travels, photos, and family
“Which self is responsible for this?” Daniel Kahneman says there are two selves: the experiencing self and the remembering self. The experiencing self is what we experience in the present moment. If you ask someone how they feel right now, it’s the experiencing self that answers. The remembering self is the one that remembers our experiences. How was dinner last night? The remembering self answers. Kahnemen’s studies show that these two selves don’t agree on whether any experience was good or bad.
What does this have to do with ski mountaineering? Well, I’m wondering which self is responsible for me being here as I try to keep up with Brenton Reagan, an IFMGA certified guide who works for Exum Mountain Guides. We’re on our skis and skinning toward Buck Mountain. Buck is the only one of the seven highest peaks in the Teton Range that I haven’t climbed.
So here I am wondering which of these two selves to blame. Brenton is setting a blistering pace by my standards—a walk in the park for him, I’m sure. The remembering self arranged this trip so that self is certainly partially to blame, but the experiencing self, though feeling heavy legs and exploding lungs, hasn’t turned back for the car. Maybe it has something to do with not wanting to be embarrassed or having made a commitment. No time to think about it though, I have to keep up.
I manage to keep up with Brenton. After about an hour he stops for a rest, or at least to let me rest. Brenton says with a smile, “we’re making good time.” I’ve done many climbs with Brenton, and he has an infectious stoke that never fails to revive me. The alpine glow on the mountains didn’t hurt either. The experiencing self was fulfilled at this moment—it is what makes life so wonderful and wondrous.
My reverie didn’t last long though. We were on the move again. The skinning got steeper and more insecure. Everything was still frozen, even the day-old wet snow slides we had to cross. After another hour we stopped and put on ski crampons. This made the skinning much more comfortable, and we made quick time to Timberline Lake and the base of the “exit couloir.”
This is where the backcountry skiing ends, and the ski mountaineering begins. The exit couloir is about 45° and too narrow to try to skin. We slung our skis on our packs, put on our crampons, got out our ice axes, and harnessed up. Brenton asked if I was comfortable climbing without a rope. I was. Although the snow was still well-frozen, the boot pack was like a set of stairs. Brenton told me to let him know when I wanted a rope.
We decided to climb the East Ridge rather than the East Face. We will ski the east face, but there was a good boot pack already established on the East Ridge, and although it takes a little longer to climb, it is spectacular. When looking at Buck Mountain from the valley floor, you look directly at the broad East Face. As seen from the valley, the East Ridge (really more of a north-east ridge) runs along the skyline to the summit. When we get to the ridge, I see that the west face of Buck drops away dramatically. I guess I knew that from the topo map, but that was the remembering self. The experiencing self got the exposure more viscerally.
We made our way up the lower part of the ridge, and about the time I started thinking a rope would be a good idea for the next section, I saw that Brenton had stopped and was getting ready to rope up. I joined him, roped up, and we were off again. I’m guessing that the East Ridge is probably easier climb with snow than when it is bare rock. There is a nice website by Daniel Lombardi that has some spectacular pictures of climbers on the ridge in the summer and a blog by Zahan Billimoria showing some climbers in the winter.
The ridge is narrow and steep on both sides. The southeast side holds snow, the northwest side is too steep. The ridge reminded me a little of the Knife Edge ridge on Capitol Peak except with snow. Incredibly, we saw tracks of some courageous animal along the narrowest part the knife edge.
After about six hours of skinning and climbing, we got to the summit. It was a spectacular day with very little wind. We had a bite to eat, took a few photos, transitioned to downhill mode, and dropped onto the east face. Brenton began cutting elegant turns gracefully down the slope. I hacked my way down. The experiencing self wasn’t very pleased with the performance, but at least I didn’t fall.
The snow was firm at the top but got mushy as we got lower. I wouldn’t have wanted to be on any of the steeper slopes much later in the day. Within an hour of leaving the summit, we were back at the parking lot. The experiencing self was tired, but content. Today, the remembering self and the experiencing self agree.