I came into 2018 adrift, with no grand goal to drive me and structure my season. I had finished my project to dayhike the lower 48, and while I have much more to explore in Canada, especially the Coast Range, the options were either inaccessible (Waddington) or unexciting (lots of driving and bushwhacking north of Whistler). Fortunately, the idea of traveling to Europe and the Alps presented itself, and while it was not cheap, it was not as expensive as I feared. This, along with some fitness tourism to Ecuador (thanks, Ted, for sharing the fruits of your mad frequent flier skills!) and ski trip to Canada in May (hi, Bob!), made the year a welcome departure from my usual routine. This novelty revived my love for the mountains, making this one of my best seasons in a long time, on par with 2012 and 2014.
It took some time to recover from the magnitude and intensity of my trip to the Alps, but I was surprised at the end of the season at how much I enjoyed some more mundane outings in the Eastern Sierra. To the extent that I have a home, it is northern New Mexico, but my mountaineering roots lie in the Sierra. Having drifted away from and lost interest in them over the past few years, I was surprised at how much I appreciated returning to a familiar, friendly range in an extended Fall season. As much as I enjoy exploring new terrain and pushing my limits, rambling through my sort-of backyard has its own charm.
If the season produced one major disappointment, it is that I have ended back where I started. Though I have different trails to run and peaks to look at this winter, my situation has changed little from a year ago. I have a few ideas for next summer, but no clear direction of progress or area of the map to fill in. I trust that I will be able to put something together by next Spring, as I did this year, but it will take more reflection and consideration than before, some of which I hope to write about in the future. I suppose that’s what the long winter nights are for…
Anyways, on to the summary.
When Ted offered to buy me a ticket to Ecuador with frequent-flier points, I jumped at the opportunity to visit a place I never expected to see. Though the trip involved some peak-bagging, it felt more like tourism much of the time. Despite not accomplishing all of my objectives, I left glad to have visited, and possibly a slightly broader-minded citizen of the world.
- Cotopaxi: At 19,347′, Cotopaxi was a new altitude record for me. It almost didn’t happen, as the park officials seemed to make up arbitrary rules aimed at increasing the amount of money flowing from our pockets to theirs, but I managed to sneak through. The lack of a clear summit view was disappointing, but hardly surprising on a trip where it rained almost every day. We had also planned to climb 20,561′ Chimborazo, but our tight timeframe and some third world nonsense in the form of armed park guards and arbitrary closing times shut us down.
- Galapagos: Though I preferred my time in the cheaper and less tourist-infested areas north of Quito, it was worth paying American prices and dealing with gueros to visit these unique islands. We passed through too quickly to see more than a fraction of their distinctive flora and fauna, but I was happy to swim with fearless iguanas and watch tortoise sex.
Skiing in Canada
With lift tickets far out of my price range these days, I had forgotten how much I loved to ski growing up. I finally acquired a pair of AT skis last year (thanks, Scott! (the man, not the brand)), so this spring I headed up to the Canadian Rockies to put them to use. I ended being a week or two late for the best skiing, but it was still great by my south-of-the-border standards.
- Columbia: The Columbia Icefield is the largest ice cube south of Alaska, and I was fortunate to make two trips to it in just a few days. The first, a trip to Snow Dome with Bob and his friend Matt, gave me the confidence to return for a solo mission to Mount Columbia, on the northern end of the icefield. While I was pleased with my time, I was far off the FKT set by some members of the Canadian national randonée ski team.
- Hector: Had I visited just a bit earlier, I could have skied 5000′ from summit to car. However, I still got in 3000′ of vertical, flying down a wide-open glacier at ludicrous speeds.
There is a reason that mountaineering was born in the Alps, and is often called “alpinism”: I cannot think of another range that combines more dramatic terrain with easier access. First, there is the incredible relief. From valleys lying between 1500′ and 5000′, the highest peaks rise above 13,000′; Mont Blanc rises 12,300′ from Chamonix in just 6.5 miles. Second, the Alps hold glaciers larger than any in North America outside of Alaska or far northern Canada. The largest, the Grosser Aletsch Glacier, is still 2500′ deep at its thickest point; the highest, the Bossons Glacier on Mont Blanc, descends from near the peak’s 15,781′ summit to just 4500′. Sadly, these glaciers are rapidly disappearing, having lost 1/40 of their mass this year alone. Visit while you can.
- Mont Blanc: While most people start their Mont Blanc climb with a cograil or tram ride, I eschewed such costly things and walked from my car in Chamonix. I followed the Grand Mulets route, which ascends the Bossons Glacier to join the standard Gouter Ridge route just before the summit. This choice offered solitude for much of the climb, at the cost of manageable but non-trivial crevasse risk. Rather than descending through decaying snow, I traversed several sub-peaks over to the Aiguille du Midi, where I took the tram down, getting off at the midway station to avoid paying the exorbitant fee. (The woman at the upper station looked a bit confused when I said I had hiked up…)
- Matterhorn: As part of my effort to minimize time spent in costly Zermatt, I chose to climb the Matterhorn from the town of Cervino on the Italian side. This meant ascending the somewhat more challenging Lion Ridge rather than the standard Hornli, and scaling all manner of sketchy ropes and ladders. Between those and the crowds of other climbers, this felt like my craziest climb in the Alps. It also would likely have been my favorite, had I not witnessed my first, and hopefully last, fatal climbing fall.
- Dolomites: I almost skipped the Dolomites, since they are lower and less glaciated than the western Alps, and more suited to rock climbers. I am glad I made the drive, though, at least as much for the history as for the climbing. Growing up in the States, my education about World War I focused mostly on the northern war between France and Germany. I was completely unaware of the White War, a brutal, heroic, and pointless conflict in which the Austrians and Italians waged trench warfare year-round in the high Alps of Sudtirol (South Tyrol).
- Bernese Alps: While it does not contain the Alps’ highest peaks, the Bernese Oberland holds their largest glaciers, and therefore most fully expresses the Alps’ character. Unlike elsewhere in the range, there are few lifts, making the approaches to most high peaks long and arduous. Of the 14 and 1/2 hours I spent climbing the Finsteraarhorn, about nine were on glaciers.
With the High Sierra remaining snow-free through late November, I had more time than expected to run around the range. While the nights were too long and cold for my normal late-season backpacking, conditions were perfect for some long runs. I was pleasantly surprised to find that, despite spending most of the summer doing few long days and almost no running, I was able to adapt to doing 30-40-miles quickly and without injury.
- Picket Guard: I had sworn not to do this remote peak, hidden between the rugged Kaweahs and the deep Kern Valley, but curiosity got the better of me. Unlike others who have day-hiked it from Shepherd Pass or Mineral King, I chose a shorter, pleasant, and familiar cross-country route from Whitney Portal via Wallace Creek. Thanks to the shorter route and my unusually high energy, it took only 13h20, a long but reasonable day.
- Badwater to Whitney: The 135-mile Badwater Marathon, following the road from the lowest point in the United States to the trailhead for the highest, holds little interest for me. However, when I heard of this similar-length route avoiding most paved roads, it took only a week for me to somehow convince myself to fast-pack it. While I am not sure I would repeat the experience, it did have some transcendent moments, like walking across the smooth Panamint salt flat in the moonlight.
- Miscellaneous speed: As usual when I find myself with good fitness and near hills, I end up trying to establish some Fastest Known Times (FKTs). While I am far from the fastest guy out there, I do enjoy putting up times on interesting routes to encourage others to come along and beat them. Two fun routes I did this fall are Laurel’s northeast gully, an incredibly fun low-fifth-class scramble, and White Mountain’s west ridge, a 9000-foot cross-country grunt from the valley floor to the highest peak on the east side of the Owens Valley. Hopefully neither of my times will remain the fastest known for more than a year.