a little silly, sliding like a child. Then later, I learned there's a technical term for this method: it's called a "seated descent." That made me feel better. Truthfully though, you get to the point where all you want is to get down off the mountain in one piece, and if that means sliding all the way, you do it.

My muscles were sore. I didn't use any of the hiking muscles that have gotten pretty strong this year. I used my arms and abs and muscles I didn't know I had. Putting on my pack at the bottom was a whole new experience - a painful one, because my shoulders were stiff and sore from the climb. We hiked out that afternoon.

I learned some things on this mountain, this mountain that I knew had to be my first fourteener. I learned that getting to the summit really isn't the whole point of the climb. It's the climb itself. It's pushing yourself, breaking through psychological barriers, digging out courage you didn't know you had. It's physical exertion that makes you feel incredibly strong. It's appreciating the mountain for all that it is, not just the summit. Climbing a mountain gives you this intense respect for nature - for its power and timelessness and its minute detail that is so easily overlooked, even from the base of the mountain. Reaching the summit was just the mid-way point of an awesome adventure, one I won't forget and that I'm so glad I had. Through all of it - the physical exhaustion, the fear, the breathlessness and the beauty - I never once regretted doing it.

You have to do incredible things to see incredible places. The harder it is to get there, the more worth it the trip becomes.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Sneffels Trip: Part One

So let's start this post off by stating a very important fact: I'm not a mountain climber. I've never been a mountain climber, and I've never wanted to be a mountain climber. I'm a hiker. I love walking.

That said, I've spent a fair bit of time this summer walking around in the Sneffels Wilderness in the San Juan mountains, staring at that big, beautiful, brutal mountain and wondering what it would be like to stand on top of it.

So I decided to find out. 

My husband and I planned a three day trip to the Ouray area that would include camping at the Upper Blue Lake and climbing Mount Sneffels. It's fair to say this trip was somewhat spontaneous - we had a vague idea of what we planned to do and how we planned to do it, but much of it was "we'll see when we get there."

We drove to Ouray and then further on into Yankee Boy basin.

This was our second time driving this road to get to what is arguably the prettiest spot in all of Colorado. I didn't enjoy the drive much the first time, and I didn't care for it much this time, either. Single-lane shelf road, sometimes with an overhang. But getting to the most beautiful places on earth is never easy.

We drove as far as was reasonable without a Jeep, to a sign that said "Four wheel drive, high clearance, short wheel base vehicles only." This put us about a mile from the trail head. We donned our packs (mine weighed 34 lbs, his weighed 50) and started off. Instead of heading toward toward the Mt. Sneffels trailhead, we took the Blue Lakes Pass trail uphill, above treeline, and right into the center of the basin. 

It's one of those places that takes your breath away. (Or that could have been the fact that we were walking up hill above 12,000 feet.) Either way, it's gorgeous. Mount Emma to our left with Gilpin Peak behind it, and to our right, towering above us were Teakettle and Coffeepot peaks. There was a creek with cascading waterfalls along the trail falling into an incredibly deep canyon, and we passed Wright's Lake, a small glacial lake. And just past that, up a bit more of the hill, and we could see Sneffels in all its glory, towering menacingly above. No picture that has ever been taken could do this basin justice. You stand there, surrounded by these huge, jagged, foreboding peaks, and you feel so small and insignificant. Above treeline, the flora is minimal - short grasses, a few flowers that have survived into fall. And rocks. So, so many rocks - piles of them here and there, undoubtedly from rockslides in years past - these mountains are crumbling a little bit every day.

The Blue Lakes Pass summit was only about two and a half miles from the truck. Our plan was to cross the summit and continue down the other side to the Upper Blue Lake and set up camp for the night. We summited. It was a view I'd been waiting to see for months.

 Incredible and perfect and beautiful.

And then we started down.

It wasn't long before we realized it was stupid. The trail wasn't much more than a foot wide, traveling steeply downhill and not ever actually flat. And looking down was about 900 feet of elevation loss in very short time. A steep, nasty, dangerous rocky mountain. One slip and, with packs, we could find ourselves at the bottom, and likely severely injured. Why we kept going, I'll never know. But we did keep going, about halfway down the trail. It was a well packed trail with little bits of gravel scattered all over it - perfect for slipping on. I slipped several times, my heart jumping into my throat each time I steadied myself. At some point I asked why we were doing this. Plans can change, right? So we - very carefully - turned around and started heading back up. I was terrified. I actually made him hold my hand for the steepest parts. One foot in front of the other, tiny steps at a time, and we summitted the pass again. One more look down at those gorgeous, turquoise-blue lakes, and we started looking for any flat spot to pitch a tent.

We found it not far away, right at the foot of Sneffels.

We laid there in the grass, relishing the feeling of solid ground beneath us, and rested while we watched the last of the day's hikers come back down the scree slope of Sneffels. One guy fell hard - completely laid out, on his back. He slid down on his butt after that. Smart move, dude. We watched for awhile as a couple of older gals came down, slower than slow. I will never judge them for their pace. They didn't get hurt, therefore they won. Then we headed down to a mountain spring for water, about 1/4 mile down the trail. 

So while we weren't camped where we'd intended, we ended up sleeping in what is hands down the prettiest place I've ever slept in my life, in absolute solitude. We dined on freeze-dried beef stroganoff and white wine in our enamel camp cups. It was a fantastic dinner. Then we set up the tent and were asleep by 8:30, exhausted. 

Morning came quickly, and we broke down camp. It was frigid - cold enough that ice had formed inside our Nalgene bottles. We heated water for tea, ate cold bagels with cream cheese, and enjoyed our breakfast while watching the sun light up the mountains surrounding us. It was COLD. I couldn't feel my fingers, and the feeling in my toes was going fast. And in less than two hours, we'd be climbing the massive mountain we were looking at.