Monday, July 30, 2012

Evolution Traverse, Parts 4, 5 and 6: Winter, Winning, and Water Skiing

Evolution Traverse, from Mt. Huxley
This Evolution Traverse is many things.  It is a huge alpine rock climb.  It is geology, weather, logistics, campsites, cruxes, rappels, pitches and miles.  It is history, intimidation, challenge and it was just a source of income to me.  It has provided inspiration, camaraderie, disappointment and opportunity.  I have wrapped myself up in this particular route, seeking further challenge, opportunity and adventure. What the Evolution Traverse represents to me is diverse and ever changing.  What I wanted it to be and what I anticipated it being are also intriguing.  My obsession with this particular route, heck, with climbing in general, is peculiar, right?  Need we even ask the question of "why?".  It is entirely possible that we can never know why we do things like alpine rock ridge traverses.  It is also possible that we will never cease our search for an answer to that question.  We can see the reasons and find objectives to fulfill them.  Or we can find ourselves out "doing" and seek rationalization.  Will we ever know the difference?  Will we ever know the truth?  Do we just "do" and then naturally and inquisitively seek answers to the question of "why?"?  Or do we have deep desires, genuine and wholesome or otherwise, and throw ourselves at mountains in order to fulfill these desires?

If the latter is true, that we have actual needs and desires that we can fulfill in the mountains, what are they? People want to do big things and be challenged. People want to make an impact and be recognized. Being the first to tackle something is a sure way to get recognized and is certain to increase the scale of that undertaking.  Ian, last winter, showed me the opportunity for challenge and recognition in the Evolution Traverse.  It had not been completed in winter.  At the time, with a budding understanding of "firsts", all I saw was the opportunity for recognition.  Don't get me wrong, I love being in the mountains, especially on an athletic route in difficult conditions and with a strong, entertaining and safe partner.  But those experiences are a dime-a-dozen.  A winter attempt at the Evolution Traverse would be all that and bring the recognition of doing something first.  That was my rationale at the time.
Ian bailing from the first section of the Evolution Traverse, March 2012

We didn't get the chance to earn the aspired-to recognition.  We got out there and started out, but weather conspired to decrease our odds of success while increasing the likelihood and consequences of something bad  happening.  Bad combination, bail chosen.  Not only did we bail on this big endeavor, but we got scooped from behind just days later.  In a-more-than-amazing coincidence, the successful suitors left the trailhead the exact same day we did.  Disappointment compounded disappointment.  I got dark there for a bit.  Why was disappointment so profound?  I have come up short, experienced some significant failures, in the past couple years.  A failed professional development course and a failed marriage are the most notable. I also nearly died in an avalanche in Alaska.  Personal, I know.  However, we cannot separate personal and professional and recreational lives.  We are each complicated creatures.  These failures are endeavors in which I have invested a great deal of energy and time.  In some ways, each was out of my control.  In other very real ways, I am ultimately responsible.  In the throes of disappointment the distinction between what one is responsible for and what is out of one's control get muddied into a mess of self-flagellation.  Failure in March with Ian on the Evolution traverse swirled around in a perfect storm of disappointment and recollections of recent short-comings.

Failure breeds introspection and introspection breeds rationality.  And rationality beats feelings of inadequacy.  Moving past all that quickly left room for further reflection.  What did we actually miss out on that week in March in the Evolution peaks?  The lack of recognition could be easily dealt with. Who would continue to beat himself up for failing to earn accolades?  That type of recognition is shallow at best.  One could argue that seeking that type of recognition for it's own sake is bound to distract one from safe decision-making.  However, we really did miss out on the scale of tackling something unknown.  I wrote to a friend, a few days after hearing news of the successful send up there, "there's always value in tromping around in the mountains, right?  Winter, summer, whatever.  Being first has value also.  Shallowly, there's the ego thing.  But it also makes any endeavor that much bigger.  The Evolution Traverse in winter is smaller now, psychologically.  And I dig big things!"

That got to the heart of it.  I need not feel guilty for wanting something like the first winter ascent of the Evolution Traverse.  Desiring recognition feels shallow and ego-driven.  But seeking big challenge is a noble pursuit, in my book.  And there will always be bigger things.

That brings us to this summer.  Not long after our winter attempt I booked a trip to guide the Evolution Traverse.  Like the first winter ascent of a route, the first guided ascent can be seen as significant.  It has all the aforementioned ingredients.  It is an unknown.  It is potentially something to be recognized for.  It is a huge undertaking.  As the dates for my trip to guide Jon around those peaks approached, I prepared well and rested my mind in the acknowledgement that my desire to complete this objective came from a pure place of embracing challenge.  The opportunity to be recognized was still there, but I need not fret that I was some sort of ego-maniac driven by the need for approval.  With my mind open to these more authentic motivations, I was left to relax and prepare well.  Part of preparation was effective rest and distraction while in town.  Work kept me active and acclimated.  Town time, evenings "off" were free to take on carefree socialization.  Evenings water skiing on Bishop's "wrong side of the tracks" canal were, honestly, the highlight of my early summer.  This kind of thing, free of the possibility of recognition or big challenge or any other hidden agenda, brought the lesson's of my Evolution Traverse obsession full-circle.  Not only is it fine to tackle big challenges, those big challenges are not the only thing that define a life.  Life is also whimsy and friends and brainless sludgy debauchery on a sunset evening in the desert.

Jonathan gettin' his neck red

Mountain Safety: Possibilities

Bergfuhrer and mentor Howie emphasizes acknowledgement of the possibilites.   Delusion is counter-productive, to say the least.  Accept the possibilites and hope for the best, Howie will say.  Embrace the most appealing possibilities, but keep one's mind open to all that is possible.  "What may happen?"  "What am I capable of?"  "What could I be capable of?"  

Those of us who go to the mountains accept a certain amount of risk.  We try our best to be as safe as our mothers expect us to be.  However, we cannot hide the fact that death is a possibility.  We must accept that.  Serious injury is also a possibility.  Often, an euphoric neophyte's first sobering revelation in the mountains is the idea that "wow, it can happen to me!"  The best mountain travelers will permanently incorporate that truth early into their decision-making and proceed all the better for it.  Reward need not be reduced because, in this case, perceived risk has been elevated.  To the contrary, accepting this truth and honoring it's potential consequences can only lengthen one's career of enjoying the mountains.  

Additionally, with regards to risk management in the mountains, one must immerse themselves in a study of what level of safety is possible.  Risk and safety are not absolutes.  How safe is it actually possible to be?  What skill and equipment is actually out there to protect me?  Am I doing what I do because it is actually the safest way to reap this given reward? Or am I under-informed and under-trained for managing the risk of this given objective?  It could be argued that many people climbing in the High Sierra (and elsewhere, I am sure) are taking on risks simply out of ignorance of the tools available to mitigate that risk.  Perfectly reasonable, intelligent people, motivated by inspiring alpine climbs, are taking off doing "the best they can" to eliminate unnecessary risk.  Is their (your? my? our?) best actually the best?  That is the question.  What level of risk-mitigation is possible?  

These questions, and the study of how alpine climbers choose to answer them, are on my mind.  We do the best we can, of course.  And our best is constantly improving.  As Maya Angelou said "I did then what I knew how to do.  Now that I know better, I do better."  I would like to simply propose that we can do better by knowing just how much better it is possible to be.  As for learning how much better it is possible to be, stay tuned...


No Balloons over the Sierra
Wilderness balloon count:

  • 2008- 13
  • 2009- 8
  • 2010- 1
  • 2011- 13 
  • 2012- 8 
  • 2013- 6 
  • 2014- 2 (08/09/14)

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Palisade Glacier: Summer Approach

Each summer for four years now I have spent a fair amount of time at the Palisade Glacier.  That zone is, hands down, my favorite place to climb mountains.  I love the Palisades.  I have also made a career of managing risk in the mountains.  All mountains present inherent risk to their visitors.  The peaks and routes of the Palisade Glacier area are no exception.  We will never, thankfully, remove that risk from our pursuits.  The risk, the unknown, the cliche'd "adventure of it all", is a huge part of why we go.  That being said, none of us are psyched to charge out blindly into risky environments.  We do our homework, accumulate skills and collect appropriate gear, all to stack the odds in our favor.  Given sound preparation, there are still times and situations where risk is considerably higher than others.  Dangerous situations that can be easily managed or avoided are a great arena in which to considerably reduce one's overall exposure.  I believe that the way in which the bulk of suitors approach the Palisade Glacier is one of these types of hazards.  With a little new knowledge, and by taking what is arguably a more efficient path, a great deal of risk can be eliminated.  

First, the status quo.  For a variety of reasons, of those that approach the Palisade Glacier (and its climbing routes that start between Glacier Notch and Thunderbolt's East Prow) the greatest percentage approach via the Glacier Trail and "Gayley Camp".  Getting to Gayley Camp is fine.  There is a "trail" of sorts and a short section (~100 yards) of talus boulder hopping.  Gayley Camp has water nearby and flat sandy spots for a number of tents.  However, getting from Gayley Camp to the Glacier in summer conditions, whether traversing to Glacier Notch or descending to the Glacier surface is, in my opinion, miserable and overly dangerous.  

Allow me to elaborate.  First of all, it is between .1 and .5 miles of large boulder-hopping.  Second of all, most climbers to traverse this section have reported those same large boulders moving under body weight.  Let us forget for now the annoyance of talus and moraine travel.  After all, that is often unavoidable in the mountains, right?  One might suggest that shifting talus and moraine is an unavoidable reality also.  That would be a mostly valid assertion.  However, I wish to make the case that this particular chunk of mountain terrain is far more prone to unstable stacked rocks.  

This article assumes at least the reader's rough familiarity with the region, and continued overall retreat of the Palisade Glacier.  The article at this link summarizes fairly well a rough outline of the Sierra's largest glacier and it's behavior.  Another concept that is fundamental to understanding my forthcoming theory is the idea of talus formation and "angle of repose".  In short, a talus slope in the mountains is formed when rocks fall, singly or in larger events, from a steep cliff and accumulate on lesser-angled terrain below.  The accumulation of rocks at the base of that cliff, due to the initial and dramatic settling of those rocks and the ongoing and subtle forces of frost-action, reaches and maintains an equilibrium in overall slope angle and stability of individual rocks.  Of course, some of those individual rocks will wobble in place a little bit.  However, lacking a significant disruption, talus slopes are remarkably stable.  This link gives further information on talus and "mass-wasting".  I would like to propose that the "retreat" of the Palisade Glacier is providing a significant destabilizing force to this particular talus slope.  Read on.

View across (looking E) the Glacier at the talus slope in question.  Photo 7/2012

 The pair of pictures below show a far over-simplified "cross-section" of that area. Imagine our viewing location is somewhere beyond the toe of the glacier and we're looking east-southeast with  x-ray vision.  The process of destabilization that I am suggesting an explanation for here is far from a step-by-step process.  The drawings below merely represent two theoretical snapshots in time.  However, I think they make my point.  

Historical situation.  Palisade Glacier surface height at "equilibrium".  Rocks fall from Mt. Gayley, come to rest and reach their angle of repose with the lower support coming from glacial ice.    

Representation of the effect of lowered ice surface.  Through the 1900s the surface of the Palisade Glacier lowered an average of more than a foot a year according to the paper linked above.  Anecdotal evidence suggests considerable acceleration of ice loss in this century.  (The glacier is also flowing down the mountain, further disrupting the footing of the Gayley talus slope, perhaps to a greater degree than ice loss.)
If you buy into all this, and are concerned, what's left to do?  Fear not, there is an alternative.  I can say on good authority that the alternative approach offers little to no compromise in terms of efficiency.  Done properly, the alternative summer approach involves a little more off-trail travel but even less rock hopping than the Gayley slope approach.  What rock-hopping there is (worst-case scenario -when it is completely dry- there is about 200 yards that is mandatory) comes mainly after the high-camp and is of average stability.  This approach is a trail-less chunk of beautiful and varied alpine terrain.  Route-finding is not difficult and the vegetation is fragile.  Anywhere you would want to camp there are plenty of flat sandy spots already all buffed out.  This route, marked in red on the map below, does not need cairns or a trail.  Enjoy!

Blue represents the "traditional" (or, at least, more common) approach to the Palisade Glacier.  Red is an alternative summer approach.  Green dots represent talus, moraine and rock-hopping, much of it unstable and ready to move underneath body weight.  Don't "Aron Ralston" yourself!

A few disclaimers:  All this applies in the summer, under predominantly dry conditions.  All this is exaggerated in drought years and less problematic in big snow years.  Ideal approaches and campsites will vary in winter and through the transitional spring and fall seasons. The entire content of this article is merely my personal opinion, not endorsed by my employers or the Forest Service or anyone else.  My first trip along the red line marked above relied on information gleaned from the late, great John Fischer.  John used the campsite we have now informally named after him as a less-crowded alternative to Gayley Camp.  Nothing is ever new.