| Without an Ark
July 22, 2010
Elevation Gain: ~3,800'
Wishing she had a snorkel… Otina (bergsteigen)
"The best thing one can do when it's raining is to let it rain." - Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Only the remnants of last evening's thunderstorms remained as I emerged from my tent at 2:00 a.m.. "It's going to be a good morning!" I thought to myself, as I boiled water and enjoyed freeze-dried bacon and eggs. Learning from yesterday's lackadaisical start, I wanted to be primed and ready to tackle the trail this morning, with not one but two Fourteeners on the agenda. The weather forecast had told us that today would be the better of our climbing days, at least it said so on Monday. Today was Thursday, but I chose to remain optimistic. The deep, dark skies would not betray themselves, and the best thing for us was to start hiking and discover what the day had in store.
The morning air felt good, cool and comfortable, maintaining my expectation of a sun-drenched morning filled with scrambling on deliciously dry rock. We repeated the ritual of twenty-four hours before, winding up the Twin Lakes Trail in good time, passing the lakes and making our way up the headwall below the Sunlight-Windom basin. We ran out of trail early on, and just rock-hopped up the slope, Otina leading the way by GPS track. Cairns greeted us as we crested the wall, and the dawning day began to cast outlines of the peaks ahead. And the rain began to fall. A pin-hole in the sky teased of blue, then quickly disappeared, as the drizzle grew heavier, alternating between consistent light sprinkle to gentle rain. We put on our rain jackets, and continued towards the first goal of the day, Sunlight Peak. As we began to gain elevation, however, we stopped to consider the future. The thought of climbing serious class three rocks covered with water seemed a bit too risky, and after some discussion and unsuccessful waiting, we decided to change course and backtrack our way to Windom Peak's standard west ridge route.
The sun's going to come out anytime now!!!
Otina peers down the ridge as I slosh my way along…
The rock hopping was easy, and the "nasty" scree I'd heard about didn't seem all that bad to me. We followed cairns up the ramp leading onto the lower ridge, then began the "longer than it appears" trek across the saddle and up the broad spine, hopping from boulder to boulder, intermediately following trail segments of dirt and grass. And the rain continued. The slope became rockier, but cairns continued to lead the way, although not always in convenient fashion. A few moves here and there caused some concern, if only brief, as the wet rock made things more interesting. Finally rounding the shoulder of the ridge, I found Otina waiting in the prominent notch that marks the start of the real fun, steeper, more serious boulder hopping along the upper ridge. The view of the initial start was quite startling, looking more like a class three wall than anything else, but the climbing was rarely difficult. Already chilled to the bone, Otina wasted no time waiting for me to stow my trekking poles and fumble with my helmet, as she vanished into the rocks. Meticulous route finding was a necessity, as one or two moves had me thinking to myself "this is not difficult class two, this is harder." Only on the descent would I see the err of my choices, as the route is much easier to follow coming down. Still, the climb was manageable, if slowed somewhat by the wet, increasingly slicker rocks. A steep, short scree gully led to the summit block, or so I thought, as I drifted around to the left thinking I would circle onto the summit, only to see it a hundred feet or so on the other side of thin air. Finding my way along the crest of the ridge, I located the actual route to the summit, where Otina met me, having refused to spend more than a minute on the cold, windy summit. I was feeling somewhat comfortable, but for the rain beginning to soak completely through my rain jacket. I made my way onto the summit block, took the two foot step across a surprising gap, and proclaimed myself to be topped out.
What climbing Windom Peak looks like… (image by Otina)
Sunlight Peak from the summit of Windom Peak… (image by Otina)
Yay, I'm on the summit… (image by Otina)
By now the wet rock was part of the day's plan, and we made good time descending the ridge. A group of four girls passed us on their way to the summit, and we saw another group, ironically enough wearing helmets, turning around at the notch below. I guess we weren't the only people crazy enough to be swimming our way across these mountains. We had scoped possible traverse routes over to Sunlight on the way up, and a series of cairns cleanly led us away from Windom Peak and across the upper basin to Sunlight's lower slopes, directly beneath Sunlight Spire. Solid, easy trail soon brought us to the increasingly steeper, and looser, red gully, where dirt and gravel took the place of stationary footsteps. This was a thoroughly tiring, annoying task, climbing this crumbling slope.
A good look at the route up Sunlight… (image by Otina)
Of all things, a fox was playing on the rocks… (image by Otina)
The solid footing won't last much longer…
Finally catching up to Otina as I exited the gully, I received my first good look at the upper reaches of Sunlight Peak. This was one peak that matched the photos of the route description remarkably well, and there was a familiarity as if I'd been here before. As the route starts, you may choose your path, either up and over along the edge of the ridge, or drop slightly down and ahead across a cairned path over talus. Either option will find the next stage, a quick up climb where if you're not looking, you'll miss the famous "window", which in our case, framed some lovely gray clouds on this day. The route steadily became more serious, and for the wet rock, more dangerous. We worked our way to the crux, a steep class three crack, break, chimney type of feature, where the first move is the hardest, requiring a tall step, then a mantling, wrestling sort of move onto less objectionable rock. My muddy boot slipped here, causing a moment of ultra-pulse heart racing, before I corrected and used upper body strength to find my way. From there, the climbing became reasonably easy, straight up blocks and into the cave like feature at the top of the ridge, where care need be taken to avoid blunt force trauma to the skull. Crawling through the hole in the sky was fairly invigorating, as the next step literally has you staring straight down into nothing, along the east face of Sunlight's Peak's summit block. Turning left, we negotiated the narrower than expected, yet plenty wide enough ledge over to the summit. A well earned, triumphant summit at that.
On my 52nd Fourteener, I learned a valuable lesson. No matter how much it rains do not put your camera in your jacket pocket if you intend to bounce off of rocks on your way up the mountain. As I began to take pictures, I noticed the lens cover of my Canon point and shoot was not opening, or rather, was sort of opening. It also wasn't closing. Trying to remedy the situation with a fingernail only served to smudge the lense, lending a certain blurry charm to my pictures on the summit, perfectly centered. Obvious scratches and a subtle indentation provided evidence that I had smashed the thing against rocks on my way up, and I feared that I may be done taking pictures for a while. Fortunately, that was not the case.
The tale of two cameras…
Mt. Eolus to the west…
Windom Peak… (image by Otina)
Trust me; this thing is much more massive than it looks in the picture… (image by Otina)
The summit block on Sunlight Peak cannot be realized via pictures, and cannot be properly described with words. That thing is massive, clumsy and surrounded by thin air. I was not anticipating the intimidation that it bestowed upon me, and with the rain in the air, neither Otina nor I had any interest in playing on it. We could only sit next to the summit marker and stare at it, thinking "what if." I'm not so sure I could reach the top of it when dry, though. It gives new meaning to the word "exposed." With the rain finally subsiding, we ended our summit stay and began the down climb. The wet rock had us both a bit on edge, but once we started, I quickly lost any fear I might have had. We executed our descent safely and quickly, and were soon skiing our way down the scree gully, weaving left and right. There is potential for some rock fall on that slope, and it's a good idea to observe the potential fall lines carefully. Fortunately, it goes by fairly quickly, and more solid ground is soon to follow as the route bends back towards Chicago Basin. The rain had stopped, the sun was teasing us, and we both realized that the cruise back to camp had begun. For the second day in a row, I felt completely satisfied by the test I had passed.
A careful descent…
Wow, she moves fast!!! ;)
Let's go that way…
What we just climbed…
Otina looks back at the route…
The hike out was simple and direct, with very few stops along the way. The wet weather had taken a lot out of us, and we just wanted to get back to camp and attempt to dry out some items before the next round of thunderstorms, which, in tune with the clock, came at 5:00 p.m. sharp again that day. I was in my tent allowing blood to explore forgotten areas of my feet, and realized that I was probably going to miss dinner. I didn't care. Over twelve hours later I rose to more promising skies, and leisurely began preparations for the hike out. A weasel strode through the camp, not more than a few feet in front of me, adding to the list of wildlife I've witnessed this summer, and reinforcing my appreciation for the remote Wilderness. Although, first and foremost on my mind may have been other things… I ate last night's dinner for breakfast, and broke down my soggy, dripping tent. The morning sun could not work fast enough, and I'm sure we carried many extra pounds down the trail with us as we finally began the very easy hike out. It was easy to tell where the larger groups had camped, as three separate herds of mountain goats loitered in those areas, making the wildlife experience complete.
Little baby goats are cute…
Anyone suddenly hungry for mutton? (image by Otina)
He's a big boy… (image by Otina)
In stark contrast to our escape from Navajo Lake a few days earlier, the hike out was extremely enjoyable for me. I felt good, my feet were cooperating, and the trail was friendly. We had noticed an area along Needle Creek on the way up that we wanted to stop and explore, where huge slabs hugged the creek and formed deep pools in between white cascades. We took a few more pictures, and I had the intent to just sit on the rock and rest, until a flash and a rumble from the sky above changed our perspective. It was barely noon, and Mother Nature was already at work, stirring up a churning soup of dark cloud over the San Juan Mountains. We would need rain jackets and pack covers for the rest of the journey. Three hours of waiting for our train in steady showers seemed appropriate, if very inconvenient, and the relief of that locomotive's arrival was significant. I was very patient, waiting at least ten minutes to attempt to dry out, before heading for the concessions car to satisfy a dream I'd had for three days. It was the best tasting hot dog and Bud Light I've ever had, capping one of the most memorable weeks I've ever had. Otina has finished the San Juan Fourteeners… and so have I.
I really want to go swimming… (image by Otina)
Simply beautiful… (image by Otina)
I hope our train's on time!