February 6, 2016
The mountains are calling and I must go. - John Muir
This past Saturday I woke at 12 a.m. after a short 2.5hr nap. I was so stoked for the day ahead! After getting the last bit of my organic, plant-based food and gear ready I was out the door to meet up with climbing partner #1; then continued on to meet climbing partner #2; then continued on to meet the remaining 4 climbing partners. It was a crisp, clear, cold morning, and the level of excitement was high! As we made the drive in the wee hours of the morning, I thought of how amazing it was that other people know that feeling of when the mountains are calling and we MUST go.
We arrived at the snow packed trail at 5 a.m., the stars and moon piercing the darkness with their beauty. After bundling up, strapping on snowshoes/skis, we started out in the peaceful still of the night.
Winter mountaineering is a whole different ball game vs summer mountaineering. It's like the difference between a 5k and 50 miler. Winter climbing includes breaking trail in deep snow, route finding, cold temperatures, avi (avalanche) danger, bitter gusty winds all on top of keeping hydrated, nourished, and in good spirits!
I was particularly looking for redemption. 4 years previously (one month shy to be precise) I had attempted a winter climb and was forced to turn around about 200 feet from the summit where I subsequently got second degree frostbite. Years later I still have that day seared into memory as my fingers and toes are still paying the price for that experience. Needless to say, I had high hopes of making summit today! There were a few problems on that climb that I learned from and that was GEAR. It comes down to really, really, REALLY great gear. It's crucial to stay warm (and dry)! So with high hopes and feeling more confident in my gear selection this time around, I was excited to see how the day would unfold.
Forming a conga line we took turns breaking trail up the jeep road to the Rainbow Trail head, our headlamps providing light in the vast darkness, picking up the glitter of snow because of how cold it was.
From the Rainbow Trail we had to cut over to the left and climb up the ridge. This is where the real work began. Breaking trail in about 4+ feet of deep snow is no easy task. Each step up the ridge was energy-draining and at times frustrating; propelling your body up a tall mountain, ever reminded that we were working with less oxygen, each step up the mountain was a distinct parallel to life: perspective on current conditions; do we give up when the going gets tough? Or do we persevere on in pursuit of that which is calling us?
Finally, at about 11 a.m. we broke tree line. It was a welcome relief! Humboldt summit loomed way off in the distance. We still had our work cut out for us. No longer protected by the trees, I felt like a paper airplane about to be tossed into the air and hurled somewhere in the abyss by the gale force winds. We zigzagged our way up the ridge, every inch of our body covered by material (I for one did not want a frostbitten nose!), bracing myself against the winds when they ripped across the mountain. Ever a reminder that I am a guest on the mountain.
We racked our snowshoes a short time later, hoping they wouldn't become kites before our return from our summit bid. It was a slow, audacious, one-foot-in-front-of-the-other mindset climbing up the side of the mountain. Now that we were out of the forest, the beauty of the Crestones surrounded me and I again realized how blessed I was to do something like this. To be in the stillness of these majestic peaks was indeed something very few get to experience. I stood in awe of the beauty surrounding me and thanked the universe for allowing me to see what few will ever see.
At this point during my winter mountaineering I had been up for 12 hours, much of those hours exerting some tough physical activity, plus and I had yet to summit; I wasn't tired, I was ALIVE! Breathing (albeit a little heavier than usual)! I was moving my body up a tall mountain in the winter. I was in LOVE with life. In love with the beauty all around me. I stopped for a moment (to catch my breath at 13,500 feet elevation) and looked in deep awe of the gloriousness beholding me. This is why I gladly woke up at 12 a.m., to challenge my body and spirit up the mountain in the cold darkness of a very early morning, to gaze off into the distance on the east and watch the sun peak through the trees giving way to the most stunning sunrise ever, the relentless breaking trail in thigh-deep snow for hours on end, the feeling of finally breaking treeline...yes, this was more than just simply "fun". This was a gift. A gift of adventure. A beautiful gift of a deeply profound spiritual experience. Spirituality is defined as a connection to something bigger than myself, and tall mountains certainly fit that definition for me.
Moving further up the mountain we stopped to put on our crampons, took a few more sips of water and bits of food and looked up at the summit that always seemed to be moving! A ferocious gust of wind came across the mountain range and attempted to hurtle me off the mountain, I jammed my poles as hard as I could into the ice-snow covered ground and thought "this must be a very, very, small glimpse to what climbing Everest is like...".
Feeling good but in slightly tired spirits (breaking trail for 6 hours takes it toll!), we were SO close to the summit! A few more maneuvers over the rock-filled terrain and we.were.finally ON THE SUMMIT! I collapsed in a grateful, happy, and relieved heap on the rocks. It was about 1:45 p.m. My fingers were not feeling all that great (once you have frostbite, everything is more susceptible to the elements). I knew I couldn’t hang out at 14,064 feet too long so after eating my Summit Superfood Sandwich, a few group and individual photos, I peaced out and started making the trek back down the mountain. Summiting is only half of the excursion. There has to be enough coherence, energy, and wherewithal to get yourself safely down the mountain.
Besides the gale force winds, the weather was actually great. The sunshine was very welcome and as we made our descent the pain in my hands (and toes) began to subside. I was so grateful. Before long we were back to our snowshoes and then treeline. My climbing partners and I were pretty quiet on the trip back down the mountain. Mostly from exhaustion and ready to be done with our adventure. As we trudged through the forest and the trail we broke hours ago, I finally stated verbally “I can’t believe we came up this!”. Going down wasn’t a piece of cake, either, yes the trail was broken but we still had to position our snowshoes-strapped feet on the snow-filled path; the snow was unstable in some places. As the time moved on so did the sun. When we started out at 5:15 a.m. I don’t think any of us expected to return in the dark, too! But that was becoming more and more evident.
After what seemed like an eternity, we finally made it off the ridge and back onto the Rainbow Trail. We hopped over a few fallen trees, climbed a small hill (it was then that we realized how much effort we put in!) and finally back to the road- and 2.5 miles yet to go. James, Nick and myself collapsed into the 4 foot high snowbank...and then remembered we had to get back up! We finished the last of our food, rallied ourselves for the last few miles and off we trudged- into the sunset. I stopped to take a photo, because that’s what you do, right?!
Snowmobiles had come through earlier and made a nice track for us. It made our weary body happy. The darkness fell and we could see the car headlights beckoning us off in the distance (one of our climbing partners, Malachi, didn’t have snowshoes due to another climbing partner forgetting them for him- he somehow made it treeline postholing the whole way but simply didn’t have time to make summit; his perseverance was very impressive given the circumstances!).
Wearily but oh-so grateful, we arrived at the car, greeting our climbing partners (3 of them skinned up and skied down). It was dark and almost 13 hours on the dot from when we started. Exhausted and happy, we piled into the car. I looked out into the vast darkness and stared out in the direction of the mountain we just climbed. Redemption was sought and found. I finally had my first winter summit!
Winter mountaineering is not only physically challenging but there are so many other factors involved versus summer mountaineering. Breaking trail in deep snow (plus route finding), keeping warm and dry, having the essential pieces of gear, avalanche danger, whiteouts, health problems from altitude (also present in summer climbing), the reality of frostbite, minus degree temperatures and brutal wind chill- it’s tough work climbing in the winter season. Perhaps a comparison would be between a 5k and a 50 miler.
Summer and winter climbing are two very different sports given the weather factor. Few attempt summer climbs and even fewer attempt winter climbing. The inner joy from knowing what I just accomplished was my medal. Sure, participating in races is enjoyable, but I also like the fact that I can do something that won’t have a physical medal or race results at the end. I think that’s where the true test of doing something difficult and challenging is found because you love it, not because of receiving a piece of hardware at the conclusion of the event. To get up at midnight and participate voluntarily in a gruelling day of incredible adventure is absolutely what I call fun. Exerting yourself up a tall (in this case 14,064 feet) mountain, watching the sunrise, being surrounded by glorious mountains and stunning views, even kicking our way through the deep snow in the forest was peaceful. Sure, there times when I was exhausted but at the same time, grateful for being given the opportunity to experience a beautiful part of the world with physical activity. To move my body (in albeit a different way). To breathe in the beauty surrounding me. To deeply cherish this gift we call life. Sometimes the accolades come from the beauty beholding me, not a race medal. And the redemption I pursued and found?
It’s as sweet as nectar.