Sunday, July 24, 2011

Marley's Chains

If you recall Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol, Ebeneezer Scrooge is visited by his long-deceased business partner Jacob Marley.  Marley shares visions of Scrooge's past, present, and future...the sight of Scrooge's fate if his ways were to remain unaltered is enough to scare him sober, or in his case, to scare him selfless.

Sometime around midnight last night, I was also paid a visit by Mr. Marley.  

DISCLAIMER - this post is extremely frivolous.  Keep in mind, I wrote it for myself.

Background on the SnowCap double
The Snowmass - Capitol ridge.  Insanity.
I've made it no secret my desire to complete some form of the SnowCap double - that is, to combine the summits of Snowmass Mountain and Capitol Peak in one climb.  To do either peak in a day is no joke.  Snowmass's standard route is the longest of any of the fourteeners at 21 miles.  It is almost always done on a long weekend with a hike in to Snowmass Lake.  While it can be accessed from it's west side more expediently, it is still not a common feat.  Capitol, while "only" 17 miles, is one of the most time-consuming standard routes and is even less frequently done in a day.  Most parties opt to camp at Capitol Lake in order to give themselves plenty of time to negotiate Capitol's challenging upper reaches.  I've done both as day trips - Snowmass in May 2010, and Capitol twice later in the summer.  While it takes some fitness to do this, it hardly is a jaw-dropping feat.

To combine these two mountains,  Now THAT would be a challenge.  The number of parties who have done the "traverse" - that is, to follow the connecting ridge between the two - can be counted on one hand with fingers to spare.  Furthermore, this feat has never been done in one shot.  Parts of this treacherous ridge were done on separate days.  This is not to take away from these guys - I am simply in awe over the fact that it's been done, and I believe it is far beyond my ability level to negotiate that much spicy terrain.  Anyone who reads the trip reports will likely come away with the same feeling I had - absolute awe, but no desire to try it for myself.  Cave Dog did them in a day when he climbed the fourtneeners in less than 11 days, but I am nearly certain his route was not the ridge proper.  There is documentation here of a multi-day trip through the Pierre Lake basin done by another party, and I suspect it is also the route Cave Dog chose.  It is also the route I have been eyeing up for nearly a year now.

Two summers ago, I laid out a five-day trip that found me on the top of eight summits.  It was an appropriate challenge given my fitness and experience levels.  Last year, I wanted to set a more lofty goal, so a climbing partner and I attempted to do the four great traverses in four consecutive days.  We were unsuccessful, getting pushed off of the Little Bear - Blanca ridge due to high winds.  However, it became clear to me that it was well within my grasp given optimal conditions.  This summer, my wish was for SnowCap.  I had scheduled an attempt on July 4th, but my partner had to bail and there was no way I wished to try this on my own.  Enter Mike.

Mike and I have done not so much mountaineering together, but his resume is impressive.  Dude climbed Denali a few months ago.  He also has the aerobic fitness and technical skill to pull off a 20+ mile, 8,000' day fraught with exposure, routefinding, and other fun stuff.  Just a few days ago, I talked of this route to him, and his eyes lit up.  Game on.

What the hell were they thinking?
In nearly every fatal accident in the mountains, a theme emerges.  Basically, a laundry list of "things done wrong" could be seen by even the casual observer when hindsight was applied.  Let me shelve all ego and list factors that contributed to the visit from the aforementioned Jacob Marley.
  1. I ran Pikes on Thursday and my legs were leaden.
  2. My hip flexor was tender from a good week of training - Friday called for a flat recovery run so as not to push it to the brink of injury.
  3. I had gotten very little sleep on Thursday...and may have had a couple more beverages than what is considered good.  I spent most of Friday in slow motion due to my own irresponsibility.
  4. Mike and I got impulsive and changed our departure time at the last moment - from 3AM to 9PM.  Yes, we got off on the idea of doing the first half of this climb IN THE DARK.
  5. I was disoriented and felt as though we may be off route by the time we approached Snowmass's base.  My knowledge of Snowmass's west face told me that many huge boulders made it treacherous.
  6. When I confirmed that we had overshot and were off-route, we attempted to traverse south over said talus instead of backtrack and re-approach it cleanly.
  7. As we hopped from talus block to block, I was having difficulty making clean pushes due to the pain in my hip flexor.  I remained stubborn and continued on.
The picture has been painted.  Any of these mistakes on their own was manageable.  However, the combination of them all made a potential disaster imminent.

Close Call
I pushed off from one boulder to another, and then it happened.  A Sean-sized boulder began to roll out from under my left leg.  Had I had full strength, I may had been able to balance out of it.  That was not the case.  My balance thrown off, I went down with the boulder and my left leg began to slide under it.  I was mortified. Everything slowed down and I could see the worst-case scenario so clearly in my head.  I anticipated a snap that would be my lower leg getting crushed between the falling boulder and the stable one below it.  I envisioned being pinned, or at least being rendered completely immobile many miles and hours away from any hope of rescue.  It was terrifying.
That's it??

Somehow, the snap never happened.  The boulder impacted the one below it on a spot other than my leg, saving it from most of the pressure.

In a daze, I picked myself up and tried to recollect my composure.  Mike asked if I was OK, and aided by a massive rush of adrenaline, we continued on in the direction of Snowmass's summit.  Within a minute, though, I was so far behind Mike that it became clear to me - we were done for the day.

The journey back was tedious.  While I had escaped relatively unscathed, the fall had still beat me up pretty good.  I struggled to put my full weight on my left leg, and any uneven surface was painful to land on.  Talus fields and stream crossings were the worst...but the feeling of imminent doom had passed.  We got back to the car sometime before 4AM and caught a few hours of shut eye.

So what's the big deal?
Yeah, I totally get it.  Legit question.  Here's the difficult part to talk about.

I was a dumbass, and I nearly paid for it.  I should've paid for it.  That was much too close a call for me to shrug off.  Much like the ghost of Jacob Marley, I was visited by haunts of what could've or should've been.  This caused me much time for reflection.  Questions arose in my head that refused to go away - what was I thinking?  Why is this fun?  Should I really be climbing stuff like this with a son?  Why hasn't my frontal lobe developed?  Marley's ghost painted visions of a future for me that was not pretty.  The future that found me stuck Aron Ralston-esque, waiting for SAR to come pick up my sorry ass.  The future that had me gimbling around Cale's soccer practice with one leg.  The future that had Cale suddenly fatherless.

I'm so angry with myself for falling into the trap of believing I'm invincible.  I honestly thought I could do anything on a mountain.  "Eh, SnowCap double?  Sure, let's do it in darkness!  Off-route?  No problem, we're too good to be affected by that mere inconvenience."  The list goes on and on.  Over time, I've evidently allowed myself to experience what I'll dub "ability drift", where I began to think I could handle things that I can't.

Have I learned anything?
I sure as hell hope so.  Here's the thing, though.  I'd love to complete the double some day...but...if I don't, it doesn't mean I'm a failure.  I don't want to be out wandering dangerous mountainsides in darkness.  I don't want to attempt difficult routes when I'm not on my "A" game.  I'd never just "wing" an important race.  I'd get good sleep beforehand, eat properly, and make sure I was ready.  My mountain trips - at least the ones that are meant to challenge me - need to be approached the same way.  Pulling a Cave Dog?  I think that is out of the question now.  I owe that much to Cale.

Looks like I'll be able to handle a short run within the next day or two.  Hoping to be 100% before mid-week.  To even have the luxury of worrying about a small detail like my training shows just how fortunate I am.

I realize this is an extremely long post about something that is nearly a bunch of nothing.  If you've found yourself following this, I apologize.  Too wordy.  But thanks for bearing with me as I shake off the sound of Marley's chains.


  1. Damn dude. Glad to hear that it is only a bruised leg and an ego that took a whack. Sounds like you learned more out of this with how it turned out than had you nailed it.

  2. Wow... good to still be on this side of the dirt, eh? These things happen and hopefully like you, you survive and they become both educational and life learning events. I had a "situation" white water kayaking way up on Clear Creek many years ago that redefined how I approached things in the outdoors and back country in general ever since... And that's probably why I am still here too. Great writeup Sean and damned glad you are okay! (P.S. What is it about those night adventures that are so damned alluring?)

  3. Hey teammate! Ah how I miss your stories in the summer. I'm glad you took time to "Think About It!"

  4. glad you avoided more serious injury.

    you aren't kidding about snowmass mountain... in the news today:

  5. GZ - hope you are right re: learning something.

    Andy - I am scared to hear the details of your ordeal. Indeed, the darkness does add adventure to any endevour, doesn't it?

    Becca - I'm just thankful to be around so I CAN tell more stories.

    Weasel - yup, saw that today as well. Hopefully dude ends up all right.

  6. The old cliche of "live and learn" seems to apply lived and you learned (at least for now). The trick, I guess, is to see if the learning sticks or not...we all know it doesn't always. If it did, I would be working on my flexibility even when I'm healthy!

  7. Yep, having kids definitely exaggerates any thoughts after close calls or near misses of "Why the hell am I doing this". Glad to hear you came out of this ok. Like Jim said, hopefully the learning sticks. We as humans seems to have very short memories, and I often catch myself doing things that previous lessons have taught me that I ought not repeat! Stay safe out there.

  8. That hiker caught in the rockslide on Snowmass unfortunately died.
    As for your experience Sean, good to hear you “got lucky”. We are sometimes lucky enough to be put in check before we go off and supersede one risky event with something even “dumber”. Fatherhood has helped me check myself even a little more than I had in the past with visions of a fatherless son. It’s a powerful thought.
    Even something like last December’s failed hut trip for me was an eye opener. Luckily I had someone such as yourself around to give the run a sanity check. As stubborn as I am, I very well might have pushed on and found myself trying to spend the night in a snow fort with possibly horrible results. I’m not sure what I was thinking that I could just knock out 7 miles on snowshoes with 30-40lbs of crap strapped to my back without ever being on snowshoes before. Meh! Next time there will be much more preparation for such an event.

  9. Scary stuff, glad to hear you are OK. If you do this stuff long enough, mistakes similar to this are bound to happen, some of us luck out and some don't. Hopefully we can learn from these mistakes. Compared to many of my friends and others out there, my level of risk taking pales, but I have to say that having kids has definitely re-calibrated my scale.

  10. This is a great writeup and self-reflection. You are exactly right about problematic mountain excursions usually being a cascade of multiple factors, so this attention to detail also shows why you have had and will continue to have success in the big mountains. Best of luck at Pikes!

  11. Hey Sean,
    I stumbled upon this while "googling" marleys chains while I listen to "59 song" and I found this post. Damn, what a reflection, I and the other reader will never know the lens you now view through. My wife and I have a 6 month old and 2 months ago I shattered my collarbone playing slow pitch softball. This injury put an end to what I view as kick ass summers (downhill Mtn biking, street bikes, and endless days getting drunk on the golf course), much to my demise none of the aforementioned happened. I truly believe Marleys chains had been building for years and the fracture was a wake up call much like your experience. Peace.Love.Rock.

  12. I don't think that it is frivolous. it is part of auto evaluation that people usually do to know in the position that they are.