Mountaineering on Mt. Shuksan, or, foiled by the weather!

Upon landing in Seattle both myself and my climbing partner were greeted with voicemails from the head of the climbing school that our guide is associated with. She explained to both of us that another one of their clients (“Bill”) was in town for a guided climb on Mt. Baker, but that his guide had just gotten hurt and had to back out. Bill had flown into town from Florida for the climb, so the school wanted to try and get him something to climb since he was already in town. Thus they wanted to see if we wouldn’t mind him joining our (formerly) private guided climb. We knew two facts about Bill, first was that he had at some point climbed some pretty serious mountains (Rainer, Shasta, Whitney) and that he was 69 years old. So it goes without saying that we were a tad concerned. But, for a number of reasons, we agreed to open up our trip to Bill and let him join. It was the right thing to do, as both of us realized that had we been in his situation, we would hope that someone else would open their trip up to us.

With that, after a quick night in Seattle we made our way out early in the morning towards the ranger station in the little town of Sedro-Wooly, about an hour and a half north of Seattle. Once there, our guide, Chris, arrived. We hadn’t seem him since he guided us on Adams the year prior. We talked for just a few minutes before Bill showed up with this wife. We all went into the ranger station to get the appropriate permits and most importantly, to talk about the weather.

The forecast over the last few weeks had been a bit variable. But the gist was that it was going to rain on Friday (day 1), be rainy and windy on Saturday (day 2), and then clear on Sunday (day 3). Thus our plan was to hike and climb into high camp on Friday, spend Saturday doing some training and resting, and then make a summit push on Sunday morning- tag the summit early, head back down to high camp and break it down, then climb and hike out to the trailhead. Given the weather this was an ideal plan. We got what we needed from the rangers, and then headed outside.

Once outside, we did a gear check. Essentially we all empty our packs onto the grass for Chris to go over our gear to ensure that we have what we need and that we aren’t carrying things we didn’t need. I was able to rid myself of a few things that dropped some ounces from my bag (as Chris says “pounds are made of ounces”). Chris then divided up the group gear for each of us to carry. This was primarily group food (breakfast and dinners), two tent kits, stoves, and ropes. This of course added considerable weight to all our bags. I would guess that with the group gear, mine topped out around 40 or 50 pounds. With all of our gear checked and repacked, we loaded the cars and set off. We had about a 90 minute drive following Chris into the backcountry and to the trail head.

About an hour into the drive we finally started to get a glimpse of the North Cascades. We first saw Mt. Baker and Baker lake, which were quite stunning. The rising evergreens all around us and cool temperatures provided a sublimely serene setting to the undertaking we were about to begin.

We arrived at the trailhead. We all donned our boots, hefted our packs onto our shoulders, grabbed our ski poles, and set off onto the trail.

Shannon Ridge trail head

Shannon Ridge trail head

Glacier zone

Glacier zone

The Shannon Ridge “trail” was a first for me. In my experience, a “trail” is a relatively cleared path through the environments. Sometimes it may or may not be marked, but just looking at the ground can usually tell you that you’re on the path. But the Shannon Ridge trail is known as a “climbers trail” which means that while some small part of it may be cleared and obvious, the rest of it is narrow, brush and/or tree covered,  messy, and complex. It makes for slower going.

The first few hundred feet of the ascent were on the nice easy part of the trail. It was wide enough for two of us to walk side by side and it was shaded (and thus cool). It was partly cloudy at this point.

Opening section of the trail

Opening section of the trail

After this small part of the trail, it got steeper quick. The trail head is at 2,300 feet. The location of our high camp was going to be at the bottom of the glacier at about 6,400 feet. Thus in this first day we had to cover 3,100 feet on the ascent. A big number but not by any means a significant challenge. We set off from the cars at 1030 or so, and since our goal for the day was to reach camp, we had plenty of time to get there before dark and setup camp.

As the trail got steeper it’s quality also lessened. It quickly narrowed so that you had to move in more or less single file. It also became uncleared, basically meaning that it was overgrown with trees and bushes and other such flora. Thus walking through it was a continuous practice of moving over or under or through branches and bushes. This part of the trail was then followed by “deadfall,” which is when the giant trees fall down. There were a few dozen such trees along this complex trail, and it took some work to navigate your body (with a 50 pound giant pack) either over these huge trees (some 5 to 6 feet in diameter). It was at this point that the main indicator of our future pace would be clear: Bill was simply moving slower than my partner and I (and the guide). It was little one minute pauses here and there or an extra minute or two for him to negotiate a complex move over a dead tree. These were little delays but they add up quickly and do have a significant impact on your pace and thus schedule.

Moving through the dead fall section

Moving through the dead fall section

So, moving a bit slower than planned, we finally made it out of the deadfall section and began to come above tree line. We reached a little open flat section where we decided it would be a good time to stop and take a break (eat, drink, etc.). From this position, our guide explained, we had one particularly harder part of the trail to tackle next, and this was negotiating from our current position on the Shannon Ridge up into the notch, which is a section of the rock (literally a small notch) that allows you to pass through from the forested side where we were into the higher elevations and the alpine environment. The challenge was the trail from our break spot to the notch was steep (the steepest thing we’d seen so far) and covered in loose dirt and small rocks (which means loose footing at best). With the unsure footing and the heavy pack on your shoulders the way forward is to move and think fast. Quickly look to see where your next step will be, get your foot onto it to make sure it holds, then move your weight up onto it. As you’re doing that, you start looking for the next step. This is important because it minimizes your time putting your weight on each step, thereby minimizing the chances for footing to give way and you to fall backwards. In this particular location, a fall would be potentially very painful…but our exposure was such that a fall likely wouldn’t be fatal. To make it a tad harder, the clouds had departed and the sun had come out. Even though the temperature was in the 60’s it certainly felt like the 90’s.

View of Mt. baker from the trail

View of Mt. Baker from the trail

Coming to the tree line, our rocky snowy target in the distance.

Coming to the tree line, our rocky snowy target in the distance.

We quickly ate and drank and then attacked the trail. Bill slowed down and had some real trouble in this section. Our guide was in front, then Bill, then my partner, and then me in the rear. So the biggest problem this caused was that as Bill would take slow steps up, we had to as well…thus putting our footing at risk over and over again. This slow movement on the notch (combined with the slow movement through the deadfall) destroyed our pace. It was nearly 5:30 when we finally reached the notch. From here it was another 1,200 feet to high camp and it was a mix of rock and snow. So, in the interest of time, our guide decided that we would just make a low camp right at/on the notch. We’d make camp, spend the night, and in the morning pack up and move the last 1,200 feet up to high camp at 6,400 feet.

Last rest before attacking the notch (which is at the top left corner).

Last rest before attacking the notch (which is at the top left corner).

The views from our camp at the notch were just outstanding. From here we could see down into the valley, Mt. Baker, the Picket Range, and other peaks in the distance. There was a combination of snow and forest cover throughout the view, with clouds moving in and out of the valley and across the different mountains we could see.

At the notch, looking at tomorrow's route

At the notch, looking at the beginning of tomorrow’s route

From the notch. The Picket Range is in the top left corner

From the notch. The Picket Range is in the top left corner

Bill (L) and Chris the guide (R) setting up camp 1 at the notch.

Bill (L) and Chris the guide (R) setting up camp 1 at the notch.

From camp 1 at the notch

From camp 1 at the notch

Looking back off the notch towards Baker Lake

Looking back off the notch towards Baker Lake

Nightfall at camp 1 on the notch

Nightfall at camp 1 on the notch

We set up camp (my partner and I in one tent and Bill and our guide in the other) and began prepping for dinner.

Our guide’s exquisite cooking abilities were brought to bear as he put together a starter of tomato soup and then sausage and mashed potatoes (“bangers and mash”) with snap peas. We ate while enjoying the view and conversation. It wasn’t too long after dinner and cleanup that we retired to our respective tents, my partner and I both reading on our Kindles before turning in.

We awoke relatively early the next morning but didn’t need to rush, as our sole goal was to reach high camp at 6,400 feet, just another 1,200 vertical feet from the our camp site at the notch. But this 1,200 feet was radically different from our path prior to the notch. Now on the north/eastern side of the mountain, we were exposed to ice/snow and rock. The trail from this point switched between steep but easily passable rock and snow and ice. Unfortunately the weather worsened (as the forecast foretold), bringing clouds down to our altitude and severely reducing our visibility. It was relatively slow moving in keeping with Bill’s pace, and the last section of ice brought us full time onto the glacier. As we donned our crampons for this section and made the final push towards camp, we could actually see the tents of other parties up above us, a nice motivator for forward progress. This particular slope wasn’t terribly steep or challenging, and it was nice to be off rock and onto the glacier with crampons where I felt far more sure with my footing.

Poor visibility moving onto snow/ice in the morning

Poor visibility moving onto snow/ice in the morning

Moving across snow patches without crampons

Moving across snow patches without crampons

Last section before high camp, in fact the little yellow tent in the near center of the image is high camp. Our path took us up this steep section and then traversed to the right around the rocky outcropping,

Last section before high camp, in fact the little yellow tent in the near center of the image is high camp. Our path took us up this steep section and then traversed to the right around the rocky outcropping,

Yet our slow pace was still a killer…we didn’t pull into high camp till around noon. What should have been a 90 minute (at the most) trip took nearly three hours. As we arrived at camp, we scouted out tent locations and luckily found two that were on rock (vice snow). We dropped our gear and began setting up camp…but we weren’t alone. There was another guided group (2 guides with nearly 10 clients) that were in the immediate vicinity as well. They weren’t there for a summit attempt, just some skills training on the glacier. But having some other folks around was nice. Our two tents ended up bookending the guide tent from the other party. Their clients were in tents a bit further up the glacier (but within ear shot). A party of three arrived soon thereafter and parked their tent in a small little space down the rocky outcropping.

The view from high camp easily surpassed the view from the notch. We had views of one side of the Sulphide Glacier, basically an ice fall, that came down and off the cliff. A sense of scale is hard to get here, but the ice chunks were probably the size of mid-size sedans. Every few minutes we’d hear the crashing and rumbling sound of giant chunks breaking off and heaving down the glacier. Further afield we could see into the green and lush valley below, alpine peaks in the distance, and the glacier all around us. Sadly, we couldn’t see the summit. It was shrouded in a cloud. Throughout the day the clouds above and around us would come and go somewhat, but the cloud on the summit never dissipated.

Huge icefall not too far from camp (but far enough).

Huge icefall not too far from camp (but far enough).

from high camp, looking back towards Shannon Ridge and the notch...where we came from.

from high camp, looking back towards Shannon Ridge and the notch…where we came from.

High Camp - our tent on the left, Chris and Bill's on the right. The middle tent is the other group's guide tent.

High Camp – our tent on the left, Chris and Bill’s on the right. The middle tent is the other group’s guide tent.

High Camp, amazing views

High Camp, amazing views

Once camp was setup we had a quick bite to eat, and then got to training. In preparation for the summit pyramid the next morning (class 3/4 rock) we did a mini rock climbing skills class. While I had some background here, my partner did not. So we went over the basic setup of the belay and rappel systems we’d be using, the cams and the knots, and some quick overview of technique. This ended up running for about two and a half hours, and by the time we were done, it was time to start dinner.

Trust the cam!

Trust the cams!

Our schedule, at this point, was the following: we had hoped to cruise into high camp on day 1, which would have allowed day 2 to be nothing more than a bit of skills training and mostly rest, in preparation for the summit push and monster day 3. But because of the slower pace and the delay, day two was spit between the morning climb into high camp and rock skills in the afternoon. We had to eat early, because we had to get to bed early, because summit day was set to start at 2am.

Chris, our guide, and Bill were talking pretty extensively throughout our time at high camp in the afternoon, and a bit later in the day Bill revealed to us that he wouldn’t be making the summit push with us. He recognized that his slower pace (as we had experienced up to this point) would be a much more serious liability and danger on summit day than it had been between at the trailhead and high camp. Thus on summit day, it would just be my parter and I with Chris. We were pretty pleased with that decision, and we would later see that it was 100% the right one.

Chris kicked off dinner, which would be Pad Thai. And, it was amazing. Seriously the man has an incredible ability to make good quality food at altitude and with pretty limited resources. We ate, talked a bit with the other guides in the tent next to us, and cleaned up. By about 6pm my partner and I retired to our tent and began the arduous task of trying to sleep.

Now it had been cloudy all day long for the most part, and going to bed when it was still light out would at least be countered somewhat by the cloud cover, maybe allowing it to be dark enough to close our eyes and fall asleep. Of course, as we zipped up the flap on the tent, we got the feeling of brighter light shining through the thin tent fabric, indicating that the sun had decided to make an appearance now. Awesome. Sleep would be much harder.

After dinner, looking towards the summit....and seeing nothing.

After dinner, looking towards the summit….and seeing nothing.

We both donned the Kindles again in an attempt to make ourselves sleepy…but that didn’t do much. So we laid down, and just waited.

As nice as it was having the other guided group up at camp, and even though they were probably 100 feet up the glacier from us, their laughing and talking was loud enough to keep us awake (of course, since they weren’t going for the summit, they had no need to hit the sack early). Despite the noise, I think I eventually fell asleep around 8 or 8:30.

But it didn’t last. I tossed and turned, got hold and cold, and just didn’t sleep all that well. I was pretty solidly awake by 1am, and just laid there counting down the minutes till 2am when Chris quietly came over to wake us up.

We quickly got up and got our clothing layers all set. Our gear was packed the night before (our pack on summit day was much different, no extra stuff. Basically just water and some clothes and some food). Chris made some oatmeal and hot tea for breakfast, which I tried my best to stuff down. The weather, well, looked ok. The skies immediately above us were clear minus a few random small clouds. Up the glacier it was harder to tell, primarily because it was dark. But since the conditions immediately around us looked good, and the forecast called for clearing, we decided that it was time to push off. We stepped onto the glacier and got into our crampons, roped up (Chris in the lead, then me, then my partner in the rear), grabbed helmets and headlamps and ice axes and bags, and began to move: it was 2:45am.

Getting crampons on, summit day

Getting crampons on, summit day

Climbing up a glacier in the dark is an odd sensation, just as we had experienced on Mt. Adams a year prior. On one hand it’s easier because you can’t see more than what your head lamp illuminates (which is basically a few feet in front of your boot), but you know that you are on this huge expansive ice sheet that slopes down into a dark abyss (maybe bringing pain and/or death if one were to fall and slide and not self-arrest).

The first 30 minutes were actually pretty easy. We got into the rest-step rhythm and just kept moving forward and up. The incline wasn’t much more than 10 or 15 degrees, and we were able to get pretty good footing and purchase with the crampons. Our understanding of the glacier was the following: it starts pretty gradual, then gets steep, then gradual again, then steep, then gradual again. Then you lose some altitude as you navigate to the right area, and then there is a final steep push up to the base of the summit pyramid (the “pyramid” is simply exposed rock at the top, roughly in the shape of a pyramid. It’s about 700 feet tall, and is exposed in the summer when some of the snow melts). This pattern was pretty accurate as it had been described to us. The problem, though, came around 3:30am or so. We climbed higher and into a cloud bank. This did two things. First, it destroyed what visibility we had before. Now looking up (forward) was like looking at a cotton ball right in front of your face. Second, it added freezing rain (ice, maybe?) to the mix. Our progress thus looked like the following: move up the glacier for about an hour, then stop to rest. Stopping on an ice incline can be a challenge, but we drive our ice axes into the ice and knotted our rope around them for extra security. We placed our backpack on the ground, and sat on it, driving the heels of our crampons into the ice in front of us. Of course, now that we’re sitting, we’ll freeze due to the cold temp. So before you even sit down you have to get out a warm insulated coat and get it on. Of course it’s raining, so you get out the gore-tex jacket as well to keep dry. Then before you leave, you stow all the extra clothes…all while keeping your balance on the glacier. This is a relatively delicate dance that we did over and over and over again.

The rain continued on and off, the visibility stayed bad and remained so even as the sun came up around 5am and began to slightly illuminate the bad visibility around us.

It wasn’t long before we came up on a crevasse, which is a section of the glacier that has separated and/or melted out, leaving a giant hole or crack that can be as small as your boot or a crack that is a mile long and 100 feet deep. These are obviously quite dangerous, so we have to go around them. With no visibility, Chris can’t realistically determine which way around them (left or right) is best, so it becomes a bit of a guessing game. On top of all this, you have the threat of hidden crevasses and weak snow bridges, all things that Chris is keeping a keen watch out for. The lack of visibility means that we have little advance warning of these things, instead of seeing it as we come up close to it, Chris doesn’t actually get eyes on the crevasse until he is a step or two in front of it (hence small, concentrating steps forward). We hit the first one in the dark, and even as he turned to the right and guided me to do the same, I still made enough forward progress that I stepped within a few feet of the crevasse without even seeing it.

First "daylight" crevasse, moving around it slowly

First “daylight” crevasse, moving around it slowly

Giving it a wide'ish berth

Giving it a wide’ish berth- Chris in the least, I’m in the middle, my partner in the rear taking the photo

This became a constant theme for the rest of the trip up: run into crevasses, and navigate around them. Some we went around, one we stepped across (it was only a foot or so wide), and one had a snow bridge over it that Chris swore would hold our weight to walk across it.

The biggest issue with the visibility was that it forced a lot of course correction, and the rain forced a lot of stops to take on and off the rain gear (its too hot to leave on when its not raining). This slowed our pace considerably.

Finally we hit the final steep section, and the clouds around the 700 foot rock summit pyramid shifted for just a moment revealing the huge pyramid about 200 feet above us. Seeing it was a nice motivator, and we began to move again.

The last crevasse we saw was actually right in this area, and was actually a bergschrund, the crevasse at the top of the glacier. This thing was basically a huge gaping hole that from our vantage point at least looked very deep. We steered clear of it, but the last section of glacier to climb was more or less right above it, and to us this seemed like the steepest section we had to conquer. Of course the risk of falling here isn’t necessarily greater than elsewhere, but have this giant gapping bergschrund just below us gave us extra motivation to stay on our feet. Another group had climbed right before us, so we were able to utilize their boot prints on the slope, giving our crampons extra purchase.

Finally, at 8:20, we pulled up to the summit pyramid. The melted section of the summit pyramid leaves this small gap between it and the glacier, which was a great place for us to dive into in order to rest, assess, be off our feet, and hide from the wind and rain.

Mt. Shuksan summit pyramid, what we would have seen had the clouds not obscured our visibility

Mt. Shuksan summit pyramid, what we would have seen had the clouds not obscured our visibility

From here, we had some decisions to make. We had intended to reach the pyramid by 5:30-6:30 am or so. Assume one to two hours up it, an hour down, and then back down to high camp by 12:30. But due to the weather, visibility, route finding issues, crevasses, pace, etc, we didn’t make it to the pyramid till 8am. We sat for a few and considered our options. At first, I felt completely destroyed. My legs were super tired, I was cold, and ready to go home. But immediately upon sitting down I broke out a cliff bar and gnawed through it (partially frozen it felt). By the time I finished it, I felt 100% better. I had more energy and was ready to tackle the summit pyramid. But, sadly, it was obvious to our guide first and my partner and I second that we just didn’t have the time. If we were to make a try for it, we would be further hampered by two factors: a group of 8 or 9 folks had just beaten us up there and were moving up the rock, slowly, without rope. So we might be delayed as we move behind them. Second, due to the cloud cover, the rock was soaking wet. This would make climbing it more difficult and add time. With all of this considered, the right move was to turn around and head down. Even through the true summit was only 700 or so vertical feet above us, the hours it would take to ascend and descend that section were too much of a risk.

With that decision made, I took a few seconds to sulk. But that didn’t last long: it was time to get up and head down.

The weather hadn’t gotten much better by this point. The sun was certainly up, but that just illuminated our lack of visibility. Crawling out of our crack and looking over the edge back onto the glacier, we were greeted by, well, nothing.

Looking back down the glacier from the summit pyramid

Looking back down the glacier from the summit pyramid

Due to the steepness of this section and the presence of the crevasses around us, we would want our most skilled team member in the last position (“highest”) in order to arrest a fall by either my parter or I. That meant our guide was in the back, and one of us had to lead the descent (to start at least). With our roped positions already set, this meant my climbing partner would lead down. This was a heady task, and with a little encouragement he popped out over the edge and onto the glacier, taking very careful heel-first crampon steps. I, in the middle, followed. Chris, on the end, kept us on a super short rope through this section. Once past this immediate section, we changed positions and Chris once again took the lead.

We continued to come up on and move around crevasses:

Crevasse, dead ahead.

Crevasse, dead ahead.

The clouds move a bit at times, giving us a wider view of our surroundings. The red color is algae, and the tracks are from rain water. You can almost get a sense of (terrain) relief in this image.

The clouds move a bit at times, giving us a wider view of our surroundings. The red color is algae, and the tracks are from rain water. You can almost get a sense of (terrain) relief in this image.

Taken by my partner, that's me in the middle position and Chris in the lead.

Taken by my partner, that’s me in the middle position (ice axe in the snow) and Chris in the lead.

We shaved about two hours off our time on the descent, hitting camp at 1230 (which was when we had planned to return after the summit in the first place). Recognizing that my partner and I had already been on our feet for 10 hours, and Bill’s likely pace, we wasted little time getting camp broken down and packed up. Our packs, one again filled with all the food and tents and other items and took on their familiar weight (albeit a bit less than on the ascent to high camp). We were back at camp, packed, hydrated, fed, and on the move within an hour (probably our best time for the whole trip). Our first challenge was the trip from high camp back to the notch, which was the chunk of glacier followed by alternating patches of rock and snow/ice.

Bill broke down pretty fast, moving pretty slow and losing his footing a number of times (luckily in places where we was able to fall and stop himself from sliding). Seeing this, our guide quickly began to move with Bill, more or less arm in arm over the snow and ice, while my partner and I moved ahead. Our guide gave us the go ahead to move without him across this section, which was at the least a nice endorsement of at least our basic crampon and ice axe abilities. We moved pretty seamlessly across, then stopped and waited about 15 minutes for Bill and Chris to make their way to us. Once they arrived, Bill took a break to do a quick wardrobe change, and we were off. From here to the notch was pretty solid, but slow. Chris led, with Bill behind him, and my partner and I bringing up the rear. We made it back to our original camp 1 location at the notch, and then began to tackle the steep section just below the notch (that Bill had some trouble with on the ascent two days prior).

We moved slowly, ensuring that we had good footing before placing weight down. But at one point Bill lost his footing and went down pretty hard. He seemed to recover relatively quickly and attempted to get up, but his knees gave out under the weight of his pack and body and he went down again. Chris sprang into action, getting his pack off of him and getting him to his feet. He seemed ok once the pack was off. So, Chris put Bill’s pack on his front (still with his own pack on his back) and more or less ran about a quarter mile to a rest point, where we had stopped two days before, prior to attacking the notch. Once there, we all took a break.

I sadly discovered I was out of water (a result of my giving half of my stock to my partner before we departed high camp), but this was the least of the issues. The primary concern was Bill. It was now 3:30pm, and we had a number of hours left to go even at a good pace. We needed to be off the mountain before dark, and we had to ensure that Bill didn’t get seriously injured in the process. So, Chris strapped Bill’s 40 pound pack to the top of his probably 50 pound pack, allowing Bill to move mostly unencumbered by weight. My partner and I took a few of Bill’s things and strapped them to the outside of our bags. Soon enough, we were off.

At this point we were moving quickly, and it wasn’t terribly long before I began to break down (physically) from some combination of the heat (the sun was back on us now), lack of ample water (my partner was sharing with me thankfully), toe pain (toes were hitting the front of the boot’s toe box) and shoulder pain (from the pack). Within an hour of our departure from the rest area I was moving much slower than before and generally just felt miserable….and wanted nothing more than to be off the mountain. For me (and others, evidently) this is usually one of the toughest parts, the last section of the hike/climb out. We had been on our feet for nearly 15 hours already, running on limited sleep and limited food/water.

Ultimately, we made it through the dead fall section and the nicer part of the trail and came into view of the parking lot at the trail head at about 6pm. Once at the car, I collapsed into the front seat. We just quickly stowed gear and got back on the road for the 90 minute drive back to the ranger station, where we got everyones gear sorted out, said our goodbyes and thank you’s, and went on our respective ways.

We didn’t make the summit of Mt. Shuksan, but I wouldn’t call the trip a failure. Not only did we make it off the mountain alive (which is always a win), but my partner and I got exposed to a much truer glacial mountaineering environment (as compared to our previous climbs), and dealt with the more routine pitfalls of glacial mountaineering: bad weather / bad visibility, crevasses, steep snow/ice, route finding, complex scheduling, etc. We had a blast, were treated to beautiful views, and spent some quality time doing something very exciting. Ultimately I think that I would have had the energy to go for the summit, had the timing and weather been more cooperative. Chris made the conservative call on deciding to descend when we did, and given our relative inexperience and Bill’s pace later in the day, this was absolutely without a doubt the right call.

As for the gear, two things come out of this. First, I will be getting new boots; likely the same ones but in a larger size. The toe issues are more than likely a result of the boots being a tad small, and now is a good time to remedy that. My pack, well, I like the Cilo gear pack I have a lot. But it’s shoulder straps and hip belt just aren’t beefy enough for me. My shoulders were pretty destroyed at the end of this trip, including a skin injury that is now, a week later, starting to heal. Thus I’ll be shopping for a new pack before my next climb. More to come on the pack and boot saga.

Bill was a nice guy, and I think I can say that we enjoyed being around him for the most part. At 69 years old, even just making it to high camp was a pretty incredible accomplishment, and I can only hope that when I am his age I am as capable.

Just a few more photos….

from Camp 1 at the notch, looking back towards the trail head just before heading out for high camp

from Camp 1 at the notch, looking back towards the trail head just before heading out for high camp

half way to high camp, steep drop off towards the notch

half way to high camp, steep drop off towards the notch

from high camp, looking back at the notch. For a sense of scale, you can see two people on the snow/ice, nearly dead center in the image. The look like two little spots in the snow.

from high camp, looking back at the notch. For a sense of scale, you can see two people on the snow/ice, nearly dead center in the image. The look like two little spots in the snow.

And now, to figure out what to climb next year…..

Summiting Mt. Washington (NH) @ 6,288 feet

Reaching the summit of anything has a certain sense of fulfillment. Doing so after hours/days of hard grueling effort is even more satisfying. But having to pass through a parking lot and throngs of tourists before reaching the “true” summit takes a little away from the experience. Or maybe it was just that we really wanted to catch a ride from someone to get back down the mountain!

I arrived in Boston later than expected on Friday thanks to a delayed United flight. That two and a half hours lost was unfortunate but not a deal breaker, and ultimately probably worked out just fine if not for the better. Once at the airport, my partner picked me up and we began the drive north to New Hampshire. It was an uneventful drive- ultimately 95 North looks the same pretty much anywhere north of North Carolina. That provides a nice sense of familiarity but it makes for a relatively boring drive. But it didn’t take long until we ended up on the backroads of New Hampshire, ultimately reaching the town of Conway  , which is the last civilization before getting out to the mountains. It’s a very nice picturesque little town that I’d actually like to return to and visit.

But we didn’t stay long, and passing through was short. We finally reached our destination, the Pinkham Notch visitor center, around 5pm. This is a really nice spot- a fully stocked and well established visitor center and ranger station, with food and supplies and lots of great information about the mountain and the different paths up. We grabbed our reservation for the “camp” site at Hermit Lake, then got our gear set and set off around 5:30 or so.

It was an unwelcome surprise to find the trail starts out rocky almost immediately, it brought back less fortunate memories of the rocks up and down on Katahdin from last year. But it’s the same mountain range (Appalachian) and New Hampshire is the Granite State, so I guess the supreme rockiness shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. None the less, after a day of flying and then a long drive, it wasn’t exactly a pleasant hike in.

Our plan was to make the initial 2.8 mile hike to the camp site, which is situated more or less right at the base of the mountain and the congruence of the two main paths up (Tuckerman Ravine and Lion’s Head). It was at this point, on this initial hike in, that a reoccurring theme began: poor signage. There was a near total lack of either signs or trail markers to indicate that you were on the right trail, or even trail. There were no signs with distance markers (which is a huge help when trying to compute pace and timing. This was key, since given the late hour we were somewhat racing against the sunset). Our exhaustion from the travel just to get up there (to NH) exacerbated the feelings, but still, I expected signs and markers at least akin to what we saw on Katahdin last year. Sadly, no.

We ended up making a little less than really good time, a bit over 2 hours to make the ranger station at Hermit Lake.

Ranger Station

Ranger Station- looking south (the summit is behind me to the right in this photo)

Once at the camping area, first step was to check in at the Ranger Station. The nice Ranger there gave us a quick overview of our sleeping options: ranging from a cabin to leanto to tent stand. We elected for the leanto. She (the ranger) also explained the bear situation to us. If I remember correctly, “we haven’t seen any bears or had any issues, yet.” Thanks, super reassuring! She also quickly quashed our route plans. Up until this point, we planned to take the Tuckerman path up, and then likely down as well. Once we told her this, she explained that some ice was still melting on Tuckerman and that it had been closed a lot over the last few weeks, and that it might be closed tomorrow. She said that we could take our chances, but that it was our call. Eh, we’ll discuss this in a little bit. First step, find the leanto.

We wandered our way around a bit and found our domicile for the evening, about as crude as one may expect. We got our gear set down, but decided to get our water filled. Luckily there was a potable well nearby, so we hoofed it over to fill up. We passed a beautiful lake on our way over.

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well

On our way back to the leanto, we take a second to look up and discuss our plan for the morning. If Tuckerman was closed (or even may be closed), our best option was the Lions Head. This seems to be known as the harder of the summer routes up, and was even recommended to us as our best option as a warm up to Shuksan in August. So Lion’s Head it would be. This was our view of the Lion’s Head and our planned ascent in the morning.

Lion's Head; the true summit is more or less above and behind this formation

Lion’s Head; the true summit is more or less above and behind this formation

Back to the leanto, we were quickly losing sunlight. It was a good time to get dinner going. My climbing partner (far more experienced in the skills of camping than I am) handles the food (thankfully!). This time we had a asian noodle/spice/beef concoction, which was actually quite ingenious. All the ingredients were divided up into two big ziplock bags. We then boiled water on a camp stove, and then poured the water and the contents of the bag into respective bowls. We then let it “cook” for a few minutes in the bowl. And then, voila! Excellent camp fare.

Dinner!

Dinner!

We pretty much lost sunlight as we finished dinner (and were heating with headlamps on towards the end), so once done we got our sleeping arrangements set. Since we had the lean to, we were covered in case of rain and raised off the ground (so a tad cleaner and easier). Thus we just setup sleeping pads and bags adjacent in the leanto. Easy. Got into our respective bags, talked for a bit…and then, sleep? No. Bugs. Flying bugs of all types attacking us and buzzing around us in our bags. It was more annoying than anything else; at least twice I had fallen asleep only to be awoken by the sound of kamikaze buzzing sounds past my ears. After an hour or so of this, we both awoke and decided to setup the tent, inside the leanto. Once in the tent, we were able to actually sleep minus the threat of bugs. Awesome. Sleep came relatively fast.

Last year on Katahdin we got up for an alpine (or so) start at about 4:30am. This time around we felt a bit more confident in our abilities, so we got some extra sleep…going till about 6. So with a few extra hours of sleep, we set off around 6:30 towards Lion’s Head.

It was nearly immediately obvious why Lion’s Head was both harder and a better warm up for Shuksan- it’s a much steeper path. In fact, we were on our hands and knees probably 50% of the way up, contorting through small passes and up and over large boulders. The steepest sections were actually below the tree line, so while with peeks through the trees you certainly got a look at your altitude, there wasn’t much visual exposure along the path. This probably made it easier.

Just getting above the tree line on Lion's Head

Just getting above the tree line on Lion’s Head

Crux of Lion's Head

Crux of Lion’s Head

You get above tree line about three quarters of the way up Lion’s Head. The above photo was our first look at the crux, which is a rocky “summit” that takes a tad bit of skill to get over and has a fair amount of exposure. This point is roughly 5,000 feet, only 1200 feet or so to go till the summit. This is looking west/northwest, and the summit is essentially behind and to the right of this point.

The crux is, well, the crux, so it’s arguably the hardest point on the path up. We had long ditched (stowed) our trekking poles by this point in favor of hands on the rock. For this particular section, it was pretty key to ensure solid footing and good balance.

Looking up through the crux of Lion's Head

Looking up through the crux of Lion’s Head

Looking to the side on the crux. The section we were on wasn't as steep as the photo implies, but it shows a very similar level of exposure

Looking to the side on the crux. The section we were on wasn’t as steep as the photo implies, but it shows a very similar level of exposure

Luckily this section is short. We took a few minutes to look and plan the best route up and through it, but actually getting on and past it took maybe 10 minutes (and at least three minutes of that was waiting since it was one person at a time). Once above it, we were treated with level ground (for a moment) and some stellar views.

Looking down from the top of Lion's Head

Looking down from the top of Lion’s Head

Looking South from the top of Lion's Head

Looking South from the top of Lion’s Head

As mentioned before, the lack of sings was confusing and often aggravating. But there were only a few spots on the Lion’s Head proper where we had an issue, where it wasn’t entirely obvious where the path was. Luckily when the option is either “take your pack off and use hands to get over and around this boulder” to the left or “we need a rope for this one” on the right, we were confident picking the left. But once on the top of Lion’s head, the scenery changes. Here, you’re presented a relatively even trail to take, essentially walking along a slight ridge on Lion’s Head. There are enough cairns to get a sense of direction at first.

Follow the Ridge

Follow the Ridge

We knew from our research and discussions that eventually we would have to rejoin the Tuckerman trail- Lion’s Head doesn’t go all the way to the summit. The question we faced was when the trails would rejoin. Literally, no signs. Nothing. We didn’t have a map, and this was absolutely our fault (and pathetic that we both forgot to get one). So, with no signs and no map, we had to take some guesses. Nothing was going to lead us to danger, it was just one one path was going to be shorter (and more direct to Tuckerman and the summit) than the other. Unfortunately for us, as we later learned, we took the longer path. We broke from the Lion’s Head and rejoined Tuckerman earlier than we should have, and basically gave ourselves an extra hour or so of climbing. Even worse, we probably lost a few hundred feet (up around 5,200ft or so)  in the mistake. Oh well!

We strolled along the ridge for a while before hitting Tuckerman. From here, at least the sings got both better and more consistent. And as is often the case, it was the last 800 feet or so that was the worst part of the ascent. Up until this point (especially below the tree line) we often had shade from the sun and a nice breeze to keep us cool. It definitely wasn’t a hot day by any means, but at that level of physical exertion you still get very hot very fast. But once we hit this last portion of the path to the summit, things changed fast. First, the breeze stopped, and any pretense of fluffy clouds to periodically block the sun had disappeared. We were tired, and the sun beating down on us didn’t make it any better. Plus, it was nothing more than climbing up a giant talus field, with rocks that were just barely too small to use your hands. So it was trekking poles to help with balance. It wasn’t particularly hard from a skills perspective (not at all really), just more annoying than anything else.

But this was the final section before the top of the mountain. There is actually a weather station at the top, and we could see the giant antenna and instrument mast from time to time. At a certain point, we could hear and even see cars. We knew we were close. Finally, we rose above the final ridge and we were there (around 11:30am). A parking lot. With cars, and people waddling around. The summit of Mt. Washington has a giant visitors center with a cafeteria and gift shops and train and weather station…basically a giant tourist trap. For $40 per person (!!!!) you can drive up a road on the side of the mountain. It takes 45 minutes of driving to get to the top. So of course we (and other climbers) are stumbling, dirty and smelly and hungry, right next to the folks in loafers and polos getting out of their cars. A group even remarked to us how impressed they were that we “climbed all the way up there.” Given their slow pace, I wasn’t sure they were going to make it out of the parking lot.

There were literally hundreds of people around, making hard to sit and relax.

Antenna at the summit

Antenna at the summit

We eventually found a nice area to sit and relax for a few minutes and chomp down on a great lunch: summer sausage and cheese, triscuts, gummy bears, and water.

Our place to eat and enjoy the view at the summit

Our place to eat and enjoy the view at the summit

The true summit (sign and all) was atop a small stone rise in the middle. Sadly there was a line 50 people deep to get a picture at the sign (note, none of the people were climbers or hikers, just tourists). Given our schedule we didn’t elect to wait in line. But you can see the summit sign in this photo:

Summit!!

Summit!!

windy!

windy!

Reveling in our success and good time to the summit, we topped off our water and ate some more food. After a quick look around we donned our packs and began the dreaded descent. Given the talus fields coming up, we knew that going down them would be painful. In my experience thus far, going down is faster but more painful. Having the knowledge that the car (and a shower) are at the end provide a steady stream of motivation, but the descent is hell on my toes/feet/knees. Through the talus field we actually made good time. But we quickly hit a decision point.

We had the option to descend down Lion’s Head. The advantage would be that we already came up that route, so nothing would be a surprise to us. The downside was that it was really steep coming up, and going down it seemed somewhat daunting. So, based on our own (faulty) logic and the (bad) advice from a fellow climber, we decided to take Tuckerman all the way down. We hadn’t seen the route on the way up, so we didn’t really know what to expect.

We cut back onto the path for a while, a section that we had already been on (once the Lion’s Head connected with it on the ascent). Soon, though, we past a juncture that was obviously new territory. First problem, the crowds. A lot of people were coming up, a bunch coming down. We couldn’t go more than a few minutes without having to stop and step over, or wait for someone else to get out of our way. It was all cordial and nice, but it slowed us down. The constant flow of people continued for a while, until a point (probably a few thousand feet down) where the crowds thinned a bit. This coincided with where Tuckerman get’s hard, the headwall.

The headwall on Tuckerman would have been hard coming up, but it was significantly harder coming down. We had lost a lot of altitude already, so it wasn’t an issue of exposure. Instead it was just really steep rock that you’re trying to go down carefully. A misstep would easily land you a broken bone if not worse. We ran into a few folks here and there around this section, and one or two groups leapfrogged us. Perhaps the biggest issue was the water: much of this section was wet, and there were waterways coming down the mountain that ran over and around this whole section of the trail.

Why the headwall was wet

Why the headwall was wet

Looking back up at the headwall

Looking back up at the headwall

Once past the steep section of the headwall it was more rocks to down climb, mostly just killer on the knees and toes and such. This section seemed like it went forever before we finally returned to Hermit Lake. We wandered our way back to our leanto. We actually left some gear here (mostly just the food and sleeping backs and tent), hence why we had to stop. It gave us a chance to fill up on water at the pump and chow down on some more snacks. Not wanting to waste too much time, we packed everything back up (and carved some initials on the wood frame of the leanto), and went on our way.

From this point on we were hiking out the same rocky trail we hiked in on. Of course, at this point we were tired (and really tired of rocky down climbing). It really seemed to never end. We tried to keep up conversation to keep our minds off the pain in our legs and feet, but that quickly faded as we just stared at the ground and tried to make consistent forward progress (which we did). The lack of signage was still super frustrating in this section, as we had little idea how much further we had to go.

The sound of running water at one point clued us into one landmark we knew from the way up: a giant waterfall that we just passed by.

Waterfall

Waterfall

Once we passed the waterfall we knew we had little more to go. Finally, the sight of people in the distance walking around in flip flops clued us in to the fact that we were near the Pinkham Notch parking lot.

At last we were there. We limped our way to the car and quickly removed our packs and got our boots off. Jumped into the car, turned on the AC and the radio, and made our way out. We were back at the car at 4:50pm- our goal was 5, so at least there’s that.

This was an all around success. First off, we made the summit in good time. Second, my new sleeping bag proved to work out very well (smaller, warm, and easier and better compressed for packing). Third, I personally felt that my physical performance on this one was better than our warm up last year on Katahdin (I just felt like I needed fewer breaks and was less miserable). And fourth, my new trekking poles were absolutely stellar. We had no problems (minus route finding issues) and beautiful weather. We literally couldn’t have asked for much more.

We returned to Boston and cleaned up, and quickly found ourselves at a local bar drinking good drinks and eating awesome fried food. The trip had two practical purposes, both of which I think were fulfilled. First off, as a warm up for Shuksan next month. We carried heavy packs all the way to the summit and back (unnecessarily, it was just for the practice) and reminded our bodies what the physical demands and pain will be like. Second, as a testing ground for our new gear, which was all good. It was an awesome climb.

Our track, ascending Lion's Head and descending Tuckerman

Our track, ascending Lion’s Head and descending Tuckerman

topo map of the area, makes our route above easier to understand

topo map of the area, makes our route above easier to understand

Panorama from Hermit Lake

Panorama from Hermit Lake

Panorama as we came down Tuckerman

Panorama as we came down Tuckerman

19 days and 54 days, Washington and Shuksan

19 days till my partner and I make the trip up to New Hampshire to climb the highest peak on the east coast of the United States: Mount Washington. We’ve made some preliminary plans regarding the approach and the routes. We have a primary campground in mind- one that puts us sleeping in pretty close proximity to the trail we intend on hitting. This trail will be one of the more challenging (and also less crowded) on the mountain. But we could get rained out. Wet rocks makes the level of exposure we’ll have that much worse, so if it happens to be raining or have rained in the day or two before, we’ll switch up our route.

images

Also, we can’t reserve a space at the campground (as we did last year on Katahdin), so if we get there and are out of luck, we have a backup site planned as well.

As  a “practice” climb this will be a nice warm up. As part of the practice part, we’re going to carry our full packs, weighted, on the ascent and descent. Of course, this isn’t necessary for a variety of reasons (both because of the logistics of the mountain and the fact that we don’t need that much gear). But, since this is a warm up for a much more serious climb later on, the full pack will be a good compliment.

Once we tackle this endeavor and return home, we’ll have barely over a month before heading out to Washington State for the main attraction, our climb of Mt. Shuksan in August.

Now we’re not going to be skiing on Shuksan, but this is still quite entertaining and a nice look at the mountain, here.

Training, news, and updates

The August climb on Mt. Shuksan is edging closer. Much like Mt. Adams climb, it seems incredibly far away until the day you realize it’s mere weeks until your departure. To that end, we’ve been discussing a potential practice climb prior to Shuksan, much like last year my partner and I climbed Mt. Katahdin before departing for Portland and Mt. Adams. Right now we’re strongly considering Mt. Washington, which is  the highest point on the east coast at 6,288 feet. This would be no less serious (and actually probably more so) than Katahdin was for Mt. Adams last year. Mt. Washington is taller and has some incredibly variable (read: bad) weather, and last I checked has the record for highest clocked wind speed on earth (231mph, more on this record here). This would be an interesting and exciting climb. More on this as we get it scheduled.

Mt. Washington

Mt. Washington

 

In other news, a Polish team just completed the first winter summit of Broad Peak in the Himalaya. Broad Peak is 26,414 feet high and stands as the 12th highest peak on Earth. One important point to keep in mind is that the Everest climbing season is in the Spring- there’s a reason for this. At that altitude in the Himalaya, even in the Spring, exposure and hypothermia can kill, and frostbite is extremely common. Thus winter ascents of these massive Himalayan peaks is fraught with additional danger. More on the Polish team’s superb accomplishment here.

I ran across an interesting article about why climbers aren’t famous, and the general place that climbing takes in American culture. I haven’t been doing this nearly long enough to have a real feeling for the accuracy of the author’s conclusions (though I can identify with some of his points), but it’s an interesting read nonetheless. You can find the article here.

Finally, I often mention or plug Alan Arnette’s climbing site, particularly his Everest coverage. As we slowly enter the climbing season on Everest, he is doing interviews with climbers. Not the famous ones, or the rich ones, or the big media stories. Instead he’s focusing on the climbers that have dedicated years (and sometimes decades) to training for this one climb. The climbers who have saved and taken a second mortgage to raise the needed funds. The ones who will get one chance to do this. You can see a number of these interviews here, and of course while you’re there I highly recommend the rest of Alan’s 2013 Everest coverage.

The Night Sky from Altitude

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This photo was taken from somewhere in the Himalaya (not sure where), showing the expansive night sky and the incredible view of the Milky Way galaxy (seeing the “sombrero” shape from the side). It’s really a striking photo. Sadly so few of us get a view like this not only because we’re not at a higher altitude (where the atmosphere is thinner) but because of light pollution from man-made sources.

At high camp on Mt. Adams, at about 9,000 feet, the view was (though not as striking) very similar. For me it was the first time I’d really seen the sky in that manner. It was not too long after midnight that I crawled out of the tent to go the bathroom. To minimize the initial complications (and the risk of waking the others) of getting out of the tent I elected not use my headlamp. This seemed brilliant at first, but as I stepped a few feet away from the campsite I realized that I needed to be pretty careful not to walk off the side of the mountain (and fall) or off the small rocky area we were camped in and onto the glacier (as I wasn’t wearing my crampons…so I’d fall and slide down the mountain). As I was done with my business, I remember looking up and seeing that view, and just being frozen, staring at it. After a minute of staring straight up I got a bit dizzy (that’s the altitude)…and retired to my tent. But the view was fantastic.

On Mt. Shuksan this coming August, we won’t have the same altitude at high camp, but the location overall is far more remote, so with less light pollution as we had on Adams, I expect a similar if not better view. This time I’ll be prepared with my camera.

What to climb next?

It’s not that I didn’t know (or at least suspect) this going in, but altitude and climbing is like a drug. The solace one finds climbing, and even more so at altitude, is addicting. The stresses and facts of daily life drift away fast, and to some extent even the risk of what you’re doing does as well. It’s replaced by determination and concentration. If you’re rest-stepping up a glacier, you’re just focused on the rhythm. If you’re in a roped team rest-stepping up a 40 degree pitch of snow/ice, you’re doing nothing other than looking for the next solid foothold to place your crampon. If you’re 30 feet up on a route, you’re just looking for the next foot/hand hold.

I started at Old Rag in Virginia, at 3,284 feet. This isn’t a particularly hard or challenging climb (or hike, really). But as it was my first real outdoors activity, and first attempt at much of anything above sea level, for me it was a big deal. It was my first summit. It wasn’t long after that I tackled Table Mountain in South Africa, at 3,558 feet. Though barely 300 feet higher than Old Rag, it was significantly harder given the shorter and steeper route up, plus the warm weather. The view from the summit of Old Rag was pretty amazing, but the view from the summit of Table Mountain was exhilarating. Mt. Katahdin and Baxter State Park in Maine was a few months later. At 5,270 feet, it was a big jump from my previous two climbs. But Katahdin was a much more realistic taste of mountaineering (while it was definitely a “climb” I would hesitate to call it “mountaineering”). The risk factor and exposure factor went way up, and the time to complete it (and logistical process) did as well. The view from the summit would have been spectacular had it not been shrouded in clouds.

Mt. Adams, at 12,281 feet, was an almost or near success. At 11,400 feet, the false summit was as far as I made it due to a frustrating (to say the least) muscle strain in my leg. But the level of effort wasn’t more than I could handle, nor was the altitude (though the symptoms of altitude sickness are certainly not pleasant).

So…with that, where do I go now? The path to this point has been a gradual increase in altitude (plus one big jump). That trend doesn’t necessarily have to continue, there are plenty of sub-12,000 foot peaks in the US that are beautiful and challenging (far, far more so than Adams was). It doesn’t take a lot of climbing to learn that altitude is not the sole factor in determining how hard an attempt at the summit will be. It’s certainly a big part of the equation, but there is a lot more to it.

On my next climb, I’d like to continue with something alpine (i.e snow and ice)- glacier work is a serious rush. I’d like to be around the 12,000 foot marker, but not necessarily above it. I’ve done a bit of reading and research, and here are some (but not all) of the candidates:

(1) Eldorado Peak: also in Washington State (like Mt. Adams), this peak is more remote and a bit harder to get to. It’s 8,868 feet, and it’s East Ridge is a challenging yet beautiful climb in a what looks like a spectacular alpine environment. Unlike Mt. Adams, Eldorado is not a free-standing mountain (it’s in a range) and it’s not a volcano. The final few hundred feet are going up a razor-thing edge, with thousands foot drops and each side.

Eldorado Peak

(2) Longs Peak: in Colorado, it’s one of the many mountains in the state above 14,000 feat. At 14,259, it’s a pretty big jump over Mt. Adams. As a summer climb, it’s not alpine though (minus one point). A number of professional climbers use Longs Peak as a “warm-up” climb for bigger peaks around the world.

Long’s Peak

(3) Mt. Whitney: at 14,505, it’s California’s highest point and the highest point in the lower 48 states. Well known and popular, it gets a lot of attention and a lot of people. It’s something like a 22 mile approach (minus one point), but with some serious altitude gain. It might not be as alpine as I’d like (during summer), but I need to look into it more.

A winter view of the Whitney-area

(4) Grand Tetons: The Grand Teton itself is 13,775 feet, but there are many lesser and smaller mountains in the Grand Teton range in Wyoming. This might be at a skill level one step above me…though a year or so between now and the climb might be enough time to get up to the level I’d need to be at. More research is required, but right now this one is leading the pack.

Grand Tetons National Park

These are four mountains out of many, many out there to climb. The challenge is finding one with the right combination of altitude, easy enough to get to, guides available to help lead you up safely, and a variety of other factors to consider. Others will need to be looked at over the coming weeks.

But ultimately I work better when I have a goal- so I’m hoping to set the next climb in the next month or two so that I can begin training for the next target.

Mountaineering on Mt. Adams

Mt. Adams from the trail, @ about 6,500 feet

Long planned and long awaited, my partner and I made our attempt on Mt. Adams (12,233 feet) in southern Washington State last weekend. It was, as I had expected it to be, the hardest physical and mental challenge I’ve faced.

Traveling to Portland should have been the easiest part of this trip, but sadly that wasn’t to be. The first leg of my flight out as delayed for over an hour to due a “problem” with a group of passengers, which made me nearly miss my connecting flight.

But I finally reached Portland and relaxed at the airport waiting for my partner to arrive. Once he did, we made our way to the Holiday Inn…conveniently located 10 minutes from the airport (not so conveniently in the industrial zone, affording us a view of a paper factory and a dilapidated conference center). Once we got checked in and settled, we had to make a last second run to REI downtown to pick up some last second items. Post shopping we stopped for dinner at the Brix Tavern in the Portland arts district. It was a great little place with good drinks and good food, I’d highly recommend. Done with the tavern, we returned to the room and got to sleep early in preparation for our early start the next day.

We got up the next day and grabbed our packs and started making our way north towards the border with Washington. On our way, we were treated to the beautiful scenery of the Hood River Gorge for the bulk of the trip. We wanted to grab something to eat before the start of the climb, so we pulled into the first “city” we came across, which was Hood River. A freeway sign pointed us towards a Starbucks in this town, so we pulled onto the main street. Not knowing where to go, we went one way only to find a dead-end. But as we were making a U-turn, we spied a bagel shop. Success! An even better solution for breakfast than anything that Starbucks would have offered. Fresh bagels and a freshly made bagel sandwich was the perfect start to the day.

Once out of Hood River we crossed a bridge and entered Washington State, now heading out towards the Mt. Adams ranger station which is the town of Trout River. After another hour or so of driving we made it to the ranger station and met our guide from Northwest Mountain School, Chris. Our original guide, Andres, was replaced at the last minute (literally the day before) by Chris. But this worked out in our favor, because we couldn’t have been happier with the experience.

We did a final gear check, which basically meant emptying our carefully packed bags onto the grass so that Chris could inspect our gear. Unexpectedly, Chris had the same Cilo Gear pack that I did. This was beneficial because he knew some of the secrets of the bag that I didn’t know or hadn’t yet figured out. So he was able to walk me through some of the finer points of the pack.

We then headed into the ranger station proper to get our climbing pass and pay our park entrance fees. Once done, we all hopped into the car and slowly made our way out and up to the trail head.

The trailhead on adams is relatively high at 5,600 feet (note that until this point, my highest climb was Mt. Katahdin in Maine, which was 5,400 feet). But as we’re coming up from Trout Lake, which is at/near sea level, it’s a fair distance to drive…so it took us probably 20 or 30 minutes to get there. Not helping were the unpaved narrow roads that our rental car wasn’t exactly designed for.

We finally made the trailhead around 9:30am. We ran into two gentlemen that we have come to call Gil and Ben. Ben is an older gentlemen (late 50’s perhaps) who was very friendly, and was climbing Adams for the second time (first attempt was in the 80’s). Gil, his climbing partner was…well, an odd duck. To start, his gait was very awkward. It’s very hard to describe. But in addition to the gait, he was also consistently grabbing his crotch. And not for a quick itch or readjustment, but just to hold it, it seemed. This was superbly creepy and odd. Gil was on a mission to climb the highest points in all “Western US” counties.” We’d learn more about this as the day went on. Luckily they left the trailhead before us. Once they were gone, Chris instructed us on the best ways to pick up and put on our packs. This might sound somewhat inconsequential, but once you get to altitude, the effort exerted to put on a 40 pound pack is critical to your overall performance and well-being.

With that short instruction done, we hit the trailhead.

Unexpectedly, it was hot. Not warm, but super hot (as in, 100 degrees). This really impacted our ability to move quickly and efficiently, as I needed to stop roughly every 45 minutes to an hour to cool down and catch my breath. Plus, as we were gaining altitude, Chris made sure we were eating and drinking at each stop as well. It seemed overbearing at first, but it became clear later on why he was being like that. This heat wave was one of the worst that the Pacific Northwest had seen in quite a long time (I later learned). Our timing for the climb wasn’t exactly ideal!

For the first 2,000 feet or so, the climb was mostly a hike up somewhat wooded and very rocky terrain. Mt. Adams is a glacier-clad volcano, but the lower reaches of the mountain are incredibly rocky and dusty (except when all covered in the snow during the winter). Shade was spotty at best, so that didn’t help with the heat. But once we passed that first 2,000 feet (now at around 7,600 feet), we hit the first patches of snow.

Without snow the side of a volcano is rocky and dusty. Looking out in distance you can almost see Mt. Hood.

Now, my experience with traveling in snow is relatively minimal. But if I had to walk across a level snow field in snow boots, then fine, that’s easy. But now, we’re talking about snow fields at an angle (at this point, roughly 20-25 degrees), with a 40 pound pack on, in warm temperatures. On the first patch of snow, Chris instructed my partner and I on self-arrest techniques using an ice-axe. The idea here is that if you fall/slip and begin sliding down the snow/ice/mountain, you can use the ice-axe in certain ways to try and arrest your fall. There are specific ways to hold the ice ax so that if needed, you can quickly deploy it (without stabbing yourself). This is where we learned how to do it. Chris demonstrated to us, and then my partner and I got down onto the snow practiced holding the axe, flipping over, deploying it, breaking, etc. It was at about this point that I began to think about sliding down the ice at 10,000 feet…but I didn’t yet know what to expect, and the reality is far, far worse than the fear.

At the first major snow pitch for ice axe training. The glissade chute can be seen sloping down to the right from the top of the pitch. The path moves from the left to the right.

Once we were good to go on the ice-axes, we made our way up this steep snow grade using the ice-axe as a balance point (the angle was such that the ice-axe, only being two feet or so tall, would hit the snow when hanging from my hand). This was the first point of the climb we had hit snow and a serious angle and the use of the axe. Plenty more of that was to come.

After this first snow field we had some more rocky terrain to traverse and a small river to ford. Finally, around 7,800 feet, we hit the snow and ice that would be with us for most of the rest of the ascent.

Now we had giant snow fields that seemed to go on forever on what looked like steep angles. At this point it was early afternoon, and our goal (all along, but now more proximate) was to reach out a point where we could setup high camp. Around 9,000 feet  on Mt. Adams there are dozens of these rock wall half-circles built up that make for excellent camp areas. The rock walls are key because once you hit 8,000 feet or so, the winds start to pick up, and the rocks will help buffer your camp. Moving on the snow field was hard work. It was late enough in the day that the snow was slushy, so we didn’t ned crampons yet. Still, we had the heavy packs. It was here that Chris taught us the “rest step” technique.

Rest step” is a way to move up snow/ice that allows for steady movement and progress while limiting energy exertion and maximizing breathing. It’s not hard or complicated, in fact it’s very simple, but it’s incredibly important. Basically, as you go up the snow bank, you take a step, rest a second, then another step. Your weight is placed on the rear leg. You want to get into a rhythm that just goes on and on. Every 10 steps or so, you take a deep breath and quickly exhale. This method does create for somewhat slower movement, but it is designed to keep a steady pace, which is key.

So we started rest stepping up the snow field towards perspective camp sites. This was tough going, and the altitude was starting to get to us. There was definite nausea, headaches, and general body aches with every step we took up the mountain. At 7,600 feet it was apparent, but soon it would get worse.

Finally, around 8,600 feet, our guide chose a particular rocky outcrop and rock wall for us to call home for the evening. We came horizontal across the snow and made it onto the rocks, quickly dropping our packs (which was a huge relief every time we got to do it). We worked with Chris to get our tent setup and secured, and he began putting dinner together.

After about 10 minutes in camp, I started to feel really nauseas and my head was hurting pretty bad, plus I was quite dizzy. The altitude was definitely getting to me. I popped some ibuprofen (mostly to help with the pain in my shoulders caused from the pack) and laid down in the tent. I probably stayed there for about an hour trying to get better, but it just wasn’t happening. Dinner was ready around 6 or so, and I came out of the tent to try and eat. One of the effects of altitude sickness is that your digestive systems tends to slow down (more so for some than others). I just wasn’t hungry at all. I had barely eaten anything over the course of the day, and now at dinner the last thing I wanted to do was eat. But, you have to eat. Otherwise you won’t have the energy to get up the mountain. So, I very slowly ate the food in my bowel. And after about 30 minutes, I was feeling much better.

A side note about the food: the dinner was amazing. Chris cooked up some pasta, and then added broccoli, chicken, walnuts, cheese, and pesto. Even off the mountain it would have been good food, but it was a wonderful surprise to have that kind of meal at camp. It was so good that I had seconds.

It wasn’t much later that we watched a bright red sun drop down the horizon- sunset at 8,600 feet is quite a sight.

Sunset at 8,600 feet. The flat-ish topped mountain to the left of the setting sun is Mt. St. Helens

Considering our planned 3am start, we were in our sleeping bags pretty early (8pm). But that cup of hot tea before bed did me in, and around 10pm I woke up and had to excuse myself from the tent. Given the speed at which I wanted all of the above to occur, I neglected to put on an extra layer to leave the tent (not an issue, it wasn’t that cold), nor did I use my headlamp. For a nearly moonless night (it was a new moon) it seemed just a bit light outside. Enough so that I didn’t need my headlamp to at least see the rocks from the snow. So while this seemed to work just fine, I will say that there is little more terrifying than being alone, shoe-less, and without a light, 8,600 feet up on a glacier. I knew that the “edge” was a few dozen feet from where I stood, but it was hard to shake the feeling that I was about to just step off the edge of the mountain.

It took me a minute or two to look up and see the sky. It’s hard to explain what the scene looked like. First off, if you’ve seen the starry sky on a dark night sans light pollution, you know the sheer number of stars visible. But add in the complete absence of artificial light and no moon light, and the sky gets a whole lot more crowded with a view of the Milky Way itself. It looks a bit like the below picture, with the “band” of the Milky Way across the sky:

Milky Way

Our guide rustled us awake around 3am or so. We got our gaiters and crampons on and hit the snow/ice around 4am.  It was rest-step  up the remainder of the snow field to around 9,100 feet where things got a bit steep.

My climbing partner may disagree but it was here that I found the scariest point of the whole climb. The pitch was probably about 30 degrees of mostly ice, and it was still dark.  This was our first real pitch with the crampons, and both of us had obvious and serious doubts that we wouldn’t fall right down the glacier. It seemed that the teeth of the crampons weren’t biting all that far into the ice, which in turn made it seem like we were in a severely precarious position.

Our guide assured us we weren’t, and he actually down-climbed and helped us both past this point. It was a few minutes of terror, but it very much helped make me confident in the crampons so that later, as the pitch increased, I didn’t fret nearly as much. Once you get the techniques down for how to use the crampons on a steep pitch, it makes a bit more sense.

Through this section we spent a few hours before hitting a “flat” section of snow where we could sit down for a well-deserved break. Light had finally began to reclaim the sky, and we simply sat there and marveled at the beauty around us. Of course this didn’t last long, as we were getting cold and it was time to continue. Except now, it was time to rope up…as we were very soon hitting what was arguably the crux of the entire climb.

Just after first light, we’d already been climbing for nearly three hours. At our first break, looking up towards the crux.

For about 2,500 feet, our pitch hit nearly 40 degrees. The sun was now out and shining down on us as we moved very slowly up the glacier. Crampons and the ice axe made it possible (I don’t know how people without them make it up!). It was very steep, and the footing was a bit touch and go. I’d say about 60% of the section had decent to good footing, while the remainder was iffy. Our guide (in the lead) was kind enough to kick us in some steps in the places where the footing was super iffy. With our harnesses on, we were roped up, with the guide in front, me in the rear, and my partner in the middle. If one falls, we all fall. But that’s three chances for self-arrest and safety.

This is about the point where things started to take a turn. Around 10,700 feet (per my watch), I had a cramping in my right leg. I informed the guide when it didn’t go away and steadily got worse. We stopped at one point (though we didn’t try to sit down) and talked through it. The bottom line was that it hurt pretty bad. But we were in a bad location to just stop. If we did, the entire group would have to turn around and head down in what would have likely been a challenging position. The ice/snow was still well frozen, so we couldn’t glissade down. Boot-ski’ing would have been possible but hard. Alternatively, the false summit, at 11,400 feet, wasn’t too far up. And once there, I could hunker down while my partner and the guide made the final summit push if I didn’t think I could continue. Plus, the false summit was a good goal, all things considered. So with that, we decided to continue on to the false summit.

It hurt, but it was doable. We finally made the false summit around 10am (that was 6 hours from 8,600 to 11,400).  Now I faced the big question: do I continue? I was pretty well convinced that I could work through it and make the true summit, only 800 vertical feet from where we stood. The question I had trouble answering was whether my leg would be good enough from there to make it all the way back down to the car at the trail head. I just wasn’t sure. And with that much uncertainty, I didn’t want to take my chances. I stayed at the false summit and let the others make the push.

Nearing the false summit, looking back. At roughly 11,100 feet.

At the false summit, 11,400 feet. You can really get sense of the altitude here. At the very bottom right corner you can see people making their way up the crux. At this point, you can barely see the “bottom” of the mountain (about 3,000 feet past the last little snow in the picture)

Two hours or so later, they came back glorious, basking in the glow of their successful summit attempt. Within a few minutes we were ready to make our way down.

From 11,400 feet we glissaded down to 9,000 feet. What took us nearly 6 hours that morning took only 30 minutes now! Glissading is reason enough to get into alpine climbing: you sit on your butt and use what is a more or less a luge chute and slide down the glacier. The higher the pitch, the faster you slide. You use your ice axe and other techniques to break and stay in control. See this for an example on Mt. Adams:

This got us to 9,000 feet or so, where we then boot-ski’d back down to camp at 8,600. We quickly broke everything down and packed up and shed layers (it was so hot!). Within 45 minutes we were back on the descent. It was a long walk down the mountain, but inevitably we made it down to the car by around 4 or 5pm.

Upon the suggestion of our guide, we made our way over to Double Mountain Brewery back in Hood River, where we had pizza. Each of us scarfed down a 16-inch pizza. This was by far and away the best pizza I’ve ever had. The food was amazing, and we both felt much better after some good food. A short ride back to the hotel followed up with showers and wonderful sleep ended the trip.

A note on altitude sickness: I definitely had it. It wasn’t severe, but it was enough that within the hour or two after pulling into high camp, I was laid out in the tent trying to breathe and not vomit. It was a constant dull headache, constant nausea, and a desire to not even look at food. You basically have to force yourself to eat and nibble on things since your appetite can quickly disappear. Same with water, you just need to force yourself to drink. After dinner, I had recovered pretty well. But the dull headache and a little bit of nausea just continued. At the false summit, the above symptoms just become more pronounced. But now breathing became hard…it literally hurts to take a deep breath. Some described it as breathing with water in your lungs, I’d say every deep breath was like a lit flame in your lungs. Either way, not pleasant. But ultimately, it wasn’t a show-stopper. It’s always worse in camp because you’re sitting still, and thus breathing slower, and thus taking in less oxygen. While moving and exerting, you’re breathing harder, so the symptoms are less pronounced.

On my failure to reach the true summit: yeah, this one pretty much sucks. A mere 800 vertical feet (after climbing more than 6,200 feet) short… it was a tough decision. I kept thinking about the Ed Viesturs quote that “the summit is only half way. You have to still get down.” The mountain will always be there, I’ll have another chance. Ultimately I know it was the right decision, but that asterisk on my list of summit’d peaks will have to be dealt with at some point.

This was an amazing trip and an amazing climb. As our guide warned us, the altitude and the climb is like a drug. Within days of our return to our home cities, we began discussing what mountain is next.

Mt. Hood, from the false summit

Mt. St. Helens, from the false summit

Welcome to Portland

It was a long day of travel, but by mid afternoon we had made it to Portland. The highlight of the arrival was seeing Mt. Adams on approach to the airport. It dominated the distant skyline, and it looked big and covered with snow (as expected, I guess).

We found our way to the rental car and hotel and made a last second stop (x2) at REI for some last minute items and some things that didn’t make it into my bag.

We got around the arts district of Portland a bit before getting back to the hotel for the final packing and packaging of food and such. It’ll be an early day tomorrow to make it out to the  meeting point, where we’ll meet up with our guide. He’ll probably do a final kit checkout before we head to the trailhead and start the trek up the mountain.

The weather is, well, warm. Ridiculously warm. Tomorrow is supposedly going to be near 100 degrees. We’re hoping that as we get out to the mountain it will drop somewhat, and then quickly drop as we gain altitude.

Packed and ready

24-hours out from the flight….bag is packed and tested. Everything fits nicely, the weight is (barely) tolerable, the hydration pack from my Osprey bag should work just fine. The bag has far more girth than the photo let’s on. 48-hours from now, we’ll be driving out towards the mountain and the trail-head for the morning rendezvous with our expedition leader.