Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Descent

It was disappointing to turn around. I think we all badly wanted to summit, but we were also tired, stressed and we knew safety was first and foremost. The descent was difficult. Living in the corn belt with no hills or stairs to run up and down, my quads were burning from the severe downhill. Additionally, with every jolting step down, my stomach would shake and rattle making for the perfect cocktail of vomit. I had to take it slow with 30 second breaks every 2 minutes, which elevated my feeling of wusness. The rope was harder to control going down. You needed to make sure there wasn't so much slack that it got caught under the persons boots in front of you, but you also needed to make sure it was tight enough to ensure, should they fall, they wouldn't have a long way to go.

Within a half hour of turning around, a few white outs kicked in bringing about a feeling of lunacy as you watched the person in front of you and everything around, including sense of direction, suddenly disappear. The white outs forced us to break and hope they would quickly roll over, which they did.

Along the way, my mom pointed out a crevasse we nearly crossed on our way up and the hole where someone had punched through. Thank god my mom navigated us in the right direction.

The mood down was grumpy and short. It was stressful, two amateurs on the rope and one expert, who was worried if something happened to her, where would Tonya and I be left? However, the mood lifted, 2 hours into the descent like the dense fog that kept rolling through, when my mom took a break. She set her pack down and looped in her ice axe to one of the straps on her pack to prevent it from sliding down the mountain. She unharnessed telling us she needed to go pee. Bathroom on a mountain is bare ass to the wind. She walked up the mountain and to the side about 20 feet above us. We could faintly hear her urine trickle into the snow and suddenly a commotion followed by, "Oh shit!" Tonya and I looked to the right only to see a steamer speeding down the mountain with my mom trailing right behind it, her pants down and blue bag in hand trying to catch the turd. On the mountain, similar to a dog, you are required to pick up your poop with a blue bag. The turd finally came to a steaming halt and she caught her excrement. We were all in stitches over the ordeal.

An hour later and 500 feet from camp I could see my stepdad in his bright red jacket waiting for us. He waved vigorously and I waved back. Tears nearly came to my eyes as I saw someone familiar and we were almost back to an area of comfort. The winds were really high, at least 50mph, which means the summit was twice the velocity. The men we passed from Canada asked if we had seen their two friends. The answer was,"no". My mom asked if they had a stove, pad, sleeping bag or any other gear to protect them. Their response was, "no, they wanted to keep things light." At this point their friends had been climbing for nearly 12 hours, which is the most amount of time it should take to go up to summit and come down to high camp. We looked up at the mountain and all other teams we had crossed paths with also turned around. There was no sight of their friends.

Tonya, my mom and I unroped and went to our tents to rest for an hour. The winds howled and it felt like our tent was about to be lifted and thrown across the mountain. Tonya and I both sunk into our sleeping bags with a sigh of relief. We apologized and giggled at any of the nasty things we may have said to each other during the climb. After a moments rest we packed up our belongings.

My stepdad had planned for us to go over steamboat prow (an alternative to the traverse back). I was pissed. My legs were tired and I didn't want to climb up the side of a ledge with a 60lb pack where a little slip could toss you into one of Winthrop Glacier's crevasses. The snow was slushy like "sugar" as my mom called it. You couldn't dig an ice axe in to save your life. The reason we were taking this route as opposed to the traverse; we didn't have to rope up and later I would find out Jerry's ultimate plan, to glisade (slide down a mountain on your butt) most of the way down. He figured this would be a treat to us after all the hard work.

We started up Steamboat around 12pm. I moaned and groaned as I climbed the ledge, my legs periodically sinking upto the knees and my hands struggling to find a hold on the rocks. We only had 6-12 inches to place our feet on the vertical trail, which was quite nerve wracking. And pushing and pulling myself up with a 60lb pack made my stomach hurt more. After about 30-40min we were at the top. I was happy to be there and the views were a reward. It seemed we were at eye level with the summit and to look down upon high camp was like looking at an archaelogical google earth, a map of where tents have been dug out and revealed and the holes of where dwellings once existed. For some reason this spot above high camp brought a smile to our faces. We were like tourists at the end of a trip getting our last token snap shots before it was all over. We looked up at the summit with pride. At about this time we also saw the two climbers who had been missing emerge. They were walking extremely slow and sat just above a massive crevasse. We think they had no idea what was below them and we believe one of the men was injured as he didn't move from his spot. The other man continued down a thin line above the crevasse.

We walked to the tracks of other glisaders. There were two slides. This was our ride down. My mom and Jerry refreshed mine and Tonya's memory about how to control ourselves going down this 3,000 foot slide. Use your ice axe like a rutter. Hold it across your chest and dig it in when you want to slow down, move it side to side to guide your direction. Jerry went first and I followed behind, next was Tonya and then my mom. We would later find out my mom who is 5'2" and 115lbs was a rocket. She liked to go fast and do what she likes to call bumper cars. She came quick and from behind and pushed us with her feet to keep us all going. We were laughing hystarically. At one point we gathered so much snow beneath us we were riding a snow wave, we were the avalanche coming down the mountain. When our track would run out we would search the mountain for other tracks or try to create a new one. It was fun, exciting and my pants were filled with snow. My mom turned to me during this adventure and said, "I know climbing is stressful. There are so many lives at stake, but this aside from the views is what makes it worth it."

It took us about 40 minutes to get to basecamp. As we arrived a chopper flew above us to high camp. We believe they were going to rescue the men. I changed clothes and Tonya washed her face in the river. I dreaded the next 5.5 miles of climbing up and over rocks and logs and sinking into mud. I couldn't wait to get back to the car.

Once we were in the trees everything smelled of cedar. I miss that smell. The midwest doesn't have any recognizable, refreshing and comforting smells that I have noticed. Almost to the car, my legs were tired. My knee was killing me (an injury left from my bike accident in NYC), my mom jogged up to me and said, "race you to the car!"I couldn't believe she had the energy to run. I was ready to crash. I passed her on the offer and we chatted the last 1000 feet. At the car we changed out of our sweaty and dirt soiled clothes and headed out to a bar where we ordered burgers, beers and nachos. It was more food than our now downsized stomachs could handle, but it was worth it... every little bite.

Steamboat Prow (we had to climb to the top).
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View of Camp Schurman from Prow
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Mom and Jerry at top Prow with summit in background
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Mom and I
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Mom, Tonya and I
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Mom, Tonya and I
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