Sunday, December 8, 2002

Big Snagtooth

Big Snagtooth, WA
8,330 feet
December 7-8, 2002

Big Snagtooth


At 8330 feet, Big Snagtooth is the 94th highest peak in the State of Washington. It also represents peak number 61 for Pat in his pursuit of climbing the 100 highest in Washington. It would also represent number 6, 6, and 4 for Becky, Kirsten and I respectively should we choose to pursue the 100 highest.

Saturday, December 7, 2002. The approach.

At 5:45 Saturday morning, the horrible sound of my doorbell reverberated throughout my Fremont apartment. I thought all the green stucco and tile on the exterior was going to fall off, which really wouldn't be so bad. Kirsten and Becky waited for me outside as I hurried down the stairs and pushed through the door, nearly making myself a permanent fixture of the doorframe.

Pretty much everything between when the doorbell rang and when I took the first sip of my latte at the 24 hour Starbucks at Northgate is a complete blur. At some point we must have met Pat and switched to his MPV because when I looked up from my coffee he was there and when we walked outside Starbucks, his van was there and our stuff was in it. We continued on up toward Highway 20, stopping first at Darrington for gas, bathrooms, and a Burger Barn breakfast sandwich, which is a fine delicacy that requires 20 minutes of careful preparation. Then we stopped in Marblemount for more gas and reading material for Becky and Kirsten. We were a little stunned to find that there are no magazines in Marblemount. Instead, they had to settle for Star magazine, which looks strikingly similar to a tabloid, but is in fact a wealth of quality journalism and interesting factoids related to celebrities. While pondering the circumstances around the lack of magazines, I sought refuge in a free publication detailing the fascinating histories of the communities in the area.

As we crossed Rainy Pass and then Washington Pass, we were delighted by the breathtaking views of the peaks in the area, and amazed by how dry everything was. We pulled off the side of the road just past milepost 166 and surveyed the territory before us. No trailhead. No trailmarker. No welcome mat. Not even a Giardia warning. Nothing but a landscape of trees and snow. So at approximately 11am we packed up and skidded our way down the bank off the side of the road until we reached Willow Creek. We crossed the creek then followed it up the basin. While in the thick of the trees, the snow cover was thin enough to make the steep slope back up a treachorous surface of frozen, frosty soil. Becky's favorite moment was when she had to perform an aerobic body smear over the top of a slick boulder.

From Big Snagtooth

Once past the steep portion, we stopped for quick break and enjoyed the view of the Liberty Bell Group. The slide alder and fir branches became thick enough in spots to throw you backwards if you gave up any momentum trying to push through. The snow was crusty and a couple feet deep. We postholed and bushwacked our way toward the head of the basin for a couple hours. When there was no vegetation to battle with, this was due to the fact that we were on snow covered talus fields. It was like clockwork, it seemed, that every 10-20 steps someone would plunge thigh deep into the snow, with a foot dangling in the space between two large rocks, followed by an eruption of laughter from the other members of the party. It's a minor miracle that we came away with all 8 of our ankles intact. We stopped briefly for lunch at a small clearing, where we closely inspected Becky's tongue ring. She had a new flesh colored stud on it, which Pat observed looked similar to a pimple. The conversation deteriorated in this manner to the point where we were rolling in the snow laughing.

At around 3:00 we reached a point near the head of the basin and decided to set up camp in a relatively low angled spot below a cliff wall that would be certain avalanche terrain had there been any significant recent snowfall. Pat and I chose a large flat boulder to pitch our tent on, while Becky and Kirsten flattened out a spot in the snow about 30 feet away. Around 4 we began cooking dinner. Kirsten and Becky introduced me to the way of the Tasty Bites, and I must say: I have studied the style, I have meditated on its wisdom, and I have been enlightened! After dinner and a few sips of brandy, we split a cookie 4 ways for dessert. At around 6, the hour was late, and we were tired so we wandered to our tents. Kirsten, Becky and I convened in their tent for a thorough reading of Star, but not before I demolished all of the steps they had made as it appears I weigh more than them. We enjoyed the Star witt and examined our horoscopes, then at about 9:30 we decided that 10 hours of sleep would probably suffice for our summit day and I retired to my own bag. The temperature grew fairly cold, it was 20 degrees when I went to bed, but everyone slept warm and well.

Sunday, December 8, 2002. Summit Day.

We woke around 7:30 and Pat and I each made a nice hot mug of french press coffee, which we graciously offered to Becky and Kirsten, but they chose Cliff Shots with caffeine over the annoying walk over to our tent. We gingerly got ready to go and left camp around 9:30. More difficult postholing ensued. As we approached the ridge to the right of what we believed to be Big Snagtooth, it started to become clear that it was not in fact Big Snagtooth, but actually a peak creatively named "7709." We gained the ridge, then navigated around the summit block of 7709, then dropped down the left side of it to the ridge between it and the true Big Snagtooth. When we hit this second ridge, we were immediately bathed in sunlight, which made us happy, so we knew we were on the right track. After about an hour of traversing the ridge, we were below Big Snagtooth.

From Big Snagtooth

Fred Beckey refers to a gully on the southwest side of the peak. There are, of course, a couple gullies to choose from, and, of course, the correct one is not obvious until you actually ascend one of them and discover the truth for yourself. We chose the first one we came to. It was a fairly wide, inviting gully marked by a very large chockstone near the top. In retrospect we believe that the correct one, to which Beckey refers, is the next gully over, around to the right (if you're facing the peak from the ridge).

In any case, we went up the gully. It was easy going for the first half of it, but then some spots started getting tricky. So Pat threw down a rope for us to tie into at our will, but the rope dislodged several loose rocks from below the chockstone, several small ones of which made a beeline for Becky. One apple-sized rock made the small portion of Kirsten's back that was not protected by her pack its target, briefly knocking the wind out of her. At this point Becky decided that despite all the prestige and glamor associated with a summit of Big Snagtooth, none of that was worth taking a rock in the grill, so she backed off. Once Kirsten got her wind back, we continued on up to the top of the gully.

At the top of the gully it was an easy scramble up to the summit block. The summit block: Beckey mentions the use of a shoulder stand to gain the summit block. It is large, maybe 15 feet by 15 feet, and gently sloping on top. But the top, at its lowest point, is about 6 feet high, and the sides are noticeably devoid of any features that might be used for handholds. So Pat's favorite moment was bracing himself against the wall and serving as a tripod or ladder of sorts for Kirsten and I to gain the lip of the block. It was a pretty scary, exposed move up onto it. Then I belayed Pat up, who had to make the move from the ground.

From Big Snagtooth

We enjoyed the views from the summit for about 5 seconds and then began to set up a rap anchor so we could get down. We summited at around 1:00, significantly later than we had anticipated, due to heading for the wrong point initially and losing time in the gully. So we rapped down quickly. My second favorite moment was doing a single line rappel on a glacier rope with a munter hitch. Once back down on the ridge, we made great time back to camp, arriving in about an hour. We packed up quickly and began the descent back to the road. It is interesting to note at this point that we were motivated by two things, and two things only. One, we didn't want to have to bushwack out in the dark. But it was looking highly unlikely that we wouldn't. So our other motivation was making it back to Marblemount by 7 -- in time to get food from the Good Food restaurant before they closed.

The descent went quickly again, causing as to ponder whether we were better ascentionists or descentionists. It began to get quite dark as we entered the trees with the sun setting, and came to the steep embankment above the creek--remember the one with the really icy soil. One interesting point came as I stepped down over the top of a log. I had nearly completed the maneuver, having both feet below the log, when the tip of my left trekking pole, which I had planted underneath the log, became lodged at the same time that my downhill foot slipped, causing all of my weight to come down on the pole and onto my uphill foot, right leg and arm flailing in the air, and my body bent over sideways to the left. I needed to right myself in order to regain my balance, but to do so, I needed to get my pole loose. So I began pulling hard on the pole with my left hand, in an effort to free the pole, but also to try and pull my body back into balance. In this tenuous position, I was effectively pulling my body toward the pole and vice versa. It is interesting to note at this point that the molded plastic end of the handle on the pole was approximately at head height. It is also interesting to note that a pole can accelerate to a considerable velocity surprisingly quickly when suddenly and forcefully freed from a lodged state. So my favorite moment of the trip came when the pole finally dislodged and the handle, firmly gripped in my hand, hurtled uncontrollably toward my head, coming to an abrupt and painful stop as it connected squarely with my left ear. I tell ya, sometimes I wonder...

We reached the bottom of the basin and crossed the creek with relative ease, then began the ascent back up to the road. "Bushwacking and postholing up a steep slope in the dark," Pat commented. "A true Cascade climbing experience!" Kirsten's favorite moment came as she became entangled in slide alder and fir branches while sinking in postholes. Every effort to remove herself was thwarted by one or the other. After sufficiently battering the brush and the snow with curses, they finally relented and allowed her to proceed. At about 5:00 we finally made it to the road, right next to milepost 166. We laughed gleefully as we saw the shape of a van up ahead in the dark. We laughed more as people drove by and we imagined what they must be thinking seeing 4 tired people carrying large packs, walking down Hwy 20 in the dark. Finally, we laughed with sheer delight as we made it to Good Food in time to order some good food, despite a thick fog that slowed us down and tried to make us miss our good food.

In the end, the climb was not nearly as mellow as we thought it would be -- it was actually pretty interesting and challenging. But most importantly, nothing could stop us from having a great time! There was a short period when we were descending the steep, frozen soil when everyone, including Becky, was quiet, but the rest of the trip was characterized by pretty much nonstop laughter, smiles, and fun. And Pat bagged number 61!