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!

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. 🙂

Johnston Canyon Upper Falls is just how I remembered it. Spectacular and HUGE! We walked through the canyon before daylight making it feel e3ven more majestic and reached he bottom of the Upper Falls (turn right at the 2nd junction) just as the sun rose. Accessing the ice is a bit tricky. We have to climb over the boardwalk, step down onto on icy boulder and then slide down said boulder to the frozen river. The wall of ice is in great shape thought he pillars have broken in the heat. The ice on the far right is W2 and as you move left the wall steepest and the grade gets more difficult. We opted for a W3 Line in the center. The ice can be climbed in a single pitch and wrapped with a 70 meter rope. But it is easy to use a 60 meter and climb the routes in 2 pitches due to a huge platform about 1/3 of the way up. Damien led the lower pitch which is pretty much W2 for all routes. This was the first pitch of ice I ever led about 3 year ago. I led the second pitch of W3 and set up an anchor from 2 trees. PLEASE always check the cord and webbing left behind by previous parties before using them. There was already an anchor there and I ended up building my own since I could not trust any of the knots.

Damien and I ran some laps on the upper Pitch and the W4/W3+ pitch on the left for the rest of the morning. We rappelled the second pitch with a V thread. Note that this is a big tourist destination so folks will be watching and taking pictures the whole time. I wanted to put out a top jar for the climbers!

 

We were told by two climbers yesterday that Crystal Tears was in and awesome. However, because of the warming trend the climb would probably only be in for one more day. Damien and I headed out from Canmore, Alberta to Grotto Canyon before daylight hoping to get the route first since its narrow in places. We followed the main canyon to His and Hers at the headwall and then took a left turn and continued down the canyon. After about 30 minutes there was a junction on the right. The Climbers from the day before said that they hard marked the turn off on the right with a ribbon. We didn’t see a ribbon and though we ventures a bit further down the canyon we could no find one elsewhere. So we assumed someone had removed the ribbon and turn right. This was obviously a climbers trail. It switchbacked very steeply through the trees  for almost 300 meters before reaching screes. We followed a clear boot path to the left and into a gully were this was a thin melting waterfall.

Damien too the first lead. The ice didn’t look great and when he hit in the sound was hollow. the ice was pretty much detached from the rock and there would be some mixed moves. Damien hooked the top of the ice and ended up taking down about 1 meter of the ice route! We examined mixed climbing options but saw no simple way to gain the upper pitches. We decided to bail. Back at the bottom of the canyon we ended up locating the Ribbon several meters further down the canyon. We followed a set a boot prints we hadn’t noticed in the earlier darkness and discovered that we had climbed the walk down earlier. We also discovered several climbers bailing from the route due to the melted out, ripped off portion. The warm weather definitely has taken this route out, at least for now.

Grotto Falls was in great form and fat this week even with the warm weather. Damien and I ventured into Grotto Canyon for our first ice cimbing venture in Alberta on Tuesday. The canyon walk definitely requires spikes. Some portion of the frozen river a extremely slushy/water though so be prepared to get wet to wear gaitors! The bottom of the route has several good places to put your packs that are dry. The ice was melting on the sides of the falls pretty fervently, but away from the edges things we dryer (as fall as ice goes). However, as the day wore on the ice began to melt pretty much everywhere and things get very wet indeed. The ice had formed in such a way that the route gets steeper and slightly longer the further left you go. Everything is pretty much a W3 on the first pitch though. There are two bolt anchors (one left and one slightly higher on the right) on top of the second Tier of the falls. The Third and final tier is short. It ranges from W3+ on the left to W2 on the right. On top of the 2nd Pitch there are normally bolt anchors but the ice flow had covered them. There are many trees and Damien and I set up a red rap station/anchor on the big tree to the left.

Damien and I spent the day taking turns leading and running some laps. It was my first W3 lead so I was pretty stoked! Today we ended up returning to climb the route several times again after discovering that Crystal Tears of was out. Grotto is definitely getting a lot of action right now and the route is getting a bit picked out.

Damien and I drove out to Lilooet in BC, Canada through the night arriving in the wee hours of the early morning in time to set up camp and take a quick nap before searching for ice. It took a few drives up an down Hwy 99 until we figured out where the pullout for Rambles was. The guidebook mentions a snowmobile bridge, but we could not find it. It basically about 4 miles South of Cinnamon Creek across the street from talus slope. We followed a descent bootback up the steep hill for about 45 minutes and arrived at the base of Rambles Centre. We didn’t know for sure it was rambles at that point. Just that it was a large W3. But other climbers confirmed at camp later that night that we had found Rambles.

There were 4 total tiers. The first was a 5 move W2 to a platform followed by W3 tiers getting progressively steeper with little or no platforms in between. Damien took the sharp end and led up his first W3 waterfall like he’d been doing it for years. Perfect and efficient movement with just the right amount of screws. I am so proud of him. He sent up a top-rope on a tree which had some slings already on it (we added some). When I lowered him the rope (60m) only reached the the large platform above the W2 tier. We decided to belay from that platform and I simply soloed up the W2 section. We top-roped the rest of the day. The route remained shaded and the weather cold throughout, but as the day wore on the ice softened quit significantly and we found ourselves trusting our picks less and less. Toward the end it was a slushy, dripping, wet mess. Still great times though!

 

Damien and I left Washington at about 9:00pm on Friday and drove through the night to Timberline Lodge at the base of Mt Hood. After spending a rather uncomfortable few hours trying to sleep folded up in the front seats of the car we began the approach. Our packs were extra heavy since we were lugging mountaineering boots up along with the rest of our gear. Our plan was to skin to Illumination Saddle. Then we would nap for the rest of the day in preparation for a nigh time start of the Leuthold Couloir. The freezing level was going to be 12,000ft once the sun came up. We wanted to be past the Hourglass and its infamous falling rim ice before the sun came up.

We followed the ski resort groomer trail a long the lower Chairlift to Silcox hut before Timberline opened it’s lifts to inbound skiers. We then continued up along the Palmer Chairlift which was not in service. It didn’t even have an chairs on the cables! Going seemed very slow by the time we neared the top. Lack of sleep and string sunshine to blame. And of course just as we reached the top of the lift at 8500ft a snow cat comes up and drops off 10 inbound skiers. Slightly disheartening after spending 4 hours trudging up hill to reach the same spot. But oh so worth the effort.

From the top of Palmer we began the mile long traverse left aiming toward Illumination Rock. The Illumination Saddle camp into view as we grew closer, but the traverse seemed endless with the heavy packs. Eventually we arrived at the saddle and set up camp out of the wind below the two saddle ridges. Towers of rim ice rock created magnificant castle-like ice sculptures around us. Rim had a way of making everything look like a fairytale. We were able to peak over the saddle and see the bottom of the couloir as well just before X rated Yocum Ridge. There were footprints to follow which woudl help in the dark and the crevasses did not look like they would present an issue.

Two other parties showed up at the ridge later that afternoon. One pair of backcountry skiers brought a front country Coleman tent that was mostly mesh with a tiny rain fly. They also had full sized beach towels, inbound ski cloths and some huge plastic lunchboxes. Nothing was ultra light or made for camping on a snowy volcano. The other group of three were skiers with proper backcountry gear. However, they were not climbing to the summit.

We slept hard, turning in at about 6:30pm and waking up once to see the sunset. At 2:15am we groggily slithered our of our sleeping bag and began the climb preparations. We began moving at 3:30am. Damien led us down the saddle and over the glacier to the base of the Leuthold Couloir. t would be fairly obviously even without the footprints. This took about 30 minutes. The Couloir is very wide in the beginning with snow from 50-60 degrees. One of two placed were a bit soft, but the bulk of the route was firm. There was some fine rim ice raining down on us, but nothing to cause alarm. Damien placed three pickets, but said afterward that he really only need one or two. I agree. The forth picket he placed at the beginning of the traverse toward the hourglass along with his ice axe as an anchor. He belayed me in from there and we swung leads.

The hourglass is infamous because it acts as a narrow funnel for all the rim ice falling off the rock towers the surround the chute. Sometimes golf ball or larger rim falls from the towards and zooms down the hourglass and with it being such a narrow space there is little room to take shelter. This is why we wanted to climb it in the dark when it was coldest. Even so, as I neared the entrance to the hourglass traversing left i could hear the rim rain loudly falling down the chute. I placed a picket near the wall just before entering the chute. I took a few tried for me to find a place to out it. beneath the snow was pure blue ice. It would have taken a screw. I found that staying on the far right side of the hourglass kept me our of the line of fire from most of the falling debris. A few pea sized pieces of ice hit me face and some bigger chunks hit my helmet, but nothing significant. Abut halfway through the hourglass I moved left as the protection on the right dwindled. Here here was a short 6-8 foot ramp where I actually had to swing my ice tools like i was climbing water ice. It was solid and fun though. The rest of the time we drove in our shafts or daggered the tools.

The Hourglass widened and present two chute options. I crossed over at took the far right chute. This part of the climb was like an endless hill that slowly sloped away so that you felt like no matter how high you climbed the ridge top never got closer. We were out of the line of fire from debris though and the sun was rising painting the sky with beautiful colors. The shadow of Mt Hood appeared on the valley far below us. Purely breathtaking.

Slowly the ridge-top began to stop growing further away. We expected there to be a lot of wind at the ridge crest when we topped it, but it wasn’t more than 10-15 mph. Gorgeous views abounded on either side, but ahead of us on the right the final 800ft of climbing reared up before us. After a brief break on the narrow ridge we climbed around the broad steep slope leading to the catwalk to a flat area where we could see the steep rocky cliffs falling away from the summit. We started up the final ascent here on 40-50 degree snow with a fair amount of rim ice coating it. It went quickly and we found ourselves on the final catwalk to the summit.

There was good trail stamped out on the knife edge walk to the summit. It was all i could do to walk and not run to the top. I was just so excited about my first volcano of the year! The summit was a bit crowded with folks who camp up the South Side, but it emptied out to no one soon after our arrival. Not a breathe of wind touch us and the perfectly clear day afforded us with views of Helens, Adams, Rainier, Three Sisters and Jefferson. I don’t think there was a single cloud in the sky. It’s hard to leave a summit with those conditions and we stayed for about an hour.

Folks are using Pearly Gates this year on the South Side for the final summit push. However, we opted to take Old Chute down instead. It is much wider than Pearly Gates and since so many folks were climbing up it we didn’t want to get involved in a bottleneck. There was a pretty good stairs stamped into the snow going down old chute though we did have to face inward for the bottom part due to the steepness. From there we basically followed the sidewalk that is the South Route to the base of Crater Rock. From Crater Rock we traversed below it aiming to Illumination Rock being careful to gradually descent to our small yellow dot of a tent and not go below it. The entire descent from the summit to camp took about 1.5 hours.

Damien happily walked around camp in shorts and down booties as we made water and chilled before making out final descent back to Timberline. Lots of folks passed through as we napped in the tent. None were climbers though. There were snowshoes left behind from another team we knew who started the climber about three hours behind us. We broke camp after two hours and enjoyed a leisurely ski back down to Timberline. Skiing among inbound recreationalists felt a bit strange with our giant packs. We weren’t half as agile as them on the slopes. It was still an wonderful ski down in good corn snow. First technical volcano of the year! VIEW VIDEO

 

This is another example of how what you plan and what occurs are rarely the same thing in the alpine. With another window of sunny clear days and moderate avalanches predicted we decided to do a three day tour near Washington Pass. We developed the idea from what is commonly called the Birthday Tour by AT skier only we made some adjustments for climbing and dealing with the hwy 20 closure. Our itinerary was to ski Hwy 20 5 miles from Silver Star Creek to The Blue Lake TH. From there we would ski as close to the base as possible to South Winter Early Spire and Camp. On Saturday we would ski from camp to the base of SEWS SW Couloir, leave our skis and climb to the summit. Then we would descend to camp, gather our gear and climb Blue Mountain before moving on to camp somewhere near Copper Peak. On Sunday we would ski to the summit of Copper and then down the drainage to the bottom of the hairpin Turn. Then out. This is exactly what did not happen this weekend.

Everything began as planned. We parked at the Hwy 2o road closure at Silver Star Creek and began skiing along the shoulder at about 7:30am. There was a sign warning of road clearing would a cannon setting off avalanches Mon-Thursday… but it was Friday so it was safe. In fact the road was clear as far as we could see. So clear that cyclist passed us! We skied first along the left side of the road before switching to the right after the guard rail skiing got to dicey and narrow for my tastes. By 10:00 the sun was baking us and we were hearing some huge booms echos across the mountains. Moderate avy danger? At 4 miles we were nowhere near the hairpin turn and looking at my GPS revealed the google maps had been very very wrong about it being 5 miles to Blue Lake TH. It appeared to be double that! We realized that it was about to me a very very long day. We thought that carrying out skis instead of breaking trail in the quickly softening snow might save some time. This we shouldered our skis and ambled down the blazing hwy in our ski boots.

This process of walking with 65ish lbs on my back in ski boots down pavement in the heat positively destroyed me. I cannot describe how much pain my shoulders and back were in after 4 miles. We stopped a few times and talked to some folks on their way down from near the Hairpin Turn. One gentleman confirmed that avalanches were going off like bombs off the south slopes. We knew some serious assessment would be in order before we climbed anything going forward.

We cut the switch back that is the hairpin turn and ended up on the upper part of the road were there was tons of avy debris from the cannons. We entered the road right after the thick of it though and were able to skin along a nice flat un-plowed Hwy 20 for the next two miles. It was untouched here by humans for a long time. The snowmobile track were faint and old.  Solitude. No one crazy enough to ski this far!

We saw a few avalanches explodes of the slopes on the mountain across the highway as we finally turned onto the Blue Lake Trail. We skied through the trees following some old ski tracks part of the way to the opening in the forest that is famous for huge avalanches. Sure enough it was a massive debris field… fairly new. We skied below that and then entered the open slopes below the Liberty Bell Group. The sun was low in the sky by now and it wasn’t as warm. But the snow was mushy from the days heat making things a little more challenging as we switch-backed up the steep slope toward South Winter Early Spire. I felt wrecked at this point, but kept note of the landscape around us. There was lots of avalanche debris and camp would have to be planned accordingly.

Luckily, we found a protected area about 1000ft below the base of the SW Couloir. We were able to also examine the route for the rest of our trip from the vantage point. There was a huge cornice on the ridge leading to Blue Lake Peak. We knew it would be there as the peak is known for the cornice, but the scale was indescribable. We scratched climbing that mountain after watching so many cornices collapse all day. The climb wasn’t under the cornice directly, but it was beside it and it looked like a slide woudl easily fan out in the chute. As far as Copper, we saw it from the Hairpin turn and thought we saw it from camp…. but the entire ridge-line and area directly below it to approach was corniced and/or rocky. We scratched that too. We would go out the way we came in.

After enjoying a spectacular color show at sunset we turned in only to be awakened my my alarm it what felt like 5 minutes. We started to ski up the final 1000ft to the base of SEWS at 6am, but the cold night temperatures has made the once mushy snow a solid icy mass. Ski crampons didn’t even work and we ended up adding our skis to our packs. The ascent was rough especially after our long Friday. My shoulders and back felt wretched, but we took turns kicking a staircase up the steep slope making slow progress. After what seemed like an eternity we arrived a  large rock near the base of the route that offered a flattish spot to set up. we roped up here and ditched our skis. We were skill in the shadows and we be for a while. But some of the south facing peaks int he distance had avalanche bombs already exploding down the walls. Damien began to lead and when the rope was extended i began to follow… it was then that a snow slab on the rocks above came into view. if the slab went it would take our skis with it on its way down. I called Damien to come back and we moved our skis to another spot directly at the base of the route by some trees. Again we started up.

Damien placed a picket and slung a tree before disappearing beneath the famous chockstone. He told me that the route seemed out and he could belay be up from the moat. Its hard to describe, but I arrived to the crest of the snow under the huge chockstone and poked my head over the top. the snow sloped down to a huge cave like moat under the chockstone. Damien stood 20 ft below me belaying. Normally there is a way to get around either the left or right side of the chockstone. However, this year had melt in such a fashion that accessing the sides of the stone was impossible without some risk taking and perhaps a pair of climbing shoes. I’m not even sure it would be possible then. The route, as far as we could tell, was out. As a side note, we double checked the beta back at home and some pictures. This is indeed appear to be the case.

I led the down-climb back to the skis. The sun was working its back up the slope softening the icy morning snow. We took out time putting our climbing gear away and switching back to skis. After a few short icy turns and a bumpy ride through avalanche debris we entered the snow and made some spectacular turns on perfect corn snow back to camp!

We promptly feel asleep until early afternoon. The snow was a wonderful consistency still and we considered this as we examined our next move. We could stay put and leave in the morning. The previous night had been so gorgeous under the towering rock. However, the descent through the trees would be much morning fun in corn snow. On the morning ice skiing would be horrendous. Thus we opted to pack up and move camp to Washington Pass.

We enjoyed some more perfect turns on the open slopes to the trees from camp. It was wonderful tree skiing conditions, plus the trees were just far enough apart to take the anxiety of crashing into on out of the equation. I also felt more confident for some reason this time around in general. Finally feeling better about my turns.  At the trailhead we put on our skins and skied the final mile to Washington Pass where we set up camp in the road.

Evening settled over the pass. Mountains surrounded us in every direction and  I thought of the summers when this road is bustling with traffic and tourists. But now the road was a stretch of white snow. There were no engine fumes to stain the fresh air or noisy people pointing at the peaks from the viewpoint. The only sounds were the grey jays begging in the trees and the soft wind touching the pines. Washington Pass and the Liberty Bell Group… we had visited these areas in solitude and seen them in way very few people have. We had seen them in solitude. Undisturbed and beautiful.

The stars were on display with full radiance that night and a lone owl serenaded us at midnight. In fact he get pretty excited with his calls. I think he found a mouse colony. We packed up and skied without skins down the hairpin turn, though we had to take our skis off a few times to get over the piles of avalanche debris. From the hairpin we followed the cat-track/ snowmobile trail on the shoulder bouncing on the hardened morning snow. It did eventually soften up and except for a short mile section were were able to coast heel free back to the car. That was amuch faster and more enjoyable trip than it had been on the way up! VIEW VIDEO