Four AM

The thunder cracked, breaking the deadening silence of the snowstorm. The white sky was alight in a myriad of blues, greens, and a tinge of neon yellow. The wind stirred the snow piling up around me. Sitting in a curled ball on my rope and backpack in a small cave, I looked over at my climbing partner. Eric’s face was pale, eyes wide, and he was shivering – from both the cold and unfiltered fear. I was trembling; my eyes darted around as the sky exploded violently around us. We were isolated and dependent on each other.

There are three types of fun you will encounter in life. Type one fun is having fun while you’re doing something and in hindsight it is memorable and fun enough to do again. Type two fun is not fun while it’s happening, but upon reflection – maybe weeks or months later – is something that you’d agree to do again. Type three fun is the type of fun that’s decidedly not fun while it’s happening and in retrospect is something that you will not seek out to do again. This story is about the third type.

I awoke well before the sun started to rise. Having forgone a tent in favor of a bivy sack, I had an unobstructed view of the sky. The stars were vividly present in the pre-dawn theater before me. There was a thin layer of crunchy ice that sloughed off as I moved around. The alarm went off at four, signaling that I should awake. I was excited for the day and as the skies lightened I crept from my sleeping bag, dug around my pack and started piecing the stove together to make some coffee. A marmot chucked as if to say hello.  Its chirp echoed among the boulders around the glassy surface of the lake. As the water boiled I took a reading of the temperature and barometric pressure. The pressure was low, but was stable from last night’s reading, if it were too low or dropped rapidly we would be in for a storm.

Yesterday, setting up camp we chatted with the other parties camped around the lake. Every afternoon this week like clockwork it rained lightly for 40 or so minutes. Being observant of the changing conditions is something I am attuned to, having spent many summers backpacking with my family in the far reaches of these mountains. The skies were clear, the air dry and crisp, there was no wind. It felt good to be alive.

Eric had never been backpacking before this trip. He hadn’t even been above 10,000 feet.  We sipped on coffee eating bagels with cream cheese and smoked salmon from a pouch. I explained the effects of altitude and what to expect as we climbed higher. Eric was excited. I was excited! We watched the other climbers as they ate breakfast and sorted gear for the day.  They were taking different routes up the mountain and we looked forward to sharing the summit with them. The lightly clouded sky changed to a cotton candy pink as the sun crept up towards the horizon.

After tidying up the camp we gathered our equipment and rope, shouldered our packs, and started the approach to the technical climbing.  The exposure was unnerving from the start. The first few steps are over an 1,100 foot drop. I had that sensation in my stomach you get when you peer over the edge of a tall building; I didn’t want to trust myself, my experience, or my equipment. At the top of the sixth rope length, some 3 hours later, I looked at the barometer again, it had dropped a bit from this morning but the pressure was still okay. The sky was clear and the tufts of wind were occasionally teasing us, throwing around our pack straps. The climbing was fun yet still challenging and the views of the mountains and valleys around us were monumental.

In the distance we could hear a rumble. It became louder, clearer, and more distinct.  Soon a roar was upon us as an air force fighter jet flew by. Looking downwards upon the pilot we were certain he was unaware of our presence. His helmet was white with red stripes and as the aircraft turned we could make the outline of the shoulder patches on his flight suit through the canopy window. He accelerated eastward through the peaks out towards the desert. Suddenly the aircraft dropped. Not in a controlled way, but like something pushed down on it. It remained level in flight but must have dropped a thousand feet or more. Eric commented how awesome the moment was and how inexplicably bad-ass it was to see the plane drop like that. But I had an uneasy sensation come over me and thought to myself, “oh shit...”

I glanced back at my barometer; the pressure was starting to drop. It was 2:00 and we still had 800 feet of precipitous rock to climb straight up, and the only way off the mountain now, was by going up. The mountain was solid in most places, but there were toaster-sized, microwave-sized, and refrigerator-sized blocks of rock precariously balanced along the route. Pulling one off would start a cascade of showering rocks down the 4,000 foot face of the mountain. There may be other people below. Severe injury or death loomed around us as we moved. We continued to climbed strong, smooth, and delicately, but we really needed to pick up the pace. The gentle drafts of wind gave way. The winds started to gust, sending the spare loops of our climbing rope slithering wildly away from the cliff. 

Eric and I met and climbed in New England, but never anything long or committing enough that required a start at dawn in order to get down before dark. We were strong and conditioned, but not acclimated to climbing above 13,000 feet. At this altitude there is half as much oxygen in the air and we had to take our time catching our breath between pitches. Every move sapped the energy out of us. Something that I knew would be trivial at sea level, where we lived, was draining up here.

The clouds quickly enshrouded us, black as the devil's soul.

Rain started to fall; the clouds pregnant with malice were heaving and churning. The situation was becoming desperate; I told Eric that we needed to move quickly.  We scampered, now climbing rapidly at the same time. Big. Fat. Drops. Of water started hitting my helmet, the pitter-patter drummed out of tempo. There was a small stone hut on top of the mountain that we could seek shelter in, and we needed to get there fast! I set the pace in front and Eric trailed not too far behind. The wind pressed against us, causing me to grip the rock face tightly. We were efficient. We were quick. The temperature noticeably dropped. Hail began pelting my face. I saw an opening beneath a boulder and headed towards it. Snow started to blow sideways from the clouds that surrounded us.

An explosion rang out like a sonic boom. I felt it resonate deep within my body. My hair stood on end. Grabbing our packs and the rope we made two piles, curled our bodies into balls and squatted on them. Looking back out from the rocky shelter we watched as the clouds screamed by in the jet-forced winds. Out in the distance a clanking sound could be heard, not unlike an anvil being drug across a vault floor, scraping and clawing in resistance. Branched lightning lit up the sky; its blue and white arms zigged and zagged through the air in front of us, we watched it strike the pinnacles and ground below us. The clash of thunder and lightning shook us further into TERROR. Fuck! Fuck-fuck-fuck-fuck-fuck!  My whole body was shaking. We were right in the orchestra pit as the electrical storm continued its psychedelic symphony around us. Snow pelted my face. The winds screamed past as bolts of lightning raced around us and continued down the face of the mountain. Thundersnow they call it.

This… is type three fun. I’m here on a beautiful mountain in the Sierras quivering, utterly terrified of the weather around me too afraid to move, and too paralyzed to think straight. Meteorologists would give an arm or leg to experience this weather phenomenon. I’d have traded my firstborn to be off this mountain, right now.

We were soon joined by a couple from Quebec who were on another route on the mountain. Jacob and Rebecca had been caught exposed several hundred feet below. Rebecca’s face was pale and her eyes were wide open, her lips were bluish, and she was violently shivering. Her condition scared me. She stumbled incoherent, borderline hypoxic and hypothermic; she was in rough condition; Jacob told me they didn’t have insulated jackets; only rain shells. At this point the only safe way down from the mountain was to go up and over the top. The small stone shack at the summit offered better protection than the shallow rocky cave that we now cowered in. It was three hundred feet away, up through slippery snow covered rocks, through the angry skies that surrounded us.

The winds abated a bit. The roaring and crackling had moved away from us; though booms were still resonating against the steep mountain walls around us. Jacob urgently yelled that we needed to get to the stone shack.  With a newfound urgency Eric and I grabbed our things and the four of us raced to the summit shack, cowering at every resonating boom of thunder echoing around us. When we finally got Rebecca into my bivy sack she trembled, shivering and crying. What little snacks Eric had left he gave to Rebecca. The boarded windows on the hut let little light in. The wood covered floor was dusty, the room smelled wet, and musty. Eric, Jacob, and I sat on the floor shaking from the cold and talked about how we would get off this mountain. Rebecca was feeling the effects of altitude sickness and Hypothermia. Jacob wanted desperately to stay until the storm quit, but I knew we needed to get her down off the mountain as soon as we could. A gust of wind rattled the old wood door against the wood pin hinges.

It took us three hours to get down to camp. Not much was said. The four of us roped up at the top, ill-prepared to be on a mountain with a foot of fresh snow in the middle of summer. The rock under foot gave little traction and a few slips happened. Our nerves were shot. We inched downward at a painfully slow pace. We were cold and hungry. It’s hard to think straight on an empty stomach and we got off route and had to backtrack a few times. Rebecca’s condition improved as we descended, but she was still weak. The trail further down was muddy and loose underfoot; all of us inched along. By the time we approached base camp the four of us were utterly drained. The other climbers saw it and a few came over to offer to cook and help us settle in. I didn’t care much about the stars that night or my neighbor the marmot. I don’t remember falling asleep.