Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Granite Peak

I’ve just returned from an attempt on Granite Peak, MT (12,799 feet) with four friends. The trip was extremely successful – all of us had a great time (with one exception, to be explained soon), everyone set various personal records, and we all returned more or less intact.

For starters, four of us established personal records (PRs) for high altitude base camps – 12,100 feet, just below Tempest Mountain. We were pounded with snowstorms, hailstorms, graupel storms, windstorms, lightning storms, which helped make the experience of being crammed into a tent very sweet. Mats “The Crazy Swede” Roing climbed Aconcagua (22,xxx feet) in Argentina earlier this year, so it was harder for him to set altitude PRs in Montana – but it is certain he’s never had a higher base camp in this state. Fernanda “The Brazilian Wonder” (I have her last name somewhere, but it’s not important here) set all sorts of PRs, as her highest altitude climb previously was New Hampshire’s Mt. Washington (6,xxx feet). She seemed entirely impervious to the effects of altitude, cold, and heat, proving that my Brazilian friend in Rio Professor Salgado is wrong when he claims Brazilians are too sensible for mountaineering. Jeff “Right Fine” Ross, King of the Cowboy Climbers, set high altitude camp & climb PRs as well. (Jeff is the photographer atop Koch Peak pictured on my website steele-econ.com; he’s also a darned good webmaster for anyone needing such services.) I set a PR for highest campsite, and tied my own PR for highest climb in Montana. We all had a great time.

Dushka, the faithful canine companion, also set some interesting records – besides this being her highest climb and camp, she also set a personal high altitude stick-retrieving record – multiple retrieves at 12,108 feet. Finding a stick at that altitude was itself something of an accomplishment, although I think credit for that goes to Jeff. Very few are the Labrador retrievers who have retrieved at altitudes higher than this. But poor Dushka did not particularly enjoy the trip – she loves hiking & climbing, but every time a tent is set up, her heart visibly sinks, as she realizes “another night without my couch and big bag of dog food, huddled uncomfortably between the sleeping bags, oh why oh why are we doing this?” She also seemed unhappy about being snowed on and having to hide from lightning, but didn’t complain. Well, actually she did complain, but not too much.

Happily, I did not set a record for nearness of lightning strikes, as I don’t think any came nearer than 400 meters. This probably was a record for me for number of lightning storms in one trip, though – and for number of times spent hunkering in a 2-man tent pretending the rain fly was capable of deflecting lightning. During one of these hunkering sessions, Jeff and I had a spirited debate about the speed of sound – whether it takes sound 4 seconds or 8 seconds to travel a mile. Based on what I could remember of sub and super sonic bullet speeds as well as the lightning scene from “In Search of the Castaways” I supported 4 seconds per mile, which made our “FLASH one-thousand-one BOOM” counts much more reassuring. On the way out across the Froze to Death Plateau we raced a particularly nasty looking storm – Dushka and I had gotten well ahead of the others, trying to get as low as possible before the lightning started flying (on FTD you are usually the highest point) and came across a camp with two tents. Dushka immediately ran to one and introduced herself – and the occupants, two climbers from Duluth whose names I now can’t recall – invited us in, just as the hail began slamming down. We appreciated that greatly. As I was diving into the tent I noticed that some of the lightning was bypassing the plateau and striking the canyon floor thousands of feet below us – what fun to look down on a lightning bolt (especially when this means it missed you).

Earlier that day, atop Tempest Peak, Jeff and I both had our jackets start buzzing as they charged with static electricity. Mats and Fernanda both felt themselves buzz. I don’t know if Dushka felt anything, but she seemed as eager as any of us to get the heck back down to basecamp at that point.

But we all came back safe and sound, and this is the criterion of success in the mountains. (Or as Penn & Teller say, “no permanent damage.”) We didn’t try summitting Granite, for perhaps obvious reasons, which means we have a great excuse for returning to FTD Plateau (all but D. are excited). And it was a very fun trip; I have perhaps exaggerated the lightning (or perhaps not); and between the storms there were long hours of blue skies and spectacular views. And the food – not my usual summer sausage, tortillas, and cabbage – I hadn’t realized Fernanda cooks professionally, but she does, and she insisted that we not take turns at it. As a result, the cuisine was – well, had I been doing it we wouldn’t be talking about “cuisine.” “Grub,” maybe. Fernanda, your cooking abilities are exceeded only by your ability to push on at high altitude. As Mats says, “awesome!”

What connections with “unforeseen contingencies?” Lots. Anyone who travels in the backcountry thinking they are aware of everything that could possibly happen, and are ready for it, is a damn fool. (Although I think few mountaineers make this error in thinking – it’s mostly a fallacy of pure neoclassical economists, socialists, and other armchair theorists who are unaware of what Hayek called the “knowledge problem.”). Usually unforeseen contingencies in the backcountry are bad news – but not always. We had not expected that at 11,000 plus feet someone might hand us a complete set of ingredients for making onion and pepper and bacon pizzas – but such did happen. We shared a campsite with Eddy and Tim, a Jackson Hole Mountain Guide and his Highpointer client from Ohio (Highpointers are people who set out to climb or otherwise attain the highest points in each of the 50 states – not much of a challenge in, say, Iowa, but west of the Great Plains it starts getting interesting.) Tim banged up his shoulder in the morning while they were working on self-arrest techniques on a nearby snowfield, and they had to abandon their climb…hence they gave us all the excess food we would take.

Another unforeseen contingency – or maybe just ironic twist of luck. Tim had to bail on his Granite attempt – but given the conditions he’d never have summited anyway. And when we left him he was thinking about renting a car and heading over to Idaho to do Borah Peak, which is all footwork – so wrenching the shoulder may have gotten him another western high point, while staying well and staying the course wouldn’t have. I hope you summited Borah, Tim.

I had planned on writing something a little more philosophical, rather than just a disjointed trip report, but I have one or two readers who are actually interested in disjointed trip reports, so I’m posting this. The philosophy will be coming in a few days…and maybe some photos.

To my fellow adventurers, Mats, Fernanda, and Jeff – thanks for a great time. Let’s do more soon. To my poor little dog – after you have slept a few days, we’ll just do some day hikes, and never above timberline so there will be plenty of sticks.

The adventure continues!

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