Sunday, February 21, 2010

Diablo Punched Me In The Feet

The trip up Diablo last weekend was a raging success. It was especially nice to get onto what I consider an ACTUAL mountain and do some vertical. To be fair, Mission Peak and places here like it are great training grounds, and I do enjoy them for what they are. But grassy rolling hills, no matter how steep they are, are no match for high, rocky peaks, jagged cliffs, sheer faces, and deep canyons.

Now, I realize that as BIG mountains go, Diablo isn’t much in terms of elevation… just 3,849 feet at its apex. (Oh yeah, and never mind the fact that after spending a half-day climbing its steep slopes, you top out into— a parking lot full of minivans. Yep… there’s a road all the way to the top, and you’ll come huffing over the last bit of trail, straight back into… uhhh… civilization? Sorta defeats the point of getting out and climbing, to my mind—but that’s another story.) That said, there are some challenging climbs on its flanks, and that’s exactly what Greg and I set out to do last weekend.

In looking over the possible routes up the mountain, most ended up at the true summit, but we found a route more intriguing than the others… the North Peak side. Despite being slightly lower in elevation than the main Diablo summit, Diablo’s North Peak has a much smaller footprint than the rest of the mountain, which results in a far more vertical and challenging climb. One more bonus… the consensus was that there’s very little traffic on our chosen route, and that, combined with the additional challenges of its terrain, is just what we were looking for.

We chose to do the North Peak loop by way of Mt Olympia, a 10.2 mile stretch of trail and fire roads that eventually took us to the tops of not just two, but three peaks. First Olympia, then North Peak, and then on the descent, you re-ascend a bit to top out on Bald Peak, an extra summit we weren’t expecting when we set out that morning.

When we pulled into the staging area, nearly the entire area, upper and lower on the mountain was shrouded in an opaque fog, with pointy bits poking their heads through at the top. So we could see where we were going to end up… just not what we had to get through to do it. So off we went. I was once again carrying my trusty First Ascent Big Tahoma pack, this time loaded with around 50 lbs of crap from my garage, and fully prepared for the 5-6 hour journey.

I have to say at this point that wide, well-beaten fire roads annoy me a little, only because they’re a constant reminder of what I try to escape on every climb: people. That said, the route in was interesting, engaging, and fun as it wound up the foothills and canyon walls, and soon enough we took a hard right turn onto a beautiful twisty little single track trail that wound up into the fog on the high flanks of Mt. Olympia.

With weight on my back, it was hard to miss the fact that it got ever steeper as we climbed, and the last half mile or so to the summit of Olympia, the kinks in the trail straightened out and turned pretty much straight upward on a 35-40 degree slope. Ouch! But awesome! Haha

And while challenging, it turned out to be an excellent first real test of what my weighted pack training has wrought in the past few weeks. I was able to get up it without too much trouble, though I was certainly breathing hard when we hit the Olympia summit. The fog was such a nice addition to the day! It swirled threateningly above us as we climbed into it from lower on the mountain, and enveloped us in that calm, silent quietness of a snowy day on the summit while we happily munched on some fuel.

We were totally fogged in at one point, and couldn’t really see much in any direction, and suddenly, after a moment of quiet when the talk died off, Greg and I heard a loud “Mmmmmmoooooooo!” from the side of the steepest and most rugged dropoff… cows in the cliffs! Maybe it was just the exertion up to that point, but we both cracked up at the idea of a cow scaling steep rocks with climbing gear on to 2,946 feet.

Fog makes acoustics really interesting, and the unintentionally comical bovine was just hanging out in a distant pasture far below, but his mournfujl plea was carried to our ears on wings of cloud. Very cool.

As a side note, I’m SO impressed by the stellar performance of every single piece of my First Ascent gear. I wore my Rainier Storm shell pants and some Paradise base layer as the foundation pieces for the day, with the shell pants zipped halfway open down the sides for ventilation, ready in case of sudden rain. But I also took along my Serrano, Downlight vest, and Frontpoint jacket for this hike, and as I donned the Serrano in the fog on top of Olympia, I noted just how happy it makes me every time I put it on. It’s a lightweight but toasty-warm oasis in what would have been an otherwise chilly rest stop on top. Feels so good.

ANYway…. next was the traverse to North Peak across grassy 50-degree slopes with hundreds of feet of dropoff. If it were covered in snow, it would definitely be expert ski terrain, but we passed under huge rock outcrops and through wooded buttresses dotted with spectacular views as the fog cleared and closed intermittently. And then one of the finest scenes of the day descended upon us as we walked into a mossy glen around a cliff corner. The sun broke through, and the greenery practically fluoresced with vibrant, verdant color.

Upward we continued into some spectacular open views, and we topped out onto a fire road that leads to the summit of North Peak. The last 200 feet was a wicked 35-degree climb, and the hard-packed road surface makes for very treacherous footing, but it was worth the pain. My bootsoles proved adequate, but those pesky 50 lbs on your back can make balancing up this kind of stuff tricky. (I also tend to top-weight my pack for training, too, so that when I get a properly packed pack with a lower center of gravity, I’ll have an advantage.)

While on top, we got another lucky break as the fog cleared and we had crystalline views above a sea of cloud, all the way to the snowcapped Sierra in the distance. Just stunning. Interestingly, walking down that steep summit approach slope didn’t prove as tough as I thought it would, and Greg and I just chatted our way down it without thinking about it too much.

On our way again, we dropped down into more fog about 500 feet toward Prospector's Gap, where we dipped off the main ridge and underneath the main peak, heading downward.

As we topped out on Bald Peak, we spotted a couple of huge black condors chilling out on the outcrops of rock that banded the Bald summit ridge. Those two were pretty much the only wildlife we spotted all day—apart from some hairy mountain men (and yikes! women haha). We encountered only two or three groups the entire 6 hours… perfect.

On the way down, my feet and knees were hurting under the load, but with a few strategic rest stops and a quick patch of a tiny blister on my left foot, it was no big deal.
As we came back into the staging area, the fog had completely disappeared, and a grand vista we’d not been able to see when we pulled in that morning was revealed. It’s a vast and beautiful cirque-like area, filled with rolling green grassy hills at the bottom, and steep crags starting about halfway up. It was the perfect way to end a breathtakingly beautiful day.

And yeah… my feet hurt for a while, but my performance was exciting, especially being under that much load. 6 hours at 50 lbs is about 2/3 of my goal weight and time for Alaska, so I’m feeling very optimistic that my training will be more than enough to get the job done there.

Oh, and if you haven’t done that Olympia / North Peak loop… you should.

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