“Want to sleep in?” Prana mumbled when the alarm went off at 4:45. Ha! A rhetorical question as far as I was concerned.
2 hours later it was fully morning, and magically neither cold nor with condensation on the tent. We took a leisurely time to pack, drying gear in the sun. The other four appeared on the trail across the river and Prana dashed over to chat with them, see how their way had gone. Apparently the spine of land they’d downclimbed was much more difficult than the easy glissade they’d found at the bottom, but they’d all gotten down safely, crossed the fairly intimidating river last night, and camped on its banks. I was relieved to hear of their success.
We left not far behind them. I was bowled over by the beauty of the valley and the peaks in the morning light, everything etched clear, full of waterfalls and volcanic rock. I also felt like complete and total garbage, every muscle still leaden and fatigued, brain fogged, heart racing, couldn’t catch air. I knew what it was – not enough calories yesterday, severely dehydrated, not enough sleep- and all likely exacerbating each other. I plodded up the valley, forcing myself to dip my bottle and drink from each stream we passed, pausing to gaze at every new angle of the world of art around us.
At the top of the climb sat a grassy shelf with snow melt streams and views over the rocky, snow-marbled mountains. Even though we’d only gone a mile and a half, we stopped to cook a giant pot of oatmeal, drink liters of electrolytes, and watch the peaks. I could have sat there watching all day.
I felt much better after this, and we made quick work along the open shelf to where the trail rounded once again onto the north side of Summit Peak. It drew a stunning skyline, and the day was early enough the snow bowl below it still sat fairly firm. A ramp led around an icy teal tarn, and a low gap in the following ridge allowed a view to the east’s widespread, far-flung peaks for the first time in quite a while, accompanied by a freight train of wind. Guessing there was service here, I checked the Facebook page for updates on the accidents- we’d met the one person named back near the Rio Chama; her leg had been broken while climbing down the dry fin of land where we’d departed from the others yesterday, when a falling rock struck her and knocked her down the icy chute. Tears welled up as I read Prana the details. She’d pressed her SOS button for search and rescue, and not long after, something tumbled down the icy chute she’d been knocked into by the rock- the something was another unconscious hiker. Luckily the helicopter en route for her was able to whisk the unconscious hiker to treatment before returning for her and her husband. I couldn’t even imagine that kind of a day. A second rescue I found details of in a newspaper article, a couple cliffed-out on their descent of the same mountain, but they’d continued hiking once lowered to the valley floor; and the final rumored injuries of an out-of-control glissade I couldn’t find anything to substantiate.
Doubly humbled, raising gratitude to the mountains for our safe passage so far, we carried on. A half mile brought us face to face with another snowfield shelf. Four hikers were converging on the trail on the far side- I supposed the four we’d been trailing. Our choice appeared to be a glissade down to the bottom of the little hanging valley, or a traverse on fairly steep snow between a few widespread rocks until the angle at the head of the bowl eased back. “I think it would be fun to go around the bowl,” said Prana. “Sounds fine,” I said, a little skeptical about what exactly that would entail, but determined to learn.
We stepped onto the snow, and where it steepened, several fresh chutes appeared – glissade tracks from the four in front. Prana set into his steep-snow rhythm with relish- plunge his axe, tap it down with the palm of his other hand, kick two good steps with several vigorous kicks, pull out his axe, repeat. It was slow going, but he basically created a sidewalk in the sky. I followed behind, reusing his axe holes, kick-settling my feet into the steps. At a rocky wall, the snow had peeled back into a tiny bergschrund, and I balanced on the mushy snow rail, reached up, and grabbed a hold on the rock face which promptly broke off in my hand. Woo!
Not much farther, and the angle relented. Hey, that was actually pretty fun, my brain noted. Prana was keen to scamper all the way up to the edge of the bowl, so we split as I tromped across the middle, relishing my slowly-accumulating comfort in snow travel. Most of the time I mushed through to my knees, soaking my legs, but I gained the far side and its glorious dry trail around the same time as Prana.
The skyline of the San Juans was spectacular, and we alternated the afternoon away with breaks on dry trail to admire the surroundings and slushing through long stretches of mashed potato snow; around Summit Peak, along Montezuma Peak, the length of Long Trek Mountain. The flatter meadows on the north facing slopes were the most effort consuming, as the postholes grew deeper and more difficult, the icy crust on the snow tearing up my legs, even through pants. We crossed the top of the couloir above Crater Lake, and considered taking a side trail to camp at it for the evening. The effort to wade through another several miles of north facing slopes, though, deterred us in the end.
Finally, finally we dropped down switchbacks along Iron Creek, approaching an intersection of roads marking the meeting of several high and low routes. No fabulous campsite appeared, but a dry grassy bench tucked in by trees would make do well enough. Another post-snow evening ritual of laying out all the wet gear in the last rays of the sun, pulling on all the dry layers, firing up the stove. This day had only been 10 miles long, but it had been one of the most immersive yet, in terms of both beauty and effort, right behind yesterday- which had been so immersive I’d barely started to process it. A realization prickled in the back of my mind- I could do this. I could apply myself to learning mountaineering skills. I was surprised to peer deep into my thoughts and realize I actually really, really wanted to. A small coal of satisfaction and anticipation glowed warmly in my chest.