Friday, September 15, 2006

Montana (I), no. 2

Note: This is the entire first draft of this entry. Pictures still to come.

The tree trunk and the wall of the pit toilet are only four feet apart, and the pit toilet is only 8 feet tall, and yet I'm the only one who can't wedge himself up the space onto the roof.

I've got a variety of rationalizations for this, of course: I'm dressed improperly for real climbing—in a brown pair of canvas pants that, as a child of the Bay Area, I wear everywhere, all the time; and I'm wearing hiking boots with thick rubber soles that leave a disconnect between foot and underfoot; and I'm not a climber.

This test is not intentionally a test, however, and I'm only trying to get up top because that's where our backpacks are. Our packs are on the roof because we put them there. We put them there, I think, to laugh at me when I couldn't climb onto the roof.

But no matter. I'm not a climber, as I said before, and to tell the truth, I think I'm a little too risk-averse to sheer, thousand-foot drops to ever truly be a climber. Still, I did a fair bit of tree climbing and general boyish mischief to know, deep down, that I should be able to get up there.


Here's the plan for the day: 6.3 miles by backpack to the base camp, where we are now; another mile or so to the base of the Cathedral Peak, with only light gear; a thousand (vertical) feet of scree; and then about 800 more (vertical) feet of class 3 and 4 ascents. I think. I haven't really been privy to the plan, since I am close to totally inexperienced as a mountaineer.

Cathedral Peak (elev. 9041') is the only peak on our little 4-day backpacking excursion in the Climbers' Guide to Glacier National Park, which has been and is the only guide we have, other than our eyes, to the mountain. My two partners for this expedition are Bob and Zander, who have taken me along out of the goodness of their hearts and not, as is obvious, due to some sort of innate wilderness talent or USGS 7.5 minute map, which I am wishing we had. Zander and Bob are climbing partners, and though Zander's only been at this for about 3 years, Bob's been at it for 30. Oh, and he's completed 3 ironman triathlons as well.

In theory, we'll be back in camp sometime between 4 and 8 pm, but you have to pack to come down in the dark or, at worst, survive the night on the mountain. Not to be happy, but to survive, which means a set of polypro in the bag, a Goretex jacket, food, 2 liters of water, and a flashlight. It's clear I'm the weak link from the beginning, but hey, they invited me.


We leave Flat Top, where we spent the night, at 8:15 in the morning. This is somewhat of a late start for mountaineers—Zander tells a number of stories about having to get up before 4 to summit peaks in the Sierra—but we're traveling in a larger group of six, and getting up at 6 and out by 8 is a little more reasonable for those not ascending Cathedral Peak. Also, we're carrying much of the heavy gear—tents, food, and the like, the things that all six of us need before we split into two groups.

I am indeed ready to go at 7:58. This surprises Zander a little, I think, because I am the last to actually get out of the tent, and almost the last to leave the cooking area for breakfast. I'm always slow to move in the morning, especially when it's cold out, and this morning the temperature hovers around 40 degrees just before dawn.

We're on the trail just after 8:15, moving north at a brisk pace, and Zander and Bob speculate on where the notch to the top actually is. The description says that we cross a “snow field,” but there's no snow to be seen, save for a tiny patch, about 10 feet by 8 feet, just under the striped band of rock at the top of the scree. Bob's betting on a hidden notch with a couvoir behind; Zander's money is on a visible notch further right. As an utter novice, I am left out altogether.

The walk is often spectacular, but not in a photogenic sort of way: We cross from fire zone to forest and back through a long stretch of charred trees and vibrant fireweed. Through the trees, both dead and living, Flat Top falls away and we are encircled by beautiful mountains that float above the haze and low creek beds. It's not the type of thing you can really take an accurate picture of; but, to be fair, you could say the same about most of Glacier.

All along the path lies evidence of a vibrant animal community though we see little fauna besides ourselves: bear scat; coyote and mountain goat droppings; and at one point, a field mouse's head, teeth to the sky, and its nearby internals, but no body otherwise. Bob figures we interrupted a coyote's breakfast, and I figure he might be right.

We make Fifty Mountain Camp just before 11 a.m., my fingers splotched purple from the blueberries and huckleberries we've stopped to eat along the way. Even if there is a fair bit of jollity—and, Bob and Zander being climbers, morbid humor—we are all business. Bob sets up his tent to reserve a camp site; we pack day packs for the climb; eat lunch, which for me is PB&J on a slightly stale cinnamon and raisin bagel; put our food in the bear box on site; and put the aforementioned packs atop the even more aforementioned toilet.


The haze finally breaks around noon, and we leave camp just after. We trek through a beautiful meadow with red and yellow grasses, yellow flowers, what appear to be red clovers, and boulders scattered about like children's toys. Zander and Bob now agree where we're aiming for: a small notch, barely visible, climber's left of the snow patch. We mount a small rise and start off trail.

It's not far from the trail to the base of the scree, just a small walk across a pile of loose rock that's come down from the mountain, across a couple of creek beds and a small stream, and then upwards.

Where the scree is still mostly steady with the roots of some small, hardy plants, I'm the fastest moving up the hill. It's easy, I think, though I've always seemed to excel at going up things, both on my feet and my bike. The goat paths aren't hard to spot if you follow one, then find the next, and I find goat droppings three times before the plants disappear, the slope grows steeper, and I begin to falter.

This is about 40% of the way up the thousand feet of scree. I'm no good at this, not naturally: you've got to kick step, Zander coaches me, kick your toes into the rocks and then repeat again as you climb the hill. Leaning forward to scramble, which for me is instinctual, is counter-productive: it loosens the scree, and even when it doesn't, it takes more energy than climbing on two feet alone.

My instinct, on the other hand, is the dash-and-gasp, and it leads only to trouble. The elevation isn't a problem when I'm moving steadily, but here, clambering directly up the slope as rock falls away behind my feet, I have to rest every 35 feet or so upslope to catch my ragged breath. You should stand up straight, but I don't yet have the self-control for that, and crouch low, which pushes more rocks downward.

Finally Zander crosses my path, zigzagging across the scree about 40 feet in front of me. I'm stuck where I am, on a slope that's just too steep for what I'm trying. You just can't go up it straight; there's no purchase. “See if you can just push your toes in and stand,” Zander calls down. I feel very small.

I'm laying prone on the mountain, looking upwards, with my limbs all spread to spread the weight. “There's no way,” I say brusquely. “There's just nowhere to go.” One of my faults, obviously, is that I don't like not being good at things.

Whether intentional or not, Zander slows his ascent, and I am able to angle over to the area he came from, only sliding about 10 feet down to get there. Since I know where he's been, Zander's footsteps are easy to follow. Even better, he's already compacted the rocks where he's stepped, so there's very little slippage as I climb. The last 150 vertical feet are marked by a series of exposed rock to where Bob is already waiting, at the bottom of the striped band of vertical sedimentary rock.


After a short break, we traverse across the bottom of the band to the notch where we will climb in. Above us is a large brown rock wall, marked most notably by almost perfectly square cleavage. It almost seems that, if your legs were long enough, that you could walk up parts like a staircase—a staircase with what climbers call exposure, which is your “exposure” to the risk of falling off the mountain entirely.

I have a small amount of difficultly with the traverse as well, but do fine when I make exactly the same steps as Zander, who's mostly making the same steps as Bob. Every so often I ask a stupid question about why we're going here and not there, why this route and not that one.

I get two answers: One is, in essence, that Bob is following his mountaineer's instincts, with 30 years of experience. When they get tired of this answer, it changes to another: “You can go any way you like.” As one might expect, the other routes I see always seem to get me in a little bit of trouble, the rocks fall away too much, or else are just more work than the routes that Bob and Zander choose.

When we get to the couvoir, we find yet more loose rock. I make them stop so I can get water and retape my toes, which are beginning to blister on top, as they lack even the slightest callouses necessary for the type of upwards rubbing that comes with walking up scree.

We advance into the notch, Bob first, then me, then Zander. We don't get far before we hit a section that requires chimneying—a technique involving propping yourself between two walls and climbing. It's like trying to climb a chimney, hence the name.

It takes a long time for Bob and Zander to talk me through the climb. They say nothing, but that brown canvas pair of Dickies pants1 inhibit movement, which makes things harder.

After I get to the top, Zander comes up and says hat the climb is a little more technical than he thought from watching Bob: the footholds are small, loose rock is everywhere, and the hand holds all slant downwards. Bob goes up ahead to scout the next bit, but he thinks that we might have to have the “difficult talk.”

Bob returns, and at this point I am voted off the mountain. Things don't get any easier from here, and the crux—the hardest part of any climb—looms near the summit. Bob and Zander are unequivocal that I shouldn't continue.

Now, I know that I have to trust their judgment and experience, as its what brought me this far; still, I am not happy. It's 2:20 in the afternoon, and with me along, who knows how long it would take to get up, if I could even make it. The last thing these guys want is to take me back in the dark—or worse.

My say is only that where we are is a bad place for me to stop, because if something happens to Bob and Zander, I'm stuck on there. When I say it I'm thinking about continuing 30 more vertical feet to what I think is the top of the striped band, for two reasons: first, and most important, so I can say I got somewhere; and second, so that if I need help I'm not stuck somewhere difficult to spot and with restricted visibility for me.

Zander, though, understands it differently, and, truth be told, better: that I need to return to the scree before they can continue up. He tells me not to feel bad, and that I've just completed my first Class 5 ascent unroped.2 I'm frustrated and mad, partially because I wanted to summit and partially because it feels like I failed. Zander will later give me a rundown of big climbs he's attempted more than once and has yet to summit, including three attempts on Mt. Shasta. Honestly: It doesn't really help.

The thing you tend to forget when climbing rocks: going down is often more difficult than getting up. So Zander climbs back down to help me as I climb back down, making climbing moves I've never done before. Bob puts me on belay, More for confidence than anything else, he says. As I try to make the moves, I feel like I've just been dead weight, which is never a good feeling.


The hardest part of the downclimb, for me, is trusting the footholds. I'm wearing boots—though Zander is as well—and because they're not really in the shape of feet, I'm not sure I can trust them, not sure I can center my weight properly. Slippers, in a way, would actually be easier. Bob says, You don't trust your legs yet, but the honest truth is that I trust my legs—just not my feet.

Bob actually offers to just belay me down but I decline. He may want to get rid of me, I think, but I'm going to learn something. Zander helps every foot- and handhold of the way, making sure I don't lean too far forward. It's incredibly helpful to have him there, coaching me, saying, Look down and left, look over, you've almost done it.

It takes me an hour to get back down the scree on my own. Bob tells me to go back down the way we came up, but looking at it, I realize that the exposed rock is present if I just scramble straight down as well, with no traverse. This is an easier descent, but still a mistake—if there's a landslide, no one will know where to look for my body. Or will be looking in the wrong place.

But there's not, and even though I seem to nearly start an out-of-control slide on the way down, I jump aside before it reaches critical mass. Once I return to the stabilized area, I just trample on the plants—I feel guilty about it, a little, but I need to get back and I'm still frustrated.


Back at camp, the other members of our party have found the site and the packs, but can't retrieve them. I couldn't get up there either, I say, so I guess we'll just wait till Bob and Zander get back. The stoves and tents are up there, stuck.

But I wander over to the pit toilet building anyway, and look over the space between the tree and the building. I can do this, think: And I can. It's just an easy chimney, a step on the side of the building, another on the trunk of the tree, and then a hop over to the roof. I call, hand the packs down, and am proud of myself.

It's the first time I've been proud of myself all day.

1 You may wonder why someone who indeed has a fair bit of outdoor experience is improperly dressed. Where are my zip-away nylon pants?

I didn't plan on climbing a mountain, so I didn't plan for climbing a mountain. It's as simple as that.

2 Later Bob calls it a “4 plus,” but both agree that the classification is higher than the listed Class 3.

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