Here's the written recap:
A year ago I failed at a winter summit attempt of Spruce Knob (see: http://www.summitpost.org/realizing-weakness-the-internal-struggle-of-highpointing-mt-davis-backbone-mt-high-points-3-4/885321).
This time, even if it meant a 16-mile roundtrip hike in the snow, I was going to summit. Luckily, as my cousin (who climbed Mt. Marcy with me) and I got onto FR 112, it became apparent that we were going to get a lot closer to the top on the mountain road than last year's try. We estimated (based on the car's pedometer and the sign that said 12 miles to the peak once we turned on Briery Gap Road) that we had four to six miles to go on FR 112 'till Spruce Knob's summit when we decided to stop.
When we pulled to the side of FR 112, it was a little before midnight. Why that time? We didn't know how drivable the road was, so we figured we could be hiking for a full day and wanted an early start. Plus we wanted to do a full moon hike. Why so obsessed with the road? Why not take Huckleberry or another equally long trail? Because we wanted to sled down the road. Yes, sled. Hike 8 miles up through the woods and cruise down along the side of the mountain like the Grinch descending into Who-ville.
The goal was to use the trail map and topo to navigate and orientate ourselves through the backcountry, not following any established trail, line or road to the summit.
In the end, however, our new “route” was a failure because my orientating and navigating put us too far south, a quarter mile or more from the peak, and we ended up running into and then taking an established path for the last push.
The sleds were also an impossibility. The road wasn't consistently steep and in the woods there was too much foliage/brush/evergreens. The top of Spruce Knob was not alpine, so there were conifers abound. Even if you managed to navigate the pine slalom the drop offs would eventually get you.
With the full moon, we were able to do the entire ascent without our headlamps (except for when we stopped for gear switches, like putting on micro spikes, as shown in the video). Our pupils expanded mushroom-style. We had to use our headlamps on the descent and got a few shots here and there.
Getting the Fear and Why We Were Off Course
Having been obsessed with a new route since my failure 12 months ago, I felt like I had engineered a great journey. From where we pulled the car off the mountain road, all we had to do was keep the same heading, constantly check our bearing, navigate a few creeks and one major face and we were there.
It was human error and ego that did me in.
After a minute or so into the voyage, cougar fear starting to get at me. We weren’t following a trail, into the true wild and I felt like I was going to step on a sleeping mountain lion. We had moonlight; but everything was shaded in grayscale. Depth perception was difficult. Turn your headlamp on and you could see really well, but only within a five-foot radius of your body. You’d lose night-eye adjustment too.
Since I couldn’t tell how dense the woods would be, I insisted that we initially follow a creek bed where we knew we could walk. Which was fine, but the creek was flowing west to east, and so with every step we were angling away from our intended heading. After awhile of hiking we made the compass work for us and we were back on course.
The mountain-overed landscape looked the same, everywhere. Simply going one degree off course was not big deal for one step. But after 20 it became significant. Because the woods wouldn’t let you walk straight—always rounding a fallen log or tree, it was arduous to keep a solid line without aid.
We started checking the compass every five to 10 minutes. But it got to a point where I simply was not accepting the reading. (It’s a fucking digital compass too!)
“No way that is south, man,” I told Dusty. “I know I’ve been
walking straight, keeping the same heading. No way that’s south.”
“What’s the compass say?”
“That that way is south.”
“Then we gotta turn.”
Probably two miles from the summit we hit a mountain face. I was anticipating that and knew our course was good. But we had to make a decision concerning the face. As we approached, if we went far right, we would stay in the valley and have to find another way up. Option two, scale the face. Would need rope and ice tools for that. Three, take the skinny little ridge line that went between the right valley and the face herself.
We started up the ridge and instantly had to change to micro spikes, once the reality of cliffs on both sides set in (shown in video).
After the ridge we were on a windy plateau and everything could have been perfect, we were probably only ¾ of a mile from the summit. But again, I put us more west than we should have been because I couldn’t believe the compass. Once we ran into the other route it was easy, and we had a short stay at the top, playing around the observation tower. Clouds we’re rolling in, engulfing our moonlight, and the barometer on my watch said low pressure and bad weather. Because of this and since we had our own footprints to follow this time instead of a compass (documented in the video) we flew down to our car, only having to deal with fresh snowfall and wind.
Then like idiots we started driving back to Ohio with no sleep, pounding drive-through coffee the whole way.