Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Tar Creek, 06/27/2011

12/10/13: The US Forest Service will be enforcing access restrictions to Tar Creek soon. TC is part of the Condor Sanctuary established as critical habitat to this endangered bird and other wildlife. Epic numbers of visitors, and the trash and graffiti they have left behind, has led to the acknowledgment by the Forest Service that access must be curtailed and enforced. For more information on the impending action visit: Tar Creek Closure.

I was on call for the Cath Lab all weekend, worked too much, had a couple good saves, and was begging to get out by the time Monday rolled around. Fortune smiled upon me and I was able to get out of that place by noon. I splashed down into the deep pools of the Land of the Lost by 13:45.
I continued on to the bottom. No bugs today. No condors either. However, there was a surplus of college students. I met kids from UCLA, Chico, Stanislaus. Huh? I was a bit confused at first, but no, all the kids in this canyon came from about 10 different cars. The UCLA three were Matt (or Mark?), Taylor, and Ben. Good cliff jumpers.
It was a nice, hot day. I made the most of it.
I picked up all the trash my pack could hold: bandaids, water bottles, wrapper bits, bottle caps, cigarette butts, coins, a sock, a full bottle of SPF 50. And a handfull of brass that some drooling goon had fired from the edge of the condor roost at the bottom of Tar. The problem with coins, glass, or shell casing is that the condors are stupid. And curious. And they explore items of interest with their beaks. Which means that they might eat these items, in which case, bird digestive tracts being more complicated than most might think, the condor will probably die a horrible death. And North America's rarest, largest bird species will be down by one.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Matilija, 06/22/2011

Edward Abbey once said, "There is science, logic, reason; there is thought verified by experience. And then there is California.". And, narrowing the field to an even more stupefying degree: SoCal. I take a week off to breathe less oxygen than usual and have to come back to this? Ventura's consistently persistent marine layer, known locally as our dear friend Coastal Eddy, is visible from the I-5. Back home on Sunday, on-call on Monday. My body crashes from the stresses of the Palisades on Tuesday, dumping stress hormones and lactic acid. Ruth is wonderful, home from a week in Chicago, life is good, so good. But sometimes I really wonder why I live in Southern California, it ain't my style. My left ankle (which deserves it's own blog entry due to the fact that under x-ray it looks as if Kathy Bates once had a go at it with her sledge) takes a friggin week to cool off, for the inflammation and pain to be busted by the ice and advil.
Yeah, so, back to kickin' up dust in the Southern Los Padres as we head into it's least hospitable season, summer. I chose Matilija. And chose wrong. The marine layer had barely burned off above the creek when I arrived, and though the skies cleared, the humidity stayed. And suddenly the day was both humid and hot. Which prompted the bugs to come out. The whole place was alive with the little black bitey f**kers. Really, it was a day only an entomologist could love. Wasn't so bad until you stopped for about 30 seconds, after which you could expect to feel much like a resident of Dresden, Germany on 02/13/1945. The only reprieve was to keep moving or stay submerged.
As for all the rest of it (by which I mean, the whole Matilija Creek thing), I had difficulty enjoying the things I come to Matilija for. That's how bad the bugs were. I literally ran from one big swimming hole to the next, would drop pack and dive in, shoes and all. Very different from clinging to the face of a snowed up peak.
Don't mind me if it sounds like I'm all bitter about being back in SoCal. I'd like to think I'll get back up to the Sierra a couple times this summer but I'm not sure that'll happen. Oh yeah, I forgot that Ruth and I are going to King's Canyon in August. Anyway, that's not my point. Point is, I'm back to busting on the local trails, documenting what I come across.
Thanks for all your comments related to the Palisades Trip. Davi Rivas and I hope you all found it to be a fun read with a few good pictures thrown in.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Polemonium Peak, 14,080', Class V, from Mt Sill, 05/12/2011

Palisades 2011, Part III (end)
"You guys aren't fishermen, are you?"
Robert, Manager of Bishop Denny's

Davi Rivas and I had just completed a difficult ascent of Mt Sill's North Couloir, and what a good day it had been for us so far. Next up, Polemonium Peak.
We down climbed Sill's rocky shoulder and proceeded to traverse this stretch of the Palisade Crest. Before us lay roughly a half mile of ridge-line. To the right was the sheer drop to the Palisade Glacier, interrupted occasionally by towers and gullies. To the left, a less severe slope, and the expanse of the Sierra back country. I kept my line at least 30' back from the true crest. No need to add walking on cornices to today's menu. Later in the summer this route will be a rocky ridge-run. For us it was a fairly straight forward snow slog with some rocks sprinkled here and there to mess with us, at altitude. We just kind of motored our way over to the Polemonium Glacier, passing the top of the V-Notch. I did not feel intrigued enough to take a look down it.
East Side Fun Fact:
You probably already knew that Mt Whitney and Death Valley are the highest and lowest points in the continental United States respectively, but did you know that about 80 miles north of Whitney are the largest glacier (the Palisade Glacier), and the highest glacier (the Polemonium Glacier) in those same United States? Our base camp was on one and we were trudging up the other.
We finally ran out of any place to keep trudging. We were staring at the summit of Polemonium Peak just 70 feet away. There was a problem. Between us and the summit was a bunch of air and a choice. I had a mini-meltdown then and there. My brained just f'ing bonked on me and for about 30 seconds I issued forth a fount of expletives and bad ideas. I might have said some things about this mountain, all mountains, climbing mountains, and people who climb mountains. I know I wasn't ranting about having a bad day on the back nine.

Allow me to explain the "air & choice" thing. The time of year that normal people do this route, the way is usually to descend a couple hundred feet of Class IV couloir and then ascend the fifth class ridge to the summit. This was not a happy prospect. The couloir in question was a hideously snow-choked luge of death. This is why I lost my mind, in brief. I looked down that chute and did not have the slightest inkling how I was going be able to pull that off without ending up in Accidents in North American Mountaineering 2011.

Well I was thoroughly stumped. What the hell do I do now? I calmed down and started looking around and realized that there was another way. A relatively easy way. I threw a sling around a rock, added a rap-ring, ran the rope through the ring, tied the ends together and tossed it off the edge of our immediate problem. I explained to Davi what we were going to do as I leaned back over the drop. Seventy or so feet of mostly free-air rappelling dropped me on a narrow apex of snow parting the east from the west. The rocky face of Polemonium was was only 15' away. Dave got down, we yanked the rope. I tied in and proceeded to slug it out with about fifty vertical feet of 5.6 or better. I was presented with the well-known "straddle and follow through" move that most people who've been there will remember. I was soon belaying Davi up to the uncomfortable summit. The wind had picked up, we were hammered, and had a long way to go yet, many things to worry about (that whole "most mountaineering accidents happen on the descent" thing). We didn't stay long. I shivered our names into the summit register, snapped a couple quick pictures and started looking for our way down.
Below: Read Davi's mind. I think he's thinking that if he sits down he ain't never gonna get back up again.
Davi located a shitty old rap anchor which we reinforced before once again pitching the rope overboard. As I rapped down I was able to locate our hasty rap station from two days before. Man, we had been so close to the summit the other day. At the time it looked as far away as the moon. Now it was our recent ad-hoc rap station that looked just about over the horizon. It was below us alright, the only problem was that it was way over to the left. Crap. Not ideal, but there it was, the U-Notch and the way down.
I ran out most of the rope on that rappel before fixing a quick belay on a snowy ledge. When Davi joined me and the rope had been pulled I began a hybrid between down climbing and traversing on rappel. This can be an interesting way to move across a mountain. The farther off-center one is on rappel, the bigger the swing if the climber comes off. Upping the ante, so to speak. Why not have the climber get smashed up on a few outcrops of jagged rocks as he arcs through that parabola? What fun! Yeah, so I was on my toes going down that pitch. I made it back to our old station without having a nervous breakdown. After I had freed the rope from my belay I took both ends and tied them in a big figure-eight. I gave Davi about 10' feet of slack and clipped that knot into a cam I had sunk. Now the rope was basically running diagonal to the fall line, and it's probably a good thing I remembered that big-wall trick because Davi sure enough went airborne before he came tight on both ends of the rope. After bouncing around out there for a bit he was able get his feet under him and resume controlled progress. One more quick rap and we were parked on our butts in the U-Notch. GU & water. Breathe baby, breathe. GU & water.
After we partly recharged it was off the U-Notch back to home base for us. We scrambled over to our cordelette and ring for the other day and I was headed down. Out of the rocks and onto the shaded and unpredictable snow of the notch, we stowed the rope and went to work. I led us down using a single axe tethered to the belay loop on my harness. I'd sink the axe at chest level and kick deep into our old steps. Much of the time we pulled down a bunch of snow with every step. A stable spot to rest was a luxury. We got ourselves down by using a variety of standard mountaineering techniques including, but not limited to: falling, unintentional glissade, kicking, clawing, spitting, etc... We did not stop and savor the moment, smell the roses or take a snap-shot, if you get my drift.
I didn't fall in the bergschrund this time, I had my old crater to guide me (below). We were just about all in, cooked, finito. We glissaded straight off the schrund and into our old tracks. Davi and I managed to stagger a few hundred yards into the sunlight. Here we dropped for a while. I knew we had a 45 minute "walk" back to base so I chugged the rest of my water (4L total). We picked a time and assured ourselves that we'd be home by 18:00, a nice 16 hour walk in the woods, so to speak. We forced ourselves back to base...that's really all I can say . That we got there. I remember post-holing to the waist any number of times. Those holes are a bitch to get out of, and exhausting. There was a lot a glare and falling down, getting up, "moving ever foreward" kind of crap. Lizard brain stuff. And then we were home.
We stumbled around for a bit, shedding pack and harness and boots. Wet socks off, feet dry. Imperative! Dry clothes, things are looking up. Coffee's on, or is it cider. Who cares? I'm in a daze and Davi manages a weak grin when I ask him if he actually knows anybody who could do what we did today. No. Not bad for a couple of forty year old guys from sea-side SoCal. Fade to black. Was it coffee or cider?
I woke to a Denny's sign in my brain. Double Cheebee & rings, with about a gallon of iced-tea sounded pretty good. Davi and I forced (again) ourselves to an upright, bipedal position. We muttered something about being responsible husbands and doing what we said we would, which was that we'd be home tomorrow. Oh, man. The body said no.
Breaking down our camp and packing all that crap away was less brutal than I thought and we were creeping down toward Sam Mack Meadow by 09:00. There was no trail. There wasn't even our old trail to go by so we just winged it. In the end, we rode on our butts about halfway into the meadow. Davi and I had come to a slope that was too steep to negotiate by any other means. We pitched our packs off the double-black diamond run, a crash test dummy sort of thing. Both of us marveled at our packs going airborne for 50 feet at a time, flipping end for end faster than I could count. Right. Do it. Just don't do it like your pack did it.
At the eastern edge of Sam Mack our snow bridge had melted away revealing a more substantial structure. We were headed to Denny's and that Cheebee. Only nine miles of jackhammer downhill to contend with. By now we were both about as tough and banged up as we ever get. I mean we were bone and jerky. We just motored down that goddamn nine miles. Heaved our packs in the bed of the truck, put it in drive and turned the wheel towards America's restaurant.
I would like to make sure you all know that any trip like this is a collaborative effort and I'd like to acknowledge Davi's contribution to the photos you've seen in this 3 part essay. For all the photos, and the whole trip really. Because I wouldn't be up there doing this if he wasn't going. So it's like that. I'd also like to add that both Davi and I have, for 8 years now, been going out on these Sierra trips, and the only way we've been able to do that is with the support of our spouses. Jerrica, thank you for letting Davi out. I know the pictures are scary. To my wife Ruth, well, that's between us and not you. Suffice it to say that I am beyond grateful.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Mt Sill, 14,153', North Couloir, Class IV (in nice conditions), 06/10/2011

Palisades 2011, Part II

Way blasted from our struggle to within 200' of the summit of Polemonium Peak on and above the U-Notch we necessarily had to take the following day to rest. We both slept late, lay on the moraine in the weak morning light, and consumed mass calories. I rated my glycogen stores at about 30%. I actually felt okay, just weak as a kitten.
There's a dynamic between two climbers regarding a failure to reach the summit of a peak. Parties can choose to take it out on each other or they can pull their act together, acknowledge and accept, study on the things that could have gone different or better, and resolve to do better next time.
Our failure to reach the summit wasn't from a lack of will, effort, or nerve. The combination of attempting the V-Notch, relocating to the U-Notch and the ensuing 2 hour struggle with the bergschrund exhausted both time and energy. Frankly, given the overnite snow dump and other conditions, we did pretty good getting as far as we did.
I washed my hands of it and resolved to go back up and get a "win". We look forward to this trip all year and a single day's set-back wasn't going to hold me back from another go. As I ingested endless calories I worked out a way that would give Davi and me a fair shot at success.
Below: Let me blow my own horn for a second. Melting snow sucks, is time consuming, and generally unsatisfactory. I was looking at all these tiny rivulets of melt-water flowing down the rocks and had a lightbulb moment. I got Davi to cough up the tube from his hydration system and rigged this nice litte gravity feed to our 5 gallon reservoir. About 25 minutes later we were in water heaven.
The plan we worked out was, in theory, pretty workable (again, bearing in mind the over-all conditions). Using the handy route diagram below I'll walk you through it. We would ascend Glacier Notch, hook up and right onto the North Couloir of Mt Sill. The section between Apex Peak and the summit ridge on the right of the image is the crux of this route and is referred to in guide books as "exposed", meaning your ass is really out there. This 200' section goes at Class IV when it looks like it does in the diagram. This was not our situation. That traverse from Apex to the Ridge was going to be steep, scary, slippery and fairly dangerous. Once the summit ridge was obtained the summit of Mt Sill would be in the bag. Now, how to get down? I'll get to that in the next post. We still have to climb the damn thing.
Once again the UFO charm on my i-phone's alarm clock creeped us out of sleep at 02:30. We stuffed our boots and shell gear down to the foot of our sleeping bags to get them un-frozen. I fired the stove and got coffee going. We shivered into all the crap it takes to climb a mountain, cracked the frost off our packs, and got going.
An "O dark:30" start on a glacier is a unique experience. The crunch of crampons biting into the crust, the wind seeking to extort any warmth you can generate, frozen nose tips with snot running, eyes watering, and did I forget to mention a night sky of sparkling diamonds, the Milky Way so clear and full that it resembles a linear cloud shooting across the dark horizon. Yeah, that's our little galaxy, folks.
By false light we were zig-zaging our way up the Glacier Notch. This was easy stuff and a good warm-up for the steep climbing to come. Having cleared the notch we made our way over to the North Couloir of Mt Sill. This is simply a snow climb at about 40-45 degrees, about 700 yards of slog at 13,000', which leads to a small saddle between a nob called Apex Peak.
We took another break at the Apex saddle. I spent a good deal of time staring at the traverse/climb to come. I knew I'd be leading it and while forcing some food down my throat I got my head around that whole idea. I selected an assortment of nuts, cams, and a couple pitons for good luck. I'd be climbing in crampons (which is it's own special kind of climbing), and I chose to use a single ice axe on a short-ish leash. That way I'd have one hand free for the rocks or to throw some protection in. I tied into the rope and took the first hesitant steps onto the steeps.
This was interesting. Hard enough to do at altitude, this traverse was all messed up. It was steep with limited protection opportunities given the amount of snow on the route. This route doesn't see sun until the afternoon if at all and the snow storm we'd hacked through just to get here had deposited drifts of loose sugar in every crack and over most of the rock. I felt at times like I was just shoving snow out of the way to make room for all the snow above it. It was a battle, and though I never really felt scared, I did feel insecure on my front-points for most of it. I picked short, 2-3 move sections that I'd power through until I could at least get a hand on something solid. I sent a couple rocks down to the lower elevations, I do know that. I took most of the rope across that traverse and by the time I was set to belay Davi across the summit ridge was only a short scramble away.
Above and below: leading the traverse

Following 2 photos: Davi Rivas following the traverse from Apex Peak to Mt Sill's summit ridge.
Once Davi had made it over to me, I just had him keep going up and around the corner to the summit ridge. I soon joined him and we stowed the rope. From that point it was a 15 minute scramble up, over, under, and between the crest of car-sized blocks. I really like that kind of stuff and raced up to the summit.
Below: looking west from Mt Sill, lottsa snow in the backcountry.
What an amazing day for a high summit, just gorgeous.
After some grub and a rest we started working our way back down the ridge. We still had a bit to do this day.
The rest of our plan involved traversing the stunning Palisade Crest until we reached our next summit and eventually our descent route. Part III of our Palisade adventure coming soon.