The aspens were peaking, the temperature perfect, and the calendar said GO TO THE MOUNTAINS. Fortunately, if one lives in Moab, the La Sal Mountains are a mere 45 minutes away. I hadn’t climbed a real mountain since, well, I can’t remember when. Ed’s an accomplished alpinist and a good friend, and would escort me to a summit. We camped at 9900 feet, enjoyed a crackling campfire, and fell into a tired sleep.
A band of vocalizing coyotes interrupted the tranquility an hour before dawn. That was the first animal noise heard all night; I was surprised at how silent it was in that old forest. Tea and fruit for breakfast energized us for the task at hand. The preceding evening’s nausea and loss of appetite were gone and I kept telling myself that altitude sickness was no longer an option. I had cautiously trekked at high altitude in the Andes (Cuzco — 11,150 feet) three summers ago, and didn’t want to wimp out here.
Our goal was South Mountain: 11,798 feet. Its bare top lay above tree line, with glorious golden aspens skirting the ridges, and an azure sky setting them off. Bushwhacking through the understory up (up, always up) to a nearby knoll, we came to a saddle which beckoned us across — to a crazy, intimidating talus slope that would take us the final 700 vertical feet. Ed left the ‘Up vs. Down’ decision to me. I admit with embarrassment that I entertained the notion of quitting there; we were SO close, however, that I knew I would kick myself if I abandoned the plan. Up we went. An elk bugled in approval below us.
The ‘How To Walk On Talus’ learning curve is about as steep as the angle of repose. Chunks of jagged sharp granitic rock were all we could walk on in any direction; they seemed delicately balanced on each other, ready at any second to be dislodged and careen hundreds of feet down, knocking others as they went. Some were like dinner plates, poised to scoot sideways when stepped on. It didn’t take long to learn not to put my foot on the EDGE of any rock, and to always weight it partially before shifting all 120 pounds of me onto one sketchy piece. There is a definite technique that we lowlanders need to learn, to lessen the danger of a rock slide:
Movements occur whenever the talus slope exceeds the critical angle. The exact angle at which failure takes place depends upon the materials (e.g., rock type), rock size, moisture content, but dry homogenous materials in a pile generally experience slope failure when the angle of repose (the resting slope angle) exceeds 33–37°.
Slope failure, eh? One glance at the ridge line and I asked Ed if we were looking at a 40-degree slope. “Not quite,” was his answer, “but for sure you want to stay up here on the ridge at all times.” The debris falling away on the sides was significantly more unstable than the unreliable stuff we were already on. Thank goodness for agility, good balance, and the ability to quickly recover when a slab slips out from under your foot. I tried not to walk above or below Ed, as I didn’t want to know what a sharp boulder would do to my climbing buddy’s foot or leg.
One spot of tricky climbing got us up over a vertical portion and we soon made the summit, ate peanut M&Ms and apples at the summit cairn, and used the timer function to take this photo of us holding a summit artifact. Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, and many other landmarks were easily visible from way up there, despite the wildfires that have blanketed the area with much haze of late.
I have a fresh appreciation for why mountain climbers like to reach the summit. A rich sense of accomplishment (“I’ve earned this by my own sweat and risk”) garnishes the gloriousness and magnificence. It is serene and tranquil and private. Views are vast and incomparable, and nothing is higher than you. (OK, except for Mt Tukuhnikivats, 12,400, and Mt Peale, the highest of the La Sals at 12,700, which I’m saving for another year.)
I heartily recommend this endeavor. Find out what the highest point is in your county, or township, or city block, and climb something. Please leave a comment about some summit you’ve reached, no matter how humble.