Sunday, July 20, 2003

Baker In a Day

Mt. Baker
Coleman-Demming Route In A Day

July 19-20, 2003
Elev: 10,778 feet

text: Todd Lee and Nate Riensche

Maria, Kirsten, Nate and Todd left Seattle on Saturday, July 19th, to try to climb the Coleman Headwall on Mt. Baker. The plan was to camp at ~7,100 feet that night, then leave for the summit at 2:00 AM the next day. When we got to the ranger station at Glacier 11:00 AM, the weather was (still) very warm and the route reports were unpromising. Warm ice is bad, warm seracs are bad, plus the reports of sluff avalanches led to the usual endless talking and debating about what to do. The options ranged from carrying all of our gear (second tools, ice screws, second rope, etc) up to camp and seeing how it looks, to just climbing the Coleman-Demming route, to going rock climbing, to climbing alternative mountains, to just getting some beers. We all had a bit too much coffee that morning combined with too little sleep (Maria had to get up early to pack, Q and Nate stayed up all night watching movies, and Todd got up early to pit fruit -- ya, we know, who cares) to actually have a rational thought process.

The clock was ticking, so we came up with a plan. The Plan: climb Baker in a day. The question was how to do it. We debated leaving at 9pm, at 1pm, at 5pm, at 4am, at 2am -- you name it, we discussed it. Of course, we discussed it without the benefit of the usual clarity that one hopes to formulate one's plans with. But for reasons that are unclear to this day, we decided on the following. Looking back, I can only assume we were bored and didn't feel like waiting around for several hours in the heat with the bugs and bees.

Phase 1: Dump as much gear as we could mentally handle from our packs. This was basically executed by assembling summit packs plus some survival gear as each individual deemed necessary. Nate and Q decided to bring one sleeping bag between them. Maria brought a bivy bag. Todd brought a thin foam pad and an emergency foil bag. We also brought two canister stoves to melt snow and cook potato soup. Kirsten noted the irony that we were essentially planning for an emergency bivy.

Phase 2: Leave the TH (elev. 3,700 feet) at 1:00 PM utilizing our midweight and moderate-pace technique, and climb to the summit before the sun goes down.

Phase 3: Descend from the summit and choose from one of the following a. Go all the way back to the TH and drive home at around 2:00 AM. b. Go all the way back to the TH and sleep in the car then drive home. c. Descend as far as we can, then try to sleep a while before continuing to the TH. d. Improvise as necessary. Deep in our hearts, we all knew this was the likely scenario.

A lot of folks climb Baker in a day. The usual plan is to leave the TH at 4:00 AM. There's an inescapable logic to this; you can do most of the climb in the day light. We can now confirm this inescapable logic. We left the TH with fairly light packs and very much enjoyed the hike up to the 7,100 foot camp below the Black Buttes. The trail and stream crossing were in good shape. After navigating many crevasses in the surprisingly open glacier, we arrived there at about 4:30 PM. We melted snow and ate snacks. At this point we were all wondering how our night would play out, yet our curiousity as to our fate seemed more intriguing if we forged ahead without too much thought. We were, after all, just doing the Coleman-Demming, and any added drama would just take up more of the slack created by not doing the Coleman Headwall. Brilliant, really.

There were a lot of other climbers at the camp and we got more than one strange look as we left. There was a nice trail leading around the crevasses to the saddle. The weather had been great all day and there was little wind. At the saddle though, the wind really picked up and the sun was falling toward the horizon. It was about 7:30 and we really had just one goal at this point: make it to the summit and back to the saddle before it was dark. The climb up the pumice ridge was mostly on dirt trail until we were below the Roman Wall. We were very fortunate to have soft snow so we could kick steps straight up the wall to the summit without crampons. Despite our exhaustion and the effects of altitude after having gained over 6,000 feet of elevation by foot in the last 7 hours by the time we reached the base of the Roman Wall, we still made great time because of the steps Todd was kicking. We gained the last 1,100 feet before the summit flat in 45 minutes. Going up the Wall we had great visibility and wonderful views of the setting sun as it cast a golden glow on Rainier, Glacier, and Puget Sound. As we neared the top, Q and Todd both experienced a bizarre phenomenon. It wasn't until much later during the car ride home (sorry if that gives away the ending) that they hesitantly admitted they had seen hundreds of small, dead bees scattered on the ice surface. Did these bees become lost and confused, or was it a suicidal ritual?

We reached the summit flat at about 8:40, dropped our packs and staggered over to the true summit (elev. 10,778 feet) at 9:00. It was quite beautiful in all directions. Unfortunately, couldn't spend much time on top. Nate tried to eat a Clif bar, but took two bites and nearly lost it. He put it in his pocket and saved it for later. After plunge-stepping down the Roman Wall, we descended the pumice ridge and glissaded down to the saddle at 10:00 just as the last glimpses of light faded away. We then descended to the 7,100 foot camp and arrived there by headlamp at 11:00 PM.

We didn't need to review our Phase 3 list of options when we arrived at the camp. The only thing we needed more than food was sleep. Maria dropped her pack and cruised over to the top of the ridge to look for bivy sites, but watching her headlamp bob up and down as she made her way over there made the rest of us feel all the more tired. Before she got back Todd had rolled out his foam pad and crawled into his foil emergency bag. Q and Nate could only sit on their packs and stare blankly at their plastic boots and wonder silently. When Maria returned she found all three of her partners unwilling or unable to move, so she crawled into her bivy bag and laid on top of her pack. Q and Nate laid on top of their packs, the rope and their sit pads, and fought over the sleeping bag. There's not much to say here, but that it was cold, and very painful to look at all of the tents and imagine the thick, warm, sleeping bags inside. We all slept in varying degrees from midnight until 3:00 AM, fighting difficulties like Clif bars in pockets that jab you in the ribs. Occassionally other parties would walk past headed for the summit. We all fantasized about them nudging us and whispering, "Hey, why don't you guys crash in our tent while we're climbing." Instead all that was heard were comments such as, "Ooo, that's a rough night."

At about 3:00, Maria asked Todd if he would get up with her to do jumping jacks. That led to firing the stoves up and cooking dinner. A long hour later we were all eating a 3-liter pot full of potato soup with 2 spoons and one sort-of duck taped spoon from McDonalds. Potato soup at 4 in the morning does strange and wonderful things to a person's bowels. Clouds had moved in during the night and socked in the upper mountain, and we watched as several parties turned around. Thus we congratulated ourselves on our "wise" decision to summit the night before.

At about 5:30, with a great sense of levity at having survived the worst of the climb, we packed up camp (ha ha), roped up, and headed down. We arrived at the car around 8:30, ate a greasy breakfast at Frosty's in Glacier, then with a tremendous sense of satisfaction we drove home.

Sunday, July 6, 2003

Mt Stuart, WA
9,415 feet
West Ridge; 5.4-5.6
July 4-6, 2003

text: Andrew Toyota
photos: Nate Riensche and Andrew Toyota

For the 4th of July weekend, Murray, Andrew G, Nate, and I decide to try the West Ridge of Stuart. A seemingly impenetrable granite mountain that left me mystified, humbled and sleep deprived 3 days prior. As much fun as it was to play the where-did-I-go-wrong game in my head, I am determined to try again. And like Stacy conveyed, I too am struck by the power of the mountain but still made a silent vow to Stuart that … “I’ll be back.”

So we begin devising a plan that allows us the best chance to summit. We deliberate on the route and what to bring. I setup a teleconference. We send over 50 e-mails. Andrew G. buys approach shoes from REI the night before. Murray and Nate cut down their spoon handles. In short, we are nuts. Since our plan involves a carryover for three days, we want to go light … it’s a fascinating game of “how heavy is your pack?” We all agree that Murray has the lightest pack. We vacillate between conservative preparation and blissful optimism. Nate and I even make copies of Ingalls and Sherpa, in case we have extra time. When Murray asks how we’re going to tag Sherpa from the summit, Nate replies “prepare to be amazed.”

Friday, July 4, 2003

Waking up at 5am on a perfectly good holiday weekend, I suddenly realize just how stupid my Terminator quote is. By 8:30am, we arrive at Esmeralda Basin Trailhead (4240’). No small feat as I’ve somehow managed to get us turned around just driving down Teanaway Road. Not a good sign … Nate tries not to wince. I make a mental note to pay closer attention next time Randy E. drives instead of daydreaming about ultralite gear. By 9am, we’re almost sprinting up the trail. By 10am, we reach Long’s Pass (6300’). Why, look at us! We’re quite proud of how far we’ve come in an hour. But Stuart’s complex network of gullies and ribs promise even more to come. Dropping 1500’ down to the Ingall Creek trail is a major bummer. Plodding up the first continuous gully, our three day packs seem a tad heavier.

By 1pm, we reach the blocky boulder start and fill up on water from the snow melt. Scrambling up the exquisite granite boulders is sheer heaven. I’m a kid again!

The valley drops far away as we kick steps up the steep snow. But our packs are definitely beginning to feel heavier. By 4pm, we reach the head of the gulley and our first decision. Do we veer right to the crack that Stacy and I climbed or left towards a blank looking slab? We decide left. As I lead out, I remind myself that Fred Beckey characterizes this route as “5.4, grade II, 6 hours from meadows.” By the end of my lead, I’ve cursed this Beckey fellow several times over. It seems like one can simply add “… my ass!” to any of his route descriptions. Around 7pm, we arrive at protected ledges near Long John’s Tower (8400’) and setup camp. After 7,000’ of elevation gain for the day, everyone is wiped. Seeing fireworks in the distance is an unexpected treat but we’re all soon fast asleep.

Saturday, July 5, 2003

Around 2am, a mouse nestles on my head for warmth. Not accustomed to rodents resting on my person, I remain awake to see if the lil’ fella returns. Lyrics from a Black Eyed Peas song filters through my head (say this is what Maria was talking about!) But thankfully, sleep returns and by 7am I awake to see thick, white clouds swirling above us. Oh no, not again. We patiently wait out the conditions and eat breakfast. Although we still can’t see the summit, we’re ready to venture into the clouds, if necessary.

Murray breaks our revelry by announcing that he has to go #2. We wait. Murray returns with a broad grin and proclaims success. I realize that my morning movement is also upon me. The guys wait. I return greatly relieved. Nate and Andrew G. look at each other and decide that well, maybe they should try too. It’s not till later that we realize that we’re taking turns as if there’s only one bathroom. By 9am, we’re heading for the scissor like formation on the skyline. Upon reaching a slightly exposed traverse, we rope up and pass through without a hitch. Our teamwork is really starting to gel.

Less than 3 hours later, our teamwork has gone straight to hell. Upon reaching the West Ridge Notch (9000’), our team of four proceeds to scramble up four separate routes. Each confident that his path is the fastest to reach the all-too-familiar bivy spot that Stacy, Randy, Maria and myself christened the prior weekend. While I’m busy patting myself on the back for getting everyone to this spot, I suddenly realize that I still don’t know exactly where I am. We burn an hour looking for the South Side Bypass variation and leading up crappy black-lichened rock. We’re running out of options. It’s like one of those frustrating Nintendo games where you’ve got to figure out how to escape the maze to save the magical kingdom. Only thing is you really are in a maze and there’s nothing magical about sleeping in exactly the same bivy site in less than 5 days. Andrew G. looks back and spots the slightly rising traverse that we’ve been searching for - marked by two stacked boulders. We decree it “God’s cairn”, hoping that in doing so the Big Guy will help us out. Our other big guy, Nate, suddenly gets a bright idea that maybe we should try the exposed 4th class traverse to the north side. So, he leads out with Murray following. Murray thinks the exposure is so enjoyable that he stops often to take it all in.

And just like that we spot the downward bearing ledge before the summit pyramid. But truthfully, there are so many downward bearing ledges that we’re simply searching for footprints by other lost climbers.

Nate and I are switching leads now with increasing proficiency. We had planned to climb at as two teams of two, with everyone swinging leads, but as the day drew on and we got more and more anxious about getting to the summit and down to the bivy site at a decent time we decided to just climb as one team of four, with the thirds and fourths simul-climbing at times. Because of this, it was essential for everyone to climb very efficiently and very well and to work together smoothly, which we all did. Andrew G., wanting to contribute more upon reaching a belay, asks if there’s anything that he can do. Then as the sunshine begins to warm him, he subsequently states “you know, I think I’m just going to relax.”

I lead up more “easy rock” swearing like a sailor. Murray cruises the crux and innocently inquires what move I was so concerned about. The bastard has changed into his rock shoes. In fact, they all have. I curse my go-light fanaticism.

Nate leads past a wobbly boulder and several strenuous 5th class moves. I lead next and get a pair of exquisite hand cracks that leads us right to the summit. By 4:30pm, we’re all joyfully yodeling from the top of Mt. Stuart. It’s taken over 18 hours. Our obvious pride and relief are temporarily shattered while chatting with the climber who summits after us. We learn that he’s soloed Stuart before and considers the West Ridge to be a good beginner climb. While we’re chewing on that statement, he belays his girlfriend up and casually mentions that this is her first alpine climb … ever. Our celebration becomes a little more subdued. By 6pm, we descend down the Cascadian Couloir in search for our next bivy. As we’re hiking down, I can’t keep myself from grinning. In fact, we all are. The euphoria is contagious. We marvel at our good fortune of remarkable weather. More than that, I know that without Randy, Stacy and Maria’s efforts, we could still be looking for the route up.

After Murray leads us to a great bivy area nestled amongst the ridgeline, we settle down to consume the last of our provisions. A scintillating game of that pot-isn’t-on-straight ensues. Nate wins as his fuel canister catches aflame first. Murray contemplates how to cook ramen and ponders the meaning of the aluminum packet – evidently his Caribbean upbringing didn’t tolerate ramen. Nate suffers the trip’s worst injury when his hand slips while pulling up his sock and he jams his thumb into a rock. Oooweeeee, he exclaims and cries for his Kirsten. This causes Andrew G.’s baby blues to well up and he starts rattling off his newfound priorities: 1) Jen 2) Climbing 3) Med school. A list that we later learn undergoes minor revisions whenever Jen mentions the word “camping” rather than “climbing.”

Sunday, July 6, 2003

By 8am, we break camp and jaunt down the Cascadian Couloir towards Long’s Pass. Taking a few breaks along the way, we’re back at the car by 1pm. On the drive home, I again marvel at my good fortune. I am still floating above the clouds and consider how Mt. Stuart has influenced my perspective on life once again. Never have I entrusted my welfare so completely in another person. Never have I experienced nature on such an elemental level. I am in awe of the deeds by my climbing partners from both weekends that were accomplished with apparent ease, selflessness and determination. I am humbled and exhilarated by this discovery of newfound strength in myself and in my friends. I just love being alive.

"Short is the little time which remains to you of life. Live as on a mountain." Marcus Aurelius (121-180)