Saturday, August 22, 2015

Dog Days

Last month, if you happened to glance at the southeastern horizon at dawn, before the sky was bleached by daylight, you'd have seen a bright star rising. In Greek mythology, Sirius, the brightest star in the northern night sky, was the Dog Star, the canine companion of Orion the trophy hunter (he once bragged he'd kill every animal on Earth). The fact that the star rose together with the sun at the hottest time of the year led ancient Greeks to suppose that Sirius was responsible for that heat. Hence, the dog days of summer - a classic instance of confusing correlation with causation. Reality is, as always, stranger and more interesting than superstition. In the nineteenth century, Sirius was found to be in fact a double star. The previously unseen companion is a white dwarf, a fantastically dense object held up against the crush of gravity by an exotic quantum mechanical effect.

Thoughts of ancient superstitions and modern physics flitted through my head as I sweated up the trail above the Bugaboo glacier. Ian and I had waited until late afternoon to start hiking but to little avail. The sun might have started down from its zenith, but down among the trees and bushes the air lay warm and still. The dog days of summer indeed. Finally, some ways above the ladder ("Good training for the Second Step on Everest," I quipped), we emerged from the stuffy greenery into a light breeze. My sweat-soaked shirt felt cold and clammy against my back as I shouldered my pack after a quick snack for the remaining half-hour grind to Applebee.

"This wasn't in the forecast," I complained early next morning. Sirius, and even the sun for that matter, were hidden by dark clouds trailing ragged tendrils of rain. A few heavy drops spattered ominously on the granite slab where we sat eating breakfast; thunder murmured in the distance. Suddenly unsure, we lingered over banana bread and cowboy coffee, before a few patches of blue sky enticed us out of camp. It was a good call: by the time we were stumbling up the melted-out rubble of the Crescent Glacier, the east face of Snowpatch Spire glowed in the sun. Our toes, cold from kicking into snow down in the moat, quickly warmed up on the blindingly white granite of the rock scar at the base of what used to be Deus Ex Machina and was now Welcome to the Machine.

The following morning we slept in and didn't emerge from our bags until the morning sun had turned the tent into a sauna. The evening before, an off-route ramp that went nowhere, along with lengthening shadows in the valley, had turned us around a couple of pitches from the summit ridge. Still, with ten pitches of sustained climbing to get to that point, we felt like we'd earned a lazy start to the day. A black tea, a coffee, then another coffee, while we sorted gear for a cragging day on Eastpost Spire. Finally, after a couple of hours, we got enough caffeine flowing through our veins to motivate us for the fifteen-minute approach. We picked up the packs, then put them down again. The sky, a flawless blue just an hour earlier, was now the dull white of a cataract. To the west, over the ruin of the Bugaboo-Snowpatch col, dark storm clouds built by the minute.

"I think we should pack up and head down," Ian voiced what we were both thinking. A few minutes earlier we'd been casually packing to go climbing. Now, as the first drops came down, borne on gusts of wind, we frantically dumped out the gear, balled up the tent and stuffed in the sleeping bags. Fifteen minutes later, as we headed down the trail, the skies opened up while thunder cracked between the spires. "Good timing, eh?" we congratulated ourselves. On the drive home, we cranked up the heat rather than the air conditioning. The dog days of summer were over.

Ian below the east face of Snowpatch Spire, one of the finest alpine crags around.

Ian starts up the first pitch of Welcome to the Machine out of the moat...

... and comes up the steepening ramp of the second pitch.

The fourth pitch has a bit of everything, even a deadpoint for those whose crack-climbing technique isn't up to snuff. Photo: Ian Welsted.

Yours truly starts up the seventh pitch. Higher, perfectly spaced fingelocks lead up an overhanging dihedral. It doesn't get much better than that. Photo: Ian Welsted.

For inspiration, we were treated to the Matt-and-Will show on the Tom Egan Memorial Route. Photo: Ian Welsted.

Ian comes up the "enduro" ninth pitch...

... and begins the fists section of the tenth.

From high on the east face, we look down on Applebee enjoying the last of the day's sunshine.

The following morning the sun's nowhere to be seen as we leave the nearly deserted campground.