Damien and I were just itching to break out the rope this weekend for a technical ascent. With what appeared to be perfect sunny weekend ahead, we decided to attempt Northeast Buttress Couloir (NBC) on Colchuck Peak. Two weeks ago, when we had driven through Leavenworth, we were shocked at how much snow was just in the town! Perhaps this would mean too much soft, fluffy snow in the couloir? We decided to take a chance. If we got out there and found the snow to be too soft, then we could switch summits/routes. As it turned out, were concerned about the wrong thing!

Driving down Icicle Road, Damien and I were shocked to see how far up the snow line had traveled since 2 weeks ago. We could have gone rock climbing in the canyon! There was heavy rain in the forecast the previous weekend. We didn’t anticipate it causing this much melt though. Parking out car near Eightmile Road, we were relieved to find an icy layer of snow on the dirt road approach. At least we wouldn’t have to carry our skis! With packs weighed down with climbing gear, we began to skin up the closed road toward the TH. Damien and I made the journey up Eightmile Road 7 times last year and we are thoroughly sick of it. We continuous say we’re done skiing up it somehow always end up there anyway.

About .5 miles up, we reached a large bare spot and carried the skis to the next stretch of snow. The following bare spot was much longer and lasted about .25 miles. Last year the road was snow covered into April! Yikes. Under the weight of my skis and climbing gear, my pack felt like hell. About 65 lbs of hell. In addition, my beloved Hyperlite pack is at the repair shop and I was wearing my much less than favorite backpack. Ugh. Regardless, Damien and I trudged up the road in high spirits. We knew the couloir would be solid and soft snow would not be an issue!

Eightmile Road finally terminated at the Stuart Lake Trailhead. I feel as though I know every tree on this trail. We continued onward. Normally all the creeks are covered by massive snow bridges, but we found them all to be flowing wildly and mostly unconcealed. The snow bridges that existed were narrow/ thin and, luckily, stable. The snow continued to be solid and covered with debris. At the Colchuck Lake junction, the steeper trail and increasingly more wretched skinning conditions resulted in a massive slow-down of already sluggish progress. Much to my dismay, I found myself sliding downhill on several occasions. I gave up on skinning and, after muttering a few expletives, carried my skis up for 1.5 miles, only putting them back on .25 miles from the lake. Of course, by then it was dark and my shoulders were exceedingly furious.

Damien and I crossed frozen Colchuck Lake in the silence of the cold, moonless night. Normally covered with at least a foot of snow, the ice was mostly bare, and we found ourselves pondering if ice skates would have been better than skis. We are both exhausted and the traverse across the lake seemed to be in a time warp where we never made progress. Still, it was difficult not to enjoy the beauty and tranquility of the moonless night.

Finally, on the other side of the lake, Damien and I set up camp on the edge of the ice on a small section of less frozen snow. At this point Damien discovered that he had neglected his freeze dried dinner but managed to remember this spoon!

Damien and I were up and moving again before daybreak. We originally planned to bring our skis up NBC for a fun descent. However, with the extreme icy conditions we decided to leave them behind. Damien and I ascended to the upper basin above the lake in good crampon conditions  arriving near the base of NBC just as dim light illuminated the route. To our surprise, there was a lack of snow in the couloir with an exposed rock section blocking progress on the route. It wasn’t in.  Damien said there had been more snow when he climbed it in May a few years back!

Although it was tempting to retreat to our cozy sleeping bag at camp, Damien and I opted to switch over to Colchuck Glacier. We decided to climb up to the col for conditioning and perhaps attempt the scramble route of Colchuck if time allowed. I don’t know why ascending to Colchuck Col is always so brutal. I always assumed that my freshly sprained ankle was the reason I recalled it being a rather arduous trudge the last time I climbed the glacier 2 years ago. Behold, it was just as character building on this ascent. Of course, blistered feet and ski boots didn’t help! We reached the Col during late morning and were greeted by a perfect view of Mount Rainier. It was too late to climb the scramble route up Colchuck so we descended feeling at least like we managed to make it up to a destination and got in some conditioning.

We descended back to the lake camp in a quarter of the time it took to ascend. I wanted to nap for at least four hours, but I had to settle for 20 minutes. Damien and I packed up camp and began our journey back across the ice, dreading the descent to the car. We carried our skis for the first 3 miles of trail because it was too steep and icy to feel safe skiing. To my already battered body 65lbs felt like cruel and unusual punishment. After crossing the 2nd bridge we switched back to skis. Damien removed his skins, but I did not. I didn’t trust myself at my level of fatigue to turn with accuracy through the trees on ice. Once on the road though I ripped off the skins and switched to ski mode. It was another moonless night as we skidded down the ice skating rink of a road, carrying our skis for the uphill and bare sections. We arrived back at the car thoroughly frayed at 7:45pm. Exhausted, starving and happy to have experienced another sufferfest!

 

Note: Northeast Couloir on Colchuck and Triple Couloirs & Gib’s Sink on Dragontail are also exceedingly thin.

Upper Greensleeves is in no way related to Lower Greensleeves. They are two unattached flows. I guess thinking of a totally new name was too much effort! In any case, Damien and I decided to check out Upper Greensleeves. It is known to be a wet climb. With all the sunshine we’d been having coupled with temps in the 40’s there was a chance the ice would be completely saturated. Still. we wanted to check it out. From the base of G1 we followed the trail left passing Lower Greensleeves. The trail climbs steeply upward. Some trails branch out and converge, but in the end I’m almost certain all tracks lead to the base of Hangover. From hangover, we continued to traverse left until reaching the bottom of Upper Greensleeves.

The first pitch is several short tiers of W2 and steep snow. From a distance it looked like it could easily be soloed, but when I got up close I changed by mind and asked for the rope! The pitch is wide with many route options. I did my best to stay on the best looking ice. The pitch felt very alpine with the snow and ice mixture in the gully and the winds howling all around us. In fact, there were 80mph winds on the surrounding summits that day!

I belayed Damien from a tree at the base of the W3 pitch. As predicted, there was a liquid waterfall flowing over the frozen waterfall. I made several attempts to climb up the first W3 tier. Most swings, no mater where I placed the pick, resulted in the ice turning bright white. But I also could not clean the dinner plating no many how many time I swung.. It stayed put. I was nervous that the ice would dinner plate once under my full weight. Questionable ice and that fact that I looked like I’d been standing in the rain for an hour from the dripping ice made us decide to skip the second pitch. We barely made it down with one rappel from the tree with a 60m rope. There were other intermittent rap trees so we could have done 2 raps. Certainly a fun route, but do the second pitch on a colder day!

 

Damien and I headed up to explore the Mummy Cooler Area mid-week. The trail leads up from just right of the Amphitheater Area near Fat Chance. Several trails seem to branch out from from the main one after gaining a few hundred feet. We kept trending right as all the climbs in the area are in  line along the same cliff. Finally, Damien and I ended up at the base of Matrix which is fatter than usual this year and going at about W4+. We turned right and followed the trail to its termination at Feeding The Cat W3+. A lot of folks were talking about this climb and we wanted to check it out for ourselves. It’s short, sweet and steep. From the bottom it looks like the upper portion is the most technical part. I felt uneasy about leading this one so Damien took the sharp end.

It turned out that the bottom 2qw steeper than it looked! The ice wasn’t in the greatest condition either; really wet and somewhat brittle. Damien asked me to finish the lead for him once he got to the top of the first tier. I climbed up the route, but felt too psyched out to finish the lead. The nature of the ice was freaking me out too. Last time I led on sub-optimal ice I took a lead fall and it still haunts me. We decided to bail on a screw.

Damien later found out that he’d led the crux! The top of the climb appeared worst from the bottom which was a big reason we bailed. However, it was the first tier that was actually the hardest part. Looks can be deceiving indeed. We will be back!

Feeding the Cat

Damien and I decided to venture over to The Amphitheater Area on our second day. On Damien’s first trip to Hyalite Canyon about 6 years ago, he and some friends had hired a guide. One of the climbs they did was Fat Chance. On our last trip to Hyalite, Damien and I had looked at this flow and deemed it too difficult for us to lead. It was time to return once again. This time things were different.

We waited a bit to get on the route since it was Sunday at the canyon and crowded as usual. The team before us went up the steep center section of the falls. When it was Damien’s lead he decided to angle more left of the main flow. He thought this route would be a bit easier than the intimating steep face. However, upon following Damien and then doing some laps on the center on the face as well, I think he ended up taking the more difficult way up! The center was steep and long, but extremely picked out making is a very easy climb. The left side, on the other hand, was nearly untouched and, though shorter, featured a steeper angle and more awkward moves! Damien crushed it!

Fat Chance is certainly a great route, but it does draw crowds. Get there early. It is easy to top rope and rappel from tree anchors.

Damien and I were excited to return to Hyalite this winter. Two seasons ago during out visit ,we’d spent our time perfecting technique and doing laps in the top roping area: G1. This year we hoped to tag some classic lead routes in the canyon. Our first stop was a noteable combo: Lower Greensleeves to Hangover.

Lower Greensleeves to easy to find. Upon reaching the popular G1 area continue left along the trail. In a few feet there is a small W2 flow (Willow Gully). A few yards later there is a larger and taller flow. This is Lower Greensleeves. It is rated W3, but many agree that it is really a tall W2 route. It’s a great warm up climb to get in the swing of things (literally) and a confidence builder. Damien easily led up the climb and belayed me up after him to a tree anchor. We stuffed the rope and screws into our packs and continued upward.

We followed a trail left from the top of Lower Greensleeves for several yards. Several trails branch off here and there. We stayed on the main one. It seems that all other trails eventually converged back together leading steeply upward and depositing us at the base of Hangover. Luckily there was only one team ahead of us and they moved swiftly up the climb taking the right variation. Damien and I opted to climb the traditional left variation.

It was my lead so I geared up and began to swing my nomics. I chose to stay in the far right corner of the falls near the rock. This seemed like the easiest way up, but in the end there were some awkward stemming moves in the ice chimney and then some technical and exposed moves to leave the chimney and get onto the open face of the flow. So much for taking the east way out!

There were several different belay anchors all on trees when I topped out of the tier. I continued up W1/2 ice and snow to the highest tree near the base of the 2nd tier before belaying Damien up. For the second pitch I stayed far right on ripply and dripping ice to an upper belay tree. It’s best to set up a top rope rather than belay from above since the tree is hanging over the falls. It is two rappels from trees to the base.

Damien and I returned to this route a few days later. This time Damien led up the center of the first pitch. It felt more exposed, but was not awkward. I led the second pitch again, but this time going through the center of the flow. From a distance it looks tame, but up close the ice reared upward and is very vertical. Luckily I got through the exposed moves amd completed my steepest pitch to date!

 

 

Spring and summer climbing season of 2017 has focused particularly on 2 skillsets: carryover and mental fortitude. The fact that our climbs have been centered around these 2 aspects is not an accident; it was intentional training in preparation for our summer project: Kautz Glacier. Most people climb Mt Rainier with a base camp on the popular Emmons or DC Routes. These routes are more or less like a maintained trail going up a glacier. Any danger is mitigated by guides upholding a track steering climbers away for trouble. The only real issue to contend with on these standard routes is altitude. The Kautz is different. This route has two technical alpine ice walls, no tracks, yawning crevasses to navigate, extremely steep slopes and, of course, altitude. It is commonly done carryover style with a descent of the DC route since descending Kautz is time consuming and often dangerous. Additionally, this year the recommended start of the route was Comet Falls TH at 3,600 feet due to the mangled mess of crevasses on the lower Nisqually. Normally the start of the route is from Paradise at 5420 ft.

I picked up our permit on a sweltering Thursday evening. The air was thick with smoke from the wildfires torching British Columbia and the mountain was just barely visible through the haze. I hoped that we would be well above the smoke layer on the climb. I did a combination of wandering around Paradise, reading and attempting to sleep while I waited for Damien to drive in from Seattle. Five hours later after totally missing each other several times in the parking lot, Damien and I finally reunited. Leaving Damien’s car at Paradise, we piled our gear into my SUV and drove to the Comet Falls TH hoping to get an acceptable amount of sleep before venturing out for the approach.

At 2:30am we swung our heavy packs onto our backs and followed the beam of our headlamps down up the Comet Falls Trail. Our alpine start reasons were triple fold: we had to gain 5800 feet, we wanted to arrive at camp early so we could nap all afternoon and once the sun came up it was supposed be another day of unbearable heat. The trail gained relatively slowly until arriving at Comet Falls. The falls seemed to glow in the moonlight and we paused to admire them before continuing up the now steep switchbacks to Van Trump Park.

The soft early morning light illuminated glorious wildflower meadows of Van Trump Park as we broke out of the trees and entered the alpine zone. Behind us the Tatoosh Range looked like a pastel drawing, softly cloaked in a haze of smoke far below. Ahead of. us looking rather intimidating, was Mount Rainier unobstructed with smoke and radiating with its pure immensity. We could see Camp Hazard and the upper ice wall from our vantage point… everything looked so far away! We followed the trail through the sprawling meadow venturing passed the sign reading “end of maintained trail”. The trail never felt unmaintained, however, until we reached a rocky ridge. Damien chose to scramble through the talus while I opted to stay on the snow just beside the rocks. To my delight, my trail runners seemed to have great traction! We continued up the steep terrain for several hundred feet until the rocks ended and a vast snowfield laid in front of us. It was an easy grade at first, but then in reared up sharply.  The full strength of the sun’s rays was beginning to bare down on us as we begrudgingly began the final 1000 foot ascent in the scorching heat and softening softening snow.

We reached the Castle at 11am. The Castle is the lowest section of Turtle Snowfield at 9400 feet. However, it’s has running water and nice built up bivy/tent sites on the rock island. There was a single tent that had been collapsed in one of these sites. There was also a team of three at the end of the Island getting ready to ascend to Camp Hazard at 11,600 feet. We read in our beta that Camp Hazard is aptly named and not suggested as a camp. It is right beneath the Kautz Ice Cliff and it’s not unheard of for chunks of ice to comes hurling through camp.

We set up our modest camp overlooking the Muir Snowfield, Camp Muir, The Nisqually Glacier and Tatoosh Range. We had an ultra-light tarp at 8oz, summer sleeping bags and z-pads. The rest of the afternoon was spent attempting to escape the sun very unsuccessfully while we napped. We had dinner in the early evening wondering when the climbers would return to their tent. They showed up at 6:30 exhausted from the Kautz and the tedious descent of the ice walls. The packed up and moved their camp further down. The sun finally dipped below the horizon and the cool evening air we’d been waiting for finally arrived. Time to catch a few short hours of quality sleep before our next alpine start!

It seemed like I had only been asleep for 15 minutes when my alarm jolted me awake at 11:30pm. Damien and I broke down camp and began stuffing our packs for the carryover. Of course, Damien boiled some water for coffee as well. By 12:30am we began our very long walk uphill using only the moon as a source of light; tt was so bright we didn’t need to switch on our headlamps. The frozen snow softly crunched beneath our crampons as we journeyed up Turtle Snowfield. Other than that, it was silent and pristine. The slope grew steeper as we continued up and we switched from poles to ice axes. The sun cups made the ascent seem like walking up steep stairs at times and with my short, little legs this grew tiresome. Still we plodded on.

At 11,300 feet, we reached Camp Hazard. There is running water here as well and some rock bivy sites. Of course, hanging directly above was the Kautz Icecliff looking very precarious. At the edge of the camp we tied into our 37-meter rope. From here we descended 300 feet down the other side of Camp Hazard through a precarious ice fall zone, moving quickly to mitigate the danger. I have heard of folks rapping from Camp Hazard into this icefall chute, but it was a very easy downclimbed. Finally, we were out of the danger zone and at the base of the first ice wall. The wall at this point in the season was still all snow, but it was frozen solid in the darkness. It featured very large sun-cups and, at the sharp grade, it resembled a massive wall of very steep and tall steps. Damien led up. The features were interesting through I was forced to clamber up some of the steps with my knees since they were so tall! It felt like a stair master 10 Billion! No protection was placed as we simual-climbed since the snow wouldn’t effectively take screws and it was too solid to bang in a picket. I’m not sure we would have placed anything even if we could. There were some narrow crevasses easily seen and stepped over.

The grade eased and, as the run rose, we crossed more sun-cup terrain to the second ice wall. This wall appears more daunting and large at a distance that it truly is once you get up close. There is a narrow line of grey ice right through the center. Damien did not wait for a belay and began climbing up the W2/3 alpine ice. He placed 3 screws before building an anchor with our final 2. This belay would not have been necessary if we had some additional screws (we had 5 total), but its worth the extra weight. As I ascended the grey ice I was struck by how poorly the picks of my sumtecs were sticking. It was horrific! Luckily, I was wearing mono-point crampons and they seemed to be sticking well. Thus, I climbed relying very heavily on feet. Lots of dinner plating action too! Damien also was having issues with his picks, although his swings are stronger and thus he could make it work better. Therefore, we decided that he would lead the second section. When the rope grew tight I removed the anchor and continued up following Damien to the top of the ice wall and into the most impressive world of penitents I have ever seen.

Penitents, or spires of glacial snow, that can range in size from a foot high to over your head engulfed us above the grey ice.  They were big, mostly around shoulder height. We wove our way through the formations doing our best to keep the rope from getting snagged. Nestled within these spires were, of course, crevasses. There was no trail. There was nothing to show us the way. This was true mountaineering and it was the first time we had to rely 100% on ourselves to problem solve. And there were a lot of navigation problems! The crevasses were long and sweeping. Sometimes we could step or jump over. More often we had to traverse the edges and find a way around them which took time. The penitents seemed to form fences around the crevasses though creating a nifty border as we walked along the edges. During our route-finding extravaganza, we switched leads due to all the wandering.

Finally, I found myself on the edge of the most massive crevasse I have ever encountered. At first it looked like I could go around it to the left, but it soon became clear that the penitents concealed part of the crevasse and it stretched out clear across the glacier. We turned and went the other way walking toward the rock formation called Wapowety Cleaver. We had to follow the cleaver to its terminus anyway at the Nisqually Glacier. Hopefully, near the rock we could cross the monstrous crevasse.

Somewhere along the line we switched leads again and made a, to our displeasure, descending traverse along the edge in search of passage. After dropping about 200 feet we saw that the crevasse curved just before it reached the rock so we had no direct access to the cleaver. However, there seemed to be a bridge/cave in, that we could cross. Carefully, we picked our way across the bridge and made it to the other side.

We continued upward on the glacier alongside the cleaver. As we ascended the penitents grew shorter before finally morphing into sun-cups. Near the top of the cleaver we stepped onto the rock to avoid a crevasse. Once back on the snow we continued to the end of the Wapowety and discovered some bivys in the rock at 13,100~ feet.  We took this opportunity to take a long break. The terrain ahead looked easier, but now we would start to feel the effects of altitude. Damien and I looked up again from the rocks and marveled at how far the summit still seemed to be! Far below us we could see the faint images of distant mountain ssubmerged in a thick, grey sheet of smoke. We were high above the smog, but breathing would still be difficult.

Rehydrated and fed, we stood and pondered the obstacle blocking us from entry onto the upper Nisqually. We were faced with another enormous crevasse stemming out of impressive, towering seracs on our left. We would need to move quickly through here, but how should be cross the crevasse? Damien walked along the edge (again going down) and stumbled upon a bridge. It was not a walk across bridge though. It was a taller, knife-edge bridge. To cross we would need to do an exposed ice climbing style traverse along the side of the bridge over hundreds of feet of air.  With no way to place and anchor I prepared to arrest if the bridge collapsed as Damien began to cross. He placed a picket midway through. Once the ice axe traverse eased into a normal bridge for the last 3-4 feet he crawled to spread his weight as things looked thin. Then it was my turn. It was overwhelmingly thrilling to me on that bridge aa look down into the blue abyss that is a bottomless crevasse. I was clinging on a snow bridge in the middle of a sea of nothing. The crossing was not hard, just exceedingly airy. I did not crawl the final section, I leaped instead.

The ice climbing bridge marked the end of spicy crevasse crossings. From there we continued upward on a very long walk aiming for the tiny bit of rock high above marking the edge of the crater. At altitude, each step became increasing taxing and my body began to panic in its struggle for oxygen. I recognized this symptom for 3 years ago on Rainier and knew it was normal. I sat down a let a few tears flow. When I can’t breathe my body reacts by crying sometimes. It’s very strange, but after a few minutes I feel somewhat relieved and can continue up the endless snow and ice. None of this is from fear, emotion or pain. I guess it’s by body’s way of releasing the physical stress. No idea. I always feel like  nothing had even happened when I get up.

We came across crevasses. These were easy to step over or go around. There was one that required crossing a bridge/collapsed ice, but it wasn’t sketch. Damien did opt to crawl the last few thin feet again. I ran.

It seemed like an eternity, but we finally crested the dusty, rocky crater rim at 3:30 pm. Breathing heavy we set our packs down and eagerly got off our feet. A member of the Glacier Cave Explorers came over to greet us. The explorers are a group of scientists who are studying glacial caves on Mt Rainier and other volcanos. They had a basecamp in the summit crater. He chatted with us about Kautz and pointed to where we could find the descent route down the DC. Descending… that did not sound appealing.

We still needed to visit Columbia Crest, the true summit along the rim, but our conversation kept turning to something else… should be just camp on the rim? We were tired and the thought of going down to Camp Muir did not sound all too great, especially in the heat of the day. This was an amazing opportunity. There was little wind, descent temps, there would be a full moon and we had overnight gear. The only trouble might be the altitude headaches we had gotten in the past after spending too much time above 13k. However, after 45 minutes we only  light headaches at best. The decision was made: we would camp on the summit.

We began to follow the Crater Rim looking for a protected area. As it turns out we stumbled upon the entrance to one of the glacial caves. The entrance was protected by snow walls and had a gravel floor. From the mouth of the cave steam released in plumes, but there were no fumes to alarm us. Perfect. We went to work setting up our tarp and melting snow for water. Some scientists came over to make sure we weren’t causing trouble with the cave. They told us there was a giant lake under the ice and assured us that the steam was not poisonous. We took some vitamin I and laid our weary bodies down for an hour before rising to make dinner. Then we swiftly fell back asleep setting our alarm for 7:30 so we could head off Columbia Crest to watch the sunset.

Seeing the sunrise on the summit of Rainier is a common experience for many climbers of the volcano. However, not many people have the chance to experience a Columbia Crest Sunset. We followed the rim which was mostly rock and dust as the light began to dim. It was about a half mile walk from our camp. From the snowy, penitent decorated hump that is Columbia Crest we stood in the same place where Damien proposed to me just over a year ago. The shadow of the massive mountain made a dark silhouette in the smoky horizon and a bright moon glowed just above distant Mt Adams poking out of the grey haze. Just behind Point Success the sun began to sink painting the sky with pastel hues of blue, pink and purple. The glaciers reflected pink and yellow and the wind was just a whisper on the largest volcano in Washington. We stood entranced watching the sun dip below the horizon and melting away into the smoke in brilliant display of fiery yellows and orange. We were alone of the summit fully enveloped in the supremacy of the mountain. It was an honor and a privilege to view that sunset and experience the mountain in way few others do.

Feeling serene, Damien and I continued along the rim passing some steaming ground. When we touched the earth, it radiated with searing heat, evidence that this volcano is very much alive. We signed the summit register and descended into the trench, or trail through the center of the crater. Here the penitents were above my head, though they grew shorter as we journeyed to the other side toward our camp. In the fluorescent moonlight, we huddled into our 30 degree sleeping bags and fell almost instantly into a deep sleep.

The alarm rang signaling our third alpine start at 12:30am. Under the starry sky we broke down camp and began the process of packing our bags one final time. Ahead of us laid the grueling descent of Disappointment Cleaver Route. Normally, elevation loss clocks out at 8991 feet. However, this year the DC was not following its normal route on the mountain. Due to some breakups on the glacier, the DC route strays from its normal track. At the top of Disappointment Cleaver, the path descends 600 feet before regaining the lost elevation and making some sweeping traverse switchbacks to join up with the Emmons Route. This meant our elevation loss would be 9591 ft. and we would have to go up 600 feet too! The distance to Camp Muir at 10,188 feet is currently 3.8 miles.

Damien and I crossed the crater and roped up at the edge of the glacier. As per our usual routine, I led down the mountain. A deep trail was cut into the towering penitents as we journeyed down in a silent, windless night. After Kautz, the DC/Emmons felt like a simple hiking trail that happened to be very steep. About 200 feet down we encountered a hand line which assisted in descending a steep section and crossing a hanging crevasse. It was strange to suddenly have help! At 13,800 feet, we reached the junction where Emmons and DC spit. We turned right following the flagging that conveniently read “Camp Muir”. However, rangers have reported climbers ending up at camp Sherman by accident! That was not a mistake we wanted to make!

We encountered the first team heading up at 13000 feet. They were well ahead of the hoards and part of the cave expedition. About 20 minutes layer we began to run into the rest of the teams heading up. Some of the guided groups were easily 20 people large. We stepped aside and let them pass us. The private teams seemed to all be in one cluster. They all offered to let us pass, eager for an excuse to catch their breathe. As suddenly as all the headlamps had appeared, they all vanished behind us. Now we stood at the base of the 600 foot ascent to the top of Disappointment Cleaver. I made quick work of the first few hundred feet, but then I abruptly hit a wall. I could feel my body protesting upward motion. My stomach suddenly felt tight and it churned aggressively, begging me for food (I was nearly out). My muscles did not want to take another step. I gritted my teeth and trudged on, though my pace slowed considerably.

We crossed a single ladder over a crevasse, but the clever never did get any closer. My feet felt heavy. The walk seemed infinite. I needed to eat, but I wanted to get to the rock. After and eternity, we arrived at the top of the cleaver. Normally the rock section is not far away, but this year the trail stayed on the snow until only 700 feet above Ingraham. This was great because the volcano crud is horrible to descend, bad because that meant my break was further away.

Finally, we stepped on volcanic rock. I collapsed and summoned the energy to dig out my food and water. I almost immediately felt rejuvenated. We admired the now illuminated world of ice reflecting tones of pink, orange and yellow as the rays from the sun finally touched the glacier. Rainier is truly enchanted no matter where you are on the mountain. Smoke still lingered below, but it was thinner than the days before. Little Tacoma stood just off to our left looking very small in the shadow of Rainier.

Refreshed we stood and continued the thankfully short descent of the cleaver and back onto the glacier ice. It was a quick saunter to Ingraham Flats Camp where there were surprisingly few tents. Back on volcanic crud we descended Cathedral Gap to Cowlitz Glacier. Camp Muir laid not to far off on the opposite side the glacial expanse. I hurried toward it stepping over a few tame crevasses.

Camp Muir was quiet this early in the morning as most dayhikers don’t make it up until afternoon. We dropped our packs on the gravel and began the tedious process of un-roping and packing up our technical climbing gear. Some climbers planning on making the ascent the following night came over confused as to how we had gotten down so early. Easy: we summited yesterday afternoon! We lingered at Muir and took a quick nap to rest our knees for the second half of the descent. At 9:30 we were walking again.

We did a combination of glissades and walking down the snowfield to Pebble Creek. Unfortunately, the snow was softening fast, so I couldn’t glissade as much as I would have liked. At Pebble Creek, we switched our mountaineering boots for trail runners and entered the world of visitors wearing jeans and other forms of cotton. It’s always strange returning to civilization after an intense climb.

Damien paused just after we passed the last switchback to Panorama Point. He gestured to the guided group sitting just off the trail behind us listening to their leader describe the history of the mountain. “That’s Melissa Arnot!”

We pressed on, each step jolting our bodies a little be more. The trail turned to pavement and we learned very quickly that trail runners are only good in the dirt. They stick to pavement and shock the body with impact. This was the most painful part of the entire descent. Even worse that the 600 feet up! It wasn’t a long stretch though and we finally emerged out of the meadows and into the Paradise Parking lot 2.5 hours after departing Camp Muir. At that point, I had one thing on my mind: lunch!
It hard to accurately describe the experience of Euphoria after climbing Kautz. It was the ultimate type 2 fun adventure and the most difficult glacier climb I have done. On the climb up I could not understand why I had wanted to attempt such a committing, endless and technical route. Right after I finished lunch at Paradise Inn I felt like I couldn’t get back into the mountains fast enough to do it all again! Amazing climbs have an odd way of playing tricks on your memory. The pain all seems to melt away and you’re just left recalling how freaking awesome it all was. Maybe it is the intensity one feels on a committing, high altitude climbs that that I find so addicting. The senses become heightened to an extreme extent and everything is felt more acutely. It’s like seeing everything in laser focus. Each crystal of snow, each crack in the ice, each (aching) muscle in my body… everything is experienced with such passion and strength.  Maybe that is why I seem to be drawn to peaks over 13k. I long for the intensity and focus these mountains bring to my life.

Words cannot come close to describing how incredible this weekend was! I remember 2 years ago when Damien and I had climbed Colchuck Peak via the glacier, we met all these climbers coming down from the Triple on Dragontail. When i asked about this route I had never heard of Damien said we were ready yet… but 2 years later we felt like it was time to out our alpine abilities to the test. Triple Couloirs was the mountain that tested all our mountaineering skills and partnership since we began climbing. To call it an adventure is an understatement.

We started the day on a bit of a nerve-racking note. Someone walking down Eightmile Rd told us there that were already 12 people stationed at Colchuck Lake to climb the Triple Sunday. This freaked us out a bit and we contemplated doing NBC as a backup. And… I would like to point out that once again for the 6th time this year the approach included yet another trek up Eightmile Road. It was a bit different this time since we walked the road instead of skiing it which provided a bit of diversity. The last 1/3 or so mile is snow covered however with some gaps.The trail is Colchuck Lake is all snow, but it is pretty well hardened and no flotation was needed. On our way up we talked to a fair amount of folks who said there were no other climbers they knew of planning to do the route on Sunday though folks had been on it that day. We also ran into an old climbing partner from Mount Maud on his way down from the Triple who gave us some beta. apparently, everyone had gone the wrong way at the Runnels that day.

Luckily the lake is still solid enough to walk on so we didn’t have to fight our way across the shoreline to get to camp on the other side. As it turned out we ended up camping next door to the random climbers we had shared our wedding cake with a few weeks back! They had just done to Triple and gave us beta on the route. They too had missed the Runnels. Apparently, at the end of first Couloir you begin to wonder where to go. The couloir on the right is inviting and easy looking, while the Runnels and the right look gnarly. Everyone ended up on the “hidden couloir” and had to rappel back down into the Triple. We made a mental note to not make that mistake.  Our plan was to start up to the base of the route called “The Fan”  in the dark around 3:00am just in case there was a crowd. But we didn’t see any evidence of large amounts of people going to the route the next day. Just one other team of 2 camped nearby.

We camped the the edge of the lake building a small windbreak around our ultra-light 2lb tent. We filtered water from a small hole we made in the ice which saved us some time and allowed us to get to bed early for our alpine start. However, at 11am we were awakened by wind whipping across the lake at 45mph threatening to shred our ultra-light tent. I had never see a tent shack and bend like that before. We quickly got out of our warm sleeping bag and built a tall snow windbreak which stopped the threat. Luckily, that stopped most of the blunt form of the wind so it wouldn’t shred. But the wind was boisterous and the tent still shuttered wildly making a annoying flapping noise. It was damn near impossible t fall back into a deep sleep… And it was still howling at 2:30am when we were supposed to get ready. After some discussion, we pushed our start time back an hour. Then another hour… the wind just didn’t let up. We discussed going to do Colchuck via the glacier, or NBC which has less commitment. But in the end we decided that we couldn’t live with ourselves is we didn’t finish what we had come set to do. We had the gear to deal with wind and felt confident we could make it work. The couloir might even be protected a bit.

At 5:20am we were moving toward The Fan or entrance to the first couloir.  The plan was to solo this couloir to save time. The climb begin with a 10+ foot ice step that fun at first but then gets kind of sketchy. Then a giant wall of endless snow rears up. The first couloir was steeper than expected. Feet were pretty solid though. We did end up kicking in our own steps as the ones from the day were pretty much buried (mono-point crampons). The couloir gets hit with massive amounts of spin drift we would discover. We had BD cobra ice tools. Damien used the shaft of the tool most of the way up this first couloir while I used the pick. Most of my sticks were good, but some snow was sugary and I had to search for a solid placement. A Canadian soloist passed us wearing tights.  I’m pretty sure he started from the car that morning. He sped past us and wa probably back in Canada by the time we got back to our tent. Far below us there was one other team. No one else appeared that day.

It seemed like the first couloir took forever, but finally we arrived at a junction. To the right was a nice, mellow snow couloir. It was very tempting to go that way indeed. To the left were steep ice and snow chutes or  “runnels”. This is the crux of Dragontail. We roped up (Damien made a rock-pro  and picket anchor) and I led out. Our plan with to simul-climb the rest of the route. The Runnels is STEEP. And every time you think you’re about to reach a flat spot its just a slightly less steep area followed by an even more steep section. The first section winds up series of steep ramps at about 75 degrees. I found no rock pro except a fixed piton. After that I used three pickets.  The ice would not take screws. It was secure, but too soft to accept protection well. It wouldn’t have even provided me with mental pro. I ended up placing my final picket at the base of the crux of the runnels. Here there are two narrow waterfalls rated  W3+ at 80-85 degrees. I could see I saw no good place to build an anchor in the rock and figured there would be a least one good screw placement in the waterfall so I went up.  There was no pro. The ice was sot enough to be secure but too soft for a screw. with my final piece at the base of the falls i essentially ended up soloing the first narrow waterfall to a tiny angled snow ledge. The next waterfall or tier was even narrower… so narrow it would barely fit me and steeper. With no place to build and anchor I continued up climbing the steepest ice I have ever led… or in effect soloed. The climbing was solid and I felt confident, but accutedly aware of the consequences of all fall. It was with a huge sigh of relief that I crested the top of the runnels and continued up the 50-70 snow of the second couloir. Damien below me rope-soloed the waterfalls as well.

I belayed Damien in on an axe anchor a few meters into the second couloir. Damien was able to protect with pickets and some tri-cams. The team behind us passed us as they had opted to un-rope after the runnels. There is a short and steep ice step about 6 feet high at the top of this couloir, which is considered the 2nd crux, but it seemed tame after the runnels. Damien belayed me from rock pro at the base of the third couloir which also featured 50-70 degree snow. This is the most exposed couloir as things open up on the right revealing the lake far below. I led 2/3 up the couloir before running out of pickets. Another ice axe belay. It was right about now that the wind suddenly began to blast me howling down from over the ridge above. We had been lucky all day. Some sections had been gusty for short periods and there had been occasional light snow and lots of spin-drift. But overall the couloirs had been protected.  But now I  was instantly freezing and I’m sure the fact that I hadn’t eaten since 4am wasn’t helping either! Instead of swinging leads Damien gave me the pickets and then passed me to build and anchor several yards up on the rock wall on the left. I then practically ran to the top of the couloir where finally there was a flat spot to put on layers and eat! It ws rather blustery, but with puffys we were pretty comfortable.  We climbed the final 100 feet slope to the summit unroped, but looking back it was steep and exposed enough that a rope might have been nice. The entire climb base to summit took 6 hours.  The summit was pretty soaked in with snow and mist when we arrived, but it only added to the alpine feel of the climb. A climb that not only tested our abilities just as it was, but i climb we had completed in less than optimal weather!

We descended the scramble route and we comfortably were protected from the wind behind the mountain. It even cleared up a bit and were were able to see all the way into the Enchantment Basin. However, upon reaching Aasgard Pass we were greeted with winds that easily had sustained 50-55mph gusts. I was alle to lean all the way forward and not fall over! Lower on the descent things were calmed though. We descended via plunge steps and glissades back to camp at the Lake. We really didn’t want to leave, but we mustered up the will to pack up. It was 4:40ish by the time we left camp and 10pm when we got back to the car. An amazing 17.5 hour day on a beautiful and life-changing route!

“The best alpinists are the ones with the worse memories”-Jimmy Chin

That pretty much describes the past weekend. After last years arduous episode ascending the NE Couloir of Argonaut Damien and I had both claimed that we would never, ever make an attempt again. And yet we found ourselves skiing up Eightmile Rd once again last weekend for our second summit bid. Not to mention this would be our 5th week walking up Eightmile Rd in a row!

We were much more weighed down this time as we walked up the Lake Stuart Trail. Our packs were overflowing with ice and trad gear, but our spirits were pretty high. We were hoping for good snow/ice conditions on the route. The avy was moderate and the weather seemed promising with sunshine and intermittent light snow. Finally we had a window to attempt a climb. We hadn’t had the opportunity to go for a summit since January with all the crazy weather this season.

When we reached Stuart Meadows and turned off the trail toward Argonaut. We crossed Mountaineer Creek immediately over a solid log bridge. This early crossing prevented us from having to cross 3-4x like we did last year since the creek branches further up (plus the crossing were much sketchier). The higher snow level also made thing much easier in the forest since low brush was covered. It is about 2 miles of cross country travel the where the tree open on the lower slopes of Argonaut. We switchbbacked up the slopes passing the large rock we had camped on last year and continuing to a meadow at 5400 feet where the slope angle will more gentle. We found a flatish spot here and, after some escalating of snow and leveling, we engineered a platform and windbreak for the tent. By then it was after 6 and we ate dinner admiring some excellent views of Stuart, Sherpa, Colchuck and Argonaut.

It was a bit windy at camp when we turned in, but it really picked up overnight, waking us up as gusts slammed against the tent. This was unexpected and made us wish for our 4 season tent. We woke up at 3am to find low visibility, high winds and driving snow. We decided to give it another hour. At 4am the wind and snow was the same, but visibility was better. We shouldered our packs and headed into the darkness up steep, crumbled avalanche debris. The thing about the slopes are Argonaut is that they never let up. Every time you this you are getting to crest the hill and reach a flat spot you a greeted with a slight decrest in incline followed up a even steeper hill! The debris field was enormous. Larger than last year. We found that climbing on the clean slide was easier than on the debris itself when we had an option. the snow felt stable, but not great underfoot. It was just “off” somehow in a way I can’t quite describe. Damien’s crampons kept getting snagged up, that was mostly due to crampon comparability with his ski boot, he had never tried combining this set before. He used a ski strap tto secure the crampons though and that seemed to help.

The wind was still blasting us when the sun crested the horizon. Heavy clouds and mist moved in and out concealing and then revealing the mountains thats surrounded us. Argonaut’s upper North face moved in and out of view with the clouds and snow that stung our faces. Every now and then the sun would peak out and some blue with appear in the sky, but the clouds always closed in again.

We took shelter from the wind as best we could by a large boulder to take a break and examine the couloir. It was definitely more filled in with snow this year. It looked clean. Almost too clean. We wondering if there was an upper wind slab that hadn’t broken free yet. We knew there was a wind slab danger on the NE aspect in the area. The filled in snow would also possibility make protecting the route with rock gear challenging. But heck we didn’t want to turn back on this route and have to start all over again on a third attempt either! Where these concerns legitimate? As we pondered if we should proceed a particularly heavy gust of wind somehow manged to lift Damien’s food bag out of his backpack and send the bag down the mountain. One more thing to add the the “going wrong list”. Yikes.

In the end we decided that “we don’t want to have to do another attempt” was not a good enough reason to get into the couloir. Too many things were wrong. Even if the couloir went well the wind on the ridge would be murder. We reluctantly decided that we would have to retreat. Slowly we made our way down following a trail of kind bars that were scattered over the slopes. Snow continued to swirl in the gales and snow hammered us like little needles in our faces. Camp was a welcome sight indeed!

We broke camp after a nap. The wind never let up and the weather continued to vary between stormy and clear. We made the right call just considering the weather factors alone. This was definitely the best adventure we’d had in a  long time. Sometimes the summit isn’t the most important thing. Sometimes the best adventure is the journey and being exposed to the alpine elements. If you get every summit you set out for, you’re not setting hard enough goals. I guess this climb has become poetic to me. And I have the feeling that enough though right now I fell like I am done attempt the NE couloir that I will find myself on the approach again.

 

Two O’Clock Falls is not located in the high mountains or shady canyons. It’s actually in the grasslands of Kootenay Plains! In the lowlands were is a heavy shadded area in the Hills that harbors a huge waterfall with W2-3 ice offering 4 pitches on a variety of lines.  This is where Damien and I ended up after discovering that Melt Out W3 along the Icefield Parkway in Jasper NP was under a wind slab that looked ready to avalanche. We parked by a gate on the side of Hwy 11 labeled 2 O’Clock Creek. We  were a bit confused by the book directions and just parked near where we could see the falls from the rd. We followed a dirt road beyond the gate into a campground and onto the trail. However, after followed the trail through tree and realizing we were not turning toward the falls we decided to just travel cross country. We were looking for a meadow that we were supposed to walk alongside. The area is sacred to the First Nations and it was important that we stayed on the side of this meadow since it was part of their ceremonial grounds. As we wandered the forest looking for the meadow and heading for the falls we came across lots of trees wrapped in cloth. This had something to do with ceremonies. We eventually stumbled across another road and followed it to the meadow we were looked for complete with First Nation structures. We stayed to the right on the road, but turned into the forest and traveled cross country to the falls hoping to find the trail we were supposed to be on. We eventually found it and followed it to the base of the falls.

The ice was pretty wet even in the cold shade. Damien racked up to take the first lead. Like Lousie Falls, the ice was damaged by heat and insecure. With the swing of an axe 2×2 ft sections of ice would go white. Massive dinner plates shattered from the route and it took up to ten swings to get a descent stick. Damien finished the lead. It was W3 what the ice quality made thing very spicy. I tested several areas to lead up pitch 2, but found the ice to be very questionable, possibly more so than the first pitch. When I put in screwed the surrounding ice turned white causing me to question if they would hold at all. In the end i decided to down climb  the pitch and bail after one to many sections of ice went white with swings or tools. we rapped off of two V threads. Nothing too prove. The conditions were just not good.

We followed the trail out and discovered the gate we should have entered into from Hwy 11 was actually unsigned and 1.5 km down the road from where we parked. We know for our return!

Lousie Falls is located in the last place you’d expected to see dirtbag climbers. The approach requires pass a posh resort : Lake Lousie Chateau. It felt kind of odd after wearing the same clothes for 6 days to walk through the wealthy masses observing ice carving and skating the the lake. Who needs laundry!? In any case, approaching the falls in about a 2.4 Km walk around the shoreline of Lake Lousie. The falls can be see though fro the Chateau. Our Plan was to only climb the bottom 1 or 2 pitches. The rest of the route is W4-5. Beyond our current level and it was late the the day anyway. The trail beside the lake leads to the bottom of an open slope about 50-60 meters below the falls. We left he main trail and followed the boot-pack up to the base. It is important to be cautious and wear a helmet as you approach. Climbers from above drop massive ice chunks down from the upper pitches. Staying to the right is crucial to avoid being hit and obtain protection from overhanging rock.

We racked up on the far right side of the falls. The first pitch to the first set of bolted anchors looked straight forward and doable. However, as Damien began to lead he discovered from ice quality issues. The sun and warm temps had damaged the ice quite a bit. It was insecure no matter how many times he kicked into the wall. Getting an ice axe to stick took about ten swings due in insane dinner-plating. And once the axe did stick it was often almost impossible to remove. Damien got up the first tier to a small ledge. The conditions were too dicy for his comfort, so I lowered him and took over the lead. The ice was as bad as he reported. I was able to ascend just under a meter. I had insecure feet but two good ice axe hooks. I’m not sure how since i was pressed down hard the the hooks, but one of my axes popped and I took a lead fall. By other axe held and the umbilical caught me oddly enough. All in all i fell about a meter back onto the ledge. The only damage came from my hammer hitting me in the mouth and slightly chipping my tooth and bruising my lip. I got lucky.

After that we decided to call it a day and packed tings up. I guess I’m truely a climber no since after 5 years I finally took a lead fall. 🙂