Apparently I'm flying to Switzerland in a few days to tackle the Eiger and the Matterhorn. That bizarre realization recently reminded me that I needed more days on the mountain under my feet. I assessed my climbing trips on vertical rock coming up and realized I needed more slog-fest enduro-mountain time, and soon.
Almost exactly one year ago I joined a few friend for a lap up Shasta via a different route called Cascade Creek. That trip was pretty embarrassing for me. I was out of shape with rented ill-fitting boots. Ten seconds into the whole thing I developed the worst blisters, they got so bad over the next 2 days half my feet almost fell off and I couldn't walk right for weeks. Fast forward one year, what would the mountain be like now I wondered?
Weather prevented my first attempt, but the next weekend things opened up. I threw all my gear into the car and jammed up north early Saturday morning, stopping for a leisurely breakfast before heading to the trail head at noon. I haven't spent a ton of time in the mountain purely solo, but the time I had was special and I knew it this was going to be a great time. Pack filled, headphones cranked, I chatted with the info ranger at the start: "..have fun up there, you're obviously not staying the night" "What makes you say that?" "Well you're starting late and your pack is compact" "...Uh, nope, I just pack smart and move fast" Inspired by this compliment I put my headphones in, gazed at my feet, and started cranking.
I quickly passed 2, 4, 8, 16 people and then I lost count. Horse Camp came and went, I started passing people on skis+skins. The hills came and went and I chatted with a couple people then put the headphones back in and kept moving. In a little under 2 hours I was at Helen Lake basecamp (avg time 4 hours). A helicopter was just leaving carrying a woman who'd injured an ankle glissading; we helped her friends pack up and distribute camp and wished them luck.
Now I just had hours, and hours and hours of sun to wait in. Yay.
Luckily friends are easily made at base camp and I knew a few friends-of-friends up there who helped pass the time. Chatting with the climbing ranger Nick he advised us to start late and take advantage of the soft snow around 11am for descending, this would be information I would mistakenly avoid....
Eventually I got bored of being awake and tried to sleep around 7pm. A combination of packing super light (light boots, 1 pair of socks, no extra gear) and poor circulation means my feet usually get really cold. This time, I devised a solution to keep them warm (photo is before I stuffed this setup into my sleeping bag) that resulted in warm feet but smelly gloves :(
2 am. Alarm goes off. Fuck any time before 8 am. Why. Brain no work. Move.
Suddenly I'm moving in the dark and the Jetboil is roaring with snow I put in the night before and I'm not 100% where I am or what I'm doing or more importantly WHY I'm doing this but it's all automagic at this point. Boil water screw up ratio drink watery-oatmeal and chew crunchy-coffee. Pull all the layers on eventually and roll outside the tent, there's a few people already going up the route. My headlamp is low, I pull the batteries out and replace them with the spares, this would end up being bad. I think maybe I'm good enough to go but IDK it's 2:30am and I just turn and start up the ramp for better or for worse.
One foot forward, the next foot forward, the next foot forward, the next foot forward. Suddenly I'm going up the slope. My headlamp is getting dim. Left foot right foot left foot right foot the headlamp is getting more dim. "Why is it so dim?" I look down, a few headlamps. I look up, 2 parties ahead. The headlamp fades more. "Shit, let's change settings!" I click, and the thing totally dies... "...fuck, those were old batteries." I'm suddenly standing on a steepish ice field in the pitch black. Click. Click. Click. No light........
I'm faced with a decision, turn around and give up my summit push, or make a risky decision and go up. I step up, and up, and up, and assess my risk tolerance. It's steep, but not so steep, but there's avalanche debris and I could easily twist an ankle or fall and it's icey but I could 'maybe' arrest my fall and really would I be ok stopping? I try to weigh summit fever with risk assessment in a smart way, but eventually give thinking up rationale thinking and give in to imagining being badass and decide to just go up. Worst comes to worst I can stop and carve a seat and wait until the sun comes up or something.
But luckily I move fast when I'm scared. 30 minutes go by fast when you're 'talking to God' in the dark, convincing yourself you've made the best decision to keep moving one foot after another, breaking the situation down into micro moments and forgetting about the actual mortal danger you're in. All of a sudden, I catch up to a party.
"Hey! How's it going!" is their thinly veiled translation of WHAT THE HELL WHERE DID YOU COME FROM AND WHY ARE YOU CLIMBING WITHOUT A HEADLAMP?! However they were really nice about it. John was super prepared guiding his buddies and hooked me up with a spare set of batteries (shoutout Bedrock sandals!). I climbed with them for while then eventually lost them, caught up and passed another party. Suddenly again I was alone. My emotion levels were so messed up at this point, having been alone and together and stranded and exhilarated and climatic and anticlimactic and suddenly I was back on my own, breaking trail, up a route I'd never been on, staring down steep hills in the dark I'd never seen before and technically had no idea if the summit was behind. As I started to break down mentally, I began to put the pieces back together and things actually got much stronger.
One hill two hill three hill four.
I suddenly have this new motivation having realized I passed every team on the way up and there's no one ahead of me: to be the first person that day on summit. It's a weird combination of summit fever + first fever, and it's so addictive it's crazy. I stop to make rationale assessments and decide I'm safe going to the top by myself. At this point people at at least 1/2 > 1 hour behind me, close enough for a medical emergency but far enough to provide solitude. Let's go.
Suddenly I'm on the summit. How. Why. The sun. The all and the nothing and the everything and mostly all I can think about is how cold and beautiful and lonely it is and how I need to snap a few selfies so I take my glove off and do that and then everything goes NUMB. But I got some pics so that's cool. Then the Screaming Barfies set in, and I stumbled down by myself or something like that.