It’s not that I didn’t know (or at least suspect) this going in, but altitude and climbing is like a drug. The solace one finds climbing, and even more so at altitude, is addicting. The stresses and facts of daily life drift away fast, and to some extent even the risk of what you’re doing does as well. It’s replaced by determination and concentration. If you’re rest-stepping up a glacier, you’re just focused on the rhythm. If you’re in a roped team rest-stepping up a 40 degree pitch of snow/ice, you’re doing nothing other than looking for the next solid foothold to place your crampon. If you’re 30 feet up on a route, you’re just looking for the next foot/hand hold.
I started at Old Rag in Virginia, at 3,284 feet. This isn’t a particularly hard or challenging climb (or hike, really). But as it was my first real outdoors activity, and first attempt at much of anything above sea level, for me it was a big deal. It was my first summit. It wasn’t long after that I tackled Table Mountain in South Africa, at 3,558 feet. Though barely 300 feet higher than Old Rag, it was significantly harder given the shorter and steeper route up, plus the warm weather. The view from the summit of Old Rag was pretty amazing, but the view from the summit of Table Mountain was exhilarating. Mt. Katahdin and Baxter State Park in Maine was a few months later. At 5,270 feet, it was a big jump from my previous two climbs. But Katahdin was a much more realistic taste of mountaineering (while it was definitely a “climb” I would hesitate to call it “mountaineering”). The risk factor and exposure factor went way up, and the time to complete it (and logistical process) did as well. The view from the summit would have been spectacular had it not been shrouded in clouds.
Mt. Adams, at 12,281 feet, was an almost or near success. At 11,400 feet, the false summit was as far as I made it due to a frustrating (to say the least) muscle strain in my leg. But the level of effort wasn’t more than I could handle, nor was the altitude (though the symptoms of altitude sickness are certainly not pleasant).
So…with that, where do I go now? The path to this point has been a gradual increase in altitude (plus one big jump). That trend doesn’t necessarily have to continue, there are plenty of sub-12,000 foot peaks in the US that are beautiful and challenging (far, far more so than Adams was). It doesn’t take a lot of climbing to learn that altitude is not the sole factor in determining how hard an attempt at the summit will be. It’s certainly a big part of the equation, but there is a lot more to it.
On my next climb, I’d like to continue with something alpine (i.e snow and ice)- glacier work is a serious rush. I’d like to be around the 12,000 foot marker, but not necessarily above it. I’ve done a bit of reading and research, and here are some (but not all) of the candidates:
(1) Eldorado Peak: also in Washington State (like Mt. Adams), this peak is more remote and a bit harder to get to. It’s 8,868 feet, and it’s East Ridge is a challenging yet beautiful climb in a what looks like a spectacular alpine environment. Unlike Mt. Adams, Eldorado is not a free-standing mountain (it’s in a range) and it’s not a volcano. The final few hundred feet are going up a razor-thing edge, with thousands foot drops and each side.
(2) Longs Peak: in Colorado, it’s one of the many mountains in the state above 14,000 feat. At 14,259, it’s a pretty big jump over Mt. Adams. As a summer climb, it’s not alpine though (minus one point). A number of professional climbers use Longs Peak as a “warm-up” climb for bigger peaks around the world.
(3) Mt. Whitney: at 14,505, it’s California’s highest point and the highest point in the lower 48 states. Well known and popular, it gets a lot of attention and a lot of people. It’s something like a 22 mile approach (minus one point), but with some serious altitude gain. It might not be as alpine as I’d like (during summer), but I need to look into it more.
(4) Grand Tetons: The Grand Teton itself is 13,775 feet, but there are many lesser and smaller mountains in the Grand Teton range in Wyoming. This might be at a skill level one step above me…though a year or so between now and the climb might be enough time to get up to the level I’d need to be at. More research is required, but right now this one is leading the pack.
These are four mountains out of many, many out there to climb. The challenge is finding one with the right combination of altitude, easy enough to get to, guides available to help lead you up safely, and a variety of other factors to consider. Others will need to be looked at over the coming weeks.
But ultimately I work better when I have a goal- so I’m hoping to set the next climb in the next month or two so that I can begin training for the next target.