As another shower of little rocks slides past me, I survey the route back. Perhaps fifteen feet away is nice, solid snow: the good stuff. But between here and there are a thousand terrible, unknown hazards and you should know, there's a bit of a drop-off.
The line between safe and unsafe is narrow… perhaps fifteen feet.
|The following day finds us heading back to Emerald Lake. When we were last here, B.K. had pointed up and said he'd like to climb that. I'd looked and thought it was do-able and was looking forward to it; thoughts of work earlier on in the day had been banished during the drive up to the trailhead. Jusko's elected to take a rest day and will be following us with a couple of books to read while he waits.|
B.K. sets, and I match, a fast pace through the woods; Peter brings up the back. We cut around the short side of the first lake, climb up around and past the others and, in no time, we're in view of the cirque.
|We follow the same path up to the slope around the lake as the last time: through the lower boulders, up a steep, but short snow slope, and then onto a broad shelf strewn with boulders.|
|The boulder field abuts a shallow snow slope which leads quickly upwards…|
|…narrowing as it meets with the boulder field's upper scree slope…|
|…and then widening and increasing its upward angle as it climbs into a chute.|
|Ironically, this almost makes it easier to climb: you just kick your boots (er… trail shoes) into the snow to make little steps and ascend as though you're on a ladder. The difference is that you have to kick solidly and push the snow in, or your "rung" will slip or crumble. And that's why we have ice axes. You can plunge these puppies straight down into the snow in front of you and they're solid (well, mostly). If both of your steps happen to break, you tighten your grip on the ice axe and it prevents you from sliding down to the bottom of the snow slope where there are sharp, unpleasant rocks.|
|And that's how it is all the way up: easy-peasy. Until the last five feet. When the snow becomes loose and slushy. It doesn't hold up our feet anymore. It doesn't hold the ice axe solidly. It doesn't bloody hold anything! And beneath it the rocks are slick, loose, and slidey.|
I'm actually sitting down here (thank goodness!).
|It's difficult and a little hair-raising, but we cross that and move on to some exposed rock. It looks solid, but climbing on, we find that whole chunks of it are loose, held together by the barest excuse for soil. B.K. begins climbing the rock upwards, sending down little showers of dislodged stones. Feeling much more comfortable on rock than on snow, I wait a while and then follow him upwards perhaps ten feet.|
I can't trust anything. I touch pieces of it and they move and wiggle. Sizeable pieces. It requires a lot of concentration to remember the safe places to put my feet. Another forty feet above me, B.K.'s scouting around and yells down that he doesn't like this. I yell back that I don't either. Climbing up is terrible, but possible. Climbing back down this would be a whole 'nother beast.
As another shower of little rocks slides past me, I survey the route back. Perhaps fifteen feet away is nice, solid snow: the good stuff. But between here and there are a thousand terrible, unknown hazards and you should know, there's a bit of a drop-off. You might call it a cliff.
The line between safe and unsafe is narrow… perhaps fifteen feet.
Climbing back is simple. You just absolutely cannot make a mistake; all you have to do is be perfect. With infinite care, I down climb to Peter. The ice axe I'm carrying, once a welcome safety tool, has become a liability. It's awkward to navigate with it. I need to readjust my camera strap several times as the case slides off the small of my back in an attempt to get in front of me. Everything suddenly becomes a liability; it would be better to be climbing naked.
The six or seven foot descent takes a while and I'm glad of the muscles I've built up over the past semester as I wedge my hands and elbows into crakes and freeze myself there, testing each rocky foothold, pushing into the rocks trying to decide whether they are individuals—mutable and capricious—or whether they are the mountain—sincere and stoic.
I make it back and find something solid to sit on next to Peter. Several rocky showers later, B.K. rejoins us and moves around us and across the snow.
Earlier in the trip B.K. explained that he was trying to teach himself a new vocabulary, one without the word safe. Climbing he says, is never safe, but you take steps to mitigate the risk. You look at the situation and you ask, "Is my skill sufficient to mitigate the risk inherent to this situation?" Your only method of mitigating risk, your only "safety", is your skill.
We're in agreement on this point, but I feel as though there is a large set of situations to which he would answer "yes" while I would answer "maybe". The world does not cast itself in binary, but in choosing to engage with it, we must do so. Donald Rumsfeld spoke of the "known unknowns" and the monsters of the deep: "the unknown unknowns". When you're looking at a slope of loose sand and slippy snow wondering whether you can cross it, that whole slope is a mound of known unknowns and unknown unknowns. In such a situation, the question of whether your skill is sufficient to mitigate risk becomes meaningless.
|Peter's nervousness about the slope magnifies its apparent risk in my mind. Psychologically treating it as too much of a risk will increase its actual risk. I climb down to the edge of the slope and begin looking for footing and don't find anything inspiring. "How are you feeling about this?" B.K. asks. "I'm nervous about it." I tell him and breathe out the word, "CandyBars", weighting it with everything I'm feeling and letting it fall.|
Emptied, the slope becomes a surmountable problem. I am not a slave to the knowns and unknowns, nor to someone else's technique. I can craft the situation in my own image. I raise the ice axe and slam its short end into the snow-rock, scrapping it back and letting a pile of grit go sliding down the mountain. A few more strokes and I have a decent foothold. Slam slam, I make another. And then I'm across.
|We begin moving laterally back to the more vertical portion of our ascent, which follows a snowy spine down to a large, rocky out-cropping. When Peter hits the vertical section he slows down. A lot, and begins jamming the ice axe more haphazardly. This makes me nervous. Break the problem into achievable subproblems: why don't we stop on that out-cropping? I suggest.|
The out-cropping is stable with a wide top and a good place to take a break. I fish out a SugarInTheRaw for Peter (stress, exertion of will, and climbing all deplete blood glucose levels) and we all just chill for maybe a quarter of an hour.
|At the bottom we hunt around for Jusko, but don't find him and so begin trekking back towards the car. On the way, we pass by a pond that's opened up. Since our previous hike out here, a huge slab of snow has calved off leaving an enormous undercut and cracks spidering back into the bank. Some of the "kids" running up the trail see the big slab in the water and are coming over to the edge to look down at it, not knowing or thinking about how deep an undercut may go. No! No! We wave our arms.|
|As we get further down the trail we're asking people if they've seen Jusko. "Excuse me, sir, have you seen a guy about my height wearing all black and reading a book?" Everyone says they've seen him, but they're all saying they saw him in different places. "Do you think we should go back and look?", B.K. asks. I think about it. "We can go back because we might have missed him, or we can continue on trusting that he's intelligent enough not to let us miss him."|
Sure enough, a half-mile later Jusko appears. He made it up to the lake, read his book for a while, went back to the car, and was just returning.
Back in the parking lot, peanut butter, sriracha, and tortilla sandwiches are in order.
Back in town, we are drawn to a large sign that says SHOWERS. Inside, it's a laundromat with fifty or so washers going. A young girl at the desk takes five dollars from each of us and we get in line. Waiting, I read about how cougars are expanding their range eastward—they used to extend across the entirety of the Lower-48. One was recently killed by police in North Chicago!
Then it's my turn. Inside, the shower is super sketchy. The floor is all concrete and a little dirty. The curtain is yellow. The light is dim. There is no ventilation. But the water is warm and I'm happy.
Until my nose starts bleeding.
It's been doing this quite a bit since I've arrived in Colorado. Actually, quite a bit since I finished my physics thesis—that was an HP hit. And now the water going down the drain is tinted red and I have nothing but my clothes to staunch the flow. Oh well, just keep on showering.
I finish washing and turn my attention to clot formation. In the small, humid, unventilated place it takes a long time to stop it and, even then, it's still dripping. At that point, I seal the offending nostril with a finger, wriggle into my clothes, and head for the door. Which doesn't open. I fiddle with the lock and it still doesn't open. The door is somehow locked closed!
I knock on it for a bit and then give it some good pounds, feeling satisfied that it bows outward. At least I can destroy it if I need to. After knocking a while longer, I roll my eyes and shout the most manly, "Help!" I can muster. Instantly a voice says: "Are you locked in!? I'll go get the key." A moment later I'm thanking this random guy who's been waiting in line.
I get everything and myself cleaned up and go back to the desk girl and explain the problem. "Oh", she says, "we had someone in to look at that yesterday and they couldn't figure it out."
"I want a refund." I say.
The girl goes to gets someone who's apparently her grandma and I explain things again. The grandma looks at me and says, "If you'd pounded loud enough, eventually we'd have heard you. And you've had a nice hot shower."
Now, one of my great powers is coming up with witty comebacks days after when I needed them, but this time I'm able to stare her in the eye and say, "I didn't imagine getting locked in the shower to be part of the nice-hot-shower experience." She narrows her eyes and replies, "You're scammin' me." But, nonetheless, opens the register.
|We spend the next half-hour repacking the car, admiring the whole time the station wagon across from us (and perhaps its driver as well). You could fit a lot of adventure equipment in a car like that. Before leaving, Jusko goes to ask her what the mileage is and, as a result, we end up talking about our plans to get supper at the local brewery. She screws up her face and says we can't tell anyone she told us this (hopefully the anonymising efforts I've made here are sufficient!), but the local brewery is a dud. Probably the worst in Colorado. The Rock Inn is much better. It's B.K.'s birthday and Peter's last night with us, so Jusko and I purchase the meal: buffalo burgers followed up by a scrumptious bread pudding.|