Unfinished Business

Mt. Harwood snow field

I’ve been sitting here for a while, but I haven’t typed anything until now.  Of course, I start with a thought that isn’t really a thought.  There are so many things that could be said. 

Though many of them will not be said. 

I guess I’m just in that kind of mood.  The air outside is cold.  And it’s raining.  It is early morning, and the sun has yet to really wake up.  Not that we’ll be able to see him through the rain clouds.  I bet the mountains are getting snow…

This is a new year.  Full of promise and expectation.  Or so I’m told.  The turning of the calendar page is meaningless if the psyche isn’t on board.  The moon, the stars, the revolution of our planet around the sun…It’s ongoing.  And ever changing.  We must decide what to do with the time that is given to us.   

Nearly five years ago I began a journey to fulfill a dream of adventure.  For years I had read books and seen movies and fantasized about the glory of climbing tall mountains.  The romantic adventures of time gone by, in lands of steep slopes, icy paths and blustering snow. 

I warned you…I’m in a mood. 

But I guess you’re used to it by now, right?  I’ve written of my love for adventure before.  I’ve written of my own adventure or rather, misadventure.  I thought the lessons to be learned were important to share.  I still do. 

But my misadventure was a journey, and a dream, unfulfilled.  Nearly five years later and I still had some unfinished business up on that mountain.  The Devil’s Backbone.  And though I had attempted to turn the calendar page and start fresh with that particular route before, my psyche just wasn’t on board. 

Unfinished Business

The days are still short, though the shortest is now behind us.  Still, the sun rises late and goes to bed early.  For the time being.  Those that seek adventure must do so in the darkness.  And so it began.

Brett and I left the house before six in the morning on the eve of a new year.  We had had plans, but no expectations.  We’ve learned over time that it is good to have a plan, but to limit what is actually expected of a day in the mountains.  Mother Nature has her own way of doing things, and she is not to be trifled with.  A go with the flow attitude is a good one to have.

Many alpine adventurers have what is known as “summit fever”.  Climbers get so close to the summit of a mountain that they push themselves beyond reason and safety to reach it.  Energy, resources and conditions may deteriorate to the point that getting down from the summit is more dangerous than getting up to it…if not completely impossible.

But I digress.

The conditions for our New Years Eve trip were to be taken seriously.  We’d gotten storms, which meant snow.  That meant gear.  Ice axe, crampons…

We set out for Register Ridge, a well known and popular ridgeline trail among the serious mountaineers.  It is steep.  It climbs about 2600’ feet in about a mile and a half.  Think climbing stairs for almost two miles.

GRM on Register Ridge

The great thing about climbing a ridge is the views.  We climb along the spine of the mountain, with rock and dirt and scree dropping off hundreds of feet to our right and to our left.  Other trails on the mountain are nice, as they take you in lush pine forests and shady trails that zig and zag.  But you are looking at the mountain the entire time.  You look at the trail.  On the ridge, you get air and sunshine.  And in the distance you can see forever.

Well, assuming it wasn’t cold and millions of people weren’t using fireplaces and such and there wasn’t a layer of haze over the southland.  Yeah, assuming all of that…you could see forever.

Still we climbed.  And about ¾ of the way up the ridge, Mother Nature sent us a gust of wind that was icy and cold and fast.  We knew we were in for a treat.  A blustering alpine experience on the top of a mountain.  And still we climbed.

Register Ridge climbs the mile and a half up Mt. Harwood, the sister peak to Mt. Baldy.  It lies just east of the bigger mountain, but is only inferior by a mere 500 vertical feet.  The slopes are just as steep.  Just as dangerous.  I know first-hand…

2008 Site of Rescue
2008 Site of Rescue

It was in 2008, on our descent from Mt. Baldy following our ascent via the Ski Hut trail that I lost my footing.  We were descending east, across Mt. Harwood and on our way to The Devil’s Backbone.  You see, I’ve been on Harwood before.  But I didn’t get the opportunity to come down under my own volition.

Gusting on the SummitThis year, as we broke through the tree line, we stepped onto the spectacular snowfield that rises to the summit of Mt. Harwood.  The amazing views that we’d had our entire trip were magnified.  But so, too, were the gusts of wind.  We had stepped onto the snowfield and out of the protection of the trees.  We were at the full mercy of 30 mph winds.

We gained the summit easily, though with caution.  The summit of Harwood is broad, so we were able to get battered around by the wind without fear of tumbling thousands of feet down the mountain. We did, however, keep the cameras nicely tucked away in our bags until we could get to a spot that wasn’t going to rip our spendy little point and shoots out of our hands and into the wilderness.  For the most part, anyway.

Greg & Brett on Summit

Brett and I congratulated each other on a summit achieved, and then sought shelter from the wind behind a rock.  It wasn’t much help, but it was at least something to lean on.  We then had a choice.  Climb the exposed ridge between Harwood and Baldy, claim that summit and then descend via the relatively safe Ski Hut trail or call it a day and take the quicker, albeit less safe, Devil’s Backbone down.

The Devil’s Backbone.

From our starting point on the summit of Harwood, we had already traversed past the place of my fall in 2008.  Heading back down the Backbone, I was essentially picking up where I had left off nearly five years before.

Let me tell you, the Devil’s Backbone is aptly named.  It is a spiny ridge that descends from Mt. Harwood to the east, with easily a thousand feet or more of mountain dropping down on either side.  It is rugged and dangerous.  As the wind howls up the north side of the mountain from the high desert, it creates a cornice in the snow along the trail.

Greg on the Devil's Backbone

Cornice = Bad.

I must say, the Backbone is incredibly beautiful.  The most gorgeous part of the mountain, in my opinion.  I don’t know if it’s the danger or just its sheer beauty, but I fell in love with it.  It fulfilled all of my dreams about alpine climbing.  Sure, there were a few moments of self induced terror as I navigated my way over boulders on a knife-like ridge high in the mountains.  But in five years of going out into the wilderness I realized the importance of taking the journey one step at a time.

There is nothing otherworldly about men who climb mountains.  There are exceptions, of course.  The men who climb the highest peaks without supplemental oxygen or the men who set speed records on the most dangerous mountains are a little out there.  But even then, they aren’t any different than I am.  Or you.  They train physically.  But more important, they train mentally.  That psyche I was talking about.

The Devil's Backbone

I had been training for it and didn’t even realize it.  But since successfully completing the trail I had set out on five years prior, I’m looking for opportunity to train my psyche.  I heard a quote from a movie trailer (of all places) recently.  I think I’ll hold onto it for a while.  It said…

“Fear is not real.  It is a product of thoughts you create.  Do not misunderstand me.  Danger is very real.  But fear is a choice.”

I didn’t need the turn of a calendar page to inspire me to push my limits or seek the change I want in my life.  It was nice I was able to stand by the truck after nine emotional and hard fought hours to congratulate my friend and myself on a climb well done, and to do that on a celebratory eve like New Year’s.  But I walk away with the most important lesson for me, not in the timing, but with the process of being successful.  We recognized the danger, we controlled our fears and we took our time…one step at a time.

And in doing so, we finished what we set out to do.

(Pictures Copyright 2013 by Brett Sargent & Greg Morton)

6 thoughts on “Unfinished Business”

  1. Congrats on returning and completing the climb. Going up Register Ridge in the snow must have been great. I haven’t climbed it in snow yet (I’ve gone up the Baldy Bowl Trail), but I’m thinking about doing so this year. The stretch along Devil’s Backbone from the beginning (when you get past the last ski lift) to the east face of Mt. Harwood may be my favorite place in Angeles Forest. I guess you passed that part on your way down. Great right up and nice pics. Once again, congrats!

    1. Thanks Kyle!!! Register Ridge is amazing for a few reasons. The view is incredible the entire way up. You get to see across the valley toward the ocean (when you turn around..ha ha ha), plus the Baldy Bowl is looking at you the entire time as well. We got to see the sun rise over the Three T’s, which was AWESOME. My favorite part was that we didn’t see a single person on the mountain the entire day. Part of that was it was New Year’s Eve, but I’ve been on Register before an barely saw anyone…So if you like nice and peaceful times in the great outdoors, Register Ridge is it.

      If you go in the snow, be careful!! Ice axe and crampons are a must. It can get pretty dicey. Enjoy it – And take pictures!!! I would love to share in your adventures!!!

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