Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Decisions and consequences: Navajo and Apache Peaks

Lately I've been slowly reading through the classic text Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills. Before my weekly hike last Sunday, I had just finished a chapter about safety and risk mitigation. One of the things it talks about is observing decisions, both as they are made and after the fact, and determining whether they are good or bad. And if they are bad, ensuring that they do not lead to additional bad decisions which cascade and threaten the outcome of the climb.

In that spirit, I thought it would be fun to present last weekend's hike to Navajo and Apache peaks as a series of decisions, consequences, and observations.

Decision: Wait until the last minute to figure out where I'm going. Like, the night before, just minutes prior to going to bed. Consequence: less time for research on my proposed route, which was to go up Airplane Gully to Navajo and follow the ridge to Apache and possibly Shoshone.

Decision: don't bother setting the alarm clock. Consequence: Overslept. (Since when did 05:00 qualify as oversleeping?!) Trail-head parking was full by the time I got there, so I had to backtrack and park at a pull-off on the side of the road. No big deal, and led to an interesting opportunity...

Decision: park the truck as quickly as possible and head back up the road on foot to try to get a picture of the huge bull-moose I just saw skittering across the pavement in front of me. Inconsequential: he was long gone (or at least invisible) by the time I got there. But I'm sure he would have been happy to see me, too.

Observation: even without the perfect light of sunrise, there are some amazing photo opportunities in the IPW. It was a perfect day for hiking.

The moon about to set behind Shoshone

Navajo, Apache, and Shoshone reflected in Lake Isabelle

Decision: take the standard Class 3 route up Airplane Gully to Navajo. Consequence: it was safe and fun. There is some interesting history behind the plane crash that happened here in 1948. (Plundering souvenirs is illegal. Don't do it.)

Wreckage at the top of Airplane Gully

Observation: on the decent down the north side of Navajo, it's disconcerting to find, on what I expected to be a 3rd- or 4th-class scramble, a piece of forgotten protection in the rock from previous climbers who were using ropes. Maybe this route is a little more than I bargained for.

Navajo's north face. See if you can spot the hiker.

Observation: when Gerry Roach says a route is "impractical", he doesn't mean that it's a bit of a hassle when there are plenty of other perfectly serviceable routes available. (What do I care about practicality, anyway? You want to know what's impractical? Climbing a mountain, that's what. No practical purpose served at all. Practical is staying home and doing yard work.) No, what he means is he doesn't recommend it, and unless you really know what you're doing, you listen to Gerry Roach.

Observation: the Chessmen formations along the ridge between Apache and Shoshone look pretty serious. Gerry was right. It turns out that other people have done this traverse before, but doing it alone is probably irresponsible.

Amid the Chessmen

Decision: let's just go for it and see what happens. There should be bail-out points if it turns out to be impassable. Consequence: early bailout was imminent, but I had fun.

Observation: more protection, this time in the form of a piton, in the rock where I'm soloing down the ridge toward Isabelle Glacier. A piton? Seriously? What kind of unethical and underconfident climber drives a piton in a Class-4 route (at worst) where a nut would have more than sufficed?

Or maybe they knew something I don't. Hmmm.

Decision: a glissade down the glacier is the fastest, safest way off this mountain.

Two hikers and a dog out on the glacier

But this is what the glacier looks like on my way down the ridge.

Oh, wait! I made another decision this morning that I didn't even notice: leave the ice axe and gloves at home. But a wedge-shaped rock ought to serve okay as a brake. And as for my hands... well, there's nothing for it. At least I had my helmet. Self-arrest position, and Go!

Another decision: drop the rock before it hits me in the face. Consequence: one hell of a ride, numb hands, a bruised rib, and a funny story.

My glissade path, starting from the snow-filled gully at the top of the glacier
By way of a retrospective analysis, I think that this outing was well worth-while. It was scenic, exciting, and I learned a lot. People talk about knowing your limits and staying within them. But how can you know your limits without exceeding them once in a while? Fortunately, I didn't quite do that this time, though I may have sometimes bumped up against them a little. Still, maybe I need to stop pushing it more and more every time I go out. The thing is, it keeps getting more and more fun.

What I really need is a climbing partner with a compatible schedule.

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