A Short Term Memory
As Jimmy Chin said, “the best alpinists have the worst short term memory.” I may not consider myself an alpinist, but I think this rings true for many climbers of all styles. My good buddy Jonny just obliterated his ankle pitching off the topout of a boulder problem miles back in Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP). He spent close to 12 hours laying still and trying to keep warm, nearly losing his foot due to blood flow loss. The Rangers were finally able to get him on a helicopter the next morning. In a boot, beer in hand a week later, all he could talk about was how strong he had been climbing and how strong he’s going to come back. My best friend Taylor hit the deck from 40 feet a few years back. With his back broken in multiple spots, his climbing partner helped him to his feet and he walked miles out to the car. After months of rehab and excrutiating long days in a turtle shell back brace, he came back with a vengeance. Less than a year after the accident he was climbing harder than I’ve ever seen him. This lifestyle motivates us all in ways I’ll never be able to understand. And notice I didn’t say sport.
Over the Independence Day weekend I went for a solo cruise up the “Y-Couloir” on Mount Ypsilon. It sits at the back of the beatiful cirque that makes up the southeast face of Ypsilon. During the approach you traverse the shores of Spectacle Lakes in the shadows of the incredible Blitzen Ridge. I gawked that ridge my whole ascent of the Y and knew I had to climb it. Blitzen Ridge is rightfully dubbed “probably the best ridge climb in RMNP.” The Crown Jewels of the ridge are the four “A” shaped towers that don the ridge like the armored plates of a Stegosaurus. They’re known as the 4-Aces and they comprise the crux of Blitzen Ridge. The route, as a whole, is a pretty big commitment in a day. From the Lawn Lake trailhead to the base of the four aces is a little over five miles and about 3500 feet of elevation gain. A round trip from Lawn Lake trailhead to Ypsilon Summit and down one of the more popular descent options is 16 miles easy.
However, I had this plan that if I was going to be up there, I should also tag the summit of Fairchild Mountain, one of the more unclimbed summits in RMNP due to its lackluster appearance. My trip would be to leave Lawn Lake Trailhead and gain Blitzen Ridge as fast as I could. From there I would slow down to solo the 5.4 ridge safely to the summit. From the summit I would trail run down to the saddle and summit Fairchild as fast as I could and continue along the ridge of Fairchild to the south and down to Lawn Lake trail. The route makes a loop back to Lawn Lake Trailhead where only a mile of ground is seen twice, and as a whole would cover somewhere around 20 miles.
I left the trailhead at 530 that morning. I was moving at a light jog during the first three miles. A mist greeted me at about 10,000 feet and turned into a drizzle by 10,500. Before long it passed and a cotton candy sunrise welcomed me to Ypsilon Lake. I moved quickly around the lake and began pushing hard up the steep chute beyond it. A couple hundred feet above Ypsilon Lake, it began raining again. I had been pushing hard with my head down and for the first time stopped to glance around and put on my hard shell. I turned around to one of the most beautiful mountain scenes I’ve ever seen. A dark rain cloud had moved in from the west and the sun was illuminating its rain like a golden vail. The wet evergreens below reflected the golden hue of the sunrise and the whole valley seemed to glow. A double rainbow terminated right in the lake below me. The brighter of the two being the brightest I have ever seen a rainbow. Caught up in the moment, I watched the rain move through the valley for 45 minutes before I could break the trance.
The rain passed but I knew it was a bad sign. I was having an internal battle between what I knew of the forecast,and what was happening in real time. Mountain-forecast.com has never let me down before, always giving me the most accurate forecasts. Their forecast for that day was windy with clear skies and zero percent chance of rain. The fact that they were wrong before 730a.m. should’ve been more than enough reason to turn around. Unfortunately, I ignored that and persisted. Shortly after the rainbow, I gained the beginning of Blitzen Ridge. The skies cleared to a sharp blue and the sun came out bright and hot. There’s the forecast I was waiting for.
Looking down my first glimpse of the ridge, I was enthralled with its aesthetics and started moving quickly over the easy terrain of the beginning. I was jogging now but slipped suddenly. I caught myself on some boulders and realized the rock was really wet. The multiple rains from the morning and removed all hopes of a high friction day. Glancing down at my La Sportiva trail runners, I once again told myself this wasn’t the best idea. And again, my ambition pushed me forward. At one point I was jogging, entransically moving fast over the large boulders, hopping from one to the other at a jogging pace, and on either side of me were falls of over 500 feet. This was ridge running at its finest. Finally I approached the base of the first ace. The guidebook says you can bypass this ace by traversing a narrow ledge on its left side. However, I couldn’t resist the exposure of its summit so I scrambled to the apex to take in the view. I climbed down to the notch between Ace 1 and 2 and moved quick once again to the second. Here, I spotted the traverse ledges and weasled my way through easy climbing to the notch between 2 and 3.
I stopped here to drink some water and take a rock out of my shoe. I looked around again for the first time, having been so focused on moving swiftly over wet ground with high consequences. I noticed the tops of dark clouds over the Donner ridge of Ypsilon to the west. This wasn’t a good sign. I glanced back at the two aces behind me. I was suddenly in bail mode and knew nothing of how to shed elevation quickly off this ridge. My first thought was, should I try to make it all the way back down the ridge and descend to cover? Or, should I move forward and see if I have can find cover below the ridge ahead? The storm was moving fast and I knew I had 20-30 minutes to run the ridge back to tree line, far too long for the speed of the storm. My biggest fear was lightning, and I knew I needed to lose elevation, and fast, or find cover, or both, equally as fast. I decided to push to the next notch and keep my eye out for cover or a descent below the ridge, but from where I was I coulnd’t see anything with Ace 3 and Ace 2 cutting off my line of sight. Ace 3 has an exposed dihedral solo to its summit before a very exposed down climb on the other side. It started to sprinkle as the tips of the dark clouds sprawled out above me. Now my downclimb was freshly wet and significantly more insecure. My feet reached down to holds with shaky nervousness, my hands clutched the sharp crest of the ridge. Gazing down at my feet, I couldn’t help but notice the certain death consequence of falling from here. Moving my hands, I gazed over the other edge of the ridge, to see the same consquence.
Slowly, I made my way down to the saddle between ace 3 and 4 and the rain picked up. A long gully extended down out of sight between the two aces. Some spotted vegetation filled the narrow seam’s seemingly inviting slope. I couldn’t go any further, it was either here, or get stranded on the exposed ridge during a storm. A committing downclimb into the gully made me realize, going back up this with soaked rock was going to be a death wish. I was down climbing into unknown territory, with 1,000 feet of descent to terra firma and knowing that once the rain picked up, there was no reversing until it was dry. It was about that time it started to hail. Ferociously.
The hail pounded off my hard shell with vigor, almost painfully. It swiftly filled my already precarious downclimb gully with little white ball bearings, just begging me to slip. I stopped, this was not safe in anyway. I waited for 15 minutes and began to shiver. Finally, the hail stopped and the rain picked up to a downpour. Quickly the balls of hail were washed away in the steady stream of water rushing around my hands and feet as I resumed my all fours down climb of the 60 degree gulley. Soon the gulley ended in a long extending ledge that split the giant slab of granite I had found myself on. To my left was 1,000 feet of technical granite slab extending to the summit of Ypsilon, on my immediate right, was a 300+ foot sheer drop to the talus below. Water poured off the slab in gallons, right onto my shoulders. The grass growing out of the cracks on my narrow ramp became soggy mud that I had to dig my fingers and kick my feet into to feel any sort of security. Water was gushing down the ramp, nearly a waterfall as it parted around me. It ran down my jacket sleeves, filled my shoes and saturated my shorts.
I was incredibly scared.
It was in this situation that I knew people died. Trying desperately to reach safety in poor and unsafe conditions, accidents are prone to happen. I weighed every consequence. Every hand hold, every foothold was pressed into harder than I ever have. I audibly pointed out every time I was climbing above certain death, every loose rock, every slippery hold, every steep move. I began to talk out loud to myself regularly. Urging myself to slow down, to be cautious, to keep my head focused on only the next few moves. I would get angry with myself when my foot would slip, and I would curse out loud at my foolishness. Slowly, carefully, scared and freezing I decended foot after foot until I was about 120 feet off the deck on a large ledge with two trees growing on it. I looked back up at the atrocity that was my down climb route. A narrow ledge gushing water, and splitting the bottom side of an upper slab and lower vertical face. I took off my rain jacket, the rain had subsided to a mist now. I had been waiting for this, I stripped my t-shirt off and put on my light technical running fleece and my rain jacket back on over it. I was shivering uncontrollably and began doing push ups and air squats on the small ledge. I put my hands down my paints and did air squats in an effort to warm them back up.
With the shivering subsided, I began looking down from either side of the ledge for a continued descent route. At first glance, nothing was inviting or obvious and I once again panicked. Was I going to spend the night up here to wait for dry conditions? I cursed myself out loud again, and urged myself to take the time to look carefully and closely for the safest descent. I mentally mapped my way down another 30 feet to a ledge that wrapped around a corner in the wall. I made it there and rounded the corner to a dead end. Now I was 90 feet up and had nowhere else to go. A 20 foot wide section of smooth, wet granite slab separated me from another series of ledges that also descended another 50-60 feet before disappearing behind another corner. Above me about 15 feet was a series of small crimps and a narrow, 2″ wide ledge. I climbed back up and began slowly traversing that with water flowing around my fingers as I crimped harder than I’m sure I ever have before. I gained a shallow dihedral and began down climbing through terrifyingly loose rock to the ledges I had spotted from before.
After descending another 50 feet I rounded the corner to find a sheer drop of about 15-20 feet down to a loose talus slide. I cursed again, so close to being down but a fall or jump would be certain injury. I tried to map a safe route down the slightly overhanging face but kept coming back to the same flaring, wide crack system which seemed to offer the only real solution. Slowly I layed down on my stomach and lowered my feet down into the crack and jammed them in tight. Water was flowing down through the wide crack, pouring over my shoulders and down my back and legs. I was jamming my arm as deep as I could into the crack just hoping for decent purchase. Meanwhile shuffling my feet down slowly. A few more tense moments and I stepped down onto the boulders of the talus field.
I let out a guttural yell of extreme relief. I teared up and pounded my fist on the 1,000 foot slabby face I had just descended in a torrential hailstorm and downpour. I squatted down and picked up a small rock from below my feet. I glanced up where I had just come, water still gushing down the ledges.
“You’re an absolute idiot” I said out loud to myself through chattering teeth. I put the rock in my backpack, I’m going to drill a hole in it and make it the handle to the sliding door in the van. To remind me to listen to the mountains every time they speak. Because they truly, truly, don’t give a shit.
I trotted off downhill in hopes to get my warmth back. I stopped after about 10 minutes of jogging and glanced back at the ridge right before I rounded the corner to the Ypsilon Lake descent.
“I wonder if the weather will be good tomorrow, it would be nice to try again.” I thought.
“You really are an idiot” I said out loud again and trotted off to run the 6 miles back to the van. I may not be injured, I may have gotten away with murder, and come closer to accidental death by mountain than ever before, but for some reason I’m in no way deterred. I’m just more determined to prevail. I’m more determined now thanI was before I spent an hour overwhelmingly terrified of my seemingly certain demise. In that, lies the drive that pulls us all aimlessly forward into these dreams were so captivated by.