In February I broke my ankle ice climbing and what I thought might have been the love of my life walked out of my life. It wasn’t a great month. But three months later my doctor let me out of my last cast and said that after two or three weeks I could go back to doing anything I wanted to. What I wanted to do was the breakup climb, the ferocious solo that would end my long forced inactivity and regain control of my life--both a lament for a lost partnership and an affirmation that once again I was the only one in control of my destiny.
Unfortunately, I bruise easily (see my Busted TR). So instead of a hardman test piece, I just decided to climb something I had my eye on since I started mountaineering in the Sierra a couple of years ago: Round Top’s Crescent Moon Couloir.
There was a symmetry to the mountain beyond its twin summits. She and I had driven up to Round Top in January. I had wanted to introduce her to mountaineering but we got a late start and instead tried to bag something else but even that fizzled out in a darkening mist--as did the relationship before too long. A few weeks later, I broke my ankle and she left. I was alone and on crutches, compulsively listening to bands like the Smiths and Whiskeytown, reading Himalayan climbing epics and thinking how happy everyone sounded. It was a dark time and even San Francisco’s record rainy season seemed to reflect my mood.
But bones, if not hearts, heal. In late April my doctor said goodbye and asked me to take it easy for a couple of weeks. I waited patiently for a week and an half and then I drove up to Carson Pass on a Friday night.
The auguries were inauspicious. On the way I stopped at the ranger station where the backcountry permit I had arranged to pickup was supposed to be waiting. It wasn’t. Then I tried to score a Snow Pass parking permit by stopping at every gas station and bar on the way to the pass, all to no avail. One restaurant I walked into seemed to have nobody there, even though the lights were blazing and music was playing. I was halfway to the bar when the power went out. I felt my way to the door and gave up.
At the pass, I parked in the empty lot and hiked a few hundred feet away from the road. I leveled a spot in the snow and threw down my bag. Above a half moon and a sky of stars lit the snow and hills. In the distance coyotes howled.
Since I finally realized what a profound loss her absence from my life is, I’ve had trouble sleeping through a night. I recently started trying melatonin, which is reputed to give some people weird dreams. I ate one pill before closing my eyes. I didn’t sleep well, but my surroundings were so peaceful that I didn’t mind. I was thinking of starting at 4 a.m. and trying to get up and back before the cops could leave a $75 ticket on my car.
In the morning the sun was high in the sky, the parking lot was packed and a cop was writing me a ticket. I hastily packed my gear and stumbled off.
Then I woke up. My bag was covered in hoarfrost and across the road Round Top’s double summits were covered in mists. I went back to sleep.
At 7 a.m., I drove to the gas station down the road to wait for them to open and finally get a Snow Pass. By 7:45 I was on the trail, leaving a little after a party of three. After an hour I was at the base of Round Top. I cached the snowshoes I hadn’t used and started kicking steps to the base of the couloir, where I put on my crampons and probed the snow. The last avalanche forecast of the season, four days earlier, warned of continued wet snow stability problems. My casual probing wasn’t very reassuring: the first foot of snow was nice and consolidated, below that it was mush.
I headed up the couloir. The climbing was just steep enough to be fun, the snow generally good—until I saw the first horizontal fracture line jutting from the right of the couloir toward the center. I moved left and climbed faster. I didn’t stop to enjoy the view or take photos. In the exit chute the snow was deep and loose. I’d kick a step and then sink several inches on it. After 25 minutes, I was out of the couloir and happier than I’ve been in months.
On the east summit I tried to send her a text message. Failed to send, my phone said. The story of our relationship, I suppose.
We climb mountains because they tell us things about ourselves, the good and the bad. Just like the people we love. I used to think mountains presented the ultimate test of suffering. I know differently now.
I descended the west slope, meeting the team of three I had seen in the parking lot on the way up. My crampons started to ball up, so I took them off and glissaded most of the way back to my snowshoes. On my way back to the car, I passed an army of skiers gliding cross-country.
Two hours later I was on the outskirts of Placerville when my phone began to buzz. I looked at it. Message sent, it said. I hope so.