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Sat, 28 Feb 2009

A Walk up Brunswick Mountain (conclusion)

I lay on a small rocky clearing, a mile above Howe Sound, eyes wide, seeing nothing but black, ears hearing only silence...

Well, that's not exactly true.

The moon was a waning half. Through the tent mesh I could see clearly the outlines of trees and my surrounding terrain as they were illuminated by the sharp, silvery light. Furthermore, it wasn't completely silent. I remember hearing a bird – or maybe bat – flap by in the gloom: the Zen koan sound of one bird flapping. Also, there was an occasional jet aircraft sound. Much bigger bird.

Small tents seem to amplify sounds. I don't know if this is a fact about the acoustics of nylon structures or a quirk of human psychology, or both. Some people are afraid to sleep out in a tent because of the scary sounds. They "hear noises" and a Blair Witch Project hysteria maps these innocent noises to terrifyingly carnivorous explanations.

Me, I don't usually hear imaginary grizzlies sniffing or mountain lions scratching, but I have to admit I sometimes over estimate the strength of the wind. When you are tented on a big mountain and the wind picks up, you hear the sonic consequences of displaced air in a 5.1 Channel Surround Dolby Digital SDDS. The sound of wind on a mountain has a physical position and shape. You first hear it as a faint gathering of indistinct white noise off in the far distance – say in the right front channel of your wilderness stereo. As the gust gathers force, it adds detail to the sound. You start to hear individual trees to your right, both near and far, increasingly crash their branches in symphony. When the gust is over you, your tent walls shudder and you are enveloped in a tidal wave of noise from most all directions, left, right, front, back, and up (not so much from below) that includes treble, midrange, and basso profundo. Assuming you survive the flooding climax of the sound (I always have be so lucky), the ebb tapers off to a whisper in the left rear channel. There's a brief pause with subdued, ambient rustling as the forest recovers from the blow. This respite soon ends when another gust approaches, possibly from some other direction.

That night on Brunswick, the wind was practically non existent. I couldn't hear the slightest rustle. Maybe it was the missing rain fly, but it's an unusually dead calm that will still be silent heard from inside a tent.

In contrast, recently I was in the Catskills listening to hour after hour of THX, cinema quality typhoons sweep by my tent as I lay in my sleeping bag with a painfully full bladder. Should hold my pee and suffer bladder pain till morning, unable to sleep, or worse: wet the bag? Or should I venture out into the whirlwind and risk being swept off to Oz? In the end, the bladder pain was too much for me and I was forced out into what I thought was a Condition 1 night. But nope, it wasn't. Tents amplify sounds. In fact, this imaginary McMurdo strength "whirlwind" was hardly strong enough to reduce my degree of freedom in choosing a peeing direction. I crawled back into my warm (and dry) bag feeling a little embarrassed by my previous fear. Ha! It was only the wind.

Worrying about human problems approaching our routine lives can be like listening to wind from inside a tent. Somehow the thin walls of the status quo can magnify our fears. Usually its best to step out and face problems, come what may. Often they turn out to be a lot smaller than they seem from inside shelter.

Around midnight, the moon set on Brunswick, I began to relax in the dark, quiet tent and, at last, fell asleep. I slept fitfully, with indistinct dreams.

When the new day dawned, I opened my eyes, and after only a few minutes of luxurious stretching, I began my usual morning routine. I kept my mind exclusively on task; I just thought happy thoughts of fresh coffee, oatmeal, and dried fruit.

I didn't examine my predicament in detail till I started packing up the tent. Oh yes, where was that lost rain fly? After a brief search of my surroundings, I confirmed that the fly was definitely not on the small meadow with me. Checking the perimeter, carefully managing my thoughts as I peered down tall precipices, at last I saw it clearly down below me, a tiny blue dot 500 feet below the edge of a west facing cliff. Evidently, as I had theorized, I had accidentally kicked it off my perch and it had bounced down over the rocks to that snow covered ledge far below. Oh well. There was no retrieving it from down there without technical climbing gear and a lot more enthusiasm than I possessed for rescuing a $50 swatch of nylon. I'd buy a new fly after I got home. Getting home was the first priority business of the day.

When at last my feet were encased in boots and my pack was filled and hung on my back, I was forced to confront finally this primary task in front of me: getting back to my car. Remembering my travails of the previous day, at first I didn't relish the thought of what I would face on my return. Regardless of my attitude, there was little choice but to head back, and, oddly, my reluctance seemed to diminish significantly when I took my first step down off that alpine meadow. It was like how sounds that seem loud from inside the tent turn out to be hardly audible outside. As I started scrambling through rocks, gravel, roots, and brush, I actually began to feel pretty good. What a difference a night's sleep can make! It might also have been the food, the water, and that I began to be acclimated to the higher elevation.

Physically, I was still a bit sore and scraped up, but for whatever the reason, I was in fine mental spirits as I began hiking purposefully back down in the direction that I had come up the previous night. It was not five minutes scrambling when I crossed an obvious trail. Following the trail to the north, I soon saw a blaze. I was back on the Howe Sound Crest trail. How "lost" I had seemed yesterday, but the trail had been here all along. My fine spirits multiplied. Maybe this wasn't going to be that hard after all.

When I reached the first snow slope, I felt a little of yesterday's panic creep into my heart, but my spirits were just too upbeat to be defeated. I shrugged of any trepidation and unpacked my ice ax. Standing there with the tool held in the self arrest grip, I thought about crampons and dismissed them for the moment as I set my bare boot on the snow. I probed gingerly, feeling how slippery it was. Then, with a spontaneous impulse I brought my foot back gave the evil white stuff a kick. Damn snow! With the impact, my boot toe dug in deeply.

I stared down at my boot embedded to its arch in the firm, putty-like, old snow. I stared at my foot-plant like one of those Kubrick apes stared at the monolith in 2001. I withdrew my boot and kicked again, this time with serious intent to repeat the experiment. Again my boot plunged in. I put some weight on it; the placement was solid as concrete. I took a step and kicked my other boot in; it was another solid step. Suddenly, the light bulb went on in my head. "Kick steps!" I said aloud. What an idiot I am, I thought. On firm snow you can kick steps. And what else? Without further hesitation I plunged the shaft of the ice ax down into the slope, embedding it fully to head, my hand grasped across the "T". It was a solid handhold on the snow. Two solid feet and a handhold; with my free hand I could take pictures, pick my nose, or wave to my mother. What a fool I was yesterday. I know this stuff. Kick. Plunge. Kick, kick, plunge. Piolet canne, piolet manche! In a heartbeat I was across the slope, back walking on the dry trail. Soon I was at another slope – kick, kick, plunge – and then across it in no time.

As I rediscovered this very basic mountaineering technique (a technique I really did know about from previous study and experience) my mental attitude was instantly and completely restored. The transformation was so dramatic that I actually considered turning around on the trail and following it on to Mount Harvey as originally intended. Snow slopes were no longer something to fear. I knew this stuff!

Of course, mental health restored or not, I also knew how drained I still was physically. I had burned a lot of calories and stressed my muscles and tendons beyond their capacity to recover in a day. I needed to get back to my pals in the city, have a nice steak dinner, drink down some fine brew, and sleep in a hotel bed. In other circumstances I might have completed the circuit, but today I would have to be satisfied with the walk back. When I reached crossing of the Brunswick trail and the HSCT, I looked wistfully to my right in the direction of the summit I had bypassed late the day previous. I probably would never stand on this particular crossroads ever again in this life. Oh well! When you reach a fork in the road, sometimes it's best to take it. I turned left and began the descent.

Walking down five thousand feet of mountain on a steep, rocky trail is no picnic. By the time I reached the 3500 foot level and the narrow footpath widened to a more forgiving gravel road, my legs were on fire from the fatigue of walking downhill, my knees were aching from the strain, and my toes were severely bruised from being pounded against the inside front of my boots. I guess I should have been thankful that I had no blisters.

As I stopped to rest at the last, best vista, taking some photos of Harvey and The Lions before they would become invisible in the thicker woodlands below the edge of the alpine zone, I met a group of four people heading up the mountain, three men and one woman. These were the first people I had seen in about 24 hours. They only had day-packs and were planning to summit Brunswick and turn around. They admired my full pack and we traded cameras and snapped each other's picture.

Although the the road beyond that point was easier walking than the trail had been, I was forced to stop every few minutes and stretch the quadricep muscles in the front of my legs to drive away the cramps that were rippling through them. During one of those many rest stops I called one of my friends in town on my cell phone to let him know I had survived and would meet them for dinner.

I reached the column of bell shaped lavender flowers that I had photographed on the way up. A Japanese man, about my age, was standing there photographing the same flower. He had on a full mountaineering pack. I stopped to chat with him and we laughed about the coincidence in our photographic interests. He saw the dirty, scratched ice ax on my pack (I had noticed a shiny new one on his) and he asked if I had encountered snow up top.

"Just a little," I said. "It's not really a problem."

After another hour (I was descending about 1000 feet per hour – just as fast as my climb) I reached Magnesia Creek. Pack dropped, boots removed, I sat in the warm sun on a large mid-stream boulder soaking my feet in the ice-melt water. Forget booze and drugs; forget the glory of the Lord's salvation. The exquisite pleasure-pain of immersing one's abused puppies in a 33 degree mountain stream is orgasmic beyond anything vice or virtue has ever offered. I sat there for at least a half hour. It was only with great reluctance that I dried my feet and caged them back within their Vibram soled torture cells.

Not very far beyond the the creek, I reached the end of the trail. My car was waiting where I left it. Before stowing my pack in the car, I withdrew a partially used butane cannister. I left this "terrorist weapon" at the trail head with a "take me" note. I wouldn't be able to carry it back home on the airplane. As I drove away, I looked up and through the trees caught a brief glimpse of the summit – my last view of Brunswick Mountain.

As Doug often tells me, the best way to get good judgment is through bad judgment. I will never travel on snow again without remembering the utility of kick steps. And my ice ax? My beautiful, comforting ice ax? While I'm on anything frozen and slippery and tilted, I hold on to that wonderful tool at all times. I hold on to it like Linus holds on to his blanket.

Posted Feb 28, 2009 at 16:22 UTC, 2248 words,  [/danPermalink

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