Mount Gabb (#65) and Mount Hilgard (#66)
Day 57, Mount Gabb and Mount Hilgard
Continued from Mount Julius Caesar report.
I awoke the next morning to cold, clear skies. With no water to make my oatmeal and no motivation to melt snow, I enjoyed a Pop-Tart breakfast, donned frozen pants, boots, and coat, then set off through deep, drifted snow.
All around, granite spires encrusted with ice sparkled in the morning sun. It was a magnificent and magical scene.
I skinned towards Gabb, skis sinking into the fresh powder. The face steepened as I climbed, and before long I had to resort to crawling uphill on hands and knees, boots sinking deep into the soft surface. Despite the high elevation, the face warmed up quickly. As it did, my concern for the steep snow’s stability grew.
After hours of taxing wallowing, the strip of snow ended, and I was forced onto the rock. The jumbled boulders were coated with rime ice from the storm. I picked my way up the precarious pile as the morning sun rose ever higher in the sky. On the summit, I marveled at the wintery world. All dressed up in white, the surrounding peaks looked like they belonged in Canada, not California.
The views were stunning, but my thoughts quickly returned to the steep, snowy face below, where the clock was still ticking. I returned to my skis and prepared to descend as quickly as possible.
Warily, I slid out onto the face, making a slow, traversing ski cut to test the stability. The snow held solid. I made a quick turn, which kicked off a small sluff. Another turn released more snow. As it slid down the line, it quickly entrained more and more snow, until, within seconds, the entire line was sliding.
I watched the small avalanche plow down the face below me, finally coming to a stop in a chunky mess of debris 1,500 feet down. I was unsurprised by the point-release slide, and skied cautiously down the line in its wake, still finding soft turns here and there but mostly sticking to the scraped-off bed surface.
I navigated over and around the bulging pile of debris at the base, glad to be on top of it, rather than beneath. I cruised down low-angle powder back to the lake and my camp. By the time I reached my half-buried tent, it was almost noon. I ate lunch and packed my things slowly, debating about what to do.
The new snow was clearly making for slow and dangerous travel, and there was more in the forecast for tomorrow. The chances of safely finishing the massive linkup I had planned seemed grim. At the same time, giving up on my vision of the long, aesthetic loop seemed tragic. It would add days and miles to the project. More significantly, it would deal a significant blow to my pride – I hate bailing. When I set out for an objective, I get it done. That is the mentality that has gotten me through countless challenging goals, from hard sport climbing projects to ultramarathons.
I finished packing, still unsure of what to do, precious daylight hours quickly slipping away. I sat on a rock, head in my hands, stewing. Ultimately, a decision was necessary. With the unstable snow and more in the forecast, I accepted that attempting to complete the loop would be unrealistic and unsafe. I would climb Hilgard, hopefully avoiding any steep snow, then exit back over Italy Pass. I reasoned that the peaks I missed, Seven Gables and Gemini, could be more easily approached from the west, in summer conditions.
The climb up Hilgard proved to be quite enjoyable – I made my way up a steep rock rib on its SE face that provided excellent climbing on good rock, with some fun 5th class cruxes.
I emerged onto the summit plateau feeling much more content and at ease with my decision to bail.
The SW face provided a speedy, sandy descent, and by late afternoon I was hiking back up and over Italy Pass. The terrain was novel and interesting, since I had skied down it in a complete whiteout. I savored the climb between sweeping, snowy walls, feeling as if I were in the embrace of the alpine. Emerging over the pass just as the sun began to set, I marveled at the pristine landscape through which I was so fortunate to travel.
Storm clouds were once again billowing over the peaks, obscuring their lofty summits. I bid adieu to the remote basin that had been my playground for the day, then glided down towards civilization. As I skied, I decided that I would spend another night, strategically positioned to make an attempt at Royce and Merriam the next morning, in the off chance that the coming storm fizzled and I deemed it reasonable. Just as the day faded to night, I found a perfect patch of soft, dry dirt, and settled in.
I slept like a log, making up for the fitful night before. I was finally awoken after dawn by the cold press of my snow-laden tent sagging onto my face. I shook off the coat of new snow, and poked my head outside to a pristine winter scene. A deep blanket was draped over the meadow, flurries of fat flakes still whirling down from the grey skies.
For the third time in as many days, I found myself agonizingly debating what to do. The route to Royce and Merriam was mostly moderate, save for one steep section climbing to the col that separates them. I knew this spot was very prone to wind loading, and the unstable snow could be quite problematic. Once again, I opted for the conservative choice.
I spent a calm, quiet morning in the tent, watching the snow continue piling up around me, then skied out through the storm. It was a bittersweet descent, ending a trip that I considered far from successful. It would also likely be my last ski of the season. On the bright side, the new snow provided blissful, soft turns as I glided through the quiet forest. Further down, the terrain steepened, dropping into the depths of pine creek canyon. I made a few final sets of turns, finding pockets of snow that had blown in knee deep. It certainly wasn’t a bad way to end the season. I slid to a stop on the gravel trail, admired that final set of turns, then hiked down the last stretch of trail to my van, reminiscing on an amazing ski season the whole way.
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