Sunday, June 22, 2003

Mt Rainier

Mt Rainier, WA
14,410 feet
June 21-22, 2003

This only counts as a pseudo-attempt at climbing Rainier. Kirsten, Becky and I had planned this weekend for several weeks, but when it arrived, it came with a "winter-like" weather system, according to the weather forecast. We didn't actually believe that if we went we would succeed in climbing, but we were supposed to meet three recent grads of the WAC basic climbing class, Kris, Paul and Erica, who had gone up to camp at Emmons Flats on Friday, so we couldn't really bail on them and go climbing in sunny Vantage.

On the way up it started to snow and when we got into camp it was extremely windy. The other guys helped us set up camp, which was a big help because we were pretty knackered from the hike up. We were had trouble with our stove and we didn't finish melting snow until about 9pm, which only left us about 4 hours of potential for sleep. At 1:00am we woke up. The wind was howling and we had to yell to the guys in the other tent to be heard. We all agreed to sleep for a couple more hours and see how it was. At 3am, we woke up again and things were the same. Bitterly cold and windy. We went back to sleep.

At 7am we woke up again and heard the other guys getting ready to go. They had decided to give it a go even though it was late, but we wimped out and packed up to head down. We advised them to turn around by noon so they could get down before the snow bridges started softening up too much. We made one more radio contact with them at around 11am when we were near the bottom of the Inter Glacier and they said they were going to turn around soon. The next day we found out they had continued all the way to the top, summitting in the early afternoon to picture perfect weather -- clear skis, no wind -- so the joke was on us!

Sunday, June 8, 2003

Forbidden Peak

Forbidden Peak, WA
Elev: 8,815 Feet
West Ridge, 5.4
June 7-8, 2003

Friday, June 6, 2003

Kirsten and I arrived at the ranger station in Marblemount at 8pm, on the way up Highway 20 to the North Cascades. We needed permits to camp in Boston Basin for our planned climb of Forbidden, but there were no permits at the after-hours registration booth. Normally they are set out by the rangers after they close up for the night, but the space marked "permits" was clearly empty. So we assumed they had all been issued, and immediately we begin contemplating our plan B, to go to the Liberty Bell group and spend the weekend there. But we considered the evidence more... let's see: 1) there were no self-issue permits, but there were also no carbon copies in the deposit slot, suggesting no one else had filled out permits after hours. 2) the climber registration sheets only showed 2 or 3 parties heading in to Boston Basin over the last two days. Something was amiss, and our amazing powers of deduction led us to believe it was possible that there were permits remaining, but that for some reason the rangers had not put them out. We decided to camp at Marble Creek on Cascade River Road and come back to the station in the morning, when it opened at 7, and inquire as to the status of the permits.

That night I set the alarm on my watch for 6am. Our plan was to get up, throw the tent in the car and drive back to the station at 6:30 to make sure we were the first ones in line, and then we would pack while we waited.

Saturday, June 7, 2003. The *&%# Approach

My watch has this feature that commands it to go off 10 minutes after the first alarm goes off if no human intervention occurs. When it went off at 6:00 Saturday morning, in my normal morning stuper I became confused and pressed the biggest button on the watch. So at 6:45 (that's 45 minutes later) I woke up with a start realizing I had completely disabled the alarm, and Kirsten and I threw the tent in the car in a panic and drove back down to the station. We saw a couple cars heading up the road as we were going down at 7:05, which seemed to be right on schedule for them to have stopped at the station, obtained the last remaining permits and headed up the road, leaving us screwed over, like a... piece of wood... with a bunch of... screws in it. [uncomfortable silence...] Right.

So we hustled into the station at 7:15 and asked the ranger if they had any Boston Basin permits left. The ranger replied nonchalantely that there were three left. I mentioned that we had stopped by the night before, subtly hinting at our annoyance, and she casually explained that she had forgot to put them out. Come on people! If we can't rely on the system, what else is there?!

Pre-climb logistics sorted out, and with a renewed sense of optimism, we drove up to the closed gate at approximately mile 21 on Cascade River Road and headed off at 9:30. Part of my agreement with Kirsten was that if I wanted to climb with her, I had to carry the rack, the rope, and most of the tent in order to save some wear and tear on her ankle, which she is still trying to rehab. Of course who wouldn't jump at the opportunity!

We left the parking lot (elev 2,400 feet) at 9:30, and right off the bat we were feeling pretty poorly. Our packs felt extremely heavy, and walking for a mile and a half up a paved road is somehow demoralizing. That and, admittedly, we weren't in peak physical condition due to our left ankle sprains we had each suffered earlier in the spring. Our renewed sense of optimism quickly dried up. It would continue to shrivel and eventually die over the next few hours. The road is closed at mile 21 because it is washed out by a pretty significant slide shortly before the 22 mile marker. We finally hit the Boston Basin trailhead (elev 3,200 feet) at about 10:15. We have yet to resolve the mystery of how two separate sources indicate that the trailhead is at 21.7 miles, when we both distinctly noticed a 22 mile marker below the trailhead going in and coming out. But whatever the answer, I bitterly hate that sign.

The trail was in great shape for the first couple miles, but with the recent high temperatures, there has been a lot of snowmelt and there were four stream crossings over the next couple miles which provided no opportunity for keeping our feet dry. And then there was the avalanche debris. Last year there was a huge avalanche that wiped out a good 500 feet or so of the trail and left thousands of trees and other debris littered all over the mountainside in its wake. When we got to the debris, there appeared to be two possible paths through it -- a high one and a low one. We incorrectly took the low one. After an hour of negotiating downed timber, punching through flattened brush and branches, and repeatedly getting hammered in the side of the head by my plastic boots that were oh-so-uncarefully strapped to my pack lid, we finally made it through. On the way back down we were able to find the better path, which brought us across the higher route. Kirsten noticed one particular fallen tree with an arrow carved into it's bark indicating the correct path, which we failed to notice on the way up.

Once through all the streams and the avalanche debris, consistent snow cover began at about 5,000 feet. I got out of my light hikers and into my plastic boots, and we trudged onward until we popped out of the trees and suddenly found ourselves staring into Boston Basin. The sky was clear and we could see all around the Basin and beyond. We followed a faint boot path around the Basin over to a somewhat flat spot at 6,400 feet below the Forbidden glacier, in an area near a small stream, but that also seemed safe from avalanche and rockfall. We arrived at camp at 3:30. It seems impossible, but it took us six full, agonizing hours to get to camp.

We noticed one team of four heading up the couloir as we were getting into camp, but otherwise saw no other signs of West Ridge parties. We made lots of water and cooked dinner while occasional slides let loose around the basin due to the hotness of the day. Kirsten's ankle was a little sore from the hike in, and we weren't convinced that we would go for the summit, but we hit the sack about 7:30 in preparation for a possible alpine start and dozed in and out of sleep the whole night to the sound of the stream falling over an outcropping of rock. I got up to go to the bathroom around 9:30 and caught some nice views of the sunset. Yes indeed.

Sunday, June 8, 2003. Summit Day.

The alarm on my watch went off at 4am and this time I overcame my ‘snoozing’ tendency and managed to not disturb it. We defeated the alpine start lack of motivation and actually got out of our bags at about 4:15, made some instant chai tea lattes, got roped up and headed up the glacier toward the couloir at 5am. Within minutes of leaving camp, we saw two parties coming up the basin behind us. The snow cover was good, and we easily avoided the few crevasses that were open. We crossed the snow bridge over the bergschrund and hit the couloir (elev ~7800 feet) at about 6am.

The couloir was in fantastic shape. The snow was firm enough that our steps held together, but still soft and sticky enough that we could actually kick steps and didn’t need crampons. The snow continued all the way up until the steep rock gully, where we scrambled up the ledges on the left for about 10 feet, then hit snow again and continued up to the notch on the west ridge, elevation ~8300 feet. When we got up to the notch, there was a man standing there by himself, just hanging out. It turns out he was with the team of four we saw in the couloir the day before, and they had bivied at the notch. The group was with the Boealps, and he was their leader, but he broke his hand when he slipped during one of the stream crossings, so the remaining three (two students and one, apparently, junior instructor) continued up the technical rock portion. It was about 7:30 at this point, and we were pretty surprised that they were just now getting started. As we were getting ready to climb, I dropped my glacier goggles case off the south side of the ridge. We watched it fall, pop open and case, goggles, and little chamois thing go bouncing down into the couloir toward Boston Basin. Dumbass.

Kirsten led the first scrambly pitch over to the base of the first steep section. Her pitch included this freaky 3 or 4 foot step down onto a snow slope that dropped down the north side of the ridge. I maintain to this day (all of 2 days later), that this was the scariest move on the whole route. We simul-climbed where possible, but we used the whole length of the rope (mistake), so we usually ran out of gear and had to set up belays after only 20-50 feet of simul-climbing. There are copious opportunities for slinging horns and flakes the whole way, which is a beautiful thing. The steep sections are generally where we had to actually place protection instead of slinging things. We brought a set of nuts and cams to 3 inches. I think we placed the #3 camalot once, and I was actually glad I had it at that point, but in general all the pro was about 2 inches or less. We bypassed the two steepest sections by working around the left (north) side of the ridge.

The climbing was generally pretty simple, low class 5, but the exposure is, um, how do you describe it, spectacular? Nerve-racking? Scary as hell? We wore our boots for the first two-thirds or so of the climb out of a little bit of over-confidence and a little bit of coldness, but one thing is for certain, when we switched into our rock shoes for the last portion, that sticky rubber made the climb 10 times more enjoyable! I will never forget the cool feeling of hanging onto the top of the ridge looking over it down to Boston Basin to the south of the ridge and below me at Boston Glacier to the north. Just a stunning setting, and an amazing route when you factor that in.

We reached the west summit around noon, then in a fit of ingenuity, we rappeled down to the notch between the west summit and the true, east summit. We left the rope hanging from the rappel anchor, then belayed each other up to the true summit, 8,815 feet, with the remaining portion of the rope, arriving at 12:30pm. We returned to the notch, then used the rappel setup as a toprope to get back up to the overhanging west summit. We had rappeled because it is overhanging and it seemed stupid to downclimb it considering the exposure. I had actually inspected the option of working around the west summit on the north side too, but there was a bit of snow in spots, and I had just about enough of being scared, so we went with the rappel/toprope option.

We descended via the way we came up, and as we were coming down from the west summit, a party of two, Steve and John, who were attempting to climb Forbidden in a day, were just getting up to it. We teamed up with them on the descent, sharing ropes on the rappels, and leaving gear for each other on the downclimbing portions. We ran into the Boealps group trying to bail off the route at the first big steep section below the summit – they had spent the last hour or two trying to rappel, and had gotten themselves into a bit of a jam. They were having a very bad day. We helped get them out of it in exchange for the right of way to pass them on the descent. Their secondary leader seemed in over his head without their primary leader who was still down at the notch with his broken hand; and we all questioned the decision to bring beginners up such a committing route. But that’s not my business.

The descent went fine, other then a couple difficult rappels, the last of which we definitely should have downclimbed in retrospect. It was just too low angled, and a slip would have sent the rappeling climber into a huge pendulem across the north side of the ridge. I managed to protect against this by slinging a horn for a directional, but we had to leave the gear behind. In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, the penance for the mistake was graciously low: I lost 25 feet of my (new) rope. The knot in the end of the rope got stuck in a notch below us as I was trying to clean up the rappel line. The section of rock down to where it was stuck was not climbable, so I had no choice but to cut about 20 feet off the end.

Finally back down at the notch, we again teamed up with Steve and John for the descent down the couloir. We used a single rope rappel past the steep rock section at the top, then a double-rope rappel halfway down the couloir. During this second rappel, I made a most fortunate discovery: my glacier goggles sitting in the snow! Because the case opened and the goggles fell out, they were spared the fate of the case, which likely continued to slide down the couloir into the bergschrund. There was no sign of the little chamois thing though. But I was just happy to not have to worry going snow blind on the way down. We set up a running belay for the rest of the way down the couloir, then crossed the glacier and approached camp at 6:30pm.

We now had about 3 hours of daylight left, and considering it took us 6 hours to get up, we were afraid we would have to find our way through the avalanche debris and cross the streams in the dark. This was a most unwelcome scenario, and one which we wanted to avoid at all costs. So it was with the most disheartening feeling of despair I can possibly convey to you when I describe what we found when we got into camp. Marmots had feasted on my gear. They chewed through the straps on my overnight pack and they gorged themselves on the straps of my ski poles. And the most horrible discovery yet was when I found they had completely chewed through the left shoulder strap. My immediate thought was “How in the hell am I going to carry 50 or 60 pounds down 4,000 feet and 6 or 7 miles with one shoulder strap!” My second thought was “Fucking no-good, salt-craving, marmots!” My third thought was, “Maybe one of my ¾ inch slings will fit the buckle on the shoulder strap.” Thankfully, this actually worked pretty well, and I was able to rig something that made the pack bearable.

We broke down camp in a hurry, and were off at 7pm. Kirsten carried half of the rack and half of the tent, despite her ankle, and hauled some serious ass. Like a mamma bear after her cubs. We made great time on the descent and found our way through the debris, crossed the streams, which were running way higher than the previous morning, and got down the tricky portions of the trail before it got dark. Then, as darkness fell, we hit the last mile or so of flat terrain before the road. Then we hit the road. Then the real pain set in. Kirsten’s ankle had been pushed way past what it was ready for, and begin to scream like a banshee. In addition to the shoulder strap, the marmots also ate off my sternum strap, so I had no way to pull the weight in off my shoulders. My hips, thighs and shoulders had more than they could stand. At least my rope was lighter. It took us 45 minutes to slowly limp the last 1 ½ to 2 miles down the road to the car, but eventually, on the brink of tears, we made it, arriving at 10:30.

We tried to drive home, but within about 15 minutes, our 18 hour day really started to catch up to us. Kirsten had a crazy hallucination, mistaking a road sign for a guy on a bike with a snow picket. I did a U-turn when I saw a pop machine outside a closed gas station, and got a Mountain Dew. We managed to make it to Burlington at 12:30, where we checked into the first motel that was open. And thus our mini-epic on Forbidden Peak ended on a rock hard mattress in a room choked with the stagnant smell of stale cigarette smoke. And that is why we climb.