Failure and Success on Mt. Hood

The upper mountain from my high point at 10,700'

The upper mountain from my high point at 10,700′

Sunday the 20th was an amazing day on the mountain. Mild, mid-spring conditions (while the lower valleys were stuck in a frozen inversion pattern), brilliant sunshine, no wind and near-perfect snow for climbing. We left the parking lot at Timberline Lodge at approximately 3:10 a.m., and almost immediately my lungs were burning. Within half an hour I was already questioning whether or not I could climb the mountain. It was very frustrating. I had been training throughout most of the winter, and while I had been sick a few weeks earlier, I really thought I was essentially free from illness and fully expected to climb well that morning. So to struggle so quickly was really discouraging.

My climbing partner, Bill, who has climbed the mountain somewhere around 120 times, kept pushing me to continue, and I kept grinding it out, despite the burning in my lungs and the shaking of my legs. After a few hours, my lungs did actually start to feel better and I began to regain hope that I might make the summit.

When we reached the top of the Palmer Ski lift, around 8500′, we stopped to eat and rest for just a few short moments and Bill, who is also a nurse, got out his oxygen saturation/heart-rate monitor and we discovered that my heart rate, even after I had been resting for a few minutes, was in the mid-130’s, while his was about half of that. He expressed his concern about it, but also said that I was not showing any symptoms of anything else, and he believed we could continue safely.

The eastern rim of the crater of Mt. Hood

The eastern rim of the crater of Mt. Hood

So on we went. Shortly after heading past the top of the Palmer, the snow conditions were getting icier, so we decided to stop again and get on our crampons. Then we continued.

I also continued to struggle. Sometimes my lungs would be burning, and would also wheeze a little, but with Bill’s gentle prodding and my determination, I kept pushing, and inevitably  would feel better again.

When the sun began to rise around 7, we were greeted by a mountain that was otherworldly and fantastic, fluted ice pinnacles up high and snow slopes colored salmon by the rays of the morning sun. These are moments we mountaineers live for, and I was so glad to be there to witness it.

By this point I felt like there was a good chance I would make it to the summit. My wheezing had stopped and I was starting to feel better. Yet every time we stopped and took my pulse, it was still between mid-130’s and 140, and would not go down with rest. Bill was obviously very puzzled by it. I was able to talk while we walked, I wasn’t showing symptoms other than being really tired.

When we reached the base of Crater Rock, I really started to hit a wall. Obviously, elevation had a lot to do with how I was feeling, since we were now around 10,000 feet. But I was also starting to wheeze again and I just had no gas left in the tank. I fell further and further behind Bill at this point, and I was really beginning to doubt whether I would reach the summit or not.

When we reached the Hogsback, the traditional roping-up point for the final, steeper pitches above, I was spent, and wasn’t breathing too well. Bill took my pulse once more and it was around 140, and didn’t go down with rest. I decided that was enough. Since the sun was fully risen and its warmth was releasing a barrage of ice chunks every few minutes, I knew that I would be putting both of us in danger if I continued on. Speed would be required to get across the firing line, and that was something I was lacking. So I told Bill I would wait while he continued on.

I hated having to make that decision, yet at the same time I felt like in this case, it was the right one. I have stood on Hood’s summit before, and I am certain I will again, but I am not so summit-obsessed that I need to push myself too far. As it turned out, I am really glad I made that decision.

Bill headed up, and I retreated to a flat spot closer to Crater Rock where I could rest and relax and warm up in the sun. I took off my crampons, since my feet were getting cold and shot film while Bill zipped up the mountain. He actually had to dodge a mini-avalanche of ice chunks as he ascended — if I had been following him, I sincerely doubt that I would have had the energy to run out of their path like he did.

It probably took Bill forty-five minutes to make the trip to the summit and return, and when he did, we took my pulse again, only to discover that my HR had only dropped a few points despite a long time to rest. Obviously my body was feeling pretty tweaked.

I didn’t make the summit. Again, another winter failure, yet this one felt different. I had not been in pain, I had pushed myself (with some gentle prodding from Bill) and I had reached a point higher than any other mountain in Oregon. It was an ass-kicking training run, and it motivated me to train even harder before attempting it again, something I have been doing since I have returned.

In the end we figured that several factors had been effecting me on the mountain: 1) I was having a slight case of exercise induced asthma (I had asthma as a teenager but I rarely have been effected by it as an adult — in fact, I don’t even have inhalers of any kind) 2) Having been ill for almost a month and only getting better a few weeks before the climb and 3) Coming from near-sea level and driving up to 6000′ in only a few hours, then going even higher after that was also a mitigating factor in my performance. Looking at the climb knowing this has made it easier to digest my failure. In fact, it has made me pretty proud of my accomplishment in reaching the elevation that I did.

I have been working much harder at my conditioning in the week since I returned from Hood. I am now doing my five-mile power walks with close to thirty pounds in my backpack, I started doing a core-workout routine and yesterday I did a 9.5 mile, 2000+’ elevation gain hike with the same weight in the pack. A few more weeks of this type of conditioning and I will be ready to return to Hood.

Hood on the Horizon

Mt Hood from an earlier, successful climb

Mt Hood from an earlier, successful climb

Well, it looks like everything is falling into place for me to go to Mt. Hood over the next few days to make a winter attempt on this fair state’s highest peak. I wasn’t sure if things were going to work out, I wasn’t sure how I would be able to make the trip to Eugene, I wasn’t sure if I would be able to get there at all, but after contacting a few people, I was able to hitch a ride with Charles, my friend with whom I went to the Grand Canyon and South Sister. My bags are now packed, the gear is sorted, and I am really excited to meet up with Bill tomorrow.

Bill Soule is an amazing climber. He has summited Hood over 100 times, he has climbed all over the world and personally knows or has met a huge number of my climbing heroes. He has so many amazing and funny stories to tell, I am sure it will be a blast climbing with him.

Our plan is to head out of Eugene around 2 or 3 and arrive at Timberline Lodge in the evening. We are taking canopied pickup, and will crash out and try to get as much sleep as possible before waking up at 2 or 3 in the morning to head up. Probably won’t get a lot of sleep, but that is part of the Mt. Hood experience. Nevertheless, it should be fun.

I really hope I can summit this time. I am ready to make winter mountaineering a more regular part of my life, especially now that my pain issues seem to be a thing of the past. We shall see.

I will be taking both my video cameras, so I will have some spectacular footage when I return!

Thinking about Hood

Mt Hood above Timberline Lodge. Photo copyright (c) 2013 Swift Benjamin

Mt Hood above Timberline Lodge. Photo copyright (c) 2013 Swift Benjamin using a Creative Commons license

I have been wanting to make a successful winter ascent of a major Cascade peak for as long as I have been climbing, but always in the past my pain issues (always worse in the winter months) limited both my fitness and motivation to get the job done. I have made half-hearted attempts on Mt. Thielsen, Mt. Bailey, and Hood. The closest I have come to making a successful ‘winter’ climb was when we got to the summit pinnacle on Three-Fingered Jack before a lack of daylight made us turn back. Still, this was in mid-November, so it wasn’t really a winter climb at all.

On Bailey and on Hood, my hip was hurting so badly that I very quickly had to turn back. On Thielsen I was out of shape — again, because such chronic, consistent pain makes it so difficult to maintain a fitness program. Until last spring, I believed that I would probably never be able to climb in winter. My pain levels were at extreme levels and I wasn’t sure for a while if I would be able to climb much more at all.

But then I started to take Tramadol, a non-narcotic pain reliever that did something that heavy doses of opiates could not: It made my pain disappear. Within an hour of taking it, the pain in my right shoulder eased for the first time in months. Several hours went by. The pain did not come back. After about six hours I felt an ache again, but I took another dose and it went away. Days passed and I kept taking Tramadol, and it continued to keep the pain away. After several pain-free weeks turned into several months pain-free, I knew that I had found a medication that really worked, and did so without making me feel intoxicated in any way.

It has been nine months since I started taking Tramadol, and I have gone through my first pain-free autumn in seventeen years. Now we are firmly into winter and I am still experiencing very little pain or discomfort. I am in better condition at this time of year for the first time in a long time. I have been going on near-daily 5-mile walks and feel pretty happy with where I am at physically. Not in top shape, but not out of shape either. In fact, I would be in much better shape except I got sick over the holidays and lost several weeks of possible conditioning.

I had called my friend Bill about a week ago and asked him if he would want to climb Hood sometime soon, and he had expressed interest. Two days ago he called me and asked if I wanted to go on the weekend of the 19th-20th. I wasn’t going to have my eldest daughter down from Eugene that weekend, so I said I would go. The weather is supposed to get a little warmer during the week, and should get a nice freeze-thaw cycle set up, perfect for winter climbing conditions. Now I just need to figure out a way to get up to Eugene and a ride back on Sunday. Somehow, the conditions will arise to make it so.

I think this could be the first successful winter ascent for me. Bill is an uber-experienced climber who has even been on the cover of Newsweek magazine, and between the two of us we should be able to get up and down the mountain safely. I have a good feeling about this one.

If I can do this, it will be a great way to start off the year.

 

A late-season climb of South Sister

South Sister (10,358′) is the 3rd-loftiest peak in the State of Oregon, and while Mt. Hood (11,240′) and Mt Jefferson (10,495′) both require technical skills to attain their highest points, an ascent of South Sister, though long, requires only trail hiking to reach the summit. But what a trail! Five and half miles long and with an elevation gain of around 5000 feet, it winds its way up the mountain with spectacular views almost the entire way.

Charles (my companion on my earlier epic trip to the Southwest) and I left Roseburg at around four in the morning, heading north on Interstate Five until we were just south of Eugene. We then headed east on Highway 58, passing Lowell, Oakridge and Willamette Pass as we got closer to the Three Sisters Wilderness. We eventually took a turn North on the Cascade Lakes Highway, and after about four and a half hours of driving, we arrived at the Devil’s Lake Trailhead, gateway for virtually all climbs of this mountain.

Being that this was mid-October, it was very cold when we started, probably in the mid-thirties, but the weather was crystal clear and we headed out feeling happy to be here. I had climbed this mountain twice before, but it had been seven or eight years since I had been here last.

The trail starts out winding through a dense forest, and Charles and I talked as we headed up. After a few miles we broke out of the trees and onto the vast, undulating plain that sits at the very base of South Sister. I guess I should mention that I had been sick for the week before this climb, so I was not at all in my usual good shape, whereas Charles was in his usual superhuman level of fitness. He was kind to stick with me for as long as he did, but eventually he would take off and I would plod behind him.

Views of Mt. Bachelor, Broken Top, Moraine Lake, and, of course, South Sister gave us plenty to ooh and ahh about, and after a short time, we reached the bottom of the volcano. At this point Charles had already surged ahead of me, and I took my time with the ascent. Numerous other climbers either passed me or were already heading down, and I stopped to talk to a few of them. I really wasn’t feeling too well, and wasn’t certain if I would actually make the summit this time, but I kept grinding it out, and kept gaining elevation. Soon I was at the base of the Lewis Glacier, where a lovely turquoise lake formed by glacial silt glittered beneath the sun. Above me, the Mother Of All Scree Slopes awaited.

The Lewis Glacier and the beautiful lake at its toe

The last thousand-plus feet of climbing on this massive volcano is formed by a huge slope of red cinders, making it a two-steps-forward, one-step-back affair, plus, you are dealing with being close to ten thousand feet high, so altitude also plays a part in slowing the ascent. It seemed like it took forever to reach the mile-wide summit crater. It was only at this point that I really knew I would make the summit.

I followed the southern, then the eastern rim of the crater, doing a little bit of very easy rock scrambling to reach the true summit, where I found Charles patiently waiting. We enjoyed perhaps half an hour on the top, taking pictures, eating some lunch and recuperating from the grueling hike. Then it was time to head back down, and drive back home to Roseburg, another climb, another adventure under our belts.

Climbing Wheeler Peak (Nv.) in Hurricane Force Winds

 

Wheeler Peak is the rounded peak on the right.

We had hiked 21 miles in 120 degree heat in the Grand Canyon in a single day, climbed the spectacular trails of Angels Landing, Observation Point, Hidden Valley and The Narrows in Zion National Park, and our trip was almost done. We had been gone for about a week, and still had an eighteen-hour car drive to get back to our homes in Southern Oregon, but being fit, highly motivated individuals, Charles and I still had a little more energy, so we decided that in the morning, we would get up early, drive for four hours to Great Basin National Park in Eastern Nevada, and climb 13,063′ Wheeler Peak. It would be the perfect way to end out epic trip.

We arrived at the park at around 9 a.m., and swung by the ranger station to get permits and refill our water bottles. Then we headed up the winding, switchbacking road that led to the trailhead at just above 10,000 feet. It was an interesting experience, driving from 6000 feet at the ranger station to the trailhead at 10,000 feet in something like 20 minutes. By the time we got there, the altitude was already making me feel slightly buzzed, but I wasn’t worried. With all my experience in the mountains, I have yet to get any noticeable altitude sickness, so I was fairly certain I wouldn’t here either.

The parking lot for Wheeler Peak

 

It was really windy at the trailhead, and I wondered what it would be like higher on the mountain. We sorted a small amount of gear and started up the trail, which initially passes through a beautiful forest of Aspens, a type of tree I have not been around too much, being from the Northwest. After about fifteen minutes we encountered a fellow climber who had turned back short of the summit due to the intensity of the winds. He warned us about it, we thanked him and continued on.

Soon the trail left the Aspens and began to cross meadows and grassy slopes beneath the mountain, which positively loomed above us. We snapped pictures and shot film as we took occasional breaks and adjusted our layers of clothes. Out of the wind, it was quite warm, but there were few spots where it was sheltered enough to avoid the near-constant gusts. We weren’t worried about it since so far it wasn’t anything scary.

Looking up towards the summit

We reached the saddle below the mountain after less than an hour of hiking, and here the wind was picking up, but still we weren’t worried. As we began to encounter more and more climbers, virtually all of them had turned back before the summit due to the intense winds. We still didn’t worry. There would be no exposure, no dangerous spots where a big gust could get us into trouble, so unless the wind just flat-out blew us off our feet, we were going to keep going. That is one of the differences between ‘true’ climbers and hikers.

 

Once we ascended above tree-line, the wind truly began. Down below, it had been blowing at thirty or forty miles an hour, but on the completely exposed shoulder it amped up to closer to 50-60 miles per hour, with gusts reaching even higher. Virtually everyone we met had forgone the summit because of the winds. We still kept going.

As we climbed higher, the wind increased in intensity, so that it became nearly impossible to walk without stumbling. I would walk, bent over into the wind, and then it would either let up or gust harder, pushing or pulling me in every direction. It grew frustrating. Fortunately, there are many wind-break stone walls built (mostly for shelters for tents), and so I would take occasional breaks out of the wind.

Looking back down towards the saddle

Charles had left me behind once we got to the base of the final ridge, and I watched him rapidly head away from me, despite being in excellent shape myself. I climbed the last hour pretty much alone.

Once I got above 12,500 feet, my hands began to tingle from the altitude and my lack of time to adjust to it, so I knew I was going to have to reach the summit as quickly as possible. After 2.5 hours of climbing, I reached the summit, reunited with Charles and took the time to sign the summit register. Ironically, it was far less windy on the summit than down below, and we enjoyed a break from the pounding we had been taking.

Charles and Don on the summit of Wheeler Peak

 

We only stayed on top for a few minutes, since we still had to get down, and finish driving the remaining 14+ hours to Roseburg. We hustled back down the mountain to the car, and headed west across Nevada. We would not reach home until seven the next morning.

Disaster on Mt. Hood

Mt. Hood and the crater

I will never forget this day. Ever. When my life is winding down, and my own death is near, I am certain I will remember the events on Mt. Hood.

This was my first ‘big’ climb. I had been mountaineering for three years at that point, I had climbed Mt. Thielsen, Mt. McLoughlin, Diamond Peak, South Sister and Broken Top, and all of these climbs had been mid-summer hikes, with a little bit of quasi-technical climbing thrown in for good measure, but none could be characterized as serious climbs. No snow or ice, no alpine starts, no ice axe, crampons or harnesses had been donned for these peaks.

I had signed up for the climb of Mt. Hood with the Obsidians, and we met at the parking lot at Timberline Lodge. We attempted to get a few hours of sleep before heading up the mountain at midnight, but for me, no sleep would come. I was too excited.

Timberline Lodge

We got geared up and ready to go, organized our group and set out shortly after midnight. It was a full moon night, so we never had to turn our headlamps, which is really amazing. Climbing in the dead of night over perfect snow illuminated by a full moon is something I have only experienced once. In fact, the only time we turned on our headlamps was when we needed to get gear out of our bags.

When you climb the south side of Hood, which is the route 90% of climbers take to the summit, you follow the eastern edge of the Timberline Lodge Ski Area, so it is a dreadfully dull snow plod for  most of its length. Only when you enter the horseshoe-shaped crater does it finally get interesting.

With a group as large as ours — around ten or so climbers — the ascent can only proceed as fast as the slowest climber, which meant that we entered the crater sometime around seven in the morning, at which point the sun had risen and the glorious beauty of the upper mountain was revealed in all its icy beauty. We had stopped at the top of the ski area to don crampons and break out the ice axes, but we would not rope up until we reached the Hogsback, a unique snow ridge that is the traditional  roping-up point.

Looking up the Hogsback. The accident started near the upper-center of the picture and ended below and to the right, well out of frame.

We were about ten minutes below the Hogsback when shouts broke the morning stillness, and every single climber looked in unison to the upper mountain, and what we saw is etched permanently in my mind: A climber had fallen from right below a steep chute called the Pearly Gates, and was trying desperately to self-arrest (the technique of using an ice-axe to slow, or ‘arrest’, your fall.) Unfortunately, when conditions are icy, as they were that morning, it is notoriously difficult to stop yourself once any momentum is established, as was the case for this climber. I remember hearing the ice-axe chatter on the ice as she streaked down the steep face. She was doing a good job of keeping her knees bent so her crampon points wouldn’t catch and break her leg, but when her ice axe finally caught, she was going so fast that it ripped out of her hands, and immediately, her legs came down out of instinct. When that happened, she began cartwheeling down the mountain, gear flying off of her as she approached speeds that I can only guess were in the 50-60 mile an hour range. Her head repeatedly slammed against the ice-face as she flew down. It was a horrifying thing to witness. She had started something live six or seven hundred feet above us, but by the time she crashed into the crater floor, she was two hundred feet below us. When she slowed and started sliding along the relatively flat bottom, it was clear she was unconscious. Everyone was yelling at her to dig in with her feet to stop herself from sliding further, but it was to no avail. A climber went running towards her to help.

The rest of us were looking back up at the spot where she had fallen from, as there were more screams and shouts coming from above. Her climbing partner, apparently panic-struck at seeing her take such a terrible fall, began running down the mountain, something  that is almost a guarantee of inducing an accident, and within moments he too was falling.

He didn’t even bother to try to self-arrest, he just pulled up his knees and slid on his backside down the mountain; It was amazing how in control his fall appeared to be, he never cartwheeled or tumbled at all, just shot down the mountain on his butt. When he started to slow beneath us, it would seem that he had gotten lucky and had managed to fall off the mountain without injury. I think a lot of people at that point looked back up the mountain to see if more people were going to fall, but I kept my eye on this climber. To my horror, as he was almost slowed to a halt, he slipped over the edge of a fumarole and disappeared inside of it.

Fumaroles, for those who aren’t familiar with the term, are basically holes in the ice of big volcanoes where steam and noxious gasses vent from the smoldering heart of the mountain. Some of the fumaroles on Hood are so powerful that peope have died standing too close to them, since they are complete oxygen voids. Now this guy had fallen deep inside of one.

Fumaroles on Mt. Hood

“He just fell in a fucking fumarole.” I mumbled to the leader of our climb, a woman named Deb. I was in shock.

“What?” She said, looking around to find him. She had been looking up the mountain, as had almost everyone else.

“He just fell in a fumarole.” I repeated.

A moment of silence passed.

“Do you have the rope?” She asked me.

“Yes.” I said.

“Let’s go.” Deb said, and we did, descending towards the crater floor. We had to first head towards the first fallen climber, who now had a crowd around her, before heading towards the fumarole, as there were crevasses in the area.

“Be careful,” Deb said repeatedly, worried that since we were not roped up, a crevasse fall would only compound the disaster we had just witnessed.

To our amazement, as we were about to head towards the fumarole, the guy who fell into it appeared, climbing out of the hole seemingly uninjured. He wasn’t even limping as he walked towards his climbing partner and the crowd attending to her. We did the same, our entire group descending to find a young woman now semi-conscious with a lump on her head the size of a golf ball. One of the lenses of her sunglasses had fallen out, so it only added to the surreal quality of the moment.

Very quickly it was discovered that she had broken her lower leg, most likely when she had initially dropped her legs and begun her cartwheeling fall. Her partner, when he arrived, was unharmed save for some bumps and bruises, but he knew he had gotten lucky. The entire time we were helping, he kept shaking his head and saying “I’m so stupid, I’m so stupid.”

We stabilized the woman, surrounded both of them with all of our extra warm clothing and did our best to keep the situation calm and relaxed. There was little else we could do. The moment she had fallen, multiple cel phones had dialed 9-1-1, so within a short time of the accident occurring a rescue was being organized. We knew they were on their way, so we just kept her warm and awake, since she was continually drifting towards unconsciousness.

After some time an EMT and a Wilderness First Responder arrived, and seeing that some of our group were drifting towards hypothermia, they kindly but firmly told us we needed to get down, especially since we had donated all of our extra warm clothes to the injured climber. So we gathered whatever gear was no longer needed and began the descent off the mountain. On the way down we encountered the rescue team heading up and relayed our knowledge of the event and the condition of the climbers to them before continuing. as it was, they would not be off the mountain for many more hours, but both climbers ended up making full recoveries.

Ironically, a week or two later, when I was climbing Mt. Adams in Washington, two of the people in our climbing group (this was another Obsidians climb) were friends with the fallen climbers, and relayed to us their gratitude and thanks in assisting them. We eventually got all our donated clothes back too.

That day really woke me up to the dangers of mountaineering. I joined Eugene Mountain Rescue shortly after that, especially since I felt like there wasn’t much I could do to help except donate clothes and be a reassuring presence. Had I been the only one on scene, it could have been a true disaster.

It has been eleven years since that accident on Mt. Hood, but it still stands as the one thing I remember the most of any climb I have ever done. It took me four or five tries after that to successfully summit Hood, in great part because after that I was fairly afraid of it. It had been a traumatic event, but I eventually overcame it and made it to the roof of Oregon.

Mt. Hood is one of the most deadly mountains in the United States. Nearly every year someone dies climbing it. Several years ago there was a famous helicopter crash during a rescue, which was witnessed on live TV. Part of the reason for this is popularity. It is widely regarded as the second-most climbed glaciated mountain in the world after Fuji-San in Japan. Another reason, and the major one, is lack of experience, which in this account was definitely the cause. The climbers had summited Mt. Whitney, which, at 14,505 feet is the highest peak in the continental U.S., and they figured Hood, which is several thousand feet lower, would be no problem, but there is no comparison between the easiest routes of both mountains. The standard route up Whitney is quite literally a trail all the way to the summit, with no scrambling or climbing of any kind involved, whereas Hood’s standard route is a bonafide snow and ice route with sections approaching 40 degrees in steepness. Before this day, the climbers had never used ice axes or crampons before, and compounding that was the fact that they were unroped, although there is debate whether this standard technique is appropriate on a crowded mountain like Hood.

In the end, this accident propelled me to be a more knowledgeable, competent climber, and woke me up to the reality that mountains have teeth, and sometimes, they do bite.

Years after the accident, on the summit of Hood

Pride & Agony on Mt. Shuksan

Mt. Shuksan from Lake Ann in North Cascades National Park

I have such mixed feelings about this climb. To quote from Dickens, “It was the worst of times, it was the best of times.” This was the first peak I had climbed that had such a variety of climbing involved along the way — rock climbing, glacier plodding and ice climbing. The Fisher Chimneys route is a really fantastic route for exactly that reason, and except for one screw-up on my part, it would have been the best climb I had ever done. Instead, well, it still is in many ways the best climb I have ever done, but my mistake still really bugs me. Probably most climbers who read this will not think that what I did was really that big of a deal overall, but I guess I am a perfectionist when it comes to climbing, and I do not like making mistakes. We left Eugene (where I was living at the time) early in the morning, my former girlfriend Bethany, myself, and a young climber named Justin, and headed north on the ubiquitous Interstate-Five. We would be driving all the way to Bellingham, Washington, then we would head east to the Mt. Baker Ski Area. It was a pretty wet day almost the entire drive north, which took something close to nine hours to complete, and the weather had me worried. It was still socked in when we arrived at the trailhead, but I just crossed my fingers as we set out. The hike to Lake Ann is interesting in the sense that you actually start out descending, and for quite a ways, before reaching the valley bottom, a reversal of most approaches to the mountains. At the end, there is a gentle rise before reaching Lake Ann, and we arrived at the crowded backcountry camp in the afternoon. All the good tent sites were taken, so we had to make do with a mediocre space beside the lake, nestled between boulders. We met up with the leader of this hike, a guy named Kevin whom I liked almost immediately. This was an Obsidian’s climb, and there were quite a few of us going, around nine as I recall. In any case, we had a brief discussion of the plan for the morning, then went back to our respective tents after agreeing to meet at 5 a.m. I was worried from the beginning, as Bethany would be alone while we were climbing, and she was not an experienced backcountry traveler. My worry, which was not really justified, considering where we were and the number of people around, would later be my undoing.

Unnamed spire near Lake Ann

The weather began to clear by that evening, and I went to sleep feeling hopeful. When I woke in the morning, it was to a beautiful, starlit sky, with not a single cloud anywhere in the sky. The weather was perfect. We ate, got geared up and met with Kevin and the rest of the crew, and soon we were threading our way through rock gardens and then onto the switchbacks that begin to take you up the side of what is known as the Shuksan Arm. As the sun rose, beautiful Mt. Baker, just across the valley, began to take on a heavenly red color:

Beautiful Mt. Baker

Soon we were heading through a huge talus field that later would cause us some grief, but in the morning it was easy walking. After an hour or so we came to the chimneys, the first section of easy scrambling, and I ended up leading part of our group up the wrong gully, not a big mistake, but we had an awkward traverse getting back on track. Then we scrambled up the last steep section and topped out on the Shuksan Arm and stepped onto the White Salmon Glacier. A short distance away was a small rock outcrop where we would put on our harnesses and break out the ice-axes and crampons.

Climb leader Kevin getting ready for the serious climbing. Above him is the ice pitch known as Winnie’s Slide.

After getting geared up, I yanked on my water-bladder to get a drink, and in my impatience, I pulled the mouthpiece off, which promptly fell into the depths of the rock outcropping and disappeared. Oops. This would prove to be a pivotal moment. I was no longer able to get adequate water since sucking on the tube was almost impossible, and I was losing water from that point on. By the end of the climb, when everyone else probably had consumed 4 or 5 liters of water, I had drank 1 at best. Well, there was nothing for it. We tied in as rope teams, and started cramponing up the slope to the base of Winnie’s Slide, a 50 degree ice pitch that is the first serious obstacle of the route. A group was in front of us, so we waited patiently while they methodically made their way up and over the bulge. When it was our turn, Kevin led, and each of us got up the somewhat steep ice with the well known technique called struggling. It was fun, though. We kept to the moat between rock and ice, using our right legs to brace on the rock, while our left leg, and our arms dealt with the ice. I had never climbed something that steep before, but I really enjoyed it. Once we topped out, it was a short walk to a small barrier of rock that separated the White Salmon from the Upper Curtis Glaciers, and we took off our crampons to make the scramble up the rock. A few moments later we had to put our crampons back on.

Looking up at the Upper Curtis Glacier from the top of Winnie’s Slide

At this point, Kevin told me he wanted me to lead, and I was a little surprised by this move. I asked him what to do about the crevasses we were sure to encounter, and he said something like “you’ve got a good head on your shoulders, figure it out.” It was a tremendous confidence boost for me, and so I led out onto the glacier, which, while crevassed, was still in early-season shape, so none of the gaps in the ice were too big, usually about five or six feet across with solid snowbridges. It was great fun to walk across the bridges, with eighty foot chasms on either side.

Looking at Hell’s Highway, where the Upper Curtis meets the Sulphide Glacier. Taken from above Winnie’s Slide

Soon we were at the base of Hell’s Highway, a steep, curving ramp that is the dividing point between the Upper Curtis Glacier and the Sulphide Glacier above it. We were lucky to find it in such smooth, unbroken conditions, since virtually every picture I have ever seen before shows it as massively crevassed:

This seems more typical of Hell’s Highway

Once we were on the Sulphide Glacier, the outstanding summit pyramid came into view. For the life of me, I don’t know why I didn’t snap off some pictures of it, but I supposed I was pretty fixated on climbing. Here is what it looks like though:

The summit pyramid from the Sulphide Glacier

We were soon at its base (it was significantly less snowy than the picture above), and began the steep scramble up to the summit.

Scrambling up to the summit

After a very short time — fifteen or twenty minutes at most — the summit came into view, and even though I was the first person to get up there, I did what I normally do, and allowed everyone else to reach the true apex before me. I don’t know why I do that, although I suppose it has something to do with the fact that I had a very old father when I was born and he raised me to be a gentleman. In any case, all nine of us made it, and it had taken around six hours to get there, not bad for such a large party without a ton of experienced climbers.

Enjoying the summit.

Myself on the summit with Mt. Baker behind me.

We stayed for half an hour, but considering how much varied terrain we still had to cover to get back to Lake Ann, we packed up and began establishing a rappel point to get off the summit pyramid. Back then, I had a real phobia about rappelling, but I also knew that downclimbing is generally much faster, so I told Kevin I would wait for them at the base of the summit, and he was glad to have one less person to have to get set up on rappel. I ended up waiting about fifteen minutes for the first person to catch up, and while I waited, I snapped a few pictures of the Sulphide glacier, which is more of an icefield, it is so large.

The Sulphide Glacier and Mt. Baker

We roped back up before stepping onto the glacier, and then began the initial, gentle plod towards Hell’s Highway.

Descending towards Hell’s Highway

As we descended towards the Upper Curtis Glacier again, a guy in my climbing team, who was also from Eugene and I had met on a couple of occasions, kept being dramatic and insisting that if any of us slipped, it would surely mean the death of us all. As it was, nobody fell and we reached the glacier unharmed.

Crevasses on the Upper Curtis Glacier

One of our rope teams skirting crevasses on the glacier

When we got to the top of Winnie’s Slide, Kevin, the climb leader, took me aside and whispered: “If this had just been you and I, we would have been down hours ago.” It had taken us quite a while to return to this spot, and now we had to set up another rappel. I was pleased by his compliment, but I would unfortunately be letting the whole team down soon.

I was the first to rappel the slide, and after several of us were gathered together, we decided (with Kevin’s blessing, as I recall) to descend to the rock outcrop on the White Salmon Glacier, take off our crampons and harnesses and then wait for the rest of the crew to catch up before beginning  the treacherous scramble back down to the trail. This is where I screwed up.

At this point we had been on the mountain for well over thirteen hours, and I had told Bethany that I would be down much sooner. Worried about her being alone, I told the other climbers I was going to start down ahead of them. I should have stayed.

I descended too far. I had forgotten that at a certain point, you have to traverse across some narrow ledges to stay on course, and I soon realized that I had dropped down about 100 feet further than I should have. Unfortunately, climbing back up meant I now had to do some 5th class rock climbing moves, and I was so worn out and dehydrated that I was incapable of doing it. Complicating matters even further was the brush beside this steep rock, which was so dense that I couldn’t scramble up that way either.

I was exhausted, and I began to wail and curse and make an ass out of myself. After about half an hour, my climbing team caught up to me, heard my caterwauling, and began asking what they could do to assist me. Eventually they threw a rope down and hauled my pack up, but I found to my horror that I still couldn’t climb back up. Finally, Kevin yelled down “Either climb the fucking thing or we’re leaving you out here!”

I climbed it, needless to say. When I reached my team, I hung my head in shame and apologized to every person there, and they were all kind and forgiving. Unfortunately, I had cost us about forty-five minutes, and the sun was sinking fast. We hustled off the chimneys, and got to the talus field as the sun set. Now, however, the trail through the half-mile section of rocks became nearly impossible to follow, and we kept going the wrong way. In my search for the right path, one of my fellow climbers lost sight of me and started cursing at me, even though I wasn’t far away. When he realized how hard I was searching for the right path, he apologized.

Eventually we found the trail and returned to camp, nineteen hours after we had set out. I got in my sleeping bag and bawled. Not manly, I know, but I have always been an emotional guy, and knowing how badly I had screwed up really tore at me. Plus, I was dehydrated, exhausted and hungry.

When I talked to Kevin about it the next day, he reassured me that it wasn’t the end of the world and also told me he wouldn’t be putting  my mistake into the Obsidian’s trip report. We all make mistakes, he told me.

We stayed one more day at Lake Ann, then hiked back out and drove back to Eugene. I would never forget that climb, nor my mistake. It has always bothered me, but it has also motivated me not to screw up again like that. I am just glad it didn’t cost us too much.

The mighty Mt. Shuksan from Lake Ann