Damien and I haven’t spent any time above 10k feet since Mount Shasta back on Memorial Day weekend. With several projects involving climbing at high altitude looming in the suddenly not so distant future (where has this summer gone?!) we decided that a trip to Mount Rainier National Park was in order. We developed a plan based around two obstacles: we did not have an overnight permit and, again, the forecast was HOT! Thus, the strategy was to start from Paradise in the early evening so we would only catch the tail end of the heat, then climb through the night as far as we could go on the DC route. Summiting Rainier in a day was partially on our minds and we brought gear for a summit bid. However, the main focus of this excursion was to spent time at/above 10k.

We did our best to prepare for the impending all nighter. Saturday morning was sent mostly hanging around the house and napping. We headed out to the park early afternoon and, after fighting some strangely heavy traffic, stopped at Longmire to pick up our climbing permit. It was bizarre to actually get a glimpse of the park during midday. We’re usually only in the front country very early in the morning, very late or in winter when it’s empty. At 3:45 the park was a bit of a circus. We were eager to get on the trail and away from the crowds.

We swung on our packs at the overnight lot at Paradise in early evening at about 5:30pm. Our packs were lighter than normal for a Rainier climb, but with climbing gear in tow they still weighed respectable amount. The trail to Panorama Point was crowded with people. This provided some entertainment for me: folks wearing Mary-Jane shoes and jeans. I was annoyed by the fact that there seemed to be an unseemly number of descending visitors that did not make way for us as we traveled uphill with heavy packs. I know that some people do not know that uphill trekkers have the right of way, but if you see someone with a large pack you should step aside out of common curtesy.

Beyond Panorama Point the crowds thin considerably. Sweating in the early evening heat we watched as the sun edged in what seemed like excruciatingly slow motion toward the horizon. At Pebble Creek we paused to filter water and cool down in preparation for the snowfield ahead. From then on it seemed that the tourists ceased to exist.

The snow was sloppy from the radiation of the day as we began to climb up from Pebble Creek at 7100 feet. However, as the sun slipped finally behind the lower slopes of Rainier the temperature abrupted dropped. We found a good up-track which was further improved by a team passing us (their objective was Rainier in a day). I think it’s the first time we ever found a good track going up the mountain. As we climbed we turned back to gaze at the hues of the pink and purple sky behind Adams, Hood, Jefferson and Helens. All the mountains surrounding us glowed in the soft pastel colors of evening light. Rainier is always a magical place, especially this time of day when the crowds are gone and there is nothing but the splendid, tranquil, beauty of the volcano.

The snow stiffened as we continued upward passing familiar slopes and talus ridges. Ahead the glaciated mountain loomed before us fading into the darkness. At 9:45 we switched on our headlamps and donned our crampons. Our feet with unbalanced on the rapidly solidifying snow. As our crampons crunched in the hardened snow we caught a glimpse of what we thought was a rescue flare streaking across the sky. I would find out later that it was a fireball meteor. We were surprised to reach camp Muir at 10:30pm. Our calibrated altimeters somehow got off count during the climb which is pretty typical on Rainier and read 9800 feet instead of 10100. We had climbed to Muir in 5 hours which was a record for us with or without heavy packs.

Camp Muir was abuzz for with activity.  The guided groups were preparing to depart at their standard 11:00pm. Private teams were also milling about cooking and sorting gear. Damien and I dumped our packs on the dusty ground and, after a quick snack, settled down against some rocks for a 15 minute recharge nap. I especially needed it as fatigue was beginning to take its toll. Damien also alerted rangers and guide of the “rescue flare”. They seemed surprisingly unconcerned.

We were roped up at moving across the Colwitz Glacier at 11:20pm. I had never departed this late to climb Rainier and it felt strange to be part of a conga line of teams instead of climbing in silence. We moved well across the glacier. There were a few crevasses to step across, but nothing significant. However, we began to fall apart on the ascent of Cathedral Rock at 10,470~ ft. The “trail” up the rock formation is my second least favorite aspect of climbing DC (my least favorite being the cleaver). The tread was extremely dusty and, as always, the volcano crude unstable. The upper portion where rock meets dirty glacier had some crevasses, but what was more noteworthy was the audible roar of water coming from beneath the ice. Finally, we stepped onto clean glacier ice and received a healthy blast of wind. The gusts could not have been more than 20mph, but it definitely made it feel colder. Under the twinkling stars and frothy milky way we made our way to Ingraham Flats. There is a sketchy crevasse step-over here that got our attention. The others were minor.

Damien belayed me into the camp and we stared up at the procession of headlamps journeying up the clever. We both felt trashed for lack of sleep and the fatigue seemed to be making the elevation of 11,100 feet seem worse than it really was. Ahead laid another 4500~ feet of gain. The route this season features a marvelous 600 foot descent mid-route before climbing back up. We decided that Ingraham Flats was as far as we could safely go. We must have sat there at camp in our giant puffys for a good 30 minutes before willing ourselves to get back to our feet. Exhausted, we descended back down to Camp Muir which had lighter winds.

We did not have overnight gear. However, we did bring our sleeping bag covers for a situation like this. Damien opted to sleep inside the hut. I did not wish to join the snore-fest indoors so I slept on the bench outside. However, I could only insulate half my body with my backpack, so my lower half stayed pretty cold preventing me from getting any meaningful sleep.

Damien wanted to head down right away in the morning to avoid the next impending heatwave. I wasn’t too jazzed about that since I despise descending hard snow in crampons. I felt wreaked for the first 600 feet. After vitamin I and some coffee infused chocolate though things became a lot less painful. At about 8,000 feet the snow was soft enough to begin glissading which I took advantage of (crampons off of course!).

Once again things got busier the lower we went. At Panorama Point the folks in jeans once again dotted the trail. Back to society. Somehow, we managed to drive home without falling asleep at the wheel. Another learning experience as with many of the trips this summer.

After some high stress weekends in the mountains, Damien and I decided to take a rest and do a simple backpack with two straight forward scrambles. Our plan was to complete the Cradle Lake Loop and on the second day hop up to Bootjack Mountain, cross the ridge to Highchair, retrace our steps and then complete the backpack. We had attempted this itinerary in late October last year. It ended up being an out and back trip to Cradle Lake because of deeper than predicted snow. We didn’t expect to have this problem in July of course!

The trail begins at the very end of Icicle Road. It follows the Icicle Creek trail 1.5 miles through the forest until reaching a junction with French Creek Trail where we turned left. We continued through the forest though it opened every now and then as we followed French Creek for 4.7 miles until we came across the junction with Snowall Trail. We took a left and immediately arrived on the shore of a very deep French Creek. We both have vivid memories of having to cross this creek in October without pants with water nearly up to our hips and WOW had it been cold! Damien and I were both wearing shorts and with the water level being lower and the temperature being uncomfortably warm we were much more enthusiastic about this crossing in July. In fact, the water skimming the cuffs of our shorts as we crossed was downright refreshing!

We trekked onward following the trail as it switchbacks up through the forest. Not far up the trail we began to realize how poorly maintained the track was. Shrubbery hung over the trail scratching our legs as we gained gentle elevation through the woods. The trailed intermittently flattened out for stretches and the woods gave way to glorious wildflower meadows in the shadow of The Cradle…at least they were glorious at first glance. These meadows painted with ever color of an artist’s palette swallowed up the already thin trail. Several times we lost the track in the waist and sometimes shoulder deep grasses or flowers. Route finding skills came into play as we wandered through the meadows making our way up the valley. The sun also blasted its sweltering rays into the flora, which somehow seemed to have an insulating quality as we bushwhacked our way along the barely there trail. At least we had the relief of the forest every now and then even though the shrubs mangled our legs.

Finally, we reached the head of the valley and headwaters of French Creek. The trail turns left here and switchbacks up open hills of grasses and flowers. Most of the elevation gain had thus far been in the sections of trail under the cover of trees. Gritting our teeth we trudged up the exposed slopes drenched in what felt like gallons of perspiration. Finally, the small saddle in the ridge we where destined for came into view and we made the final grueling, long switchbacks to the high point of the trail (not including summits). The book said that this point was supposed to be 6100 feet, but my altimeter and GPS read 6500ish. Nevertheless, from this point we were rewarded with sprawling views of the Stuart Range and an inviting looking Cradle Lake about 250 feet in the basin just below us.

The trail to the lake wasn’t obvious so we just descended straight down the slope to the shore of the lake. We picked up the trail there and followed it around the right side of the lake passing a single tent, which surprised us. Damien and I continued past their camp in search of solitude and found a secluded place just past the creek at the foot of the talus ridge leading to Highchair Mountain. The mosquitos were hungry, but we were keen on getting into the lake. Quickly we stripped down to our underwear and stepped into the delightfully cold water feeling the sticky sweat drift away from our skin. Refreshed we swiftly set up our tent and dove inside away from the biting insects. There was no need to set up the fly so we watched as the sun drifted behind the mountains and mosquitos and flies buzzed hungrily just on the other side of the mesh. We still had to filter water so we armed ourselves with our puffies and long pants before venturing outside to the creek. After a lovely freeze dried dinner we settled in for the night completely exhausted.

 

We were packed up and walking in the cool morning hours of 6am the following day. Covered from head to toe in deet, we still had to deal with the buzzing of the biting bugs, but at least they didn’t land on us. As our beta instructed we followed the trail along the creek for one mile. At this point we were supposed to meet a junction with a trail on the left. This trail was on our GPS map as well so we were confident it would be there. It never occurred to us that there might be an issue. However, when we came to a junction is was marked off by branches as social trails often are in the National Forests. Confused, we checked our GPS which showed we had passed the junction. We figured we’d missed it and backtracked. Several minutes later our GPS showed we had passed it again! Now very perplexed, we diligently walked back to the blocked off junction. The trail on the map didn’t exist… unless it was this marked off trail and the GPS was off. Not knowing what else to do we stepped over the branches and followed the marked off trail.

Things seemed to go well for the first 15 or so minutes on the thin tread, but then the trail began to veer away from the direction we were meant to be heading and we found ourselves a quarter mile away from the “trail” we were supposed to be on. We had a good view of the sub-summit of Highchair and we studied the terrain. Damien suggested that we ditch the traditional route of summiting Bootjack and then following the ridge to Highchair. It would require a lot of backtracking anyway. It appeared we could climb Highchair via it’s West ridge and follow the next ridge to Bootjack making for a direct traverse. The appeal of a direct route and the fact that there didn’t seem to be a trail to Bootjack anyway made our decision easy.

Highchair was on the other side of the valley from the ridge we were on. However, the ridge is U-shaped so we traversed the ridge staying high and aiming for the saddle on the left of the sub-summit. The terrain was a mix of heather, forest, tall grass and blocky talus fields. The bushwhacking was minimal and terrain pretty decent for cross country travel, though it still slowed us a bit. The heat was debilitating though, especially for me. Just below the saddle we stopped in the shade by a snow patch and filtered water from a small melt stream in the talus. This was our last appealing filtering option for the day. We continued to the ridge and followed it to the blocky sub-summit (the rocks are red from iron content). From here we followed the talus and scree (class 2) to the summit. You’ll know you’re there because of the massive ammo box labeled “Summit Register” at the top.

From here views abound with Mount Rainier taking center stage. Also visible are Dragontail, Stuart, Argonaut, Sherpa, Cashmere, Adams, Eightmile, Daniel, Glacier… basically you can see a heck of a lot of peaks! It was also clear from this vantage point that we could have taken a direct route by climbing up the foot of the ridge from Cradle Lake.

We lingered for a long time, hesitant to begin moving in the sun again, but the ridge to Bootjack beckoned. We descended loose rock down into a larch filled basin just below the ridge and skirted the talus below the gnarly part of the ridge at the edge of the trees. Just before the ridge drops to its low point there is a small pond with tadpoles called The Oasis. We rested here in some shade. The water was kind of dirty here so we did not filter. Soon after this spot we rejoined the ridge and began the 1.5 mile walk to Bootjack. Every now and then a gentle breeze refreshed us, but mostly we cooked in the sun’s blaze. There is a faint climber’s trail that meanders on top of the rocky ridge, or just below it on the right side. About .3 miles away from Bootjack the ridge turns broad and grassy as the route climbs to an unnamed high point with some shady trees. The ridge then descends to a small rocky saddle (we skirted a gendarme on the left side to gain the saddle). From here it is a quick 150-200 foot class 2/3 scramble to the sub-summit and short traverse (class 2) to the true summit on the right.

We were greeted by 2 day-hikers taking in the view. Our entire route from the day before all the way to Cradle Lake and the cross-country route we had taken to Highchair and then Bootjack was visible from this vantage point. Of course, we had the same amazing views of the mountain range as well.

We were again reluctant to leave the summit, but we did coax ourselves up. Damien and I scrambled down the other side of Bootjack and joined a faint trail. There are several turns along the trail that can lead you astray. The general idea is to make sure you end up going down the opposite side of the ridge away from Bootjack and not into the meadows just below it. The Blackjack Ridge trail wasted no time in elevation loss. It plummets straight down for over 1000 feet with no switchbacks. Then when the switchbacks do start they are exceedingly steep. May kind of descent trail!

We reached the road in early evening and walked .25 miles back to the Icicle Creek TH. A little more of an exploration weekend than the easy  backpack with scrambles we anticipated. Not exactly a rest weekend, but still excellent!

Let me start out by saying that Mount Torment is very aptly named! Climbing the Torment Forbidden Traverse has been on our agendas for several years. Over spring & early summer we did several carryover routes and long rock climbs in preparation for TFT, a climb that requires every alpine skill to be called on at some point. We felt as ready as we could be for the climb with the exception that there seemed to be a lack of very detailed beta on Torment. The South Ridge (5.4) had okay beta (though not very comprehensive). The SE Face had no beta that we could find, but was considered class 4. In the end we decided to do the South Ridge because it is the route that was most often used in TFT descriptions and there was some information on it.

We made excellent time up the steep trail to Boston Basin. The last time I had been on the rough trek up was approaching my very first technical climb: Sahale. I had vivid memories of the trail going straight up though dust and rock for 300 feet and my recollection did not disappoint. The creek crossings were not too bad and only the 2nd to last crossing as you enter the basin required us to remove our shoes. Once in Boston Basin we went left and traversed cross country toward Torment Basin. We ended up stumbling onto a good trail along the way which sped up our pace. The trail thins though after Forbidden Camp which is at 6,200 feet and finally terminates on the edge of some slabs with a waterfall. We filtered here and then climbed the side of the falls on class 2/3 rock and onto the Torment Basin Snowfield. We walked to a rock island that seemed to be at the edge of the Taboo Glacier and began to rope up. It was noon at this point and we felt like we were doing descent on time. We figured we would get to the ridge by 5pm at the latest.

Taboo Glacier is benign, though there were a few open cracks. We walked up to a shelf near the ridge connecting Torment and Forbidden and then contoured left toward the hidden notch. To access the rock leading up to the notch we had to climb a steep snow finger which was thin in places and hollow where the moat came into play. I belayed Damien up so he could keep climbing once he got onto the rock. The upper part of the snow finger cracked and shifted when he was on it, but no further complications. The rock is not the greatest in the gully leading up to the notch. We did okay with mountaineering boots since was class 4. At the Notch which was surrounded by large walls of snow (basically we were inside a moat), we changed to climbing shoes and examined the first pitch. All we knew was to go up on the right. Damien led out on a slightly overhung 5.4 rock. When I followed I quickly discovered that carryovers on rock are not the same as carryovers on ice. On snow and ice, you have a bit more of a say on your foot and tool placements. Rock dictates your moves and thus the pack becomes more cumbersome. Once easy moves become an ordeal. High steps for example are a tiresome process! Our packs could not have been more than 25lbs as we had cut out tons of weight when packing, but it was enough to be a nuance. Nevertheless, we got used to it relatively quickly.

The first pitch was short and Damien belayed me from a rap anchor in a somewhat gravely area at the bottom of a gnarly looking gully on the right and a dihedral on the left.  The beta said to take the gully on the left, but that looked to be more of an open book than a gully. Damien started up the dirty gully after some discussion as it could have been considered on the left depending on how you were facing. He quickly realized it didn’t go (lots of falling rock). Instead he moved over to the left dihedral and found great climbing to the upper ledge. After pitch 2 we simual-climbed. I understand now why the beta lacks detail. It’s hard to describe. The route meanders up and sideways across the mountain with no real landmarks for quite some time. I have no idea how many pitches there are and nor does anyone else I think. It is class 4/5 with descent protection, but on crappy rock. A lot of blocks were detached and care had to be taken with every step. There are rap stations everywhere which serve as an indicator that you are on route.

We finally rounded a corner at the small ledge with a fixed nut where the summit is finally visible. Here the route goes down about 50 feet to another sandy ledge. We belayed this section out. Then we continued to simual-climb up heather ledges and loose rock to the top of the wide notch in front of us. When crossed over the notch onto the other side of the mountain were promptly greeted by a blast of harsh, frigid wind that. Almost immediately we began to feel hypothermic. However, there was no flat place to stop so we kept moving. On this side of Torment we got our first view of the ridge leading to Forbidden. We knew this was a very serious ridge and fully expected it to be gnarly, but it still seemed more jagged than we anticipated. After traversing through a section that felt like a House of Card (loose blocks) Damien belayed me to a flattish place near the summit.  We put on all our layers and Damien belayed me toward the top.

Clouds were rolling in low now and the temperature kept dropping. We stood at a crossroads. It was 6pm. Climbing Torment had taken much longer than expected. The route was much lengthier than predicted and route-finding had a hung us up multiple times. The way down to the next notch to access the ridge looked pretty sketch and exposed. Doable, but not desirable. Once on the ridge we would have to take the first bivy option as it was too late to start climbing the ridge. We probably would not have time to climb Forbidden the next day. The ridge which already looked menacing was made worst by the incoming weather. Additionally, once on the ridge there would be no way out other than to climb to the base of Forbidden. It was unknown territory to us and the beta was, again, not exceedingly detailed. This was Option A.

Descending Torment was Option B. Throughout the day were had commented multiple times how happy we were that we wouldn’t have to descend Torment on TFT.  This would be an arduous task of route finding though a maze of downclimbing traverses and rappels. Easily this task would take 5+ hours and we didn’t fancy repeating the loose, dirty route. But it was a guaranteed way to exit. Of course, there was the dilemma of us not having 5+ hours of daylight left. Descending Torment would have to be completed the next day and we’d have to sleep on the route on one of the sandy ledges we had passed. There was no water or snow on those ledges, but we were conveniently standing next to two small snow patches near the summit. We could fill our hydration packs and then descend to the bivy ledge.

Damien and I discussed these two options at length. The decision felt critical and we would find out just how crucial the following morning. In the end, we decided that taking our chances on the ridge with no escape and with questionable weather was something we just couldn’t justify. We descended a few feet to one of the snow patches and began the tedious task of melting and filtering water on downhill, steep terrain.  With five liters of water we began the tedious traverse back to the notch through the House of Cards. From there we did one rap and then downclimbed back to the bivy ledge.

When we arrived at the ledge thick clouds engulfed the entire mountain, the wind picked up and temperatures plummeted. Luckily, the ledge was situated in such a way that it somehow avoided being hit by the strong updrafts created within the towering walls of Torment.  As darkness swiftly fell, Damien placed two cams on either side of the wall behind the bivy ledge and strung a cordelette anchor between the two anchor points. We clipped into the cord and stayed that way for the entire duration of our stay. The ledge was narrow and the mountain fell away from the edge at a severe, vertical 1000+ foot drop. It was similar to a big wall setup. We unloaded our gear, put it a on convenient rock shelf and clipped everything in as well. We did not have proper bivy sacks, but we did have light weight sleeping bag covers. We set those up and snugged into our bags while we heated water for dinner in the darkness on the wall. This was AWESOME! We had the most amazing camp over 1000 feet off the deck with the clouds swirling around us! We couldn’t stop smiling. We hadn’t been able to get to the ridge, but the experience was still turning out to be absolutely incredible! We felt like expedition alpinist. This was our first time ever sleeping a route on the mountain itself and the sensation was intoxicating.

A mouse scampered up beside me while I was waiting for my beef stroganoff to become edible. I had to shoo it away several times before it finally disappeared down a tiny hole between the rocks. We were afraid that mice would bother us all night, but no other critters visited us. After dinner, we turned in for the night. Damien decided to sleep half propped up on the rock wall. I slept laying down forming a T formation with him. I’m not used to the confines of a one person sleeping bag and coupled with my PA whacking me in the face every time I rolled over I wouldn’t say I had a completely peaceful night. Plus, the cold woke me up a few times. Nevertheless, I’d say we had a great night on the wall considering the situation.

We woke up at 5am to find that it was too cold to begin the descent as we would barely stay out of our sleeping bags for more than five minutes and Torment was still blanketed in thick, swirling clouds. This all had not been in the forecast and at that moment we knew that our decision to descend Torment had been the right one. If we had been on the ridge things could have easily turned epic. Survivable, but certainly not an experience to seek out. We waited an hour. Then another. Conditions were not improving. Looked at the time-stamps on my photos from the day before it looked like the sun hit the mountain at about 8:30. Maybe then it would warm up and some mist would burn off. We decided that we would start packing by 9:30 regardless.

Damien led up to the fixed nut at 10:00am. The temperature was still cold, but not hypothermia inducing anymore and the clouds, though still low and encompassing, were not as thick. The descent was a series of downclimbing traverses to rappels. We assumed that all the rappel stations would bring us back to the notch we started in (no beta on descending Torment). However, we discovered to our dismay that rap stations were everywhere and they did all go to the notch. In fact, we found ourselves about 150-200 feet too low on the opposite side of the mountain of the Taboo Glacier. Below we could see more rap slings. It appears that folks have descended all the way down to the other side of the mountain in an attempt to bail. The moat was huge on that side and walking round the mountain to get back to Taboo Glacier was a big question mark. We resigned to climbing back up to the rap station above. I’m not sure how to describe how to stay on course other than to really pay attention to the route on the way up. More tedious downclimbing led to the correct rappel station. This was followed by a series of 3-4 additional raps down into the notch. Here we changed out of our climbing shoes and back into boots for the final rappel onto the glacier.

On the final rappel while leaning over to straighten out the rope I banged my knee on perfectly arrow shaped rock. The impact hurt like hell, but the pain dissipated quick and with no tear in my pants or visible blood I continued on rappel. Crossing back onto the snow finger proved tricky since the finger was hollower over the moat. As I down climbed the finger I noticed some red spots in the snow. That’s odd, I thought, then remembered my knee. Sure enough, there was plenty of blood soaking through my pants. I did a quick evaluation. Everything seemed to be working fine and there was still no pain, so I continued down to the glacier. Damien rappelled behind me and stayed on rappel until the bottom of the finger. I wasn’t sure if the rope ends reached which is why I had gotten out of the system. Staying on rappel was the better way to go. It had taken 6.5 hours to descend Torment.

We tied into the rope for glacier travel and walk through the sloppy snow to the rock island. Clouds still hung low in the sky concealing the peaks in Torment and Boston Basins. Everywhere else of was, of course, clear!

I took a moment to finally examine my injured knee when we untied and prepared for the walk out. The result of the impact as a deep cut. I assessed the damage and decided that standard first aid was all that was necessary. After cleaning and bandaging the wound I was good to go.

We booked it on the hike out and arrived back at the car at 9:08pm. I was kind of bummed because I knew it was too late to get ice cream at Cascade Farms. Aside for that slight hindrance, Damien and I both felt incredibly psyched. Already all the pain and “torment” of the climb had melted away and all that was left was thrill of the memory and a distinct need to get back into the alpine as soon as possible.

This summer our project was originally to master the art of the carryover. I think that goal was completed late spring. Instead I think our mission this season has morphed into mastering the complicated art of mental fortitude. So many times this summer we have been pushed to our mental limit on routes not often done where beta is scarce. We’ve had to make critical decisions based our own knowledge gained from previous alpine experience. We had to rely on ourselves, not on books or trip reports. We’ve had to learn to contend with not having all the answers and with countless question marks. In the process, we have been building resiliency of the mind and the ability to think and endure through the many complicated decisions one faces in the alpine environment.

 

 

This weekend varied from the norm for Damien and I in that we ventured into the wilderness with a team of seven. The trip was an official Mountaineers Climb led by Damien. We do our best to, at least once a season (weather has gotten in the way in past few years), take out a team that includes basic students that we feel are up to a sufferfest challenge. These year our objective was Mount Hinman via the Hinman Glacier. The climb doesn’t have much beta. Although the info we found made it clear that it wasn’t technically challenging. There was even a way to bypass the glacier altogether. The difficulty laid in the approach and the amount of time we decided to a lot for it (2 days instead of 3). Different beta seems to show different mileages, but regardless it was pretty clear that it would be LONG. In the end, the teams’ multiple GPS devices calculated 20 miles total on the summit day.  We knew that to complete what would clearly be a somewhat painful journey, especially on on the last day, we needed a team of positive people who could laugh in the face of fatigue. We assembled what turned out to be the dream team: Ivan, Jose, Jorge, Kara and Rich. Kara and Rich are basic students and this was there very first mountaineering trip. They’re determination and positive energy was remarkable.

We rallied at the Necklace Valley TH at 7:30am on Saturday. The first 5 miles of the trail is relatively flat and forested following the East Fork Foss River. We did, however, cope with stinging nettle thickly growing into the trail for some stretches. I have never run into the vegetation before, but will say that they are aptly named. There were mosquitos as well, though not many.

At mile five we crossed the river on a bridge and then over a long log bridge over a stream. Upon reaching the other side there is a short talus scramble marked by cairns before the dirt tread reappears and heads relentlessly up. Very Very much up! We could not figure out how long this wooded uphill section was. It felt like four miles to the lake, but the sign at the trailhead said it was 2. Our watches varied. Regardless we did eventually emerge tired and sweaty from the forest to the glistening waters of Jade Lake. The trail traverses along the left side of the lake shore. A good portion is submerged under the overflowing lake. Shoe removal was required, but rather refreshing in the afternoon heat. Once we reached dry trail again the team took a long break lounging in the sun and filtering water. The mosquitos increased here, but we released plumes of deet and it worked well. Damien and I indulged in a brief swim in the frigid blue water. I can’t describe how awake I felt after that!

We reluctantly departed Jade Lake and followed a less worn, narrow trail to the head of the valley. We passed several other lakes apparently, but the trail does not go to the shoreline of these. However, there was plenty of running water everywhere. At the end of the valley is 1200 foot pass call La Bohn Gap. We regrouped here and discussed out route options to scale the snow covered pass. It was much steeper than anticipated, especially toward the top. We opted to follow the snow just beside the talus on the left until it ended. Then we would move slightly right and ascend near the center rock island, keeping a far distance though to avoid the moat. Jose broke the track and we made steady upward progress. We started out without crampons, but at the top of the talus we put them on. The grade on the upper portion was about 50 degrees and very exposed over the large rock island and a slightly smaller one as well directly below us. We proceeded with caution and made it to the upper basin without a hitch.

We climbed over to the upper left bench of the basin and arrived at La Bohn Lakes about .25 miles away at 4:30pm. The area was mostly snow covered with several exposed heather patches perfect for camp. We all set up our sleeping systems and filtered water in the melted turquoise portion of one of the smaller lakes. It was difficult to focus on camp chores with the amphitheater of peaks that surrounded us. Truly a magical and secluded wilderness setting for basecamp.

After taking some time to get ourselves situated we re-grouped for dinner and to discuss the morning itinerary. We knew that it would be a 15-17 hour day and thus agreed (after some good natured grumbling) that we would be moving at 3:30am. We examined the portion of the route within view that we would climb by headlamp. It sat just right of the larger La Bohn Lake. After a short snowfield we would need to climb some blocky talus and rock just right of a small waterfall to gain an intermediate small snow slope. Then we were move left, scramble over a 10 foot headwall onto the next snow slope and heather benches until we reached the highest area in our field of vision. By then it would be light.

We all turned in before sunset, but even when darkness fell sleep did not come easy. The moon was so bright it never truly got dark. Heck we could barely see the stars in the moonlight! Our alarms rang at 2:45am.  It was shockingly chilly! The coffee crew boiled water (that is to say everyone but me) and we ate breakfast recounting our nighttime sleep experiences. “No one ever turned the lights out!” Jose said.

At 3:30am we promptly made our way to the blocky talus and began to climb. It is mostly secure climbing. However, some chunks of stone were wobblers and there were several more exposed technical sections that required contemplation, but never above class 3. We put on our crampons at the top of the steep talus slope (marked by a carin) and continued upward. There were 2 gullys that went up the 10 foot headwall guarded by a  small moat easily crossed. The students impressed us by climbing the headwall in crampons (first time) without any hesitation and listening carefully to our coaching.

The team moved to the upper slope and traversed left just 100-200 under the ridgeline crossing some talus bands and checking our GPS. We roped up into 2 teams at 6500 feet well before the glacier, but the traverse was about to get exposed. Split into 2 rope teams, we plodded along enjoying spectacular sunrise views of Sloan, Rainier, Glacier and Baring until we were below a section of the ridge that had a rocky high point. First we thought this was the summit and we made a beeline to the gap in the ridge below the rock pile. It turned out that this was one of many false summits, but it was the way to access the glacier. We crossed to the other side of the ridge and stepped onto Hinman Glacier (no crevasses). We traversed right (backtracking but on the opposite side the ridge). We then regained the ridge several yards from the true summit near some craggy, knife edge looking rocks (Damien placed a picket near the top where it got steeper). Here we un-roped and followed the mellow snow on the ridge to the rocky summit (class 2-).

It was rather windy on the summit so after some photos we took shelter in a moat near the craggy rock ridge for a snack before the journey back to camp. On the way back just after crossing on the other side the ridge we stopped to watch a entrancing performance as streams of clouds blew in fast moving ribbons over the ridge. None of us had ever seen anything like it. Retracing our steps was pretty straight forward and we were back at our tents at 9:45am. We took some time to chill, eat and nap before breaking down camp and departed at 11am for the long haul out.

Descending La Bohn Gap was a bit sketch at this hour. The sun had warmed only the top layer so it was not yet soft enough to plunge step. Yet it was not stiff enough for secure crampon pointing. We descended very slowly some of us using yesterday’s switchbacks and other front pointing face into the slope. The exposure and lack of experience on steep terrain got a little under Kara’s skin, but she never froze up or refused to go down like we’ve seen students do in the past. She listened to the instructors and with determination she made it down the gap. We were all impressed yet again.

From there was an endless march out. Ivan and I kept remarking of long it was from Jade Lake back to the flatter part of trail. We didn’t recollect it being so steep or so infinite! The group congregated at the creek where the flat section of trail began to filter water one last time and then spread out for the final trudge out. It was 5:00 and we had 5 miles to go. Jose decided he wanted to get back by 6 and took off. Damien followed not far behind. Jorge shouldered his pack not to be left out and swiftly disappeared into the trees. We would later find out that the three of them engaged in trail running with fully loaded packs making it back to the TH before the rest of us by 50-70 minutes. Ivan, Kara and Rich took of the rear leaving me to hike in the middle of the pack since, apparently, I have a middle speed gait. The 5 mile final slog through stinging nettle and forest was indeed endless, but I did enjoy the time to myself. It seemed like forever, but soon after the hoots of a barred owl echoed through the trees I emerged into the parking lot to see Jose sleeping in his trunk. Kara, Rich and Ivan appeared ten minutes later at about 7pm. It was the 16 hour, 20 mile sufferfest day we predicted. But I cannot describe how awesome the suffering especially with such an amazing group of mountain people!

 

This was one of those trips that didn’t exactly pan out as intended, but still ended up being incredibly awesome (that is if you enjoy a good sufferfest). The original intention was to climb as many of the Lemah summits as possible (there are 5 total) and then traverse to the next mountain over and climb Chikamin. There is a small bit of information on the tallest Lemah called “Main Lemah” or “Lemah Three”. The remaining 4 minor summits have beta that amounts to one sentence for each in the Beckey guide and a blurry, un-detailed distance photo with dotted lines in the same book. Chikamin has more beta, but the only info regarding approaching the climb from Chikamin Lake was a drawing and the same blurry photo. Information on traversing from the Lemahs to Chikamin Lake also amounted to the same vague drawing and blurry photo. In conclusion, we had minimal beta on our objectives and route. We knew going in to expect the unexpected.

Day 1:

Our goal for day one was to complete the approach to the Lemahs and camp on the slope directly beneath Lemah 5. We did have pretty good beta on the approach luckily. We began at the Pete Lake TH and walked 4 gentle miles to Pete Lake. while contending with mosquitoes for the first hour. Deet seemed to keep them mostly at bay. From the Lake we continued on until we reached the primitive/bridge river crossing junction to Spectacle Lake. From here we turned left and trekked another mile before crossing the first bridge. The second bridge (Lemah Creek Bridge) has been washed out, but there was no need to cross. At this landmark we departed the trail and followed a faint boot track through the forest up the creek. This track went from faint to non-existent when we reached mossy rock benches. The idea is to just follow the creek more or less until reaching beautiful Lemah Meadows. We were very tempted indeed to just set up camp in this gorgeous, secluded oasis. A blanket of fragrant green grass engulfed a large open area with a deep, refreshing creek winding through it. Just ahead all five of the Lemah’s jagged summits rose into the skyline.

Though we did take a break here to soak our feet in the cool creek and enjoy the view we managed to tear ourselves away and press on. Damien and I headed across the meadow aiming for the obvious snow couloir on the right side of the Lemahs. Of course this was not to be a simple walk through a meadow. We had to contend with about ½ mile of bush whacking through dense willows and then navigated snow covered talus where under-snow creeks carved hollow tunnels just waiting to collapse. By the time we reached the snow finger we felt a bit beat up. Determined, we continued up the snow slopes with towering rock walls rearing above us on either side. It felt like a snow couloir canyon and streaming down the walls were countless waterfalls! There were some massive boulder islands in the couloir guarded by moats up to 30 feet deep. I had never seen anything like it. About halfway up we paused to rest on a small island of vegetated ground and rock that we were able to access since a significant moat was strangely absent. We still had about 1500 feet more to climb to get of the base of the Lemahs and it was getting late. Conveniently, there was a small flat area on the island  and we decided that this would be camp 1.  It was a spectacular place to spend the evening and more importantly the rock island provided protection from the fall line of any canyon debris.

 

Day 2:

We continued up the couloir at sunrise which gradually grew steeper as we ascended. About 200 feet from the top of the couloir we veered off to the left just to where the towering rock wall dissipated so we could cross onto the Lemah Snowfields. However, there was still a short rock wall to scramble with a small, but noteworthy waterfall. Of course the climbable part of this rock wall was currently submerged under the waterfall which made for a rather interesting mix climb. Usually with my crampons and axe I climb frozen waterfalls and not running ones!  We took a short break on a heather bench before continuing into the snowfield beneath the Lemahs. We examined the route up Lemah 5. Basically, the idea with to climb to the notch between Lemah 4 and 5 and then ascend the ridge. The way to the notch was about a 50 degree snow slope with some slabs melted out. These slabs were guarded by significant moats 20-30 feet deep and about 3 feet wide. If you fell on the snow above then and didn’t catch the fall in time you’d be swallowed. We decided we could avoid being directly over all but one of these moats and opted to go for it with caution. Damien and I left our overnight gear in a depression in the snow and began to climb. We did not use a rope since it was only 50 degrees. A second axe might have been nice for security, but we did ok with just one. We kicked in extra deep over the moat run-out. Luckily at notch we were able to access the rock ridge since the moat was small enough to navigate.  However, we found that the ridge led to a false summit. In order to get to the true summit we had to cross another snow field to the next tall summit spire. This was guarded by a formidable 30 foot deep x 3 feet wide moat. No access. At least we had great views from the middle false summit.

We had to descend most of the route facing the slope which was tedious and painstakingly mind-numbing. We returned to our gear and reloaded our packs. After some discussion we decided to make Lemah Main the priority and began to traverse the snowfield. We opted not to rope up on the glacier since crevasses were not is issue until late season. We noted the route up Lemah 4 as we passed beneath it. It was guarded by unpassable moats. It took us some time to get the route of Lemah 3 (main) into view. We traversed slopes under the towers and then beneath steep slabby buttresses and under Lemah 2 until we could climb back up and around to the top of the buttress to view the way up. This was the worst looking route yet. Thin snow on top of slabby rock, huge moats, waterfall traps. Yikes. Feeling a bit defeated we reflected on how to proceed with the trip. Clearly, we had come too early to climb any of the Lemahs. Lemah 1 was in front of us abruptly jutting out of a craggy ridge wall guarding the way to Chikamin Lake. As previously mentioned, we had a drawing of this ridge and blurry photo. It was difficult to tell where we were supposed to go up to access the top of the ridge and there was a big question mark as to what the descent to the lake would be like or if it was possible. If we chose wrong it could easily cost us 2 hours. We studied the poor beta we had and compared it to the landscape, then made our best guess.

We traversed what remained of the the snowfield and then down to some turquoise glacial tarns where the wind suddenly picked up. It was a gorgeously rugged landscape and we couldn’t help but pause for a moment to enjoy it all. Jagged rock towers, untouched snow, crystal blue pools and majestic Cascade Views. It’s a good thing we stopped to admire everything, because our brains were about to be subjected to mental overload.

We ascended the 40 degree snow toward the ridge crest until it petered out to talus and rock. The anticipation was disconcerting. We had no idea what we would find. Was this what it felt like to do a first ascent? We topped out on the ridge crest. About 700 feet below us was a small pond and to the right we knew was Chikamin Lake. Luckily, we had topped out on a broad bench on the ridge. But several meters below us was a cliff blocking access to a snow finger… a snow finger that led down to a maze of snow fingers and benches which randomly may or may not cliff out. Still we thought getting to this snow finger might be the first step to getting down. We traversed along the lake side of the ridge on a heather bench. This bench hit an unpassable wall and cliffed out below us. We turned back and backtracked to where we had first popped up on the ridge top.  No beta. Just a topo map now and what we saw in front of us. It looked like the slopes down to the lake grew gentler on the far right side of the ridge (we could not see it from our vantage point). The only way to gain what might be gentler slopes down would be to climb along the rocky top of the ridge. With no other option we began to scramble the ridge which grew more exposed and technical as we traveled. At its worse it was exposed class 4. We bypassed the class 5 high point by moving just below it on some very loose, blocky rock with no room for error hoping that when we got around the corner we would finally be able to see an escape route. Our brains were fried at that point. Would it go? Would we have to find another way? Were we trapped on the ridge? Down climbing to where we had started would be extremely sketch. I have a new respect for first ascensionists. Having the mental aptitude to withstand constantly not knowing if a route will go takes massive fortitude.

We were exceedingly relieved to discover gentle talus, scree and snow slopes down the Chikamin Lake once we rounded the corner. We picked our way down to the lake feeling a massive weight lifted from our shoulders. At least a figurative weight; our packs were still pretty heavy. Mentally drained we set up camp 2 on the breezy shore of Chikamin Lake in the shadow of Chikamin Peak. Aside from cliff faces on the snow slopes, Chikamin Peak appeared to be climbable. Of course the question remained as to if the summit block was guarded by a moat. We would go for it in the morning.

Day 3:

Breezes turned to severe wind overnight and we woke in the morning for find ourselves engulfed in heavy mist with minimal visibility. We were on the crest and thick clouds were being blown in heavy shrouds over us. However, we could see clear skies on all the surrounding mountains and valleys in the tiny pockets of visibility granted us. We waited three hours hoping the mist would burn off or lift. A few times it seemed like it would, but the cloak always returned. We were nervous about climbing Chikamin in low visibility with the cliff faces we had seen the previous evening. It seemed unwise especially when our brains were still shot from yesterday’s epic. We made the agonizing decision to abandon Chikamin and press on through more question mark terrain after concluding the low clouds would probably hang around for several more hours if not the rest of the day. We knew we already had at least 6 hours of travel ahead to reach Spectacle Lake.

There is a faint trail from Chikamin Lake back to the PCT. But is is a vague trail in the summer through a maze of benches, ledges and cliffs topped off with a steep ascent to another ridge crest to gain the PCT. Add early season steep snow slopes and, you guessed it, more sketch moats to this and you’re basically back to route finding and hoping the way you choose will go. However, this experience wasn’t nearly as taxing as the previous day. We managed to navigate down to Glacier Lake after climbing into and out of a moat, traversing 30 degree slopes and navigating through a partially snow covered boulder field full of traps. From there we crossed a high plateau and faced the wall guarding access to the PCT. Again, we got lucky and chose the correct route up to the top of the ridge on steep snow finally gaining the PCT or patches of it anyway. At that elevation it was mostly snow covered.

It didn’t matter that the PCT was partially concealed though. After what we had experienced this route- finding was peanuts to us. We easily made our way to Park Lakes and then began the long descent down to Spectacle Lake. Of course as we lost elevation the bare parts of the trail increased until we were walking on mostly dry switchbacks.

It was strange to camp on Spectacle Lake and hear voices of nearby backpackers. We didn’t like it even though the lake wasn’t crowded. I think it was the first time since last fall that we camped in the near vicinity of other parties! We’re used to solitude. We had to shelter from the mosquitoes in the evening. A stark reminder that summer climbing season has officially begun and we were more likely to run into people and insects on our trips moving forward.

 

Day 4:

This was by far the least eventful day as it was completely spent on a maintained trail. We departed the lake at 5:30 hoping to beat the heat and the mosquitoes on the 11 mile trek to the Pete Lake TH. We managed to beat the insects and sun until the final 5 miles. Suddenly the buzzing, biting, vermin were waging war on us and battling them with chemical warfare (aka: deet) was doing nothing. All we could do to escape was walk as fast as possible without stopping which thus caused us to get overheated. It was pretty torturous and we dove into the car when we finally reached the TH to escape. This concluded our epic alpine adventure which we realized had been a gigantic loop around Spectacle Lake! Maybe it wasn’t the trip we intended. However, although not full of summits, it certainly wasn’t void of knowledge gained, epic adventure and raw beauty. I could have done without the mosquitoes though!