Last Gasp Mountain

The thought of recording the glorious horror of this trip helped to sustain me during the many hours of this largely miserable experience that ended well.

And that is the makings of a great adventure:

Great Adventure (my personal definition)

A dangerous undertaking demanding a higher than expected level of physical, emotional, and intellectual effort that ends well.

A trip like this is an unexpected but secretly hoped for blessing.  In fact, if we dare expect it, then the possibility evaporates.  Such opportunities only come from pushing the envelope of capability by selecting adventures that match our most optimistic opinion of our willingness to suffer. This was such a trip.

It was the first trip of the season; I was not yet in shape, but figured I could pull it off by trying harder.

The trip started bad:  driving in the dark with bad visibility and roads from falling snow, not sure how to find the turnoff to the trailhead in a whiteout, setting up camp in a snow storm.

But we persevered.  And by morning, our day was perfect:  single digit temperature with no wind.

My friend, Joe, had joined us for some prep work for a trip to Bolivia that he and I were taking 30 days hence.  The three of us started off from the Missouri Gulch trailhead at 7am.  We managed a good pace early on — the first 2000′ of elevation fell in 1 hour and 45 minutes. Then our luck turn against us.

The Joes in Missouri Gulch on the way to Mt Missouri

We made a route finding error.  Rather than continue closer to the end of the Gulch, we turned up about 1 mile too soon (position #1 on map) to climb a couloir to reach the ridgeline above us on our right. Dawson’s guidebook said, “crest the ridge at the obvious saddle.”  I guess we should have been more careful than assume anything is obvious once surrounded by peaks on 3 sides. This mistake would cost us by putting us in steeper and looser

Our route up and down Mt Missouri from Missouri Gulch trailhead. The correct route is our descent route.

terrain and force us to traverse a long, rocky ridge instead of a smooth valley floor.  And the snow was loose; it felt like climbing a pile of sugar:  three steps up and two slides back. This more challenging terrain kicked my ass and depleted my main fuel tank; I had not yet gotten into high peak climbing shape since the end of downhill ski season.

About 1/2 way up the to the ridge, Joe yelled up that he was turning back to wait at the truck.  I wasn’t tempted to retreat, but I sure could understand the decision.

I reached the ridge line at 12:20pm. It had taken me nearly 3 hours to climb to the ridge. The spot we reached was a pleasant spot with a wide flat area and a view of the entire Rockies, and we were perfectly happy to enjoy the wonderful views because we didn’t yet know that we had climbed up the wrong place.

It took over an hour of carrying skis while stumbling across thinly snow-covered rocky slopes for over a mile to figure out we had done it wrong; and that conclusion only known for certain after we reached the top of the correct couloir.

We had burned precious time and energy, but now we were close.

From the saddle above the correct couloir (where we left our skis), we climbed up a steep, icy slope. As I struggled up the slope toward the summit gasping for air and resting every 5 steps, I had the dread of a false summit. I willed myself into hoping it was the summit.  I needed it to be the summit.

It wasn’t the summit.  I looked left and three-quarters of a mile down the ridge was a peak apparently 100-200 feet higher.  It was 2pm; Brian said, “let’s hurry, we have a long way to go!”  I was too tired to say what I was thinking.

Cleaned up a bit, my thoughts went along the lines of:  “Hurry?  I don’t know if I can keep going!”

I put one foot in front of the other and slowly made progress.  Time was ticking away, but I could do little more than shorten the length of my frequent rests.

About 300 feet from the summit, a steep cornice blocked the ridge. To continue, we had to descend a short distance and make a technical traverse above a steep slope on Missouri’s SW corner; I made it across by kicking steps and desperately using the self arrest handle on my ski poles to find some purchase on the loose snow.  As I stepped out of danger, I immediately dreaded the return trip.

We reached the summit @ 3pm; it took 8 hours to reach the summit. After taking a few minutes to collect my breath, I remarked to Brian that this was such a terrible climb that it will be remembered fondly. He agreed; always, the glory is in the struggle.

I ate and drank the rest of my supplies and hoped for a second wind; I couldn’t afford to save anything for the trip back.  I had to hope a ski descent would be fast enough to get me back to civilization before running completely out of fuel.

With 4 hours of light left, we started back across the summit ridge, hoping for good luck.

The traverse back to the descent saddle was legal murder, so no one filed a police report.  And then it was time for another change in luck.

Once the skis went on the feet, the trip took on a flavor of wonder which only comes of the best possible backcountry skiing conditions.

The snow was perfect.  We skied down the couloir and on down to within 100 yards of the truck.  It was miraculous: pure joy.  We got back to the car at 6pm.

When asked, Joe said he turned around because he couldn’t stand the slow pace of the climb to the ridge: it was too boring. I said it was true that I suffered for much of the day, but that having reached the summit and returned safely, the day felt like a great day.

Misery Axiom: never turn back because of mental misery.

More mental suffering (e.g., boredom, frustration, irritation) leads to more personal rewards, which can only be harvested through perseverance (corollary to Reward Rule).

Fourteener #20 in the bag.

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