“Oh, SHIT! ROCK! ROCK! ROCK!”
Kevin’s voice echoed from the anchor above me. Pat stood at his side, tucked in tight to the wall. I struggled to lean back and look up against my pack, my arms extended above on my tools. All I saw was Kevin ducking a bit as the snow started to roar down the chute. I had nowhere to go, so I pulled in tight, shrugged my shoulders to lift the pack against the back of my neck, and gripped my tools as tightly as I could. I think I remember a few cracks against my helmet, but mostly the world around me just melted into the mottled sugar of snow and rock.
Kevin yelled to hang on.
When Kevin asked me to “go and check out Ice 9” on Mt. Mendel, I actually did hesitate for a moment. My training has been going well, and I’ve ramped up the intensity and duration over the past month, but I am still redeveloping the confidence I had in my climbing after being off for, essentially, a year after the knee injury and surgery. Any route on Mt. Mendel is serious business, and part of my rehab has been on my own psyche and confidence on more technical terrain and scrambling. But with Kevin’s reassurance and vote of confidence, I signed on to haul up Lamarck Col with him and Pat Baumann.
After a leisurely morning at the Moose Lodge sorting and packing gear between sips of coffee and munching bacon and eggs, we three cruised to the North Lake trailhead. The warm spring sun sharpened the contrast between the red Piute Crags and the bluebird skies, a light breeze rustled through the still leafless aspen lining the switchbacks to climb up and away from the campground. I love settling into my own pace, letting my legs swing under the weight of my pack, arms reaching with my poles and pushing up the steps on the trail. We were in no particular hurry on Saturday, and we were met with the gentle rustle of the wind and light cascades to Lower and Upper Lamarck Lakes.
Having popped over Lamarck Col a half dozen times or so, I told the guys to run on ahead, essentially giving myself permission to find a solid pace of my own instead of desperately trying to keep up. But these two gentlemen could be found randomly resting on the trail sides, sometimes together, sometimes alone; each soaking in the moments of being high in the sand and sun and breeze. I gave Pat more details on the lay of the land, when to turn to the Col, but we were in eyeshot the whole way. I just continued my slow trudge on by the guys so as to not fall too terribly behind, but we chatted and laughed just the same. “Have you been following European economics?” Pat asked me as I pulled out of some postholing just below the Col. “Whoa: this shit just got heavy!” I laughed at him.
The boot track angled gently up the slope to the second gap in the rocks, so I turned to head back slightly to the actual Col in order to tap the sign (a good luck motion of my own). Kevin caught me up as I punched through the final steps, but I stopped to gaze over the gap and across to the huge massifs of Mts. Darwin and Mendel. The Darwin Lakes were still frozen almost 1500 feet down, the landscape striped, alternating between snowfields and talus. The trail wound through the boulders for a short distance before giving up to a scattered assortment of cairns, and Kevin and I wound our way through, headed to a single orange tent standing out near a solid flow of melt. We knew Vitaliy and Max had come over the day previous, and were hitting the climbs today, so we were anxious to hear of conditions.
After throwing off our packs and settling onto a few perfect platforms, we gazed across the valley to the right and left couloirs on the north face of Mendel. Ice Nine made me frown: the thought of those sloping ledges covered with snow was less than appealing. We discussed options, including Mendel Right and the north face of Darwin. From our perch we scoured the slopes for signs of boot track from the others, with none to be found. Pat wandered off for a nap in the sun, while Kevin and I sat and chatted, leaning against the warm boulders and munching on melted gummi bears. During dinner, I finally spotted Vittles and Max against the snow beneath the Darwin Glacier, and we cheered them home to our cozy camp.
In the dark of 0400, I shivered in my bag coated with ice and frost following a still and moonless night. I huddled over my stove, desperately pumping the fuel and having no success in maintaining a flame. With a frown, I tucked my coffee back into the bag and tried in vain to choke down a few bites of breakfast against my rolling stomach. At first light, we scrambled down the pass and across the moraine bridge to the steep climb amongst boulders and snow to the base of Mendel. Kevin opted to step up the firm snow, easily surmounting the terminal moraine. Pat stopped to don his boots and ‘pons, then traversing the same slope. I was happy to scramble amongst the boulders, testing the friction of my big Scarpas on the granite. In the sun, we paused to eat and stare up at the steep snow leading to the couloirs high above.
The bergschrund presented as a scar in the middle of the face, the snow like filled in scar tissue across the gap. Kevin was brave enough to test it, sinking hip deep and then stepping out to find the crossing to be easier at climber’s left. Upward we trudged, back and forth across the face as the angle steepened and the runout seemed to be shorter when I factored in stopping speed from such a height. Ice Nine wasn’t “in” in the slightest, so there was no hesitation to head for the right couloir. I heard Kevin call from just above a small rock band above that it was “steep for a bit, but it levels out up here.” Riiiight, Kev. “See how you feel when you get here,” was the reply.
The ice in the rocks made for solid pick placements, and I was across with a little effort. Above, I watched Pat and Kevin finish the solo, bravely frontpointing into the couloir; but I suddenly felt the air beneath me, and I asked for a rope to finish to the first anchor. I climbed up to a fold in the rope above after Kevin set the anchor, tying in with a figure eight on a bight and then scrambling up to the guys. The ice was a yellowish-grey in the shade, Kevin’s tools shattering pieces that rained down the chute to our left. I shivered from cold and more than a little nervousness at the task ahead, my fingers robbed of warmth as I started into the ice. Dinner plates cracked with each whack of the tools, my front points occasionally scraping the ice for purchase instead of sinking. My breathing caught up with me, and I found a small rock ledge to rest and warm my fingers as Pat caught me up.
I reached inside my shirt to try and shock my fingers back into the present situation, then, with a grunt, resumed my climb. It was then that Kevin called in alarm, and the rush of snow roared in my ears against my screams. “Are you all right?” they both yelled down as the chute settled into calm once again, and I strained to look up at them through watery eyes. “You need to hurry,” Kevin offered.
Yeah, right, Kev.
The second pitch devolved into loose snow over ice and rock, my picks bouncing instead of grabbing as I tried to drive them deep for purchase. The rocks offered a few good chances to dry tool as I kicked and stomped in the track up to the next anchor, but more often hidden dangers of ice and scree caused my steps to slide, eliciting a grunt as I struggled to regain purchase. I threaded the rope through my belay device and smiled at Kevin as he readied for the final pitch. “One to go!” I laughed through gasps of breath.
Kevin found the bowling alley just above the anchor: a narrowing devoid of ice above exposed softball- to cantaloupe-sized rocks that let loose as he tried to climb by. Pat and I were perfect targets as we dodged the projectiles, but my thighs and Pat’s right knee had the bulls-eyes painted on them. The first smack into my right lower thigh had me suck in my breath and see stars: “THAT’s gunna leave a mark!” I yelled up to Kevin. Two minutes later, another barrage and my left thigh felt a hard smack. I cried out, Pat grabbing my arm as I bent and sat in my harness against the pain. This time, the tears flowed, but I never let go of the line. “Can you stand up?” Pat asked gently. “Yeah, just give me a sec,” I said through clenched teeth. Pat called to Kevin to hold for 2 minutes while I regained composure.
The final pitch offered a bit more ice and mixed opportunities, the cracks in the rocks offering solid placements as we stepped gingerly to try and avoid launching debris onto each other. The very top narrowed to a rock finish, with the final challenge being a face-y chockstone for a lieback in crampons. “Just get a single point on one of those features,” Kevin offered.
I reached down to grab my right foot after attempting to swing it up to a nice set of nubbins and failing. With a barbaric yawp, I yarded hard on the top of the boulder, pressing as hard as I could on my foot, trying to drive the crampon point deep into the granite. “YEAH!!! Power through it!” Kevin’s grin said it all, and we slapped me a high-five as I stepped behind him and through the notch to overlook the Evolution Basin, Mt. Goddard standing dark and proud above all.
After a quick rappel down to the southwest face chutes, we scrambled back up to the summit, Kevin offering support and guidance as I had my little panic attacks on the Class 4 moves in mountaineering boots. “Why is your pack so heavy?” he asked.
The summit’s view was spectacular in the afternoon light, but we didn’t linger long. I had had enough exposure for one day, so the guys set a rappel station onto the east face and I happily lowered off to safer ground, Pat staying behind to clean the station and scramble himself down. The ropes pulled cleanly, and we wove our way down the rocks and scree to the mushy snow.
Time to posthole.
The guys pulled ahead as I kept sinking, but stopping was out of the question, and I was not looking forward to the haul back up to camp and Lamarck Col. My lungs started to wheeze and scream as I pushed myself to keep going, grabbing fresh water at the falls between turquoise tarns not yet thawed. The sand of the ascent was almost welcome as I reached out for boulders to haul my ass up the Col, and I whooped to get a bearing on the guys, who were finishing up their packing by the time I reached them. I allowed myself 20 minutes to rest, eat, and pack simultaneously, loading fresh batteries into my headlamp. I knew it was going to be a long night.
I reached the Col as the last light faded, tapping the sign once again for luck, and tromping the boot track down to the flats. The cool of night had firmed the snow at least, allowing for good footing and no crashing through, at least on the face. Part way down the sand and rock flats, I finally turned on my light as I wove through the boulders, occasionally running across tracks from my partners. I could see Kevin’s lamp at the big right turn ahead, and the soft snow of the lower Col forced me into the sand and onto the trail down. Despite my urgings, Kevin occasionally waited, and we wound our way through the pitch black to treeline, across the traverse, and down the switchbacks to the maze near Upper Lamarck Lake. I got turned around only once, ending up north of the trail on some tall slabs, but quickly corrected and strode at a gentle pace that I could handle with my exhaustion.
The stretch from Lower Lamarck Lake dragged on interminably, my macerated feet scratching against my socks and boots, my breath coming hard at any uphill angle or step. My focus was ahead only, one step in front of the other. I stopped only for a moment at the Wilderness sign just outside the campground, weakly smiling and knowing the walk back to the waiting TOF was along a nice, flat road.
The next morning, with huge bags under my eyes, hugging a steaming mug of coffee, I was smiling.