Sunday, February 15, 2009

Attempting Elbert

From Valentine's Day Elbert Attempt

*Although I hiked with four other people, I really don't know what Saturday was like for them. Due to cold, wind, and an inability to walk side by side, each person spent most of the time accompanied only by their own thoughts. This post reflects that.*

all my pictures here.

For the past three weeks, I'd been questioning my decision to attend grad school. Stuck in two classes requiring more homework than I'm wont to provide, to say that I'd been unhappy about school's demands on my time would be an understatement. Instead of boning up on the intricacies of demand, I repeatedly retreated--with a glass of whisky and a comfy armchair-- to the high peaks of the Karakoram, Bernese Alps, and the Alaska Range. I tore through Three Cups of Tea, This Game of Ghosts, The White Spider, and most recently In The Shadow of Denali, by Jon Waterman. I have (almost) no desire to climb huge scary faces, but for reasons I've never been able to pinpoint, I do crave the tests that mountains provide.

As the semester progressed, I became increasingly depressed about the lack of meaningful challenges in my life and at the same time increasingly obsessed with attempting a winter ascent. Instead of solving "Least Cost Spanning-Tree" problems in Decision Modeling, I began reading trip reports on SummitPost and An 81trucolrs post and a few phone calls later, I had assembled a group of like minded climbers: Jennifer, Paul, Jeremy, and Kevin. We eschewed easier winter climbs like Mt. Sherman and Quandary Peak, opting instead for Mt. Elbert, the second highest mountain in the contiguous U.S. Although Sunday called for better conditions, I insisted on a Saturday attempt. I knew that if we scheduled the hike for Sunday, I'd forgo homework on Saturday and get even more behind than I already am.

We snatched a few hours of fitful sleep at Jeremy's before getting up at 4:45, but snowy roads prevented us from hiking until 7am. We began heading up a valley toward Elbert's east ridge, an ambitious 12 mile roundtrip route.

From Valentine's Day Elbert Attempt

Under low clouds and with temperatures in the teens, we made steady progress up the unplowed road to the upper trailhead. At the two-mile mark, we strapped on snowshoes and began breaking trail up through a never ending aspen forest.

From Valentine's Day Elbert Attempt

After another mile, the faint vestige of trail petered out, leaving us amidst thick trees. Unsure of our location, we began slogging through deep snow in the general direction of our target. On normal (summer) ascents, I generally don't give myself credit for beginning a hike until I'm above treeline. Here though, breaking trail when it was my turn, I knew I was in it literally up to my knees.

From Valentine's Day Elbert Attempt

Although I'd scoured pictures of the route, read the description and printed close up topo maps of the area, I had no clue where we were. You'd think the highest mountain in Colorado would be easy to find, but under a heavy blanket of clouds, our topos proved useless as we had trouble distinguishing snow capped peaks from clouds. The thick aspens didn't help. We literally could not find the lack of forest through the trees.

From Valentine's Day Elbert Attempt

On no trail but our own now, we slowly trudged up a snow filled valley, making our way toward some ridge, any ridge. I ate discs of Salami and choked down a nasty, runny, smooshed up egg that I'd thought was hard boiled. Hours later, we climbed out of the trees before spending a great deal of our remaining energy gaining a windswept ridge.

From Valentine's Day Elbert Attempt

Although I didn't think this at the time, I'm now convinced we were actually on the correct ridge. However, because we'd approached from a much lower point, the slope looked nothing like the pictures I'd studied. With windchill bringing temperatures close to zero, we put on everything we had and continued upward. At this point we'd been hiking for about 6 hours but we still had 1.5 miles 2000 vertical feet to go. People were in good spirits but exhaustion and cold were becoming a factor. We agreed to make one last concerted effort which lasted all of 20 minutes. It had been good hard fun but we'd moved too slowly and expended too much energy. Perhaps we could have endured a brutal forced march to the summit but it would have been miserable and dangerous, and would have meant hiking down in the dark. We weren't even certain that we were even on the correct trail. As the wind swept around us, we huddled together at 12,400' and admitted defeat. I shared hot tea from a thermos I'd borrowed from Walker and then we began the long trek down.

From Valentine's Day Elbert Attempt

Ironically, less than 20 minutes after we'd turned around, the sun broke through and we actually began to see the mountain we'd been trying to climb. Once out of the wind, we began warming up, stopping even for a five minute lunch. After 9 miles and 3,000 vertical feet, we made it to the cars. On the drive home, Paul and I had a strategy/motivational discussion that left me more excited for work than I have been in months.

From Valentine's Day Elbert Attempt

In 24 summits I'd only turned around once before (due to lightning) but in this case, we made the right decision. Surrounded by miles and miles of untouched snow, I didn't hit upon any brilliant epiphanies but I nevertheless returned to Boulder with a feeling of peace. Before Saturday, I acted as if my life course and bagging summits were a foregone conclusion. Now I'm taking everything a little less for granted. Although I failed to summit and spent the entire day without a clue as to my location, I still found the perspective I needed. This semester will still be a difficult one and I'm certain these classes will continue to try my patience, but in failure yesterday, I found what I needed to succeed.


81trucolors said...

Do readers prefer the new photo format (smaller but with links) or would you like the larger ones?

GnightMoon said...

I like this, it looks great.

Kezza said...

Pictures are great, but I want to hear about the snowshoe luge!

holly said...

just wanted to say that i enjoy any post utilizing the use of the word 'wont.'

Io said...

Pictures are good as shown. Wow, what an adventure! Looks like a trek in Tibet. Beautiful, bleak, edgy.