Skittles on Ice
I have been preparing to climb Gothics for about three month and it was a summit that I really wanted to bag. Although Gothics is only the 10th tallest mountain in New York State it is by far the most technical. Situate deep inside the Adirondack High Peaks it is a 5 mile trail hike and then another mile until one can reach the base of the North Wall. Few people climb the North Face of Gothics; subsequently there is no trail directly to the base of the mountain.
I was unable to find a partner for this climb and a certain part of me was reserved to look for one. Two weeks ago I had made the hike to the base of Gothics only to turn around because my friend, James, was ill equipped for the climb. I was very disappointed to turn around; I have always felt that it is harder to turn around from a summit than to press on a bag the peak. Anyways, I had been thinking about Gothics constantly for the past two weeks and was set on climbing it.
On Sunday night I got all of my gear ready. I would bring my 800 fill down Jacket, my fleece, my fleece pants and insulated shell pants, my technical ice axes, my walking ice axe, my harness, 3 quick draws, a small assortment of hex’s and nuts, 3 slings, two ice screws, a snow picket and my technical crampons. I had three Nalgines of water, an Altoids tin of skittles and a Tuna sandwich. On Monday I woke up at 4:15 am, was out the door by 4:30 and got to the trail head at 7 a.m. To insure that I would not have to walk in the dark on my hike back I would set a latest summit time of 2 p.m. The hike to the base of the mountain was fairly uneventful. I had done this hike two weeks prior and knew where to go for the most part. Although the off trail hike to the base of the mountain was rather difficult I was able to begin my technical climb around 11 a.m. Because I would be un-roped for the entire climb I chose to ascend the first ½ of the climb up the left side of the face where there was less ice. I encountered a few sections of steep ice but for the most part the climbing conditions were good. About ½ way up the face I would have to cross over to the central part of the mountain and then accent a steep snow and ice valley that would keep me away from rock veins and take me to the top. I love the movement of climbing. As they say in “Touching The Void”, it’s a mixture between ballet and gymnastics. The muffled crunching sound as your crampons dig into the snow, the hissing noise that your ice axe makes when it slices into ice. I think about climbing all the time and to be climbing could not make me happier. The climb was extremely strenuous and I finished all my food once I got to the top of the mountain. I almost didn’t summit Gothics. I had just hiked 6 miles and ascended a 1000 foot snow and ice wall and I didn’t feel like climbing the ridge to the summit. But then I said to myself, hey, you’ve come all this way, mine as well get to the top of this thing.
For my decent I initially chose to follow a path down the West ridge, round the back of the mountain. However the trail conditions and powder were not what I expected. I started to follow the tail but accidentally veered off the trail, following someone’s snowshoe tracks that led me to an impasse that I could not cross. Consequently I had to backtrack through powder up to my waist. This was extremely strenuous, and time consuming. It was at this point that I started to get very tired and hungry. I will admit that I did not bring nearly enough food on this trip. At this point I decided that descending the west ridge was impossible because the trail was so poorly maintained and marked. However, there was an East Ridge trail that would lead me to two smaller peaks and finally back towards my destination. Although I was reserved to taking this trail it seemed to be a much better alternative than descending the North Face of Gothics. Unfortunately, the same thing happened to me on the east trail as did the west trail. At this point I was where I started almost two hours earlier. Although I don’t not know the exact time, I estimated that it was 3 p.m., I was extremely tired from the past hour of trekking through waist deep snow and I was out of food except for an Altoids tin of about 8 skittles. I would now have to descend the North Face of Gothics without the aid of a rope to repel with, in a condition far less capable than when I ascended.
My decent was slower than I thought and it was at this point that I got rather worried for my safety. I knew that most accidents happen on the way down, and if I were to fall there would be no stopping until I reached the bottom some 1000 feet below. However, things would only get worse. About ¼ of the way down the snow gully, still 800 some feet from the bottom, my left crampon fell off and went sliding down, resting on a ledge at the bottom of the gully. Now I was in big trouble. Instead of four points on the ice I would only have three, which also meant that every time I would move my right foot I would have to completely rely on my two ice axe placements to support my weight. I managed to get around most of the ice and stick to snow where I would be able to use my left foot. It took me much longer than I previously thought to get down the mountain. I was able to cut some time off, however, when I realized that I would be able to glaciate a snowy patch on the far left end of the north face. Once I reached the bottom and locate my missing crampon I began my arduous journey back to the trailhead, some 6 miles away. By this point it was 5 p.m. and it would be getting dark in an hour.
At this point I was getting extremely hungry, I was very tired and sore, and my pack weighed quite allot considering all the hardware I had to bring along with me for the climb. I had to get back; I wasn’t going to be able to spend the night out here without food or shelter. Days can be pleasant in the Adirondacks but nights are very cold. Furthermore, sweat, hypothermia’s best friend, would be what killed me had I decided to stay the night. As any outdoorsman knows sweat can be a cooling relief when exercising, however, one you stop the sweat feels as if you have just jumped into a freezing lake, and I was covered in sweat. At this point I had 3 skittles left. As I began to descend the valley that brought me to the base of the mountain I ate one of the skittles. These skittles would have to last me for 6 miles. As I ventured forward I become more and more tired, but what was bothering me the most was the hunger which seemed to make every weakness I had worse. I could hardly walk. Many times on the trail back I tripped and fell over because of the clumsy and sluggish pace I was walking. I ate another skittle to get more energy. I began to think, what if I can get back? Am I going to die out here? I am stronger than this, I will make it. I kept telling my self, in a critical tone, that I have to make it back to the car. Whenever I wanted to give up and just pass out I would get mad at myself for giving up so easily. With three miles still to go it got dark and I put on my head lamp. I then ate my last skittle and drank the last of my water. It was then that I started seeing things in the woods. It wasn’t at the state where I was full on hallucinating but I would see a tree or a bush and to me it would be something else, like a dog or a bear or a telephone pole. I knew now that I had to get back. To take my mind of the hunger I started to sing 99 bottles of beer on the wall. It was a feeble attempt to distract myself, which last no more than 25 or so bottle. I was getting very, very weak. It came to a point where I stopped thinking and just walked. I told myself, left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot. I dosed off to the rhythm of my feet, focusing on each step. My destination no longer existed; it was just a matter of moving my feet. I got back to the car at 7:30 p.m. For the past 12 ½ hours I had hiked almost continuously, with exception to a few 5 min. breaks. Furthermore I had ascended and descended a 1000 foot Ice wall. All of this on an orange I had for breakfast, a tuna sandwich and 20 some skittles.
Before this trip I weighed 191 lb., the next day when I weighed myself I was 186 lb...I lost five pounds! I tested myself. I had the initiative to save up the money to buy all of my gear. I had the willpower to get up at 3 a.m. only to head into the unknown, risking my life to achieve. Overcoming my fear of death and climbing without the security of a rope. Not giving up when most would have. Despite the almost constant treat of death throughout the climb I couldn’t help by feel an amazing sense of control than I still feel now.