Trust Your Gut Or Your GPS? A Mountaineering Tale: Part One
By: Josh G.
After a long arduous climb, trailblazing up an untraversed ridgeline, we reached the top of a small notch breaching treeline. With it, we finally had our first full view of the route to the summit. We were climbing Boundary Peak, Nevada’s tallest mountain. It was a twin summit peak with the borderline cutting right through its upper saddle, dividing Boundary from Montgomery Peak, summiting in California. We could make out distinctly the summit pyramid from where we stood but it masked Montgomery and the rest of the range behind it. Looking out at the horizon we made out what looked to be Mt. Whitney and the rest of the Sierra Nevada Range.
The views at this altitude were breathtaking. It was the middle of spring and the weather was remarkably clear throughout the day and looked as if it were to remain so. The route we decided to blaze was up a steep untraveled ridge and required bushwhacking through the waste-high alpine brush. This was mixed with sections of deep snow that also required snowshoes to properly navigate. We deviated from the road we were supposed to follow very early beginning our hike. We had originally planned to take our vehicles, a trusty Mazda CX-5 and Toyota Corolla, farther up towards the end of the access road. This would have situated us right at the start of the trailhead beginning at the Queen Mine Canyon route. However, driving in the night before we were blocked by a massive snowdrift that would have taken two days to properly shovel through. We knew the trail started at the end of the road but we were taken by the first fork we came across and decided to see where it led. It was not a lost cause, being immersed in the flora and fauna of the region offered a great sense of adventure. We even came across an old abandoned mineshaft. Boundary Peak was known for its gold mining back in its respective epoch. Artifacts of the era were scattered all along the mountain.
The time now was around 3:00 pm, and to any wise mountaineer, time to turn around and head back to camp. But wise we were not. We estimated that we had about 3-4 hours worth of sunlight left. The route from the looks of it was very straight forward. Descend down the notch we were atop to the connecting saddle, zig-zag up the adjacent rock face and then scramble up the ridgeline to the summit. We took last-minute inventory of gear, food, and water and decided to go for it. We swiftly descended to the saddle and found a small rock shelter made by other daring mountaineers of this peak. We decided to throw on our outer layers and leave any unneeded gear behind. I dropped everything but a couple of Clif bars and a liter of water and was ready to go.
Gary and I talked and it was decided I would take the lead of the route and set a swift but enduring pace for us to reach the summit before sunset. We were met with a gradual incline that quickly turned into a giant scree field. Two steps forward, one step back. About a quarter of the way up the face, we saw Taylor and Jess trailing behind us. It was a tough decision to make as leaders but we had to turn them back around to the saddle. We knew how far we would be pushing ourselves physically for this ascend and didn't want to project that on others less suited for such a push. In the end, it turned out to be me continuing the lead, Quentin following behind, and Boe and Gary taking up the rear.
*Dusk over the range
The route continued to switchback up the face until we reached a gulley connecting to the summit ridge. The ridge, from what we could observe, was a moderately technical route involving some tricky scrambles and sure footing. Now that we were more than halfway up we were starting to realize how much we underestimated this slope. From a distance, everything looks small but now the full size of our mission was beginning to take hold. Quentin and I, having recently (less than a week ago) pushed ourselves to our limit on Wheeler Peak, NM created a technique to keep a consistent pace. For every 30 minutes of work, we would break for 5 minutes and then continue. This provided us with a good balance and close goals to keep moving up the mountain. Gary and Boe joined in this but they become more concerned about our time rather than resting. I'm always very adamant about knowing the condition of your body and respecting it equally as you would respect a mountain because at the end of the day it’s your legs that still have to walk you out of there. We pushed to the crest of the gulley opening up to the ridge traverse to the summit. Here the boulders made for swift movement compared to the loose scree piles below us.
As we began our ascent up the ridge clouds started moving in. Increasing the wind speed and dropping the temperature. The gusts were enough to keep you focused on your footing. The ridge was not as precipitous as you would conclude from gazing at the mountain though I would not want to take a tumble down. With enough momentum, the blunt force trauma would definitely compensate for a sheer fall. We continued our swift pace moving ever closer to the final shoulder leading to the summit. By this point, we saw that the sun was beginning to set and knew that daylight, or lack of, was about to become a very serious issue. We made sure we packed our trusty headlamps but those too only went so far in added safety on this ridge. We kept moving forward and at this pace, there was no doubt that we could make the summit. But by doing so it would leave us very handicapped on our descent. Both physically and mentally. At this point, Gary took the lead to ensure we kept our pace consistent. I knew I was almost out of water, running very low on food, and that if we continued -- taking into account the team’s level of exertion throughout the day -- there wouldn't be a pleasant outcome. We have already taken a route that pushed us physically throughout the day and we still were unsure on the route back to camp. Just as we were about to start the last 500 ft to the summit I stopped Gary and shared my thoughts on the matter and after short contemplation between us he agreed and we began our descent.
(Continued in Part Two...)