June 10, 2012 | Posted in:Uncategorized
It isn’t often that I do something that I consider “defining life moment”. It is even less common that I can identify these fleeting moments while they are happening. Most of the time, I do not realize a moment was in some way life-shaping until well after the moment has passed. These realizations hit after my life has changed and I am reflecting on what spurred the change.
This moment was a rare exception.
While I was fully immersed in what I can easily describe as the most physically and mentally challenging experience of my life, I had a brief instant of clarity that enabled me to see just what I am capable of, shattering previous notions of my own limitations. It was in this instant that I acknowledged this experience, a pursuit of adventure, was the most challenging thing I had ever accomplished. In the same moment I realized that it was also a gateway, the tip of the iceberg if you will, for more challenging forays into the mountains. I have been knocking on the door to a world that was intriguing yet unfamiliar and it has finally flung wide open. Stepping inside is both awe-inspiring and terrifying.
Enough with the metaphors, when I explain this “defining life moment” the sensation I felt should become clear.
It happened over Memorial Day weekend, on Sunday morning as I had just stopped to wait for my partner, ice axe still in-hand, after having made a handful of turns off of the summit of Eldorado Peak. Sitting at just over 8,800ft Eldorado was by no means the highest place I had snowboarded, but it was the tallest mountain (and only true non-volcanic mountain) I have summited. It was also the first moderately technical climb I have ever attempted. Cutting a shelf into the knife-edge ridge so that I had a place to stand and put on my splitboard, then dropping onto the face of the mountain from the highest point possible, was an exhilarating experience to say the least.
I am getting ahead of myself. What made this trip so spectacular was not merely the summit, but the approach as well. True to form, I found my partner on TAY Thursday evening, just two days before the trip. I was able to borrow and ice axe and crampons from my buddy, and Kevin agreed to teach me how to use them on the approach. We left Seattle around 5 am on Saturday so that we could get an early start. Kevin planned this trip, a non-standard approach to Eldorado. Instead of taking the typical climbers trail that ascends almost directly up Eldorado’s east face from the valley floor, we started well to the west of Eldorado in the Hidden Lakes area. After a quick skin up the logging road, and a brief jaunt bootpacking through the woods, we were quickly past the dense growth and were skinning up a large open snowfield.
Skinning up the hill, I stumbled into a little luck. Someone had dropped a pair of crampons in the snow. The way the snow had melted out, the looked as if the had been there for quite some time. I did a quick search of the area to make sure there was nothing else (or no-one) left buried in the snow and, while still puzzled, threw the crampons on my pack pretty stoked about my find and of course the extra weight dangling from my pack.
We made it up to the saddle in the Hidden Lakes area in good time. From the saddle, I could see up the ridge to Hidden Lakes. What was surely a fun and rewarding tour. This was not our intention. We instead had our eyes fixated to the east, at Eldorado Peak that was standing prominently in the distance. As Kevin promised, our approach was indeed much longer but offered views that were unparalleled. The jagged and exposed west face of Eldorado looked nearly insurmountable (at least given my abilities) and the winding ridgelines we intended to traverse seemed to meander endlessly into the distance.
However, we pressed on making good time, stopping shortly for a lesson in self-arrest on a steep face with low consequences. I should point out that the sun was out in full force. It was an absolutely beautiful day, though the heat was not making the travel any easier. The ridgeline varied from mellow and flat to flip-flopping sharp ridges forcing us to switch between skinning and boot pack numerous times. There were ups and downs, averaging out to a steady climb in elevation. As the day wore on, the traversing was starting to take its toll.
The wet, heavy snow did not make the going any easier. But we pressed on. Finally, around 4 pm we had finished most of the traversing. We had just descended a bowl below the Triad, a distinguishable set of three points nestled together on the ridge, and climbed up a chute to the top of a spine that was separating us from the east snowfield on Eldorado. For those of you keeping track, yes that means we wrapped a fair ways around the mountain from west to east. Finding a patch of exposed rock, Kevin and I treated ourselves to a little nap before making our final approach to camp up on Eldorado glacier (the largest glacier in the cascades not attached to a volcano). It was at this point, laying on a rock under the sun that reality began to set in. We had been hiking for nearly 8 hours with a minimal net amount of elevation gain. I was tired. That meant the car was nearly 8 hours away and there was no way of going back. Not in the state that either Kevin or I was in. We were past the point of return and the only thing to do was press on to camp, make dinner, try to sleep and hope that we would have enough energy the next day.
After our nap, Kevin and I felt slightly refreshed. Our bodies actually had a chance to process some of the calories we had consumed and were energized by the sight of our destination. We had a fun couple of turns from our napping spot to a safe point on the snowfield to start our final ascent to camp. As vast snowfields often are, the distance to the top was regrettably further than either Kevin or I anticipated. After a seemingly endless climb, we finally reach the glacier around 7:30.
We met up with a couple of Kevin’s friends who had made the standard Eldorado approach. For what it is worth, it took them two days to get to the glacier from the standard route, granted they were not skinning so their progress was much slower. Our evening consisted of building camp, cooking food, and an arsenal of DSLR’s snapping shots (three cameras for the four of us) of our 360 panoramic views. Amidst the gusts of wind, snow, and hitting the ski that was propping up our makeshift 4-man circus tent, I think I managed a couple hours of sleep.
To my surprise, I woke up feeling refreshed and not nearly as sore as I was expecting. Kevin and I made the decision to follow the standard route off of Eldorado, virtually straight down to the valley floor. Knowing this, Kevin and I decided we had enough energy left to make the final push to the summit.
In all fairness, this final ascent was fueled mostly by adrenaline for me, which I found works way better than the cliff bars I was relying on the day before. Not to mentioned we left all of our overnight gear below us on the glacier. The actual summit was better than we were expecting. The recent snow made the ridge up to the peak soft enough to kick in a nice boot pack. As mentioned before, the euphoric feeling upon getting to the summit was un-paralleled. In the context of the previous days approach, reaching the summit was such an incredible sense of accomplishment.
After snapping a myriad of pictures (none of which turned out particularly well in my opinion) we began the descent. Riding off of the summit was a thrill. You feel like you are standing on top of the world and dropping in to your line is more satisfying than any rollercoaster I have ever been on.
We had a solid 4-5,000 feet of snow to ride down, broken up by an occasional pesky uphill. While very wet and reactive, Kevin and I both got in some fantastic corn skiing.
When the snow ended, our journey wasn’t quite over. We had to down-climb a boulder field that was absolutely miserably. In any context it was not an easy route to follow, having to navigate through knee to shoulder high boulders is never fun. When you throw an overnight pack with skis sticking off the ends, it is downright terrifying. Just when you though you had cleared a boulder, a ski would catch, throwing your weight forward, causing you to hold your breath and praying that you can find somewhere to plant your foot to stop you from careening out of control down the hill.
The boulder field eventually cleared and the trail seemed to mellow out with each step. It was only a couple of hours before we were crossing a river on logs and were back at Kevin’s friend’s car.
This trip pushed my physical limits and showed me what I am capable of accomplishing. While I still have a long ways to go before I would consider myself a true mountaineer and I still have a lot of skills to learn, at the heart of this adventure, I began to discover the sheer power of will to truly push yourself.