I’ve devoted my 2014 to tackling some of the trips that have been put off for far too long. This started last month with the hut trip off of Cameron Pass and, this past weekend was Alice’s elusive Rabbit Hole. I have been looking forward to climbing it for the past few years; however, many things have gotten in the way, not the least of which is the last 2 years of depressingly low snow levels. I was initially worried that the group size may be too large, but, as the week progressed, climbing partners bowed out for one reason or another. Not to worry though, Mike was still in and I always enjoy a day in the hills with the Human Topo.
We met at the Wild Basin trailhead at the ungodly hour of 4 am and headed up towards our goal. I don’t think either of us (well, me anyways) shut up for the first couple of miles which is why we missed the “camp row” bypass and we found ourselves in front of the bridge that is out at Ouzel Falls.
There is now a trail materializing along the south side of the creek that was easy to follow until we found a crossing that was doable. Mike employed the “butt scoot” while I was thankful for the lack of knots as I straddled the thing to ensure my day didn’t end with a 6 am dip in the frigid river.
We dropped back to the trail and, by all map evidence, we were still before the Thunder Lake split. We worked our way up the trail and when we came to the sharp turn south we realized that we were now on the Bluebird Lake trail (We’d learn on the hike out that we were only a matter of feet beyond the split). Nervous that we had lost too much valuable time to get on the snow, we decided to just change plans as we both had some unsettled business in that area. Mike now had his eyes on Mahana and Isolation and I was thinking Copeland. But, as we rounded the corner and had our first glimpse of Mahana’s southeast face, our intended route became clear. There is a very nice couloir splitting the face which looked much more aesthetic to me than the slog up Copeland. Mike was still on for Iso/Mahana but my plan C was now in place – Eagles Beak.
I climbed Isolation and Mahana last fall and repeating Mahana less than a year later was pretty far down on the priority list – but the basin holding the Beak is top two in the park in my humble opinion (the other holds Lake Nanita). So, I would use the snow line to crest Mahana’s east ridge and head for the Beak. Mike would continue on to the summit and Isolation before circling back to the foot of the Beak – our intended meeting place. I also informed him of my plan to bail down the east ridge if weather took a turn.
The base of the couloir was a very short bushwhack from the trail and where you leave is very obvious. It was now 7:30 and we were a little nervous about the snow quality since the line had already been in direct sunlight for a couple of hours. However, once on the snow, we found the opposite problem – it was rock hard. Luckily, the line was relatively mellow, probably topping out around 35 degrees. But, the last couple of dry years have not only put off the Rabbit Hole, but also kept me out of crampons. So, I felt like a newbie with the spikes again. Up we went, but I was not feeling confident. I’ve had problems in the past with my boots holding the crampons and I really wasn’t certain of my ability to arrest with such a hard surface.
The line reminded me a lot of Cathedral’s standard route in terms of length, steepness, and aesthetics. I haven’t seen it in any guidebooks, online sources, or anywhere else which is surprising since it is so obvious from the trail. It also didn’t show any signs of human traffic so, if you need to get up Mahana, I highly recommend this as a mountaineering alternative to the talus mess on the north and west sides of the mountain.
With maybe 100 feet left in the couloir, I was feeling very uneasy. I really couldn’t get anything more than my front points in the snow and it was steep enough to where if I were to lose purchase, I would go from 0 to 60 in about 2.2 seconds. I had serious doubts about my ability to arrest so I was being very cautious as to avoid finding out for sure. Then, I noticed a class 3 or 4 weakness in the cliffs to the right which I thought may be a safer alternative for me. There were a couple of sticky points which I would have to negotiate when I got to them but I wanted off the snow. Initially, it was just as advertised – a very enjoyable solid, blocky scramble. But then, I reached the first of two ~ten-foot steps and the rock immediately changed from solid to messy choss. Everything I grabbed or stepped on moved or fell into the snow below. Now, I knew I was going to have to drop back into the snow and suck it up. Luckily though, while I was playing on the rocks for about 20 minutes, the sun softened the snow to the point I could now kick in my entire toe box and I was immediately reminded of why I thoroughly enjoy June climbs. The last bit of the line went quickly since I was now confident with the conditions.
Mike had topped out about a half hour earlier but came back to check on my progress, worried I may have gotten myself into some trouble on the rock climb. He found me just as I was taking my crampons off. After assuring him I was fine, he ventured off to Mahana while I took my time on the hike down to the Beak as 1) the talus was just small enough to move but big enough to easily snap a femur and 2) I was not on my ‘A’ game since a bomber of Belgian Dubbel I had the night before went down like razor blades and was playing hell with my gut. Clouds were beginning to move in and they were becoming progressively darker after 11 am. I got to the base of the Beak at 11:30 and I figured Mike would be there around 12:30. I had time but, the class 4 route conditions appeared to be a nasty mixed climb that I didn’t have in me that day (or likely with my ‘A’ game either). So, I got some parting shots before turning for home.
The clouds were building quite rapidly at this point and the weather could have gone either way. I hoped Mike would share my sentiments and just descend to Bluebird Lake since this basin is hell-and-gone from any usable trail with that much snow. I scoured the ridge line and Isolation’s snow fields for any sign of him but I didn’t see anything. So, I made my way back over Mahana’s East Ridge (which is a route in Lisa Foster’s book- but I wouldn’t recommend it for anything but a true winter ascent) and into the burn/blowdown area. That area is a real mess and the last couple hundred foot descent to the trail took nearly an hour. Mercifully, I finally found myself on the trail above Ouzel Lake around 2:00. Again, since I figured Mike had descended the standard route, I assumed he was ahead of me. So, I downed the last of my Gatorade and choked down the rest of my sandwich. My stomach was still inside out so I didn’t feel like eating anything but I was feeling pretty weak and needed something. I also needed a short break given the excruciating pain my mountaineering boots were applying to my feet. While I’ve missed snow climbs, I haven’t missed those darn things. It was now time to just HTFU and get out of there.
I was feeling pretty frustrated given the last three trips to the hills haven’t produced any summits. I’m a goal oriented guy and sometimes checkboxes take priority in my mind. That seems to be my nature, but is so far away from what I want to be as a climber. I mean, there I was, just after visiting one of my favorite places in the state, complaining because I can’t log on to LOJ Monday morning and check off a soft-ranked peak. That’s precisely the moment when I wanted to kick my own ass.
The hike out was uneventful but when I turned to descend the sharp turn north out of the blowdown area, I couldn’t help but shake my head when I saw the log that we used to cross the river earlier in the day was no more than 150 yards from the trail. So, earlier we crossed the river, bushwhacked 200 feet down, just to follow the wrong trail to get right back to where we started – this was not the most efficient day.
I finally hit the trailhead at 4:15 (I hiked the last mile with my boots completely unlaced to relieve the pain in my feet) fully expecting Mike to be sitting there waiting for me. I checked his car to see if was napping in the back but no signs of him. Crap… Did he get into trouble descending to Bluebird? I figured I’d wait until 5:00 before resupplying in town (and likely buying some running shoes) to head back up to look for him. As it turns out, he was no more than 5 minutes behind me. He had descended down to the Beak and was right on the schedule I had him on. He got there at 12:30 and followed my tracks in the snow, took the same route over the east ridge, and back to the trail. He was hustling to catch me as best his body would allow. After hanging out at the trailhead for about an hour laughing at our mishaps, catching up on life, and discussing future plans, we shook hands and began our respective drives home.
As a Christian, I believe God provides you with what you need instead of giving you what you want. That’s becoming more and more apparent in several aspects of my life and this day is a perfect example. I’ve been kicking myself for the past few months when I look at my hiking spreadsheet and my ‘peaks to climb’ lists haven’t changed. I’ve come to realize though that my spreadsheet fails to log the truly important things: the views, the experiences, or, most of all, the company. That’s why I’ve been lucky to have websites like this one to log those feelings in text and pictures in order to preserve those memories and share with family and friends that aren’t as fortunate to have the Rockies in their backyard.
While the April Sangre trip was a complete disaster in about every sense, I finally met Prakash who, contrary to his self-diagnosis as a “strawberry scented douche nozzle”, turned out to be a heck of a nice guy and was a pleasure to climb with. It was also my last opportunity to climb with Colin before he heads off to some -stan country for the summer.
The May hut trip was complete comedy. A smile comes to my face every time I think about it. I don’t think I went more than 5 minutes that entire weekend without laughing at something – or someone. Wine, whiskey, and watermelon… who knew? While 2014 hasn’t been very productive on the summit front (yet), I now have reasons to go back and I can’t wait to do it all again. To all in my climbing circle, thank you for helping me keep things in perspective.