This exchange happened somewhere on the way up Mt. Sneffles last week. I don't know what prompted Joe to ask me if I was okay -- whether it was just the incredibly slow speed with which I was crawling up the boulders, or whether my anxiety was showing that clearly in my face. But he had asked me a few times before I finally tried to clarify what exactly he meant by the question.
|You can't see the anxiety on my face, but it is there.|
When we had decided that we were going to do the Blue Lakes trail to Mt. Sneffles the night before, I was only a tiny bit nervous. We read in the guidebook at our Airbnb that there was one tricky part that was "pretty exposed," where you had to climb up a "chimney" of rock about 150 feet below the summit. The guidebook author went to the trouble of even suggesting the placement of your feet at this part, to step with your left foot first, and then shimmy around to the right, et cetera. He wrote that you may feel inclined to turn around at this point, before reaching the summit, but that if you just make it past this tricky obstacle, the rest of the climb wouldn't involve any technical climbing. After reading that, I was a little nervous about that chimney, but other than that, I just imagined a steep hike up a mountain, not really a big deal. I had no idea what the reality would be like.
---The Hike to the Base---
When we started our hike at 9,000+ ft elevation that morning, we had a glimpse of the mountain towering in the distance. Joe tried to point it out to me, but I refused to look. I have an anti-telling-me-how-far-we-have-left-in-our-hikes policy, and this seemed like borderline violation of the policy. I did not want to contemplate getting up to that peak; it seemed impossible. And I told Joe as much.
|Joe took a picture of Mt. Sneffles from the start of our hike. I preferred to ignore the mountain in the distance, as it is clearly impossible to get to.|
We passed by the Lower and Upper Blue Lakes, which were very pretty, and then headed up the switchbacks to Blue Lakes Pass, elevation ~12,900 ft. The trail up to the pass scared me, because the singletrack was alongside a mountain, and very eroded, so with every step on the loose scree and dust, I worried that I would slip and tumble all the way down to the lake. I asked for Joe's reassurance that I wouldn't die if I slipped here. Poor Joe granted me reassurance for what would be the first of about 1,000 times that day. Little did we know.
|Pretty blue lakes! I was already getting nervous at the top of the pass.|
Once we got over the pass, we could see Mt. Sneffles in all its 14,150ft glory. I still refused to look too hard at it; I figured if I just focused on one step at a time, I would get there, without freaking out too much about the danger.
Joe's trail map/GPS app told him that from the base of the mountain, there is only 0.6 miles to get to the summit. Now, having summited, Joe and I both agreed that this is bull***t. It's not just the fact that we had a 1:08:29 mile and a 2:31:01 mile (as in two hours and thirty-one minutes) while ascending and descending that make me say this; it also looked and felt like way more than 0.6 miles each way.
On the way up, we encountered many people on their way down. They were spread out all over the side of the mountain facing us. There is no trail; people were just choosing their line of boulders and scree. Some parts of the mountainside were strewn with larger boulders, some with smaller scree, and some parts were just loose dust, due to weathering and erosion. I don't know how many of these people made it all the way to the summit; perhaps many only made it to the ridgeline and then headed back down. We passed a father with a child wearing a helmet pretty close to the base of the mountain; she already looked scared and probably didn't make it too much past that point.
After Joe and I had picked our way a little up the scree field, a lady gave us the advice to cross over to the left, because the line we had chosen would get worse and worse the higher we ascended. To cross to the left meant leaving the larger rocks and scrambling over a loose, dusty section. That was pretty scary for me, even wearing trail shoes -- I slipped a bit, and by this point, the side of the mountain was very steep. Poor Joe was worse off, footwear wise -- his trail shoes had lost all their tread by this point in our vacation, to the point where he commented to another hiker, "I might as well be wearing loafers!"
Once we painstakingly made it to the ridgeline, Joe said that we had to turn left. For the first time in the hike, I tilted my head up and to the left, in the direction of the summit. And, holy sh*t, there was another ascent just as long and difficult-looking as the one we had just accomplished. Once we proceeded up it, I realized it was actually more difficult, because it involved rock climbing. We ran into some more folks on their way down. One of the men we passed told us he planned to buttslide the entire way down. "I don't even care," he added. This comment alerted me to the very scary fact that I had to not only get to the top of this mountain, but that I would also have to GET BACK DOWN! As soon as that terrifying thought crept into my head, I pushed it back out again, vowing not to think about that until the time came. I kept my head down, looking only at the rocks directly in front of me, not down the mountain or up to the summit, and answered Joe's questions about whether I was okay as best as I could.
|The view after we turned left. Still not at the top!|
Finally, after gingerly climbing up the rock face for what seemed like forever, we reached what seemed like the top. We had a great view in front of us -- if you cared to look over the edge -- and steep rock face to the left and right of us. Joe was wondering how to get up that rock face, and starting to climb up it, when a lady climbed up to where we were and commented that where Joe was heading didn't look do-able. She had summited once before, years ago, and she didn't remember exactly where you were supposed to go up, but she was pretty sure it wasn't where Joe was.
After a minute of searching, she called out that she thought she had found the place. It also looked impossible, but at least there was evidence that it had been trafficked by others. We followed her to the place she pointed out, and Joe took the lead, followed by me, and eventually this lady and her two friends. This was that "chimney" obstacle mentioned in the guidebook. It did, indeed, appear impossible. But impossible doesn't mean anything to Joe, so he shimmied right on up and then called to me to follow. I asked, "Are you sure??" but followed, and it was, in fact, do-able. From there to the top of the peak, though, felt very exposed, and I suddenly was very, persistently, aware that we were on top of a 14,000+ ft mountain, that we would die if we fell off, and that we would have to get back down somehow, which would be even scarier than the way up -- and that the entire way back down would carry the fear of falling off the mountain to a gruesome death.
Once at the summit, I took off my pack and sat tight near the metal box that held the summit logs. I pretty much didn't move from that spot the entire time we were at the summit. In the meantime, Joe walked all around, appreciating the view of the blue lakes in the distance, taking photos and video. The only time I moved around was when the ladies offered to take our picture. I tried to make my least-frightened face for the camera so we could get the traditional "Hold the cardboard sign" photo. Joe gently admonished me for not looking at the view, so I gingerly crept toward the edge and gave it a quick glance. I figured I'd wait to appreciate the view until we were safely back on the ground and I could appreciate it by looking at Joe's photos. Joe ate lunch on the summit, but I was too scared to linger over my sandwich, so I gobbled down a banana and waited eagerly to leave. The sooner off the summit, the sooner back on solid ground, I felt.
|My view. In the distance, Joe enjoying the actual view.|
|Requisite summit picture. Joe looks so relaxed!|
|One more of Joe taking in the view. "I can see our car from here!"|
|Joe takes the best panos. See, I'm admiring the view now!|
The lady who had summited this peak before seemed like she knew what she was doing, so we were hoping to follow her back down. However, as she and her friends started down -- a different way than we had come up -- a man asked Joe to "spot him" as he traversed down the chimney. Except he kept calling Joe "Tom." Joe got a weird vibe from him, and didn't want to get caught behind him, so Joe watched him start going down the chimney route, and then we set off to try to follow the girls. I was creeping so slowly over the rocks, though, that we soon lost them, and Joe was having to do the route-finding himself. The climbing got steeper and steeper, and I was already freaking out and feeling unsafe, when Joe told me to stay put and climbed up a rock to peer over the edge and find the route. What he saw, I don't even want to picture, but basically he realized that there was no way down from the rock ledge we had gotten ourselves onto. He says that at this point was when his stomach clenched and he got a little nervous. He turned back to me and told me we had to retrace our steps and climb back up.
Joe says I didn't really have a "panic attack" at this juncture, but it may be the closest I've come. He climbed back up until he was above me, and when I tried to move to follow him, I found that I was frozen with fear. I just kept repeating the same things over and over again: "I don't think I can do it, Joe. I don't know where to put my foot. I'm sorry, Joe, I shouldn't have come. I can't do it." Just those 3-4 sentences on repeat. Joe reminded me later that I even apologized to God at this point, which I do remember doing -- it was a slip of the tongue, as I was saying "Oh, God" and apologizing to Joe at the same time. When he saw that I really could not climb the steep rock face on my own, he held out his hand to pull me up. I don't know how I can stress this enough, but we were on a sheer cliff with a few thousand feet of fresh air between us and the ground, and all I could think was that if Joe took my hand, we would both fall to our deaths. But I couldn't pull myself up, so I had no option but to trust that Joe could lift me up safely. I grabbed his hand, and he hoisted me up to his level. He had to repeat this once more before we were able to cross over to the couloir that the other ladies had gone down.
Once in the couloir, my terror did not really subside much. We had to cross from one side of the gully to the other, over boulders which had about a 50% chance of moving and rolling downhill when you put your weight on them. Whereas on our way up, we saw plenty of people, on our way down, there was no one else on the mountain, so we had no reference as to which lines were best to follow. To say that I took it slowly would be the understatement of the year. I practiced my forwards-crab-crawl the entire way back down to the ridge where we had to turn right . . . and then the entire way back down the mountainside. Meanwhile, Joe was standing upright, choosing the best route for me to follow, and periodically reassuring me that we wouldn't die. I remember one exchange:
"Joe, do you think we'll get down alive?"
"I think our chances are 100% at this point. They might have slipped down to 99.5% at one point, when we were on the ledge. . ."
"I think our chances are 100% at this point. They might have slipped down to 99.5% at one point, when we were on the ledge. . ."
About mid-way down the mountain face, I asked Joe to give me a hug once we were back down. When we reached the boulder field at the bottom, he turned to give me that hug, but I just looked at him, shook my head, and said that it didn't feel safe yet. A little further down, I apologized for rejecting his hug, and claimed one from him. But I didn't really feel safe until we were back at the juncture where the "0.6 miles" to the top had begun. (Bulllllllsh******t!)
Once we'd hiked away from the base of the mountain, we looked up at it, and Joe asked me if I could see the path we'd taken. I said, "We didn't go up that way, did we? That's impossible!"
|We're alive! Praise God! Now let's never do that again.|
---The Hike Back---
We had a long denoument -- it was almost 7 miles back to the Blue Lakes trailhead where we left our car. Due to my SKT (slowest known time) down Mt. Sneffles, it was already dinnertime as we shuffled back over the pass, down past the blue lakes, and back through the treeline. We were too exhausted to go out to eat, so we went to the grocery store instead and got a couple steaks -- which Joe grilled to perfection -- and some ice cream. It was a perfect end to the day, just what my frazzled nerves needed. And I vowed to never do something that adventurous again.