South Face of Dokdaon
August 21, 2007
I hate today. Not today in particular, but the date. The 21st of August. Four years ago today I finished my hike of the Pacific Crest Trail, finished a summer of incalculable worth in my development, finished a summer of true beauty, finished it. As in over. Done with. When I reached the Canadian border, I was ready to be done hiking. But not to go home and return to the sort of life that civil society demands. The anniversary of that summer is always a difficult one for me, and climbing Dokdaon was not going to help matters.
The weather was actually looking semi-favorable at 6 AM, but we put off starting until 8 AM. There was an awful lot of blue around us an the clouds looked like they would burn off. We walked over to the slow ramp and roped up for the climb up the glacier, with me up in front at the start. The grade began at 25 degrees for some easy walking and crevasse dodging, but eventually stiffened to between 30 and 35 degrees. After 30 minutes of work, we flopped the rope and Bob took over leading. The snow steepened more, up to forty degrees, and we got bogged down at times running around crevasses. Near the top we crossed two snow bridges of dubious character to gain a whaleback of snow on top of the glacier and against the rock.
How is that for thrilling adventure? I thought as we rested about the day four years ago. About this time of the day I was going over my last mountain pass of the summer, wondering where all the time had gone. In three and a half months I had crossed the country from south to north, learning much along the way. And now I was on some frozen mountain kicking steps into its snowy flanks to get to the top of it, just in order to come down once again. My mind was elsewhere.
After a sufficient rest, we noted the thick clouds that were coming in all around us and, perhaps simultaneously, realized that we would see nothing at the top. We would reach the top, but there would be no reward there. Just another tic on the list. We began traversing round the mountain and eventually chose a snow finger that looked like it would gain us some elevation. More step kicking led up the finger and onto the rock itself.
I know that the below photo is just the same as the above, but without me in it, but I like it nonetheless. The bottom shows the local mountains, with the Nipple in the background and Endeavour behind that.
The mountain had a solid core to it, but there was a lot of rubble on top of it, which made for loose footing and much rock fall. Ever since I nearly killed Bob on White Rabbit, and then became a victim of rock fall from above, I had become paranoid about sending rocks down upon my friends and I moved very slowly. However, as we moved higher the rock seemed to settle down a bit and we began to work on larger blocks of talus. These might shift, but they would not roll and hit.
Other than paying attention to rock fall, my head was elsewhere, several thousand miles away, and several years removed. The PCT was formative for me. It was one of those things that I can point to and say, "See that? It shaped who I am today." How many events or experiences can you do that with? In a few years time, would I be able to point to Dokdaon and say the same thing?
And then I took a fall. It wasn't a particularly bad one, and resulted in only a rather bruised wrist and forearm, but it would have been fatal on White Rabbit. I was scrambling behind Mike and Bob in a gully and had found a nice rock nubbin for a hand hold to help get me up. Midway through the lift, the nubbin broke off and I began to fall backward, off balance. I managed to keep myself from going head over heels and instead landed on my chest and slid down the gully a bit. I was a little shaken up, but kept climbing. I needed to focus on what was at hand rather than moping about the past.
We traversed across a large talus field to a point a few hundred feet below the summit pinnacle, which we could now see through the mist. Mike and Bob stashed their packs but I kept mine on for the final scramble to the top. Fortunately, the rock at this point was the best we had encountered so far and the scramble, though slow for me, was pleasant. We topped out and found a cairn built by, and an empty sardine can left by, the Hardmen, our only views on top.
I felt like weeping. It wasn't so much that we had spent five days doing nothing, in order to summit in a whiteout. It wasn't from the fall earlier. Rather, I wanted to weep for 2003. For its passing. It is a time, an experience, that can never come again. I don't know how to regain that Beginners Mind that makes an endeavor so much fun. I'm told its possible to train the mind to let go of preconceptions and to experience life directly, but I have not yet learned how to do it. Until I do, I'll never get that feeling back. Needless to say, I said nothing about this to Mike or Bob, and the summit was mostly quiet, except for a few grunts and single syllable sentences. It was 1:15.
Mike offered to carry my pack down to the others to help me move on the scramble, and I was happy, eventually, to let him. Forty minutes of careful down climbing got to a snow finger that we had skirted before on the rock. Well, I was tired of crappy rock, so I got my pack back from Mike and donned crampons for a steep, icy down climb, reaching the base where the packs were in about the same time as it took Bob to move down the rock portion.
Rather than retrace our steps, we realized that we could take a direct line down the slope to the glacier near the col between the Nipple and Dokdaon. This was probably the route that the Hardmen took in 1967. Free to mope on my own, I took a slow pace and reached the snow ten minutes after the others, whom I found bowling rocks down the glacier. I tried to beat the furthest distance (held by Bob), but managed to come only within a few feet of his best bowl. The fun you can have in the mountains when no one is around to catch a rock on the head.
The white out was getting worse and now that we were back on snow we had to be very careful with finding our way: The snow and the sky almost merged into one seamless whole. We roped up and make a short detour over to the col to see if we could see anything on the other side, but the mist prevented us from gaining a new view. Back we went. On a rope I could still mope, but not at my own pace. I had to keep up the pace of the others despite my distinct desire to sit in the snow and just think for a while. We did find some cougar tracks in the glacier, perhaps from yesterday. Besides general interest, the cougar tracks gave us a line to follow around the mountain until we regained our own tracks and could follow those down.
Things were getting sloppy, and the reduced visibility meant that I could barely see Mike, just 20 meters in front of me. Bob took a spill and we had to arrest. Fine. And then Mike took a spill and I arrested again. Or rather I thought he took a spill. When I arrested, he got up (just a slip) and wanted to keep going, as he was close to a snow bridge. But, I was face down in the snow and couldn't see what was happening. Some choice words were exchanged after the mix up was sorted out. We down climbed and motored and eventually got to a point where we could throw off the rope. I wanted to walk at my own pace. I wanted to be able to sit when I wanted to, where I wanted, and for as long as I wanted to. I didn't want a tether or a rope or a tie. I was starting to lose it.
When I got back to camp I could barely talk. The day was crushing me and I just wanted to be alone for a while. Mike and Bob dove in the tent to warm up, so I sat outside and melted snow for water. I boiled water for hot lemonade. I sat out in the kitchen in the mist writing, just wanting to be alone to think. Although it was chilly outside, and my bag would have been more comfortable, I was better off out here. I did what ever chores I could think up after I wrote down the days events in my journal, trying to stay busy to ward off the cold. All water containers were filled. Soup was made. Dinner was made. The hot liquid of the lemonade and the soup made me feel somewhat better. Mike and Bob came out of the tent for dinner, and I was feeling good enough to talk. Bob noticed that I was somewhat morose and asked me what it was. I tried to tell him, but only got out that it was the 4 year anniversary. I couldn't explain why this was depressing, why this was the saddest day of the year. I didn't think he had a good reference point to understand. Perhaps I was short changing Bob.
After dinner we got into the tent to play cards for a while. My time alone had helped and the depression was passing. I was almost normal again. Tomorrow would be the beginning of the retreat out via the Scud and a whole new set of challenges would present themselves. Very heavy packs, crevasses, the ice fall at the end of the Scud. Hopefully, once we got off the Scud and into the valley below, the walking would be easy, with only a little bushwhacking when the Scud river got too close to the valley walls. Climbing was over. Hiking was on.