4 AM and the alarm goes off. My body aches from carrying a heavy load to get here. It also didn't help that we were literally camped on bunch of rocks. My Thermarest helped, but its not magic. Slowly, I get moving, attending to necessities, trying to not to get too anxious about the climb ahead. Choke down some dehydrated chow. Melt snow for water. Put the essentials in the pack and gear up. Somehow my pack still seems too heavy even though there is hardly anything in it. The sun begins to rise and we head across the first snowfield towards the Chimneys.
The Chimneys themselves are a combination of 3rd and 4th class terrain. I personally felt that a few short sections were even 5th class. We found the path pretty well worn, with cairns along the way. Still, after seeing what the previous party had gone through, I was a bit paranoid about getting back down through the Chimneys. I took care to be hyper vigilant and take a mental picture of what the trail looked like at certain points, even looking back on occasion so I would know what it looked like in reverse. Nervous about trusting my memory alone, I used my smartphone to snap a few pictures along the way of rappel anchors we needed to get to and other key landmarks in the travel. Aside from worrying about getting back down, scrambling through the Chimneys was actually a lot of fun. I was definitely glad not to have a full pack while doing some of those climbing moves though! After gaining the col, you are deposited briefly on the White Salmon glacier. Here we changed over our gear for glacier travel.
At this point, there was a brief moment of panic as Partner realized she had forgotten to pack a pair of gloves. They were back down at camp. Being really conservative, this is the sort of thing that could have ended our summit attempt right then and there. Frozen hands and frostbite were not a risk we were willing to take. That moment made me realize the razor's edge we danced on. A team of two, far away from any sort of help or assistance, we had no choice but to completely trust one another with our lives. One slip, one piece of forgotten gear, one moment of inattention, could make all the difference. I relied on her to arrest my fall should I end up in a crevasse and she expected the same of me. It was both humbling and frightening to be trusted with such a responsibility.
People (non-climbers) often look at me with a mixture of pity and awe reserved for the outcasts of society when I tell them what I like to do 'for fun.' Why on earth would I spend my vacation time hauling my ass, plus a bunch of other gear, up the side of a fridgid mountain- where I could die- when I could be relaxing on a perfectly safe beach with a Mai Tai and a hot cabana boy to look at? Sometimes I swear I can see smoke come out of their ears as they attempt to comprehend the depths of this brand of masochism. But in that moment of forgotten gloves- it was there. The reason I am drawn to this activity, like a moth to a flame. Walking that tight rope of focus, the possibility of death or severe bodily injury makes all the 'fluff' of life drop away and what really matters snaps sharply into focus. Its almost like a sort of meditation or flow state. Bills, kids, husbands, cars, student loans, what's going to happen tomorrow--- none of it matters. All that matters is this present moment. If you've never experienced this, I will warn you now, don't try to go after it. It is an intoxicating and addicting elixir. Once you've had a taste, you'll stop at nothing to get more. And as far as I know, there is no 'Mountain Climbers Anonymous' 12-step programs out there.
A base layer with thumbs loops and an extra pair of wool socks meant we could continue our summit bid. We had backup gear to warm cold hands if it should come to that. We checked our ropes, knots, and coils one more time, shouldered our packs, and forged ahead. Our first 'obstacle' was Winne's Slide. A steep (80 degrees perhaps?) section of snow slope that was maybe half a rope length high. It looked quite intimidating. It did require using the front points of our crampons and using our ice axes more like an ice tool then a piolet. Since there were already steps kicked in, it actually wasn't too bad, and by the top, I was enjoying it. However, it was still very much a 'no-fall' zone. With no protection between her & I, if I slipped, my end of the rope would pull on my partner and rip her from her stance as well. You can accelerate pretty quickly on a snow slope like that, enough so that may not be able to self-arrest. In effect, we were soloing, so I had to bring the soloing mindset to the fore.
|Winnie's Slide is just ahead. It looks deceptively low-angle in this shot.|
|The view across the Upper Curtis Glacier. The top of Hell's Highway is bathed in sunlight.|
At the top of Hell's Highway you are deposited on to the Sulphide Glacier. This becomes an interesting backcountry crossroads as the route joins the more popular Sulphide Glacier route. Since we were on the mountain over a weekend, we ran into LOTS of people on the Sulphide Glacier. It's deceiving up here, the summit pyramid looks like it is right. there. but it still took an hour to get to the base of it. There is no way to get around it, this was an hour long s l o g. The sun was beating down and at that elevation on snow, it seemed like I had to stop every 5 minutes to smear sunscreen on (I still ended up with a pretty good negative of a helmet strap burned into the side of my cheek and was apparently trying to make a new fashion statement by rocking a big old glop of sunscreen IN my ear). This was also an hour spent worry about our time. For safety purposes, we had set a turn around time of noon. From teams coming back down, we heard estimates that it could take anywhere from 15 minutes to 2 hours to negotiate the gully of the summit pyramid depending on traffic and how fast your team moved through it. Fifteen minutes we could make, 2 hours and we would be going home empty handed.
|Looking up the Sulphide Glacier at the summit pyramid|
|Smiling through the tedium of the Sulphide Glacier|
At the base of the pyramid we ran into a guide short roping two clients up the gully. They were moving very slow and after negotiating the first little step, he decided to turn them around. Less then 100 feet from the summit. We asked him how long he thought it would take to get to the summit and he thought it would take 2 hours. Its was 11:50 am.
|Looking up the gully to the summit. That big crack in the center of the frame is about chest high and was the first step we had to negotiate.|
Since we were already 15 minutes behind our pre-negotiatied turn around time, we didn't terry long. Take some pictures, refuel and then it was time to rappel. By the time we got back down through the summit pyramid, we appeared to be the last summiting team of the day to be heading back down. The trek on the Sulphide Glacier went much more quickly. Downclimbing Hell's Highway got the heart rate up, especially at the point of 'going over the lip.' As I feared, climbing back up the Upper Curtis when we were that tired, in a word, sucked, but scarier still was getting back down to the col. That part of the glacier was steep and very icy. In order to avoid risking a bad fall, the equivalent of a fumble on the 10 yard line, we escaped across the route to a rock outcropping and climbed through that to make it down to the col. Here we ran into a fellow Gunks guide and it was nice to see a friendly face and hear some encouragement & congratulations for all we accomplished. Back down through Winne's Slide and the Fisher Chimneys, neither was as bad as I expected. We arrived back in our camp exhausted, but elated that we had accomplished what we set out to do. The next day, we would pack up camp and head back out the Lake Ann trail on a journey that seemed to never end. Those celebratory margaritas always seemed just out of reach...
|From the hike out, looking back on the cirque we had just been in. Shuksan's summit is on the upper right, just next to wear the sun is shining through.|
|Finally! Celebratory margaritas and a mess of Mexican food!!!|