Have you ever watched a football game where the game came down to a fourth and goal with literally two seconds left on the clock for the game to be decided. You knew victory was so close yet it felt so far. You can smell the sounds of victory and taste the victory. Yet you did not get there. In football though they call this a loss. In mountaineering if you did not choose to turn around and you fell more than likely they call this DEATH!! In my hiking and mountaineering career there have been a couple of times when I had to make a decision to turn around on a mountain when I was close to the summit.
For Alta Mountain it was a little harder. See I have already made it to the summit back in the summer of 2009 and saw the amazing view from the summit. In summer this mountain is nothing more than an exposed walkup with just a little scrambling. Add a foot of wet sloppy snow and this peak quickly becomes far more hazardous. It is often a test pride over common sense when you run into these situations. But it was one of the first times that I had been faced with this situations on a summit I had already been up to.
The Initial Trip Up to Rachel Lake
My friend Zephyr2us and I decided to give Alta Mountain a try after noticing that the weather forecast looked good for this mountain. I though wasn't real excited on doing this mountain because from I had remember ALta Mountain was only a walk up but a real exposed one at that. Just the week before we had to use our snowshoes in order to get to Park Butte due to a very early snowstorm that heavily impacted the mountains in the region. The snow during this storm had reached as far down as 3000 feet and many of the normal fall hikes were heavily impacted. One might have noticed that the Fall Colors in Washington State album this year did not feature nearly as many photos as it normally did and the cold streak and early snowstorm was the major reason why. Zephr2us really though want to give Alta Mountain a try. I was willing to give it go but was fully aware that we potentially could be facing hazardous conditions above. But considering my summer disaster I was just glad to be finally getting out and doing anything.
We started very early from the Rachel Lake Trailhead. Soon after we started our hike we were greeted with brief shots of amazing color throughout Box Canyon. Within the first mile, summit or no summit I was very glad that I had choosen to do this hike because the brief shots of color really made our mood better. The flat to gradually rising section up to the edge of Box Canyon was largely fairly easy. During that section we occasionally got view of Hibox, a peak that I had been wanting to do for a long time. The top was snowcapped and at least on this day it would have not been a good idea to attempt a trip onto Hibox.
Of course the nature of the trail changed once the trail had to leave the canyon. The steep, highly rooted trail that more resembled a trail from New England rather than a trail in Washington. The steeper trail though was a real pain to rise out of but the occasional view of Hibox layered a yellow vine maples and the shot of the amazing waterfall on the way up clearly brightened our mood. But the agony of the trail definitely took its toll on us and by the time we hit Rachel Lake we had to take a break.
Up the Ridge We Go!!
We did it some snow at Rachel Lake but once we continued up to the ridge the snow was gone again. Instead we were greeted with amazing color and beautiful sunshine. Some of my best fall color for the year was shot in between the Rachel Lake trail and the ridge. At first there was not snow on the ridge at all. As we rose higher the views kept on coming out more and more. Hibox was especially pretty during our rise up from Rachel Lake. The one issue we had was keeping on the ridge route up to Alta Mountain.
Snow though started to impact our travel though once above 5000 feet up. Luckily we have footprints to follow as we continued to rise up Alta Mountain. Soon we pulled out our ice axes controlled our nerves and headed up the steep sided ridge to the summit. The higher we went the went the more hazardous the travel became. In summer there is normally stable ground underneath and though there is exposure you never really feel it to much. However once you add two foot of unconsolidated sloppy wet snow you really start to noticed the bad runout and the serious consequences if you make a poor decision on the mountain. We kept on going higher in strange hopes that maybe the situation would improve.
We finally hit the final ridge to the summit. At this point my nerves were shot from the exposure and the lack of footing that we had here. My gut was that if this was June and the snow was in good condition we would have not been so worried. But this snow was actually lose for quiet a ways up. We though continued to press on until we finally hit a semi-knife ridge about 100 feet short of the summit. We had finally gone beyond the final footprints of the other two parties before us and once we got to the semi-knife edge like the other parties we saw that the final two hundred feet or so going to decision time.
We were faced with a steep sided semi-knife edge with serious dropoffs. In summer this is fairly easy to traverse with an easy path leading through it so much that you do not really notice the consequences. With sloppy wet loose snow though and terrible drop-offs my body really began to shake. On another mountain a year ago I prayed to my higher power that I would never test him again by making an unwise move in the mountains. Fast forward back here, all that I could hear was that message being played in my head over and over.
At the same I remembered the amazing views that were on the top from the last time I was on the summit of Alta Mountain. Many of them I was seeing now but I knew they would be far better on top. I could only imagine the beautiful photos from the summits. Besides I have been on the summit of this mountain before and I must wonder is this traverse really any worse than what we have already been through??
I looked Zephyr2us as he looked at me and I said that this was a no go for me. Of course seeing a piece of loose snow slide off the mountain did help me make my decision but I had a very bad feeling about it. We truly were so close but unfortunately we would have really been risking it in order to make it to a summit that the both of us had already been up to years before. Literally as soon as we did we saw another who came behind us. When they got close to us they decided to turn around as well. Sometimes you have to gulp your pride because the one time you dont may be your last.
Heading down from our stopping point was not very easy. In fact while on the sloppy snow it was very nerve racking. The snow kept sliding under our feet and the drop offs we were facing from a mistake were very overwhelming. A couple time I could snow kicked off from our steps in the snow seemingly rolling right off the cliff below up. None of the steps seemed to hold well and we knew that a self arrest with our ice axes would have proven to be fruitless in stopping us from a fall. So we carefully went down the ridge until ridge became less steep and exposed and the snow slowly melted away.
From that point to the ridge to the base of Rachel Lake we were greeted with the sweet beauty of the fall colors. With the evening light on the colors pictures of trees, and berry bushes dominated our trip down from the ridge of Alta Mountain. Unfortunately once past Rachel Lake we were greeted by that nightmare of a trail below. The very steep and heavily rooted trail down from Rachel Lake was a mess to go down. Yes we again greeted by that amazing waterfall but that waterfall but with the sun going down we really were not in the mood to enjoy it. It was a brutal hour going down that heavily rooted trail with poor footing but once we were in Box Canyon we breathed a sigh of relief.
From there it was a quick walk through Box Canyon back to the car. This quick walk though was three miles and even if the trail is easy we were both very tired from the entire day and now we were racing sunlight. We did have our headlamps but if we could avoid using our headlamps that is what we preferred. I did use my headlamp for the last little bit but overall we did not use our headlamp on this trip in the mountain. For both of us we were a little bummed we did not get the summit but for me it always been safety over summit and this was definitely the case today.