We have left behind the flowering Grizzly Bear cactus and the showy prickly poppies. Although we pick up the steep trail intermittently, over 9000' it is buried under snow. By suppertime it is clear we are not going to make it to Birch Lake anytime soon. We make a dry camp and melt snow. The stove is clogged, and we have a cold supper. I am ready to substitute the R in Birch with a T. I am not sure we are going on.
The next morning things look better. Groups of mule deer pass by camp on their way up the drainages. We clean the stove and continue upward finally reaching the exquisite campsite complete with wind shelter overlooking Birch Lake. The stove continues to act up. I am remembering Aaron Schuman's little canister stove that started in an instant.
We leave to climb Birch at 7:30 a.m. the third day. Our late start is due to the fact Richard and I both have colds. As we crampon up the snow-covered moraine, I can't help thinking about the recent deaths of several climbers. This slope is gentle, but it drops directly into the icy-cold lake. If we were to slip on the way back when we're tired . . . .
Higher up we leave the snow for the rocks. We're slow. I glance over toward The Thumb, which we had also planned to climb on this trip. Rock avalanches have covered the snow with grey debris on the approach. As we look, another rock slide comes down. Nature is thumbing her nose at us.
We attain the west ridge and have a grand view of Tinemaha, Split and, to the north, peaking out behind The Thumb, the Palisades. The ridge seems to go on forever. Each time we reach a false summit, there is another one beyond. At 3:30 p.m. I decide to turn around. We are at 13,300'. I can see the summit ahead. Kenny Rogers lyrics "know when to fold em" keep running through my mind. I want to get back to camp before dark.
It would have been nice to get to the summit. But it was not to be. Better to be safe and stop to smell the flowers.
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