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At 5:13 in the morning, anything is possible (except, perhaps, finding an open breakfast spot). That's probably why I imagined myself standing on top of Mt. Superior this morning when I woke up. The flight here yesterday had been uneventful (and catastrophically boring), but now it was time to get up and get moving for the climb.
The roads were in good shape, and we had no difficulty getting to the base of the route, where we checked snow conditions with our feet to determine whether we needed to bring the extra weight and bulk of the "slowshoes".
We had some discussion of the expected weather, and Tyson solicited the thoughts of the climbing party on which route to take. The original plan, of course, was to go up the more technical south ridge as a mixed snow and rock climb; then walk off the summit down the more gentle east ridge, heading toward Alta before glissading down one of the south face snowfields on what he thought would likely be stable snow.
The dilemma was threefold: Do we do the south ridge as planned, with the winds on the mountain predicted to be high, and a storm front moving in? Or do we choose the east ridge as our ascent route to give ourselves a better chance of summiting in what was shaping up to be bad weather? Or do we wait until after the storm tomorrow and try again?
Waiting would have been a good option, but with heavy snowfall in Saturday night's forecast, the whole area would become one great big avalanche hazard. Ultimately, we decided to attempt the original plan, and decided in advance we'd turn back if it got just too sketchy high on the mountain.
We parked the car, piled out, and threw on our packs. Mine weighed in at around 30-ish lbs... probably (once again) too heavy, but experiences like this are all part of working on my methods for paring the weight down.
It's weird... It's sort of somewhere between an art and a science, knowing how much crap to take with you in your pack. The decisions for me to take some of the extras often come down to those items that might help me cope in a wider variety of scenarios, but I'm finding that usually, that extra stuff isn't worth carrying. The reason is that under most circumstances, you'll never need it, and the idea is to plan your trips and act in a way that helps ensure you wont... meaning climbing safely.
I'm a safety boy, and my Boy Scout dad taught me well to be prepared... so from that perspective, it's sorta tough for me to leave those things behind sometimes... and I almost ALWAYS either overpack or underpack on food, which is kinda weird, too. But I'm doing better. (Plus, it's helping to have Foraker on my list as a goal to start keeping my pack weights as lean as possible. Alaska is much less forgiving... and it's a great lesson for any outdoor activity that involves carrying crap on your back, too.)
ANYWAY... with our hardshells and an extra insulating layer underneath our packs, we were prepared for what was forecast to be some potentially wicked weather up on the mountain. Snowshoes reluctantly in hand, we tromped up the road about a quarter mile to the base of the route, which begins at the bottom of an avalanche runout zone from high off Mt. Superior.
Side note: Apparently, avalanches from Superior run out far enough down the lower apron of the mountain (and beyond) every year to completely block the road, which is why they built a second bypass road that splits off from the main road and goes to the other side of the canyon. When the mountain avalanches the main road, traffic just gets redirected. Interesting.
The wind seemed to be aware of our presence, and it howled its raging disapproval, periodically throwing huge, swirling clouds of airborne ice at our backs, and stinging our faces with needlepoints of pain and cold.
Once inside, towering rock walls rose steep and high on both sides, creating a deep, narrow, snow-filled channel that runs all the way from the bottom of the mountain up to a col at about 9,800 feet, no wider than probably 30 or 40 feet at any point.
The wind continued to worsen as we climbed, accelerating in ferocity, no doubt exacerbated by the presence of the steep, confined rock walls of the chute within which we climbed upward. As the wind came in from the east, it hit the mountain, and swirled violently in angry eddies upward through the lower portions of the chute, pummeling us with gale force.
And every time it came, it pelted us with massive swarms of BB-sized, sugary ice and snow crystals, flung at us with all its might as it blew up the hill. (The noise of this inside a hardshell hood is really loud! Hahaha)
When possible, I would try to take advantage of Mother Nature's wrath, using her gigantic uphill gusts to propel me straight up the fall line in quick climbing spurts instead of the energy-saving traverses most often used. She literally pushed me up the steep slope in places—fun.
The path up the center of this narrow canyon rose sharply above us in a dramatic left-bearing direction around the huge rock buttress created by the south ridge, and as I clambered up over a few patches of rock and ice, my spikes thudded and squeaked as they bit in for purchase.
As a dull gunmetal dawn broke around us, we could hear the now-feckless wind screaming its anger below us, as though it had lost its favorite toy (us) somewhere in the fray--and it wasn't happy about it. Frantically, angrily it hunted us, but to no avail.
The calm that enveloped us was a welcome break that allowed us to do some focused snow climbing, broken only by areas of near- fruitless struggling through thigh-deep sugar-snow that ran like sand around our feet. As we flailed one step back for every two forward, the mini avalanche rivulets we created ran between our legs and ankles, down the slopes below, as new spindrift poured off the couloir walls above our heads to replace it.
Far above us, the col on the south ridge slowly came into view, and we decided to take our next break in the still-protected section just below it. Once there, we stomped out a small platform, got into harnesses, and roped up for the next section of climbing, which was now transitioning to a steep rock ridgeline.
The wind now blasting over the col above our heads was a completely different animal than the seemingly sentient, salivating, screaming-adolescent banshee of a creature we'd encountered below. Above the calm of our canyon, this animal made a vast, booming sound, a growling, freight-train-like low-frequency roar that blasted an ancient and unrelenting rage against anything unfortunate enough to be on that ridge with it.
We discussed our next steps, and decided it was at least worth a look up there to see just how bad it was—even if it was overly optimistic—so with Tyson leading our rope team, me seconding, and Norm behind, we ascended up and out of our quiet little chute and into the maelstrom.
The sound of it was deafening, and utterly unlike anything I've ever heard before. It battered us and ripped all spoken communications from our throats, hurling them to their wordy deaths down the steep, jagged face of rock and ice on the west face far below.
The plan was that Tyson would set up a series of running belays: he'd place the protection in cracks and around protruding points of rock, and then clip the rope he was trailing through it. He'd then climb until I reached it in the middle of the rope at my harness, and then wait until I'd clipped around it before continuing.
So immediately off the col, we turned sharply right and began climbing a steep right-slanting series of cracks and ledges. About halfway up this section, the wind finally began to drill through my warmer gloves, and my hands and fingertips began to get very cold indeed. A quick bout of arm-swinging cured that problem, however, and I continued—up and to the right, baby… up and to the right.
I, as the second of our three man rope team would clip around the placements as I came to them, first clipping the back strand of rope before unclipping the forward strand from my link to the protection Tyson had placed above. And Norm, a rock climber with limited leading experience, brought up the rear as he removed and collected the anchor hardware.
And yet THIS is what I longed for… doing it all in heavy gear, challenging my senses to stay foused, to feel what my hands are doing in relation to their purchase on the holds, with a layer of glove between skin and stone.
Once through the first rock portion, we stepped and climbed around a jutting corner of rock that took us out onto a short, steep slabby section of less featured stone that dropped sharply down and to the right into another steep couloir below—with far fewer good holds for hands and feet on it.
I was able to use the frontpoints of my crampons fairly well through this section, however, by jabbing them into stable cracks between solid pieces of stone. Tyson was waiting at the top and providing some feedback on the moves (and a belay), so that was helpful, and I got across it without too much trouble.
Once across, I stepped back onto the steep snow slope that led up to Tyson's position above, and up I went. As I waited for Norm to come up behind, I checked the altimeter: 10,242 feet: 800-ish vertical feet below the summit.
At Tyson's lofty perch on a ledge of the rocky ridge we'd just climbed, he called a pow wow to discuss whether we should continue. Tyson knows this route well and understands what's to come, so he laid it out for us, along with his recommendations. That the forecast for high winds was "verifying" was an inescapable reality. And based on his thoughts, the question of whether we should continue seemed only to be a question in the academic sense at this point. Nevertheless, it was a good discussion.
In our guts, Norm and I, I think, already knew the answer: time to turn back—unacceptable risk ahead. Tyson agreed. Furthermore, in his much more objective and expert opinion, retreat from the point at which we stood becomes increasingly more difficult should the wind outmatch us higher on the mountain. There was also the fact that in the face of 60 MPH gusting winds where we were, rock climbing crux moves of 5.6 at higher elevations become a lot tougher than 5.6.
More important, however, was his concern that should one of us be hit by such a gust in the middle of a delicate rock move in one of the exposed sections of ridge above us, the situation could become an epic in a hurry. None of us wanted that, so he suggested our summit dreams were likely dead. Though disappointing, Norm and I agreed and sounded the retreat.
But even unsuccessful, the ascent was not for naught. Tyson transferred part of his rack to Norm, who led on the way back down. Norm got some practice placing protection, and Tyson evaluated his placements as he removed them on his way down and gave Norm feedback on their quality.
The downclimbing was fun, and I was able to move a little faster this time, just because I'd grown a little more accustomed to the activity. Focus still paramount, we moved back down off the small sideways slabby rock section, back around the rock corner, downward and leftward into the lofty vertical-ish ledgy stuff, dropped back onto the narrow col above the Suicide Chute, and descended back into… a deafening calm of windless peace once more.
As the brash and bellowing freight train wind above us thundered its baritone discontent and lashed the trees on the ridge, Tyson conducted a mini clinic on placing protection with active cams and nuts, and Norm set up an equalized 3-point anchor system for practice.
We all munched some food, had some water, unroped, and began the glissade down the chute, back into the waiting jaws of other reproachful, more high-toned winds far below.
With relatively stable snow conditions today and some avalanche education from Tyson (but keeping a mindful eye on the possibility of avalanche in the chute), we lost altitude quickly with a combination of buttslides and plunge steps. We treated this descent as a backcountry ski descent: one at a time, waiting in avalanche-safe areas below and leapfrogging each other as we went.
The flying torrents of spindrift became so ferocious near the bottom of the chute that my glasses completely froze up at one point and a tiny patch of exposed skin on my forehead between my hat and glasses began to ache from the violent and repeated ice crystal sandblasts.
For a minute or two, I could see nothing of one glissade stretch. Luckily, I was in the middle of a pretty straightforward and controlled slide when it happened, so no harm done. We all switched to goggles just before the couloir spat us back out onto the upper apron once more. It seemed to me as though the rock sentinels guarding the entrance to the Suicide Chute glared at us as we passed between them, bludgeoning our way through thigh-deep posthole snow.
Eventually, Norm and Tyson go frustrated with the hard work of breaking through the crusty snow and switched back to snowshoes, but I figured by the time I got mine on, I could be nearly halfway back to the road if I really kicked it in the ass. And, I reasoned, I could burn a lot more calories struggling in the snow than floating over it, thus making up for some of the lost effort we'd missed out on by not finishing the last 800-1000 vertical feet of climb to the summit.
Ordinarily, I'd never do that, simply because struggling in the snow is a huge energy sink, but once on descent of the upper apron out of the col, a safe return was pretty much assured, so I worked hard on purpose :-) It was fun!
Discomfort is a way of life in the high mountains, and disappointment is sometimes not far behind, so I'd say I learned many valuable lessons today, both physical and mental. And though I am indeed disappointed that I failed on Mt. Superior (this time), it helps me understand more about myself and how I'll handle that disappointment on larger objectives. It's certainly a good possibility on Foraker, a mountain with a mere 30% summit success rate.
But I'll be back another day for another attempt on Madame Superior. The prospects of going to the top by that route are exciting indeed, and I've only just had a taste.