Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Day #2: Down From the Top

The trip down to Trail Crest was uneventful, but long. The first part went quickly as it was all downhill, but then my legs really started getting tired. I noticed that I was missing my step on the boulders sometimes. I would intend for my step down to go one place and it wouldn't always end up there. I never fell, but stumbled a few times. It wasn't a case of mental sharpness, but rather just muscle fatigue. With numerous places along the trail where missing a step could be fatal, we had to take some breaks and rest. We really just wanted to get down, but the legs were tired. After what seemed like a really, really long time, we finally got to the junction with the John Muir Trail. I knew that wasn't far from Trail Crest, but I also knew that it was all uphill from there to Trail Crest. It was steep, but not long and even though we need a few breaks to get there, we finally made it to Trail Crest. I hardly took any pictures in this segment because were really tired and just focused on getting back. I'm not sure of the actual time we got to Trail Crest, but I think it was somewhere around 3:30.

The Back Side of the Whitney Ridge (looking along the sub peaks)

Now we were at Trail Crest with the task of getting down the chute safely. There are basically two choices. You can hike down in the soft snow, using the softness of the snow to cushion your boots and let you take steps down or you can glissade down. Done properly glissading is a controlled slide that goes a lot quicker than hiking and with a lot less effort. There are several different positions you can choose for glissading. The two important and invariant aspects of all positions are that your butt is sliding on the snow and your ice axe is dug into the snow behind you as a break to control your speed. You do not wear your crampons because if they catch in some hard snow, it can break your ankle or worse. Kevin and I have never done glissading before. Absent the right conditions, we weren't going to do it here either. The reason is, if you lose control of your speed on a steep slope that doesn't have a safe runout at the bottom and a safe way to control your direction, you can crash into rocks. People have died glissading on this very slope by hitting rocks at speed.

We sit down for a break at Trail Crest and watch others going down. First, there's a huge chute carved out by the other glissaders. At the top it's almost three feet deep into the snow. Not only does it make it virtually certain what track you're going to follow, the sides of the chute also give you ways to get your feet involved in slowing your speed. Second the snow is pretty soft (warm day) which makes it softer and slows your speed. Third, there's a group of about eight people in front of us. One guy who has done glissading before is explaining and demonstrating to everyone else in the group how to do it (who are all newbies at it like us). One by one, we watch everyone go. They seem to be able to manage things. Nobody goes out of the worn glissade path and everyone finds a way to stop themselves at some point. We decide that we can do it.

I go first. I'm sitting on my butt, with backpack on. My legs are out in front of me with my boots prepared to dig into the snow. My right hand is wrapped in the ice axe strap behind my body and holding the top of the ice axe and my left hand reaches across my body to the end of the ice axe. The idea is that the two hands together press the ice axe into the ice to slow yourself down. The harder you press, the more it will slow you. It's actually a pretty contorted position because half your body wants to be facing downhill and the other half applying force uphill. But, done right it works.

I'm off. At first, I'm able to keep the speed down. Then, the speed starts to pick up and I'm having trouble slowing myself down. I have no idea how fast I was actually going, but all I can is that I was terrified. Probably the worst that would have happened is that I would have caught up with the person down the chute in front of me, but it was terrifying to not feel in control of the speed. I try digging my legs in further. There's a huge pile of snow building up in front of me - scraped off the chute by my heels. That isn't working so I apply as much pressure as I can on the ice axe. That works. The ice axe grabs, starts to slow, then grabs into a solid piece of snow/ice and I come to an abrupt stop. That took a lot of force, but it worked. OK, I'm not sure I enjoyed that, but I just came quite aways down the slope and I think I understand how to do this.

Kevin has picked a bit different position than I have and is having a similarly difficult time stopping. He's also pushing a big pile of snow in front of him and he eventually comes down to where I am and come right into me. By then, he has slowed some and the big pile of snow in front of him provides a cushion between us. Not how it's supposed to be done, but we're OK. Kevin is pretty worried about things at this point so I explain to Kevin what I'm doing to make it work for me and he adopts his own version of that. We briefly discuss the option of walking down the rest of the way, but decide that the rest is not quite as steep, we're now past the top of the boulder field and still in a good worn path and there's a pretty good runout at the bottom so even if we don't quite have it down yet, we should be OK.

Kevin, Glissading Down the Chute

Now it starts to get fun. It goes from terrifying to exhilirating. We've both figured out how to stop better and the slope has mellowed a bit. In fact, we're bummed that we have to constantly wait for a super cautious glissader who's going really slow in front of us. As the slope mellows, we jump tracks to another path to get by the slowpoke and slide all the rest of the way ourselves - having a blast. I'm even able to get the camera out and get a couple snaps of Kevin coming down the lesser part of the slope.

The Glissading Position

Kevin Comes to a Stop With Ace Axe Dug Into the Snow

We reach the end of the glissade and start the traverse hike back to Trail Camp. I really don't remember what time we got back to camp, but it was somewhere around 4:30-5:00. We are soaking wet from the glissade (thank goodness for having all non-cotton clothing because it dries fast), but also reveling in how fun the second half of the glissade was and that we made it to the summit. We cook dinner (ramen, beans and spices), secure things for the night and climb into the tent at about 7pm and after chatting about the days activities, we're once again asleep by 8pm. The plan is to get up whenever we get up in the morning, pack up and hike out.

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