Afoot on Abbot

15-16 Aug 2003 - by Greg Johnson (view roster page)

On the night of Friday August 15, 2003, I drove up to the Mosquito Flat trailhead from the San Fernando Valley. I set up my bivy in the back of my vehicle and, as is my habit, I did little reading before going to sleep. I had brought my most recent copy of Rock and Ice which had the story of Aron Ralston. He was the guy who was hiking solo in the Canyonlands when scrambling around an 800 pound boulder it rotated loose and pinned his hand. Although his hand went numb within an hour I could not imagine what he had to go through for three days until he made his fateful decision to free himself by amputating his arm.

I awoke Saturday morning to find my partner, Thomas Johansson, parked a few spaces away getting his gear together. Tom and I had met previously in May on an SPS climb of Olancha. We tentatively made plans to do a trip in August. We decided on Abbot and Dade.

The hike up Abbot is just as described in Secor. I brought pages from the first edition and Tom from the second. The pictures from both editions provide a very complete picture of our route. We hiked up the trail from the Mosquito Flat trailhead to Ruby Lake. From Ruby Lake we travel up Little Lakes Valley passing below Ruby Peak and Mills peak. Crossing the boulder fields, Tom comments on how loose the boulders are. At the top of the valley we follow a moraine to the base of the North Couloir. The lower portion of the glacier is melting ice with little streams forming veins on the surface. As the angle steepens the ice is in perfect condition for kicking steps with crampons. After exiting the colouir we climb right up the loose class three slope until we gain the ridge. We follow the ridge to the summit where we enjoy a

late lunch and the views of Ruby, Mills, Gabb, Dade, Bear Creek Spire, and Morgan. I make note of a 1992 entry in the summit register of Peter Croft doing one of his solo traverses. I think he started at Ruby and was on his way to Bear Creek Spire. We spend about 45 minutes on the summit before heading back.

Once we are off the glacier we head down the moraine. We are making good time until I step on a loose rock which dislodges a small boulder that rolls on to my foot. Oh shit! I immediately try to lift the boulder. It doesn't budge. Tom rushes to help. We still can't move it. Tom uses other rocks as levers. He succeeds temporarily in relieving the pressure. I try to pull free. My heel is jammed. Damn! Tom begins the task excavating the rocks out from behind my heel. I begin to wonder how long it will take for my foot to go numb.

There was a time when I used to solo Sierra peaks. Back in 1997, when I first discovered the PCS, trip leaders would want a resume of experience. I had done a lot of hiking, some backpacking, a little rock climbing and plenty of third class scrambling in places like Joshua Tree and the Pinnacles. However, with the exception of Half Dome I hadn't done any peaks to speak of. I decided to go solo and add a few peaks to my resume. Although I found a partner to do Morrison the rest of the peaks I did that summer were solo trips of relatively easy mountains like Dana, Gibbs, Conness, Aggasiz, and a failed attempt on Johnson. I was prepared for most eventualities but the talus and boulder fields seemed to pose the greatest risk. What would happen if I took a fall and broke something? What would happen if I dislodged a rock and a boulder rolled onto my foot or leg pinning me without any way of freeing myself?

This day I have a partner. Tom has cleared the rocks from behind my heel. Again he tries to use other rocks as levers but to no avail. Finally, he grabs his Grivel ultra light ice-axe and uses it as a pry bar. It works and I am able to get my foot out from under the boulder. I sit back in relief and enjoy the endorphin rush as the pain in my foot subsides.

Amazingly, I am able to walk. No broken or fractured bones. Tom gives me his poles and we scramble down to a nearby pool of glacier melt. We had seen these pools earlier. It looked like a rock quarry except that the wall is exposed ice. I soak my foot in the ice-cold water to reduce swelling and I pop a couple of Advil.

Even though I can walk, Tom refuses to let me carry my pack.

It's dark when we get back to the trailhead. We eat dinner next to our cars using the table and chairs Tom has brought. Over dinner we decide to put our plans for Dade on hold and head home Sunday morning.

End Note: There is no real comparison between my situation and Aron Ralston's. However, I was facing the possibility of having to walk out on only one good leg or of having to spend a long night alone while my partner went for help. Fortunately, neither scenario occurred. Unfortunately, it is little easier for me now to imagine what Aron Ralston went through.


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