Utah Part III – The sharks are calling

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We woke up at 5:30am. My alarm was quiet to try and keep from waking up the others. I nudged Mike awake and we slowly got up and out of the tent. It was still dark out with just a little twilight of dawn behind the eastern cliffs. Mike and I packed our gear together for the day, brewed a quick coffee, threw the dogs in the back, and we pulled out, groggy but excited for our day.

It was a touring day and we had a big objective so we needed to leave early since we had an hour drive up to the mountains. I was driving since we had discovered over the past couple of years that early mornings were more my thing than Mike’s. Our touring routine in the winter typically involved us preparing as much as possible the night before and then me getting us out of the door in the morning. But I’m always exhausted after a day of laps and all too happy to have Mike driving on the way home so I can relax. As I hit the turn off the La Sals we saw more jeeps driving down the highway. It was the Jeep Safari week which apparently meant 99% of Jeeps in America were in Moab. We watched the convoy heading down the highway, there must’ve been thirty Jeeps and none of them exactly the same. We would find out from locals that customization was key when it came to Jeep ownership there.

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Mike changing the flat on our drive up to the La Sals.

The road up to the La Sals is long and windy. It climbs up above the desert and sits at almost 3,000 meters of elevation. As we were nearing the top of the parking lot I started to hear a whizzing sound. I stopped the truck and sure enough I could hear the sound of air leaving the tire. I pulled the truck over on the flattest part of the road and got out as Mike sprang into action. I was immediately grateful that we had a full-size spare. Being stuck with a donut would have been far from ideal. As Mike set up to change the tire, I watched a line of three Jeeps heading up the hill past us. They didn’t slow down to offer any assistance, not that we needed it, but it struck me as rude. A few minutes later a car full of fellow tourers stopped to ask if we needed anything and it reminded me that outdoorsy people are generally pretty great people. I’ve always found that they are willing to offer up assistance even when none is needed. I texted my sister to tell her we would likely lose reception and might not make it back to the camp that night if the spare popped too.

When we finally made it up to the parking lot, we parked the truck and watched the three Jeep owners parking their Jeeps on the melting snow banks and taking photos. We started to make our breakfast as we chatted with the other tourers who were packing up. They were heading out for four days at a backcountry hut in the La Sals. It sounded amazing and our envy was fairly obvious. We ate while we watched the Jeep enthusiasts heading down the road and out of sight. We started to pack up for the trail. The dogs were excited and so were we. We wanted to ski a line on Haystack Mountain which stood tall at 3,548 meters. The best route to skin up on was around the backside which was going to be a long skin in but should offer more snow coverage.

First day of touring the La Sals

Getting ready to hit the skin track.

The flat had slowed us down and we hit the skin track later than expected but we were optimistic that it wouldn’t be as hard as we thought. The first several hours were spent skinning on a road towards the back end of the mountain. Once we were done on the road, we headed down a steep treed slope. It was adventurous skinning since the shade of the trees had left the snow hard and the trees were thick enough that tight turns were a requirement. The dogs chased us as we finally got a bit of speed and slowed down as we slid into an open meadow. We were nearing the east side of the mountain and there was still a fair bit of wind loaded snow on the slope. So we discussed the hazard since it was in the sun and there was a definite possibility it could slide, but a low one.

Skinning in the open meadow meant the sun was beating down on us. We re-applied sunscreen at every break and I suffered with my long sleeve shirt on to protect myself from the sun. But it was too hot for gloves and I would end up burning my hands and having a glove tan that lasted until July. As we got around the back, I started to struggle a bit more with my breathing. The skinning got steeper and my exercise induced bronchial constriction, which was not fully under control yet, started to make me wheeze but I still wanted to go. We reached the last slope to the summit and Mike announced that we would have to transition to boot packing. I had never summited a snow covered mountain and I had never boot packed up anything. This was only my second season of touring and up until now my biggest feat had been some very steep skinning with kick turns. I was nervous but excited to learn a new mountain skill.

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On the summit of Haystack Mountain, Mike probing to make sure we cleared the cornice.

We discussed technique as I strapped my split board skis on either side of my bag. Mike started up the slope first making steps that were easy to follow. It was good at first. I stayed about ten feet behind him, surprised by how hard the snow was considering it was in the sun, but there was a cold wind keeping it chilled. As we went further, the footsteps got smaller. I tried desperately to make them bigger with my boots but soft snowboarding boots were no match for the frozen snow. I was starting to understand why some people swore by hard boots for split boarding. I started to slip every couple of steps and my ski poles did not inspire confidence. I cursed myself for not investing in an ice axe. I made the mistake of looking back to see how far I was and my anxiety shot through the roof. I started to hyperventilate as I tried to quiet my brain. Mike saw that I had stopped and he asked if I was ok but I shook my head. I asked him to come down. I felt like I was going to fall and slide down the slope. My brain flashed various deadly scenarios through my head as Mike made his way back down. Once Mike reached me I asked him to get my helmet. I didn’t feel I could move to grab it even though it was just strapped to my back. It’s like my hands were frozen to my poles, pushing them hard into the snow so that they wouldn’t fall. He secured it over my hat and I told him I wanted to go back down and go back. But he knew I could work through this and convinced me to push past the fear. He would kick in bigger steps and walk behind me as I made my way up. We did this for a short section and I started to calm down with the larger steps. So I sent him ahead and told him I didn’t need him behind me anymore so long as the steps were big. When we crested onto the ridge I headed to a rock and sat down to let out a shaky breath. I had been scared, more scared than I had ever been before while touring. I knew it wasn’t a bad thing, it was just inexperience. It told me what I already knew, I really needed more mountain experience.

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Mike holding the dogs while I took some shots.

On the ridge we tied up the dogs and Mike pulled out his probe to check and see where the cornice was. I remember standing there thinking it couldn’t possibly come close to where we were standing but it did. We made sure to stay well clear of it since the cornice was large and had been cooking in the sun all day. It was slow moving with Mike in the front with the probe and me with the dogs following behind. But eventually we crossed over to the true summit and headed down to the south side to where our line would start. My head had been hurting for several hours now and I couldn’t figure out why. We sat down near the summit to try and get some food and summit beers in. The dogs curled up for a nap, which will likely remain the highest point at which they’ve ever taken a nap. I knew I needed energy so I bit into my peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I started to chew and my stomach turned. It was that feeling you get when you know that swallowing your food will just result in it coming right back up. I spat it out. The only thing I managed to get down on the summit was my beer, which I slowly sipped. It wasn’t much but it was something. We discussed that maybe I had some altitude sickness, I had only ever been as high as 3,100 meters before, it could’ve been what was making me sick.

Our line had melted out a fair bit in the few days since we had first spotted it. It was going to be true spring turns with some sharks below the surface. But we were excited. I strapped in my snowboard and Mike kicked on his skis. The dogs were pumped. They knew this part meant that we were finally going to go fast. I started down first and felt the snow was fairly wet. It slid as I turned but there wasn’t enough of it to be concerned with a big slide. I came to a section that the week before had probably been good to pass through but now required me to take off my snowboard and walk across the rocks. After that I looked down the steep slope and I knew that I wouldn’t have to take off my board again. I waited on the snow for Mike as we met up and discussed the line. There was a tight turn to be made to avoid some sharp exposed rock but I felt solid so I decided to go for it first.

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The first section of our line. Sadly I did not get more photos of the line since I just focused on getting down.

I stood up and pointed my right foot down. It was steep so the speed picked up fast and I swung into my turn to get through the gap in the rocks and felt solid. Then all of the sudden I was going down. My board had gotten swept away with the wet snow sliding and I was on my stomach trying to stop myself. I felt the immense pain of sliding over the rocks before I came to a stop. I hadn’t gone too far but it felt like someone had sucker punched me in the gut. I let out a cry and Mike hurried down to me. He told me later he was convinced I had broken something at first. He asked if I was ok and I said I was pretty sure I was. But he knew it was better to assess how bad my injuries were just in case. I managed to get up and I lifted my shirt. I was bleeding at my belly button, but not much, but the right side of my abdomen had a large bruise that was already swelling up. After Mike gave me the ok, I told him I wanted to get down fast. I knew I had hurt myself enough that if I stopped for too long my body would start to hurt more and more. Not to mention the wet snow had made me nervous and speed felt like my friend.

We rode down the rest of the line and the turns were amazing corn surfing turns. Then it melted out and we had to take off our ski’s and board and hike through some brush. It didn’t take long but it was adventurous. There were more than a few spots of mud on my ski pants once we emerged.

Mike and I reached the open meadows, but on the other side of the mountain. We had just come down our line and I felt so much pride in having gone down a line I had picked days before. Usually we stuck to lines and areas we saw in guidebooks. This time we had picked an objective and gone for it. I wanted to do it again. But right now we were a long ways away from the car and I had been injured. The good news was that finally my nausea and head ache were disappearing so I managed to eat my sandwich while we decided which way to bushwhack.

We were going to use the compass. Mike had thankfully taken a reading from the road on our way in so he was confident we would hit the road if we followed the compass. We started along the meadow and ended up in the woods. We went up and down through ravines and my body ached to stop. I started to worry that we might actually end up spending a night in the woods. This day had been a perfect set up for a night in the woods. We were bushwhacking our way out, I had been injured so I was slow, we had told everyone not to expect us that night, there was no one around to help and my phone had died. This is what the stories I had heard before were made of.  From the moment I had become a mountain adventurer I had made it my goal to make sure I never had to unexpectedly spend a night in the woods. Now it felt like I was closer than ever to failing at that objective.

It took a couple of hours but we finally climbed up a ravine and onto the road. The relief swept over me. As tired and achy as I was, I could make it out on the road, it was just one step in front of another.

About fifteen minutes into skinning on the road, Mike stopped. I came up to him as he knelt down and saw how pale he was. Suddenly he wasn’t feeling so good. We had been out for 9 hours at this point and the sun had been beating down on us for most of it. I quickly grabbed some chocolate from my bag and some water for him to take down as I silently hoped that he would be ok because I didn’t feel I had it in me to pull him out of here. He got some water down and once the chocolate hit his tongue he started to perk up. Oh thank god.  We were back on the road skinning out within a few minutes.

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Buffy napping on the summit of Haystack Mountain.

We reached the truck as the sun was just above the desert mountains on the other side of the valley. We both sat on the tailgate of the truck and chugged back some water as the dogs ate supper and then curled up under the truck. We were both hungry and exhausted. I took stock of how much sun I’d gotten in the window of the truck. Then I lifted my shirt and saw that I had indeed gotten myself good. My stomach was fairly swollen and tender to the touch. When I pulled off my snow pants to get into some comfy pants, I saw the bruise on my left thigh, it was the size of a stapler and dark. I was lucky nothing worse had happened.

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The bruises would continue to swell up and darken (darker than any other bruise I’ve had) over the next week. The right side of my stomach would be slightly swollen for almost 2 months after.

In Moab we stopped to get some Mexican food and we decided it was best to head back to camp for the night. It was cheaper than a hotel room and we would just take a rest day the next day and come back to Moab to get the tire fixed and have our first shower in six days. It would be glorious.

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