"Rock! Rock! Rock! Rock! Rock!" Our faithful guide PT echoed.
I planted my ice axe and looked up and up until my eyes met the horizon, seemingly above me. There skittering on the icy surface was a rock the size of my head, and on a sure path to displace it. It bounced to one side, crisis averted. Returning to intense concentration on breathing I focused once more on the point of my crampon - the only thing preventing me from zooming at terminal velocity down the bowl behind me right to our distant campsite where we had been roused at 4:30am.
While focusing on the immediate task at hand - my goal being to complete ten steps before gasping for breath, I noticed that my newly bought snow glasses still had a sticker on the lens- a huge blow to my credibility. Though most of my gear is old and well-used, I'd bought a few new things for this trip. Last Monday (6 days ago) I was mindlessly browsing the net looking for a US supplier of 'just add hot water' freeze dried camping food that worked so well in Tasmania a year ago. I realised with a timely email that in fact the trip was on Friday night, not in 'about a month' as I'd thought for the previous few weeks... reviewing the gear list I made some surgical purchases on Amazon.com (ice axe, crampons, glasses, harness, carabiner, descender, food, and a shiny blue laser...), draining my phone battery before the end of the class! :(
Fast forward to Friday. I packed and headed off to the rendezvous point about half an hour early - to make sure I could get a car seat and also to brush up on rope work which, I realised, I haven't done in 8 years! A short drive took us to the trail head by 8pm. Donning my headlamp I set off with the first group of 7 (of 17) hikers, reaching the Baldy ski hut about 2 somewhat strenuous hours walking in the dark (sometimes off the trail - it being hard to see and all) later. I found two trees close enough for my hammock, pitched camp, prepared dinner, then walked across to the snowy western side of the valley to chat with the people there, hand out Werther's Originals, and test out my ice-axe helping to make a flat camping area. Dinner was prepared and duly consumed, and after a bit of tuning my hammock was ready to go. I kept all my clothes inside the hammock to help insulate me and to keep them from freezing. Next morning I simply unzipped the bag, climbed into my clothes, and stepped out - no more to say.
One more thing to say - we were woken at 4:30am by PT, our trusty 'bad cop' guide. I had a muesli bar for breakfast, sipped my drink bottle, performed a quick triage on my gear that wouldn't be going up the mountain - tying it all inside my hammock, and set off to join the group. We checked our avalanche transponders, tethered our ice-axes, fitted our crampons, and set off.
Before long we'd reached the base of the bowl, and working our way between the outflows of a recent rock fall and an avalanche, began our climb just as the sun rose and kissed the tops of the craggy rocks forming the summit ridge of our mountain - still so far away.
Having found a suitably precipitously steep and icy bit of slope with not too many protruding rocks we were strongly encouraged to fling ourselves down the slope front-ways, back-ways, head-first, and upside-down. In each instance we were to use the ice axe to maneuver ourselves face down feet first and then stop. This exercise is called the 'self arrest', an essential skill if you are ever going to slip while climbing a snow covered mountain. It was rather exciting, not to mention peculiar. The muscles have a similar feeling to performing an eskimo roll in a kayak. A short video of the proceedings can be found here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=afZiFn088YU Photos of the whole event are here: http://picasaweb.google.com/CaseyHandmer/MtBaldyWinterTrip#
K and P, the other two guides, yelled up the slope that it was time - the rising sun had warmed the air above freezing, and any rocks/boulders broken off by last night's freeze would soon unfreeze and commence a terminal flight to the bottom of the valley, already hundreds of meters below us, and hopefully not ricocheting off any of our heads. We traversed out of the danger zone and across the bowl to our chosen chute. One of 14 on this ridge, it was called 'once is enough', or possibly something else. Misidentifications are possible. After fixing some crampon trouble (I was wearing my waterproof but ankleless summer hiking shoes) I found myself directly below our chosen chute, and commenced an increasingly breathless climb upwards.
As I neared the base of the chute, the previously described episode of 'rock' occurred (a number of times), as people dislodged small rocks with their feet as the climbed. A chute is a narrow space in between boulders that fills with snow and can thus be climbed. Theoretically at least. The winning strategy was to kick steps as you go - each lasted just long enough to move to the next one. After a few twists and turns we emerged at the top of the ridge with blasting icy wind (okay it wasn't that bad!) and, after a short break, continued towards the summit. Again I found myself quickly out of breath, though the rest of my body felt great, despite its abuse. Last time I climbed baldy I got a bit of a headache - this time I was in the clear. I just had to concentrate intently on breathing on every step, and continuing to breathe after I stopped for a rest.
Moving almost agonisingly slowly I eventually reached the summit, now snow capped and very windy. There was a small wall for a wind-break - about four people could fit behind it. The remaining 13 of us ran around (as much as we were able) and sacrificed the summit watermelon according to tradition (with an axe). We traversed to a neighbouring steep bit. I should state that in summer all this would be impossible as it is just mounds of super-critical and bottomless scree, but in winter the snow affords a surface that can be climbed on.
We dug a few holes to prepare 'dead man' belay points, and also made a snow bollard. We then practised rapelling (abseiling) and prussiking. Prussiking is a way of climbing a dodgy section to which a rope has already been fitted with a safety point. The abseiling was lots of fun, and probably the easiest thing we did all day. At about the same time we lost one of our guides (P), and K went to search for him (who was searching for us). After dismantling the ropes stuff we traversed yet more icy snow and began our descent.
Every step downwards felt better, as though I could breath again. Soon we reached the top of another chute, and were strongly encouraged to attempt to glissade all the way down the bowl back to the camp site about 1600 vertical feet (500m?) below us. This was possibly the most tiring part of the whole exercise. After some zigzags to avoid inconveniently placed rocks, I ignored the steady accumulation of snow in my pants and top and zoomed down the hill so fast I had increasingly slushy snow flying over my shoes in front of me and spraying everywhere. My ears popped. With one or two self-arrests I brought myself in a semi-controlled way to the base of the snow pack and the campsite. I packed away my stuff, checked out the (rather comfortable looking) hut, and commenced my descent back to the carpark.
I had initially considered spending a second night on the mountain and attempting another igloo, but snow conditions were less than favourable for such exploits. So off I went. Not far down the trail I hear a couple of men speaking to each other in Russian. Swallowing any vestiges of bashfulness I may once have had I called out 'zdravstvutye, kak vy pozhivaetye?', and spent the better part of the next hour of descent speaking as much Russian as I could remember to these guys, who were rather surprised by my Russian adventures, as related mainly in this blog (and an older one). We had a good chat about the strategy of Russia retaining the southern Kuril Islands, about the richness and poorness of Russia, the continuing effects of the communist era, and other points of mutual interest. Clearly no adventure is complete without wrapping your tongue around such words as "dalina geyzerov" "Kolyma", and "vyertalot"!
In the car park, I repressed my sudden and unexpected craving for pancakes, packed my stuff in to M's car, and began the long and rather dozy ride back to main campus, where, I knew, a scrumptious dinner of pasta con tomato et egg was only a few short minutes of preparation away.