El Diente – Mt. Wilson Traverse
July 23, 2018
At 3:20 am I sat up and made coffee in my vestibule while Squirrel paced outside. I dressed in all my layers for the hike and we set off, uncharacteristically quiet.
The stars! How had I forgotten? They blinked and shimmered as my eyes tried to discern their multitudes. I tripped a few times and forced myself to focus on the trail.
About a half hour in, I turned and slung my pack down onto the trail. “Hold on,” I told Squirrel, apologizing as if those precious seconds would make or break our ascent. I shed everything but my t-shirt and shorts. The trail was mellow, but we were both panting at 12,600 feet. I picked my way over pitch-black talus and lowered my bottle into the stream, screwing my Sawyer filter on in place of a lid. It had to be unnecessary at this elevation, but it was habit.
We hiked through the talus, struggling to navigate even with cairns. But shortly the sky began to glow blue-gray, and the most delicate sunrise drifted in behind us.
El Diente is listed on 14ers.com as a Class 3 climb, and the ridge traverse to Mt. Wilson is Class 4. I didn’t know the technical difference then, but I figured that Class 3 was Oh, fun! and Class 4 was more like, Oh, hell no!
Once the sun came up, the route was obvious. There were several rock formations on the mountain and we wove between them in the general direction of the summit. Still, there were walls to scale and boulders to grab and giant steps to take. I was slower than Squirrel, which I resented.
“Rock!” he called. A large rock (small boulder?) teetered down the slope and came to rest in a pile of scree. I smiled sarcastically and gave him a thumbs up.
When we hit the ridge, we peered north but could not see Navajo Lake. Like the ice palace on Friday, the weather made things ominous. It was a different world up here, I thought, the rocks against the gray sky. Sharp. Almost monochromatic.
Just before the summit, we passed two men descending. It was awkward; we were circling up on an exposed ledge, and I was concentrating too hard on the rock to give them a good look as I eased past. Briefly, they said they were on their way to the traverse.
“Wooo!” I cried when we reached the summit. (I think I’ve said Wooo at the top of every mountain.) It was 7:45 am and windy, so we stayed just long enough to film something we had optimistically scripted the night before.
We tried to read the weather, but it was barely indicative of anything – just a thin sheen of cloud cover, high in the sky. So we sat and ate for a couple minutes, and pretty soon Squirrel said, “Let’s go,” and I thought, I guess we’re doing it.
It started off just fine. A lot of hesitation and a lot of joy each time we realized that we were going the right way. At one point, Squirrel held onto the rock and walked sideways across a large boulder angled sharply towards the shear drop below. I regarded the move wide-eyed and whispered, “Yikes.”
“You can say caterpillar,” he called from the other side. “It’s okay!”
I laughed and shook my head. “It’s all mental,” I cried, easing my way across. I was immensely proud of myself – the biggest struggles in life are mental, for sure. Conquering them on rocks makes me feel like I can take on the rest.
But then we separated. That’s how precise this ridge was: a slight step up or down, and we were on different paths. Squirrel chose up and I chose down (it seemed safer).
We called back and forth and unironically gave each other the thumbs up. Occasionally I lost sight of him, and was immensely relieved when his pink flannel shirt popped back into view. Thumbs.
“I think this way is good!” he boomed from underneath the gendarmes, the vertical fins just below the crest.
“Okay!” I replied. “Coming up!”
But I was too far gone. The mountainside was too steep, too loose, and the rocks beneath me rumbled as soon as I put my weight on them. Squirrel fell out of sight. I told myself not to be scared as I continued through the endless rock maze, weaving sideways until I could find a sturdy place to climb.
BANG! I threw myself upslope as the rock I had tried to stand on went thundering down, building speed and picking up smaller ones along the way. Thin white plumes of dust rose and there was a scent in the air like gunpowder, sharp and acrid.
And it hit me: this is how people die.
It’s the same story: they go off route. I assumed it would never happen to me, because I follow directions. I hike safe. But people make mistakes, and this is how they die.
And then I did something I’d heard other people talk about, but always assumed I would never do. I began to cry. My tears progressed almost instantly to shrill and drawn-out sobs.
I didn’t know if Squirrel could hear me and I didn’t care. I stood paralyzed on a tiny boulder, the one firm surface I could see. How was I supposed to leave this maze? The whole situation felt genuinely unfair. I cried and wondered if I should scream to Squirrel something to tell my family, but I couldn’t think of anything they didn’t already know.
And then I noticed that the sun was out for the first time today. Its rays had lit my arm up orange. I stared bemusedly at the freckles and hairs for a moment, then reflexively swung my pack off my shoulders and pulled a tube of sunscreen out of the front pocket. As I spread it over my limbs and neck, I stopped crying. Then I realized I had to pee. Carefully, pack on, I squatted on the rock. For once I didn’t care how much pee got on my shorts.
When I stood up, the world had righted itself somehow, and I kept going.
I imagined that I was a snail. I oozed from rock to rock, too sticky to fall, moving ten feet a minute. I contoured the mountainside, oozing around one corner and then the next, praying that flatter or sturdier terrain was waiting just beyond. It seemed like hours passed by the time I made it to the saddle, the mark that 80% of the traverse was done.
The rock below the saddle was steep and precarious, but joyfully climbable. I could see Squirrel’s green backpack sitting far above me. It grew closer and closer as I hauled myself upwards; I was sprinting, counting down the feet between me and the backpack, reminding myself to be careful. All of a sudden my water bottle with the Sawyer Squeeze on top dislodged itself from my back and clattered down the rock. I watched it fall, clinging to a boulder with my hands. At any other time I might have been upset.
Just ten feet to go, and if I ever reached that backpack it would all be over, finally, I would be safe, but could so magical a moment really come to pass here –
And then I was standing next to it, and there was Squirrel, sitting on the rock and smiling. All of a sudden the earth was solid and none of it had really happened. Weakly, I lifted my thumb.
“I assume you want to bail,” he said.
“No!” I yelled, pumping my fists in the air. “I wanna kick the shit out of this traverse!”
But we looked at the route, and we looked at the sky, and came to a different consensus. We had lost an hour, it was almost 11:00, and a dark cloud was pooling around the Gothic spires of Mount Wilson. We sat quietly in the saddle, savoring the ominous view.
“We didn’t fail!” Squirrel burst out suddenly. “This was a bonus. We said if we had time, if we had weather…”
I nodded slowly, staring at the clouds above Mount Wilson. Was it really too late?
Squirrel followed my gaze. “Would you consider it a success if you died up here?” he pressed. “No. Well, you tried for life. You got life. We didn’t fail.”
“I never said fail,” I sighed. “You were the one that said fail.”
The southwest slope of Mount Wilson was an endless field of scree, but it was gentle and expansive. I winced every time a rock shifted under my feet, and eventually took to hopping down the solid boulders sitting directly in the drainage. I could hear water running underneath. Down, down, down – Squirrel was perpetually ahead, but without any formal agreement he stopped every half hour to wait for me.
He heard me crying, he said, but assumed it was stress and not catastrophe. He had also heard me yelling to myself, You got this! Oh yeah! You’re so brave!
“It’s true,” I told him, scurrying along the emerging trail. “Never a dull moment.”
“Your life should be a movie,” he said, laughing.
“Maybe one day,” I shot back. I pictured a series of events, beginning (or did it?) on the roof of an abandoned warehouse, the right angles of Baltimore lit up in gold. Ending (or will it?) on a mountain in Colorado.
“It’s a dark comedy,” Squirrel said.
On the drive back I crossed Monarch Pass at dusk, which was surely scarier than the loose rock. I stopped for the night in Salida and slept in my car at the Chaffee County Fairgrounds.
I slept well. I dreamed about someone from the past; he grabbed me by the hands and said, I was wrong. I think about you every day.
He went to work (he worked nights) and I waited. As always, I grew anxious. I wandered into a dim and windowless costume warehouse and started to rifle through the racks.
A man with a dark beard came over and told me to stop. It’s closed, he said.
Please, I begged. I needed a costume, at least one. He shook his head and pulled the rack away. The bright fabrics rustled as they disappeared.
I was still alone when I woke up. The morning was creeping in through the car windows, and it was past time to drive back to Denver. I stood barefoot in the dirt parking lot and sprayed my toothpaste in a mist.