Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The Climbing Wall on Styx Branch (Part 3 of 4)

The main feature of the upper reaches of the east fork of Styx Branch is the Climbing Wall – a long, steep cliff/cascade. In scrambling up the exposed rock of this “wall,” there are several routes one can take, but just because you can that doesn’t mean you should. So we each scrambled up the steep, rocky slope, each of us using his own judgment of what route would qualify as a should. Sometimes we had the same definitions of should and sometimes we didn’t, but we both survived. And, as we had hoped, all this happened under the bright glare of the sun. Our jackets and long sleeves were in our packs where they belonged. The sky was as deep a blue as I have ever seen. In the shade the temperatures were a little above freezing. In the sun on the exposed rock, we wore T shirts.

One of the significant features of this type of trip up an exposed scar or cliff is that it sometimes is so steep that you need to stay focused on the rock and only the rock. Move hand and grasp. Next, move foot and plant firmly. Next, move the other hand and grasp. Next, move the other foot…. These rocky climbs are not vertical, but they are at least 45 and occasionally 60 degrees, and they are sometimes long. It has never happened to me, but I suspect a long, sliding, tumble can cause just as much damage (and more pain while it is happening) as a vertical fall. You don’t dwell on this fact, but it does form the background noise in your brain as you look for your next solid handhold.

Whenever we find a nice, level spot we turn around and look at the ridges and valleys behind us – in this case, it was Parton Peaks, NoName Ridge, Anakeesta Ridge… the entire wilderness playground of the rugged, southern side of Mount LeConte. And up above us was the main body of Mount LeConte herself, our ultimate destination. We still had over 1,000’ of vertical elevation before we’d reach Myrtle Point, which would be hard but entertaining. “Work” in the best sense of the word

On this day, I really struggled. Probably a combination of fighting a cold all week, eating too many sweets and hamburgers and pizzas the past 6 months, and a few too many birthdays. As Greg sat on the rocky scar about 100’ above me, I said, “I’ll be there in about 45 minutes.” He thought I was joking. I hoped I was joking. Thirty minutes later I dragged myself alongside him and sat for a few minutes. He casually asked, “Did you bring your headlamp?” He was as subtle as possible, but we both knew the underlying message.

On these trips I always bring a headlamp because I seem to struggle more than I used to. My mojo on any given day is the wild card that determines whether our off-trail hike will be an efficient adventure that ends before sunset or a long, tiring slog that ends with our hiking back to the car in the dark. In recent years, a headlamp is as necessary as food, water, and toilet paper.

In fact, this trip was the first time I had the thought: Will this be the last time I make this trip? Or, if it’s not, when will my last trip happen, and will I know it’s my last trip while I’m on it or will I only realize it years later? Those are melancholy questions that never occurred to me until the last couple of years. [To be continued]