Mt. Tom is a magnificent pile of sand, talus, splintering pines, grabbing mahogany, stabbing ceanothus, disintegrating granite, and other ridiculous falderal.
And that's about as close as I get to insulting a mountain.
After all, any natural conditions can be met with good physical conditioning and preparation; difficulties overcome with planning, thought, and down-and-dirty-put-your-head-down-and-grunt-it-out stubbornness. The first, one can only plan around storms, wait for the sun to bake and consolidate the snow, for the winds to be calm. The second, I am building, harder now and with more focus. The third, well, I have in spades.
Low snow year or not, I am a queen of postholing. Breaking through suncrust and windboard seem to top my abilities as a hiker, my feet diving for the relative safety of solid ground sometimes 3 feet down. I realized early on in my adventures that this was simply where I was to live around snow. I expect a modicum of misery in this respect when I head up and out, but even I grow weary after thousands of feet of swimming uphill.
Mt. Tom's north ridge has proven to be my nemesis in this respect. Even an attempt at an overnight a few years ago led to failure when, in the early morning, it took me an entire hour to climb simply 200 vertical feet from my tent at 9200 feet. This past February, it took four hours to gain the last 2000 feet of my day, turning around at 10,200 feet. After a long stretch without snow, and warm sun to aid in solidifying the snow, I opted for another go under the full April moon.
I grunted and flailed in the TOF as my alarm sounded its chime at 2230, having only just fallen asleep after watching the great orange moon rise behind Black Mountain. The sage glowed white as I piled out, grabbing my pack and tightening the laces of my boots. Nothing stirred, no eyes gazed back in the beam of my headlamp, no breeze across the desert as I started my trudge across the sandy slopes towards the trees above. The moon played hide and seek behind the craggy towers, and the nervous side of me kept my lamp lit, scouring the slopes for signs of prowling critters. The air was surprisingly warm, and soon I had sweat clear through the buff on my head, my thin wool top and fleece jacket.
This ridge never lets up, I have found. Right out of the gate you climb with each step, often retracing steps in the sand. To look back down is to realize how steep it is, the first part of the ridge gaining almost 4000 vertical feet in a horizontal mile. I thought that, under the moonlight, my body might be tricked into settling into a rhythm, to ignore the steepness up which I strode. Too early, the first seeds of doubt crept into my thoughts, and I pushed them away with a smile and a too-cheery-for-0100-in-the-morning "You're doing great, Laura! Keep it up!"
Winding through sage and cactus, then ducking around the first mahogany of the day, I reached the saddle at 9000 feet in 3.5 hours. A nice, steady time for me, and I took a few moments to shove snow into my water bladder, already 1/2 gone with the initial effort. I tested some of the snow drifts above, and was pleasantly surprised to find them holding my weight and steps. I entered the tree band, the yellow snags glowing in the moonlight, happily stepping upwards towards my previous high point of 10,200 feet.
I broke through to my knee, rolled my eyes. "Here we go," I said to the trees. A few steps of swimming and I was safe in the next tree well, caressing the grooved wood as I caught my breath from effort. My eyes scanned the slope, looking for drier ground, but none was to be had save for crossing bands of snow. And so it went: five, six, seven steps across and wham: down into the sugar again. My poles were worthless, save for mildly broadening my arm base as I leaned forward and muddled out of my craters. At last I reached the mining cairn at 10,200 feet, and I didn't even pause. My head nodded in recognition of the spot and then turned back to search for the next path of least resistance.
The dry patches pulled me east, away from the ridgeline proper, and then would peter out into drifts once again. In my slow zig-zag across the great face leading to 11,000ft, I would fall in deeper, and deeper. For every 30 steps on the loose rocks, 10 would be back in the snow, my fleece pants now soaked and carrying small chunks of debris and ice. In the soft grey signaling the coming sunrise, I swam back to the rocks, scrambled among the tottering boulders to finally crest at 11,000 feet. Leaning up against a cool granite block, I set up my camera and watched the full moon descend to Feather Peak, the morning's glow warming the faces of Granite Park above the north ridge's long shadow.
It was calm there, quiet in the morning sun, with just the lightest breeze puffing over the rocks. Ahead, a short section of boot track was all that remained of someone else's adventure along the ridge. Exhausted from the night's slogging, I closed my eyes for a few minutes against the light, content to be snuggled down amidst the talus and the last scrub pine. Above, the remaining two miles of ridgeline towered, and unappealing mix of rock and snow that promised nothing more than continued misery and maybe injury buried in holes near the boulders. It wasn't too early to be calling my friends to commiserate and wish them a Happy Easter. Frustrated once again, I threw my pack back up onto my shoulders, and turned for home.
The crust on the snow was firm enough to form to my leg with each punch through, bruising my shins as momentum carried me down. Angrily, I kicked at the snow, only to sink deeper to unseen trees and holes beneath. I tried glissading between treewells, using my whole weight on the bigger surface area of my ass to break through and possibly save time. I allowed myself one final stop back down at 9000 feet, perched on the edge of the ridge and looking straight down into Pine Creek Canyon. After eating and drinking my fill, I pointed my boots back down the sandy slopes, jogging the deer trails and destroying my toes against the fronts of my shoes.
All my own signs pointed to failure, once again, and the dejection I felt was, well... me feeling sorry for myself. Oh, it'll be there another day, another time, altered only slightly by sun and wind and snow and rockfall. My trainer devised a brutal workout later that week, which I nicknamed "Mt. Tom". I know how to change myself to make this happen; I know how to put my head down and work to get ready. And all the while the ridge stares down on me, impassive, looming, daring.
I've thrown the gauntlet at myself, this time. I know what I need to do, and I know who I need to get past to do it, to regain that confidence in myself.
Bring it, bitch.
From the luckiest girl in the world:
Climb Hard. Be Safe.