Ptarmigan Spire-- If I'd actually been able to see this when I was here the first time, there might have been no need for this trip report.
Hubris: excessive pride, often leading to a downfall.
We all get cocky sometimes, every single one of us.
It doesn't matter what type of climbing we prefer. Every now and then, we go long enough without a scare or become proud enough of our accomplishments that we do things we really know we shouldn't. Every single one of us.
So I guess I was due for a reminder of my place in the proverbial grand scheme of things. I've gotten those reminders before, but it had been a little over four years since my last really good scare, so yes, I was due.
It was Friday, August 14. It had rained, hard, most of Wednesday. It had rained, not as hard, most of Thursday. It was supposed to rain most of Friday, Saturday, and Sunday (and it did). But when I woke up Friday morning before dawn and looked out from the balcony of our hotel room (we had lucked out and gotten one of the lakeside balcony rooms at Many Glacier Hotel), I could actually see the outlines of the mountaintops. My gut told me to grab the weather window and go on the climb I had planned, but my reason told me to wait a bit and see if the window was for real.
Two hours later, at 8 A.M., I was seeing real sunlight for the first time in over 24 hours, and although the sky was far from perfectly clear and I knew there would be more rain later, I decided to make a go of it. Plus, with weather forecasters issuing a winter weather advisory for later that day and overnight-- yes, this was friggin' August-- I knew I couldn't waste any more time if I wanted to have a successful climb.
My plan: hike to Iceberg Lake, climb Iceberg Notch, descend to Ahern Pass, follow the goat trail along the Ptarmigan Wall to Ptarmigan Tunnel, and then hike back to the trailhead. It would be around 17 miles in all, with close to 4000' of elevation gain, Class 3 and 4 scrambling, and serious exposure along much of the route.
My concerns, other than the weather forecast:
• The rock might be wet and slick (it was wet, but there was hardly any slipping until later when I was tired and feeling stressed).
• I was going to do the goat trail from south to north instead of north to south as described in my guidebook, and I was worried about correctly finding and following certain parts of the route.
• Running past the estimated time of return that I left for my wife. She had been asleep when I left, and the note I scribbled told her to worry if I wasn't back by 6. I really expected to be back by 4, but I was still concerned about causing her some real panic. Plus, as I found out later, since she had come to realize that I usually get back well before my estimated return time, she was going to start worrying at 5 and go for help at 6.
What follows is not an edge-of-your-seat, nail-biter account of a narrow escape from the clutches of the Grim Reaper, although there was a moment that brought me closer to death than I probably would like to think about; it is an account of how things started to go wrong and how I managed but how I also received a simple reminder of this notion: Man can be a wondrous thing, but against the forces of nature, he is a puny, weak thing, and only the ocean can best the mountains in dwarfing the power and the significance of Man.
Also, the sky conditions in some of the pictures seem to contradict the story; those pictures are from a different day, for on the day of the climb covered here, there was no photographing those sights.
Photo Trip Report
The captions displayed here tell the story of the day. The captions that go with the pictures themselves give details about the scenery itself. Following the pictures is the essay.
Iceberg Notch-- No problems on this part... easier than expected (and hoped for), rock a little wet but nothing except filtered sunlight coming down from the sky.
Here it comes-- this view is from Iceberg Notch. I guessed, correctly, that I had about an hour before I started getting wet. I guessed, incorrectly, that I wouldn't have any real trouble finding the right way back down to maintained trails at the end of the upcoming traverse.
Almost here-- this view is from the goat trail and shows a part of it. It was time to make sure sensitive stuff was shielded from water, but there was no reason to worry...yet.
The goat trail-- I wouldn't want to do this with snow present, but even in light rain, it wasn't as bad as I feared it might be. Still, it was probably a bad idea to be there under such conditions, especially since somebody died on this route a week later under much better conditions. But I still wasn't worried...yet.
Big mistake-- the goat trail continued along the right side of this ridge here, and I assumed I was to follow it to where I could scramble down to Ptarmigan Tunnel. Instead, I just kept running into unclimbable cliffs and kept having to reclimb to the ridgeline, where I would try and fail again until I finally realized I had to give up on the correct route and use one of my bailout options if I wanted to get back alive and by the return time I'd given my wife. Had the fog not been cutting off views of the mountaintops, I would have seen a major landmark on the route and then (perhaps) would have found the correct route, which follows the left side of this ridge (though much lower down), not the right.
The cliffs I was "exploring" while seeking a way down. From this vantage point, it is 500-600 vertical feet up to the ridgetops. As is probably apparent, I was not able to find a route down despite several attempts. When I was up there, it was raining, with thunder present and snow not far away, and I was often in fog that reduced visibility to just a few yards. It was therefore especially dismaying to downclimb what appeared to be a promising route and then find, during a momentary clearing, that I was near yet another sheer cliff that would force me back up.
More of the cliffs...
I am not going to give a melodramatic account of everything that went wrong-- like the sole of one of my boots detaching from the rest-- or threatened to. We have all gotten into trouble-- losing the route, getting caught in a storm, underestimating the difficulty of a route or the time required, and so on-- so nothing I say is going to surprise anyone. Plus, nothing all that awful happened, though something awful almost did. Really, as I said before, this day (and an event that occurred to someone else on this route about a week later) reminded me of my own limitations and vulnerabilities as a human being in the face of the overwhelming force of the mountains.
After my many failures to find the correct route down to the trail, I forced myself to give up on it and head back somewhere between 1 and 2 miles to an exit option that I knew existed, calculating that if I did so right away and resisted taking "one last look" for the route (we know how that can go), I could still make it back before my wife would start wondering if she had become a single mom. And, fortunately, another brief clearing below allowed me to confirm that what I earlier spotted as a possible, and much closer, exit route was indeed doable. I took that route, and I actually got back about two hours ahead of schedule. As luck would have it, it got sunny for the last mile, but I took some bitter satisfaction from seeing the weather deteriorate once again a short time later. And the next day, there was fresh snow on the mountains.
Three days later, under a warm sun and blue skies, I went back, starting from Ptarmigan Tunnel, and completed the route the right way from the tunnel to Ptarmigan Spire, and I descended via my escape route.
But two things still make me think, and even shudder a little.
The rock was wet. I was tired and frustrated. Once again, I was having to reclimb the ridge after another cliff-out.
It was only a small Class 3 cliff, a bit on the harder side of Class 3 but definitely not Class 4. The cliff was above a narrow, dirt-covered ledge (loose stuff) which sloped, steeply enough to cause a roll, to the edge of a much larger cliff offering hundreds of feet of exposure. A fall to that ledge would very likely have led to a roll which would have led to an obituary.
And I slipped. Totally. It wasn't just a hand losing purchase; both hands and both feet did. I felt myself falling and knew what was, and wasn't, below, and I knew what was at stake.
Instinct may have saved me. My left arm reached out desperately and found something to grab, and I caught myself. It wrenched the hell out of my shoulder, and I'm probably lucky it was just very sore for several days afterward, sore enough that it hurt to get a pack on and I needed help to do it. It also did some nice shredding to my fingers and palms, but it was enough for the rest of me to get purchase and avoid a true fall.
I stood there for a second, thanking my luck and my instincts, letting the adrenaline settle. And then, slowly and painfully, I climbed back up to the ridge.
A Fall, and a Fatality
A little over a week later, a man described as an experienced hiker who had done the goat trail traverse before (though from the north end, which is easier to find and follow because that is the way the Edwards guide describes it) fell near Ahern Pass and died. Out of respect to him and his family, I will not give his name or provide a link to an article about the incident. Details were vague, but it sounded as though the man, despite his hiking experience, may have been unprepared for the route, though I cannot say for sure. What I do know is that he died on or near a somewhat complicated and quite dangerous part of the route, a part that I chose to avoid via harder but safer climbing even though I was properly equipped for that section.
I keep thinking about that man, and about my day on the same route.
I was both lucky and arrogant.
Lucky, obviously, for catching the fall and for missing the worst of the bad weather along the most dangerous sections.
Arrogant, and maybe a little stupid, for going out alone on such a long outing when I knew the weather was going to get worse. For heading into exposure in bad weather. For assuming I would find the way even though I was going opposite the way the guidebook covered it. And arrogant (and, again, stupid) for discounting how the weather might complicate route-finding on a wilderness route I had never done before.
I just knew it would all be okay because I just knew what I was doing. And it was all okay, though it easily could have been otherwise.
But that other man died on a warm, dry day. I wonder-- how lucky was I to make it safely on a much worse day? Was I just the better climber or the luckier one? I would guess both, but I would also guess that luck played a larger role than skill did for me that day.
The title implies that this outing did not cure my hubris, and that is true. It did provide some needed treatment, though, and my arrogant pride is smaller now. It will surely grow again with time, but I hope I retain and use some of the wisdom gained from this and other experiences that serve to remind me, as I put it earlier, that Man can be a wondrous thing, but against the forces of nature, he is a puny, weak thing, and only the ocean can best the mountains in dwarfing the power and the significance of Man.
Well, I can at least hope for good luck.
Ptarmigan Spire from the trail to Ptarmigan Tunnel