Flat? Screw that. Have snow shovel, will travel.
Near water? Doh! Isn’t that what the stove is for?
Sheltered from the wind? You ninny. Did you carry that tent all the way up here just to use it as a pillow?
Nice view? What, are you crazy? It’s freakin’ cold out here! Get a grip, pal. It’s time to put down stakes.On the whole, it felt very much like a trip to the mall with certain females I’ve been associated with; they’re still looking for the perfect whatever-the-hell-it-is-they’re-looking-for, and I’m ready jump in front of a Metrolink train. Only in this case, I had both parties to the madness in my head at once. Ugh. At quarter to seven, we finally stopped. We were tired, but in good spirits. As we cooked dinner Misha kept bringing up the subject of the next day’s activities. It was all predicated on the notion that we were going to stick with our original plan. I kept putting the discussion off until after we were all through with the logistics. It was my opinion that our original plan had a serious conflict with reality, and it was time to give up the struggle to pretend otherwise. So, after we finished cleaning up I introduced Misha to a game I’ll call “climbing objective limbo”, or “how low can you go?” I laid out my case for doing a reconnaissance up toward Consultation Lake with only day packs, rather than trying to move camp. If things went well, we could knock off Thor Peak. If things went as I expected, we could thrash around for a few hours before crawling back to the tent with our tails between our legs. Misha wasn’t totally convinced. We agreed to talk about it in the morning. Thursday morning dawned clear and calm, with temperatures in the single digits. The big issue of the day was what route to take on the way up toward Thor Peak. I had my ideas, but wasn’t real particular about how we went about it. It all promised to be some form of suffering. Misha was keen to head straight up a chute that loomed about a hundred meters to the west of our tent, so that was it. Snow travel conditions went from bad to worse as we approached the gully. Misha struggled gamely, as the snow under his feet refused to support body weight. Just following in his steps was considerable work. Soon I took over breaking trail, heading out left over some old avalanche debris in hopes that the surface would be firmer there. It was marginally better, but still a real chore. I never imagined I would find myself kicking steps in snowshoes, but that was the best strategy for gaining traction. We slowly zigzagged up the couloir, aiming for what appeared to be a notch where we could sit down and assess the situation. When we reached the “notch” it proved to be nothing more than a slight dip in a ridgelet separating our gully from another that came up from the east above the trail to Lone Pine Lake. Misha checked his altimeter. After nearly two hours of exhausting labor we had managed to gain a measly 700 feet of altitude. If we were to make the summit, we would have to endure another 1,400 feet of this misery. Misha was concerned about the avalanche danger on the snowfield above. As if that wasn’t enough, it looked like the weather was beginning to close in on us. The upper reaches of the mountain were wreathed in fog, and snow wraiths slithered across the canyon wall opposite our position. A slender obelisk atop the buttress forming the west side of the gully gave us a clear indication of what mother nature thought of our presence. “If we headed down now, do you think we could get out by nightfall?” Misha asked. “Hell yes,” I responded without hesitation, visions of beer and tacos dancing in my head. We macked down a few more mouthfuls of food and strode off with a clear sense of purpose. Plunge stepping down the useless snow, it occurred to me that this chute deserved a more appropriate name than “southeast chute”, as it has sometimes been called. I decided to name it the “knucklehead couloir” in honor of the personal qualities required to attempt it under the day’s conditions. Two days later a solo snowshoer went up that same couloir and got hit with a wet snow avalanche. He was partially buried, but able to dig himself out. Had we continued, and the clouds not moved in, we might have suffered a similar fate; the surface layer was getting quite wet. We were back at the tent in about twenty minutes, and on our way back to the car within an hour. It took us an hour and twenty minutes to descend to the Portal. It had taken us five and a half hours to cover the same ground the day before. There were two parties camped at the Portal. No signs of life from tent number one, but two big guys were hanging out by the other, a North Face dome worthy of a Himalayan expedition. The bigger of the two asked me how far we’d gotten. I replied that we were descending from Lone Pine Lake. Upon hearing that we hadn’t been near the Mountaineer’s Route, the lummox gave me a terse “Thanks”, and turned his back. Nice case of plumber’s butt, I thought. Misha and I laughed as we imagined them humping their big loads up through the mush that awaited them only a few hundred feet higher. It couldn't happen to a better guy. We soon reached the car, and began plotting activities for the following day. We had decided to reward ourselves with a day of sport climbing in the Alabama Hills, assuming we could get a place in Lone Pine that night. Fortunately, the wildflower enthusiasts headed for Death Valley hadn’t sucked up all of the rooms in town. A half an hour and ninety bucks later, we were sitting in the Bonanza swilling beer and anticipating the imminent arrival of two huge plates of hot Mexican food. Climbing in the Alabama Hills was a real treat. Neither of us had climbed there before. Clear skies and temperatures in the mid- to upper sixties made for perfect conditions. We soon realized that the Hills had more moderate climbs of high quality than Joshua Tree, and far less hassle. No fees, no reservations, no crowds; just two climbers in a seemingly endless sea of rocks. It seemed to me that if this is what failure was like, I’d like to do it more often!