Mummy the Hard Way (Class 4 South Chutes), with a Bit Too Much Graupel

Expect the unexpected.

May 30, 2009

(This is a just a trip report; for the first time in 9 years, I forgot to replace the memory card in my camera.)

Narrative: The weather forecast called for 50% chance of thunderstorms; fair enough, Id watch the sky. When we met at 7:15 AM in Vegas, the skies were totally blue; we thought we had lucked out.

We arrived at Trail Canyon near Mt Charleston a bit after 8AM, and were on the trail by 8:15. It soon became apparent that Ali was ill. We rested at the junction with the NLT (North Loop Trail), but at 9:12, when we reached the gully at 9550, Ali was worse. He decided to hike up the NLT to the "M tree" by the bottom of the normal Mummy talus slope at 10330; I planned to descend by this route, so I would meet him there.

The map above shows the route. The NLT (and Trail Canyon) is red; the ascent is blue; and the descent (down the "normal" scree slope) is green. The star shows where the intense graupel hit; the M tree is also marked

This photo, from January 2004, also shows the route with the same annotation as in the map.

This image shows the class 2/3 part of the gully in drier times. This section held the graupel and became very dangerous.

I bid Ali adieu. The top of the peak was at 11540, about 2000 vertical above where I stood on the NLT. The weather looked good, but some wisps of clouds had a disturbing verticality. I trudged up the obnoxious blocky talus, got to the top of the first 3+ section, and started trudging up the steep rock gully. A few rain drops fell, and suddenly the sky seemed a lot darker. Hmmmm. Then there were a few pellets of graupel. Soon I was at 11100 to 11150, and all Hell broke loose; cm-sized graupel (soft hail, formed in thunderheads) began to pelt me. Quick as a flash, the graupel was an inch deep, and I noticed a very disturbing trend; where graupel accumulated, say on moderate slopes, the rock was extremely slick; I started to descend, only to slip toward a cliff. I caught myself, and noticed that on the very steep stretch ahead, no graupel was accumulating; the pellets just rolled off. So I made the decision to push ahead as fast as I could, and aimed to get down the mostly-talus slopes on the west side of the peak.

About a year ago, I was somewhat disturbed to find a hand-line an old climbing rope had been left on the class 4 stretch. Now I felt a little differently about that rope! I got to the bottom of the last cliff, and saw the rope was still there; I would gladly grab the rope if an emergency came up. I found I could still climb the almost-vertical rock, which were still dry. Ironically, when I reached the class 2 slopes, I almost slid back over the edge, as they were covered with the pellets of graupel.

I got to the top at 10:20 AM in a whiteout, with some illumination from occasional flashes of lightning (which did not give me cheer). The graupel was now about 3" deep. I put on my eVent jacket, and experienced massive frustration as I tried to write my name in the register, with each of the three pens in the ammo box. Im partly paralyzed on my right (dominant) side, and have spasms in times of stress; my hand was jerking around like a hooked fish. After what seemed like an eternity, I scratched my name and the date into the register and headed down toward the class 3 chute (not the traditional way), hoping I would once more find that the graupel was not sticking to steep stuff.

Now descending with occasional flashes of lightning, I stayed between 8 trees as much as I could, not wanting to be the highest point on the ridge. This was my 19th time on Mummy, and with the GPS, I wasnt as concerned with the whiteout, as much as the brilliant white flashes of light. As predicted, the steep sides of the chute were dry; but the gully at the bottom had collected nearly a foot of graupel that had bounced off the sides, which gave some truly bizarre footing. I then raced across the open area, down the rocks, and to the top of the scree slope.

The scree slope was an experience. By now I had discovered that graupel on scree was not bad; but the plain scree was still partly frozen and slippery. I found that one of the erosion channels that formed in 2005 was now filled with graupel, and provided some of the best footing. I would still slide in the stuff, but the sliding was slow enough that I could control my descent. I plunge-stepped down the graupel-filled channel, and imagined the stuff was like Styrofoam packing beads.

I descended in minutes to the M tree at 10330 and saw no Ali. Well, that made perfect sense. Who would want to wait in that fairly exposed spot, getting pelted by graupel, while lightning flashed about? I had told him to descend if he got cold, and I would meet him at the car. I was now on the trail, and began jogging down, anxious to get within taller trees. I started making the very loud "hoot" sounds that my friends know, some to great irritation. Then as the graupel thinned, I saw Alis footprints, faint and nearly covered; as I ran farther, the footprints grew more distinct; I was gaining on him! And then I heard "hoot-hoot" in reply, so I knew he was not that far ahead.

Suddenly I heard a voice above me, which was a bit unnerving at first; it was Ali. He knows that area very well, and had taken refuge in a hidden cave (complete with a cache of firewood). I told him I was going to jog back down the trail, and he asked me if I would like the car keys; at that point I said one of the stupidest things in my life: "No, Ill just wait by the sign at the base of Trail Canyon. That sign has an overhang."

As I jogged down the NLT, then the Trail Canyon trail, I passed many, many folks who were fleeing the area. By now the lightning was pretty rare, and seemed far away. However, after one flash, in a relatively open area, I saw one guy squat in that position that outdoor magazines used to recommend on your heels, hunched over low. Was he trying to "be safe", or was this just a coincidence? I crossed the open area in a matter of seconds, looked back, and saw him still sitting there on his heels. I kept passing people in drenched ponchos, many carrying full backpacks. I didnt want to be impolite, and found myself making odd noises to get their attention, so I could pass them without incident. The trail became a stream, with graupel floating in puddles.

I got back down to the sign at the trailhead, and instantly realized how massively stupid was my pronouncement about waiting under the overhang of the sign. Fortunately, Ali realized it was stupid as well, and began jogging, so my wait was only 28 minutes. In the meantime, I read the sign about 30 times, while rain occasionally dripped on my head from the meager 1 overhang. I was kept amused by a steady torrent of disheartened souls, a bit like wet dogs, happy to get back to their cars. And they were amused by the strange guy standing under the sign.

Ali got back, and we drove away. At 5000, he noted the outside temperature was barely above 50F. We got back to the meeting place in Vegas a scant 2 hours after I had been on the summit of Mummy. I got in my car and noted it was nearly 90F outside. I didnt turn on the AC or open my windows all the way home; I basked in the warmth like a lizard on a rock.