Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Brothers

The Brothers

May 23 – 24, 2009

By: Aaron Riensche

[Editorial note: The Brothers is the most prominent Olympic Mountain peak visible from Seattle, easily distinguished by the twin summits that inspired its name. It has been a tantalizing objective for quite some time, but we had never carved out an opportunity to attempt it. When Aaron and Johanna asked if we wanted to climb it over Memorial Day weekend we thought it sounded like a fun trip, and perfect considering Kirsten would just be beginning her second trimester of pregnancy!]

It was the rarest of events: a sunny Memorial Day weekend in the Pacific Northwest. The fair weather sufficed to overshadow the setbacks as we prepared for our weekend junket to The Brothers. Kirsten had just entered her second trimester of pregnancy and had been talking a few weeks prior about skipping the summit attempt. Johanna went home from work early the day before our departure with stomach pain. And I had sprained my ankle in a softball game a week and a half earlier.

Nonetheless, with clear skies and sun in the forecast all weekend, there were no second thoughts as we rolled down the freeway toward the Olympics. If Nate ended up heading to the summit all by himself, the rest of us would at least have a pleasant day by the river while we waited for him.

At the Lena Lake trailhead, we donned our boots and packs in a balmy sun and ventured into the forest, where we followed the many switchbacks up the hillside at a barely perceptible incline. After three miles, we emerged onto a stone platform, and Lena Lake opened up before us, a gleaming blue expanse in the shade of towering evergreens.

We stopped here for a quick lunch and then continued around to the other side of the lake where we picked up the trail to base camp. The Valley of the Silent Men did its name justice, maintaining an eerie silence through most of our hike. No chirping crickets, no singing birds, just the steady crunch of boots on earth as we made our way through the shade of moss covered branches.

The trail was a little tougher here, still only a gradual incline, but not quite as well maintained as the Lena Lake trail—more rocks and roots to trip on, more logs to climb over, and more branches to snap back into the face of the person behind. Another three miles into the forest from the lake, we reached base camp. The main camping area, at the confluence of two forks of the creek, was already full. But we found a campsite with space for two tents farther up the creek. We set up camp, and Nate did an admirable job of mimicking Dad’s mysterious art of lighting a campfire with wet wood. Then we cooked dinner and went to bed early, with plenty of sunlight still streaming through the trees and the babbling brook lulling us to sleep.

The next morning, per usual, Nate and Kirsten were far more efficient in their preparations than Johanna and I. Although we got up a half hour earlier, they had already eaten breakfast and readied their gear while we were still waiting for our breakfast water to boil.

Before we headed out, Nate offered to tape my ankle. He had been walking behind me on the hike in and was getting concerned about my hobbling and favoring my right foot. Athletic tape was in short supply, but we scrounged up enough for a light layer of ligament protection.

The sun had just come up as we left camp at 5:45 a.m. We hiked briefly through the woods and then reached an open area that a forest fire had left bare a few years back and picked our way over the charred, lifeless remains of trunks and stumps.

After a stream crossing, Kirsten was prepared to follow a trail straight up the hillside. But another group had caught up to us from behind, and its leader insisted that he had been up this mountain many times and that if we made our way through the trees to our left we would come upon the proper trail. Nate and Kirsten would both later rue breaking the cardinal rule of never assuming other people know where they’re going.

The half hour or so of bushwhacking that this advice led to put us behind schedule, and put more than a few scrapes and scratches on our arms and legs. There were many laments about how much it sucks to be lost in the woods and jokes about whether it was too soon to start rationing food. At some point, we gave up on traversing with the other group and just started hacking our way straight up hill.

Finally, we emerged from the brush, just above the tree line, and The Brothers’ south peak towered above us. We allowed ourselves a brief sigh of relief and then continued climbing.

We had ascended a few hundred feet, when I looked up and saw somebody coming down the glissade chute. Since we were close to the chute, I casually called out a warning that there were people glissading down. But even as I said these words, I wondered why this guy was flailing his arms and legs.

We watched in horror as he hurtled down the mountainside at perilous speed, frantically grasping at the icy sides of the tube and trying in vain to kick his feet into the frozen surface. We were close enough to see the look of terror on his face as he plummeted past us and fell a few hundred more feet to the snowdrift at the bottom of the chute next to the boulder where we had taken our last rest. He regained control enough to roll to one side and grab onto the boulder, and his body swung down below the boulder and out of our view.

Moments later, he stood and raised his hands and called out that he was okay. Looking up at the streaks of blood on the sides of the chute, where the ice had ripped open his bare arms, we had some doubts, but he insisted that, other than his bloody arms, he was all right. The team above us called out that they were going to send his ice ax down after him. Kirsten yelled back up to not do that under any circumstances. We decided it was time to put on our helmets.

We waited a while longer, unsure whether we should head back down and help the guy. But when the team that had led us bushwhacking into the forest earlier in the day emerged from the woods and happened upon the injured climber, we continued up.

With the living example of the consequences of carelessness fresh in our minds, Johanna and I took to heart Nate and Kirsten’s reminder to drive our toes into each kick-step and then drive our axes into the snow before moving our feet up. For a while, we continued following the previous groups’ steps diagonally up the mountainside. This tempered the trajectory a little, but it also had the negative side effect of forcing us to cross the icy glissade chute every several meters. Again, after watching someone plunge down the chute at breakneck speed, we were getting nervous about making the delicate step across it so often. Eventually we decided to stop tempting fate and just kick our own steps straight up the face. And by “we,” I mean “Nate and Kirsten,” who took on the task of forming starter steps for the rest of the team to follow.

The slope was nearly vertical for the last few hundred feet. We continued plodding upward, digging our feet into the steps and then stabbing the ice ax into the snow, resting for a second, then moving the feet up to the next steps, then moving the ax.

The snowy face was capped by a stone outcropping, requiring a short traverse to the right, where we could haul ourselves onto the shelf. The traverse was a move that none of us would have given a second thought about if we were wearing rock climbing shoes and were tied into a rope. But with heavy boots on our feet, and an ice ax in one hand, and a roughly 1,500-foot drop below, Johanna and I found it a little nerve-wracking.

Once over the shelf, our last challenge was to walk up a path littered with loose rock as gingerly as possible to avoid kicking any of it down onto the climbers beneath us as we took the final steps to the summit. Given the holiday and the gorgeous weather, it was not surprising to find the summit a bit crowded. But we managed to find a couple free rocks to sit on and eat a sandwich as we rested our legs and enjoyed the spectacular 360-degree scenery.

Rainier rose up majestically in the haze to the southeast, Baker to the northeast. To the west, the rolling green foothills gave way to the snow-capped peaks of the Olympics. And to the east, the Hood Canal flowed into the Sound.

[Editorial note: congratulations to Aaron and Johanna on their first technical summit, but also it was Kirsten's and my baby's first summit! Hopefully this will burn a lasting love of the mountains in the baby.]

On the way down, traffic jammed at the traverse from the shelf across the rocky outcropping and back onto the snowfield. Then, for about a hundred feet, we moved delicately downward, driving the ice ax handle deep into the snow, then hanging onto the ax head for dear life as we moved our feet down a few inches to the next steps, kicking a firm foothold, and then finding a new hole for the ax. (This might be a good time to say thank you to Marcus and Anastasia for lending us their axes. Thanks, guys.)

The painstaking process was exacerbated not immeasurably by the occasional falling rock kicked down by the climbers coming and going from the summit. By this time, there was a line of people making their way down the gully, and every few minutes someone would yell, “Rock!”—sometimes followed by, “Oh shit, really big rock!”—and we would flatten our bodies and bury our faces in the snow and hope whatever was coming down would pass us by.

When we passed the steepest, most frozen part, thinking we had been pushing our luck in the shooting gallery a little too long, we turned around and started plunge-stepping down. Then, when the slope eased up some more, Johanna and I started glissading. At the bottom of the snow field, we found the trail down the gully, which offered an impressive view of the south peak and a small waterfall, and considerably less bushwhacking than our route up.

Back at camp, we barely had time to take off our boots for a few minutes before we had to break camp and start down the trail. It was 5:30 p.m. when we left, and we still had a six-mile hike ahead of us. Ignoring our aching feet (not to mention shoulders, legs, backs, etc.), we limped down the hillside and barely made it out of the woods by nightfall. Then, in the last of a long list of things to thank Nate and Kirsten for over the weekend, Nate drove while Kirsten kept him awake, and Johanna and I slept like babies in the backseat all the way back to Seattle.