Sometimes the weather dictates what you do. It's true from the ocean to the summit of Everest. We had been planning on doing Paiute Peak, spending the night, and then giving a snow climb up Crooked Couloir on Mt. Audubon a shot.
However, when looking at the weather and seeing something as terrifying as 60 mph winds – and on the divide, you know they're serious, we called a no go on Thursday's ski. In fact, I slept in till 8, took a nap around 11, and another one at 2:30. Sometimes you just get tired, I suppose!
Last night I scanned NOAA's prediction for Radiobeacon Mountain. High of 38 and 45 mph winds, not gusting t0 60 till after noon. That was do-able. Or at least more so. The concern wouldn't necessarily be wet slides, but getting off the summit before the real serious winds kicked in. Plus the four to six inches of new snow up there.
My watch beeps obnoxiously at 5:50 AM. I groan and tell it I want to wait five more minutes to get up. This is always a horrible idea. It's really best to get up with the first beep. But I don't, and five minutes later my watch is beeping again.
"Fine," I mumble, and drag myself into an upright position. I have not been sleeping super well. It's hot in our place, the wind was loud last night (I slept a lot better after I got up to close the window, until it got too hot again), I don't know. Anyway, as I mentioned before, my clothes for the day are all piled at the foot of my bed.
I do it even in specific order, so that my ski pants are folded on the floor, my long johns (which I choose to wear today, since it's supposed to be cooler), my underwear, and then my socks. My top layers are folded in similar fashion to the right. I don't even have to rightfully awake in the morning, I simply pull on the top garment where seems fitting, and since I lay it out the night before, I usually get it right. Things end up back to front sometimes, but never inside out, since I always check that while putting it out at night.
Dressed, I walk the two steps to the table, where I eat my cereal. Dan is stumbling around as well, starting his burrito in the microwave. He obviously has more faith in himself, because his clothing is always kept in another room. I don't have that faith in myself.
Soon, we are out the door, Stella yawning along with the rest of us. When we pull into the trail head, the wind is howling – just like the good ol' times in the winter! It's a bit of a struggle to convince the body to get out of the car, but we manage. I put on my wind shirt and gloves. I'm wearing more than I typically do for a spring ski, but it feels more wintry than like spring!
We hike along, noting that there has been much melt-out since Memorial Day. It seems barely a hop, skip and a jump before we are crossing the bridge that had been super sketchy last time. This time it has a nice, stable three inches of snow on it, making crossing the bridge a breeze. Crossing the bridge seems to be like crossing a line for my body and I feel like I just ran headlong into a wall. I stumble along, wondering what in the heck is wrong with me. We reach the meadow that in the winter, we turn left and up to reach the Arapaho Lakes area, but now we head right across what in the summer in a nice marsh, but for now is easy crossing. We stop to change into our ski boots so we can skin, as the day has warmed up *slightly*, and we are post-holing a few inches with every step.
I pull on my puffy jacket to change. It's cold! I think. Cold cold! I inhale an entire bag of honey stingers and make myself drink a bunch of water with them, even though there are ice shards floating in it. I do not like ice in my water, and I know it will set me to shivering, but I also know I need to drink.
Then it is upup! I like upup. Upup is, in a sense, slightly easier than updownupdownupdown. With upup, my body gets into a rhythm, and it goes just up. Updownupdownupdown just exhausts me. It's not long before I'm feeling better. I am sometimes very good at recognizing when I am simply hungry, and that I am not having an off day, but need food! I am proud, and we work our way, winding through the trees. It is a fun skin. There is fresh snow, and I imagine that the ski back down will be indeterminable amounts of fun. I grin.
Today Dan and I are celebrating our three year anniversary, and I can't help but feel quite close to him.
We reach a saddle, and as we get our bearings, taking at look at Radiobeacon through a little gap in the trees, I apply glop stopper to my skins. They are icing up like crazy!
We dip down slightly to the base of the bowl of which we will skin up, and the monster wind attacks us. It has been waiting for this moment, and it howls at us and batters at us. It is not polite, this wind. It never is.
SMACK! It batters us first to one side, and then the other.
We skin upup, reach a bench, and angle towards a spot on the ridge where we will then traverse up the ridge to the summit. Simple enough, ya?
I am sort of in training for leading these things, and so I begin the switchbacks up the face. It seems obvious where to go when following a skilled leader, but when put in the position myself, I often fumble it. Thus I am in training. We stop, Dan pointing out a few things for me to watch for, and I set off.
Today I pay attention to setting switchbacks and trying to pace myself. I have a tendency for going at 110% then having to stop to catch my breath. It's *slightly* obnoxious. So today I work on those two things. I'm fairly proud of myself for the switchbacks, but find that my pace is still ballistic. Damn.
I reach the point I'd been aiming for, crouching over my poles as a particularly heinous wind blast comes at me. It is strange up here today. There is a sharp wind whipping up from the valley that twines sinuous tendons around my legs, trying to pull me off balance up the mountain, while at the same moment, a ferocious blast will come from above, catching my torso and trying to send me pompom over binding down the mountain. I struggle with both of them, urging my body to stay upright.
This sort of moment is where I struggle. In very specific conditions, I am apt to freak out. It involves several things:
1. I must be skinning, and preferably with my heel lifters in the high position
2. It must be white out, or nearly so
3. It must be horrendously windy
4. There must be a drop off to my left and right.
When all these things come into play, my self control disintegrates.
Since I had been battling with the first three for the whole face, I am already slightly battered by the time we are to begin the final push to the summit, which is literally 30 yards away. If I had a good arm, I could hit it with a rock. Now, since I don't, and since there are ballistic winds blowing from that direction, it would be neigh impossible.
The blast passes, and Dan takes the lead to the summit. And suddenly, I feel it. My heart is surely beating outside my ribcage, my lungs are so tight with fear I can hardly draw breath, my vision dips and reals as I become extremely dizzy.
I am gripped with a couple of bizarre notions. The first is that I am most definitely too tall. Somehow this is related to the fact that I am surely going to fall off the world.
They are connected, but I cannot figure out how. I have a notion that I am a kite.
Now, none of these thoughts is rational. At 5'6" tall, I am by no means a giant. And to fall off of the world is just ridiculous.
But all four items have fallen into place.
The slope is not steep. There is a good ten feet of ridge with no drop off, even though there is on after that. I would have to seriously mess up to go off the edge. I was comfortable on Mt. Toll, even though that was steeper.
The next thing I know, I'm clinging to an ice-encrusted rock, battering back tears. I cannot understand why I am freaking out. I look to my left: rocks, I can grab rocks, no problem. I look to my right: a few feet of snow, drop off. It's incredibly windy, and I can't see much beyond that.
"Dan," I gasp. I am trying not to cry. I won't cry. "I need help."
Within minutes, I am sitting at the base of a rock about twelve inches high, but it offers slight protection from the wind, and my skis are off. The summit is now so close I can taste it. With my skis off, and with a slight protection from the wind, and less white to confuse my sense, I begin to come around.
"I want to boot to the top," I say.
And even though the conditions are exactly the same as we head out to boot to the top, I am okay. I took out one of the factors that tips me over the edge from this-is-a-little-freakiy to I-am-a-shaking-heap-on-a-ridge – the skinning. Booting I am okay.
We reach the top. It just sucks. I cannot see Winter Park. I cannot see James Peak, I cannot see Frosty Mountain which is just a little jaunt along the ridge to the south. I cannot even see the remnants of the old radiobeacon tower up here, hence the name. We click into our skis and look down.
Clicked in, I feel comfortable. I can ski. I know this. It is windy and weird visibility, but it is not bad. From a skier's view, I realize what I could not as a skinner.
We start to ski down, and, even though cortisol and norepinephrine are still pumping through my body, I feel better. The first turns down the ridge are a little solid, but then we begin to drop down the face, and it is amazing. A perfect four to six inches of new snow, perfect turns, perfect everything. It is worth it.
I feel sheepish. I feel like a fool. There are certain things that I need to work on. The mountain gave me fair warning today.