Category Archives: Climbing

South Sister after dark

September 11-12, 2015.

Photo album on Google+

Ever since I’d read the first trip report of someone hiking to the top of South Sister in time to catch the sunrise, I’d had this trip on my to-do list. The thought of having the scenic advantages of being camped on top without having to lug all my overnight gear up there was very tempting. And so, at 11 pm on a Friday night, I set off on my quest.

It was 55 degrees out and the air was still. My headlamp afforded me a good 20 feet or so of visibility before fading into an inky abyss. I knew the trail well, and even under the darkness of night it was rather obvious. So many people hike this mountain every year, there’s a freeway packed into the earth. Well, at least on this part of the hike.

I was told to hike slowly to modulate my temperature and avoid sweating. But I don’t think I traveled any slower than normal. I was in a tee-shirt and light pants, and was sweating like crazy because of my gaiters.

In an hour I reached treeline, the first view of South Sister. I could barely make out a shape on the horizon that was slightly darker than the night sky. That was my mountain.

I wandered ahead, crossed the plateau, briefly distracted by two pairs of reflective patches that looked like eyes. Deer, maybe, or sasquatch. Whatever they were, they weren’t moving, so I kept on walking. It’s amazing the stories you can dream up when you’re alone in the dark for hours on end.

I began climbing again, this time on the shattered, gray rocks that lead up to the Lewis Glacier. This is where the trail became braided. I anticipated this, and kept looking for the cairns reinforced with tall, ghostly tree limbs. This worked great until I reached the end of the cairns. I knew there was a small rock outcrop to the left that I needed to skirt around, so I cheated to the right a bit…too far.

Routefinding

As I continued climbing, I knew I’d gotten off track but I figured I would stumble back onto the route soon enough. Instead, I kept walking up and up an increasingly steep slope that forced me up on a ridge with steep drop-offs in every direction. At the top of this feature, I stopped to assess where I was.

The lack of visibility put me at a huge disadvantage, but I had a map, compass and the GPS track that was running on my phone. After poking around a bit and using the tools I had to approximate where I was, I caught a very faint reflection of what I knew was the lake at the foot of Lewis Glacier. Bingo.

I scrambled back down the narrow ridge to the lake. Back on track, I sent a check-in SPOT message and took an extended snack break.

The wind began to pick up. I was way ahead of schedule so I packed on some layers and started walking, hoping that the extra clothes would force me to slow down. One foot in front of the other, I marched ahead on that final push to the crater rim. From the top, it was an easy traverse over to the rock pile marking the summit.

It was only 3:45 am and darker than ever.

I put on my big down jacket, hat, gloves and rain pants. I crawled into my light bivy sack that isn’t much more than a reinforced emergency blanket, and hunkered down until sunrise. I wished I would have brought a foam pad for comfort and warmth. I closed my eyes, but only got a few minutes of sleep here and there. The wind was blowing just hard enough to be annoying but not freezing.

Sunrise

At last, the giant headlamp in the sky began to shine. It was just after 6 am. I’d never paid attention to how much a production the sunrise really is. Chilly and bored from having sat around for hours at 10,000′ I was amped up to keep walking. I poked around a bit, looking for good angles to look at the scenery without being too exposed to the wind. A half an hour later, I gave in and packed up to go.

I walked counter-clockwise around the summit rim, taking lots of pictures the whole way around. It’s a beautiful route that few people bother to take. There were only a few spots that were a little sketchier than walking on the climb route, and easily navigable if you’re paying attention. From the other side of the crater, there were changing views of Middle and North Sister, and you could see down the rugged north side of South Sister. Looking back at the summit area, I saw one person emerge from an orange tent and walk out to enjoy the same views I was having.

I slowly progressed along the rim, savoring the changing colors of sunrise. In one spot, what appeared to be rock was actually scree-covered ice, so I took a nice little tumble and whacked my knee. I chose a route on higher ground and got back to my circumnavigation.

As I wrapped up my circular route I saw another person sitting at the edge of the crater and prepared myself for the onslaught of humanity I was about to encounter.

Going down

On my way down I had to explain to several groups that, no, I didn’t camp up there and yes, I hiked alone. There was the usual parade of archetypes trudging up the mountain. I’m always fascinated with the broad cross-section of people that make the pilgrimage up Oregon’s third highest peak. Matching shirt and fitness tights babe, REI-from-head-to-toe guy, bouncy youth group with tired leader in the back, grizzled old dudes, boyfriend carrying the backpack for girlfriend couple, these are all frequent fliers up here. But I was surprised to encounter a new character: guy hiking with a duffel bag in his hand. If I’d have seen him in any other context I’d be tempted to report him as suspicious.

But none of that bothered me much. I was thrilled to be on my way down as the temperatures climbed up. Predicted to be in the 90’s that day; no thanks. I enjoyed seeing the scenery that I’d missed in the night. First, the fire red cinder bursting with color in the early sunlight. The dirty glacier and associated lake, plus the hill I’d inadvertently ascended on my night hike. Then, the dusty gray expanse snaking down to the broad plateau. The sky was hazy from nearby wildfires, so views of the surrounding peaks were obscured. Along the plateau, plants began to re-emerge. Tiny groundcover plants, prepared for the coming winter, lay flat against the earth, while rugged trees stood twisted and stubborn, anchored in for any kind of weather.

It was, and always is, a stunningly beautiful landscape. It’s a no-brainer why this area sees so much visitation.

I got back to the parking lot 2.5 hours after starting my descent. The parking lot was positively overflowing with cars. I wonder when this area will get a permit system. Seems like only a matter of time. I couldn’t believe how many people were starting their hike well after sunrise. It would be interesting to see what percent of hikers actually make it to their destination.

Another adventure in the books, another hike checked off the to-do list. Strangely, no matter how many I cross off the list, it doesn’t seem to get any shorter… I’ll be heading back to this mountain at the end of September with a group of (mostly) first-timers. It will be so much fun to experience the mountain through fresh eyes; I am thrilled to accompany each of them on this trip.

As for my next solo adventure, well, I’ve got some ideas.

North Guardian Angel

April 23, 2015.

East Ridge | 7.5 miles | 750′ ele. gain | 7.5 hrs. | Photos

We met up with Rick at a coffee shop before sunrise, and caravaned up to the Wildcat trail head in the central part of Zion National Park. With less publicity and several road closures planned for the day, we anticipated more of a wilderness experience on the trails.

Aaron, Rick and I hiked down the Wildcat Canyon Trail and turned on the junction towards Northgate Peaks. At trail’s end, the two Northgate Peaks stood like stone lions guarding the gate of some VIP’s mansion. We bushwhacked down the overgrown blocks of dark lava rock to the sandy valley floor. Heading directly towards our obvious target, we picked our way through scraggly shrubs and the occasional pine tree as quickly as we could. Once we reached the impressive sandstone slabs of North Guardian Angel, Aaron turned back to hike up East Northgate Peak while Rick and I harnessed up for our climb.

The first bit was a fun, third class scramble up the horizontally scarred slab to the long, flat landing zone above. My approach shoes felt incredibly sticky on this rock. We weren’t in Oregon anymore…

Once we hit the plateau, we roped in and I led up the first pitch of actual climbing. The hardest moves (as always) were right off the ground—within the first 30 feet or so—and so it took a little mental magic to push myself through on lead. Since I rarely ever climb rock anymore, my brain gets a little rusty on exposed, unprotected climbing, even when it’s technically easy.

Once past the tough spot I breezed up to a good anchor point and brought Rick up. There may not have been anywhere to place nuts and cams on this climb, but there were plenty of Ponderosa pines along the way. Each pitch ended at one such tree, and was almost always shared with a massive throng of red ants. That kept the pace moving. We consulted a photocopy from one of Rick’s climbing books that had a play-by-play route description to keep us on track, but mostly the pitches ran out whenever there was a convenient tree to sling.

We ended up climbing 4 or 5 roped pitches, then carried the rope up the final ascent. The climbing was really enjoyable and never that challenging, but the exposure made us pay attention. It felt nicer to be roped up, even though belaying up my partner was exhausting (since he was cruising along so fast).

Near the summit block, we had some options. We decided to go left and traverse around the “face” of the ridge, since it looked pretty vertical. The traverse was pretty easy, minus one airy step that Rick assured me was no big deal. After that, it was a straightforward scramble up some loose but not exposed sections of rock.

On the summit, the views were incredible. Pale, slickrock mountains jutted up from the forested scrubland all around it. Voices echoed out from the Subway, a popular canyoneering route nearby. We hung out and ate snacks for the first time today, admiring the colorful mountains and valleys in all directions.

Seriously, 360° views:

On the way down, we walked to the edge of the summit block wall and set our first rappel. This saved us some time and hassle negotiating the exposed section we passed through on our way up. By combining downclimbing with rappelling we comfortably descended the ridge back to the plateau. One last slickrock scramble brought us to the base of the mountain, where we packed up our gear and headed out.

It was now pretty warm and we were both ready to be done. We aimed for the gap between the Northgate Peaks and I scrambled back up the lava to the trail while Rick stayed low in the valley. After much yelling, waving of hands, and wandering back and forth on the trail, we met up once again and retreated towards the trail head together.

At our final trail junction before the parking lot, we came across a group of young women with overnight packs on, who were paused for a break. Rick asked if they were headed to the Subway, to which they basically replied: “whatchutalkinabout?” They clearly had no idea what the (most popular route in the universe) Subway was, where they were or where they were going. We marched away from the confused ladies, remarking on the utter lack of preparation the average visitor seems to have in the National Parks.

We then continued marching along the (wrong) trail for another mile, wondering why we hadn’t reached the car yet.

It then occurred to us that we’d mistakenly taken the connector trail to the Hop Valley trail head and had overshot our destination. After a brief moment to reflect on the irony of the situation I pulled out the map and noticed that we could bushwhack up the cliffy rock band to our right once we reached the general area of the parking lot, instead of hoofing it all the way back to the aforementioned junction. Conveniently, there was a break in the vertical wall right where we needed it and we clambered up the rocks to the field just south of the lot.

Meanwhile, Aaron had gotten concerned that it was taking us so long to return, and had decided to hike back up the trail to look for us. Fortunately he ran into a couple who had passed us on the wrong trail and based on their conversation, he figured out what happened. We eventually reunited and all was well. Just a hiccup in the adventure.

This would be our last foray into Zion National Park. I enjoyed the solitude, the outstanding views, easy climbing, and unique perspective of the park. I left Zion with a positive vibe and I was ready for the next stage in our road trip.

Route information

Doing more research? Here’s a very bare bones route description on Summit Post. And another from Mountain Project. Bring a rope, material to build belay anchors and a handful of slings; leave the nuts and cams at home.

Great Basin National Park

April 18-20, 2015.

View the photo album from this leg of the trip.


Spring arrived, so was time for another big adventure. The decision on where to go was made easy when I was invited to climb a pair of peaks in Zion National Park in late April. In order to make the most of my travel time, I crafted a road trip that would last nearly 3 weeks and take us through 4 states. Fortunately, my partner was up for it and the two of us set out from the mid-Willamette Valley in Oregon to explore some new territory.

Getting there

After spending a night in Northern Nevada, we got up early to make our way to Great Basin National Park. Driving down highway 50, or the “Loneliest Road in America,” we took a lunch, car maintenance and tourist break in the town of Eureka. I wandered into the Eureka museum, which chronicled the rise and fall of a mining boom-town. There were rooms full of old printing machines, newspapers, kitchen items, and relics of old stores, homes and businesses. There was little information to accompany all these items so it was kind of like walking into a crowded antiques store. Nonetheless, it provided a nice diversion and the woman working there was very helpful in providing information about the town and the area.

As we approached the park from the west, Wheeler Peak came into view. That would be our target for our first and most challenging hike of the trip.

We made a quick stop at the Visitor Center to ask about current conditions and one of the rangers suggested an alternative route, involving climbing a couloir, that might be easier and more straightforward given the time of year. I thanked him for the suggestion and we settled into camp at Upper Lehman Creek.

Wheeler Peak

16 miles | 5300′ ele. gain | 12 hours

In the summer, Wheeler Peak is a challenging but accessible high peak. The trailhead starts at 10,000 feet so there’s less than 3,000′ of vertical climbing to get there. A nice path leads 4.3 miles one way to the summit.

But now the road to the trailhead was gated due to snow. We’d have to start our hike from the Upper Lehman Creek campground at 7,750′. That nearly doubled the mileage and elevation gain. No worries, we were ready for this.

Living at sea level doesn’t quite prepare you for being at elevation for any period of time so we woke up early in the morning feeling short of breath just walking around camp. We packed up and hit the trail before 6:30 am, with only one group signed in ahead of us.

We walked along the steadily rising trail through stands of cactus, aspen, sage and juniper. About an hour into our trek we looked across a meadow to get our first view of Wheeler Peak. The bump we’d been staring at from our campsite was not, in fact, our mountain but some insignificant neighbor. The view was stunning. We’d see the mountain several times from many more angles through the course of the day.

After crossing the creek, we began to encounter patchy snow. Two hours into the hike we reached the Wheeler Peak Campground. Picnic tables and grills stuck out of the tops of snowdrifts. We followed the road, as the ranger had suggested, about a mile up the road to find the Wheeler Peak trail. Signs at the trailhead  warned us of the challenges that lay ahead and suggested some easier alternatives.

We followed the trail to a junction to Stella Lake. From here, according to the ranger, we’d find a couloir that would take us straight to the ridge below the summit. It would be easier than trying to find the main trail under snow. Besides, it sounded like more of an adventure.

The couloir was an obvious ribbon of snow to the left of the lake. We circled around the southwest side of the lake and then headed cross-country over the hard-packed snow to the base of the couloir. I was surprised to see so many trees here, clinging to life at over 10,000′.

The snow texture provided enough grip in most places to allow us to climb up without any gear. Yaktrax would have been helpful in some of the icier spots, but I found that if I moved quickly and stepped firmly enough it was possible to get past the worst of it without slipping. Poles were essential.

Once we reached the ridge we were both a little disheartened to look ahead and see how much further we still had to go. The combination of being at a high elevation and climbing was knocking the wind and energy right out of us. We took a few extended snack and water breaks to keep moving forward.

Along the ridge, the views were stunning. There were snow-capped mountain ranges in every direction. Wind farms were visible in the valley bottom. The sheer rock face of Jeff Davis Peak became more dramatic with each step forward. And the weather was so pleasant! Sunshine, dry skies, and moderate temperatures helped us keep taking steps forward.

Once on the summit, we really took a rest. It was time for lunch and some backpack-free exploration. There was a summit register placed inside a mailbox that someone left in a windbreak. We watched flocks of small birds swooping above the snow in search of food. And we celebrated the success of our efforts: a panoramic view that very few park visitors have seen, especially off season. Click the link below to get an idea.

Of course we were only halfway done and it was already 2:30 pm so we needed to start moving down. Aided by gravity we quickly ambled down the ridge and were back atop the couloir in no time at all. Going down was much faster and much more fun than going up. By the time we reached the snow above the lake the sun had softened it up considerably, so it was an agonizing slog to get back to the trail.

Knees wobbly from the cumulative effort of the day, it felt good to be on packed, dry ground and we made good time back to camp, arriving in time for a reasonable dinner. While I cooked many elaborate meals on this trip I had very little energy on this night. We settled for hotdogs and beans, a classic camp meal.

Lehman Caves

Before leaving for our trip I booked a Lehman Cave tour for 1 pm for the next day. I knew we’d be beat after our climb and could use an opportunity to sleep in. We did just that, had a delicious campfire brunch, and packed up our camp. We arrived at the Visitor Center just before the tour and layered up for our descent into the cold, damp cave.

Unlike many of the caves in the Northwest, which are nearly all lava tubes, Lehman Cave is made of limestone. Our tour guide took us into several rooms of the cave. In the first room, she discussed how crazy it must have been for the first visitors to this space. She turned off all the lights. It was completely dark. Then she proceeded to tell us about experiments that demonstrate how quickly people go insane when they’re held in complete darkness. I could believe it.

Each room had interesting features, including some that were apparently pretty rare to find. There were the usual stalactites and stalagmites, plus several that had welded together into columns. There was cave popcorn and soda straws. What was most impressive to me was how many intricate features there were in every room. The cave was well-lit so we could appreciate the formations in the cave. Early visitors must have had a harder time appreciating it by candlelight.

After the cave tour we ran to the small cafe attached to the Visitor’s Center to satisfy my milkshake craving, then hit the road. We had to book it to Zion National Park.

Mt. Thomson, West Ridge

August 16-18, 2014.

DSCN4538.JPG

Skip to the photo album

It had been about 2 years since I’d even attempted to lead any outdoor rock, and I’d only been to the rock gym a handful of times in that period. So when my pal Rick recruited me to take him up a 5th class route on Mt. Thomson, of course I said SURE!

To be fair, the climbing on Thomson is pretty easy by climbing standards. The hardest moves are rated 5.6, but most of the climbing is 4th class scrambling and easy rock climbing. But the lack of practice with ropework, reading routes and dealing with exposure made me a little nervous about the climb. Nevertheless, I felt confident that I could rally and make the climb work for our little team.

Mt. Thomson looked impressive from the photos I’d seen on the Internet. It lay tucked away, buried deep in the woods (by climbers’ standards) 7 miles from Snoqualmie Pass on the PCT. Rick and I rolled into the trailhead at about 5 pm on a Saturday evening, hoping to make camp by sunset.

katwalk1.JPG

With hardly a few words of conversation, we busted out the 7 miles to camp above Ridge Lake in about 3 hours, barely pausing to admire the famed Kendall Katwalk (shown above) on our way. The lakes below us were overrun with campers, so we were happy to have our own little hideaway just a couple hundred feet up the trail.

We awoke the next morning to a view obscured by fog. We lazily ate breakfast and got our things together to head up the PCT in search of our climber’s trail.

cloud layer.JPG

In about a half mile, we turned straight uphill in a steep drainage to reach Bumblebee Pass. The view from here looked just as cloudy as our view from the tent. We dropped down into the basin from the pass and traversed west across heather meadows and meandering mountain streams to the base of a large talus field. From there, we should have had a striking view of the south face of Mt. Thomson. Instead, we saw the talus rise into a low-hanging, gray cloud. I took out my photo of the route and tried to match up features on the base of the mountain with the view in front of me. We sat and waited for the clouds to rise.

thin clouds.JPG

In the meantime, a couple trotted down from the pass and told us they were also headed up to the West Ridge. We waved them good luck as we continued to wait for a little clearing.

The curtain of clouds slowly began to rise. We ascended the jumbled talus up to the low point of the west ridge. Once there, we attempted to scout the route. After much futzing around, we made one dicey move to get to the belay ledge for pitch one.

And now, the climbing begins

Here’s where the gears in my brain began whirring at a mile a minute. We methodically got rigged up for the first pitch and triple checked everything. I looked up at the chimney, and over at the sloping traverse to get there, noting one very important thing. I’d need a 0.5 cam to protect the bottom of the route and I decided to leave all my small cams at home. Brilliant.

I looked behind me at the other team, waiting in the batter’s box for the two of us to get going. I noticed the leader’s bright, shiny, well-equipped rack. Luckily, he let me borrow his 0.5 and I was on my way. On. My. Way. Well, I’m not sure how long it took me to make that first move, but once I got up a ways and put that cam in, I slowly plodded my way up pitch one.

looking up p2.JPG

The first belay ledge was nice and roomy, with a big tree for an anchor. Yay. Now I was feeling back in the groove again. Pitch two felt a little more challenging for me, with a couple of bulges, not a lot of great pro (I needed those damn tiny cams again) and a lot of zig-zagging, causing too much rope drag. I called it good about halfway up and rigged up a belay station there. Once Rick joined me on the tiny and awkward belay ledge I started up pitch 2.5. I was sure glad I broke up this pitch because soon I was stopped in my tracks by a vertical wall with seemingly nowhere else to go. It looked harder than 5.6, I thought, but maybe that was just my rusty leading skills talking. I located every hand and foot placement I needed to tackle that wall, then all at once worked my way up to the next ledge. Rick told me afterwards that he made some pretty sick Chris Sharma moves to follow me up there. I pictured him gripping the rock tenaciously with one hand, swinging his hips powerfully to one side to plant a toe perfectly on the next rock nubbin, where he’d regain his balance and glide effortlessly to the next hold.

traverse p4.JPG

Pitch three: the slab. Certainly, I was excited to float up an easy slab after all that stressful vertical. Pitch four: more slab and blocky climbing. One account described it as a “5.4 staircase,” although this was not evident from the get-go. The exposure and not super obvious routefinding occupied my brain. I’d forgotten how much rock climbing can dial in your focus and allow you to remain entirely present. That’s the part I love.

top of final pitch.JPG

At the top of the false summit, we scrambled down a steep gully along a trail that led to the base of the final pitch. There was one last pitch of easy climbing to reach the summit. Thank goodness. Rick patiently dealt with a serious rope tangle, since I had absentmindedly forgotten to re-flake the rope, while I perched on a nice ledge. I knew a huge notch lay below me, but I couldn’t see the depth of it since it was filled with cloud.

Nearing the end of my rope (literally) I had to stop short of the summit, build a belay with the loosely piled rocks on the ridge and bring Rick up. From there, we untied and meandered over to the summit, reaching the top about 8 hours after we left camp in the morning.

Up until this point I had subsisted on about a half liter of water and an energy bar. I figured it was time to eat some food. We didn’t bring much water, since neither of us wanted to carry it up there, so we’d have to wait for a resupply down in the meadow. Good thing it wasn’t warm today.

Down the East Ridge

Again, our goal was to make it to camp before dark, so we headed into the unknown yet again to descend the east ridge.

We dropped down to the first rappel station, made a quick rap, then saw another tree wrapped with slings and rapped a second time. From there, it was not obvious where to go. We followed a faint path for a short while, then it seemed to disappear. Stupidly, I went to scout the rocky ledges and Rick split off to wander around in the trees. After much yelling back and forth, it was decided that Rick had the route that would work. We found a trail through the heather meadows that followed the east ridge down. My first thought was that the East Ridge as a climb would be boring as hell, switchbacking up a trail 95% of the way to the summit, so I was extra glad that we’d fumbled up the West Ridge.

more trail.JPG

Eventually the trail led us to a notch that dropped down into the basin beneath Mt. Thomson. From there we traversed across talus and meadows, refilling our water bottles with stream water, then headed straight up to Bumblebee Pass.

We were both thrilled to catch sight of the PCT once we descended from the pass. That meant we were nearly done. At 7 pm, we crashed back into a soggy camp and quickly began refueling and rehydrating.

The retreat

The next morning, the clouds had released their grip on the valley and a beautiful sunrise brought us out of the tent. It was going to be a bluebird day.

We took our time on the return trek, taking the opportunity to actually see the area we’d just spent a day and a half in. There were beautiful peaks, glassy lakes, and stunning vistas. The Kendall Katwalk, which had been mired in fog just two days before, looked a bit more like the pictures I’d seen (albeit still a little disappointing).

rick heading to catwalk.JPG

While we didn’t set any speed records on this trip, I’m glad we made it happen. I felt great getting back onto alpine rock and facing head on all the challenges it brings. It’s not always glamorous; in fact I find it so rare that people actually write about the hard stuff. Everyone’s always ready to inflate their ego retelling the epic awesomeness that they achieve on exotic and aesthetic climbs. But even the “easy” climbs present problems that need to be overcome. I appreciate the opportunity to be challenged, to be humbled and to be forced to think on the fly. Alpine climbing is truly an opportunity to apply everything you’ve learned and practiced, recognizing that the textbook placements you studied and easy as pie sequences are not always realistic.

I hope that Rick will again entertain the thought of spearheading another alpine adventure and force me to get out of my comfort zone again.

A Snowy South Sister

October 5, 2013.

Devil’s Lake Trailhead > summit and back

11 miles | 4900′ ele. gain | 10.5 hours

aaron smilling.JPG

Photos are here. And, none of the photos were edited for color or contrast. It looked just that amazing.

It’s been a crazy fall. Last weekend, the Pacific Northwest was slammed with stormy weather that dropped inches of rain in the valleys and feet of snow in the Cascades. We had planned for months to climb South Sister last Sunday, but it was clear that was not going to happen. We pushed it off a week, and determined our best shot would be the following Saturday. The weather forecast predicted clear skies and temperatures in the 50’s and 60’s, even on the upper mountain. With our team whittled down from 9 people to 5, we excitedly prepared for a summit attempt on Oregon’s third highest mountain.

And then there was snow

We knew there would be snow, but we were unsure just how much of it we would find. The answer to that question came quickly. The team geared up and began hiking up the trail around 8 am. The sun was still low in the sky, and the air was crisp and cold. We warmed up quickly as we ascended through the woods. Soon, we began walking on thin patches of crusty snow. The team stopped to put on Yaktrax for some additional traction on the icy snow.

approaching treeline.JPG

When we broke free of the trees, we were presented with a grand view of the task ahead. The snowy mountain rose from the white plateau, standing in sharp contrast to the deep blue sky. From here, footprints led in several different directions. We did our best to follow the most well-beaten path that led towards the mountain. The sun was overwhelming as we were totally exposed on the wide, open plains. We enjoyed breathtaking views of Mt. Bachelor and Broken Top, as well as the intriguing contours of the surrounding lava field.

Where are all the people?

Along the way, we encountered just a handful of other people attempting the climb today. Several would turn back, saving the trip for a less snowy day, or scheduling an earlier start. But, our team pushed on, taking enough rest breaks to rehydrate, refuel, and conserve energy. We still had much of the climb ahead. Along the way, we were treated to the most unbelievable views of Broken Top and Mt. Bachelor.

panorama.JPG

Once the trail began climbing up from the plateau, it didn’t stop until it reached the crater rim. We trudged ahead, slowly and methodically, up to the saddle at the base of the Lewis Glacier. The lake here was covered over with snow and ice. It was a great spot to rest and get mentally geared up for the final push to the top.

Mountain sculptures

Now, it felt like we were climbing a mountain. From the saddle, we followed a snow and rock ridge along the steep cliffs carved by the Lewis Glacier. To the left, we looked over South Sister’s notorious scree-field, now covered over with a uniform blanket of snow. To the right, we peered down into deep crevasses in the ice. This doesn’t look like Marys Peak…

The most captivating part of this section of the climb was the endless variation of ice sculptures clinging to the rocks. The thick rime was melting in the heat of the sun, producing elegant, fluted patterns. It was easy to justify a rest stop to take a moment to enjoy the unique beauty that was right in front of us. It made all the physical exertion well worth it.

As we climbed higher, folks passing us on their way down told us that crampons were key for the icy sections above. That sounded like trouble. We ditched our only pair of crampons a half mile below and were left with Yaktrax or bare boots. I figured we’d play it by ear.

Fortunately, the teams that went before us had kicked steps in the snow (someone who had long legs). So, with the exception of just a few, short bits, the snow was grippy enough to permit climbing without crampons. We moved carefully and used our trekking poles to help with balance and traction. For three members of the team, this was a totally new experience, and they all did great!

Atop that steep slope, we crested the crater rim and saw the summit within our reach. A broad, snow-filled bowl lay between us and our destination. Instead of taking the easy walk across the crater, we decided to turn right and amble along the icy rim, admiring more ice sculptures and the views of flat, brown, high desert to the east. The rime formations on the stone camp shelters were the most impressive of all.

blue ice.JPG

Once the rim walk became too sketchy, we dropped down to traverse on softer snow, then made the final climb to the summit. Here, we celebrated with lots of photos, chocolate and whooping and hollering. It took us 6 long hours to get here. Although it felt easier to walk on the snow than walking on scree, I think it ended up being more physically and mentally challenging to deal with the snow.

jess and aaron.JPG

Looking north, we saw the snowed in tops of Middle and North Sister. Beyond that, all the volcanoes stood in contrast to the clear, blue sky: Jefferson, Hood, Adams, St. Helens, and even Rainier. The visibility was great. I hoped everyone realized how much of a treat this view was; these conditions just don’t happen every day!

Racing the sunset

It was 2:30 pm by the time we started heading back down. I was a little concerned about the higher chance of someone in the team slipping and falling on the descent. It can feel a bit more harrowing when gravity is working with you to pull you down the mountain. Before stepping off the crater rim, I offered some technique suggestions for walking down the icy snow. We took our time, and with only a few minor missteps, we quickly made our way back to the saddle below the glacier.

Just for fun, we found a few good spots to go for a ride:

glissade.JPG

All the while, I couldn’t believe how hot the sun felt. The air was calm and the sun blazed down as if it were still August. Everyone stripped down to base layers and still had to stop frequently to cool down. I happily rubbed my skin with handfuls of snow every time I got the chance.

Our only goal was to get back to the car before sunset. As beautiful as this landscape was, we had ample opportunity to take it all in and it was time to go. We arrived at the car around 6:30, a surprising 10 and a half hours after we departed. Everyone was brimming with excitement of the team’s  accomplishment. We all pushed through some barriers and came out stronger, more competent climbers. Plus, we got some bonus training for the snowshoe trip coming up in December. Crater Lake is going to feel frankly civilized after this.

Thanks to everyone on the team for making this an unforgettable trip!

summit team completed.JPG

Luna Peak

August 22-25, 2013

About 40 miles, 8,000+ feet elevation gain. For route information, check out Steph Abegg’s website or buy/borrow Selected Climbs in the Cascades Vol 1.

Photos from the trip | Video 360 from the summit ridge

alex.jpg

It has been said that Luna Peak has one of the best views in the North Cascades. But few people ever experience this view because of the rugged, long approach and lack of technical objectives. It takes a seriously determined person to put in that much work to get someplace without a mind-blowing rock or ice climb to top off the effort. I was one of seven such people who set out to ascend Luna Peak on this trip.

It all began at the Ross Dam Trailhead, which was packed with cars. The Ross Lake National Recreation Area is a playground for hikers, backpackers, fishermen, canoers and kayakers. There’s resort accommodations, lakeside, boat-in camping and backcountry camping. At the parking lot, we laced up our boots for a quick 1-mile downhill jaunt to the lakeshore, where we’d pick up a water taxi that would take us across the lake.

The boat ride was short but exhilarating. We sped across the clear, blue lake and exited the boat when it reached the other side. From here, our team of seven set off on the ten mile hike to Luna Camp.

boat ride loaded up.jpg

Big Trees on the Big Beaver Trail

The walk along Big Beaver Trail was lovely. The trail was relatively flat, with small, rolling rises and dips. We meandered beneath giant cedar trees as the path traveled further and further from Ross Lake. It took all afternoon to get to our camp. Feeling heavy under the weight of my overnight pack—my first of the year—I plodded along slowly. I was thrilled to arrive at Luna Camp, where I dropped my backpack and decided which dinner meal was the heaviest one. That’s what I’d eat tonight.

big trees.jpg

Day one turned out to be a walk in the park. The next day, we walked about a mile and a half further up Big Beaver Trail to a cairn marking the start of the bushwhack. Off we headed, into the brush, to find a way to cross Big Beaver Creek. As we pushed through Devil’s Club and various edible forest berries, it became apparent that this would not be an easy task. After much deliberation and scouting, we settled on walking across a single log that looked far more perilous than it turned out to be. Getting from the riverbank to the log was the most challenging part.

log crossing2.jpg

Once across the creek, we stashed a cache of supplies that we wouldn’t need for our high camp: tents, spare first aid supplies, water shoes, etc. This is where the real fun began. And by fun, I mean not fun.

Whackety whack

schwack.jpg

For several miles, we bushwhacked roughly along Access Creek, crossing it once, and thrashing through a mixture of steep, dense shrubbery and more flat, open forest. At one point in the relatively benign forested section, the front of the team upset a colony of ground nesting bees, which took out their anger on the latter half of the team. That included Simeon, Angela, and myself. Each of us was stung several times. We ran quickly to try to escape the fury of bees, but I still managed to get stung four times: on my right hip, behind my left knee, and on my left wrist and elbow. They went for critical joints, which I would curse them for later.

But there was nothing we could do about that now, so we continued on our journey. As we began to sense that we were nearing the basin and our high camp, the trees parted a bit to provide views of the creek and the rocky sided canyon containing it. As the tall trees diminished, the understory began to thicken. Devil’s club gave way to slide alder, a brand of vegetation notorious for heinous bushwhacking. It was critical to maintain just the right distance between the team member on either side in order to prevent being whacked by a branch or whacking the person behind, as well as keeping close enough so you wouldn’t lose them in the thick mat of branches and leaves.

through the crap.jpg

The ground got soft and wet as we approached the creek. “The grass is always greener on the other side,” I thought, as I looked through a window of trees and glimpsed large boulders piled on top of each other just across the way. Oh, how lovely it would be to get to that side!

The team agreed, and we made another sketchy creek crossing to make it to the heavenly rockpile we’d seen from afar. The walk to camp from here felt like a breeze. We all plopped our gear down in the flat, broad basin beneath Luna Peak and promptly fell off to dreamland for a couple hours. It was a peaceful and much needed afternoon nap.

What are the chances?

view of the basin.jpg

Gray clouds flirted with the ridgetops all day through the evening. There was much talk about the forecast: 50% chance of rain and thunderstorms for tomorrow. It sure looked like weather was moving in. Clouds swirled in and out the whole time we sat at camp, debating what Plan A, B, and a number of contingency plans were for every possible scenario. Tomorrow was supposed to be our summit day, but we gave ourselves a slim chance of that happening.

At 4:30 the next morning, our alarm clock (Alex) shouted, “the stars are out!” That meant clear skies, and an opportunity to summit. We ate breakfast, slimmed down our packs for the ascent, and made a beeline for the first gully.

Speaking of bees, by this point my arm and hand had puffed up like a balloon from the previous day’s bee encounter. I had a hard time moving my wrist, and everything was very itchy. The swelling would get worse and worse over the course of the day, which I attributed to the vigorous level of exercise, not some crazy allergic reaction.

puffy hand.jpg

As the sun rose, it painted the mountains with orange and yellow. We ascended slowly, taking some time to acclimate to movement this early in the morning. At the top of the gully, we reached a col. Here, there were amazing views of the Picket range right in front of us, and no sign of the predicted thunderstorms.

IMAG0953.jpg

Take a right, then another right

We quickly powered up with some rugged, alpine blueberries and began the traverse through the heather. Some parts were fairly steep, but they did not necessitate an ice axe, which was suggested in other trip reports. We zipped right across the traverse and then picked a line to reach the summit ridge. Crossing patches of greenery, rock, and snow, we all climbed up to the final saddle, with Luna Peak rising up to the right.

It was here that Simeon chose to hang out, enjoy the views and take care of some blisters while the rest of us made the final scramble to the top.

light clouds.jpg

The ridgeline leading up Luna peak was bouldery and fairly solid. It never got too steep or treacherous. The rest of the walk was very pleasant, and the views on a clear day would be second to none. At this point, high clouds obscured the tippety tops of the mountains, and occasionally dropped down to fill the valley. We enjoyed peekaboo views of Luna, Challenger, and the other dramatic peaks extending out in all directions.

At the summit, or really the false summit, we sat down and savored the chocolaty treats that Eric brought up for us, surrounded in a gray fog. The true summit lay just a few minutes walk away, along a sketchy ridge that popped in and out of view. We weren’t interested in making that trek today.

luna bar luna peak.jpg

And then turn around

We returned the way we came, back down to the saddle, then down an alleged chimney, across a snowfield, and back to the vegetated traverse. It felt a little steeper this time around.

peekaboo.jpg

At the top of the gully, we split into two teams so we wouldn’t shed too much rock down on one another. Going down was painfully difficult, as my knee started acting up and refusing to play nice. I was elated to get back to camp, sit down, and tear into the Hostess cupcakes that I’d left hanging just above marmot’s reach.

But our day wasn’t over yet. We still had to complete the bushwhack and return to the trail, where we’d try and find a place to spend the night. We were all dreading the bushwhack. We put it off as long as we could, then loaded up our packs and began walking down the boulderfield.

cairn2.jpg

This time, we followed some cairns to try and locate a better place to cross the creek and avoid the slide alder. This was a success. Once across the river, we stumbled across a rough path that was a zillion times easier to walk on than our random path on the way up. The hardest part was going down the final steep descent to reach Big Beaver Creek and our gear cache. MIraculously, we hadn’t been rained on, and our unbelievable luck would continue as we re-crossed the creek and popped out on the other side.

We all mentally prepared for the final stage of the bushwhack along the creek. We decided that following a compass bearing and going right towards the trail was the best choice, to try to shave some time. One by one, we filed out in a line, pouring our last stores of energy into tired leg muscles.

IMAG1043.jpg

Not two minutes later, we stumbled across the trail. TWO MINUTES. We all looked at each other in disbelief, then smiled and praised the forest gods for this luck. After a short break here, we walked briskly, no, ran towards camp! We hoped there would be an empty spot at Luna Camp and sure enough, there was. We all unpacked, set up tents for the night, ate dinner and crashed.

Saying goodbye

The last day was a repeat of the ten mile walk along Big Beaver Trail. Again we sorted out into two groups and took off. My body was tired, but my mind was focused on reaching the lake. I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. Four of us reached the halfway point at 39-mile camp in just under an hour and a half. Sweet. We re-supplied with cold stream water, and hightailed it down to Ross Lake.

We were set to meet our water taxi at 2:15 and arrived at the lake by about noon. That gave us 2 hours to take off our boots, swim, lay down, eat the rest of our food, and bask in the glorious sunshine reflecting off the lake. What a perfect way to spend the afternoon.

postcard2.jpg

The last boat ride felt bittersweet. I couldn’t stop grinning as I looked back at the green mountains, sparkling lake, and wisps of snow on the high peaks. Once on the other side, I had a nice chat with Eugene as we slogged methodically up the final mile to the cars. My body had been on autopilot all day today, and that mile passed in an instant.

Overall, I had an extraordinary experience in the North Cascades. It was one hell of a way to start climbing season for me.

Mt. St. Helens: A Spring Adventure

June 14, 2013.

Winter Route, or some rough approximation, from Marble Mountain Sno-Park | 12 miles | 5500' ele. gain | 9-ish hours

Hike Photos

summit1.JPG

On a whim, I decided to join a group from portlandhikers.com who had a few spare permits to climb the mountain on this Friday. I’ve climbed St. Helens several times before, but always in the winter. See, I can’t be bothered with the process of acquiring a limited entry permit and *gasp* paying for one. I was happy to swoop in where some poor soul ducked out of the opportunity to climb this amazing volcano.

I met this motley crew at the Lone Fir Resort at 6 am, where we filled out the climber’s log and dutifully tied our permits to our backpacks. Shortly later, we reconvened at the trailhead and put the finishing touches on our packs and outfits for the day. Or so I thought. Turns out, the tennis shoes, shorts, and track suits that my new climbing partners were wearing were not “drive up” clothing, but the clothes for the hike. Oh boy, I thought, this was going to be an interesting day.

trail2.JPG

The hike to treeline was completely snow-free. This wasn’t a mountain that looked familiar to me. It was interesting to see all the greenery and flowers on what, in my mind, was an icy, windswept, white wasteland. Soon after emerging from the trees, we continued walking straight on a rough, rocky ridgeline that was dotted with trees. The well-packed trail became indistinguishable from the rest of the ridge, and I knew that we were off course. The hike organizer was out of eye- and ear-shot, so I jogged ahead to try and get his attention. “We need to go left,” I said, “although I’m not sure where the route is.” Everything looked surprisingly foreign to me. At least the ridge to our left looked like it had more solid footing, so we ventured that way.

Corralling the group into a tighter line, we veered west to try and regain the climbing route. We followed the ridge until it petered out, then fumbled our way roughly up and left, looking for the path of least resistance. By now we’d hiked into a thick, low-hanging cloud that reduced visibility at times to about 50 feet. Morale was low. Some of the team members were struggling with the snow and loose rock on our off-route adventure. With some coaching through these tricky sections, they performed wonderfully and group confidence and enjoyment (I think) began to improve.

socked in.JPG

At last, we reached some long snowfields that made the traveling easier. The organizer passed out various traction devices to his friends, which helped them walk more easily through the snow. We kicked lots of bomber steps in the sloppy snow. I left my crampons in my pack, as my boots were performing nicely.

We slogged ahead for hours in a cloud, chit-chatting about miscellaneous things to keep people from feeling too lousy about what was supposed to be an easy and straightforward climb. It reminded me how much of mountaineering is pure drudgery, and to normal people, it kinda sucks.

“Don’t worry, we’ll climb above the clouds and you’ll see, it will be spectacular.”

I counted on breaking through the thick cloud layer like a winning marathon finisher, breaking through the tape with a huge grin of joy. Sure enough, we saw the sun poking through the edge of the clouds and we emerged victorious, with the summit of the mountain in view. We took a break above the clouds and looked down at the earth below. It was covered in a giant, puffy blanket, through which only Mts. Rainier and Adams were tall enough to penetrate. It was spectacular.

jess break2.JPG

After some refueling and sunscreen-slathering, we continued along in the final summit push. We picked up a hop-on who joined our group, and we took turns kicking steps all the way up to the crater rim.

It was thrilling to stand at the edge of the crater and look at the world around me. It was extra exciting to share that moment with the rest of my team, who were totally troopers for enduring the day to that point. Everyone was feeling good, and the summit was well-deserved.

group on summit.JPG

Time to go. So, how do we get back down? I was really surprised that we’d hardly seen anyone so far today. The sign-in book was filled with names of people who allegedly would climb the mountain, including some groups of 10-12. We didn’t see a thick line of bootprints leading the way back down the trail, either. We decided to begin following the flags and posts marking the summer trail, since it overlapped a bit with the winter trail near the summit. Whooping and hollering ensued as we walked, then glissaded, and glissaded some more. Everyone was having a great time.

glissade3.JPG

However, the excitement of glissading distracted us from keeping an eye out for our junction, and we ended up far from the winter route again. The trip leader was way out of earshot; I was worried that we’d end up at the wrong parking lot and have a lot of backtracking to do to return to our cars. Before veering to the right of a huge rock formation, I rallied the troops and we took a sharp left, following some snowfields and gullies as we approached treeline. From a distance, we could see a short stretch of trail following a short north-south ridge. We made that our goal.

But getting from point A to point B wasn’t so easy. First, we had to negotiate a fairly steep and loose wall of rock to drop down into a narrow basin. It wasn’t a huge deal for me, since I’ve done lots of dumber things before, but I was concerned about some of our team members. They took it slow, and everyone made it down in one piece. From there we scrambled up and over some blocky lava flows, crossed a brushy bump, and landed on our trail. Phew! Awesome.

lava blocks.JPG

It was cake from there. We picked up the winter climbing trail just before the switchback we’d missed on the way up. Of course, it looked much more obvious on the way back. We ran into a group of climbers who’d been similarly confused earlier in the day. But they ended up bagging the climb as they got disoriented in the clouds. Bummer. They were busy placing some arrows marking the trail and blocking the herd path that deceptively led them (and us) astray.

Every climb is different. The mountains always present different conditions, challenges, and secrets. I’ll never get tired of taking opportunities to climb peaks I’ve climbed before.  Each time, another story: Feb 2012 | Feb 2011 | Jan 2006.

Mt. Washington — West Ridge Variation

September 22, 2012.

Mt Washington Oregon

After a peaceful evening at the Big Lake campground listening to our neighbors’ blaring country and rap music mix, we were ready for a dark-thirty start of a Mt. Washington climb.

Somehow Lee got me roped into a West Ridge climb as part of a 5-person team. Most (sane) people climb Mt. Washington via the North Ridge. While it is as dirty and loose as the best Oregon rock, the North Ridge is do-able by beginner climbers with a competent leader. The West Ridge is pretty much never climbed by anyone of any ability. It was our task to find out why.

We left the campground at 5 am and started walking before 5:30. It was pitch black and the light of my feeble headlamp was hardly enough for me to move forward without stumbling. We reached the North Ridge climber’s trail before sunrise, and started making our way up the mountain. The trail was fairly braided and faint in some places. We wandered up to a viewpoint on the North Ridge to take a gander at our distant objective. There didn’t seem to be any great way to get over there without traversing the rocks pouring down the west side of the mountain. Eventually we crossed over the North Ridge and descended to the base of the talus. Then, we began the arduous task of walking horizontally across the shifting field of rocks. Our intention was to stay close to the treed areas, in an effort to walk on the most stable slope. However, there were huge gaps between the vegetation and so there was no avoiding the loose terrain.


At the other end of the scree and talus field, we turned up the slope, following a thin fin of rock. The rock was semi-solid, but covered with ball-bearings, er, pebbles in places. The slope steepened, and we grabbed on to any little tree or rock we could to make upward progress. At the top of this rock and tree section we reached the portion of the West Ridge where we would start our climb.

Mt Washington Oregon shadowThe sun was hiding behind the mountain and the wind was gently beginning to pick up. We searched for a place to build a belay anchor. Most of the rock was loosely adhered together, so it was useless to try to place rock protection in it. Chris eventually found a large boulder with some cracks in it that we could throw a few cams in. Now we were ready to go.

West Ridge Variation start Mt Washington Oregon
Or so we thought. It took two people and nearly two hours to get a body to the top of pitch one. It was frighteningly loose. Two more people followed on a single rope and the last two team members followed simultaneously on a pair of half ropes. Time had somehow drifted into the early afternoon so now it would be a race to ensure we could top out and get off the technical stuff before the sun set.

We pitched out the rest of the route based on rope drag and the location of the most solid rock. Above pitch one we tried to skirt the “Cascade Dinner Plates” as best as we could. The dinner plates were flattened rocks that stacked up in vertical piles and sent waves of fear and panic to all who touched them. We all gingerly climbed on and around them, trying desperately not to dislodge any of the rock. Doing so would cause the climber to fall or the belayer to get beaned on some really useful and sentimental body part.

West Ridge Mt Washington Oregon/></a><br />
Chris and Lee did the routefinding on the single rope, while our team of myself, Karin and Andrew followed on a pair of half ropes. In order to speed things up, team one left the rock protection in and I led team two on the half ropes, clipping through the pre-placed gear and then simul-belaying the two followers up on a BD Guide. Rope drag was an incredible nuisance. It was the worst on the “piton pitch”–probably the best section of the entire ridge. I got so bogged down in rope drag that I couldn’t move forward. I had to build an anchor halfway through that pitch and bring the others up before continuing. The “piton pitch” included two slanting offwidth cracks and the occasional precariously positioned loose rock. There were two pitons along the way that Chris must have loved seeing. I know I did.</p>
<p><a href=West Ridge Mt Washington Oregon
Pole Creek Fire from Mt Washington Summit
The exposure on the route was really awesome in some places. It was a long way down to the base of the mountain. Although the sun was shining for most of the climb, the wind was blowing and we all climbed the route in our puffy coats. As the day drew to a close, the wind picked up even more and a sheet of ominous, gray clouds poured in. All the while we found amazing views of the raging Pole Creek Fire to the southeast.

It took 6 or 7 pitches of climbing, but we all reached the summit after 5pm and were ready to rappel by 6. The sky grew grayer by the second and we knew we needed to move. We had 5 people, 3 ropes, and 4 rappels to make. We managed to get everybody down in about an hour. We were cruising now.

descending Mt Washington Oregon North Ridge
There was just one tricky section on the mountain left to negotiate, then it would be smooth sailing from there. The slope at the base of the rappel was steep and screelicious. The easier sections had a deep enough layer of scree for plunge-stepping. The harder sections had hard rock beneath a thin layer of pebbles and dust. I made it down with a combination of techniques, including the graceful and technical butt-slide. In the fading daylight, I could barely make out the climbers descent trail that would take us back to the forest. Around 7:30pm it was time to get the headlamps back out and begin the two hour walk back to the cars.

The day ended about 16 hours after it began. I was feeling pretty wiped out, but content that we’d had a successful climb. The team was solid and fun to be around. Everyone worked together well and made good decisions. The weather, albeit cold at times, held out for us. We didn’t get the thunderstorms that could have made for a very bad day. No one got injured, even on the incredibly awful rock.

This is a route best left to the history books, not to be repeated again. Maybe in a few hundred or thousand years, when all the loose rock is gone and a gorgeous, airtight, knife-edge ridge remains, it would shape up to be a worthy climbing route. Until then, set your sights on something, anything, else.

West McMillan Spire

September 7-9, 2012.

West McMillan Spire

Goodell Creek trailhead > Terror Basin > West McMillan Spire and back

Approximately 20 miles | 9000′ ele. gain

Picasa Photo Album

This was my first venture into the Picket Range in the North Cascades. The Pickets are notorious for the burly approaches and challenging, remote peaks. I was really excited to get going but a bit nervous about what to expect.

The original plan for our team of four was to tackle the South Face of Inspiration Peak, a multi-pitch 5.8 rock climb accessed only after crossing a heavily crevassed glacier. I was a bit skeptical of this objective since we were getting such a late start to the approach, but I was just happy to have the opportunity to poke around up there.

On Friday morning we picked up permits in Marblemount and drove to the Goodell Creek climber’s trailhead. We got off to a casual start around noon and began hiking up the trail. The trail followed an old roadbed for about 3.5 miles. It was flat and extremely well-maintained for a climber’s trail. But the pleasantness was immediately over when we reached a large cairn and arrow made of rocks that directed us straight uphill. Over the next few miles, we gained about 6000′ of elevation. Steph Abegg has a great graphic that shows the mileage and elevation here.

mythumbnail

It was hot, and we were working really hard. Eventually we popped out of the forest, traversed along some cute heather meadows and then continued up some more. I was happy to find ripe huckleberries along much of the approach. They were like miniature morale-boosters.

The sky was growing dim and we were still nowhere near our camp. We finally approached the saddle that we’d cross to drop into Terror Basin. On the other side was a steep slope and a snow gully with a moat near loose rock and vertical dirt. I assumed we’d have to descend the moat, so without delay I began downclimbing. It was really crappy and loose but with the snow directly to the side it felt less exposed than downclimbing the slab. At the bottom, however, the loose stuff continued and the snow went away. We all made it down this treacherous nastiness without incident, and hightailed it across more snow and rock to find a camp. Just as the sun went down we settled in near a big boulder with a flat, sandy sleeping spot.

In the morning, our team dropped from four to three as one person opted for a rest day. Again, we were off to a late start. I knew Inspiration was out of the question. An hour of walking brought us to the camp we’d hoped to reach last night. Another hour brought us to the foot of the glacier. It was heavily cracked up and it would take some skillful navigating to find a direct and safe route to the rock. Then, there were several hours of climbing left on territory that was new to all of us.

Terror Basin
I asked if there was an alternate peak we could get up from here. Glenn suggested the west ridge of West McMillan Spire, a third-class scramble. We could clearly see the gently sloping ridge from where we stood. it looked totally doable, so we changed our itinerary and set out towards the spire.

The glacier crossing here was very moderately sloped and crevasse-free. We took our sweet time ascending the snow, stopping every so often to look around at the awesome scenery and to guzzle down some water. It was murderously hot! The air was almost perfectly still and the sun was blazing.


We stopped short on the glacier, avoiding the steep snow finger that led to the base of the west ridge. Instead we angled onto some rock and decided to “lead” a couple of pitches to get some use out of all the rock gear we’d hauled up here. We stashed most everything else, including 2 packs and all the snow gear here. Then I started up a vertical-ish slab and placed a couple of pieces for the hell of it as I quickly scrambled up easier and easier rock. I belayed my partners up and Glenn wandered further to pick out another crappy vertical section and we got some simul-climbing practice in. Yeah, not for me. Now I know.

West Ridge West McMillan Spire
Once we put all our toys away we each chose our own adventures up the mellow west ridge. I went for the more solid, vertical sections since they were short and fun and not that exposed. The guys seemed to prefer the loose talus and scree for whatever reason. Either way, we all made it up to the false summit and then completed the final traverse to the small summit block. The views up here were hard to beat. The mountain dropped away steeply in all directions. We had amazing views of the Picket Range and beyond. Glacier Peak, Mt Baker, Mt Shuksan and the Liberty Bell Group all stood proudly among the glaciers and spires. I could see no evidence of human civilization in all 360 degrees around me. It was spectacular.

Summit shot

Descending the ridge was mostly easy. We had to avoid the steep stuff near the bottom that we’d simulclimbed up. Instead we took a loose, exposed gully back down to a point where we could see our packs. Here Glenn veered off across ball-bearing covered slab to another loose gully where he was cornered in a moat. Brad and I chose the awesome slab on the other side and got down pretty easily. It was amusing to watch Glenn in action as he self-belayed with a nut tool over the narrow but deep snow moat.

We walked back down the glacier, staying to the left this time, to avoid crossing the waterfalls and having to downclimb the steep, polished slabs we came up. From there, it was a mostly straightforward snow and slab traverse back to camp. By now I was pretty worn down and was really looking forward to taking off my boots and settling down in camp. Even though we just did an easy scramble, it was still an 11-hour day.

Dan was looking rested and spry as he had a nice, mellow day hanging around the beautiful camp area. No one else had been down in the basin since we’d arrived. We all ate dinner and watched the sun set, then happily headed off to sleep.

The next morning, I awoke in a hanging mist and couldn’t see a thing from camp. We were totally socked in with clouds. That was going to make for a super fun day.


Another lazy start (arg!) this morning meant it was also going to be a long day. We were all dreading the awful moat we’d had to descend from the saddle to enter the basin and had been strategizing alternate routes for the way out. We left camp at 7:45 am and trudged up the snow to the more solid-looking rock beneath the moat to our right. It looked mostly easy and straightforward, but it was steep and exposed and we’d had our heavy packs on. We ended up protecting two pitches–one on the slabs beneath the moat and the moat itself. This was the smart thing to do, but it did cost us a couple of hours. At 9:45 we were finally up and over the saddle and began the long walk out.

We wandered through the clouds, following trails worn through the heather and cairns marking the rock as we slowly began the long, traversing descent. But the mood changed rather quickly when the real descent began. Just as surely as the trail shot straight up a couple of days ago, it dropped straight down in a hurry. This was the most heinous descent I’d ever done. my quads and knees were screaming for mercy. My feet weren’t faring any better. There was no relief along the way, it was just all down all at once. I relished every tiny bump that led uphill as opportunities to give my poor muscles a rest.

Cloudy forest

But all was well as we dropped down the final bit of trail to the old forest road. From here, walking would be a breeze. I kept my internal radio station on mindless, mellow songs as we cruised all the way back to the car. By 3 pm we were done.

This was arguably the most challenging trip in recent memory for me. What surprised me the most was that my muscles didn’t feel completely spent the next day. I guess that means I could have pushed harder. And THAT means I will be back in the Pickets again soon.

Sahale Climb

August 26-27, 2012.

With my Forbidden Peak climb plans falling through, I quickly made plans with Lee to take his son up Sahale. We left Portland early Saturday morning to pick up permits at the Marblemount Ranger Station for the next two nights. Luckily, permits were available since we hadn’t come up with a backup plan.

After killing a day chasing bunnies and trying the various eating establishments in Marblemount, we drove to the end of Cascade River Road and prepared for a long day of hiking. We had an 8-year old with us and I had no idea how that was going to go. I assumed the worst.

The hike began on the trail to Cascade Pass, which was extremely well graded, with the most switchbacks I have ever seen. Nonetheless, about 5 minutes of walking passed before the little guy wanted to sit down and take a break. So, it was going to be like this…

Lee was good about setting short goals, like we’ll take a break after X switchbacks, but there was still an awful lot of resting and not a lot of walking. I was hoping to at least be able to hunt for huckleberries as we plodded along, but as this was a very popular trail, the berries were mostly picked over. I got a few, but quickly lost interest in looking.

Cascade Pass

Hours later we made it to Cascade Pass and took a lunch break. The views were breathtaking from here. A huge, wide valley opened up in front of us and throngs of hikers came and went across the trail. Once we left the pass, the trail switchbacked a bit steeper now. Up on Sahale Arm, the grade dropped and the views became more enthralling. We walked through green meadows dotted with patches of wildflowers. Dramatic, craggy peaks rose up from the valley on all sides. I could recognize Eldorado, Forbidden, and Johannesburg, and the others were too numerous to count. It was here that I broke away from the other two (sorry…) and blasted away towards camp.

The end of the trail rose sharply up a loose talus field to the camp, which was perched atop a gravelly moraine. A hiker we passed earlier recommended the camp on the second of three domes, so I chose that one for us. I unpacked, ate some food, drank lots of water, and took some pictures. It felt so good to have that heavy pack off my back and Crocs on my feet.

Camp

45 minutes later, the boys rolled into camp and G was instantly bored. I was flabbergasted. I will spare the details of the hours whiled away at camp.

The sunset was spectacular. Pink clouds decorated a dimming sky and the moon rose over the snow-capped peaks. I took a walk to the composting toilet, which was right out in the open on the ridge to camp. Using the loo was not for the shy camper. I was tempted to linger there, as the views were particularly gorgeous.

Sunset

The next morning, we awoke to clear skies and a cool breeze. It was going to be a great day. We motivated to get breakfast going quickly and start climbing the mountain. It would take some time to gear up at each of the switchovers, so the more time we had, the better.

A short jaunt from the camp brought us to the base of the glacier, where we put on crampons and roped up. I would head the team with Lee on the other end and his son just about 10 feet away from him on the middle of the rope. I thought that would put me out of earshot, but I got to deal with being ordered around by an 8-year old screaming to “slow down” or “speed up,” depending on what he felt like doing. Actually, this is not much different from roping up with adults; being on a roped snow climb is obnoxious unless you have a really killer team of climbers who are all on the same page.

Sahale glacier

The glacier was mellow and short. Soon we were taking off our crampons to ascend a rocky pile to the base of the summit block. This also took some time, as the rocks were loose and I didn’t take the time to coil the rope nicely so I was dealing with a mangled rope butterfly held over one shoulder. We didn’t know exactly where the climb started and Lee mistakenly sent me, the worst routefinder in the universe, to scope it out. I stopped basically where I didn’t feel comfy scrambling without a belay and built an anchor there. I led up and over a rocky corner just a short ways until I found a rock slung with a red piece of webbing. I belayed them up and led a second pitch. This time I found a legitimate route on solid rock with good gear placements. I also found a sweet fist crack that had some webbing inside it, which I clipped and climbed over.

The summit area was small, but there was more webbing there so I quickly got safe and put the dudes on belay. It was windy and cold up there, so I hunkered down and appreciated bringing the BD guide to make the belaying chore a bit more bearable.

On the summit

View of Glacier Peak

With the 50 m rope, two raps brought us down to safe terrain and we hiked back to the snow from there. Crampons on, ropes on. This time I took the tail end of the rope as the kiddo and his dad led out. This was perfect. I kept enough rope in my hand as a buffer to allow me to walk at a reasonable pace and I may have let the rope pile up a bit on my end in places. There were a few big cracks in the glacier but our route was well away from them and so we were in a very safe situation. We made it back to camp around 1pm, in time for lunch.

The plan was to hike out and drive home today, so lunch was casual as we packed up and prepared to leave. Still, it was over an hour before we took off. The area was so beautiful I hardly cared. I took this opportunity to look around and enjoy the scenery. We even spotted a bear grazing in the meadows beneath the trail. Cool! But, walking behind an 8-year old was taking its toll on me. Rushing forward, then stopping every 10 seconds for no apparent reason, taking snack breaks at least 4 times an hour, and making funny noises just pushed every button I had. I jumped ahead of the crew once we got to the edge of the Sahale Arm and waited for them at Cascade Pass. There I chatted with some other hikers and tried to stomp on a critter scoping the area for dropped crumbs. We stuck together through the rocky section just beyond the pass, but as soon as it was time to stop AGAIN I made a break for it and finished the trip down on my own.

Bear

Forbidden Peak

It was nice to have some space to breathe and get lost in my own thoughts. As I turned one switchback after another, I drew little images in the dirt to amuse the child who was hopefully following close behind. I hoped that it would break up some of the monotony for him. It’s hard enough for big people do climb mountains; I could only imagine that it would feel like a huge undertaking for a child.

Overall, Sahale is big bang for the buck climbing. It’s mostly a hike, with a little bit of mild snow climbing and a short rock climb. Incredible views make this a five star trip. Go during the week for the best chance to get a permit or make it a day climb to avoid the permitting hassle.

Gear: 50 m rope, crampons/axe, light alpine rack to 1″, long runners