People just don’t post in December
Winter solstice: December 21st, 2009: The collective low point of the climbing year.
For an addicted alpine long-route climber, the winter solstice is the mid point of a seasonal withdrawal from something that gives life meaning, purpose, and images in the mind’s eye that keep the rest of life in balance. The lungs lose some of their calibration to the high altitudes. The stomach consumes holiday abundance unchecked by days out above the timberline, burning scarce calories for warmth and energy against the cold.
In mid latitude temperate zones the sun rises at 7:18 am and sets at 4:39 pm. In Anchorage, the sun comes up at 10:14 am and sets at 3:41--making for a 5hrs and 26 minutes day. In the high mountains, where the sun casts a shadow over ridge crests long before it passes the horizon, the shortness of each day is noticeable in the long orange glow of the winter sun at low angle that a camera never seems to capture quite the same way a memory or direct experience does.
Trips end under the dull white light of headlamps and in the crunching sound of footfalls over light snow pack.
December is deeply beautiful. Some days still crystal blue. Others in textures white, dark and grey. Sparse snow and waterfall ice in the high country is still free of avalanche danger. Yet, trips to the high summits are few and far between. Colorado’s 14ers.com: posted trip reports drop from their high of 411 for July 2009 alone, to the December dearth of 54 total reports posted between ten year span of 1999 and 2009.
Summitpost.org, despite it’s ability to collect trip reports from climbs and expeditions around the world has a similar scarcity of posted December trip reports.
People just don’t post in December.
It's hard to get out as much
I find myself sharing in the collective withdrawal from the summits. Interferences in daily life keep me grounded as much as the added difficulty in pulling off successful winter climbs. The holiday season is the most demanding time of year in my business. The Christmas season carries added personal expectations that are to be obliged, lest our family and friends show their disappointment in us for not thinking of them correctly.
Holiday parties happen and make for more difficult early mountain starts. In my own case, ten holiday pounds have already been added and will demand a New Year’s dietary cleanse before the Ouray festival this year.
Access roads are covered with snow. Sometimes the roads have enough snow to skin or snowmobile across, but sometimes not. Carting a tow sled is a risk due to low snow conditions. Even dry closed access roads add length and time.
Added gear is needed for warmth, traction and shelter in colder temperatures. The body consumes more food and water to keep warm. Fewer days up mountains than in Spring and Summer can result in a lower fitness level. Added winter gear-weight can add insult to injury. Snowshoeing or skiing through soft snow or mixed conditions require additional effort and time—often twice the time it takes to cover the same ground on a dry trail.
Snow covered trails become invisible and maps, compasses and GPS systems become indispensable for navigation through miles of trail-less forest canopy, or across talus field under cover of darkness.
Camelback hoses and un-insulated water bottles freeze solid. The body’s moisture rises to the tent ceiling overnight and rains down in a fine frozen mist all morning.
And one can get so buried deep within a sleeping bag as to fail to hear the alarm go off early in the dark of morning before the hour required to warm up clothes, eat, and begin moving.
And then there are the shorter days.
The Cold yet to come
December is not the coldest month of the year in North America. Nor is it the windiest. That honor goes to January.
Yet still, it seems in January more people are starting to venture out again. The few Summitpost December climbers that post their climbs online seem to find refuge in the desert, on frozen icefalls, in local foothills of larger peaks, or in the dry conditions of Equatorial peaks further south, but again, rarely in the high peaks closer to home.
December mountaineering is for a select, passionate few willing to spend the time, and carry the weight, to go where so few people go and see what few people see. I imagine the high peaks of the Himalayas to be like the lower peaks of the temperate zones in winter. And this inspires the continued urge to test myself against the conditions of December when most stay home.
It is the hardest month for me. Life’s costs and demands are at their highest. Mountaineering is enforced meditation. Hours after hour of moving at pace with one’s own breath in a lower oxygen environment. It forces presence and awareness of changing conditions that break the excesses of the career-minded over thinking. And I have found, more than any other method of improving mood and outlook, a long and strenuous march through conditions at the edge of your ability is often the best method of bringing mental balance and perspective to the narrow challenges of the rest of your life.
December is the truly end of the year and the beginning of another for the high summit seeker, with lighter and longer days ahead. The cold, the wind and the snow will continue to worsen for another month, but the darkness and solitude will slowly decrease.
Good Solstice. Merry Christmas. Happy New Year.