The Cast of CharactersThis is an article I wrote for the Sierra Club Peak Climbing Section newsletter. It can also be found here http://lomaprieta.sierraclub.org/pcs/scree/2008/Aug_2008_Scree.html
After the devastating incapacitation of our (from what I hear) fearless leader, Joe Baker, to flu-like symptoms, there was a flurry of emails on Friday the 25th to figure out who was willing to venture out to explore such an imposing mountain. July Molland determined that Joe would indeed live despite his raspy whispers urging her to go on ahead without him and continue the trip. We all had the image of Joe laying in his bed, surrounded by mounds of pillows and cold compresses on his head fighting to recover and wishing he was surrounded by the group of 6 strong charismatic women who ultimately comprised the Mt Morgan summit team dubbed “A Woman’s Place is on Top – Mt Morgan.”
Judy became our new fearless leader. Well, un-leader actually as the trip was converted from an official one to a private one. Andrea Snadden was present, a stalwart of PCS trips to get her climbing fix in while her husband watches the twins. Sandra Hao and Monique Messié were two experienced backpackers beginning to dabble in climbing. I was accompanied by my friend, Sonja Velez, who I put through the torture of the Sierra Club snow-camping training last spring and she for some reason continues to want to go on adventures with me. I rounded out the crew with a fair bit of climbing experience, but pretty out of shape due to a protracted recovery of a broken collarbone and subsequent surgery. A motley crew, but full of enthusiasm.
The ApproachThe first day was “easy.” That is unless you have been nearly bedridden for 2 of the last 3 months with an unusually painful collar bone break. I was huffing and puffing with the pack - feeling quite frustrated with such an intense sensation of struggling which has become unfamiliar to me. Sonja hung with me and although I was bringing up the rear, the others didn’t seem to be too cognizant of my poor fitness. An hour and a half passed by very quickly and we found ourselves having gained 1,300 feet and arriving at Francis Lake. My despair was alleviated significantly when I learned that Judy and Joe and arrived at the same spot just 2 weeks prior with day packs in the same amount of time – an hour and a half. “Not too bad for a gimp!” I thought to myself.
Debate ensued about whether to push on to the top with day packs or take a rest day and continue with the original plan of a summit day on Sunday. We decided on the latter and ended up with a lovely relaxing day by the lake. After making camp, we split up to partake in a variety of leisurely activities – naps, reading, bouldering, meditating, scouting, and skinny dipping. Yes, you read right – skinny dipping! Sonja, Andrea and I waited for women to pass by us on the rim of Francis Lake before stripping down to the buff. The water was freezing and the going was excruciatingly slow to get submerged. We were only half way in (read – half way exposed) when we looked up and saw the two women taking their lunch break across the lake. There was no turning back so we accepted that we had an audience.
The timeless hours passed and we enjoyed our respective dinners complemented by an honest to goodness bottle of red wine packed in by our resident Française – Monique. We conversed about the fact that the trip was 100% women, something none of us had experienced before. We remarked that despite the unique demographic, the conversation topics were similar to other trips – comparing gear, mooching food, past trip analysis, future trip day dreaming. We never regressed into hair, nails, or men…well, at least not till much later. I remarked that I was feeling much more subdued around a group of women. My raunchy sense of humor which seems to be exacerbated in the mountain environment remained remarkably dormant. Otherwise, it was business as usual.
Summit DayAs is often the case, we were well-intentioned to rise at 5am for a 6am sharp departure. Not too bad, we rolled out of camp at 6:30am. Andrea seemed a bit disconcerted as her goal was to summit, as her adventure time budget is very precious these days with the twins. Giving oneself a time cushion is typically a good thing and we still set ourselves up for success with the early start.
I resumed huffing and puffing as we started out on steep terrain and had to take it down a notch to make sure I would have the juice for the long day. We ascended some moderate sandy slopes that felt very physical, especially as the hot sun began to quickly beat down on our backs. Andrea suggested that we try to gain the ridge sooner rather than later and Judy agreed. We made a beeline straight up the side of the ridge which was strenuous but over quickly. Once atop, there was a majestic scene of monstrous boulders, most much larger than any of us, that we would have to negotiate for the rest of the ascent. This for me was the most fun of the entire trip. I haven’t climbed at all in over 3 months due to my injury and I was in heaven just having my hands all over the granite and remembering how it feels to pull on, balance across, and lower down over the boulders. I was picking harder lines and going a bit slower, but I purposefully preferred the scrambling to the easier and faster boulder hopping line that Monique discovered on the south side of the ridgeline.
Hours began to pass and the boulders got smaller as we gained altitude. I began to feel better and better as if my body was remembering that it really is good at endurance and acclimatizing. Judy started to feel the effects of the altitude despite a successful scouting trip on Mt Morgan just 2 weeks prior. Her struggle towards the top reminded us that acclimatization depends on three things: fitness, genetics and good ole randomness.
After being graced by a view of a large flock of big horn sheep just below the last slope towards the summit, I joined the gals at the summit at around 11am. I found a bit of confusion at the top. Judy was still a few minutes behind and she had warned us much earlier that there would be a false summit and then a bit of a walk to the true summit. We weren’t sure if this was really it as there were two other peaks close by, but they seemed like they were a bit shorter and the climbing was quite exposed to both. We hoped we were on the right one, a fact confirmed when Monique found the summit register right as Judy arrived.
A Bit of Excitement on the DescentTypical afternoon thunder bumpers began to form on the Sierra skyline and I remarked to the group that we might want to start heading down. We had spent 45 minutes at the summit and it went by quickly with the photo sessions, register signing, and well deserved snack break. We began to descend, quickly but carefully negotiating the boulder fields when gravity was at a distinct, but always hazardous advantage.
At about 13,000, I felt myself suddenly propelled downward in a short free fall. I’m still not quite sure how I did it, but my back foot must have caught as I stepped down and I fell headfirst downhill into a boulder. The left side of my head and left shoulder took the full brunt of my body weight. The sensation of head meets granite impact is still very vivid – not pleasant! I remember my first thought was “Am I wearing a helmet? No. Shit!”
It took a few seconds of self-evaluation to realize I could try to sit up. By then, Judy, Sonja, and Sandra were by my side. I banged up my head, shoulder, both knees and right shin. A big grey shiner was developing on my hair line. I realized I was flying to Seattle the next day for a bunch of prospective client meetings and thought “Shit!” again. Only then did my mind turn to my recovering collar bone injury and the explicit orders from my orthopedic surgeon not to fall under any circumstances. I downed 800mg of ibuprofen immediately to try to stem any more swelling and insisted that we focus on continuing to descend as we had much difficult terrain yet to cross.
Sonja and Judy stayed close by to watch me for dizziness and we continued downward. The skies began to darken quickly, several rounds of ominous thunder erupted, and we felt a few drops. We definitely felt a sense of urgency in our decent. Judy picked an easier line down a sandy drainage rather than renegotiate the boulder ridgeline. The going was fast as we all plunge-stepped nearly all the way to Lake Francis.
What took ~4 hours to ascend took just under 2.5hrs to descend. We broke camp in 45 minutes and continued down to the trailhead. Efficiency was clearly a strength of the group as we loaded up, changed and hit the road in 30 seconds flat. The famous grilled salmon of Lee Vining Mobil station was calling us!
Lessons LearnedFor me personally, it gave me great confidence that I can still do these sorts of trips, even sustaining a significant fall without major repercussion to my injury recovery. I have a long way to go to regain my fitness, but now I know just how far I need to go. I’ll bring hydropel or tape for the bad case of toe bang I developed next time and be sure to have a solid stash of ibuprofen (at least 1600mg). I’ll consider bringing a helmet for anything Class 2 or higher. I also won’t have “Don’t fall” as a mantra as it may actually contribute to falling.
Finally, my greatest lesson was that women do indeed belong on top! J Keep your eyes peeled for more of us out there!