There are winds of changes blowing
Gathering leaves up in its path
And the people who are the leaves
Will remain in our hearts
With love, till eternity
Eric Burdon & The Animals
I was down but not out. Nineteen days and counting. Something had to give. And sooner rather than later...
I had gotten real soft real quick the previous weekend at a Sinatra haunt in the Sierra Nevada. When I wasn't dodging cigarette hangovers and casino floor despair, I was neck-deep in a sea of Bay Area frauleins with trendy fingernails and plastic handbags and cancelled eyes. Damn weddings...
A quick return flight to DIA and I found myself desperate to get back on the winning side of things. I believe mountaineering is very streaky. When you're hot you're hot and when you're not, well, you attend GoLite and REI garage sales and let your gear closets do the talking.
A cupcake Saturday? One foot in front of the other? I wasn't ready to start singing the class 2 blues just yet. I'd have all winter to do that. What I wanted was a late October test piece, something with a little sketch and maybe some snow. Something on the fringes of my comfort zone. Something real.
And that is how I found myself on US-285 last Friday evening with the usual chick by my side. We had the Jimmy Johns subs and the cooler full of beer and no obligations for the next 48 hours. Our destination was the Tenmile Range and our booty was Wheeler Mountain.
We could've slept at Montgomery Reservoir but opted for Blue Lakes instead. I was concerned about the rock-crawlers and off-roaders who frequent the former. You know the kind… dig Skynyrd and chair fights and drink motor oil "cuz it's smoooooth..."
I don't have a high tolerance for riff-raff and Blue Lakes turned out to be a good call. It was just us and the goats and the wind until dawn.
Gotta love those 9 A.M. starts. The essence of October...
The road to Wheeler Lake is pretty beastly in sections. There are lots of rocks and large frozen puddles that make it difficult to get into any kind of rhythm. It is over three miles to the lake but the vert is nominal. Snow was calf deep around 12,000 feet and we took a break near the vintage car parked on the northwest shore.
From here we were able to survey our route up to the Wheeler-Clinton saddle. It looked complicated but pretty dry (at least compared to the entrance to the Clinton-McNamee-Traver amphitheatre which was all snow). And by complicated I mean not straightforward. We would do our fair share of zigging and zagging as we climbed up to the saddle at 13,300 feet.
The snow along the way was patchy and more of a nuisance than anything else. With each step, you weren't sure if you would find rock, solid ground, or nothing for eighteen inches and risk a face plant or ankle-grinder.
Eventually, we topped out and it seemed like winter was waiting up there on the other side of the ridge. Your textbook wind ambush. Communication was futile and I ended up pissing all over myself. Nice dude nice…
400 feet now separated us from the summit. But it wasn't an easy 400. Staying ridge proper was not possible without rope and/or industrial-strength crap diapers. We ducked onto the west side and the spindrift picked up and I could barely see a thing. We pressed on, searching for cairns and sections that would go. Eventually, the wind subsided and fall conditions returned. About time.
Our route would undulate the rest of the way. There were rock ribs and runout gullies but nothing terribly loose. A decent amount of snow existed in places but not enough to warrant taking out the axe or putting on the microspikes. We didn’t need the buckets either. It felt good to get out and scramble again.
The summit block looked toothy from our vantage point. We chose the dotted-line ascent in Bill’s route description. I went up to take a look and when I popped my head over the last rock, I could make out the summit register and a couple of old weathered wooden signs a mere ten feet away. All that remained was an airy catwalk where grab ass would not be an option. Gotta love those class 3 finishes.
I called down to Sarah and she joined me moments later. Great views all around but we didn’t linger. There wasn’t much room to lounge so we quickly retraced our steps to the saddle and began a slow and languid descent to the lake.
And that is when we heard the gunshots.
Bang! Bang! Bang!
I would count over one hundred during the next twenty minutes or so.
Bang! Bang! Bang!
Wooderson: Is somebody shooting an elephant down there?
Papillon: Sounds like the set of a Peckinpah flick.
Wooderson: What are the odds the clown is wearing one of those Big Johnson fishing rod shirts?
Papillon: You mean the ones that ask if you are a ‘Master Baiter’?
We returned to the shores of Wheeler Lake and settled down for a snooze. I popped some margherita pepperoni and took in the snow and the wind and the cool crisp horizons. And for a few half-conscious moments, summer returned to me in a whirlwind of images:
9:37 P.M. sunsets and bare-legged campfires. Deep county road trailheads. Kaleidoscope tent cities. Nut-hugger beers.
Patio burgers and salty potato chips. SPF and DEET. Balsamic vinegar socks. Rotten trail runners and stiff treacherous skivvies.
Topos on the hoods of hot metal cars. The backseat reek. Immortal conversations. Sleepy headlamp starts. Full-blown gapers.
And just like that summer was gone…
The road flirts with class 3
Yes, we made it to the lake...
Let me tell you what Melba Toast is packin' right here, alright. We got 4:11 Positrac outback, 750 double pumper, Edelbrock intakes...
...bored over 30, 11 to 1 pop-up pistons, turbo-jet 390 horsepower. We're talkin' some f---in' muscle.
The task at hand
The usual chick
Gaining the ridge
Still gaining the ridge
Ridge to Clinton
Enter the South Ridge
Sugar and Spice
A room with a view
The summit makes an appearance
Sugar and Spice II
And I do my little turn on the catwalk...
Blue Lakes Dam
These are great days we're living...