Sunday, January 17, 2010

Damnation Gully

The excuses are there. You could use them and no one would blame you, but you'd still feel regret. You know because you've been down that road and you'll probably travel it again at some point. But not today. Butterflies keep you on edge the night before, on the drive up, and while you lace your boots.
The doubts fade for a bit as your competitive instinct sets in. There are a handful of parties already signed in for the Ravine, some of them left shortly before you. With a little effort, you might be able to catch them and your chosen route will more likely be free. You know you have the advantage as a soloist, there's no rope to weigh you down. Shirtless in the cold, you can push harder up the hill and still arrive with dry clothing.
This is the last flat ground you'll experience for a while. The self doubt floods back as you pause to suit up. Harness goes on, mechanical trinkets adorn, crampons snap into place reassuringly. You check everything, wouldn't want any unpleasant surprises later. The avalanche danger is low and the skies are blue and clear, as expected, so there's no help there. The wind howls up high and, in person, the route looks so...big. Well, no shit, what did you expect? The name - Damnation Gully - and the fact that people have died here are almost enough to send you packing, but the urge is shelved. Feeling almost detached, you crampon your way up the steeping snow slope. I'll just have a look, there's no harm in looking.
Soon, you realize you are going more up than forward and you've transitioned to climbing. Both ice tools come out and you stab them into styrofoam snow. Being a uniform surface the outwash of the gully is easy and there's a simple, calming rhythm to moving upward on it. Rock walls close in around you in a steep slot canyon. A steady stream of ice-pebbles flows down the gully, making a funny maraca noise. The angle tips back as the first ice bulge is reached. In the sun, the frozen water is soft and plastic; hero ice. A pause and a look over the shoulder reveals only sky. To look at the ground you've already covered you have to look down, between your the boots. This is the point of no return. A fall from here would send you rocketing down the slope for several hundred feet into the rocks below, merely crippling you if you get off easy.
The world shrinks into a 15 foot bubble of focus and upward progress resumes. As if on cue, the wind gusts down the gully and buffets your body around. With two sunken ice picks you brace for a moment, your head down as spindrift and ice pellets shower you from above. A clunking sound gets louder and louder and then a loud crack dominates your senses. A hunk of ice the size of a coffee cup ricochets off your helmet and continues it's plunge down the gully. Then another, and another. While waiting it out you notice your shadow is crisply cast onto the snow, and you smile. This is what you came for, this is the real thing. The wind ebbs and you claw upward in a surge of pleasure. Ice picks are scratched around on rock until they find secure hooks, boots break through an icy crust and paddle through unconsolidated snow, but the climbing continues. The wind gusts still come intermittently, along with their rain of debris, and the pauses take their toll on strained calf muscles.
The horizon changes as you round a corner and your upward field of view is perfectly split between blue and solid white. The wind is getting louder and small puffy clouds shriek by overhead. The lip of the ravine is very close. However, it's not over yet. The abrupt transition from the flat weather-ravaged expanse of the Alpine Garden to the downward-plunging gully has done odd things to the wind. As the stream of air passes the lip, it curls back on itself in a vortex. Through the intricacies of compressible fluid dynamics, snow has been deposited at the very top of the gully, forming a cornice. The upshot of all this is that there's a five foot wall of vertical to overhanging snow guarding the top out - a very distinct demarcation of where climbing ends and walking begins. You know you can't take this obstacle head on, it likely would collapse if you asked it to hold your weight. Tunneling through it might be a possibility, but again the threat of collapse is too great. Retreat is also an unattractive option.
Looking out to the left, the cornice appears much smaller. Snow and ice, the primary mediums of your method of travel, rapidly give way to rock and moss in this direction. You move more cautiously now. Ice axes are swung gently, and even then they sometimes are rejected by rock underneath. You hook features when you can and stick your picks into frozen blobs off moss that turn out to be almost as solid as the ice itself. Now your head is high enough that you can peer over the top. To a bystander you might look like a kind of hooded, helmet-wearing gopher. One tool is placed on something hopefully solid, while you holster the other to free your hand. Palming downward on a rime-encrusted rock, you place your crampons points on tiny indentations and stand up. A single forward step deposits you back into the land of the upright and evolved.
Success! Though not a boisterous person, you allow a quick whoop only because no one else is around. No one can hear you scream. A feeling of fulfillment floods through your body, even though you're already getting back to business. Hood cinched down and ice axes stowed, you walk though the whiteout, leaning sharply into the freeway-speed wind that tries to blow you back over the edge. Though your route was of moderate difficulty, the dangers were exaggerated in your own mind, and you're keenly aware of your status as a mediocre dilettante, none of this can undermine an intense feeling of personal satisfaction. No one can take this from you.

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