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Mount Challenger – 8/21-24/2008

Posted by joeabbott on October 24, 2008

We sat looking at the steep face, the newly fallen snow, and debated our chance of getting down more than getting up. Sun was coming up and the skies were mostly clear and could bring warm, slushy conditions but turbulence in and around some of the other peaks spoke of a change coming. Either way might bring trouble but we might also thread the needle. We’d suffered two days to get here and as the cold began to bite my toes I shifted about and tried to squeeze warmth into my feet and hands. The glow of not only finally getting in some real climbing but climbing well with my partners was ebbing and I thought back on the path that brought us below the bergschrund separating us from the upper portion of Challenger.




At 5:30 AM two days before, under glowering skies, I left SeaTac for Phinney Ridge to pick up Gavin, a guy I’d climbed with once or twice before. He’s smart about the craft, has a wicked wit that’s tempered by his Scottish charm, and has somehow managed to channel the legendary strength and stamina of John Muir in his slight frame. All around an excellent climbing partner. He tossed in his gear and as the skies began to drizzle we made our way through Thursday rush hour traffic to Woodinville and the home of the final team member, Brian.


I’d met Brian through one of my former climbing students and as Mountaineers climb leader, he’s become one of my favorite partners. We get out but once a year and yet I look forward to that outing each time. He and Gavin are long-time partners and work very well together. The climbing is always enjoyable, I always learn a lot, and safety is never in question … nor is pushing hard to make our objective. It takes more than good gear to make a climber and both Gavin and Brian have that mentality.


Once we got to “The Ville” and Brian’s house, we looked over his impressive “wall of gear” and I mentioned one more time that I was nervous about my bivy situation. They were sharing a small two person tent and I was in a bivy … we just couldn’t find a good, light three person tent. He tossed me a Black Diamond Betamid ( and at just about 2 pounds, it was a screamer of a deal. I don’t think I had a more-appreciated piece of gear on any outing.


In went the last of the gear, north went the car. With an obligatory stop for coffee, of course.


The trip to the Glacier Ranger Station went quickly with the now-typical banter bouncing off each other. If laughter and fun are the measures of success, we were off to a great start and only the increasing rain dampened our enthusiasm. At one point we started to consider alternatives … something that would either take us to somewhere drier, or something that was a bit shorter (to avoid being wet for four days). When the fact that Challenger wasn’t even on the Bulger list came up, it nearly sealed the deal for a different objective. Still, we continued on and argued that without route information and with an acceptable forecast for our summit day, we were making the right choice.


At the Ranger station we talked to S. Singh … soon to be referred to as “Vijay Singh” (after the famous golfer) for his apparent lack of real back country experience or information. He didn’t have better weather information than we had considered (he even pointed to a print out from the pages we shared before the climb), had never been to the area we were going, and advised hanging our food at Perfect Pass. Umm … on what? So we politely filled in the back country permit information, stocked up on blue bags, and continued to politely accept stock advice.


At one point we mentioned spending the first night on Easy Ridge and he looked skeptical. Did we know how far in that was? Yup. Did we understand it was raining? Yup. Did we realize the Chilliwack River would be pretty treacherous to ford? We asked what choice we had and he suggested either waiting a day or taking a cable car downstream about a mile and then hiking up the far side. We listened, nodded at the advice, and parted amicably.


I changed clothes in the super loo (way better than some of the Ranger Station bathrooms I’ve used), used the last real toilet I’d see in days, and we headed down the road toward the Hannegan Pass trailhead.


The forecast had said the rain would stop on Thursday at 11 AM and we weighed out getting breakfast somewhere to wait that out. Brian argued that we’d just be burning daylight and the forecast could be wrong and\or we’d get just as wet from the water on the foliage. Combined with already having eaten breakfast and we accepted that we’d start getting wet right out of the car.


At the trailhead there’s a deluxe picnic shelter that was acting as a staging area for both us and a couple heading out for a long trek (perhaps the Copper Ridge trail … I forget). We joked and shared advice, swapped gear, and wished each other safe travels. Then as I pulled my rain pants on and shouldered the heaviest pack I’d had on this year, we walked out into the continuing rain.


We’d left the shelter about 10:30 and started up toward Hannegan Pass. It’s roughly four miles from the trailhead and I hoped we’d be able to stop under sheltering trees on top for a quick lunch. As we trudged up the path our spirits were high and the rain seemed to be lessening when, at 11:03 AM, the rain stopped.


I asked if anyone else thought that having the rain stop so accurately to the predicted time was spooky when Gavin said, “why would that be? No, wait, that is spooky.” But as spooky-accurate as it was, the rain began again a bit later and would be a constant companion until somewhere later in the day as we ascended Easy Ridge.


As we neared Hannegan Pass we got views of Ruth Mountain and Icy Peak, both which elicited stories of mountains worth climbing. As we continued on we started noticing the vegetation was flattened almost to the ground and as we conjectured on the reason, it soon became apparent: snow. The greenery that was down and not snowed on must have benefited from the rain that melted it away, but near the top or the pass all was white. Remembering Easy Ridge was higher, we wondered what we’d see there.


We bumped into an older foursome as we crested Hannegan Pass and rather than stop and play the hiking version of leap frog, we continued down the trail into the Chilliwack basin. My lunch was delayed.


While my recollections of this path were of a wonderful thoroughfare, the week-long rains and near-freezing cold had turned it into something less than a breezy stroll. Icy water was everywhere, the streams and rivulets that crossed the trail became either treacherous (as the creek at Hell’s Gorge was) or just wet (as all the others were). In the areas you crossed open meadows, the overgrown trail continually drenched you and, in the end, even Gore-Tex boots, gaiters, nylon hiking pants, and rain pants were unable to keep my socks dry. It was a wet day.


By Copper Creek we were seven miles in and the rain had slackened to a pitter patter so we decided to shelter under trees at the side of the trail and enjoy lunch. I had a bagel with ham and cheese, the other two had variants on this theme. Although when Gavin produced a two foot long ciabatta and Brian pulled out a brick of Jarlsberg cheese, I realize that I had spent a lot more time preparing for this trip than they had. Still, everyone made due and while our clothes were sodden, our attitudes still held and we cited the oft repeated line that Friday was improving and Saturday would be splendid. And under those high hopes we pulled up our hoods and packs, and walked on.


After starting around 3100′ and cresting Hannegan Pass at just over 5000′ (a rise of less that 2000’), the trail descends a slow demoralizing 2300′ (!!) to the Chilliwack River. While the trail is in good shape it’s hard to lose more than you gained … especially knowing what would come next: gaining it, and a little more, back on the way up Easy Ridge! But first, a water crossing.


On our way down the trail we found a small camp and headed into it. We then spotted a cairn on both sides of the Chilliwack and felt confident that this was where we were to cross, and yet it didn’t look right to me. Gone was the long sandbar that I’d had lunch on many years back and after 10 minutes of looking, we saw no safe alternative than fording the raging waters. Our jibes toward “Vijay” were muted and I mentioned that the camp further down seemed more likely to be where I’d stayed and a better crossing could probably be found there.


So, under my assurances, we headed northeast to the horse camp just under a mile farther down trail. At the camp we met a couple guys who appeared to be taking up residence in a trail crew camp that wasn’t being actively used. Not sure if they were holing up in the tents, but they had a roaring fire going under tarps and looked at home next to the two-burner stove and 8# maul. With a few words we slipped past them, found the river banks, and looked at and across to … nothing. No cairn, no clearing, no evidence of a trail under the towering cliff faces. Nothing but a swollen river and little chance of getting across here anymore easily than back where we had been. And with the far shore appearing less amenable as a path than the trail we just came down, we turned back and headed upstream.


While I felt bad for causing the team to walk another mile and a half and then some, no one gave me grief and soon enough we were back on the thin banks and looking at a chilly wade to the far side.


Gavin and Brian started to strip off boots, socks and pants to minimize the seemingly unavoidable prospect of getting thoroughly wet. I reluctantly joined in and off they went, barefoot and fighting the thigh-high rushing waters, backpacks unstrapped in case they had to be jettisoned … our precious belongings being the obvious jetsam in this hazardous undertaking. Again, no one was laughing at estimable Mr. S. Singh now.


Once Brian was across Gavin followed and, in turn, I took up the rear. A position I was becoming all too familiar in with these two partners. The water was frigid but the price for letting that either stop you or beg for a change in course could be disastrous. I kept my head down, tried to plant my trekking poles in places that gave me good purchase and a solid stance, and then fought my feet forward. The current pushed both poles and legs in a downstream rush, while your eyes were bedazzled: the stones on the bottom were blurry but fixed in the river bed, while the near-transparent water was closer but whirled and gyred. It was mesmerizing and sickening at the same time. Fortunately my feet grew numb and the painful banging against the rough bottom became duller as I moved slowly to the far side.


Once I got to my partners I scurried to find a seat on the uneven surface. I performed a pathetic little dance as my 200+ pounds and 50 pound pack pressed my oddly uncontrollable feet into the sharp rocks on the bank … my feet were numb but not that numb! In a word, ouch.


We all plopped down and administered what care we could to our feet. We dried them as best we could, addressed the blister needs as we were able, and slid them back into our sodden socks and wet boots. In a very odd way those wet boots were one of the more enjoyable moments of the trip. It’s hard to describe but where they had been cold and painful, they were now enveloped in a warm and comforting nest. While later that night I’d find them to be a stinking, vile mess, right now I was drawing wonderful strength from that moist little hug each foot received. Gavin confirmed that sentiment, Brian looked on as if we were nuts, and we started up the hill.


Once across the Chilliwack River, the trail takes an initial meandering route. It threads alder and aspen that appear to never grow up, it tracks into muddy “clearings” and finds its way out an odd side over a fallen and rotting tree, and it takes leaps up eroded gullies littered with the remnants of roots and stones. But all that disappears in the first quarter mile or so and the way becomes a surprisingly established thoroughfare. While a far cry from the maintained byway that’s the Chilliwack River Trail, it’s clear that at some point an effort was made to create and possibly maintain the way up Easy Ridge. That time has long passed and whether through the quiet neglect of attention being spent elsewhere or the strangled death by some budget or other being cut, the trail is now overgrown, blocked by any number of blow downs, and in need of better establishment in some places.


I’d mentioned the name “Easy Ridge” above and whoever came up with that moniker wasn’t  thinking about the ascent path! Talk about a smoker!


While having been established at some point, the trail is clearly taking a direct route to the ridgeline in the most economical (distance-wise) path possible. We swapped leads on the way up as the overgrown foliage happily dumped vast quantities of water onto the leader. At one point, earlier than I would have liked, I was asked, “Joe, do you want to lead?” I’m not sure what sorts of answers you can imagine to that question but there is but one. And so I took my turn.


For 45 sogging minutes I beat back the leaves with my trekking poles as I threaded along the trail. I felt like some rouge fighter with a pair of swords fighting off the venom-spitting leaf people on my way to the upper kingdom. And then I slipped in my fatigue and nearly stumbled off the thin trail. At that point I realized that regardless of how I felt, I probably looked like some flailing idiot who was expending too much energy for what I gained, I was thoroughly drenched anyhow, and had nearly caused my own accident. And then to pour a little salt into that wound, Brian asked if I’d like him to take over. Ah … they noticed. Rats.


I kept on for another few minutes before the trail widened and I could let someone else lead. Overall we made good time going up but we also noticed it was getting colder and before too long the trail moved in away from the steep edges above the river and signaled that we were making progress against the ridge. After a couple thousand feet the terrain changes. The slide alder and devil’s club are left far below near the river banks and the heavily timbered forest holds sway over the middle portion of the trail, but near the top, acres of blueberry shrubs cover the terrain between trees that begin to grow sparse. While the ambiance is beautiful it was completely lost on three haggard hikers moving under loaded packs with heavy hearts under leaden skies.


We nearly creaked onto the opened ridge top and dragged ourselves up the minor rises that welcome you to the ridge top. We found a small hillock with enough space for a tent and bivy and when we dropped our packs and straightened our backs, we noticed where we were.


Fred Beckey is to have said, “the currency of beauty is pain” (an unsubstantiated quote, but a good one) and in a day in which we’d taxed our bodies heavily, we were rewarded with a sight an unfortunately small percentage of the world’s population gets to see firsthand. To the west lay Mount Shuksan with her glorious hanging Nooksack glaciers; Mt Baker towers behind, a bulk of a mountain, an immovable bookend on a range of jagged rock that’s the Pickets. The north holds the Canadian peak of Mount Slesse with the bulwark peaks of Mount Redoubt and Mount Spickard on the US side of the 49th parallel. And to the east and south … the phenomenally gorgeous Pickets and the North Cascades. Ragged, visceral stone draped in glaciers; bones of the earth. These remote and wild places were before us and around us. We had paid a toll and the door was now open.


But I was spent.


I dragged my gear out of my pack and tried as best I could to find a dry patch. In went my poles, over those went the Betamid , I spread my emergency blanket\tarp under that, and then laid out my bivy and sleeping bag. One could argue the bivy was overkill but I didn’t want to risk a wet sleeping bag on day one of a four day trip. I then took my turn pumping some water and settled in for dinner.


And it was delicious. Almost beyond delicious. A bag of reconstituted, Chef Boyardee-quality pasta, some not-quite rehydrated balls of meat, and an average sauce. And it was probably the best pasta I’d had in my life. I tried to remember how it would compare to the California Kitchen penne pesto meal I’d had the night before but all I was able to focus on was how my Mountain House meal was satisfying me just then. Satisfying in a deep and fundamental way. I almost didn’t need the cookie I’d brought for dessert. But I ate that, too.


And then to bed.


I brought a few luxuries that later made me wonder just what I was thinking … a book and a deck of cards being two of them. I think the rain in the forecast had me envisioning a long stay in the tents. Still, they ended up being mostly dead weight. And two items that weren’t dead weight were my fleece pants and shirt.


I was sticky but in dry clothes, the air was moist and cold, and I was sleeping on a patch of earth most animals would eschew. During the night it was cold and I imagine the extra padding from these clothes helped to cushion me from the ground a bit. For their weight and bulk, they were welcome additions. But my sleep, like my dinner, was so immensely satisfying that, though I were back in my home, I could scarcely imagine a better night’s meditation. I enjoyed the sleep of the dead and, surprisingly, when I woke up, I was refreshed and alert.


I remember thinking the air was crisp and that rain had beaded up on the outside of the Betamid . When I rapped the side of the tent to knock the droplets off, I recoiled as a small shower suddenly occurred over me and my gear. That was a lot of breathing I had been doing!


Outside Brian was already heating water for breakfast and I enjoyed tea and a Costco almond poppy seed muffin. While I avoid those muffins outside of the mountains, each one has 670 calories and equal parts of fats and carbs … if you’re working hard in the mountains, it’s hard to beat the nudge they’ll give you over the next hill. While I normally eat a half muffin and save the rest for a little later in the morning, I wolfed the whole thing and eyed my granola bar hungrily. I managed to pocket the granola for later but I could have easily eaten that, too.


We broke camp quickly and, under heavy skies, wondered what weather was in store for us that day. I thought I’d recalled the forecast saying Friday would be cloudy; Brian was sure it had noted both Friday and Saturday as being sunny and clear. Ultimately I was right in the morning and he was right in the afternoon. We had clouds while tromping Easy Ridge to the far side of the Imperfect Impasse (Imp Imp) and sun thereafter.


It felt like the going was slow in the morning as we chose to step up a snow slope on the start up Easy Ridge rather than take the snow-crusted mud in the trough that’s the trail. While I’d guess fewer than 100 people hit the trail along Easy Ridge each year, in an infinitesimally small imitation of Grand Canyon, water from dew, sprinkles, rain, sleet, snow and melting ice have worn the path down to roots, rock, and a mire of queasy mud. On the dry and sandy slopes the trail takes a more natural form, but always returns to the beaten and broken form it takes in the lowlands: a thoroughfare that’s surrendered the least heroic way possible. We took the snow.


Up we went and down we went, beating along the undulating tread across the spine of Easy Ridge. While the initial track made for difficult hiking and kept a person from finding their pace, the trail apologized for that after Easy Peak and allowed for a good marching pace until just before Whatcom Peak. At that point you drop across loose scree and snow patches to broad stretches of greenswards and granite slabs. Water is abundant and the way is downhill and pleasant. We stopped once or twice while taking an easy route down, discussion was on the Imp Imp.


Nelson says of the Imp Imp

Continue along the crest of Easy Ridge for 5 miles until the “imperfect impasse,” a steep gully, is reached at 6200’. Descend approximately 1000 ft. and climb to Perfect Pass (6300 ft.).

Selected Climbs in the Cascades

Jim Nelson & Peter Potterfield


My recollection was that Imp Imp was crossed about a 1000’ lower (about 5400’)and just after a SW buttress off Whatcom. Now, it should be fair to point out that a number of other times I’d be asked about some point in the route or other and, nearly to an instance, was wrong or so vague as to be unhelpful. Now, I meant no malice but it had been at least eight years since I’d last tried Challenger and time has a funny way of blurring things. I remembered some issues vividly but was less clear on other details. I should also mention that it was so foggy and raining on our way out that I saw very little of the way back beyond a dozen yards in front of my feet. I pretty much missed the entire trip back. I should also note that the day coming off Perfect Pass was the absolute worst day of climbing in my career. No one was hurt but the stress and fatigue of that day were extreme. It’s no wonder some details were hazy … my subconscious refused to remember!


That said, I was sure where Imp Imp was and suddenly my shaky reputation was at odds with Nelson.


We left our resting spot and I marched downward and to the base of the buttress and before we got there you could see a mess of snow and ice smashed along the slopes up the pass. We concurred it was avalanche debris and continued on, fixated by the icy scar of violence between us and the Perfect Pass. And, as we neared, it was clear that Imp Imp held additional challenges.


The gully that’d loosed the snow and ice that jumbled down the hillside was above and to the left of Imp Imp. The debris was spread both within and on the far side of the Impasse and was actively melting; both the Imp Imp and the slopes were dazzling in gleaming ice and reflecting water. Quite beautiful and darned scary.


We spent about 30 minutes surveying the scene. My partners now agreed that Nelson was wrong and this was the Impasse they’d seen in other trip reports. I pointed out the line I’d taken previously and it was slick with ice and flowing water. We’d not go that way today. I then scrambled up the slopes on the near side of the Impasse and looked for another line or easier route. While there was always a tempting potential way, it invariably contained a hidden corner, questionable moves, or whispered of imprudence. While I can’t claim to be immune from ego, I also have no troubles backing down. And so I backed down.


As Brian, Gavin, and I regrouped, we shouldered our packs and headed down around the bottom of the Imp Imp. Hugging the near side of the Impasse proved to be the wrong move and led us to cliff bands; we were eventually pushed out to a scree slope on the far side of the steep brushy terrain and descended to and then into the Imp Imp. At this point residual snow allowed a quick route across and a short, ramp-like cutting in the far side of the gully led quickly out. I took a fall transitioning onto the rock and was surprised at the 10’ I quickly slid. Had it been steeper I might have had quite a ride!


On the far side of the Imp Imp we turned our noses uphill and tried to pick our way across the steep, slick, down-sloping granite. It was no easy task, and heavy packs and wet boot tread exacerbated the feeling of marginal footing as we slowly inched up. During the initial scramble the vegetation in the area did little to provide security: the mosses and lichen were only loosely held to the stone and wet as a sponge, and the older more substantial shrubs and trees seemed on the verge of letting go from the roots and departing the ground! For an area that held such a well-established trail across Easy Ridge, it was a wonder the dozens of boots that go this way each year hadn’t beaten any sort of consolidated track.


At one point I became the lead man and we found ourselves skimming along cliffs, doing class five moves to mantle onto a higher shelf, and busting into the taciturn fir trees that line the lower pass. When I finally pushed out into a small open area I fell to my back and took a much needed break. As the others emerged they shared my respite and built a small, three-stone cairn. While we didn’t love this way, it went and in the blind alleyway around us, we preferred it to many other “options” we’d espied on the way up.


The rest was short-lived as we hammered through another band of the trees. Their stiff branches and fibrous roots would catch an ice axe or boots, drop needles down the back or flick dirt and stones into the cuff of a boot, and generally impede one’s way. It was hard to avoid a resistentialistic view as dead snags grabbed the laces of a boot, seemingly solid rocks departed the nesting soil nearly spontaneously, and the branches interlocked such that they guarantee to cause frustration and exertion. At one time or another all of us could be heard cursing or thrashing a bit, progress up the hill was measured in inches per minute, and all of us wondered where the heck the trail was … we were clearly not on it, near it, or even have a clue where it could be. And then we broke out again, even with the top of the Imp Imp and we crashed.


This break was longer than the others and we ate, relaxed, and applied what ministrations we needed or could to our aching bodies and flagging spirits.


The area below the Perfect Pass is stunningly gorgeous with sweeping views of deep valleys and high mountains, the vegetation is a vivid green, and the exposed granite faces are awe-inspiring. Yet the terrain is wicked and we had a long way to go. My water was out and I wanted to reconnect with the route I’d taken up many years before so I grabbed our water filter and headed toward the avalanche debris and flowing waters. My partners leaned back to snooze or rest and I filled my water bag. The sun was now high and it was hot work … I found myself annoyed that the filter wasn’t working well and for the effort of pump-pump-pump, I’d get trickle-trickle-trickle. But when the job was done I noted the others were starting to shoulder their packs, so I grabbed mine and without a further word, headed up.


The path above the scrubby trees follows an undefined but obvious route across the valley to the far side. Large boulders and stable scree fill the middle and, on the far side, more wet, down-sloping granite awaits a treacherous scramble upward. Brian and Gavin chose to press the far cliff walls hard on their way up while I stayed along a patch of greenery and picked my way up, sometimes with a foot along the waterway, sometimes grabbing roots and branches. At one point below a snow finger I scrambled to them, my way wasn’t yielding any obvious route and I hoped theirs had. It wasn’t the first, or last, time that my hopes failed me.


Nearer to the top we found a beaten track in the tough, wet earth and were able to ascend with greater confidence but only marginally greater ease. The steps were steep and long with only toeholds in some places. The common winds that are companion to passes were in force and their cooling effects were very welcome. Tired from a long day, we found more solid footing as the steep pass eased and we finally emerged on top. Perfect Pass: as ill-named as “Easy Ridge” felt, Perfect Pass was just the opposite.


Perfect Pass is pinned between the hard bookend of Whatcom Peak and a thin, trailing arm from Mount Challenger that initially pokes out to the west but turns north. The green grasses and stubborn, scrubby trees balance in that space between a fall to the steep, rocky slopes we’d just ascended and the stone that drops to the snow and ice of Challenger Glacier. This is Perfect Pass … and in the distance, a rock horn thrusts upward toward the sky calling to our feet: the summit block of Mount Challenger.


I’d been in this wonderful place once before but fogs were rolling in and even then it was doubtful I’d be heading further east. This time it was different. This time I was more accomplished as a climber, I had two exceptional partners, and the forecast was for clear and bright skies. I was eager, avid, and I was bone tired.


We found a spot that would accommodate our lodgings and set to late afternoon chores. We all laid out damp clothing, especially our socks, and hoped the warm but now low-in-the-sky sun would do some magic on them. In absence of many bushes I set about finding rocks to tie guy lines on. My makeshift tent looking like some tarp that had been caught amid the weavings of a lazy but over-large spider. With that handled, I went to pump some water as the others conjectured on routes and chuckled at Nelson’s description to “drop a couple hundred feet to the glacier” … given the current situation, the drop would be at freefall speeds! That was clearly not the way to go.


We enjoyed dinner but I was whooped. Our plan to scout the first steps of the route was scrapped in lieu of getting an early night’s rest with plans to arise at 3 AM for an early start.


I set my watch alarm and settled in. This time I didn’t put on my fleece but kept it close in the bag “just in case”. While I’m not a fan of extra stuff in these already claustrophobic sleeping quarters, they were comfortable enough and, when I rolled onto my shoulder, I could pull up the extra bulk and use it for an extra pillow under my head. I had no problem dropping off.


I recall drifting in and out of consciousness for what seemed like a long time as I was waking up. I knew I’d slept a good long time but I wasn’t quite ready to pop up. And I hadn’t heard my alarm going off, either. Still, something kept me from going back to sleep and I just lay there in a quasi- not-quite-sleeping-not-quite-alert sort of state. And then I heard the others. I surfaced a bit more and was able to call out; Gavin responded that it was time to get up. I looked at the watch I’d hung from one of the poles and it showed 3:06 AM with no evidence that it’s chirped, peeped, or otherwise signaled me to arise. I’m still not sure if it failed or if I just can’t recall hearing it, but it was time to get cracking.


I ate my half muffin and stowed the other half in the top of my pack. Our laid-out gear was awaiting and we shuffled about in the darkness broken only by our headlamp beams. The snow wasn’t too hard so we waited to don crampons but put on helmets and harnesses. I had a wool undershirt and my fleece top below my shell; on the bottom had Lycra shorts and nylon pants. My fleece gloves felt a bit clumsy but it wasn’t too chilly to have them off for tying in and whatnot; I pocketed my over-mitts, tossed the rope in my now diminutive pack and we were ready to head out.


Brian led off, I followed, and Gavin brought up the rear as we ascended the slope to the south and headed toward the band of rocks bordering the glacier as is splashed high against the Challenger arm. We headed as best we could remember toward where the snow pushed heavily into the arm and the rock band necked down; but we couldn’t really see anything in the deep darkness and went mostly on recollection of where it would be.


We hit the rocks a little high and as we moved down toward the location we’d wanted we espied a cairn. We scrambled up the rocks, negotiated the minor maze under headlamp light, and came to the ice. Time to climb.


While there are a dozen things that you do to prepare, I really enjoy this time as your mind is bouncing off detail after detail, too quick for your hands to keep up but then you find a routine or set of steps that put you in a zone. For me it’s the crampons.


I’m not sure if it’s that they’re such dangerous looking pieces of equipment, if it’s because they take a bit more concentration to get on right, or what but on glacier climbs it’s the crampons. This centers me. I find the correct foot\boot for each one, I thread the straps through and get them tight, I stomp a couple times and check the straps again. Then I look over my gaiters, check my harness for doubled-back straps, the major parts lie flat against my legs and hips for greatest comfort and best fit. I ensure I have the gear on the gear-loops as I expected. I check my other gear, my helmet, etc. It’s like doing “Step 5” of the MOFA seven steps on myself.


The rope was flaked out and Brian noted his headlamp was growing dim … he’d take middle. Gavin led out and I took the end. We tied in, adjusted our glacier prussiks, and made sure the rest of our gear was at the ready. With ice axes in the uphill hand it was time to head out onto the glacier. Two days of pain and discomfort. Nearly twenty weary miles. Too few hours of sleep. And I was supremely happy as the harpy screech of crampons against rock gave way to a cold, dry, muffled crunch as my partners stepped away into the luminous darkness.


The white of the glacier made everything murky outside the halo of my lamp. The half moon provided some light but mostly obscured the Milky Way and the many stars I expected to see but didn’t. While I usually fall into a mantra of MOFA skills and situational mental exercises when I head out onto a glacier slog, I didn’t this time.


I have spent the majority of this year just bagging easy walk-up peaks and I was finally on a climb with some technical merit. My mind was electric as I re-familiarized myself with everything about me: the cold outside and how my exercising body no longer felt chilly (and was I ever glad I’d swapped my fleece hat for a thin balaclava!); the tempo of my climbing partners across the snow … how at the end of the “whip” I would have to hustle as they leveled out in order to keep from tugging the rope; how Brian kept what I thought was just the right amount of slack in the rope between him and Gavin, and how I worked to emulate that; I thought about how the ambient light affected the terrain; how the crevasses signaled their locations; how the wind picked up or tapered off depending on terrain; and dozens of other things.


Discomfort in the past, miles my feet scarcely remembered … none of this mattered. I was a climber climbing.


As the sun began to break we took a few pictures but otherwise continued along the glacier. Gavin was doing a phenomenal job of avoiding objective hazards and we were making steady time. I noticed both my partners had their headlamps off so I flicked the switch on mine and enjoyed the cool sunlight under the breaking dawn.


At one point we were nearing the major ridge to the summit block when Gavin stopped short. After a minute or two of discussion it appeared he was against a crevasse that didn’t make sense to round on the lower end so we switched direction and suddenly I was on the sharp end of the rope.


I threaded around a different crevasse and tried to remain high as we crossed a steepening slopes before the ridge. At one point I chose to catwalk across a narrow snow bridge in an S-curve … signaling my partners to play the rope appropriately … and then continued up to the ridge. A few more steps and I was up. I checked my gait and continued up until we were all on the ridge and then we took another rest for pictures and to break out sunglasses. Dawn take you all, I chuckled to myself.


At this point the way to the summit looked clear and it involved a couple hundred foot ascent along the crest of the ridge. I chose to walk just below the crest on the lee side and resigned myself to the long, stubborn walk. It wasn’t hard but the unbroken pace pushed me into my comfort zone and I was soon quizzing myself on the seven steps.


Nearing the top I saw a break between the ridge I was ascending and the summit mount. Continuing up I found the probability of a snow bridge spanning the gap diminishing rapidly and as I eventually made the top I saw a gap of probably ten feet across and about eight feet up. There was no getting across here … the distance “down” was dozens of feet and then some.


Notifying my partners I scanned to the right and found no obvious route up. We were now catching a lot of wind and the chill was breaking against my skin like jagged glass. It’s funny how quickly the environment can turn from innocuous or even pleasant to downright menacing when you’re posed with obstacles. Still, we had other options so we commenced down the lee side toward the summit rock and probed the moat between the glacier and top of the mountain. A few minor snow fingers and thin ridges suggested a way onto rock that led to the snow cap atop the peak. Each foray onto a finger was pushed back by either danger or prudence.


Gavin then led off onto the extreme left and butting against the final toothy ridge before sharply dropping away into the northeastern face he made his way 60’ or so up a steep slope before placing a picket. In the pictures I have of this it appears he’s on a simple slope and should just kick in and walk up. In person, the ridge was 50 degrees, loaded with new snow, and the broken rocks and ice in the moat below him gave serious pause to “pushing it”. I stood for a very long time as we assayed the slopes and probed the mountain for a safe way up.


It’s here that I started this story.




At this point we’d climbed for less than four hours and it had been the most pleasurable part of the trip by a healthy margin. It was still early but our timetable was clear: if we didn’t get up in the next 2 hours or so, we’d be making alternate plans. Some easier to accept than others. We had a quick huddle and decided the northeast facing slope we’d been trying would be too unstable later in the morning with its newly loaded slopes. Equally a way I’d spotted threading the glacier below and ascending steep sections would be inadvisable with just three pickets, no ice screws, and no ice tools. Our final option, trying to get to the rock hadn’t went earlier and the only thing that really changed since we last tried was our desperation … and that’s a bad motivator on a mountain. I’d come back to this peak once, I’d prefer to do that again as opposed to practicing my MOFA for real.


As we held our final discussions someone mentioned that the beta I’d forwarded on from these DGs had included a comment that a critical snow bridge would be out within a week and we wondered why we hadn’t given that more weight. In retrospect, we were idiots but we all agreed that, had we met a party coming out before we crossed the Chilliwack River who had the same information, we still would have went in.


There are times when people advise one way and you get lucky (as when “Vijay”, the Ranger, had suggested we not cross the river); and there are other times when you don’t take advice and are bitten (as we were now).


Given the immense beauty of the Pickets, you would think it was hard to be too downhearted but deep down we were. With a path across the bergschrund we would have flown up, bagged the top, and been down, but now we were a failed party heading home. Both Baker and Shuksan were under heavy clouds and lenticulars were scattered across the sky like fluffy UFOs amassing for a bit of mischief. Time to get back to camp.


I led back and set a solid pace; if we weren’t going to the top, we had places to be. Retracing the steps was a simple and quick affair but it was still a long way to Perfect Pass. We didn’t stop on the way back, so we enjoyed a short rest after stepping off the glacier. Situating our gear we then marched to camp and immediately set into breaking down the tents and packing for our long march to the Easy Ridge camp.


It took about an hour to break camp and it was a little past 11 when we started down the other side of the Pass. As with heading up, the way was treacherous and slow going. This time we favored the left side (looking down) more heavily and were able to get off the down sloping granite and minor cascading water without too much excitement.


We didn’t follow the way down that we used coming up but, again, stayed to the left and avoided the scrubby shrubs. At one point we came to a bluff face and, after a short amount of investigation found a tree holding a half dozen rappel slings. We used the slings in place but spent 10-15 minutes equalizing and ensuring we had a solid anchor. As it was set up, it looked like people were pretty cavalier about their single point of failure. Or it may have been a more minor rappel than I’m making it. The route led down a whitish rock ramp that terminated in a rocky, tumbling plateau that wasn’t terribly dangerous looking.


Still, we rapped down, collected ourselves, and walked off the left side through scrub and along rock faces. At one point we came to the tip of a tongue of rock that had trees on each side. I chose to use “green belays” by grabbing handfuls of alder as I walked blind through tall bushes off the left side. Before long, much of my exposed arms were itching from the thistle and other skin-irritating greenery but I was finally below the cliffs. Brian and Gavin joined me shortly and after a short walk to the Imp Imp gully, a drop of another hundred feet or so to an easy way onto the ice and snow within it, and we were over the far side. We’d finally broken free of the pass!


I’d wanted to rest when we got there but the terror of that descent and aggravation in route finding drove me up the steep, sandy bank and a few dozens of feet higher to some stable scree. At this point we collapsed and enjoyed a much needed lunch. Before leaving that rest I’d drained my water and had noted that I’d need more “soon”. It ultimately wasn’t as soon as I would have liked but I somehow survived.


After we were all sated, we looked up at the 2000+ feet of scree and slab slopes between us and the crest of Easy Ridge. While it would be hard work, it wasn’t dangerous and we all agreed it was far preferable to being on the face below Perfect Pass. And up we went.


The scree went on for a long time but after a while it was just a series of steps. When we did find pooling water and were pumping drinks for everyone, I set my pack up on its bottom and turned away from it. A crash moments later communicated my mistake to me loud and clear as I watched my pack tumble a few dozen feet down the steep slope. Fortunately it came to a stop without damaging anything but I would later find that I’d lost my black Coleman insulated mug and wouldn’t be able to partake in tea after dinner or at the next morning’s breakfast. Rats. It was an irritation but also spoke of me getting lazy and forgetful. I could relay the time a different pack of mine was dropped off the side of Cutthroat Peak but that would just embarrass me so I’ll let that pass.


We finished chores and headed uphill again. I found myself in the front and crossed from scree to slabs and back onto scree just below the snow patch leading to the top of the ridge. I was getting tired again and noticed it as the stones in the scree field seemed to spin under foot, catch my tread and trip me, or just be uncooperative. It signaled time for a break.


As I rested Gavin and Brian caught up, took a shorter rest than I was looking forward to, and then headed on. I dogged along after and was surprised about halfway up when someone called out to look at the ridgeline. Sure enough, a loping animal was ambling across the crest, stopped shortly, and was off. It didn’t move like a marmot and was too big to have been one anyhow; it was clearly a bear! The most surprising part to me wasn’t that we saw a bear, but that anyone had the energy to do more than look at their feet on the way up that never-ending slope. Minus a boulder to push, I felt like a modern day Sisyphus!


But that trial too ended and I found myself on the long arm of Easy Ridge (have I lamented the poor choice in naming this feature enough already?) looking off to the north and west to where our camp would be. While the view didn’t break my spirit completely, it cracked a bit to see the many bumps, humps, mounds, and hills between my feet and camp. The long day wasn’t over yet. With the exception of finding the bear tracks in the soft sand on the top of the ridge, there was no excitement.


At this point we talked about whether we would head off Easy Ridge given the chance and make camp in the Chilliwack. While the scenery on the Ridge would be vastly superior, the weather was continuing to come in and it looked like we could be both cold and wet that night. Time seemed against us but we agreed to see what things looked like when we got to camp and make the call then. And off we marched.


The way was longer than we remembered and we stopped once on Easy Peak, pulled out a map, and put names to a few mountains we’d seen in the distance. Blum looked like a compelling peak to put on our list, Pioneer Ridge looked like it should have a better name but didn’t, Redoubt, Mox, and Spickard stood out as mountains on my list that would put a bit of ache in my feet before I was done checking them off. It was a nice 10 or 15 minute rest but the day was getting long.


Up and down and up and down again. Before we got to camp we’d see a marmot or two, wonder how much father it would be, and recognize that it was too late to try getting down from the ridge and across the Chilliwack. The consolation of stopping before then and setting up camp in the daylight didn’t seem so bad.


We found the spot we’d spent our first night and enjoyed setting up in warmer and drier weather. It was 7:30 and I wanted to just head to bed but knew my body needed a good meal as much as sleep, if not more. I had another delicious bag of spaghetti with just a bit more water this time. I was dehydrated and knew it was good for me and, without my cup, there’d be no tea that night.


After dinner I used that miserable pump to spit a few mouthfuls of water into my hydration bag and I headed to sleep. While I thought I had put the Betamid  in the same place as before, this time it seemed to be rockier and on a slope. That still didn’t bother me. The weather turned out to be much warmer and I didn’t need my fleece, although it did invite a mosquito or two to linger about. I stayed awake long enough to see to the demise of a pair of them before I let the rip tide of sleep pull me away from the waking shores. And, for a time, I remembered no more.


I awoke in the hazy predawn hours to muted light and wondered if getting up at 4 AM on a regular basis would forever ruin my ability to sleep in. I found my watch and saw that it was 5:12 AM and I remembered we’d agreed to just sleep in and get up “whenever”. It sounded like a good idea and I was just trying to find a comfortable rock or two to roll onto when I heard a half dozen pitter pattering rain drops splatter onto my substitute tent. With that I called over to my partners and asked if they felt like trying to break camp before it started raining in earnest, wait it out, or just see what happens. The rain didn’t seem to continue but they’d heard it, too … we were all awake and we’d try to beat it.


With that we pumped a bit more water (hate that pump) while making breakfast and breaking down the camp. Without all the food my pack was noticeably lighter but three days of hard hiking, scrambling, and climbing had taken their toll, as well. In the end it balanced out but my feet were sore from yesterday’s march. I was hopeful, however, as today would start with an all-downhill trek.


I had known the last day wouldn’t have a chance for a real lunch so I’d loaded my daily food bag with mostly snacks: some Reese’s Pieces candy, a trail mix I make for most hikes (it has peanuts, dried peas, sesame sticks, and rice crackers … yum!), and a small packet of “Luna Moons” I’d stolen from my wife’s side of the cupboard. I started out with my half muffin, stashed the other half, and started down.


The trail seemed immensely improved in the downhill direction and without the car wash effect of rain-loaded leaves dumping water on your legs. It also didn’t seem as long, steep, or narrow. Funny, that. And so before too terribly long we were spit out onto the “far side” of the Chilliwack River and marveled at what a few days without rain did to the water level.


We couldn’t rock-hop to the far side, but whereas we’d stripped to our shorts and got our privates washed in the crossing during the hike in, heading back the water scarcely came above mid-shin. As if to further demonstrate the ease of crossing, the athletic tape I’d used as abrasion protection against blistering held onto my feet and worked like a champ even after being immersed! On the far shore we toweled off our feet (using an old bathroom hand towel I bring along for use about camp) and put them into dry socks and dry boots. I was in such a good mood, I let Brian and Gavin split the last half of my breakfast muffin!


The journey back to Hannegan Pass was more than rewinding or reversing a familiar set of steps. The trail flew by but the going up the steeper sections was harder than I would have thought, the crossing of the streams over the small rivulets found along the way was easier, and I continued to be amazed as Gavin held forth on topics from the gentrification of the town he grew up in, the varying appeal of Glasgow and\or Edinburgh, and city projects around Seattle (it wasn’t his impressive range of knowledge but more that he could have enough breath for ascending the trails and holding an easy conversation).


Atop Hannegan Pass we took a break and looked back over what we’d accomplished while enjoying lunch. I had my last bagel with a slice or two of Kraft “singles” and a small box of yogurt covered Sun Maid raisins; Gavin and Brian shared what now looked like a stale ciabatta and a much diminished brick of Jarlsberg. The sun was high in the sky and filtered through heavy clouds that were dark and ragged. When you were out of the direct rays, the chill in the air was noticeable; there was no snow to be seen.


Once we crossed the Chilliwack we again started seeing people. On the way out we had met a dozen folks braving the rain in one form or another but the river had been a gendarme barring all but climbers from the trails … and all other climbers appear to have heeded the “snow bridge out” sign to a higher degree than we three. Now that we were back, we were encountering single hikers, couples, and small groups. A few times you’d see a pack that caused a tighter waist belt than the wearer would like, but more often than not the hikers carried their water bottles, wore cotton t-shirts, and appeared not to have read the forecast.


The too-short stop for lunch was replaced by too-many-miles of walking but we were soon on the easy slopes leading to my waiting car. I recalled the parking lot was situated across the creek from where the ridge on the far side tapered down and terminated; it seemed a long way away. Steady walking, the occasional step aside for those coming uphill, and many more footsteps brought us closer and closer.


It was roughly 2:30 when we saw the trailhead register and the dull gleam of the metal of cars through the leaves. We’d been constantly been pelted by single droplets of water and were sure the rain was coming. Rather than dress in “civies” in the picnic shelter as would be more modest, the three of us stripped off stinking and damp poly and nylon clothes, dug into our waiting duffle bags, and donned clean and neat cotton duds. We tossed our packs unceremoniously into the car, I found a few packs of Wet Wipes to share with the crew, and Brian handed out eagerly accepted Gatorade.


As we pulled out of the lot the one or two droplets turned into regular drops and as the windows in the car were rolled up the rain came. And came hard. I look back on the good and bad things of the trip and it seems there were many more in the hardships column than the triumphs. With the trip mostly behind me and in my dry cotton clothes, it was nice to end the trip by beating out the weather.


And I mentally notched one more tick into the triumphs column.


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