Alpine Sirens

December 3, 2012

Every day that I’m out climbing is a memorable one… some more than others. However, the remote alpine climbs tend to leave the biggest impressions. Maybe it’s because they are in amazingly beautiful places. Maybe it’s because they offer big, humbling rock faces to ascend. Maybe the extra work required to just get to the base offers up an extra reward. One thing is for sure, all of these factors can combine to produce a modern day siren song.

Recently Rob and I joined another party to do some climbing on The Incredible Hulk. Thankfully we managed to resist the call of the siren, but the other two in our party had a different experience. Finishing their route at sunset, in the rain, at 11,000′, with threats of lightning and a 5 mile hike out that night; they seemed to be creating memories that they would rather not have. While their story is not for me to tell, I too have been seduced by the alpine sirens and their epic reminded me of my own… which happened almost exactly two years earlier (off by two days).

My epic took place on the Southeast face of Clyde Minaret. In the weeks since, I don’t think a single one has gone by where I haven’t had a thought or memory that’s somehow connected to Clyde. Some of the memories make my toes tingle in delight, others make me question myself and one thought gives me a good deal of comfort.

Toe Tingling Delight

Tucked away 8 miles inside the Ansel Adams Wilderness, Clyde Minaret and the surrounding area perfectly defines beauty. The rugged and inhospitable nature of the Minarets is in such contrast to the green trees and remarkably blue lakes. Connecting the lakes are wonderful cascading streams and a network of meadows. Slowly gaining in elevation up to Cecile Lake at the base of the Minarets, snow fields give a true feeling of being high up in the mountains. The lack of bridges, railings, formal trails and other things to keep humans “safe” gives me a trace feeling that I belong there but also reminds me that I don’t.

On this trip, these are the sights that got me through the tough times. These are the sights that I now dream of. These are the sights that make my toes tingle with delight.

Ritter and Banner from Shadow Lake

Ritter and Banner from Shadow Lake

Minarets from Iceberg Lake

Minarets from Iceberg Lake

Snow field around Iceberg Lake

Snow field around Iceberg Lake

Setting the Stage

The alpine environment can quickly change on you and there are some important details here that I should fill in.

The weather forecast for this trip wasn’t the greatest. Seems like there is always a slight chance of rain in the Sierra’s, but the forecast was showing the chance of precipitation building up to 70% for the day of our climb. We rolled into the Mammoth Lakes area around noon, got our permit, some lunch and hung out in town. Around 2pm a storm rolled through bringing some rain with it. Nothing major so we stayed on course to hike in the following day.

On the hike in, I was clearly preparing my mind for an uncomfortable situation. I was finding landmarks inside the first mile and wondering how happy/relieved I’ll feel on the hike out to see them again. At the same time, I was also reminding myself of some research that showed how fake/forced smiles can greatly increase your mood and the mood of those around you… I had a feeling this technique could come in handy.

That said, the conditions in the morning for our hike in were spectacular. Blue skies, no wind and a wonderful temperature. We got to our campsite around noon, got setup and went up to scope out the base of our route. Around 1pm, the winds really picked up and a storm like the day prior blew in. However, due to being above 10,000′ the rain that we had the day before was more of a sleet/hail combination. Fun.

With the chance of precipitation increasing for the next day (the day of our climb), I was figuring that we should aim to be off the summit by noon. Given that we had 12 pitches of climbing to get there, an alpine start was in order and things would have to go pretty smoothly to fit into our tight window. But they didn’t… shocker.

We got a good start but I botched the route finding on the fourth pitch, wasting an hour of precious time. A couple pitches later, being only halfway through the route I heard the first claps of thunder. Half a pitch later, it was sleeting on us. As the heavier clouds moved above us quickly, the sleet didn’t last for longer than 10 minutes. We pressed on, my level of discomfort was growing yet I shamefully said nothing.

The next few pitches of climbing are kind of a blur to me. I remember a very jarring start to the next pitch that I lead and can now clearly see in the topo that I took the path labeled “no!”. Managed to get through it but was apparently so rhythmic and focused that I didn’t pay much attention to things beyond how much rope I had left and a window of about three moves in front of me. That level of focus was quite pleasurable, the conditions outside of that focus were not.

Finally we made it to the end of the harder climbing and onto the summit ridge. With only a few hundred feet of climbing left I started to get a sense of relief despite the fact that periodic clouds continued to shower us with sleet/hail and that the wind was making communication beyond 10 feet challenging at best. Leading the second to last pitch I stopped on a nice ledge to place some gear and do some route finding. During this time my focus relaxed enough to notice a very prominant buzzing sound emanating from all around me. It was like being in the middle of a bee hive and it took me a moment to figure out what was going on… conclusion: lightning was on the edge of striking.

Questioning Myself

Let’s pause here in the story for a moment as those events really forced me to question who I am, what I’m doing and why. It’s clear now that I was having doubts about this climb before we even left the car. But why wasn’t I direct in expressing them?  When the conditions deteriorated while on route, why did I not insist on bailing and getting back to the ground? Are the guidelines I put in place for myself after my last climbing accident at all effective or just bullshit? How far am I willing to go in order to make someone else happy?

I have answers to these questions that I’m constantly refining and using to learn more about hidden parts of my personality, which is fantastic for me. But my answers are all rather personal and it’s doubtful that they would apply to others so I’ll be keeping them to myself. However, I do think there are a couple universal lessons and things to think about before embarking on any (ad)venture.

One problem that Ben and I had on this trip was an unaligned and non-communicated tolerance for risk. The two of us get along so well and see things in strikingly similar fashion that I don’t think it occurred to us that we would be on different pages regarding risk. Beyond climbing this same issue seems to crop up in all types of interactions, from business partners to life partners. When risk tolerance is aligned, you’ll be completing each other sentences. When they aren’t aligned but communicated, each person has a better ability to empathize without guessing. The challenge seems to be having the comfort and confidence to talk about it beforehand.

Somewhat related, but more of an internal lesson for me was recognizing not only my biases and preconceived notions but the consequences of them. Frequently it’s easier to have a decision making framework or to hold ideas to be true in all situations. That can work well enough for really simple things like “always look where you’re going”, but generally fails with anything sufficiently meaningful.

The result of this is that I’ve learned a great deal about myself. I’ve found that parts of my personality can be healthy and virtuous in one setting while unhealthy and dangerous in another. This is one of the unexpected dimensions of alpine climbing that I think it’s hard to recognize until you do it. While the alpine sirens draw you in and can make you blind to the danger, they can be a great vehicle for personal insight.

A Comforting Thought

Okay, back to the ledge…

In case it isn’t obvious, being a couple hundred feet from the summit of the largest peak in the nearby area while it’s buzzing with static discharge isn’t exactly the best place to be. So I took a moment to consider my options. I contemplated down climbing back to Ben at the last belay but didn’t know how much rope I had left. I didn’t feel like going any higher, that’s for sure. So I built an anchor, sat on the ledge and decided to wait and see what would happen. Given the winds I sadly couldn’t communicate this decision to Ben so he would have to remain in the dark for the time being.

While sitting on the ledge I found my state of mind to be pleasantly surprising. There was very little that I could do in the situation and I had to accept the choices and events that got me there. What’s surprising is that I didn’t feel one bit sorry for myself. I didn’t even feel worried or scared. After all, I was sitting on a really comfortable ledge in the most beautiful place I’d ever been. But the reality of the situation was far from absent in my thoughts. At one point I realized that although I was physically comfortable, that comfort would likely end the moment enough static potential built up for lighting to jump the gap. It’s difficult to say this now, but at that moment I was okay with it.

Thinking about that situation now still makes my hands shake a bit and is nothing that I want to go through again. However, the fact that I can be in a situation where I can literally hear death around the corner, yet remain calm and still smile about it is tremendously comforting.

Storms approaching with slight breaks between

Storms approaching with slight breaks between

Eventually the buzzing stopped, we made it to the top, signed the summit registry and started the (very challenging and stressful) descent. We continued to experience intermittent sleet and hail along with constant winds. In the Clyde-Ken couloir we could see that the scree at the base was just below us but the ice in the couloir made getting there slow, challenging, wet and cold. With one final rap off some sketchy fixed gear, I’ve never been happier to be on scree in my life.

As we were getting back to camp the sun was setting. We decided that we should pack up our camp and move it to the other side of the snow and ice that surrounded Iceberg Lake as it would be frozen in the morning and nearly impossible to travel across without crampons. I was feeling a bit rattled by the events of the day and kind of just wanted to be back at the car. But Ben talked me into stopping a bit below Ediza Lake, setting up camp again and having some dinner.

The next morning we finished the hike back to the car and made our way to Mammoth Lakes, stopping at the scenic overlook where the Minarets are displayed beautifully in the distance. At the overlook we ran into Heather Schneider, wife of Steve Schneider (both of them are well respected and very accomplished climbers). Apparently we looked the part as she asked us where we were climbing. With a bit of pride we told her that we’d climbed Clyde the day before. She complemented us on a “bold ascent” given the weather conditions. This was and still is quite a complement coming from her, but there is a fine line between bold and stupid.