| Humboldt in Winter: Walkin' the Cat
Humboldt in Winter: Walkin' the Cat
Route: East approach
Length: 13 miles RT
Vertical: 5600 feet
Ascent time: 6 hours
Total time: 11 hours
Michael, John, Rob, Kevin, Dan, Britt, Jim
It's the last weekend of the 2010 winter season. Eleven 14ers down, one to go. It's been a great winter, so why tempt fate with something challenging? Snowpack conditions in the Sangre last week are surprisingly good, so I decide to return for Humboldt. Kevin Baker puts in a trench the week before, but then we get blessed with 16" of new snow and lots of wind.
Cheap Thrills: The Catwalk.
We take the southerly of the two east ridges through the trees.
Entering the Wet Mountain Valley, the eastern Sangre looks pretty covered. Some boils off the tops of the peaks are foreshadow the winds that are to make the catwalk a little more interesting.
First view of eastern Sangre.
The day starts out pretty nice.
Britt and I take the "casual start."
Finally booted up and on the road, I begin to hit it hard to catch the early group and see what we've got. Britt calls me back. He decides not to summit, bids me well, I take off solo. It's 8:16 am.
The morning sun is hot, I'm drenched in sweat, not making very good time. A turn north follows the group's tracks another 10 minutes to the first ridge. I pull over to drop skis, don boots and snowshoes, and stash water. It's 9:39 am. I'm a half hour behind schedule, but figure I can catch the group by 10:45 am, plus 20 minutes to change out gear. I'm shuffling up the ridge on snowshoes by 9:56 am. 1300 verts down, 4300 to go. At least the ridge will burn off some vertical.
I'm impressed with the crew's route-finding, and the quality of the snowpack. Finally making decent time, I'm at treeline by 11 am. The slope above looks steeper than the low 20's map calculation. It's a large wind-loaded snowfield, with a wide run-out zone beneath, to my left. I could cut below the run-out on low angle snow, over to the trees, then up the alpine skyline, about 20 degrees or less. Or up the right side, which has some bare areas, but looks steeper. So where's our crew?
I find them 50 yards ahead, relaxing in the last of the wind-curled bonsai's, where I meet Rob Kevin, and Dan, and say hello again to Michael and John. We break for half an hour and assess travel options.
We go one at a time, connecting shallow areas on the slope. It feels right, and not as steep as it looks from below. We get to a larger rocky area where I drop snowshoes and change out to spikes. Dan plugs into his crampons. We pile plenty of rocks on the snowshoes. The wind is picking up. I thrill to the joy finally ascending a wind-scoured ridge.
The snowshoe stash at 12,400. (Pikes Peak in background.)
Cresting the hill at 13,300 yields a dramatic view of our objective. I approach the last snowfield alone, somewhat apprehensively. The angle is fairly low, no drum sounds underfoot. Where's the next man back? Dan's just cresting the hill 500 yards behind; he sees me, good. The wind picks up. I go.
On top, the ridge narrows considerably, with steep rocky drop-offs to the right, wind-loaded slopes disappearing 2000 vertical feet below into the drainage on the left. There's more snow than expected. There's some ice. The winds are gusting out of the north. The summit ridge looms impressive. I sit down to stabilize against the wind, and study the line. I scared. I'm trying to find within myself the confidence that comes after one has carefully weighed fear against risk. It's like leading difficult rock. You are scared out of your wits. You look down at your last piece. You look up at where the terrain backs off, or where you can get your next piece in. You look at maximum fall length, rope factor, and check for protruding rock. You separate fear from risk. At one point it clicks, you move forward with 100% focus. Only in this case, I lack the experience with what's right in front of me to accurately assess the risk. I'm alone. It's untracked. Gusts threaten. It looks frightening, even beyond the catwalk. Can I really do this? I reach deep within as I look up at the line confronting me. I think about Sarah and Dominic and wish they were here. Something clicks. I know I can do this. I get out my axe, look up at the untreked line, and prepare to stand into the wind.
I stay on the rock tops as much as possible. The microspikes stick the rock well, lending confidence in the driving wind and exposure. The rock is solid, though iced over in places. Deep, narrow chimneys descend into steep couloirs, partially bridged in snow and ice, dropping hundreds of feet to the right. I check everything as I advance slowly toward the steeper section of the summit ridge. I look back to see Dan starting across, crouching into the wind between moves.
On the ridge the angle is steeper, but the climbing feels more familiar. As if to allow passage, the wind backs off. I breathe a sigh of relief. The altimeter reads 13,850. I smile.
The summit: 2:14pm. Pieces of atmospheric energy from the next storm are already borne aloft in the western skies, headed our way. I'm thinking quick lunch, and get back across the catwalk before winds pick up again. Soon Michael and Dan arrive, in very good spirits.
We eat lunch, take some photos, and I start down, to encounter John, Rob, and Kevin, not far below. They all summit. I'm hoping they don't stay long; the sky is getting dark and winds are picking up.
Back on "snowshoe ridge," the winds are hideous, squalls kicking up snow, a steady few feet of blur above the ground looking like mist on a Scottish moor. It was nice enough when I came back across the catwalk, so I'm hoping the group didn't dally too long on the summit. I'm feeling good and prepare to head back up to see what's up, but waste a little time digging for more clothes, hoping they'll show soon.
A dot rolls across the crest of the hill above, then a second dot. Soon Dan, Michael, and I are looking up the hill in anticipation of Jeff, Kevin and Rob. After an eternity we look up to see a speck of black wavering in the ground blizzard. It's moving; soon followed by two other specks. Relief.
Meanwhile, Britt is up from his treeline nap. Despite the incoming weather, the mood is festive. We descend into the trees where it's much warmer. It's a little spooky trying to ski the sun-torched frozen snow in the dark. Already at the car, Michael is one fast guy. We hang around for an hour till everyone gets out. The beers definitely come in handy. The après-climb atmosphere is ebullient, as everyone expresses elation over achieving the summit and the exhilaration of navigating the cat walk. I certainly feel blessed today with more than just twelve for twelve. What an incredible winter.
Thanks to Michael, John, Kevin, Rob, Britt and Dan for a great trip today. Really nice to get half a dozen of us across that snowy catwalk and up onto the summit. Looking forward to climbing with all of you guys again soon.
Spanish Peaks at sunset.
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