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.

After both of our volcano objectives got foiled due to inclement weather… the possibility of going out again to try Argonaut via the NE Couloir camp into play. To recap, in our first attempt (performed as a carryover) we climbed successfully to the top of the couloir, but were forced to retreat when a blast of unforecasted snow, wind and cold set in providing us with a nice dose of hypothermia. This attempt resulted in an unplanned bivy. The next attempt was foiled before we reached the couloir at 6600 feet due top extremely high wind and avalanche danger. We ended up deciding to try again. Eightmile Road was now open which took 8 miles off of the total trip and the couloir seemed to be in good shape as seem some recent pictures of it from nearby peaks. So off we went again to Leavenworth… and once again we began walking up the Stuart Lake Trail. At least this time the trail was snow free so it looked different.

We made fast progress at first. However, about .25 miles after Stuart Meadows we had to break away from the nice, clean, maintained track and duck into the3 dense forest. The rlute requires the traveler to cross the two branches of Mountaineers Creek and then follow the creek more or less to the base of Argonaut. Previously this has been a snow covered venture, and though we had to deal with some low hanging branches and logs, traveling cross cuntry was fairly easy. Without everything melted or with snow patches only a few inches deep, the tangled nature of the forest was completely revealed. We navigated over and under copious dead-fall, battled through dense shrubs and broke free of branches that tried to grab our packs. Luckily, crossing the roaring creeks was easy as we found descent logs. However, both required crawling as there were slippery. We finally made it to the lower slopes of Argonaut. Damien and I wanted to camp at about 5500 feet. Of course we couldn’t see if there was enough snow that high to build platform so we began to climb in the same area we had always began climbing up the mountain…

Terrain during times of snow and times of melt are extremely different. What was once a nice open snow slope with a few branches sticking out was now a thicket of slide alder from hell. We fought through the entwined, tangled mess of branches. There is no more heinous experience in the backcountry then going to war with alder. It stabs, slaps, grabs and punches you as you go. It also causes me to release a string of profanities and also irrational demands like “LET GO OF ME!”

We ended up accepting defeat. Damien seemed to recall that there was a talus slope further right so we battled ur way downward and right causing me to cuss some more until we finally found ourselves in a boulder field. At last we had a view of the mountain. There were plenty of snow fingers and patches for us to follow up the next morning, but none of the snow patches looked deep enough to create a platform at a higher elevation. We also took note of the bergschrund which was much more open than in early season. Normally we had bypassed it on the steep slopes on the left of it, but the slope had melted out to reveal steep slabs and waterfalls. Luckily, there seemed to be a snow bridge across and also a snow finger on the slabs, so we had options.As for camp, we decided that our best option was to set up our tent in the boulder field on a massive flat rock which had the added benefit of having a stream sunning beneath it. It took us 4 hours of bushwhacking to get to camp and travel 1.75 miles.

We began our upward progress at 3am the next morning. We aimed to stay on the snow as much as possible, but we had to travel a but on talus as well in-between. Almost immediately we had to put on crampons. The snow was solid. This was bit concerning. We knew the couloir t be relentlessly steep and with snow this firm it would be an insane calf burner. Still we pressed on into the morning alpine glow of sunrise until reaching the slabs near the bergschrund. Here we came to an impasse. The snow finger on the slabs to the right of the massive crack was really just a thin layer of snow and running under it was a small cascade. What appeared to be a bridge from a distance was actually an illusion. There was simply a “bump” in the snow that blocked the view of park of the bergschrund. We would not access the upper basin and thus we could no get to the couloir. Once again we were shut down, this time at 6300 feet.

Once again defeated by the mountain we returned to camp and took a long nap in preparation for our impending bushwhack battle with the forest. It took us 4 hours of acrobatics to fight our way back through the forest back to the trail which was a most welcome and beautiful sight after getting smashed smacked in the face with branches one to many times.

Once again Jimmy Chin was right “The best Alpinists are the ones with the worst memories” …. and thus I’m sure that is will not be my last trip report on this route.

 

 

The original plan for Memorial Day weekend was to climb Mt Olympus in 4 days. But typical Washington weather came in with the promise of both rain and possible lightning in the Olympic Range and pretty much the rest of the state. We made some last second decisions and opted to climb Mt Shasta in California instead. It is a two day climb, but we planned on staying an extra night at camp for additional acclimation and adjoined this climb with a trip to Oregon Caves National Monument as well.

Almost every route was in for Mt Shasta, but we chose to do the standard Avalanche Gulch route on the south side of the mountain. It is basically a high elevation steep snow scramble. The main event for us with the opportunity to get up above 14000ft and spend lots of time near the summit to prepare our bodies for Mt Rainier and the Tetons later this summer.

Two permits as needed for the climb and both are self-issue at the TH. The wilderness permit is free and must be carried by each permit. A summit permit must also be purchased for $25 per person (exact change needed). We started out for the Bunny Flats Trailhead at about 7:00am on Friday hoping to beat the Memorial Day Rush. There is snow almost right away, but there is a great boot/ski track to follow through the forest until you reach treeline. From here boot prints spread out, but the way to still very clear. Even without tracks the route through the drainage and up to Helen Lake would be pretty obvious. We headed across the final flat part of the treeline and then up. The trail wasn’t extremely steep and we made great time to Helen Lake at 10,400ft enjoying the surrounding mountain views the whole way up.

High Camp at the lake is watched over by a single ranger. There is green flagging which indicated the area where camping is allowed and more signage for the bathroom area just below the lake. About ten tents were lined up. We took a spot on the end as far away as we could for some solitude. We were sure it would fill in as the day went on. It was only 12pm. We set up camp and examined the parts of the route we could see up to “The Thumb”. Then basically we did a whole bunch of sleeping since we planned a very early start. Plus driving through the night 560 miles can be pretty tiring!

More folks showed up throughout the day filling in the camp. Most were very friendly and in-between naps we talked to some of the other climbers. We got taken aback when folks said they were from the Bay Area or Tahoe… we kept forgetting we were in California! We had an early dinner and turned in for the night at 6:30pm.

We began climbing the route at 2:15am. There was only a light wind, but it was still cold enough for me to wear a light puffy and long underwear under my soft-shell pants. We saw a white and red headlamp above of. We were the third team on the route. The other two climbers were soloist. We climbed pretty much straight up the snow slope leaning to the right. The grade was relatively steep and gradually increased in angle as we ascended. At about 11,500ft we passed the first soloist. He was not doing well and was ill prepared. He had poles and his axe was clipped to his side, useless. His camouflage jacket looked like it was from walmart. No crampons. Thin day-hiking boots. He was taking yet another break as we passed him. he said he was tired and it was his second time trying this mountain (and any mountain). He had started from the trailhead. We wished him luck. We later found out he tried to descend and fell 1000ft. Luckily he was uninjured. his axe remains on the mountain.

Just under 12000 ft we turned to the left and began to climb the steep wide slope to Red Banks. This is the known to be the crux and steepest part of the climb. The top of this slope is marked by a large rock outcrop called “The Thumb”. We ascended steadily and passed the climber with the red light. He looked more prepared then the other soloist, but still uneducated. At about 12600ft we camp across a line of exposed rock coming down the slope. The snow below it was wind loaded and soft. Staying to the left of the rock the sock was more like Styrofoam, so we stayed left. Most folks bear to the left near the top of Red Banks and continue up the slope to the first small plateau. However, I opted to stay right and get onto the ridge near the Thumb.

Once we reached the ridge at 12800ft we were smashed by howling winds (probably 30-40 mph) and fiercely cold temps. We found shelter in the moat near the rocks on the ridge and put on our Feather Friends Frontpoint Parkas. These are meant for Denali! We pushed (thick parkas on and not even breaking a sweat) on heading along the ridge up the next short slope to the left until we reached the small plateau. In front of us was a dome shaped hill appropriately named Misery Hill. We began to climb up. Not only is this an endless type of hill where the top seems to remain the same distance for a very long period of time, it is also where our bodies began to slow a bit as elevation effects began to settle in at 13200. This, for us, was the crux.

On top of the hill on on the upper large plateau the winds died down and the sun warmed the snow. It was still cold though so we left on the huge puffys and continued across the flats toward the summit block  in front of us. After crossing the plateau the route curves left over a gentle hill that seems less gentle at 13850ft and then curves again to the right heading up a slope and then across a narrow ridge. The top of the summit block could maybe fit 6 people comfortably. But it didn’t matter because we were the first any only ones there that morning! It was 8:15am.  We each took turns climbing the few steep snow steps to the true summit which could fit one person safety. Generous clear views abounded on the summit of 14162ft and although the altitude was definitely felt, it was not horrendous at all.  A couple we had met the day before, who also happened to be from WA and also happened to take some classes with the Mountaineers and had seen me before, joined us a few minutes later. Climbers are a small community.

We descended to 13850ft just above the plateau to a flat area. We wanted to spend a s much time at altitude as possible. So we took a nap here for about 2 hours until our heads began to hurt to badly. Then we descended to 12800ft on the ridge near the Thumb and took another hour nap waiting for the snow to get softer. Then we glissaded all the way back to camp…

And camp was getting packed! The ranger said he expected about 200 climbers to show up. Most of which had never climbed before. I overhead one guy said “Oh yeah, I have an ice axe. I don’t know what to do with it, but I have it”. That’s very useful indeed! I don’t think I have ever seen so many ill prepared folks in one place, not even on Mt Hood. We rested the remainder of the day and shared beta with climbers who were just arriving. At 3am and 5am we witnessed the insane amount of people going up the mountain and were ever so thankful we had ascended the day before. And we were so happy to be back on the cascade volcanoes, climbing at high altitude and pushing ourselves. These passed few weeks have been rough and being on Shasta provided some much needed solace. It never ceases to amaze me how the mountains seem to always reset my life when things get overwhelming. It is in the mountains where I find my focus and my peace in the chaos that seems to overtake me. Without the wilderness are am in turmoil and with the wilderness I find tranquility.