Sunday, May 29, 2011

Kearsarge Windstorm

The parking lot at Onion Valley is virtually empty - save for a small group of people laying out gear. The wind is picking up, they are laughing about having to weight down the lighter stuff with rocks.

The snow level is surprisingly low, crampons go on after the first set of switchbacks. The snow has melted and refrozen, but the crampons bite securely into the crust and I'm able to move at a good pace. The trail soon peters out - and eager to get in some practice climbing steep terrain I set off cross country.

Despite the cobalt sky, it is very cold. The wind swirls and buffets, on the steepest sections I slow my pace, concentrating on my breath. Just below Gilbert Lake I come upon 3 people who have camped there the night before. One of the party expresses concern about me being alone, and invites me to continue hiking up with them. I thank them but decline, preferring to set my own pace (they are bronzed, uber-athletic, with ice axes, ropes/harness...)

About 2/3 of the way up the very steep ridge before the final ascent to the pass I pause to catch my breath. The wind has stilled for a moment - gloves tucked securely under my arm I reach for the camera. Suddenly, a gust of wind so strong that I stagger and fall to my knees, automatically digging in with the toe points of the crampons. The gloves are swirled away over the side of the mountain.

Heart thudding, I carefully regain my footing and decide that 'down' sounds a lot better than 'up' at this point. Bare hands aching with cold, I carefully climb down, making sure each step is secure. Crossing the bowl high above Flower Lake I suddenly crash though the snow up to my hips. Wallowing awkwardly, I manage to free my right leg, but the left leg is completely stuck, the crampon jammed between two rocks.

Adrenaline surges through my body - with cold, shaky hands I tug on the leg, twisting, yanking. Nothing. The wind is horrible - roaring through the trees, clouds streaming across the sun.  I think of the Jack London story "To Build a Fire" and redouble my efforts.

Then like a cork from a bottle my foot pops out of the still imprisoned boot. With bare hands I dig down, down into the snow and using my trekking pole like a lever twist and pry the boot loose. With stiff, clumsy fingers I manage to undo the gaiter, undo the bindings on the crampon, unlace the boot. Dig out the packed snow. Jam my aching foot back in the boot. Somehow lace up the boot. Re-attach the crampon. The gaiter is stuffed down the front of my jacket, plum colored hands held against my torso for warmth.

Thoroughly rattled, I have a hard time following my own trail for the return but finally, after some steep, rocky down climbing find myself on the muddy switchbacks above the parking lot. I sit down to take off my crampons. My hands are hideous - swollen, reddish purple, dirt and grit jammed under the nails. I sit for some time in the sunlight - thinking about the joy of being alone on a mountain, but also about about hubris, ego. Complacency.

Back in Lone Pine, even before getting coffee, I stop in at Elevation and buy two new pairs of Mountain Hardware gloves.


  1. Your application for the Darwin Awards has been received - keep this up and you'll win for sure :)

    I saw The Way Back last night - I'll think you'll like it.

    Martin K

  2. Martin,

    I'm goin' for gold I tell you!

    Chloe M.

  3. I'm surprised it's that cold this late in the year. Would you have been able to get down without a boot, perhaps hopping? Were there other people coming up or down the trail to lend a hand/foot? These are the questions the Darwin Awards committee want to know.

  4. A cold front moved through over the weekend - and the wind chill was pretty severe. The committee should know that if I'd managed to hang onto my gloves the situation wouldn't have been so dire.

    I don't think "hopping" would have worked, although honestly, that thought did cross my mind at one point.....

    Chloe M.