Spring is sprung,
De grass is ris’,
I wonder where dem boidies is.
De boid is on de wing.
I tawt de wing was on de boid!
— Terry J. Hobbins, 1934-1993
In a confusion of speed and season, the High Plains rush northwards past me. Three days of driving monsoon rains have reset their ecologic clock, and they glow refulgent, their foliage at last alive after long years of drought: along the verge of the southbound lanes, Black-eyed Susans turn away from my velocity, themselves southbound, soaking up the sun; Magenta Paintbrush colors the ditches; beyond, the prairie itself is a lush green carpet punctuated by a benign yellow rash of sage flowers. It is an asynchronous spring in August and, elated by my own rush toward the mountains, I find an all-too-easy personal connection. With apologies to my more lyrical compatriot, I think, surely some second coming is at hand: is my climbing career--long snowed under by a drifting dissertation--is resurgent? Lately, my climbs have been up couloirs on familiar mountains near to home, or evenings in the gym, or dragging friends up local easy 14ers. Since last fall, I have not strayed far from my desk, and I feel stale, rusty. Dormant.
Now, though, with my advisor away and my dissertation near-as-dammit sitting on his desk, it is my turn to play. Now it is my spring-time in August... late-August, and this is my first trip, my first back-pack in. I have grand hopes of making up for my own months of drought, though, for I intend a great day in the sky: a solo ascent up Little Bear's Northwest face, then the grand traverse to Blanca, then dipping the saddle to Ellingwood and, finally, down its Southwest ridge back to camp. It would be one new 14er and two old ones moved over to the solo column and, more excitingly, a great traverse, a day in the sun after so long snowed in and, though late, a hell of a start to my own season.
Of course, it is all too easy to get carried away by sun and speed, to confuse them with spring. Crossing La Veta Pass in a light, misty optimism, I look up to the right and am brought back to an acherontic reality: Little Bear's rugged head is scraping through the underside of dank clouds swollen with dark intent. Whenever I feel it is down here, it is a different season up high. Restored, I shake my head and scoff at myself. To clear the remnants of optimism from my mood, I reach for the stereo:
...that summer fields grew high
we had wildflower fever
we had to lay down where they grow...
— 10,000 Maniacs
“Jeez, enough already!” There is no escaping this avalanche of verdure. I snap off the stereo and continue on sinking softly into the San Luis valley in a sibilant silence.
Within the hour I have cajoled and bounced the aging but ever-game Gertie some four miles up to about 10,000 feet, parked aslant just below the rocky teeth of Jaws 1, bolstered the wheels, shouldered my pack, and am on my way up the switchbacks on the exposed, scrubby bajado
and on up into Holbrook Canyon. For an hour and a half I hike past fireweed purple and erect in a bobbing, lusty expression of life, and past an octet of Polish jeepers winching and grinding their way over Jaws II and III. As I hike, a grey lid comes down on the San Luis Valley, covering it from Sangres to the San Juans in sodden cumulus. It starts to spit and, finally, to rain.
At the lake, I grab a miner’s cabin—a lofty descriptor for a structure that consists in its entirety of most of a single wall, a leaky tarpaper roof, and a floor more notable in its absence than its presence—to get in out of the rain. I set up my bivy sack in what passes for a dry corner and am rigging a space blanket over it when I hear the first clap of thunder. Feeling safe from the storm, I set about building a dry place for myself beneath the leaking roof. I unpack my backpack, but before I even have time to unroll my sleeping pad, the storm explodes upon me.
The thunder is a continuous, valley-filling roar of heaven's ire, with no interstice between one peal and the next. The lightning sears like a blade, no blunt glows here; it shows no respect for human physics, or human psyches, as it rips down into the valley floor, ignoring the ridges rearing thousands of feet above, and lays waste to any sense of security I might have held onto, here deep in the trees. The strikes are not a comforting there
, up on the mountain-tops, say, a clear one-and-a-two-fifths of a mile away. No, they are right here
, lancing down through the trees around me, an explosion of light accompanied simultaneously by an eruption of raw sound. The very air itself quakes, my chest feels the compressions even as my eyes and ears reel. There is no safety here: I crouch down against the flimsy wooden sheets of the cabin's remaining wall and wait for a hot wash of fear or an electric arc of oblivion. But there is nothing... no fear, no feeling of dread, of impending doom, just an over-arching sense of helplessness, of mere chance being weighed out against my very existence. I am an unwitting chip in a furious meteorological-scale poker game whose rules are changing even as I am played, the rest of my life meaning no more than a card tossed by a blind, drunken, bilious god.
Hail comes vomited from the sky in sheets. It pounds the tarpaper roof of the shack like a drum and strikes Lake Como with a dull, tearing roar, lifting the lake surface up into itself as it hits. On land, it piles upon itself and is soon lying inches deep. In time—an hour? two? who can tell?—the tenor of the thunder evolves, bass booms taking over from tearing treble as the storm drifts off eastwards, up-valley. It leaves in its wake three inches of hail covering a very impressed campground. In the darkness, I finish setting up my camp, break out the MRE, and eat. As I do, across the lake, I see the Polish jeepers too have recovered their wits and have started a fire. Soon they are whooping and hollering as flames rear twenty feet into the night. I appreciate their exuberance: for all humans here, they are reclaiming Promethean virtue back from the furious heavens.
As I eat, I think about tomorrow, thinking what has changed. With all this hail down here, there is no way that the northwest face of Little Bear is going to be a safe proposition tomorrow morning, with little melting between then and now. I cross that peak—and the traverse—off my list, and decide to decide tomorrow. For now, I am tired after the hike in and the excitement of the evening. I am grateful for the quiet, and grateful, too, in a strange, companionable way for the blaze on the far shore of the lake. I slip into my bivy sack and am soon easily asleep.
The efforts of the local rodent population notwithstanding, I sleep well and late. Indeed, sun is already streaming across the basin when I finally emerge from my cocoon and the miner’s shack. I bolt some cold Gatorade and a dry bagel and am quickly off up the road. It is late: after 9am. I am amazed at the drifts of hail over everything. I congratulate myself on my wisdom of the night before and my later decision this morning to grab an extra few hours’ sleep. Indeed, I can barely make out the stained hand of Jason Halladay's report that I was to look for on Little Bear’s northwest face. Down the whole length of the basin and on every horizontal and near-horizontal surface, all relief is highlighted in streaks of white. That face would not be a good place to be. I continue on up the basin, which rises in successive shelves towards the back wall: up from the lush forest and the lake, up to the flat puddles and krummholz of the Blue lakes level, up to the left through the rock bench, and up still to the Crater Lakes backed themselves by the high talus mass-flows heaping down from the saddle.
I am moving fast, but I recognize that today I will be fighting a rear-guard action against encroaching weather, which is already starting to fill the San Luis Valley. Clouds boil up, too, from behind Little Bear; the leeward side of its summit is shrouded in cloud, while feet away, on the windward side, bright sunshine prevails. I can spy climbers on top of Little Bear from here, and even some (fool)hardy folks partway along the Blanca traverse that seems now like the edge of a monumental steaming cauldron. Above, I watch ragged clouds streaming across the top of Ellingwood's southwest ridge, no doubt billowing up from the Zapata Lake basin beyond. Impressed mightily by all this oncoming weather, I pause by the lower Crater Lake to recalibrate my plan.
In the face of the limited window of weather, I opt to climb Ellingwood—the climb I've never done—first, and treat a solo Blanca as bonus if I have time. With this in mind, I decide to stiffen Ellingwood in favor of the off-chance that I will not get to Blanca today: better to have an interesting time on a single peak than trudge up its trade route and still be denied a second. Relieved to not face the slog up the talus at the head of the valley, I look around for a more elegant route up Ellingwood, but I am too close to it at this point to tell with any certainty which routes will go. I've never really examined Ellingwood as a whole: I haven't been able to with the geometry of the approach to the mountain today and the weather yesterday. I reject as too obvious a yawning crease angling eastwards up the south face, dividing the southwest ridge from the summit block. Instead I look further east along the face, and am drawn in by a sharp fissure in the mountain, starting from the top of the (inescapable) talus immediately north of lower Crater Lake and shooting straight and narrow for the summit—or at least for the horizon beyond which I suspect (or hope) the summit lies. I cannot really tell, but it looks too tempting not to try.
At the top of the talus fan, the bottom of the fissure is no more than a few feet wide, and steep. Like a spider into a hoover’s hose, I am sucked upwards. The walls are solid, but the base is a jumble of fallen rock and small cliffs: it is a fun mixed 3rd- and 4th-class climb and I relax into it. As I climb, I favor the sides of the cleft, where handholds compensate for the treacherous footing. I relish the ascent, congratulating myself on making the best of limiting circumstances and, too, for stepping off the beaten track.
My fantasies of a first-ascent are crushed like the tin can I find some couple of hundred feet below my horizon; it is solid with rust but unmistakably a sign of a prior human presence. Soon thereafter, I am surprised by a boot appearing in the rocks above me, which, as I ascend towards it, grows a leg, then, higher still, an entire climber sat eating a bagel on what quickly transpires to be the summit. I am so quickly upon it that there is no time for summit-anticipation: I am just born straight from the rocky birth canal of the south face blinking on a summit I share with two middle-aged climbers, their packs festooned with SAR patches and other badges of experience. I am not sure who is more surprised: them or me. But chatty with altitude, I soon send them scurrying off for quieter pastures.
They descend eastwards down the standard route back to the saddle. Finishing my bagel, I look again at the weather rushing up from the San Luis Valley, alternately erasing and exposing Ellingwood’s southwest ridge, and the dark gray cap worn by the top few hundred feet of Blanca, and weigh it against the virtues of a quick descent in the footsteps of the other climbers. I decide that the weather window is cracked open enough to favor the brave, and I take off straight down the crest of the southwest ridge, following it as it snakes back out over the valley below.
Deep into my second wind, now, I am almost jumping from rock to rock, joyous to be high. Joyous, and satisfied, too, to not have let my ego get the better of me, for I'd only be half-way along the ridge from Little Bear to Blanca by now, if I'd stuck with my original plan “and I survived the hail underfoot up Little Bear's west face” I remind myself. But, looking across the valley at the looming dark ridge, I see that there are still some people up high on the ridge, immediately west of Captain Bivwacko Tower. A towering dark grey back-shadows them from the still-steaming cauldron, added to now by the clouds moving in from the San Luis Valley. A storm is building and they are no place to be. I shake my head in pity and move on swiftly down the ridge.
Soon I have my own concerns, as I find myself cliffed out some few hundred feet above the waves of talus lapping up from the valley below. I ponder my exit and leave the crest of the ridge, or rather, accept that the crest of the ridge has left me and plummeted vertically down to the valley floor. I traverse west across the top of the cliff and make my way across 4th-class slabs back into the large cleft I’d earlier rejected as an ascent route. Once safely in this open fold of the mountain, I make my way down the left side, clinging to solid rock as my feet search for stable rock. A familiar refrain runs through my head—a mindless snippet that accompanies me on all such unstable descents; unbidden, it just appears, mantra-like, in the back of my brain:
...I wanna live on solid rock
I’m gonna live on solid rock
I wanna give I don’t wanna be blocked
I’m gonna live on solid rock
I’m solid rock now...
— Dire Straits
Whether an advisory soundtrack or a promise to myself, I never know, but it makes the time pass and so, too, the rocks. Soon I am down, joining the path at the Lower Crater Lake, and passing the rock L___ and I stretched out on after our climb of Blanca, some four years ago: we slept together then and loved each other thereafter. My fingers trail across the space where our bodies once lay and I continue on, my back-brain adrift in memory, fore-brain wondering if I'll make it back to the cabin before the rain.
I make good time back down the layers of the valley, and am soon back at the cabin, amidst the cacophony of an arriving Jeep jamboree. I quickly pack up and move off down the Lake Como road. My pack is light on my back and tight to my torso. All is comfortable and the weather still holding, and I am soon running, exuberant. From time-to-time, I stop to regard various automotive struggles up the road. As I pass other hikers coming laboring upwards under heavy load, I try to have a good word. For the most part, they ignore me and push on, red-faced in mulish exertion, intent on enjoying their weekends, “...just as soon as I get up this damned road and get this damned pack off me!” I can almost hear their minds grinding in low gear.
As the pines give way to scrub and the road traverses out from Holbrook Canyon winding back down the bajado
, I come across a silent Jeep. Surrounding it are an air of tragedy and four long faces—students, I surmise, and almost in tears. “How are you doing, guys?” “Not good.” “What's wrong?” She turns away; he, an almost imperceptible shrug towards the Jeep. It is then that I see how it sits broken like a doomed racehorse, its front wheels wildly akimbo, axle snapped like a wishbone at Thanksgiving. I should know better but in my own private cascade I can't help myself, “It isn't supposed to look like that, is it?” I run on, putting distance between me and their desperation and contempt.
This road, famous among ascending jeepers as the roughest road in Colorado, and among descending climbers for its endless switchbacks and rocky surface, is suddenly over as I burst unexpectedly upon Gertie. I am borne aloft by an all-round great damned feeling to be alive and I cannot restrain an uncharacteristic whoop, my arms raised as I acknowledge the silent roars of an invisible crowd. Driving down back down the road, jouncing slowly, I am not even perturbed by the skid plate coming, well, skidding off the underside of the truck, for already I am puffing myself up with dreams of a glorious return.
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