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.”

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