Tales of an Incompetent Adventurer
FREEZEFEST XIV — 2015–2016
Mysterious Christmas
by Ram

Indecision reigned. It was the Christmas day traditional insanity time. Who would go? Many of the past participants felt the reality of the danger of the thing. They waxed eloquently on it foolhardiness. In the end, the same people as last year filled up this year’s permit. Where would we go? Observation Canyon? Not Imlay? Fat Man’s Misery? Jacob? All would be new to the assembled party. All had strong appeal to some or all. All proved impractical under the circumstances. All had slickrock that would prove treacherous with fresh snow. And fresh snow we had, starting almost to the minute that it had last Christmas—in the morning’s wee hours just past 3 AM.

So we settled for what sounded safest—the option with the least exposed slickrock. We went to Mystery Canyon. Three of us had done the canyon just two days short of exactly two years earlier on a December 27th. So nothing really new for Christmas. We had done a winter Mystery already ... no new winter landscapes and lessons to be learned ... same old presents. Yeah. Right. Sure. It may have been the same old ground. But it was dressed up in new clothing for the holiday and it had plenty of lessons to teach and discoveries to be gleaned.

The meet–up time was to be at the Temple of the Sinawava at 5 AM sharp. Tom led in his new truck down the canyon road. I hung back a minute. Tom’s were the only tracks. So it was easy to see where he drove off the road and where he smoothly re–entered the road. The only questions was if those big boulders off the side of the road assisted in Tom’s quick ‘righting’ of his course. I would ask a few minutes later. The rocks helped a little and the damage was minimal.

Within minutes and right on time, we were all at the parking lot doing last minute organizing. On board was Tim Hoover, Tom Jones, Jonathan Zambella, Luke Galyan, Tre C Kwan, and myself. Tim for the sixth straight Christmas Day adventure, Tom, Tim, and Luke, the last four and Tre C just her second. I searched around for a place to bury my key and chose not to in the blizzard conditions. I gave an extra one to Luke to lock in his car and carried the other one through the canyon with me. I never do that but practical today.

All piled into Jonathan’s BIG truck and I expected to stop in a minute at Weeping Rock for the hike up. They drove past that trialhead, hopeful of driving up around to the top near the Ponderosa Lodge. I missed the memo I guess ... but I was not unhappy to stay in the warm car and to risk getting stuck in the snow drifts up top verses making that 2,300–foot ascent up the icy East Rim trails, now being covered by fresh snow.

We could not get to the trailhead up top. Close though. We stopped less than a mile from it when the snow topped 8 inches deep. In the predawn blackness, we trudged forward breaking trail. The moon shone, ill–defined, through a cloud and the driving snow. With first light, a deep gray with blue tint marked the world as we hit the start of the Death Gully.

On with the wetsuits or coveralls, depending on your taste in such things, and then down, down, down the gully of death. We slid, skid, romped down the slope, which was about a foot and a half deep in snow. This was the easy part. A lot of snow is better than a little going down. When the slope angle eased, it became a two limb–passage rather than the easier four–limb slide. More dangerous too—easier to drop into a hole and do an ankle or foot or knee. GREAT caution and concentration was demanded. It actually started snowing harder. A downpour of snow? Seemed like it.

We had several places where there were crusts down in the snow banks. Two distinct crusts, in fact, defining the boundary of past storms. Occasionally breaking through and quite deep, we trudged on. Fresh snow is often unconsolidated and it is much more slippery. Then we came upon something remarkable. The big walls that guard the east side of the canyon, before the rappel series, were a continuous mass of movement. Snow slid down the full breadth of the walls. Even more came down the shallow depressions on the walls. The spin drift avalanches were constant motion, like looking into a kaleidoscope. And then an larger slide would occur. Snow from above would catch up to snow sliding ahead of it and it would twist and twirl into and upon itself, like the swirling clouds of a gas giant planet. The whitish color of the snow would instantly turn the color of gray black soot. It would get notably darker below the roiling snow coming down to the ground.

When the wash came near the walls, the snow got very deep. Once my 4–foot ski pole and my 3–foot long arm probed the snow and did not touch bottom. It was stunning and awe–inspiring. In the near silence, one saw constant motion as snow came down the walls. Then it snowed even harder, adding to the blanket of white we were navigating.

With the nuisance raps both necessary and challenging—anchors had to be dug out of deep snow or rebuilt, edges were dangerous to approach, and the raps extremely slippery and more so with each person passing—we reminded each other to pay special attention to each and every choice and motion.

The rappel series itself was actually an easier section as beyond the very first anchor, rap anchors were easy to reach and generally safe locations. Also not as much snow made it to the bottom of these narrow sections. The small downclimbs between raps proved more challenging. What is easy when dry, requires help and care when snow–plastered. There was much talk, bordering on dread, as per the landslide lake which was deep water in November. It took a long time to approach it in the snow–covered boulder filled wash in a blizzard.

Alas, there was a collective sigh of relief when the lake was frozen solid and draped in deep snow. Under the shelter of the colorful rock wall, a scar from the landslide of 1960, we found a place to sit that was free of snow and had lunch and more hot fluids from the many thermoses brought. Even out of the wind and with all our layers on, the cold quickly penetrated us. It was 12:30 PM, we were 6 hours in and much lay ahead.

Down the backside of the landslide talus field, it was particularly poor footing. My shoulder was tweaked and I was reminded of the need to come through the passage whole. Between this spot and the Mystery Spring rappel, there is but one anchored rappel. We rappelled four times in this stretch, so snow covered and treacherous was the footing. As we neared the big rap, a patch of blue sky showed and the sun briefly shone on the snow–plastered slopes above us. With the sun, just out of our reach, we still played in our frozen, shaded world. The sun was soon gone behind a cloud, but those slopes the sun hit had snow that was melting. The released water that flowed into other snow melted it and soon we note a waterfall forming and coming down right to the staging spot for the big rap just as we arrived.

It was decided to take the fixed line over the snow and ice to the exposed perch. Tre C went first. I went third and was scared, very scared, traversing over to the station. Without the handline it would have been beyond me to get over there without sliding off into the abyss. I just tried not to shock the old slick and ice–encased line. Swimming the spring was of no concern, a relief really. I was just thrilled to be down from that dangerous wall above.

Scary movie!

The couple of tenths of a mile between the spring rap and the last rap into the Narrows was surreal—less snow, a short swim, a small rap into that swim, wetter snow clinging to branches and the hanging garden vegetation. The tension released a bit. Maybe released a lot. Still, all were focused for that slip–slide rap to the bottom. Only one group of folks came by hiking the narrows. Pictures were taken and we were on our way.

Lots of people on the one–mile sidewalk in all kinds of shoes not even close to being appropriate for the ice–coated walkway. Seems to me, that all these folks, from grandmas, to little kids, to nonhiker types, navigated the ice fine. I nearly slipped and fell six times. I don’t know how people do it. We were back in solid daylight which, for our little Xmas tradition, is the exception not the rule. Jonathan’s vehicle would sit in the deep snow for days before being retrieved.

We all met for dinner prepared wonderfully by Susan Hoover. Talk is already focused on next year. Lots of discussion about the concept of ‘edge’ and how much edge each of us is seeking and willing to accept. It may be folly to seek this particular recreation. The beauty is beyond any other time of year no question and by far. Doing something hard for its own sake is also a big part of it. Do it because you can. Do it with others, watching out for each other, applying the concentration required. It is mental exercise to match and exceed the physical demands. Most of all, for me anyway, it is the discovery. The spindrift avalanches sliding, roiling, and boiling down the walls in different shades. That more snow in the gully is good. That the ice on the edge of the lake froze was not level but sweeping upward and hollow below ... and much, much more. Only one way to find these things, know these things, file away these things, in the memory bank ... beautiful variations of what the natural world produces. You gotta go see them for yourself. Another happy holiday.


Tales of FreezeFest:
Perfect Beginning • Ram
Escape from Canyon X • Tom Jones
FreezeFest II • Ram
Logjams in the Black Hole • Ram
Fixed Ropes in the Black Hole • Dave Black
Joining the Shenanigans Club • Ryan Cornia
FreezeFest III • Ram
Cheese on Ice • Ram
FreezeFest IX (short film) • Dan Ransom  
Crystal Kaleidoscope • Ram
Christmas in Imlay • Ram
A Left Fork Christmas • Ram
Call of the Wild • Ram
Mysterious Christmas • Ram
Holy Water • Ram
A Christmas Heaps • Tom Jones

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