July 15-17, 2007.
“This will make a great story once we get off the mountain…”
Mountaineering requires a wide range of skills: technical climbing proficiency, brute strength, mental tenacity, creative problem-solving, cooperation, and the ability to adapt to changing situations. All of these skills were put to the test on this challenging trip with a Mazama group of 12.
On Sunday afternoon, we all met at the parking lot near the Baker ski area, since the road to the trailhead was closed. From here we hiked to Lake Ann, our campsite for the evening. The trail lost 800 feet of elevation as it passed through muddy forest and meadows. We’d regain the elevation crossing snowy slopes, and finally dropped down to the lake. It perfectly reflected the blue sky above. Here, I set up my tent on the snow for the first time. It was a little chilly, and in the morning I noticed the tent did not breathe very well. But soon it was time to go; we had a long climb ahead.
Under cover of dark, we trudged up the brush-covered and snow-covered trail to the base of the Chimneys. It was difficult to press onward because of the fantastic views of Mt. Baker behind us. The mountain was like a changing watercolor canvas being repainted each minute by a fickle sun, which finally chose a titanium white pigment for the snowy figure. Ominous-looking glaciers waited ahead as the team put on crampons to traverse across the hard snow. There would be a number of transitions between rock and snow–this involved gear changes as well as awkward fumbling in the transition zone where 12 people would try to manage their safety as well as avoid the others. This wasn’t always easy. There were chimneys leading to the Chimneys that were sketchy for a noob like myself. Also, the gap between the snow and rock at the end of the approach took a bit of creative maneuvering to bridge.
A few hours into the climb, we reach the first semi-technical bit of the day. Fisher Chimneys involved some 3rd and 4th class rock (I’m still not entirely sure what those designations mean) that took us some time to ascend. This part would have been much easier with trailrunners and no backpack on, but who am I to complain? 🙂 I didn’t come here for easy. So, life flashing before my eyes, I sucked it up and got to the top. Of course, I could not escape this section without fearing death, as I followed the climber ahead of me around a bulge in the rock, which forced me to stick my rear end out over a sheer drop. Clinging to the rock with a shaky hand, I timidly stepped across what felt like a mile (but in reality was like 5 feet), mentally drained on the other side. Poor Jenn, she followed my lead, and felt the same anguish upon completing that terrifying move. By then, the rest of the party had moved on and we hurried to rejoin them.
A rocky bench at the base of the slide was a convenient cramponing- and roping-up point for the climbers. Our fearless leader divided the group into 4 rope teams of three. I was to be in the middle of the last rope, sandwiched between two strong climbers who I trusted greatly. Yippee :). The guidebooks describe this short, steep, pitch of snow as a 40 degree slope. I was not too concerned about safety, due to the condition of the snow, the protection being placed, and my confidence walking in this type of terrain. I’m pretty sure I’ve ascended some really sketchy snow slopes without any type of protection, and I’ve been fine. This section was actually pretty fun, albeit a little tiring. It’s got a cute name, so how threatening can it be?
Upper Curtis Glacier
Now here’s where the real terror begins. In my short climbing career, the only crevasse I’ve ever been close to is the feeble bergschrund on Mt. Hood in June–the one you can avoid like the plague, and not ever worry about it. I have developed this romantic notion of giant, creaking, man-thirsty trenches that wait for their opportunity to swallow you whole. So imagine my trepidation as we approach these beasts and plan a route that runs right through them. No big deal for all the big shots on the climb, but a major deal for me. I stepped where they stepped, staring down the ferocious glacier in hopes that I would intimidate it from doing anything unexpected. I guess it worked, as I emerged unscathed at the top, ready to complete the next part of the mission.We got a short respite from climbing as the route dropped slightly and traversed across the top of the glacier. Tall spires of rock and a lovely cascade of water provided a serene backdrop for this mellow section. The crevasses remained safely out of sight so I proceeded to relax and fall into a rhythm. Of course, all the elevation we lost had to be regained, so eventually the party had to end and the up-muscles were put into use yet again.
We hung a left at the top of the glacier to begin walking along a long, steady uphill known as Hell’s Highway. There’s nothing all that difficult here, except it’s boring as hell.
I never was much of a team player. And now here I am being dragged up a snow slope by my rope leader, who pushed harder and harder the higher we climbed. We’ve been on the route for 6 or 7 hours now, and I’m definitely feeling it. I dug deep to move faster but it just wasn’t enough. I knew we were last, so when another group came into view I relaxed a little bit. Okay, we’ve caught up, so that means we’ll slow down, right?
Wrong. We climbed like mad, until we were up front with the rest of the team. It turns out the group I noticed was another climb party that hiked up the Sulphide Glacier route and they were making a beeline for the summit pinnacle, too. Although I’d been cursing my leader and feeling like crap, I now understood his rush to be first. We needed to beat out the other group if we wanted a shot at the top. There was a serious bottleneck up ahead; as I’d soon find out, even though the summit was right there, we had a long way to go.
To the Top
Again, we removed our crampons and disassembled our rope teams. The stronger climbers went up ahead to fix lines on the worst parts of the rock gully while the rest of us mustered up the will to continue. Stuff gets interesting here: lots of scrambling with lots of exposure. And there’s a little bit of rotten snow tossed in for good measure. With much coaching from my awesome, awesome teammates, I managed my way up the toughest sections. Up until this climb I’d felt very agile and adept at negotiating rock. Today, however, I was put right in my place watching my teammates ascend with ease. Meanwhile, I was left feeling knots in my stomach and tears burning my eyes during some of the more difficult moves. I was thrilled when the wind picked up and the view narrowed, indicating that the summit was near.
“Don’t touch that rock, it’s loose!” came a cry from above. We’d been dodging rocks all day, being sure to test anything before giving it weight. A few more steps and I was crammed on the summit with several other folks, basking in the glory of a climb half done. Dammit, how are we getting down off this thing?
I feverishly rummaged through my pack for the container of bakery brownie bites I’d been saving for this very moment. I grabbed a mouthful and passed them around for everyone to share. Nothing had ever tasted so good.
A Long Descent
At approximately 1pm, 9 hours after our morning began, we turned to head back the way we came. Suddenly the steep rock that we’d scrambled up looked more frightening than it had earlier. After a quick refresher on rappelling, I began one of 5 (?) we would set up on the descent. Some of the more skilled individuals were able to downclimb most or all of the rock gully leading back to Hell’s Highway. The rappels took an agonizing length of time to complete due to the number of people and the logistics of it all. I continued to watch and learn from my fellow climbers as they rigged gear, evaluated anchors, and danced gracefully down the rock.The base of the rock led to a now mushy, steep snowfield perfect for plunge stepping. I made quick work of this and met the group on a small rock pile where we all took a break and planned the next phase of our exodus.
Once back to the traverse across the Upper Curtis Glacier, things got interesting again. There were 12 different opinions on how to get back down to Winnie’s slide. Some people had GPS waypoints but no one actually tracked our route. There were no wands to follow, and those evil, murderous crevasses were everywhere. Rope teams set out in all different directions attempting to spot the route. My team was especially diligent and hardy, with the exception of me, who was tired of walking for no good reason. After wasting a good deal of time, the new leader of my rope team discovered the way. I commend them for their persistence and patience with me, especially in encouraging me to step over a crevasse. You guys are THE BEST.
We led the way down through the gnarly, icy section on the side of the glacier and by about 6:45pm had reached the top of Winnie’s Slide. In perhaps a subconscious attempt to pick up the pace, I lost my footing soon into the downclimb and started sliding down the snow. I yanked one of my ropemates off his feet too, and neither of us could self-arrest in the slush. He had the brains, however, to plant the shaft of his axe into the slope, bringing us both to a halt. The slide was slow, painless, and rather enjoyable :). The runout wasn’t terribly dangerous so I wasn’t afraid of anything here. Before I knew it, we reached the bottom of the slide.
Here, we took another break to gather ropes, remove crampons, blah blah blah. A few of the rock studs started up again to scope out the route and start rigging rappels. I quickly followed so as not to slow down the group. We progressed slowly, with the people to rope ratio being so high, and the downclimbing being somewhat treacherous, especially on tired legs and minds. We did not finish the last rappel before dark fell.
Gear shift again, ugh. Headlamps aglow, and huddled onto a small rock face where the snow had lifted its grasp, clumps of climbers fumbled with their packs, axes and crampons in preparation for another snow traverse. Tempers were starting to run hot, now, as we all just wanted to get back to camp. Someone miraculously found our route (look for old ice axe holes!) and led us across the first snowfield. Hours later, we became lost again. The trail dove in and out of snowcover, which made routefinding something of a challenge. Few of us were motivated to follow the many switchbacks, and preferred to bushwhack downhill. However, since our view was seriously limited by darkness, we could not get far without getting disoriented. Some of us decided to throw in the towel and let the others scout out the route. I had a gut feeling that we would not regain the route without sunlight, so I sat and waited for someone to finally call it.
At 1:30 am, someone finally did. I was relieved, as I did not want to be wandering around lost in the dark…again (been there, done that :)). Each of us found a place to call home for the next few hours, gathered up all our layers, and tried to catch some z’s. I kept feeling as if I would roll off the mountain, so I did not get much sleep. The weather was mild; it never got cold or rainy, and the wind never picked up. Nevertheless, I was shivering all night. I foolishly did not bring my bivy bag and sleeping pad because this was a Mazama climb. Stupid, stupid. I really should know better…
At 5am, everyone got up and prepared to get back to camp. Almost immediately we located our error: we turned left instead of right at a trail junction, and we were literally 5 minutes off the correct path. The trail was intermittently covered with patches of slick, steep snow, which I crossed at a snail’s pace (sorry, guys). I was exhausted, drained, and not confident in my steps. With some helpful encouragement and good step kicking from the people around me I made it through these sections okay.
Once the path was evident and the footing easier I scooted to the front of the pack. I just wanted to get the hell out of there. Much of the walk to camp was in silence. Everyone was wrestling with “what if’s,” fighting exhaustion, and dreaming of a hot meal.
End of a Journey
At Lake Ann, everyone decided it was time to pack up and head back to the cars. Some entertained the idea of spending another night, but I knew right away that I wanted to go. The weather wasn’t looking so hot anyways. A warm bed and a good meal or three would fix me right up; I was chomping at the bit to hit the trail again.
We moved at a steady pace for quite a ways. After our one and only food break, and the trail began to gain elevation, I dropped to the back to take my time and enjoy some much needed solitude. An eternity passed before the parking lot came into view. It seemed that everyone made their own way down: some choosing the longer but gentler road walk while others chose the snow. At about 9:30 am, people began cracking open beers as they snacked on junk food, chatted, or napped on the ground. It had been an epic climb for all.