Thursday, October 11, 2012

Mt. Williamson 2012 : My first DNF?

  Yep, that is it, Mt. Williamson , 2nd tallest mountain in California, standing at over 14k ft elevation, overlooking the Owens valley.
  Despite popular belief, I want to confirm that is my index finger in the picture, not me making an obscene gesture at the Mountain.

To quote the accomplished ultra runner, Kilian Jornet, in a recent interview he said: " There are days when you take so many risks, and you feel stupid, and nothing happens. Messner says mountains are not fair or unfair, just dangerous. It is true. We know they’re risky, and that maybe we will lose our lives there. But we do not stop for this reason, because life is about keeping dreams. The more bad experiences you have in the mountain, more you feel unsafe, more you pay attention when you’re there. But you continue to go."

I finally got to experience some risk in the Eastern Sierra mountains this last weekend. I feel like I have been so sheltered in the past with well maintained trails on my hikes and runs. Our Mt. Williamson attempt, to me at least, was very humbling. Here's a small part of the story:

First off, let me heed you the same warning that I read and ignored off a trip report by about attempting Williamson in a day:
"Before I tell you all about how I hiked 30 miles, to the top of the 2nd highest peak in California and back, in 19 hours, you need to promise me you’ll never try this."

  We hit Shepherds pass trail at 12 midnight on Sunday after driving for 6 hours and being up since 6 am on Saturday. So, at the beginning point of the day, me and my friend Jeremy had already been awake for 18 hours after a crappy night sleep on Friday night. We were both tired but still extremely confident in our ability to get up and down the Mountain in a day's time. I had already done a few 50k's and also been up to the summit of Mt. Whitney before.
The issues started early on for both of us, Jeremy was having trouble regulating his temperature in the cold weather and I was having a sharp pain in my left hip, all in the first few miles!
Here's Jeremy with some early sun protection in the middle of the night :-)

  We were keeping a very nice pace all the way up to Anvil Camp, which is around 10k feet elevation. We had now climbed 4879 feet in 8.8 miles, in about 4 hours. We topped off our water supply at the Anvil Camp creek crossing with Jeremy's new UV filtration bottle. After a short break,some side planking for my pushup group on facebook, and a few gear adjustments, we pressed on through the 30deg weather onto the next section of trails. We had a bit of trouble finding the start of the technical, non maintained trail heading up to Shepherds Pass. After a bit of wandering in the dark,we split up to find the trail, and I found that we had to cross another stream to hook up with the trail.

  Shepherds pass really kicked our butt's in that high elevation. We spent almost 2 hours climbing the pass in the dark, trying to beat the sunrise at around 6:30. The temperature outside reached its low point once we reached the top of the pass. The low temperature, combined with being awake for 24 hours, caused us to hit a low point in our hike. Jeremy was insisting on us taking a short nap at the pass before pushing onward, but I did not feel comfortable with this since we were both shivering and losing feeling in our feet. In the end, we pressed on, trying to find a route to the Williamson bowl.

  We hiked in the only direction that appeared to have a trail, which was pushing us in the wrong direction and towards the Great Western Divide. Those jagged ridge lines were some of the most beautiful mountains that I have ever seen.

  In the panorama picture above, that is Mt. Tyndall to the right and the crest of the hill leading into the Bowl. The 3 pictures below are after we dropped down the first large hill of boulders, overlooking the boulder field. We were happy to get this far, but we quickly realized that we had no idea where we were going down there. Mt. Williamson had so many chutes going up it, but all of them seemed impossible with their steep inclines, loose rocks and cliffs. I spent the better part of an hour wandering around, attempting to find cell signal so that I could get on the internet to do a little research. The best info I could find in my zombie like state was a picture that someone took, looking down one of the chutes onto one of the alpine lakes. At this point we only saw 2 of the lakes.


   According to the summit post I found, we had to cross the entire boulder field and locate the lake called Lake Saint Helen of Troy. With a renewed purpose, we traversed the boulder field. What no one described in the summit posts online was that the boulder field was far from flat. After about 3 hours of route finding through canyons and ridge lines of boulders, we came to what we thought was Lake Saint Helen of Troy and the black stain on Williamson:

When looking at the picture above of the lake, if looking at the mountain ahead, which is Williamson, we were going to attempt going up just to the right of that middle slope. This is the best picture we took that gives a good representation of what the climb looked like. From the base to the top, the slopes rise over 2000' ! From this point it took us almost an hour of bouldering to reach the foot steps of the mountain. Once we got to the "right spot," we wasted no time in giving it a go. The mountain gave us a good smack down almost immediately. We split apart as to not dislodge any rocks onto the other persons head, and started climbing. We were expecting a steep incline, but did not anticipate a scramble up the mountain side, requiring solid hand and foot holdings to get any forward momentum. After about 20 minutes or so of climbing, I had progressed fairly far up and to the left of Jeremy. All of a sudden I got to a spot where there was only 1 poor grip to hold onto, and the hillside on each side of me was giving way, including my foot hold. I quickly wrapped my arms around the one anchored rock and held on for dear life. I had a bit of a panic attack and was yelling out to Jeremy that I was in a bad situation. He could not see me and had no way to get across to where I was. My choices were to stay there forever and risk rocks falling on my helmetless head, let go of my hold, slide down to a safer spot and risk tumbling out of control to my death or broken bones, and the last option was to risk a quick scramble over the loose scree to a ledge that was about 10' away. None of those seemed like good options, but I went for the ledge and lucked out getting a hand grip on it. I was able to pull myself up there and got to stand up for the first and only time on the hillside. After getting myself calmed down, I decided to work laterally across the mountain to above where Jeremy was. We had to yell up and down to each other in order to have a discussion about what we were going to do, because the route was obviously way above our ability level. Jeremy said he was at a point where it would be too dangerous to go up and we did not know at this point whether we could reach the summit from this way. I told him to stay put and that I would climb a little bit higher to see if the route got any safer. I went up another 50 feet or so and saw that it was possibly getting worse. With the distance between us and the increasing winds, it was almost impossible to hear one another by yelling. After a short discussion, we decided reaching the summit was not worth dying over and that we needed to just find a way to descend safely......

Defeated!!! This is the first time I had to concede and not finish a physical challenge I started!

 It was reaching a point in the day where we could not attempt another route and be out of the boulder field before dark. It was a hard decision to make, a smart one I'm sure, but it is also one I am now regretting!

Getting down the steep scree slope proved to be more difficult and dangerous then going up. We decided to descend with our backs to the mountain and control our descent with our feet, putting our arms out to the side to stabilize us. After reaching the boulder field, instead of finding another route up the mountain, we decided to travel the 15 difficult miles back to the car as fast as possible. We took an extremely direct route across the boulder field, hitting several dead ends that required jumping off 6 ft ledges. It took us a total of 2 hours to get across, going at max speed and almost no breaks.

  These photos are from the last bit of the climb out of the bowl . It was warmed up to around 40+ degrees when we were climbing out. The last of the major climbs, included a wrong route back to the pass, which tacked on a few hundred more feet of climbing up a steep loose mountainside. Once at the top we saw another wicked boulder field and did not want to deal with that, so we turned back around and had to find another way around. Once reaching the trail for the pass, we took a short break before descending. I was pretty beat up, but I was still thinking clearly and able to try and reason with my hallucinating friend, who was seeing signs, cars, trash, people and roads that did not exist. After debating whether a sign was in the distance for about 15 minutes, we were up and moving again. Going down Shepherds pass was a time for me.....I fell a total of 5 times in about a 3 miles time. Jeremy had one good fall, but he was no longer wearing gloves!

Looking down the pass during our descent.

             Nice view of the canyons on the way out.

 Once we reached Anvil camp we refilled our depleted water bottles and realized that we had not replenished our water in about 10 hours. I'm sure we were severely dehydrated but too tired to even realize it. At Anvil camp, we had been awake for about 33 hours and took another break. I took off my shoes for the first time in 14 hours and dipped my feet into the ice cold stream. We had trouble getting moving again since it felt so good to rest by the stream among the large trees. Eventually we got moving again down the terrain we were getting to see for the first time. I began having problems with focusing on anything far away, the hillsides appeared to be moving constantly further away and they were in a wave pattern like a flag. I decided it was best to just focus on the few feet in front of me, as to not veer off into one of the ravines due to a misstep. After clearing the technical terrain we even ran for one of the remaining 8 miles. Before reaching the 4 mile-to-go mark we hit the last incline of the day, a short but  steep 500 ft gain grade. During the final ascending grade we were treated with the company of Jeremy's dad and friend who were headed up to hopefully meet us. They helped us keep a good pace on the final 4 miles and helped us negotiate the final 4 stream crossings.

We finally made it back to the car! Our minds were in a fog, our bodies were beaten down, and we began to shut down after being up for 39+ hours. We hiked a total of 30 miles, over some not very friendly terrain and  recorded almost 11k feet of elevation gain. For both of us it was our longest and most difficult hike.

  We gave it our all, took some risks, but in the end came up just a little short. If we had been smart and took 2 days, we would of definitely found a way to summit the mountain. Next summer I will have my revenge here.... Until then I will have to accept my first DNF (did not finish) on the trails.