Mountain Overthink


By Matt Evans
July/August 2014

Streaked and scarred by thousands of years of erosion, the gnarled rock pushes ever skyward in front of me. The rock twists and contorts all the way to the top, making this east face look as violent as it does steep. Standing like a sentry overlooking the headwaters of Peter’s Creek, Mount Rumble appears Fuji-like from other angles: that perfect cone shape of a volcano inspired peak. Yet this angle reveals its true shape, a broad half-mile ridge-top with sheer cliffs falling dramatically away on all sides. Unlike a true volcano, there is no friendly crater depression to waltz across even if one is to reach the seven thousand foot crest, only a double-wide balance beam with ten and twenty-foot spires hindering progress. The only access route to the upper ridgeline, as far as we can tell, leads up an ever-narrowing gully that terminates in a ski jump-like chute at the top. Early season snow dusts the highest reaches of the peak, adding a course texture to its already jagged crown. 

Yesterday, darkness had descended on us before we had time to circumnavigate the mountain’s base. So after reaching our camp spot at ten o’clock, all we could do was eat dinner and stare up into the inky blackness: imagining our objective rising four thousand feet up and barely a mile away. We thought it would be great to sip on hot coffee under cloudless skies as the first rays of sunshine touch the upper reaches of Hoeman’s Gully, our planned route to the top. But that is not to be.

Today has broken under dark, foreboding skies. Wind howls on the ridgeline above us and beats our rain tarp to shreds. Right now, staring straight up the Hoeman Gully is having the opposite of its intended effect. It is currently scaring the bejeezes out of me.

The gully starts out a hundred and fifty feet wide and a mere twenty-five to thirty-degree pitch. However, as it narrows to barely thirty feet wide, the slope seems to become impossibly steep. I can’t shake the vision of standing up to scan the route and just tipping over backwards.

“Whaddya thinking?” JR asks, noticing the look on my face.

“I’m thinking its dang steep,” I reply, “that’s what I’m thinkin’.”

“Ya, I can’t really see where those guys left the gully to angle up,” JR added, referring to the blogs we read about climbing Rumble. “I’d hate to get all the way up there just to get turned around.”

Staring up at the salt and peppered jumble of rock and snow, a mini swirling tornado of snow reveals the unpredictable nature of the ridge-level winds, we can’t help but question everything we ‘ve heard about reaching the top of the prominent peak.

Eventually the rains come, putting the final damper on our climbing plans for today. Grudgingly we pull out the map and start planning a lower level ridge-walk, something below the freezing level in an effort to maintain the façade of a late summer backpacking trip.

***

In a few hours’ time we are cresting the moraine that hides the headwall of Raisin Glacier, a mass of ancient ice slowly receding and feeding Peter’s Creek with a constant trickle of water and silt.  Depressions in this upper cirque of fill each summer with the melt-off from smaller hanging glaciers still clinging to the mountains behind. The one in front of us is a hundred feet long and half-again as wide.

“Look at that blue,” I say, pointlessly motioning towards the lake that neither of us can stop looking at.

“That blue-green is so amazing, it’s like turquoise and indigo and lime sherbet all rolled into one.” JR replies, staring at the canvas rolled out in front of us. The light is dim, the sky overcast, yet I swear l can see a thousand feet down into the deep.

“Look at where the main part of the glacier enters the water,” I add, “it’s pearl white under the water and it looks like it goes for hundreds of feet. “

As we hike around the giant piles of boulders left by multiple receding glaciers, we cannot escape the watchful eye of our primary objective: Mount Rumble. Still standing several thousand feet above us, it continues to loom menacingly down. Its sheer sides and snow-covered top look all the more evil against the background of a dark and brooding sky. No matter where we go, it’s in sight.

A few more hours of wandering the upper cirque and the skies continue to darken. Finally, the clouds give up and begin to unload their burden of water on us in the form of driving sleet. Carefully we make our way back to camp over treacherously slippery, lichen-covered rock. Now it’s only five o’clock, and we’ve got four or five hours to stare up at the seven-thousand foot monster towering over us with his spaghetti-string gully taunting us.

“You think we can do it?” I ask, ”I mean we are on the ragged edge of summer here. Look at the termination dust on the tops of all these peaks. What if it’s icy and steep?”

“Well, then we turn around and climb back down,” JR comes back as a matter-of-fact.  “Remember how steep that chute looked today? But that was from a half mile away. Once we got to the base of it, it was obviously do-able: not sketchy at all.”

“Ya, I guess you’re right,” I said.  Nevertheless, I stare up with vacillating confidence all the way through dinner and our evening cigars.  That mountain is getting inside my head, and it’s not doing anything but standing there, stoic in its lack of regard for my concerns.

***

Carefully I place a half-inch cam into a vertical crack just on the edge of the icy traverse. Though not recommended in any climbing book I’ve ever read, I look down anyway. Verglas covers the last three feet of rock leading over the cliff. Then it’s a forty-foot drop straight down to a fifty-degree scree slope of mangled, soccer ball-sized rock. I clip my twin ropes into the carabineer leading to the cam and get set to inch across the exposure. 

The first step feels solid. I lean in to the mountain and feel for a good hand-hold to augment the firm footing. Carefully, I push off my back foot and lean across for a promising horn of rock. Then, just as I get my entire weight perched over the precipice, the conglomeration of rock, dirt, and ice crumbles beneath my foot. My left side slams the jagged ground first, knocking my breath and bouncing me straight down on top of the smooth ice. Clawing desperately for purchase, the scree gives way to smooth ice-covered stone. My fingertips burn as I drive them into the impenetrable surface. The slope, the slick surface, and the downward momentum combine for an ice-water shot to my heart. I fear I know what happens next. Then my pulse slows slightly as I feel the rope begin to come taught and pull against my harness. For an instant, the security of the rope cradles me.

Then, a sickening “crack” rings out like a gun-shot from above me. Just as my lower-body begins to feel weightless beyond the edge, I see the cam yanking loose. The greywacke crystalline rock surrounding the cam disintegrates under the force of the rope trying to catch my body weight in a free-fall, yet another victim of the infamous “Chugach Crud.” All I can see is a black and white blur hurtling by my face as I plummet towards the rocks below.

“Ah!” I sort of whimper as I gasp for air and my eyes snap open. The gusty winds have finally stopped blowing and the top of my tent is dead still. My heart races as I put two and two together. Warmth and joy replace fear and panic. I just lay there, happy to be alive, but disturbed by the tricks my subconscious is playing on me. I check my watch, an hour to go until sunrise: time to get up.

***

By the time our water is boiling for coffee and oats, the first shards of sunlight are touching the upper mountain. I can see blue sky for the first time in two days. Even though there’s plenty of white up top, my spirits soar.

“I think Rumble awaits,” I tip my coffee mug towards the towering peak.

“You think?” JR replies, not quite as confident, “I guess it would be a shame to come all this way and not even give it a try.”

“Alright then, let’s get to gettin’.”

In record time, we both have our summit packs ready to go. With light packs and high hopes, we set off on our push for Rumble’s zenith.

We make pretty good time up to the two-story building-size rock that marks the chute’s throat. Carefully assessing the top third of our climb, once again I am amazed at the visual illusion playing out in front of me. The ski-jump that looked so un-climbable from below is very achievable from this vantage point. It looks like we’ll have to rope up, simply because the icy rock could be just slick enough to send us over the cliff band below the traverse that takes us to the top. However, the fear that gripped me all night long begins to melt away with the late morning sun. I know we can do this. Slowly, carefully we will proceed, but Mount Rumble will no longer be able to psych this climbing team out.

A few hours later as we finish our last rappel, feet firmly planted on low-angle terrain once again, the joy of accomplishment wells up from deep down. The joy lies only partially in the memory of standing atop a seven thousand foot ridgeline in light blowing snow, gazing out at miles and miles of rugged mountains and glacier-carved valleys stretching into the distance below me. A deeper joy springs forth as I remember my thoughts of never starting: self-defeating thoughts that maybe we don’t have what it takes to even try.

I guess the old saying “analysis is paralysis” holds true in many different venues. Planning of course is good, but sometimes sitting below the objective and obsessing can be less than productive. Sometimes the best thing to do is just lace up your boots and start climbing.

 

 

 

 

About the Author

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  • Matt_Evans's picture

    Matt Evans is a contributing editor for Shout! Outdoor Lifestyle Magazine. Matt loves to explore God's great outdoors and discover how God reveals himself in the majesty of His creation. He lives out his adventure in Alaska with his wife and three children. 

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