Monday, January 12, 2009

Excursion Article Series 07.27.08: Teewinot attempt a little hairy after huge winter snowfall

Caption: My friend Howard heads up the trail to Teewinot at the break of dawn. Little did he know the disappointment to be found on the snowfields far above.

Excursion: Teewinot summit hike/climb
Length: All day
Difficulty: Expert
Directions: Park at Lupine Meadows trailhead and head due west on trail from parking area.

Teewinot: 1. Dudes: 0.

The score is not what I hoped for after my first summit attempt of Teewinot. Each determined step I kicked into the vast mountain snowfields brought me one step closer to the top. My friends Howard McIntyre and Tristan Nelson trailed after me digging ice axes in with every plodding footstep. We figure the glacier was as steep as 60 degrees where we needed to ascend. At the bottom, a morass of pointy rocks followed immediately by a cliff and more mean granite awaited stray footsteps. Without a perfect self arrest, the possibility of death or serious injury after a slipup is alarmingly, painfully obvious. Crampons and ice axes are a must.

Even knowing we got more than 50 feet of snow this year, I wasn’t expecting this at the end of July. The snowfield began parallel to the Worshipper and the Idol, two monolithic granite structures about two-thirds of the way up the mountain, and didn’t stop until the peak’s cliffs left it nowhere to go. (Note: if you don’t feel summiting is necessary, the Worshipper and the Idol is a great destination for a day hike. Though steep, the hike up the lower portion of Teewinot is scenic, passing a waterfall and plentiful wildflowers.) Last year at around this same time, the vast sheets of ice we plodded up were nothing but scree slopes.
Of our little party, none had summited Teewinot before. Howard attempted it once last year, though he had a difficult time finding the route on his drought-year attempt. This is a common problem for first-timers on Teewinot. The route is not easy to read, even from a guidebook. Or maybe it was just our guidebook. The map it had of Teewinot looked like it was drawn while the “artist” was having oral surgery. It looked more like a jagged dog fang than the mountain on which I stood. The route’s description was no better. It basically said to veer right around the Worshipper and the Idol and head to the top.


From just underneath the peak, the cliff faces look basically unscalable. The crude line representing a route etched in on our non-representative map did little to illuminate our understanding. If anything, it only confused us more after the many verbal descriptions we had heard of the perfect route.

After more than an hour kicking stairs into the steepest part of the snowfield, we were all itching for some solid ground under our feet. I headed for what looked like a perfectly accessible slab of granite that fingered out into the snow. When we finally arrived, it proved unreachable. The steep stone had absorbed the summer sun, melting out a crevasse in the ice and making it effectively unreachable.

Just before reaching the slab, Howard lost his footing on the improvised steps and began to slide down the abrupt slope. He plunged his ice axe deep and managed to hang on. He was even smiling afterward. Tristan and I may have been more shaken than Howard. Visions of Howard tumbling/sliding into the unwelcoming boulders below made me slow my pace and kick harder to gain purchase after that.

Now more aware the snow beneath us could give way in the heat of day, Howard and I traversed to the other side of the snowfield and found our way onto some rocks. Traversing is no fun on steep, slippery slopes, but the solid ground felt good. I have to admit I was a little anxious to reach it.

Below, Tristan indicated the only way he wanted to head was down at this point. He felt like he was tired enough that after the two or three more hours we figured we’d need to summit, his strength and judgment would both be impaired, making the precipitous descent even more perilous.

Being the unofficial leader of the expedition, I told Tristan we wouldn’t push him either way. I let him make the decision, understanding that with only three of us, we really couldn’t split up. Even so, it was hard to say we were going down when my feet said up.

I don’t regret the decision to stay together. It was the safest thing to do. The only disappointment is that this was my first summit attempt that didn’t result in a nap on top of a mountain. Despite all our time and effort, the mountain won round one.

Round two will be another story.

Caption: My friends Tristan and Howard plod up the wicked-steep snowfields near the top of Teewinot.

1 comment:

  1. Nice! I hope to be there for round two . .