Friday, August 31, 2007

The Longest Day, Part II

More Tuesday, Aug 21

In my pack, as any good mountain hiker would, I carried some extra layers. In all liklihood I wouldn't need them today, but if you only prepare for liklihood up here, you could very well end up one of the dead ones. Hypothermia is nothing to scoff at, and the mountains make their own weather. Today the mountains would have a much harder time than usual making wet weather or lightning, but you should never take it for granted. I don't.

One of those layers was my white microfiber compression shirt. These are nice because they wick sweat right away from you and facilitate its evaporation, keeping you dry -- plus they do provide some extra warmth. But what I needed right now was a compression bandage, something I will carry on all such future trips. I had a fleece layer and a waterproof layer, and I calculated that doing something about the knee was more important than having the compression shirt. I decided to do a "survivorman" type video of my McGyver moment.

First I thought that since the sleeves were pretty small, a single sleeve might provide the support my ligament needed. It hadn't gotten any worse, but I didn't know how much of that was the ibuprofen talking. My guess is that this is a stabilizer ligament, and it just needs some extra help with the stablizing. A quick Google search turns up that it's my Tibial Colateral ligament, and yup, that's what it's for, so I guess I was right. At any rate, I cut a sleeve off with my sheath knife and put it around my knee. It was not nearly tight enough. So I went to cut some ribbons of the shirt to use as an ace bandage. Ultimately, I couldn't get one long enough, but I tied what I had around it anyway. I also took a little shred of the shirt and used it as a cord to attach the leather strap of my hat to the breast strap of my backpack. I used a plastic clip I had found on the trail earlier as a clip that could be undone easily. And of course the main reason I did this is with the ~35mph wind easily able to blow it off and me approaching a part of the climb that sported 600-1,000 foot dropoffs... I needed that hat, and that's no place to go chasing one. I didn't bring a spare.

The bandage wasn't helping that much. The climb from the boulder field to the keyhole was more "up" than I thought it would be. With my knee giving me a mild pang every time I bent it past about 25 degrees, it made it more difficult than I would have liked. At this point I was basically "limping", using my hiking pole to minimize the extent to which I had to bend my knee.

I caught up with a german lady, maybe in her late 50's to about 60, who said "my knees are shot, my ankles are shot, my hips are shot, and I can do it. You'll make it". In the end, I have to wonder if that woman's goal was the keyhole and she didn't know mine was the summit, because she didn't go past the keyhole. I got a lot of encouragement from several people on the way up who asked me if I was ok. One man back by Mt. Lady Washington told me this was his 7th time and that it wasn't dangerous. Every little bit helps.

I would have liked to have someone take my picture by the Agnes Vaille Memorial Shelter just to the left of the keyhole itself, but frankly it was too crowded and I wouldn't have liked the picture. There was a pretty young Ukranian or Russian lady sitting behind a boulder right underneath the keyhole. I stopped for a minute and made a little small talk. She said this was the end for her. It was too windy in the gorge on the other side.

Well, this is it. I'm here. The knee doesn't hurt too bad. I'll keep a close watch on it and if I make it up the trough I'm probably good. Plus, I have to check out the other side if only to scout it out for a future attempt. I could at least do that.

Up and through the Keyhole I went at about 8:25 am.

The west side of Longs Peak was gouged by the huge glacier that carved out Glacier Gorge -- one of the more popular attractions of the park. Long itself, from this angle, is just the largest of a series of teeth that line the ridge of the east side of the valley. As a matter of fact, last time I was in Glacier Gorge, I didn't even realize I was so near the mountain. Only after I got home and looked at the pictures did I recognize its distinctive flat top in the background of some of my shots.

It's a good 2,000 to 2,500 feet to the valley floor from here, and the west side of the gorge is in shadow. It's going to be a bit cooler, but I'll be working hard enough to make up for it.

The first challenge is a section called "The Ledges". The ledges aren't as bad as they look in pictures, although carelessness here could get you killed. If the wind were too much stronger, I probably wouldn't have risked it. And there is one particular spot which I'd seen on a YouTube video where there are two iron bars driven into the mountain to be used as hand and foot holds, and they were most welcomed. A fall from here would likely mean at least a rescue, if not a medivac, and the trail jogged at this point meaning it was basically down to maybe a foot wide for few feet. But all it takes is paying attention and a little care, and you're over it and on to a much more generous path the rest of the way to the trough. This doesn't mean you don't have to climb up and over several variations in elevation, but that was about the scariest part of the ledges.

The ledges trend basically downward toward the trough -- a little disheartening since that's that much more altitude you'll have to gain in the trough, but it's really not too bad. The knee was no worse than it was when I was hiking through the tundra hours earlier. I was slightly concerned that I'd make it, get back down, and my knee would swell to the size of a canteloupe by the next morning, but I kept telling myself "it's not that kind of injury".

All accounts I've read say the trough is the most discouraging part of the climb (although I'd read a couple of accounts that your first look at the homestretch could be pretty daunting.) You gain about 800 feet in elevation in a pretty steep scramble over a lot of loose rock -- although it's not all loose rock. There is a bit of slipping and sliding involved. But nobody was starting any rockslides of any substance, and I did my best not to cause any of my own. Occasionally someone would yell "rock! sorry!" but I never actually saw a rock threaten anyone that day.

Keep in mind as you look at the picture to the left/above, this is from the bottom of the trough, and there are probably 20 people in the shot. Some are coming down, some are going up. It's kind of hard to give a good idea of scale here. But they appear as little dots and they're clustered near the top. Well, they're not as near the "top" as they look. I'm using "top" here in reference to their relative position in the photo.

My steps were getting pretty deliberate by now. Take one foot. Find a good foothold a bit higher up than you are. Use your leg to left you up to that level. Use your hands and other leg for balance. Repeat. I just tried to keep moving -- resting only by moving very slowly. Never stoping. A few people continued to pass me. I had thought the hiking pole would be more trouble than it was worth in the trough, but frankly, with my knee, I needed it to help keep the strain off of it, and it worked pretty well.

The guy who had told me it wasn't dangerous and this was his 7th climb -- recognized me as "Missouri" ... on his way back down. "Hey, Missouri, you made it!", he noted. He seemed to be genuinely congratulating me, and encouraging me at the same time. I don't think he'd expected me to get past the keyhole with my knee injury and my slow pace. He said I should be at the top by 11:15. It was 9:30 -- a little over an hour after I'd popped through the keyhole.

I decided to stop and eat a little more. What you need while hiking and climbing up here is energy, and I hit my trail mix and more dried cranberries, followed by a little jerkey to help all that last just a little bit longer. I was saving the Mountain Goat bar from Two Brothers for the summit. My water was holding up fine. But I was having to blow my nose a lot -- I don't know if it was the dry air, the coolness of it, or something in it. But my nose was getting kind of raw, and my pocket was filling with kleenex.

As I approached the top 1/4 of the trough, I noticed a familiar dress coming down the mountain. The Mennonite lady and her party. I snuck a picture in. It's just too good a story. A girl in a dress had summited. Beat me to the top. Passed me on the trail, summited, and was on her way back down long before I got there.

This is not a race.

Later it did occur to me that I have no way of knowing if she actually did summit. She may have gotten to the homestretch and said "nope". But somehow, I doubt it. I have no reason to believe she didn't make it up there (I think the guy in front of her there was in her party as well).

I'll tell you what. I've always said I'm a big fan of girls who aren't ashamed of being girls. And an even bigger fan when they're up to a challenge like this. Do it in a dress, and I'm quadruply impressed. This one definitely earned, as Vicki would say, her Bozo Booster Button today!

I reached the top of the trough at 10:22 am. There was a bit of a tricky part near the top. I looked it over and saw the way people were trying to get up to the right, which was possible for tall enough people with a bit of effort. But I could see a better, non-obvious circuitous route which was much more manageable. I think people don't see it because you appear to be backtracking by going that way. Well you are, but only about 15 feet. Much easier.

I stepped over a ledge at the top of the trough and whacked my knee. Ow! It suddenly hurt much worse. I realized my dose of ibuprofen .... the one I'd taken sometime after 4:00 am, was probably about worn off. I dug in my pack and got out my first aid kit. I had 4 ibuprofen left. One dose for a person my size. One guy stopped and asked if I was ok. I explained my situation pretty in a matter-of-fact manner, and he asked if I needed any Advil. I told him I had a dose for right now, but I'd really like to have one for the return trip. He gave me the four I would need. I think these were the same people that lent me the real live Ace bandage, Sarah and Mike Miziorko from Minneapolis. Thanks! I think I'm going to make it. I never thought of carrying enough ibuprofen for an inflamational injury on the trail. I will carry 16 from now on.

The next section between the trough and the homestretch is called the narrows. If the ledges didn't scare you, this just might. The drops were much more sheer, and the trail not nearly as wide in the beginning. But there were plenty of hand holds in the rock face of the mountain, and believe me, I used them.

Right at the beginning of the narrows on the southwest face of the mountain, you look down into this large pit, and quite a ways down is a large black rock that sort of resembles a hearse burried half way up its hubcaps in loose rock. Not surprisingly, it's called "the hearse", and I'd say of all the falls you wouldn't want to take, this would be the one. Again, it's hard to estimate distances, but this one was ... hundreds, if not 1,000 feet, and mostly just ... down. And a hearse waiting right there to pick you up. How handy.

A few people die on this mountain every year. This is the least dangerous approach, but it's also the one most people take. A small percentage times a large enough number yields a significant result. Today, I think somewhere between 30 and 50 people summited. On a late summer weekend day it would be three times that many, weather permitting. The most recent death I'd heard of was a guy who did not turn back due to bad weather. He was too close to the top to want to turn back, and believe me I can empathize with the drive. His friends turned back. Rescue found him later. At the top. Frozen to death. Jennifer made sure to send me that one. Thanks!

A few years ago a Japanese guy was blown off a ledge by high winds. Was it here?

Time was kind of in suspension by this time. It's kind of the same zone I go into in a long drive -- I don't pay much attention to anything but this moment, so the feeling of long periods of time passing kind of goes away. Don't ask me how I do it, I think it's a defense mechanism. It just happens. I don't remember much about the rest of the narrows ... only that they went generally down a bit and didn't seem to be very long. (I was right -- less than 20 minutes) And then there it was. The homestretch.

I think.

I'm going up that?

Yes-I-Am! The odd thing was that I could only see a very few people near me. There were probably 8-10 other people coming up and down that thing, and it looked almost straight up. It wasn't, but it looked it. And you had to look close to see them. But there were little moving dots at the very top. That's it. Let's go!

Mike had told me it was kind of like a staircase. And it was, kind of. A really really steep one, with a few places that were practically troughs of polished granite.... one extending about 15 or 20 feet. I wouldn't want to have to go over that in the rain. And as such, there was a lot of knee bending, but my ibuprofen dose had caught up and the pain was an annoyance, but not much more -- especially with the distraction of the peak getting closer. And it did take the better part of an hour for me to get up there. But I was over the edge and on the top by about 11:20 am. And I took my picture by the USGS marker on the highest boulder a few minutes later. And of course, we all took turns taking each others pictures at the top. Mine was timestamped 11:29 am.

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