Thursday, August 24, 2006

black (death) peak - part I

i have fallen in love with the piano. for the last week every time i hear music, i want to dash out of the room or fling myself from the car to the nearest piano. it's quite strange--all i want to do is practice. so, if you happen to find my trip report long and sucky, blame it on "claire de lune" (debussy) and "philosophy" (ben folds five).

after consulting with my local hiking expert (danny warren), i determined that the hike to black peak (in the north cascades) is about 6 miles with an elevation gain of a bit less than 4000 feet. at about the 5 mile point, the trail deposits thirsty hikers at wing lake. then the trail jogs upward (and west) in an ambitious climb through scree and loose rock to the top of a ridge. once at the ridge (see yesterday's picture of steve), helmet-clad hikers and the occasional bare-headed fool (aka steve and i) can make a final ascent of the southern slope through a series of narrow gullies and precarious rocks. at the peak, one is surrounded by breathtaking views of the cascades (including glacier and baker mtn) and stomach-churning views of the world 3000 feet below.

despite my dramatic adjectives, climber-folk seem to describe the last mile of this hike as an easy scramble. there may be a few tricky places near the peak, but few reports mention any difficulty before that final ascent. well, i've decided to change that. while the summit is certainly high (8970 feet), it is the ridge that nearly killed me.

apparently there are two ways to climb death ridge: a right way and my way. the right way consists of a very steep switch-backed trail that hugs the northface of the mountain as it approaches the saddle point of the ridge. as i slugged my way toward the ridge, steve wisely chose this route and then snacked on a sandwich as he waited for my arrival. but for some reason i missed the trail and attempted to go straight up. i was within 20 feet or so of the ridgetop and was perhaps overcome by the sensation that i was almost there--go, go, go. perhaps i smelled the rye bread and lettuce. in any case, i was no longer scrambling; i was now climbing.

at first it was easy, but by the time i was within 8 feet of the top, i realized that i was in serious trouble. i ran out of handholds. i looked left, right, above me, left again, and even back down. i considered the rock around me some more--there were handfuls of loose dirt and smooth stone, but nothing substantial for my needy fingers.

"steeeeeeeve...." i called. no answer.

"steeeeeeeve," his face appeared 8 feet above me, "i think i'm stuck."

as steve tried to scout out other handholds or a method of retreat, i snuggled against the rock and tried not to look down. but i had to look--yikes. yesterday's pictures make the incline seem rather tame (perhaps 65 degrees?), as if a speedy fellow with a great big stride could easily run right up the ridge, but from my perspective it seemed like a wicked drop. if i slipped, i couldn't see a point where i would stop falling. even today, i'm pretty confident that if i fell i would have slid on my stomach for about twenty feet and then (a) ripped an arm off as i tried to slow my racing descent or (b) caught an appendage on an outcropping, accidentally spun myself around, and then tumbled down the slope with a broken neck and brain fluids oozing from the gashes in my head. i'd be seriously maimed or maybe dead.

my right leg started shaking uncontrollably. i shifted my weight a bit and looked up again. steve was trying to check out various angles, hoping that a jacob's ladder might be hiding just out of sight. he directed me to a more sturdy foot position so that my left boot had the toes wedged in a crack of some sort and the long-edge of my right boot was perched on a tiny ledge. this alleviated the shakes, at least temporarily.

far above me to my right steve spotted a handhold of unknown repute--"you'd have to lunge for it," he said.

andrew david "jazzer-sizing" brooklyn bridge, nyc.