Monday, December 23, 2013

Patagonia: Beta Report



In mid- to late-November, Derek DeBruin, Kevin Shon, and Karsten Delap traveled to Argentina with the intent to attempt a new line on the east face (Argentine side) of Cerro San Lorenzo in central Patagonia.  The weather proved to be problematic, preventing an attempt, but we did get to do some other climbing as well as gather valuable beta.  The details are below.

East Face of Cerro San Lorenzo, mid-November 2013.
Travel to Argetina
Our party flew in to Ezeiza International Airport in Buenos Aires.  Previous experience has shown LAN to be one of the most reliable and on-time operations.  This trip proved no different.

Travel within Argentina
From Buenos Aires, there are two options for air travel.  The southern option is to fly to Rio Gallegos; however, the flight scheduled is somewhat limited.  From there, you could rent a vehicle of arrange for transportation to the trailhead.  Rolando Garibotti, curator of pataclimb.com was very helpful in this regard.

The northern option is to travel to Bariloche, where a car rental or a ride down Routa Nacional 40 goes to the trailhead.  Rental cars are available at the airport in Bariloche and rides for hire to points in Patagonia are available as well.

It is also possible to rent a car in Buenos Aires (rates are cheaper in el centro than at the airport) and drive directly to the trailhead.  Depending on the number in the group and the rate and rental period, this could save a fair amount of money.  However, that money comes at the cost of time.  It is probably a better plan to fly to Bariloche or Rio Gallegos.  We rented a vehicle and traveled from the north.

Travel to and inside Parque Nacional Perito Moreno
Once in the country, whether coming from the north or south, the goal is ultimately to get to RN 40 which runs the length of Patagonia to the north and south along the western edge of Argentina.  We traveled along RN 40 to Routa Provincial 37, which marks the entrance to Parque Nacional Perito Moreno.  This intersection seemed to be indicated on the map as Las Horquetas, though there was literally nothing there save a gravel road and a sign.

Also noteworthy is that the last reliable places to purchase gasoline (nafta) are some distance from the park entrance.  To the north is the town of Perito Moreno and to the south is Gobernador Gregores.  A jerry can for extra gasoline is not strictly necessary but is not a bad idea.  For example, while driving from the north, we stopped for gas in the hamlet of Bajo Caracoles (the last place to stop to the north of the park) only to discover that the whole town had run out of gas the preceding day and they did not know when the next shipment would arrive.

After turning onto RP 37, there are two possible locations to get gas on the way to the park entrance.  The first is Estancia Sierra Andia about 10 or 15km into the park and located on the left.  (It’s the only building on your left and therefore hard to miss.)  Estancia Menelik is some 40 or more kilometers into the park and is on the right.  These places may or may not have gas and as they are private ranches, the care-takers may or may not be home to sell it.  If they are there, the price for gas was about double that elsewhere when we purchased it.

Beyond these two estancias lies the park entrance.  As of November 2013, the operating hours were 9:00am to 9:00pm and the park was closed May to August.  We arrived after hours and so camped just inside the entrance near the ranger station.  Future climbers should respect the registration requirement and be sure to register with the ranger during operating hours before heading to the trailhead.  He was quite friendly and also familiar with climbers.  He was a good source of beta, internet, weather forecasts, and bathrooms.

Entrance and ranger station of Parque Nacional Perito Moreno.
Past the entrance lies Estancia La Oriental on the right.  We did not stop here, but they are supposed to offer lodging of some kind.  The gravel road dead ended at Estancia El Rincon, donated to the park in May 2013.  It was a small museum staffed by the park.  The rangers there allowed us to use a small side shed as a staging area for final packing.

La estancia El Rincon
From El Rincon, a small gravel and dirt road led us north to the park property line.  Beyond the park property, the road became progressively less-friendly, featuring sand hills, rutted dirt, increasingly large rocks, and stream crossings.  A 4x4 vehicle with good clearance would have been welcome (the Toyota Hilux and similar vehicles are a popular choice).  That being said, our 2WD Ford Ecosport handled quite admirably.

Creek crossing in the Ecosport.
Eventually, this road ended before a major stream crossing.  We parked there, though carefully selected our spot in case of rising water levels/flooding.  More than likely, no one else would be parking there at that time of year, so we felt comfortable leaving some items in the vehicle (excess equipment, a food cache, etc.)

Approaching Cerro San Lorenzo via Rio Lacteo
There are two principle ways to approach Cerro San Lorenzo from the Argentine side.  The northeast aspects of the peak are best approached via Routa Provincial 39 and the Rio Oro valley to the north.  For the East Ridge (the “South African Route”) and all points south, the approach via RP 37, Parque Nacional Perito Moreno, and the Rio Lacteo valley to the east and south is the best approach.

From the parking area noted above, we crossed the stream, a mandatory wet crossing.  We continued following the road bed until it led us to a view of Rio Lacteo.  From there are two options.  The first is to stay high on the intermittent trail on the river left/east bank.  This path is the “established” trail, which we followed on our return leg.  However, in the spring, the thawing soil can create exceptionally marshy conditions in the grassy pastures.  Consequently, boots and gaiters would not be ill-advised as the suction of the ankle-deep mud is quite severe in places.  Alternately, future parties should be prepared for wet shoes and wet feet.

Hiking up Rio Lacteo valley (courtesy of Kevin Shon).
The second option is to drop down low into the Rio Lacteo drainage, which we did on our approach.  The channel is typically quite braided with numerous gravel bars, streams, etc.  Most crossings, if even required, were shallow or dry, though there were a couple wet crossings.

Ultimately, we followed the Rio Lacteo valley on the east side of Cerro Penitentes until we reached the confluence of the north and west forks of Rio Lacteo.  This brought us to the hut of Puesto San Lorenzo, located on the east/river left bank.  The hut is fairly weather proof and features a wood-burning stove with griddle, a table, hanging space, and dirt floors.  There is also a separate latrine and a wind wall for tents.  Water is easily accessed just down a steep slope to the river.  A lightweight day hike should get most parties to the hut in 3 hours.  With expedition loads, we found our travel time to be more like 6 hours.

Puesto San Lorenzo.
From the Puesto, we made one additional wet river crossing over the north fork of Rio Lacteo, though it’s rumored that there is occasionally a bridge there.  After the crossing, we followed the north/river left bank of the west fork or Rio Lacteo where an occasional trail led up to the boulder field on the shelf above.  Across the boulder field, we continued westward and upward as the Rio Lacteo turned into Class V whitewater.

The next bench above yielded a braided section of the Rio Lacteo just downstream of Lago Lacteo, the lake formed at the head of Glaciar Lacteo, which feeds Rio Lacteo.  Crossing the river here at the braided channel through mostly dry crossings, we continued along the south/river right side of the river as the north side of the lake proved impassable (unless one enjoys 80o dirt gulies).

Once on the south side of the river, we continued onto the shoulder skirting the south side of Rio Lacteo and the north side of Cerro Penitentes.  We stayed high from there, well above the lake, and continued traversing westward through the talus, scree, and boulders.  Eventually, this bench turns the corner of Cerro Penitentes where it is possible to follow the line of weakness to the dirty glacier below.  During our November 2013 visit, the glacier was quite dirty and obviously in recession.  Lago Lacteo was approximately twice as long at that time as the size represented on the 2007 Aoneker map. 

Lago Lacteo with East Face of San Lorenzo in whiteout behind.
The east face of Cerro San Lorenzo is accessible from this glacier.  Future parties should not that in springtime hanging glaciers, potential wind-loaded slabs, and bergschrunds guarded much of the rock and ice higher on the face.  Also, the lip above that runs along the south ridge was heavily corniced and appeared to be glaciated as well.

Climbing Season
While January typically offers some of the best weather windows in Patagonia, previous parties had reported San Lorenzo suffers from considerable rock fall at that time of year.  For us, November seemed to offer the best compromise for weather, snow conditions, and rockfall hazard.

Supplies
Specialty foods such as bars, gels, and freeze-dried meals are difficult to find in Argentina; we brought ours with us.  However, whole foods were much easier to come by and were available at supermarkets or specialty shops in major towns and cities.  To the north, canister fuel was available in places like Bariloche, Bolson, and Esquel, but we did not need to purchase fuel any further south than that and so do not have information on where to obtain it.  White gas was available at paint stores and is referred to as solvente calefacción.

Weather Forecasting
For forecasting, we referred to pataclimb.com’s excellent pages on weather forecasting and sending satellite phone text message weather reports.  We also regularly referred to the NOAA forecast available at http://ready.arl.noaa.gov/READYcmet.php (Cerro San Lorenzo’s main summit is located at -47.59, -72.31).  However, south of the city of Perito Moreno, the NOAA page generally did not load.  Locals tend to use windguru.com instead; this presents essentially the same information but in different units.

Puesto San Lorenzo seemed to collect slightly cooler air than either of the confluential valleys and slightly more wind.  When we were camped near Cerro San Lorenzo, much of the weather seemed to break into the valley north of Lago Lacteo, regardless of wind direction.  Further, severe weather tended to decrease in intensity as it made its way down the valleys to the east, tending to decrease in severity near the head of Lago Lacteo.

Ten meter wind speeds of about 15 knots were climbable to about 2000 meters of elevation.  Wind speeds increased with altitude though, and a 10m speed of 15kt easily equated to 60mph winds and gusts strong enough to knock a climber off balance.  It would probably be best to limit climbing days on Cerro San Lorenzo to wind speeds of less than 10kt.  Further, even on days with single-digit wind speeds, the summits of San Lorenzo were often shrouded in blown snow, indicating high winds aloft regardless.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Patagonia Trip Report



In November 2013, Derek DeBruin, Kevin Shon, and Karsten Delap traveled to Argentina to attempt a new route on the east face of Cerro San Lorenzo.  San Lorenzo is located in central Patagonia, north of Chaltén in the Santa Cruz province.  Entrance to the southern reaches of the Argentine portion of the mountain is gained through Parque Nacional Perito Moreno.

East Face of Cerro San Lorenzo.
The trio began the trek via the Rio Lacteo Valley on November 15 with enough time and provisions for approximately 8 to 10 days while waiting for a weather window.  After 5 days camped in the morainal talus near the head of Glaciar Lacteo, the group experienced only poor weather, predominantly freezing rain and snow with extreme winds.

Finally, a morning of fair skies led to a brief 12-hour weather window.  This was not enough time to attempt a route on San Lorenzo’s approximately 5,000 foot east face, but did provide an opening for climbing on the agujas of nearby Cerro Penitentes.  The team completed a first ascent of the northernmost pillar of Cerro Penitentes at an elevation of 2211 meters (7,254 feet).  The pillar included approximately 80 feet of 5.7 climbing atop approximately 5 kilometers (approx. 3 miles) navigating snow and talus in the peak’s principle northern drainage near Lago Lacteo. 

Northern aguja,Cerro Penitentes (courtesy of Kevin Shon).
The following evening saw the return of foul weather and a forecast for at least 3 additional days of high winds and heavy precipitation.  Given the limited time and supplies remaining, the group elected to head north to sample the climbing near San Carlos de Bariloche in hopes of better weather.  On the trek out, they passed the group of Bryan Gilmore, Mikey Schaefer, and Josh Wharton.  This team was basecamping at Puesto San Lorenzo, also with aspirations on the East Face.  They planned to stay for the rest of November and the first few weeks of December if necessary, allotting an entire month in hopes of an adequate weather window.

Once back in Bariloche, Derek, Kevin, and Karsten spent most of their time on Monte Tronador with a dash of limestone sport cragging thrown in for good measure.  The team hopes to return to Cerro San Lorenzo in 2014 with more time for another attempt on the East Face.  Full beta for the trip and a narrative blog series are coming soon!

This expedition was made possible in part by a grant from the American Alpine Club as well as support from Ibex OutdoorClothing, BlueWater Ropes, Goal ZERO, and Native Eyewear.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Life at Mission Control

Derek left for Argentina last weekend to attempt a new route on  San Lorenzo in the Patagonia Mountain Range. If all goes according to the plan, he and his partners will reach the base of the mountain today. Before he left, he gave me a Beta Packet with all the information I could possibly need to know while he’s gone.

His preparations for this trip were intense. Derek created detailed packing lists for himself and his partners, researched the area thoroughly to come up with the best plan of action, helped make arrangements for food and supplies, bought gear, trained non-stop, and frequently escaped my rather pointed questions about a trip budget…

My preparations for his trip included learning how to send the guys coded weather reports (I'm Mission Control) and preparing myself emotionally for the big deal that this trip is. It’s not every day that my husband disappears in the mountains for weeks at a time to traverse dangerous terrain with little to no communication with the outside world if something terrible were to happen. Okay, that actually happens every month or so, but this is the first time it will happen in a foreign country.

My typical method of preparing myself emotionally is to go running, where I can think through situations until I am so physically exhausted that I can finally turn my brain off. Unfortunately, prior to this trip I’d been healing from stress fractures in my feet, and I had to resort to another tactic - talking.   

So, for your enjoyment, here is how some of that talking went. This conversation happened around the time that Derek gave me the Beta Packet…

Me: I need to know how long I need to wait before assuming you are in need of a rescue or dead before I take action.
Derek: Well it's not like you could do anything if we needed a rescue, so just assume we're dead if we don't come back.
[I stare at Derek, he looks smug]
Me: Okay, but how long should I wait?
Derek: What? Why? It's not like you have a life insurance policy on me.
Me: Yes, I do.
Derek: ... What?
Me: Yeah, I got one three months ago.
[he stares, I look smug]
Derek: ... Oh...
Me: So, how long should I wait?
Derek: Umm... I guess December 1st?
Me: What? No, I don't want to wait that long.
Derek: We're not supposed to get back until November 30th!!
Me: I want my money. 
[I still look smug]

Yep. I'm emotionally prepared all right. And I think Derek will think twice before stressing me out like this again anytime soon :) Happy Saturday Y'all!


Thursday, September 12, 2013

South Ridge of Peak 11,874 aka "Mount Congress"

Peak 11,874 is the unnamed peak closest to Blue Lake in the eastern High Sierras, located just to the southwest of the lake. As Blue Lake is only 3.5 miles from the Lake Sabrina trailhead, the peak is doable in a day and therefore does not require a permit if climbed in this manner. The peak sits just above the Baboon Lakes and for that reason, friends and I have dubbed it "Mount Congress."


To get there, follow the trail from the Lake Sabrina trailhead up to Blue Lake over many switchbacks, gaining about 1300 feet. From there, proceed along the west side of Blue Lake to the trail intersection for Blue Lake, Donkey Lake, and Dingleberry Lakes. From here the aspect of the peak you wish to climb will determine the rest of the approach (though I only have beta on the South Ridge, approached from the east). If carrying light packs, the approach can probably be accomplished in about 2-2.5 hours depending on fitness and acclimatization.

 
Continue following the trail to Donkey Lake, then onward to the Baboon Lakes.  Where the Baboon Lakes trail turns sharply downhill and left, turn uphill to the right/west. Ascend about 150 feet of easy slabs (3rd/4th class). Above the slabs, switchback up scree, talus, and pine trees to the saddle south of the summit. From the saddle, follow the ridge to north/right through trees and over boulders until above tree line.

At this point you are near the south summit. Skirt the summit on the right/east side (4th/low 5th) and continue traversing across the small saddle above a scree/talus gulley. From here, a few low 5th class moves take you to the right/east side of the main summit platform.

Ascend the final 10-15 foot summit block on its east side via a shallow, flared handcrack. The crack disappears about 4 or 5 feet from the top of the block. A spicy, unprotectable 5.6 mantle move puts you on top. The downclimb feels quite exposed. If you are not confident on the mantle up, it would be best not to attempt the block as the downclimb is not to be taken lightly.

I soloed this route and felt quite comfortable in a good pair of approach shoes. However, depending on snowpack, an ice axe might be needed. As for protection on the route, the 5th class sections are short so a short/thin line (100 feet of rope would be plenty) and 5 or 6 cams (BD 0.4 - #2 or #3) and a couple slings should do it.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Photographic Memories, A High Sierra Adventure

Chad stumbled toward shore, shaking and shivering.  He groped for his pack towel lying on the rocks and looked toward me:  “Damn, that’s a cold-ass honky.”

I smirked at the quote from Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ Thrift Shop, a song which had become a running theme on our little adventure.

“Put some clothes on,” I retorted.

Chad dried himself in the radiant warmth of the mid-morning California sunshine.  A Wisconsin-native, he had taken many a plunge in frigid waters, but never before in an alpine like at tree line, and certainly not without a hot tub nearby.

“I’m actually warming up pretty fast,” he observed.  “Turns out I don’t even need the hot tub.”

Chad immediately post-dip.
Chad dressed as I finished packing for our departure.  He had accomplished his mission of “bathing,” though we both agreed that one head-under plunge in a cold lake did not exactly qualify.  Chad’s emphasis on cleanliness left me pondering my own hygiene.  I examined the creases in my freshly washed hands and was slightly annoyed at the perma-dirt occupying each crack and fold in my skin.  I had opted out of the bathing experience entirely; I had cleansed myself in cold creeks and icy ponds plenty of times.  Chad’s “you only live once” justification for his little dip hardly seemed appropriate in my case.  Further, this was our fourth of five days in the mountains, and I did not think my personal hygiene would prove problematic over the course of such a short excursion.

Chad ready for hiking.
We soon shouldered our packs, Chad’s 80 liters of equipment humorously dwarfing his thin 140-pound frame.  Heavily laden, he peered out at me through his glasses beneath his floppy-brimmed round sunhat.  We began our slow descent from 11,000 feet, his magenta pack towel hanging from a belt loop nearly down to his knees, drying in the air as we walked. 

Shooting above Hungry Packer Lake.
We tread our way down the well-worn trail through the meadow beneath Hungry Packer Lake.  Our stay had been exceptional - three days and two nights in solitude, seeing no other people.  I cherished the peace and beauty of our setting, as did Chad.  This was his first time ever backpacking, and only his second significant foray into the wilderness.  We managed to inspire each other in our appreciation of grand vistas, the aquamarine of a lake, the rushing sound of wind, or stopping momentarily on the trail simply to be.  Everything was new for Chad, and he saw the beauty in all of it.

This experience was new for me as well.  Our trip’s purpose had been hatched a few years prior at dinner in Colorado Springs.  As an avid photographer, Chad was inspired by Galen Rowell.  In particular, he was excited to see the things Galen had seen and photograph the mountains he had called home in the eastern Sierra.

Typically, whether personal or professional, my forays into the mountains involved scaling peaks, but the focus of this excursion was to take stunning photographs.  My apprenticeship began with reading assignments on outdoor photography, learning not so much the ins-and-outs of things like polarizers, filters, f-stops, and apertures but instead merely that these things even existed.  Next on the list was figuring out how to cram lenses, bodies, and filters into our 75-liter packs in addition to all of the backpacking and climbing gear we were also carrying.  Most important was learning about light - the hardness and softness, harsh light, sidelight, flat light, alpenglow, shadowless overcast skies, direct light, reflected light.

Blue Lake, courtesy of Chad Guenther
Each day we woke before dawn and bedded down after dark, five straight days bearing witness to each and every sunrise and sunset.  I would stand in silence, watching Chad work, learning about HDR, ASA, long exposures, composition, and why clouds were always more interesting and desirable than blue bird skies.  This stood in direct contrast to my ingrained notions of risk management where clouds potentiate precipitation, storm, or lightning.

Hungry Pack Lake, courtesy of Chad Guenther
Slowly, I developed an eye for compelling photographs, picking and choosing from what I had read, what I had done with Chad, and what I saw around me.  Each night we would review the day’s captured images where I could start noting the subtleties separating the good photos from the better ones.  By the end of our second day (and hundreds of photographs), my eye had developed enough that I could offer Chad fresh perspective and potential shots of my own, pointing out good lighting or an interesting subject.  Beautiful shots of idyllic lakes, dramatic peaks, and captivating sunsets were merely a sideline to the trip’s principle object, though.  We were here for a ridgeline photograph of Mount Darwin and Evolution Lake.

We awoke on the third day of our trip to slightly hazy skies owing to wildfire smoke nearby in Yosemite.  This was soon followed by the arrival of a low-pressure system with mist and clouds hanging in the sky, swirling about peaks, sinuously snaking over saddles, tendrils winding through passes.  This made for excellent photographs per our normal morning routine.  This also made for an unsettled feeling in the pit of my stomach.

Our day’s plan was to travel from our camp at Hungry Packer Lake to the Evolution Ridge, just below peak 12,996.  The 3-mile 1500-foot ascent included about a mile along low 5th class ridge tops that we would be negotiating onsight.  While I knew my brother-in-law’s motivation and fitness made him more than capable, his confidence on exposed terrain and my confidence that the weather would hold remained two large unknowns in the equation for success churning through incessant iterations in the recesses of my consciousness.

We set out from camp relatively late for an alpine climb due to the morning’s photography prior to our departure.  Our 10:00am exit only added to my unease as we roped up to short-rope the first 3rd and 4th class slabs.  That the mists began spitting drops of rain on us within the first 30 minutes of climbing did nothing to settle my mind or allay my concerns.  I began prepping Chad for both the potential disappointment in not achieving our intended objective as well as a hasty retreat to safer ground should lightning present itself.

“But,” I added, “we can always put ourselves in a position to be lucky.  We should never rely on luck, but better to straggle into camp soaked from rain having tried than to turn back without knowing what the weather will do.”

“Okay, let’s do it,” Chad replied, somewhat hesitantly, but with a spark in his eyes.

With fire in our bellies, we flowed rhythmically over the semi-technical terrain, cruising along the ridgeline and its sub-peaks, short-roping slabs, short-pitching gullies, skirting along the great buttress’ contours, finally ascending a few pitches of 5.5 to the shoulder of what we called “Triangle Peak.”  We stopped momentarily so I could snap a few photos of Chad climbing, on the condition that we didn’t show any of them to his wife, Courtney.

Pausing for a snapshot break.
Chad had consistently impressed me over the preceding few days, and his performance here had been no different.  He proved an extremely quick study and quite resilient.  He first hoisted his 50-plus pound pack onto his sinewy shoulders with some trepidation, but now, after two days of grueling physical exertion, he seemed as fit and capable as ever.  Despite this fitness, he still found exposure and any vertical rock intimidating.  With each inch of upward progress, though, I could see Chad’s wariness transforming into confidence.

From our vantage on the shoulder of Triangle Peak we viewed the basins below, naming “Candy Cane Lake” and “Anvil Lake,” visible through the ever-mercurial weather.  Rapid progress across the talus and boulders near the lakes soon landed us below our final hurdle - 500 vertical feet of talus and scree leading up to the notch just north of Peak 12,996.  Steady pacing plodded us consistently upward, stepping and kicking for purchase in the frustratingly loose slope of cascading sand, gravel, and fist-sized rocks.  Almost without warning we emerged on the ridge top, staring out onto the west slope of the Sierra and down a chute to the lakes and meadows a few thousand feet below.

Mount Darwin and Evolution Lake, courtesy of Chad Guenther
“Is that Darwin?” Chad asked between pants.  “That’s Evolution Lake!” he exclaimed, a mixture of giddy excitement, joyful accomplishment, and dogged exhaustion in his voice.  “Okay, where do we set up?”

Carrying only small packs, we had eschewed the tripod in favor of finding a naturally stable place to position the camera.  We spent a few moments stacking rocks to create a stable platform from which to frame Evolution Lake between the hulking mass of Mount Darwin and the solid, sheer granite of Peak 12,996 immediately to our left.  A few landscapes and hero shots later, we contemplated the climb to the summit less than 100 feet above.  As ice pellets began assaulting our faces from menacing clouds threating to engulf all the nearby peaks, we prudently opted to descend.  As we skated down the scree slope into the basin, I could sense Chad’s growing comfort in this heretofore unfamiliar environment.  His wiry frame cruised effortlessly down slope, deftly riding the scree with precision and control.  I could hear him singing to himself as he went, “Ice on the fringe, so damn frosty…” We soon wound our way back to camp, gorged ourselves on burritos, and collapsed into our sleeping bags.

Exhausted after our climb to Evolution Ridge.
On our final night in the mountains, Chad set up the tripod atop a small abutment at Blue Lake to capture star trails against the skyline of a distant ridge.  As we waited on the 30-minute exposure, I bouldered on the slabs at the base, testing my crimp strength and my approach shoes on tiny edges.  I sat to rest for a moment.  To my surprise, Chad began scrambling up, demonstrating increasing poise on the vertical terrain that until this very moment he had described as regarding with intimidation.  He faltered momentarily near the top, second-guessing his move while ten feet off the deck.

“Push down with your right hand,” I instructed.

Chad palmed down with his right hand, pressed up on his right foot, and stood on the top-out ledge, exuding adrenalized glee through the faint light of our headlamps.

He came down.  “I shouldn’t have done that,” he stated flatly.

“Why not?” I asked.

“I - I don’t know.  I had to stop at the one move.  I got freaked out.  I didn’t know if I could do it.”

“But you did it.”

“Yeah, I needed your help.”

“You would have gotten it without me.”

“I would have.  It just would’ve taken me a little while, I guess.”

“Sure, but you could do it.  And you did.”

We resumed our sesh, Chad and I each selecting demanding eliminates for the other.  Absorbed by the climbing, we didn’t hear the shutter close.  We found the camera had powered itself down when we finally returned to it, breathless and with raw finger tips.

I awoke a few hours later at 3:30am and flicked on a red light, trying to shuffle noiselessly but futilely around the tent so as not to wake Chad.  The previous night I had debated an early morning climb of an unnamed peak near Blue Lake, eager for a summit but not wanting to sacrifice my energy or my sleep.  Chad’s bouldering performance had proven sufficiently inspirational that I was convinced.  I crawled out of the tent, packed, stuffed down a Builder’s Bar, and set out at 4:01am.  At 5:15, some 2 miles, 1380 feet, and a few 5th class moves later, I sat atop the summit block of Peak 11,784 that Chad and I had dubbed “Mount Congress” given its proximity to Baboon Lakes.  I sat a few moments huddled against the wind, exhilarated by a solo climb.  To the east, I saw the purple-orange glimmer of first light.  I took a deep breath, exhaled, and felt exceptionally at peace with the world.

First light from the summit of Peak 11,874.
Excited by my rapid ascent, I scrambled off the summit, scampered down the ridge, and ran back to camp to share a sunrise breakfast with my compatriot.  After we ate, Chad excitedly brought his pack over.  “Check it out,” he beamed, “perfectly packed and I didn’t even need your help!”

I smiled and eyed the sleeve of a fleece peeking out from under the brain of his bag.  “Is that your grandma’s coat?” I asked.  He laughed as we once again broke out into the chorus of Thrift Shop. 

The hike out had a casual air.  Our “light” packs, now empty of food, water, and fuel, coupled with descent from altitude to our car left us in good spirits.

“I call that gettin’ swindled and pimped,” I intoned, in my best rapper voice.

“I call that gettin’ tricked by bizzz-nuss,” Chad replied.  We chuckled as a day hiker moved past us up the trail.  We continued down.

“You know, it’s only maybe half physical,” Chad observed.  “The other half is mental.”

“How do you mean?” I asked.

“I mean, hiking with a pack, climbing to the ridge, all of it’s exhausting,” remarked the man who regularly put in 80-plus mile rides on a road bike.  “But, the thing is, you just have to keep going.  You just tell yourself to take one more step, just one more step.”

“Kinda cool how that works, isn’t it?”

“Seriously, this is literally the hardest thing I’ve ever done.  I’m not kidding - don’t let me try to tell Courtney it wasn’t that bad,” he implored.  “This is physically and mentally exhausting.  Everything out here is hard - cooking, eating, sleeping, cleaning - all of it.”

“Sure, but it’s simpler, too,” I offered.

“Yeah, I guess so,” said Chad.  “Everything I need is right here on my back.  Really, it shows you just what you truly need.  If I can do this, I can do anything.  It definitely puts a lot of the first-world problems in my life into perspective.”

I smiled inwardly, reflecting on how difficult I found the vagaries of modern American living sometimes, dreading the voicemails, emails, and text messages I knew awaited me upon our return to town.  Chad was absolutely right, though.

“Yeah, I guess so,” I replied simply.

We soon fell into the seats of the rental car, enjoying air conditioning, cushioned chairs, and Little Debbie Swiss Cake Rolls stashed for the occasion.  Winding our way down Highway 168 back to Bishop, Chad thanked me.  He and Courtney were in the process of adoption and he hoped any child they might adopt could do something similar with me.

“That would be pretty sweet,” I said sheepishly.  “I would be honored.”

“Courtney and I were talking about it,” he said, “and we were thinking of all the people we would want our child to meet - people who could show what it means to be a good person, have good relationships, be cool.  You and Susan were at the top of the list.”

I instantly missed my wife, felt horribly inadequate to the task, and not the least bit cool.  I thought for a moment and realized that maybe my chosen profession wasn’t so self-serving after all.  Chad had taught me a lot about photography and even more about what he had learned in the wilderness.  I felt grateful to have such as a blessing as a life called to be in the mountains.  I stared out the window at the passing boulders and managed a barely audible, “Thanks.”

As we lit off into the desert, I cranked up some music.  The song choice was obvious.  We shared a laugh and as we came to the chorus of Thrift Shop we sang in unison, “This is fucking awesome.”