Let’s face it: this has not been a typical Wasatch winter. This morning’s avalanche report suggests that things might stay atypically lame--a strong persistent weak layer in the snow pack may never fully heal and, after a brief front brings a meager few inches of snow tonight, high pressure is forecast to resume and stick around for at least another weak. As a rock climber, I should probably be psyched--as long as things dry out, climbing in the local canyons above the inevitable inversion or heading south to abundant desert rock are both great options.
And yet, as much as I love the rock, I’ve had this sense of something missing; something about heading out cragging in the warm sun feels vaguely unsatisfying. As much as I’ve tried to simply take what this winter is giving me--if it’s warm and dry, climb rock; if it snows, get out skiing (safely); if the ice is solid, swing away--I realized I’ve been suffering from a type of seasonal affective disorder...but not in the usual way. What I’ve been missing is the typical winter day out: a long day in the cold, either (or perhaps both) starting or ending in darkness, constantly changing layers yet rarely being fully warm or dry, always moving--whether it’s the skin-ski repetition of a touring day or the jumping jacks and sad dance moves performed between ice pitches and while on belay duty. These days leave me exhausted in a way that few, if any, warm rock climbing days can--an exhaustion born not just of usual physical effort but from the added effort of fighting off the chill.
Now, this may seem crazy, and I’ll admit to being more than willing to complain about how I’m feeling when I’m actually out there battling frozen toes and fingers, grimly anticipating the pain to come with an inevitable rewarming and tired of having to dance a jig to fend off full-body shivers. But as the saying goes, “fun isn’t always fun,” and while I don’t always enjoy it in the moment, there’s a deep satisfaction that comes at the end of one of these days, when I return to my comfy couch or settle down at a restaurant table, so happy to be finally and fully WARM, completely wiped out and totally deserving of a beer and a large, comforting meal, and plenty of sleep.
I finally got one of those days on a weekend trip to Ouray. After a day in the ice park (too comfortized to have the proper effect), Rick and I headed south to Telluride to climb the Ames Ice Hose. A longish approach was made longer by a couple of wrong turns and an unfrozen stream that had to be crossed a ways upstream of the usual spot. After starting the hike in full sun and wearing just long-sleeve shirts, we quickly lost the sun as we walked towards the always shady wall and added on jackets, hats, and heavier gloves. The crux first pitch, which Rick led, was thin and tricky, and made for a long belay for me. By the time I joined him at the top, I had those full-body shivers and had gone through the screaming barfies as my fingers rewarmed partway up the pitch. I added my down jacket to the layers and set off to lead the second pitch--despite climbing in the down, it was cold enough that I never got too warm and that puffy stayed on for the remaining climbing. We had gotten a pretty casual late start to the day, figuring if others were trying to climb the route that day, they’d be more likely to do the alpine start, so why not sleep in and avoid the potential “crowds” (we saw no signs of anyone having been out that day). We managed to finish the raps in the light, but halfway into the hike out the headlamps went on and despite the aerobic effort I was still wearing my down. Once back to the car, we devoured the dregs of a trail mix bag, and I savored the sensation of my muscles finally relaxing after having worked continuously to climb, hike, and fight the cold. Rick drove us back to Ouray for dinner, while I napped contentedly in the passenger seat, warm and feeling as if I had melted into the seat. A beer and some comfort food--fried pickles!--followed, and the pajamas came out as soon as I walked into our hotel room. I was asleep by 9:30 and wonderfully happy for it.
As winter moves into spring, and the appropriate time for rock season comes along, I probably won’t complain. But a little part of me will miss those long winter days out and look forward to the next time, which may explain why I head to Alaska in May or the cold side of the Tetons in September.