The Love Letter: On Climbing

As Fitz and I stepped back onto the trail near Mammoth Lakes, a classic late September Sierra weekend greeted us- blue skies, warming temps, and fluttering aspen leaves turning from spring green to ocher. As we hiked back into the alpine, I felt the vigor in my legs even with the added weight of the food resupply. We hiked steadily and easily passed others as we followed Shadow Creek west towards Ediza Lake. We felt momentum gathering as we drew closer to our final exit. By mid-week we’d be hiking through Tuolumne Meadows to collect our last food cache. Our excitement was palpable; we began to believe that we might just pull this trip off.

Arriving at Ediza Lake, the warm late September sun made it feel like August. As did the crowds of campers at the lake. With nearly perfect weather, we awoke before sunrise to start the hour-long approach to the base of Clyde Minaret. Frosty dew clung to the golden grasses that fringed the lake. Cold air in frost pockets near streams kept our pace persistent. Morning alpenglow lit up Mt. Ritter and Banner Peak, as a nearly full moon sunk beyond their skyline. The fleeting beauty reminded us of the special calmness that surrounds early mornings.

We scrambled up the final scree slope to the base of the climb just as the sun fully illuminated the face. Within twenty minutes we were roped up and ascending the 1500-foot Southeast Face (IV 5.8). After weeks of landscapes dominated by granite, the metamorphic rock felt oddly polished. We linked pitches and simul-climbed sections. As we gained elevation, we saw the denuded ski runs of Mammoth Mountain and the White Mountains rising further in the east.

By early afternoon, we basked in the sun as we filled out the summit registry and refueled for the descent. Route-finding, loose scree and rappelling comprised the typical convoluted descent, but we had motivation. Cecile Lake beckoned below, tempting us to swim in the cool alpine water. But the crowds of hikers lured to the high alpine on a beautiful Saturday persuaded us to continue on to Iceberg Lake for our celebratory swim.

As we hiked down through the final scree slope, my body betrayed me. I stepped on a rock plate. It shifted, and instead of leaning uphill, I toppled feet over head. Then another somersault. I came to a halt almost as surprised by the sudden stop as I had been by misstep. My ears thundered as blood raced with the adrenalin flush. My fingers wrapped my thumb tightly. My eyes and sense of touch registered the scene simultaneously- blood on the rocks, and blood seeping between the fingers of my left hand.

Fitz was at my side in moments, checking my head and body for the spouting source. “It’s my hand,” I protested. As I gingerly uncurled my fingers for inspection, I looked away, focusing on wind rippling water in the lake below. He field bandaged it quickly, and after regaining my equilibrium, we hiked the final 500 feet through the scree to the dirt trail. So close to immersion that would now have to wait indefinitely.

Back at camp, Fitz did a thorough inspection of the gash in my thumb as tears of disappointment brimmed in my eyes. “It’s really deep,” he said. I drew my eyes down from the treetops and saw for myself. We briefly debated the next step. Even as I protested, I knew Fitz was right. We were only eight miles from a trailhead and campground. It was Saturday night. If I was lucky, I could hitch into town. Find the hospital.

We made plans to reconnect based on a best-case scenario, then made contingency plans. Fitz loaded the daypack, as I futilely tried to pack my backpack. I relented and shouldered the small pack, placed my hand in a sling, and started hiking out of the alpine. Crossing Shadow Creek for the second time in two days, I felt the full body calm that follows shock. Though I didn’t know what would happen next, I was thankful that the fall happened where it had. Earlier in the day could have meant dire outcomes. Earlier in the trip would have meant a hugely long hike out to still remote lodges. As my feet clipped through the dusty trail, I awaited the rise of the waning full moon. The emerging sky full of stars made a headlamp necessary only when the trail ducked under the canopy of trees. As elevation fell away, I vowed this would not be my final exit out of the Sierra.

Two days and six stitches later, we loaded packs onto our backs again. We hiked a week longer, before escaping the Sierra and an unseasonably strong snowstorm to Twin Lakes near Bridgeport, Ca. But that’s another tale to tell. Read about it in Climbing Magazine’s May 2011 issue.