Potosi Mountain


By: Bill Oliver



By 5 pm the 1ow light had gradually faded to darkness. High winds drove the falling snow hard against me. It was Christmas Eve, and inescapably clear now that I was about to endure my first unplanned bivouac. I was embarrassed and mad at myself for having misplaced (lost?) my position. I was mad at God, and I ached for my folks, by now readying dinner 20 mi. away down in Las Vegas, no doubt increasingly concerned that I was running late. The day was not supposed to end this way. It had begun better...

"The dawn in the dry, wavering air of the desert was glorious. Everything encouraged my undertaking and betokened success. There was no cloud in the sky, no storm tone in the wind." (John Muir, "The Mountains of California") I had almost summitted Potosi a month earlier on Thanksgiving Eve, but turned back short rather than risk being late for that special dinner with my folks. I had now returned, eager to "avenge" my prior disappointment and anxious to keep in condition for a Mexican volcanoes trip three weeks away. I had parked above snowline near the spring and set out in dawning light at 7 am. I had gaiters and rain pants, crampons and ice axe (this was not a Sierra Club trip!), but I was annoyed to discover that I had left behind my polypro bottoms.

The mine trail was mostly clear of Snow, then it was a slow, steady slog along the trailless ridge, interspersed with several notches/saddles and a little 3rd class rock work, to the final summit - reached shortly after 11:00. The ice axe remained unhanded as the snow was neither steep nor hard, though it was heavily drifted in some places. The summit rocks were too deeply blanketed to yield the register, however mightily I worked to uncover it. I was bummed! Meanwhile, the unblemished view had slowly deteriorated, sooner than anticipated based on radio forecasts. I started down before noon and light snowfall with the route no longer in sight beyond about 50 ft. This was of scant concern, however, as I had only to remain along the familiar ridge top and could easily follow my snow tracks. I even took the unnecessary precaution of checking the proper bearings from the topo.

The descent was much slower than expected as the snowfall gradually worked its way up into a storm and my tracks became increasingly obscured. The route over the 3rd class rocks was particularly slow due to the near exposure and icy conditions. But I knew I was on-route and I could still intermittently pick out my ascent track. I was looking for a certain saddle, surely near at hand now, from which I could head westerly and down off the ridge to the mining trail. I was surprised, then, at passing several saddles without recognizing my turnoff. Well, even in low light I thought I could still make out my vanishing footprints, and I should intersect the trail eventually from the ridge even without the saddle turnoff.

My frustration was jolted to amazement when a belated glance at my compass indicated that it was beading NNE when I knew that I was heading SSW! How could it be 180 off? Was I confused as to which end of the needle pointed north? Crap! How could I have turned around and not know it and not recognize the familiar landmarks and not re-encounter my fresh tracks? The compass must be wrong - though deep down I was very troubled because I knew better than to ignore inconsistent data. I stayed on my course awhile, still discerning(?) traces of my upward trail and hoping against hope to hit the exiting saddle. Not much later, near 5:00, my navigation was in shambles as I was now consistently heading up instead of down. How was this possible? I was to have much time to ponder this enigma as I sadly set about in search of a sheltered bivouac site.

Approaching what appeared to be the edge of a ridge or cliff, I came upon a small sunken area reasonably protected against the wind by a 6-foot rock wall and adjoining trees/bushes. Kicking away several inches of fresh snow I cleared a tight area that allowed me to sit upright on my ensolite sit-pad with my legs stretched out. It wasn't much in the way of a manger, but I was grateful to get in. I had done fine all day with a light parka over my polypro top. adding rain pants over wool slacks, a pile jacket, balaclava and mittens all made me snugly warm. I felt neither tired, nor hungry, nor very thirsty. I just felt awful.

It somewhat casually dawned on me that I could build a fire if I cared to - there was a lot of scrub pine and I had wind & waterproof matches and firestarter. I initially put it off as unnecessary, but eventually decided it would give me something to do. As I rummaged through my little "emergency bag" I stumbled upon IT Good grief, how embarrassing! I could see the headlines now: "Climber Succumbs to Cold - Space Bag Unopened." After carrying the stupid little thing for years, now I nearly blew my big chance to use it. Setting it temporarily aside, I got up and gathered dead twigs and such. The little candle worked great for its 8-min. lifetime, but I was unable to sustain the flame with the damp materials. Stripping bark finally gave me dry fuel but all the effort seemed like more trouble than it was worth. Eventually I was able to sustain a small but stable fire - something to warm my fingers whenever I had to remove my mittens. It was positioned within easy reach near my feet and close to the rock wall, which provided some protection from the wind and reflected the heat.

The Space Bag seemed hopelessly fragile as I managed to carefully pull it over my boots and up a little beyond my hips. It may work great in harsher conditions but it was of no real value to me, sheltered as I was from the wind and wearing waterproof shells. The first time I needed to climb out, it quickly tore to shreds. A Space Blanket would have been far more functional in this instance. (In retrospect I could have used part of it as an additional heat reflector.)

I was thinking that maybe it'd be safe to doze off, but the few times I tried to do so I would soon began to shiver. I simply wasn't insulated well enough to sleep. Sitting still really numbed out my toes and I wondered what more I could do for them. I keep my goggles protected within a heavy sock, figuring the latter could also serve as a backup mitten. Why not as a backup heavy sock! So much for one foot. My pocket 35mm camera has a flannel carrying pouch. I was elated to find that it would fit over my other foot inside the outer sock. I made sure the boot laces were very loose and put my feet back into the daypack. I just got used to the toes remaining somewhat numbed out. I could easily wiggle them and saw no need to warm them at the fire. (It would be five days before a slight tingling would finally disappear.)

I had always heard how incredibly long a bivouac night can be and I purposely avoided checking my watch too often. I was happy to find a 2-3 hr. lapse each time I did so. By midnight the clouds had about run out of snow and the wind was far less fierce, but the full moon was visible only in my mind. I had settled down to slowly nibbling my spare candy bars, sipping from my dwindling water supply, and tending my meager fire - all behaviors essential to my efforts to stave off hypothermia. I knew my Mom would also still be up, sitting anxiously by the phone, wishing that I was still big on bicycling or running instead of mountaineering. Neither of us would be at midnight Mass.

The little fire and I were eventually fast friends - neither could do without the other. My tiny world was a far brighter place because of it. It spoke to me in gentle crackles, touched me with an occasional flying ember, and warmed me in many immeasurable ways.

Collecting firewood around 3 am, I was startled to discover that I could see a few widely-scattered lights in the distance far below. The dense cloud had secretly risen above me, and off around a bend in the cliff a slight glare was evident. Venturing a little farther off the edge of my world, I beheld a new galaxy sparkling in the void. Quickly naming this stellar object "Las Vegas," I now knew with stunning clarity just where I was on the Mountain. And, I now knew with embarrassed certainty that I had indeed somehow been turned around and had reclimbed the peak along a new approach almost to the summit. Settling down again, I still couldn't figure out how I had achieved this marvel of navigation but I was confident, nonetheless, of my heading now come first light.

I had been thinking for sate time how great it would be to have a pot so that I could melt snow for extra water. Wishful thinking until it occurred to me to simply add Snow to my plastic water bottles and set them near the fire. Well, it worked, but for lack of practice it would be the last trip for these bottles.

As the darkness reluctantly retreated, the winds quietly expired and the clouds rose and limped off on their various appointed courses. I broke camp amid a glorious chill dawn and limitless visibility at 7 am. Everything around was freshly white and fantastically decorated with delicate rime ice. Avoiding the heavier snow drifts and carefully bypassing the now iced-up rock route, I had my car in view by 9:00. Taking a farewell look back before heading off the ridge, with 20-20 vision I could see now how it was possible to slowly be turned around by a slight course shift near the exit saddle. This possibility was hardly evident from the topo alone. If only I had kept monitoring my compass!

Nearing the car I noticed some van nearby. A sudden "Hey" revealed the distant deputy who had been scanning the area with his glasses. We did not meet for several minutes, but by then he had raced back to the van to radio in that the helicopter and dogs and 40-man search team would not be needed this day. Drawing close I said, "Merry Christmas," and he offered me some water.

The mountain spirits had toyed with me, taken pity, and let me go - a humbler and a wiser visitor. My Mother's arms enfolded me and held me to her breasts. This night there would be room at the inn.

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