After spending several days in a noisy, front country campground in Tuolumne Meadows, Damien and I were ready to enjoy the tranquility of the backcountry. From Yosemite, we drove south through the desert to the small hamlet of Lone Pine, CA. The town looks something like an old Western movie and it is the jumping off point for folks looking to climb Mt Whitney. However, several months back we were unsuccessful in securing a reserved permit for the tallest mountain in the lower 48. I was able to quickly devise a Plan B and reserved permits for Cottonwood Lakes to climb Mount Langley (14,026 ft) & Cirque Peak (12,900 ft). Both of these climbs individually are an undertaking due mostly to the high elevation aspect. However, both were class 2 scrambles and required minimal technical ability. They share the same zigzagged ridge-line and are sometimes done a linkup. The Linkup option appealed greatly to us as the distance and endurance required to climb two high elevation peaks in a single day would provide a fun challenge. Plus I love tagging fourteeners!

From Lone Pine we turned onto Whitney Portal Road which is the main route leading into the Whitney Range. After several miles we turned off Whitney Portal and headed for the high country on Horseshoe Meadows Road. Normally I don’t describe the roads leading to the TH, but this one is worth mentioning. First of all, I expected a road that went up to 10,000 feet to eventually turn rugged and unpaved. As it turns out, its paved the entire 22 miles! The next feature worth describing is the design of the road. From the 4,000 ft sandy dessert it switchbacks steeply up the foothills into the high country as previously discussed. These switchbacks are all the edges of cliffs with severe drop-offs of thousands of feet! There is also a sign that warms of falling rocks and that for several hours a day you may find crews clearing the random rockfall! To top this whole extravaganza off there is no guard rail, so definitely drive with care! It is a gorgeous road though, unlike any I have ever experienced, and that fact that it journeyed up to 10k feet blew my mind. In WA our highest road tops out at only 7k!

We arrived at Horseshoe Meadows Camp at around 2:30pm. There are bear lockers here for any food/toiletries you may want to leave behind. Leaving these items in vehicles is an invitation for bears to break in! We shouldered our packs and began the 6 mile trek to basecamp on the Cottonwood Lakes/ Army Pass Trail. The trail winds though dusty, open forest for the first mile or so before crossing a creek and entering lusher woodlands. We knew we had 1000 feet of gain and expected it to be all in one place going up a pass or something of that sort as it normally is in WA. However, the gain was essentially spread out over the course of the 6 miles to our surprise. We also expected to find ourselves at various junctions as the map displayed numerous intersecting trails. Going to the basin the only turn we encountered was the signed turn off for New Army Pass.

Many folks climb Langley and Cirque via New Army Pass because it is a maintained trail. Unfortunately, it features lots of sweeping and unnecessary switchbacks up to the pass and adds 1 mile and 700 feet to the trip. We had opted to take (old) Army Pass instead. It was described in the beta as unmaintained with several washouts. However, it was a more direct route and we hate excess switchbacks. Thus, we passed New Army Pass and continued on the trail to Cottonwood Basin.

Upon exiting the forest and entering the open meadows of the Basin we were greeted with our first clear view of Cirque Peak. Directly to the right of Cirque is a massive rock formation that I thought was Langley at first, but it proved to me a minor cliff face. Langley is ff to the right of the cliff and only appears smaller since it is further in the distance. Damien and I followed the trail through the lush meadows passing the signed side track to Muir Lake.

We walked by Cottonwood Lake #1 which has a small ranger outpost beside it. There are five Cottonwood Lakes total. On maps they are unlabeled. Our permit was for lake #3 because our beta suggested it, but even the ranger at the station where we picked up our permits had no idea which lake was which. He said that as long as we camped at one of the lakes we’d be fine. They didn’t care which one. The map at the TH did have the lakes numbered however. Other than that I have found no record. We studied the TH map and decided that lake #4 would probably be better for us.

Damien and I continued on passing through small sections of trees that reminded us of the ones found in Madagascar. Lake #3 is the last of the lower lakes and it appeared to be the most popular camping area.  Several parties were there enjoying the early evening. We continued on toward Lake #4 which is closest to Army Pass.

We climbed up a steep hill about 100 feet and suddenly found ourselves in a more rugged, and alpine realm. We were surrounded by jagged cliffs and the grassy oasis was replaced by rugged terrain. Damien and I found the perfect camp complete with windbreak about 100 feet from the lakeshore (this is a requirement) and set up our home for the next 2 nights. To our delight, we had the entire lake to ourselves!

Damien and I are big fans of the  Alpine Start. Boots were on the trail at 3:30am the next morning. Our headlamps guided us around the lakeshore on a good trail to the rocky base of Army Pass. Here we were surprised to discover a very maintained trail. Every maintained trail in CA we had encountered on the trip ended up being maintained by Washington standards! The good track made a few switchbacks up the talus trending left to get above a cliff band. The tread then follows above the cliff band to the right to gain the top of the pass. The “washout” was one or two large rocks in the center of the trail that were easy to get around. We did encounter some snow patches but they were easy to go around or short enough to take a few safe steps through. We never used the crampons or axes we carried.

At the top of the pass we crossed the border of Inyo NF and entered Sequoia National Park. We turned right here on an unsigned, but obvious trail and followed the broad ridge of alpine vegetation until we reached more rocky terrain and  a big sign. The sign requested that visitors follow the carins provided and remain on the route to preserve the delicate environment. It also asks that climbers avoid making new carins and forbade the deconstruction of the existing carins. I’m not sure who had the time on their hands to disassemble the cairns provided on the route. They were 5-7 feet tall and resembled pyramids!

We followed the cairns through the talus and sand now gaining elevation, though not aggressively. There are good switchbacks and an easy trail to follow. Sometimes there are several dusty trail options to get from one cairn to another. It doesn’t really matter which you take as long as you reach the next carin. At one point we did need to use our hands to scale a short, rocky cliff. There was a class 2 and class 3 option here each with no more than 6 -8 easy moves. The route takes you to the edge of  the nearly level summit plateau. Then is is a quick stroll to the flat, summit block.

We arrived at the summit of Langley at about 8:15am. Of course, Damien and I were the only people there so early. The views spanning from the summit are breathtaking and we were surrounded by some of the tallest peaks in the country. Mount Whitney was even visible from our vantage point. We signed the register and took countless photos in the glow of early morning light. It was difficult to depart, but we still had another summit to climb!

We backtracked to Army Pass. Other climbers were just making their way up Langley. Most were coming from New Army Pass. From old Army Pass we needed to ascend about 300 feet up a hill to New Army Pass. We opted to not take the long sweeping switchbacks which lost elevation before going back up. Instead, we traveled cross country straight up, careful to avoid stepping on the delicate flora. It was pretty easy to keep our feet on the sand and gravel.

New Army Pass is signed and was more of a cliff outcrop than a pass at all. Peering over the edge I could see people sweating as they toiled up the infamous switchbacks from down in the valley. I was glad we took Army Pass instead. Cirque Peak was directly across from us and only 600 feet higher. However, to reach the summit we had to walk the horseshoe shaped North Ridge for 2 miles. There is no trail here at all, only talus. To our delight, the talus is not big and blocky, but consists of large flat rocks. It was some of the most fun terrain I ever encountered! We walked along the rock admiring the strange knobs and huecos as we went. Damien and I veered just slightly more right of the edge of the cliff to avoid unnecessary elevation gain to the various sub-summits. It was a relatively long walk, but we were having so much fun on the flat rocks we barely noticed. The last .68 miles the rocks grew less flat but there are easy sand tracks to follow made by big horned sheep. At the summit there are two markers and a register.

The view from this peak gave a marvelous perspective of the Cottonwood Lakes. We could also see the full route we had taken up Langley. We stayed on the summit for quite some time. However, in the distance peaks we could see several thunderheads developing. They were far off, but we were aware that it was not impossible for storm to brew over us as well even if it hadn’t been in the forecast. We journeyed back across the North ridge and descended to Army Pass.

We got back to our tent at 3:30pm which was much earlier than anticipated since we were scaling a fourteener. Spending so much time at altitude over the past 2 weeks had made the linkup easier than expected. It didn’t end up being the challenge we expected, but it was still are marvelous day! Plus, we even had time to take an afternoon nap; a rare luxury for us!

After another tranquil night at the 11,100 foot Lake #4, we packed up camp in the cover of the stars and shouldered our packs as the sun rose. We hated to leave the basin, but it was time to move on to another adventure. The early morning light made Cirque and Langley shimmer as we passed through the basin and back into the cover of the forest. The perfect conclusion to the high elevation linkup.

 

After some heavy smoke days and terrible air quality in Tuolumne Meadows, it seemed like the winds were changing the skies clearing. Damien and I set our alarm to 2am for the climb we had been thinking about since last November: Matthes Crest. Matthes Crest is rarely seen by anyone other than climbers. It is off the beaten path and obscured from view by Echo Peaks. The Crest is a lengthy summit and it allure lies in the ridge. The standard South to North Route climbs 2-3 pitches (5.5) up the South end of the mountain and then traverses for a mile across an exceedingly airy knife-edge ridge (ranging from class 3 to 5.4) to the South Summit. It is possible to continue on to the North Summit (5.7) and cross the rest of the ridge-line down to the other side, but this section involves little pro and down-climbing sketch 5.8 so it was not in our agenda. In fact, it is uncommonly done by anyone. The route is somewhat popular despite its longer approach hence our highly early start to the day.

We pulled onto the shoulder at the Cathedral Lakes TH and began walking at about 2:45am. We knew the first part of the approach since it is the same as Cathedral Peak. We took the trail toward Cathedral Lakes for about a half mile until we reached an obvious side trail on the left blocked off by some logs. We followed this trail along Budd Creek and then over slabs with rocks forming a walkway for about 1.75 miles. At this point the beta is to journey cross country so Damien took a bearing and we headed into the forest. Bushwhacking in the Sierra is not nearly as wretched as it is in WA. Basically, all you are dealing with is a meadow with some pine trees poking out and they don’t even have lower branches! No understory. In the dark, it was difficult to keep our bearing just right and we fumbled around for a while getting to the open slabs. Once on the slabs we continued toward Matthes eventually stubbing upon carins and then a well-trodden sandy, gravelly trail. We followed this track through the slabs and under the striking rocky summits of Echo Peaks. Then we rounded a corner and received our first view of Matthes as darkness began to lift from the sky.

It was HUGE! We stood awe-struck at the intimidating formation in front of us, letting the scale of the mountain sink in. It may have been intimidating but it was also intoxicating. Drawn forward by the Crest we descended about 300 feet through and forest and then across an green meadow with streams to the base of the mountain. We traversed right along the base slowly angling upward toward the start of the route on the far side of the mountain. The going was not difficult and we made quick work of the roughly 500-600 feet of gravel, grass and talus.

At the base of the route there was a single team just starting to climb. They spoke briefly to us mentioning that bad weather was going to move in somewhere between 11am-5pm.  There was a 30% chance of thunderstorms. This was news to us as we had been unable to check the forecast since Saturday just before entering the park nds back then it had been fine. Damien and I had a brief discussion and decided to go for it. We are fast simul-climbers and also knew that storms rarely started before 3pm. Plus it was only 30%.

Damien led up the first pitch, 5.3. It was about 120 feet and topped out at a good belay ledge. We decided to combine the next two pitches making for a long 200 foot, full rope length pitch. I led this section which climbed up some easy blocks before entering a crack system dihedral with knobs. I placed moderate protection as I went along until several feet up the dihedral. The crack would only take cams and I was simply out of the size I needed. I could not downclimb back to the ledge confidently, so I made a conscious decision to run it out. I don’t know how I held it together. The climbing was not difficult, but with your last piece of protection 25 feet below you suddenly the game changes. I remembered how high ball boulderers and free solo climbers took steady deep breathes. I copied them and focused carefully on each move, making sure every simple movement my body made was precise. Speed was sacrificed as errors could not be afforded. I think I placed about 4 pieces in over 100 feet. On my way up I wondered what I would find when I reached the ledge. I had no gear for an anchor. I needed natural pro and I hoped I would pull over the ledge to find a big horn or massive boulder. Thoughts like this, thinking ahead, kept me sane I a climbed high above my distant protection.

It seemed like an eternity on the wall, but I did eventually pull over the ledge. To my delight I was greeted by a giant boulder. I slung the boulder and set up my belay to bring Damien up to join me. When he arrived Damien prepared to lead the Simul-climb section and racked the gear. We folded our 60 meter rope in half to shorten it without the hassle of a kiwi coil.  A climber joined us on the ledge as Damien took off. Things were still much quieter here than on Cathodal Peak. With ten feet of slack in the rope I disassembled the anchor in preparation to follow. When the rope went tight against my harness I climbed up a few feet and pulled over to the ridge.

I was greeted by a true knife-edge. It was spectacular in both airy exposure and in sheer wild beauty. Ahead of me I could see Damien making his way up and over the first hump in the ridge. Enthralled I followed, cleaning gear along the way.

The climbing was not especially difficult. The exposure was heady though and any mistake even on the class 3 sections would result in a long fall. But luckily, exposure is awesome too us so we didn’t mind.  The rock is excellent quality with knobs, cracks and blocks. Nothing was loose on the ridge. Between the class 3 and 4 sections were areas of low class 5 mostly where there was a hump in the ridge. Often these features were intimidating from afar, but not difficult to climb. There were a few tricky moves though sprinkled throughout. Of course, 360 degree views of Yosemite engulfed us as we made our way along the knife-edge. It was glorious, but I did note building clouds.

The traverse to the South Summit took us exactly three hours, which is the estimated speed for someone soloing the route! We swapped gear once about 2/3 of a mile in. As we enjoyed the splendid views of the South Summit we observed the sky. It was blue with fluffy clouds, but the distant mountains seemed to have, at the very least, some rain. We lingered a bit before setting off for the descent. It was difficult to pull away. We had the summit to ourselves! But the next team was getting closer and we knew the weather could change in an instant.

To descend we needed to access the Notch between the South and North summit. Damien down-climbed the South summit and followed a 5.2 ramp system down to a tree as described in the beta. We switched leads at the tree because of rope drag. I led out following the ramp, but it led to a gully not a notch and it was on the wrong side of the mountain. I tried a different path with the same result before climbing back to Damien. Damien took a go at finding the notch and discovered that the topo beta we had neglected to mention that the ramp leads into a gully and then you must climb back up to the notch!

The temperature dropped and more clouds moved in as we unroped at the notch and descended several yards to the rap shrub. I rapped first and made it to another rap tree with a questionable mess of slings. However, I was not at the ends of my rope. We ended up doing a single rap down instead of the 2 in the beta, opting to downclimb a few feet of low class 5 rock. No sooner than we had pulled the rope and put on our approach shoes did the sky grow grey and the distant sound of thunder echoed of the rocky cliffs. Swiftly we scrambled down the easy talus and sand to the cover of trees. The team behind us? They decided to stay up on the mountain and climb the North Summit!

We ran into another team in the forest. They had bailed on questionable trees and shrubs partway down the ridge when they saw the weather moving in. We chatted for a bit as light rain began to fall. We needed to cross open slabs to return to the trailhead which didn’t sound all that appealing. They took off after some time. Damien and I lingered a bit more to see if the thunder would move off. It didn’t and the rain grew a bit harder. We decided to a least climb the 300 feet through the trees to the slabs and then decide how to proceed.

The thunder claps were not overhead when we reached the tree, nor were they loud cracks. No lightning thus far. We opted to move quickly through the slabs. About ten minutes in there was a flash of lightning and we hid in a small “canyon” in the slabs by a tree. Fifteen minutes later we began moving again. The storm passed us leaving nothing by lingering rain and distant rolls of thunder as we reached the Cathedral Peak Trail. It was still a long walk back, but having Jimmy Chin pass us on the trail made things go a lot quicker. We had seen him a year ago on the same exact date climbing the Grand Teton. What are the odds!? He and his team had also bailed on Matthes when the weather moved in.

 

Cathedral Peak is the most popular climb in Tuloumne Meadows of Yosemite and for good reason. The moderate climb features stellar rock quality, fun pitches and has a short approach. There are several variations of the climb which help with handling the masses to an extent, but all routes funnel to the Chimney pitch which effectively negates this. Damien and I were well aware of this alpine summit’s reputation for crowds so we opted to get a very early start to beat the rush. The book stated that arriving before 8:00 would put a team in a good place to avoid hold-ups.

We arrived at the Cathedral Lakes TH at about 3:30am and headed up the trail. Around this time Damien discovered that he forgotten his helmet, but we decided to keep going knowing that rockfall was not common on this climb. There were several junctions and we took a wrong turn causing us to loose time. Back on the main trail we followed the path by headlamp to a clear, marked off side trail on the left. We took this trail and followed Budd Creek for about 30 minutes. The tread then turned away from the creek and crossed over slabs. There was a “path” bordered by small rocks through the slabs which was handy. We reentered a dirt path through the forest, but after some time it seemed to peter out. We decided to just go directly uphill toward the peak. After some wretched, steep scrambling through talus, dirt and sand we reached the base of the peak and followed what appeared to be  a boot path up and to the right. However, as we looked at the topo and the wall of rock in front of us things just didn’t seem to match. We were taking the descent path up and were much too high! We backtracked down, again loosing time and finally made it to the start of the SE Buttress at 6:30am.

There was a team of 3 young women in front of us. They had 2 full width and length ropes and rope management was already an issue for them as they belayed the leader. As we prepared to climb more teams arrived and soon there was a t least 6 or 8 separate parties waiting to get on the route. Finally, the women were high enough so that Damien could begin leading. Meanwhile at the belay station the women were having a hell of a time untangling a bird’s nest of ropes and swapping gear inefficiently. Damien tried to offer advice to them when he got to the belay tree, but they just giggled and paid no attention. They moved slow even for a team of three so anything would have helped. It was frustrating for everyone waiting. There are other route variations as I mentioned before, but they are higher rated with 5.8 and 5.9 moves and some sections rated R. So not many teams were willing to start somewhere else. Bythe time I left the ground there were about ten teams in line.

The first pitch has some slabby moves followed by what appears to be a low angle hand crack. However, it is much steeper and harder than it looks. I was impressed by Damien’s lead. Damien continued to lead on the second pitch which was blocky with cracks. A fun, clean pitch for sure. We swapped gear at the next belay tree as we waited once again for the women. It took forever. Finally I lead out following a 5.7 corner and making an airy mantle move out onto the face. The hardest trad pitch I have ever led! From there I followed easy knobs to a ledge and belayed Damien up. It was not the end of the pitch but I was held up behind converging teams. I led up the 2nd half of Pitch 3 to a large ledge . Here is where everyone was bottle-necking. There are 3 options: far left was a class 4/ low 5 “escape to summit”, in the middle a scary looking steep face and to the right a tight chimney. Everyone was lined up at the Chimney. We first opted to skip the line and do the “escape”, but I discovered as I led that there was little protection and the rock was loose. I downclimbed and we ended up waiting in the now long line to climb the Chimney.

Damien led this section as I had issues getting into the feature. It requires climbing up either side of the walls just outside the chimney which are rather polished and then shoving oneself inside an extremely tight space via an exposed step-over. Getting inside is difficult on its own, add a pack and it’s downright gnarly. Damien managed to squish himself into the Chimney and slither up inch by inch. Then it was my turn. After wrestling myself inside the narrow slot I found myself mostly stemming up unlike everyone else I had watched climb it. It seemed to work well for me though.

Damien belayed me from the top of the Chimney and I took over leading the rest of the pitch, though I ended up stopping to belay him once more due to other teams in front of me. Finally, I pulled over a flake and descended a few feet to the base of the summit block. There was an easy crack system for the final few meters to the top where I built a gear anchor in the cracks. Damien joined me on the summit shortly after along with a few other teams. We didn’t linger as it was getting late. I lowered Damien down the summit block and he then walked around the 4th class corner placing gear. I followed him to a small alcove where we untied and made our way on third class terrain to a rappel tree. After re-tying a sling, which had a dangerous overhand knot, with a proper water knot we did two rappels to low angle terrain. Then we followed the ridge and crossed over to the same boot-path we had taken in the error that morning. When we arrived back at the base it was 6:30. We spent 12 hours on the route, but only 4 hours climbing! On the way out we discovered there was a good trail all the way to the base of the climb. We had somehow gotten off that path that morning in the darkness.

The moral of the story is to start this route in the dark. Also, we saw many folks using questionable anchor techniques and knots. Most teams treated this climb like a roadside crag and had no alpine experience. This was scary being that this is definitely an alpine summit. Something to keep in mind. The good news is that the route is indeed stellar and the views ridiculously awesome the whole way up. Just expect to share it with a lot of teams.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

We woke up at 3am for an early start of the Beckey Route.  However, after venturing out of our tent we quickly decided that a slightly later start might be wiser. It was shockingly frigid outside even though daytime temps were hovering in the 80s that weekend and just the day before we had been sweating bullets on SEWS, South Arete. We woke to our second alarm at 4:15am. The air temp had gone up a bit and we were confident the rock would be warm enough to handle once we arrived at the base of Liberty Bell. We departed from camp 300 feet below SEWS saddle with our harnesses giggling in the cool, comfortable air of early morning. Damien and I traversed high above the slabs on mostly snow (no crampons needed) below the lofty spires until we reached the infamous Concord-Liberty Bell gully. I recalled this gully being pretty rotten last time I had the pleasure of ascending it 4 years ago. We moved upward first on steep snow and then on dryish loose rock and gritty sand. Then up another steep snow slope. We were able to kick good steps and did not break out our axes. I wished the entire gully was full of snow so were could have avoided the crummy loose rock, but it wasn’t as wretched as I remembered from last time. Maybe I’ve gotten used to such conditions over the years. We ran into a team descending the gully on our way up. They had topped out at 3am from Liberty Crack. Turns out they  saw our headlamps when we first woke up and were confused as to who could be down in the basin so early/late!

We stashed our boots, poles and axes in a tree near the top of the notch and made our way over to the bottom of pitch 1. Getting to the pitch is a bit cruxy within itself. After moving around narrow ledges toward trees around the corner of Liberty Bell there is a very exposed 4th class traverse section on slabs to the start of the gully start of the Tunnel Pitch. When I climbed this route with Eric a few years back we had used the alternate finger crack start thus avoiding the exposed 4th class section. The moves weren’t difficult, it was just exposed.

I led the first pitch through the actual “tunnel” formed by chock stones. The pitch is easy to protect with cams. The most  intimidating section is when you find yourself just above the tunnel with legs on either side. Lots of playful movement and I somehow managed a knee jam (probably not necessary, but ulta fun). The pitch ends just to the right of the crux chimney by the tree.

Last time I climbed the Beckey Route I led the crux chimney pitch. To me it had been a rite of passage or sorts, so I wanted Damien to experience the pitch on lead.  The most difficult part of the chimney is tendency to get sucked too high into the chimney and getting your head stuck under the chockstones above. Stepping out onto the left ledge as soon as possible to critical. Damien was pretty psyched for the pitch and made astoundingly quick work of the crux moves! I was so proud of him! After easily moving off the ledge on big horns above the chimney he moved into the easier chimney system above and out of sight. I could hear the friction of his backpack though as he squeezed through. Backpacks are always an issue in chimneys!

Upon rejoining Damien at the top of Pitch 2 we had a short discussion about the chimney crux. The most difficult part for Damien was getting his leg on the left ledge. The move was awkward for him probably because of his height. For me I found the most difficult part to be reaching the jugs above the ledge (in the end I had resorted to some stemming variation followed by a pull-up/mantle). Personal attributes change how we view cruxes.

I put Damien on Belay for pitch 3 as well since I wanted to lead pitch 4. Pitch 3 requires the most route finding. The key is to follow features trending right until you reach Beckey’s fixed piton. Then make a sharp left onto the delicate finger traverse. Reaching very far left on this traverse will get you onto a more secure hold. Rope drag is a very real issue and unavoidable on this pitch and it is imperative to extend gear properly to avoid making it even worse.

From the top of the third pitch we moved the belay over some 3rd class terrain a few yards to a big platform just below the start of Pitch 4: the 5.7 face. This 10 foot,  blank and unprotected face is the original crux. Apparently Beckey ascended it by standing on his partner’s shoulders. I wanted to climb it because it’s a boulder problem in the middle of a mountain. There are decent ledges on the bottom so the lack of handholds isn’t an issue until those ledges end. The jug top hold is just out of reach of course. The best handholds available are not secure and include a mono-pocket with small thumb catch on the left and a barely useful small slopper n the right. The strategy I came up with was to grab these holds, smear hard, trust my feet and commit. The terrain after the slab is low fifth class to the summit. We were joined by the youngest team I’d ever run into into the alpine: two teenagers aged 17.  I wish I had started that young!

We hung out on the broad, spacious summit to enjoy the view for about 20 minutes. The sun wasn’t baking us yet (luckily we had the pleasure of climbing almost the entire route in the breezy shade) and we were in no big hurry. But we did eventually have to descend. Most people down-climb all of pitch 4 including the 5.7 slab. We opted to do the optional rappel. We down-climbed from the summit to descender’s left of the terrain/gear belay area just after the summit slabs and then turned left and down-climbed a few steps to a tree with slings. The key to this rappel is to not go straight down, Instead stay left and do not go directly down the face. You will end up on a small platform just around the corner from start of pitch 4.

From here we descended to the belay tree at the top of pitch 3 and then turned left moving down through the trees until our first chance to turn right. We walked onto a rock large rock ledge. There are chains on the wall here. We rapped down to a smaller ledge with chains (don’t miss them!) and made a final rappel to the notch. Make sure you direct yourself left on the final rappel or you will end up hoovering in space and not on the notch!

At the notch we gratefully removed our swollen, throbbing feet from the our tiny climbing shoes and savored the moment. A beautiful climb, on a glorious day in a spectacular setting! Plus, we were in the shade! Eventually we put on our boots and descended back to camp. The Beckey route was crowded and completely in the sun now. We had climbed it at just the right time!

Gear note: in addition to the standard Beckey Route rack (nut set, double cams  .4-3″) we found that a few mid-sized hexes proved to be very useful.

Damien has been climbing for nearly 10 years in the Cascades and somehow never got around to climbing the Liberty Bell Group. I am not sure how this happened, but this weekend we set out to remedy this situation by climbing 2 classics. The South Arete of SEWS was our first objective (the 2nd climb was the Becky Route on Liberty Bell). I climbed this route the summer of 2014 and have a trip report on it. My vision of climbing has changed since then and yearly conditions vary, so I feel that another write up is in order.

We left the Blue Lake TH at about 7:45am. There are big sections of snow on the lowest portion and after losing the boot track we decided to just push straight uphill and bypass all this lower, sweeping, annoying switchbacks. We linked up easily with the trail which was much more melted out about 250 feet up from the TH. Continuous snow began at the second clearing where the route turns away from the Blue Lake Trail and detours toward the Liberty Bell Group. There is a good bookpack from the steady steam of climbers heading into the basin. However, there are lots of creeks moving under the snow. Care should definitely be taken and there are hollow places where you can puncture through pretty deep. Damien and I cut off from the main track and set up camp in a flat area about 300 feet below the SEWS Saddle. We didn’t see much point to camping in the car like most people do. Then we re-joined the track and headed up the snow covered slope to the saddle.

The top of the saddle is melted out with plenty of space to prep for climbing.There were already a bunch of teams on the route. We knew the 5.6 moderate S Arete route is very popular and we were prepared to wait. Damien and I geared up and hung our shoes and poles in the trees out of reach from the goats. I wanted to lead the first pitch since I recalled it being kind of bouldery. The first pitch is the crux and has a move or two that is deemed to be much more difficult than the 5.6 it is rated. I’d have to agree. After some easy moves using a flake you have to step out onto the slab and smear hard on almost nothing while you hands are on awkward and insecure holds. Add the fact that the rock was sweating from the heat and no amount of chalk would help with friction made this section even more challenging. Once passed this part though climbing returned to mid-class 5. I belayed Damien up from the tree at the top of the pitch. There are also chains to the left if one prefers though those are really for rapping.

Damien led on pitch 2 which started in a blocky, low fifth class gully. At the end of the gully is a fun 5.4 chimney which can be awkward with a pack on. The top of the chimney is the end of pitch 2 and the start of easy climbing. Damien and I chose to Simaul-climb the remainder of the route. It is basically all class 3/4 with a few low class 5 moves sprinkled in here and there. Unfortunately the team of three in front of us pitched out nearly everything which slowed us down quite a lot. I think we might have made it to the summit an hour and a half earlier otherwise. Regardless, it was a great opportunity for us to practice efficiency and simaul-climbing skills. I remember that last time I did this route I was pretty disappointed due to all the low class climbing pitches, but this time I knew what to expect and was able to appreciate the climb as a fun, low-stress, warm up for the alpine rock season.

The summit block is a V0 slab boulder problem which delighted me as I didn’t recall that. Damien and I rested in the shade a bit as the day was growing grossly hot and increasingly uncomfortable. Eventually, we ventured back out into the sun for the descent. Since Damien led the simul-climb up, I led down. Basically to descend you reverse-route down-climbing until the top of Pitch 3. Then we did 3 rappels on trees or chains (all directly on the ascent route), back to to the saddle. Enroute another rappelling team recognized us from the summit of Mt Hood last year when we had climbed Leuthold! We had talked to them for some time, but I didn’t remember their faces. We were surprised they recognized us!

We plunge stepped easily back to camp to enjoy an evening beneath the spires.

On August 16 Damien and I packing up our camp in the South Fork after climbing South and Middle Teton. Our next objective was The Grand. We descended down the talus of the South Fork, cut above the meadow at 9,300 feet to meet with the creek flowing below Spalding Falls. We crossed the creek and met up with the Trail being careful not to step on any alpine flora and remain on the rocks. The route up the North Fork is not a boot path like the South Fork. It is actully a trail completely with switchbacks, albeit steep at times. We hardly noticed though even with our heavy packs. We were distracted by a chance meeting with Jimmy Chin on his way to solo The Grand Teton via Owen Spalding with his friend. we were wondering if we would run into him! Its always great to run into your heroes in the backcountry.

After the switchbacks the trail curved deep into the North Fork passing over a creek below the Ranger tents. The tread then vanishes in some large boulders. We climbed through the boulders and easily regained the trail which had a sign indicating the start of the moraines camp. We decided to take a nearby camp with a windbreak at 10,800 feet. There was  a nearby “cave” in the boulders as well that we toyed with staying in. It had multiple rooms and had some work done on it for sleeping. However, after by bear spray fell into a crack and I had to borrow deep in the “basement” of the cave to retrieve it and Damien contemplated the possible presence of spiders, we decided to stay in the tent unless the weather got bad. At this pint we had no idea what the forecast was since we hadn’t been in the front country in three days. Jimmy had said it was supposed to be nice though. We figured he knew what he was talking about!

After setting up camp we headed up the trail to check out the lower Saddle and Scout the Owen Spalding route. Enroute Damien turned off the trail about ten minutes from camp to where water was visibly running on the glacier to the left to filter. There is no water access further down as it flows under the rocks. Here the water run funneled down the track in the glacier ice. We continued up the easy to follow trail to a headwall. There was an orange handline with knots to ascend this class 4/5 rock. About 2/3 of the way up one must move to the second handline outside of the chimney and out onto the wall. There is a blue bandline when one tops out for extra safety until the trail moves away from the thin ledge. We ran into Jimmy and his friend again as they came down from climbing the Grand.

From the top of the headwall there are several different paths intertwining, but they all lead to the Lower  Saddle. The Lower saddle is at 11,600 feet and is rather broad. Middle Teton is on the left and the Grand rises up on the right. There are several camps, a trickling water source and two guide tents. We could see that the couloir to the Upper Saddle would be complicated as it appeared to be a huge maze of rumble. We would have to study tge route hard that night before turning in. Ascending the couloir to the upper saddle was known to be a route finding challenge.

We descended back down to camp and went to bed way before the sun went down. We planned on an early start… and at 1:38am, Aug 17,  we were on our way back to the Lower Saddle once more.

Once on the lower Saddle we followed good trail on the right until about 12,250 feet to the base of what known as the Black Dike. There is descent trail to follow here and a few cairns. Stay to the left of the small tower known as The Needle. The real difficulty occurs when the trail seems to just run out and a wall rears up in front of you. This is the crux. At this point you will see a rock with a 2 foot horizontal black “ribbon” across is. This left here and traverse right over some class 4 terrain  (you may need to crawl a bit) to a small ridge. Then descend a bit and find “The Eye of the Needle” which is a little tunnel under some boulders. There seems to be nowhere to go after coming out the other end, but look left and you will see a short but scary class 4 hand traverse called “the half belly roll” From here one can ascend straight up over one of the various trails to the Upper Saddle at 13,100. As you near the Saddle though be sure to aim for the right side of the saddle. If you go left, like we did, you will end up on top of this hump that cannot be down climbed easily to reach the start of the Owen Route. We had to downclimb about 250 feet and then climb back up to the right. Our route finding was not exactly easy as the couloir is a maze. We did a fair amount of asking for directions from the guides and took a few wrong turns. The real crux is getting from the traverse to the Eye of the Needle. Once through the Eye of the Needle and half belly roll its pretty straight forward.

Damien and I tied up at the base of the Owen Spalding in some light snow that didn’t last long. We used two 37 meter twin ropes which worked out great. Less length to manage, good rappel length and less weight. We simul-climbed the first pitch. Though on the route there really are no formal pitches. Its kind of do as you wish. Damien led the entire route since speed was of the essence in case of an afternoon storm and switching would take too much time. The OS begins be traversing left past the prayer flags. There is an airy step over a flack on the ledge followed by the famous  Belly Roll. Basically the ledge system is blocked by an overhanging rock with a squeeze space just big enough for the climber to shimmy through on their belly with half their body.. the other half is off the ledge fully exposed to a shear drop off. Airy!

After that there is some straight forward class 5 moves. Damien built an anchor on a flat area just below the “crux” 5.5 move called the Double Chimney. Thw name is no longer accurate as this used to be two chimneys, but the divider flake has fell over about 60 years ago so now it is more of an open book kind of chimney. About this time some clouds rolled in and it began to hail. The temperature also dropped quite a lot. Multiple hail cells would pass over us as we climbed the rest the route.Luckily, we like climbing is less than optimal weather. Its kind of our trademark.  It was difficult for Damien to jump into the chimney, but easy for him to climb out. it was the opposite for me. I’m small and can scramble into anything, but climbing out requiring some awkward stemming moves and pulling up on less then bomber handholds. Good pro though for this move.

The route continues to be exposed, but still relatively low fifth class. Damien belayed me in from the beginning fo the catwalk, which is an exposed ledge that circles around right to the base of Sargent’s Chimney. Sargent’s Chimney is low class five, but not really protectable. We stayed roped up for it, but it really didn;t matter since there was no pro placed. There are definitely some exposed moves. At the top of Sargent’s we untied. From here we scramble up the path of least resistance veering left over brown rock and slabs to the summit. A trail runner who stopped his watch at 2.15 hours came up shortly after us. I have no idea where he timed it from but it was impressive regardless. It was 10am and we’d been climbing for 8.5 hours! But we we had made it. we’d made it through hail, snow and wind! We had trained all summer and it had led to success at 13,776 feet! Words cannot describe how happy we were to be on the summit of the Grand. But of course we were only halfway done.

We reversed route back down which unfortunately meant we had to down climb the class 5 Sargent’s chimney unprotected. It was somehow fun though. At the base of the chimney we walked skiers left  along the wide ledge and down a few steps to where there is a cord wrap station (protected bye a fire hose oddly enough) and a bolted wrap station right next to it. We used the cord rap station since it was slightly lower. We would not be able to see the bottom of the rappel which made things a bit intimidating. I went first and found, to my delight, that this was the most fun rappel I had ever done!. There are lots of overhangs, the last one be particularly long as you lower yourself in mid air. Of course this is along where the ropes chose to get tangled and it was tedious getting out the twists as a hing in space. Still the best rappel I’ve ever done!

We coiled up our ropes and prepared to descend to the Lower Saddle. The sky was getting more menacing looking and sure enoguh we heard a clap of thunder halfway down the couloir. Some rain began to fall as we traverse the half belly roll, but it didn’t last long. We managed to find our way to the Eye of the Needle, but discovered there were two tunnels. we took the wrong one, note that the  correct tunnel is the the right as you come down. Down go through the tiny squeeze hole on the left like we did! We had to climb back down the the right tunnel. A guide pointed us in the safest way down to avoid rock fall from above climbers. Basically the idea is after doing the traverse following the needle stay to skier’s left.

Thunder was heard in the distance, but it never arrived at the Grand. We descended back to our camp and crawled into our tent just as a steady rain began to fall. We’d done it. We’d climbed all three of the Tetons: South, Middle and Grand!

We hiked out of the moraines the next day. It was a sunny day and it seemed like all the little critters were out on the trail feeding. They didn’t move at all as we passed! However, an hour after we arrive back at Lupine Meadows Trailhead thunder rolled over the Teton Range and the mountain were engulfed in lightning, clouds and rain. The weather window was over. We had somehow timed everything perfectly!

 

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August 15 called for 20% thunder in the afternoon. Typical Teton forecast. We decided to start our ascent of Middle Teton at about 5:30 am to avoid any chance of being on the mountain anywhere near the afternoon. Lightning just isn’t appealing for a climber. We climbed back up the the saddle at 1400 pretty easily in the dim light following carins and the boot path we were familiar with from climbing South Teton the day before. See the South Teton report for details on the approach.  After reaching the low point of the saddle (do not cut off to the right until reaching the proper saddle or you will end up on slabby cliffs), we turned right and followed a very distinct booth path along the ridge of Middle Teton and across a broad alpine meadow to the base of the large SW Couloir. The couloir had a descent boot path and is class 3 the whole way up (about 900 feet of scrambling). Beware of loose rock especially in the middle of the couloir when it begins to narrow. Staying right will keep you on less steep rock.

The true summit is on the left upon reaching the upper ridge. There are a few different options for reaching the summit block ranging for class 3 to 4 with a few exposed steps. Our way a was a bit airy, but not tricky. The view of The Grand is electrifying from the summit of Middle.  The Owen Spalding Route is completely visible and we could see climbers on the Lower and Upper Saddles.

We reversed route back down, but ended up taking the wrong trail after crossing the alpine meadow at the bottom of the couloir. We ended up descending the step snow that covered the slabs to the right of the saddle. Not the advised way down, but we made it work. Anther fun climb in the Tetons… now for the Grand!

 

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Our entire summer’s climbing trips and backpacks this season we’re specifically geared to double as training for our biggest adventure of the season. Our goal with the Triple Tetons: South, Middle and Grand. We had secured permits for 4 nights back in January and prepped by climbing lots of volcanos to get elevations and a bunch of extra long backpacks to get in shape for the mileage and weight we’d need to carry. Between the bear vault, technical climbing gear and food for five days our packs weight about 55ish lbs a piece. We were physically ready and now it all depended on the weather. Could we get a five day window without the infamous afternoon thunder storms of the Rockies? The answer would be YES!!!!

We set up our front country base camp in Colter Bay to secure a place to stay once we returned on Saturday. Then early in the morning on Sunday August 14 we started up the trail a Lupine Meadows just as the sun began to rise. We sang a chorus of “Hey Bear!” as we switch-backed up through the trees and into the high meadows overlooking Taggart and Bradley Lakes Below. The air was cool and the forecast called for a mostly clear day with no storms. We ran into no bears in the low country and were relieved to be out of the main bear territory when we turned at the second junction toward Garnet Canyon.

Almost immediately we were greeted view views of the talus filled canyon and the towering  rocky, masses of the Tetons. We reached Garnet Creek and the Platforms Camp  before noon. At this point the trail vanishes into a field of gigantic boulders. We didn’t find any cairns to mark the way and it was cumbersome to balance of giant packs while jumping and climbing over the massive boulders. Luckily the boulder hoping didn’t last we and we followed a good trail along the  creek to The Meadows Camps at 9,000 feet.

At the Meadows the Canyon splits in the South and North Forks. For South and Middle Teton we turned left onto the South Fork. There is a maze of boot paths through the talus and scree leading up the South Fork. They all lead to the Saddle between Middle and South, so basically the idea is to pick the path you like best. Beware of rockfall though. There are several camping areas on the South Fork. We opted to camp on a pretty grassy ledge with a stream at 9980 feet. It is the first campsite area and there are two camps with windbreaks. We found that the windbreaks didn’t do anything since the wind seems to roll right over it slamming into the tent anyway. We set up camp and looked up. The saddle was at 11,400 feet. There was still plenty of daylight left. Our original plan had been to climb the South Monday and then the Middle on Tuesday before moving to the North Fork. Making Tuesday the heavy day was not really optimal due to th early start the Grand we require on Wednesday. We decided to move things around and climb the South right away. We left camp and headed up to the Saddle.

Again there are many boot baths through the moraines. They are easy to follow and carins were now present to mark the route. Mostly the way veers to the right side of the canyon going over one hump after another with the saddle seeming to new come into view. It is easily at least a two mile walk/scramble to the Saddle. There are some windbreaks in various places along the way and at the saddle. Water availability varies.  The key is make sure to go to the lowest point of the saddle before starting up the route.

After enjoying the scenery of Iceberg lake below and expansive views of Idaho we began climbing up the NW Couloir. The actual Couloir is hard to make out from the Saddle as it looks like one rock face near the top of the slope. But looking closely one can see there is a couloir in-between just above the permanent snow slope. This late in the season an ice axe and crampons was not required. We headed up talus on a vague trail until reaching the top of the ridge near the snow field. Then we followed an exposed class 3/4 route along the top of the slope on trail and rock to reach the couloir. Once in the couolir is was relatively short class 3 scramble to the upper ridge. Here were turned left and followed the broken  ridge easily to the summit of 12514 Feet.  The views from the top are expansive and the Grand can be seen Towering over Middle Teton!

We descended easily and headed back to camp. The next day we would climb Middle Teton.

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