Sunday, February 20, 2011

The air is so thick, it stings! (Or recreation, part 2)

My most recent blog post concerned a hike up Mt Baldy (or Mt San Antonio, depending on your level of formality), ostensibly for fun. Well I can say now, it was a training hike for climbing another large Californian mountain - Mt Whitney.

Mt Whitney is the tallest mountain in the 'lower 48'. It is 14,505ft (or 4421m) tall, which is nearly half of Everest. It holds the dubious distinction of being struck by lots of lightning, sometimes via people standing on top. Statistically speaking, however, it is a safe mountain to climb, with around 30,000 people summiting a year, and maybe one or at most two deaths. Most people climb the 97 switchbacks of the Whitney Trail. We chose the much more direct (and much steeper) mountaineer's route. A straight line distance of about 7 miles (or 10km), vertical distance of 6000ft or 2km. That's pretty steep! The mountaineer's route is perhaps a hundred times more dangerous than the Whitney trail, but we rested assured that noone had died on a Caltech Alpine club trip in nearly four years.

To the account! We met outside the Braun gym (not to be confused with the Brown gym next door), allocated into cars, and set off. I travelled with L and J, and we covered the 4 hour distance about an hour faster than everyone else. After stopping at a gas station for emergency jerky supplies, we headed off from Lone Pine up the mountain, until the car got stuck on an icy bit and was unable to make headway. We parked by the side of the road (away from the fallen boulders) and waited for some other cars to arrive. Eventually we were ferried by 4wd a mile up the road (walking would have been faster) and camped on the hair pin. I was eager to try out my sleeping solution, with a car windshield cover acting as an insulator (though providing minimal padding). All went well.

Next day we got up early (easy to do when lying down on rocks), packed everything together, and set off. By 9am we'd reached the trail-head, begun to learn the difference between snow that's firm enough to walk on, and snow that will 'post-hole' you down to thigh-depth, or deeper. There was a weighing device hung at the beginning - we all weighed our packs. Mine was about 33lbs (16kg), though I wasn't carrying full water bottles. What weight I gained with ice axe, crampons, rope, harness, and helmet I saved by only taking a single change of clothes. Saved by the layering principle! The heaviest belonged to PT, at 68lbs. In training for his Denali attempt he carried 5 litres of wine, a large beer bottle, and a cake up the mountain. I too brought stuff to share - in this case Werther's Original sweets. They had a double purpose - they prevented hyperventilation while resting. My tent/cooking partner P's pack was also about 35lbs (with a little more water). Together I think we had the lightest stuff, and it made a big difference.

I had decided that there was no point in rushing to the top. I am hardly fit, and over exertion is a great way to get a nice altitude headache. Also, as we were only covering a few ks every day, there was no rush. Towards the back of the group with two Ls, we walked up the first part of the Whitney trail, negotiating snow banks, sub-nivean streams, and fallen trees. At the trail junction we waited as a group to ensure noone went the wrong way, then set off. Soon the trail began to steepen. Sticking to the track to avoid post-holing through the softening snow into a nice cold stream, we continued to climb up a narrow gully. It seemed we were making agonizingly slow progress, stopping every few minutes for a breather and a sip of water. At one point we met some people who'd stopped, put on helmets and crampons, and begun to climb some ice sticking to the rock walls on one side. It looked like heaps of fun, and also really really tiring, so we continued on. P was nowhere to be seen, but I hoped I wouldn't arrive (with the shovel) too late after him (with the tent) so we could dig in. I also put on crampons and my helmet, because they were banging around a bit on the outside of my bag, and serve a very useful purpose when installed according to directions! I also took out the ice axe to help with balance and self belay on tricky steps. 

When one is climbing a steep, snow filled chute (couloir), while lugging a heavy pack, it's not unusual for your face to be mere inches from the snow ahead. Even though previous climbers have often left large snowy foot holds that can be climbed like steps with minimal calf-pain, craning your neck to look upwards never reveals a horizon that's particularly far away. Most chutes are not perfectly regular, but have steeper parts and less steep parts, so typically one can see the edge of a flattening part. Thus the end always seems a lot closer than it actually is. When one has climbed the last bump, buried the axe, and stood up to take a breath, the ground does not flatten out towards your destination at Lower Boy Scout Lake, but merely dips inwards and begins to climb again.

Horrible as this sounds, the weather was perfect, the air cool, and at any point turning around rewarded me with a view of the cars parked below, and, in the distance, the entire breadth of Owens Valley and lone pine. At high points, looking ahead one could see the summit in the distance. This was true for most of the climb. 

Luckily, the distance was not far, and eventually we reached the top of the chute. L, L, and I sat on a rock, and ate trail mix, bread, and granola bars. A few hundred metres down the trail we found the campsite. At this point we were higher than the summit of Mt Baldy that I'd huffed and puffed to get to only 2 weeks before. P was still nowhere to be seen - someone said he was iceclimbing. I took out the shovel and started to dig. Surprisingly, it was not difficult work. Perhaps the action of bending ensured enough oxygen in my brain? Before long I'd dug a large tent-sized hole and piled the snow around the edge. I also dug half a snow cave to see how difficult it would be. Before I had time to build an igloo, though, P turned up, we pitched the tent, and started melting water. I use a jetboil stove - it's surprisingly efficient, and we devised an efficient scheme for melting a litre every couple of minutes. In the meantime we unpacked some stuff and generally got ready for dinner.

There was a false sunset at about 4pm, when the sun dropped below a nearby outcrop. Soon after it rose again on the other side and we had a few more hours of warm sun, before it finally set, and the temperature dropped. We donned our head torches and pulled out dinner - freeze dried miracles in a bag. Water boiled, bags filled, and sequestered under layers of insulation like a hot water bottle. We headed to the communal rock where PT's cask wine had been annexed by the French element and converted (in part) to mulled wine. 10 minutes later our food was ready and we ate it. The obvious deficiencies of storing food in an airless environment for up to three years were perfectly compensated by double helpings and a generous portion of hunger sauce. Someone had some spare hot chocolate, which was nice. After dinner was packed up, P sat in the tent and began to de ice his boots. We installed a foot-well below the door to prevent kicking snow inside, but the process was time consuming. I took out my pet laser pointer and started firing it at things, like distant peaks. I even managed to see a spot on the side of the main summit, 5 miles away! I heart science. My head torch is the Petzl Myo XP (top of the line about 2 years ago - thanks dad!). For this trip I'd bought brand new lithium batteries for everything. At this point I discovered that they supply too much current for the bulb, and it overheats and shuts off, every few seconds. This was pretty annoying! Hopefully with normal batteries it'll come back to life. Still, I've got my eye out for a not particularly useful torch which is just absurdly bright. Ideally, I would have a torch to use as a stove as well.

Soon I too turned in, de iced my boots, wrapped them in my sleeping bag bag (inside out), and stowed them, and most of my clothing, between my legs in the sleeping bag to keep it from getting frozen. As I drifted swiftly to sleep I noticed that P was breathing rapidly in his sleep - but other than that, little effect at being 10500ft above sea level.

Next morning we woke up pretty early, after a long (roughly 12 hour sleep - plenty of darkness at this time of year), and occasionally disturbed sleep. P's tent is pretty amazing, but it is well ventilated, and I hadn't bothered to secure the warmth cuff in my sleeping bag, so got cold shoulders. There was ice on the bag where my breath had frozen. Once awake, we got up, put our shell layers back on, and packed up pretty swiftly. J had brought a finger pulse oximeter, which we used to test our haemoglobin oxygen saturation level. Levels ranged between 84 and 96, which was pretty good. Mine was about in the middle. I'm told by my brother that exercise acclimatises you to a certain altitude. Since I do no exercise, I am not acclimatized anywhere, and I had relatively few symptoms while climbing. P is much fitter than I, and as a result, possibly pushed himself a bit too hard and got a headache. But he did climb about twice as fast as I did!

Before the sun had risen over the hill we'd rejoined the main trail and crossed the flat section above Lower Boy Scout Lake. We proceeded to climb a broad chute before arriving a while later at the snowed in meadow below upper boy scout lake. Here there was an even better ice wall, which K, H, and a few others immediately threw themselves at. N and the rest of us moved to some rock ledges on the other side of the valley, had a breather, and got a demo on how to test for avalanche danger. Soon enough I'd eaten a few more snacks (in anticipation of losing my appetite when I finally ran out of lungs), and we'd set off across the upper part of the valley. To our right was a terrific cirque surrounding the (frozen) lake - a series of jagged granite outcrops hundreds of metres high completely enclosing the valley. 

L dropped a water bottle and we watched it coast at terrific speed back down the hill we'd just spent the better part of an hour climbing. Fortunately T, on skis, was on his way up and caught it on its way past. Reunited with its owner, we turned left and zigzagged up to the next valley, where high winds had carved the snow into fantastic shapes (sastrugi). By this point we were at about 12000ft and I was beginning to feel a bit winded! We paused on a few rocks and chatted with some people who'd camped there on a two day trip up and back. At altitude you take lots of photos and chat with lots of people, especially if they're going the other way, because then you don't have to walk!

By now we were most of the way to the last camp site, so we put on our packs and headed up. We traversed along the right hand side of the valley until we found the first coulois leading to the next level. It was pretty steep and mushy, and by the time we got to the top, it wasn't clear how to exit. We thought maybe to the left, where some rocks and tracks led. Someone else behind went to the right and managed to climb over a rock shelf onto snow above and continue. L and co traversed the top of the chute to try the right fork. In terms of fail modes, a fall from the right would have been on (steep) snow. From the left, several protruding rocks and ledges severely discouraged false steps. In the end I spotted a line and, clambering onto rock, followed it up. I threw my backpack ahead, and about a dozen moves later, had likewise got onto the snow. Though less steep here, it was still steep enough that climbing was best performed in a zig-zag, one leg over the other, with toes pointing slightly down hill to minimise calf tension.

Breathing deeply we climbed onto the broad lip of iceberg lake, 12300 ft (3750m) above sea level. Above us (literally directly above) loomed the main peak like something out of "Lord of the Rings", with two spires to the left, and the iceberg cirque to the right. P, arriving first, had picked a spot behind a large boulder and had already excavated a hole big enough to park a car in! I started melting water (being a slow process), we unpacked (slowly), pitched the tent, and unfurled sleeping bags to let them relax and puff up. Behind another large boulder everyone else had set up camp, digging deep holes and building walls around the edge. Ice axes, rocks, and shovels were used as anchors to secure tents against the wind. At the entrance of each tent a now semi-sub-nivean network of trenches connected everyone together. P and I sat on the rock, chatted with other snow-melters, and ate candy.

Meanwhile H, who had turned up at about 10pm the night before after ice climbing, dug himself a trench in the snow and slept in all his clothes in a sleeping bag, once again turned up, having been ice climbing. He explained that all the ice and rock gear in his pack meant there wasn't room for a tent (which are pretty useless in the wind, given the size of the hole you have to dig anyway...). He coopted all the climbing ropes, laid them on the rock, secured them with his pack, put his sleeping mat on top of that, and his sleeping bag on top of that. It wasn't very windy anyway, he claimed. (That's how it should be done!)

PT arrived with cake. It was L's birthday, and although she was feeling altitude perhaps the worst of anyone, she perked up when we all sang her happy birthday, then sliced up the cake with an ice axe. The remaining wine was converted to warm ambrosia. Sadly, the beer bottle had asploded the previous day, leading to a beer water-fall.

P and I duly heated water, filled out powdered dinner sachets, tucked them under out jackets, and sat on the rock as the sun began to set. The food was eaten, waste products sealed inside the zip lock bag (very efficient - no cleaning of cooking pots necessary, even though snow is pretty good for that). The sun set (for us), lighting up the surrounding granite outcrops in shades of orange and yellow. The laser made another appearance, and pointed out with stunning clarity the astonishing monolith we had yet to climb!

Now came the best part - attending to bodily needs in snow and at altitude. For this purpose we had at our disposal a number of NASA designed 'WAG bags'. The process was surprisingly unstressful - fortunately it was neither particularly cold nor windy. The trickiest part was preventing paraphernalia from scooting away on the smooth and gently sloping snow surface! P dug a small hole and we banked our zip-locked presents out of the way of hungry animals and disturbing wind, and a safe distance from the tent, to be picked up the way out the next day.

All said and done, we turned in, by now experts at the process of knocking ice off boots and storing them in our sleeping bags. I methodically removed my shell layers, folded them, and placed them on the shiny mat (car wind-shield cover) to insulate my shoulders and arse. Because moisture migrates through the insulation until it hits the impermeable mat (where it collects), I folded the clothing so that the least important part was on the bottom. I also left my down jacket over the top. Inside was my hat, neck warmer, gloves, and socks - ready to be internally deployed to any cold spots, like elbows, etc. As during the previous night, snow settled unevenly beneath me, leading to some odd bumps and slides, and my toes were rather cold. My sleeping bag is excellent, but the down has over the years been crushed by storage in a compression sack during long trips. I might have to fluff it up a bit again! In any case, I was only slightly uncomfortable. Finally, I set my alarm for 3:30 and unceremoniously passed out.

Next morning I woke with the alarm, motioned to P, who seemed pretty awake, and we got ready to go. I reinstated the chosen pocket junk, put on boots (warm but moist), crampons, retrieved ice-axes, fitted a harness, tied on a water bottle, ate a few granola bars for good measure, fended off a wake-up call in incomparable Hindi sung by PT, and, some of the first ready to go, set out.

But we were not the first. As I climbed the bottom of the talus slope, J explained to me that K and H had got up about an hour before and were now RACING each other to the top. Looking up I could see their lights already at the top of the notch nearly 2000ft (500m) above me! H told me later that he sprinted the last 100m up the near vertical coulois, but had to hyperventilate a bit at the top.

Moving at a much more stately pace I zigzagged back and forth up the slope. P swiftly pulled ahead, but I held my own against the remainder of the group, most of whom were suffering either headaches or nausea or both by now. We clambered in the dark over a few rocky patches (probably thoroughly snowed in again by now), and my headlamp finally stopped working entirely near the top. Fortunately I had brought a little Fenix LOD with me (which ate lithium batteries just fine). At the top the sun just started to come up, and the lights in Lone Pine began to be drowned out. It was pretty windy at the top, but I snuck behind a rock and, after smashing the ice on the top of my water bottle, had a few sips of ultra chilled water. B had previously experimented with burying water in snow overnight to prevent it freezing by insulation - which seemed to work. P had opted for the well tightened bottle in the sleeping bag approach, whereas I kept the bottle just outside the bag near my head. It was partially frozen in the morning. As I munched on some well deserved scroggin, we were joined by a few more people at the notch, and PTs crampons struck sparks from the rocks. The mountains across the valley's shadows passed us as the peak lit up with dawn and descended rapidly into the valley below. I could see a trail of lights leading nearly vertically up from the camp below, and below that, the valley we'd walked up. Further still, the trail head with cars parked as far as they could drive, then the road leading back to Lone Pine in the valley 11000 ft below.

Since I was ready to go I unhooked my prussik, tied in, and proceeded to climb the three ropes K and H had already set up the last steep bit to the top. By this stage the adrenalin had kicked in and I barely even felt out of breath. I was still overtaken by a few of the more competent climbers who climbed without ropes up over the final lip and onto the summit, a gently sloping, mostly snow free area a few hundred metres on a side. Near the summit a small stone hut served to provide (some measure of) refuge against lightning. Incredibly, the sky remained clear, the wind reasonably gentle. We ran around like headless chooks taking all the requisite photos, and either eating or throwing up, depending on the individuals state of mind. I got close enough to the edge to see the camp below and a more suitable chute to climb down in due course. T uncorked a bottle of beer he'd carried up for the occasion, PT served up his cake, and P (a different P) had, incredibly, ported a 15lb (7kg) watermelon to the summit, which was smashed with an ice axe and consumed. We took a group photo (with a few people shirtless, of course), and then decided it was time to get back.

We lined up at the ropes and commenced to rappel to back to the notch, then to walk back down. Walking back down is much the same as walking up, just in rewind. Below the last rocky section, I noticed a large rock (which I photographed) attached by a tiny bit of snow to the slope. I gave it a wide birth as I didn't want to send it to anyone who was descending in front of me. As I treasured the dry status of my pants, I opted to walk all the way down, but a few people opted to glissade, which, while fun, made a mess of the foot-holds! When I was about half way down, C, who had climbed back up with skies, began to ski back down. Some loose snow dislodged the rock of doom, which, weighing about 100kg, began to slide, roll, bounce, then richochet down the narrow chute. Several people screamed rock at such a pitch that I was expecting to meet the big one again, so I turned around and scooted to one side of the canyon. At first I saw only small rocks and snow bombs above me, but then I heard, and saw the big one bouncing around. I had about a second to work out where it was going and dodge - even with my quality helmet, prevention was better than cure.

As it went past me I would have been safe anywhere - it was going so fast it was about 8ft off the ground! It came to a halt a few hundred metres below me in a soft patch of snow - so I saw it a third and (thankfully) final time - in two pieces.

Before long I was back on the flat near the camp. By now the sun had warmed the interior of the tent enough to evaporate some of the ice and water from my stuff, and to sunburn the parts of my face I hadn't blocked out that morning (ie all of it). I blocked out swiftly, but there was still a moderate amount of damage. We dismantled, packed, retrieved wag bags, and, once again the quickest out, set out. One of the Ls had not summited due to altitude sickness, so H, descending rapidly, had packed her gear and taken her back down to lower boy scout lake. We were next out - avoiding the difficult section from the day before. N, coming in later after ice climbing, had tried going to the right of the chute, and had fallen up to his chest in a rock-well. Fortunately he could pull himself out using his ice-tools!

Pretty soon PG and P got sick of traversing the icy 55 degree slope without crampons and glissaded to the bottom of the valley, and walked out. Again opting for pants of dryness I traversed (in my now seriously battered crampons) and, with occasional rest breaks for my poor, unfit ticker, continued to walk back down with substantially less difficulty than the day before. At the slope above upper boy scout lake PG went for a glissade and became unbalanced, tumbling and dropping even more stuff (I already had collected his shovel). P, by this time, was nowhere to be seen. T, who is above 6'6", came down on skis from above. I was critiquing his stem turns on the left as he (rather deftly, I might add) negotiated alternating patches of rough and smooth, soft and icy snow. As he passed the compacted trail, he lost it and flew right at me. I jumped to the left, landing with 3 points (axe and two feet), and just missed getting a ski to the teeth. T picked himself up and skied down to help PG, who was disinclined to ascend a few hundred feet to collect some of his missing belongings. I turned back around and descended into the valley, forensically examining foot prints to determine a path of firmest snow to the next section. We tended to the right to avoid a series of cliffs (that T nearly went over on his skis), and before long, and with slight icyness, we were back at the first campsite, reunited with P (who had got there about an hour before, literally by the seat of his pants) and H and L, who was feeling much better. From here we knew it was only a short descent, though during this section we became a bit strung out and were more or less alone on the mountain. Down the steep chute with the false horizons, into the trees, avoiding post-holing into the stream or other hazards, back onto the Whitney trail, down the road to the waste disposal area, where I left rubbish in the appropriate places, then back down the road to where the cars were parked. I managed to fit into a car that was heading back down, and before long we were in Lone Pine.

In dribs and drabs car loads of people arrived at the bistro, ordered food, disappeared into the bathroom to change back into civs and wash their extremities, consume their own weight in Whitney burgers, compare sunburn, share horror stories, stare back at the summit (still visible), or watch 'bondi rescue' on TV. I ordered something with a salad, but it was delivered to the wrong part of the table and promptly consumed by others. No loss, I substituted with an enormous bowl of chips (in addition to the steak, corn, and baked potato I had already eaten).

H and I climbed into his rather nice 4WD and set off for Pasadena. It's about a 4 hour drive, and I struggled to stay awake for solidarity! The first 3 hours were not so bad and we shared our respective mountain climbing ambitions and Caltech experiences.

After I climbed Mt Baldy, I was really thinking "well that's my mountain for the year". The experience had not been sufficiently positive to make me want to repeat the experience for hedonistic reasons. Yet the Whitney trip was organised and attainable, and I'm sure my readers understand that I could not pass up such an opportunity. I was more than prepared to suffer extraordinarily for the duration of the trip, as I have on occasion done in the past, just so that I could complete it, or fail, having tried to the best of my ability, and thus know my capabilities. For the most part, however, the trip was pleasant. I was not challenged beyond any degree of discomfort or difficulty I've previously survived, and I was able to experience new things (like camping in snow) which were not so bad afterall.

So who knows. Its mesh bag does not entirely conceal my harness, and my battered but valiantly red crampons and blue ice axe will sit in the corner of my room saying 'use me again'. I might even go rock climbing some day, now that I have a harness and vibrams (toe shoes). Last time I climbed my piano playing suffered (and most would say it's already suffered enough!), but maybe this time will be different. In any case, I feel I know the mountains a little better than I did before.