In the world of avalanche terrain, complacency is often synonymous with accidents. It’s a concept that we [should] learn early when starting to venture into the backcountry. When I took my Avy I course a few years ago, the instructor showed us a chart that stuck with me. I promised myself that I would try my best to not follow the predictive pattern that it describes.
Over time we gain knowledge and experience. Taking courses and getting out with knowledgeable partners are a big part of this process. Unfortunately, we don’t always make great decisions, can miss important factors, and often times get away with it out of sheer luck. In the case that nothing does go wrong, we end up taking misinformation and applying it to our growing knowledge base. “Last weekend I skied a NE slope that has a persistent slab buried about 40cm and everything was fine.” Maybe we missed the shooting cracks that were present while skinning, or maybe we just never hit a weak point in the slab, which if we had, may have triggered a release. Or maybe, just maybe, that persistent slab was starting to settle and get safer to ski.
As we learn more and gain experience, our tolerance for risk tends to increase. When you first start skiing in the backcountry, everything is terrifying. Practically any terrain you want to ski is potentially avalanche terrain and we know just enough to be terrified. Through courses and time on the snow we learn how to start to identify safe terrain. That level of risk starts to creep upwards as we start to use our perceived knowledge to venture into bigger, riskier terrain. Every time we go out and test our assumptions and they hold up, we are adding to our perceived knowledge.
Unfortunately, all-too-often, it takes making a bad decision and not getting lucky to force us to step back and challenge our perceived knowledge and level of acceptable risk. Maybe we set off a slide on a slope we thought to be safe, or worse, we (or a friend) gets carried/buried in a slide in supposedly “safe” terrain. Worse still, the consequences of our poor decisions can be dire.
When I first saw a chart like the one above, I promised myself that I would fight the natural susceptibility to tolerate greater risks. I would fight the tendency to allow an increased level of risk by using open communication; over communicating is better than not. I would challenge decisions, even if they seemed trivial, to make sure all of the information was on the table.
Well, it turns out fighting this behavior is a lot easier said than done. Even with an open dialogue, if the entire group has a heightened risk tolerance, complacency ensues.
So why do I bring this all up? Last weekend I believe I hit one of those spikes in the chart. Nobody was hurt and we all managed to walk away having skied a classic line in Rocky Mountain National Park. But we shouldn’t have.
Dragons Tail Couloir descends the southeast face of Flattop Mountain, dropping down the Tyndall glacier gorge, ending at Emerald Lake; providing a prime viewing location for the dozens of tourists out for a pleasant (and quite popular) hike through the park. You can either ascend the couloir directly, or as we opted, by hiking the Flattop Mountain trail and entering the couloir from above.
We knew going into the trip that the snow wasn’t in great shape. May had been a productive month for snow in the front range – several feet up high. The snow was immediately followed by a warm period where not even the highest peaks were seeing freezing temps overnight. The snowpack during the day had the consistency of a giant Slushie. Rotten. We were under the impression that the couple of days preceding our trip had seen freezing temps overnight and we’d planned accordingly, intending to get an early enough start that the upper mountain would still be cold.
On approach, we found promising crusts in the trees, but once we hit treeline and direct morning sun, the snow was terrible. Our quick hiking turned to post-holing and a transition to skins. Not a good sign. We discussed the snow, rationalizing that the couloir was more south facing and it’s steep walls would keep it cooler for a bit longer. We knew we were on a time crunch, but willing to keep going.
We made it up to the top by 10:30. Typically a completely reasonable hour to consider a descent. Still wary of the snow, I descended 20-30 feet to test the snow. It was promising. I wasn’t post-holing through like on the approach. The snow was certainly soft. I was sinking to nearly halfway up my boot. Not great, but we agreed that it was within what we considered a reasonable tolerance.
Having discussed our options, including a safer alternate taking us down a low-angle snowfield on the north side of Flattop, we opted to ski the couloir. I went first, kicking off considerable sluff with each turn. Traversing into the first safe zone, I kicked off a point release wet slab, nearly 3 feet wide, breaking down through the 6-9 inches of wet surface snow. I was out of sight of my partners, but quickly my head started spinning. This was a HUGE red flag. Not even a quarter of the way through the couloir, with the steep narrow choke still below us and I was having doubts. I could yell up, get my partners to hold off, and climb back out. It wasn’t too late, not yet. I opted to wait for them to reach me.
Once they were both down with me, I learned another group had shown up behind us. The rationale of waiting had backfired. Now ascending the couloir was even less likely. Blindly trying to yell up to another group to hold off while we climbed out seemed less safe than continuing down. We reiterated the importance of managing the wet snow and took off one at a time through the crux of the route.
Dragon tail has two possible upper routes: the left (standard) fork we descended, and a right more technical line. They join right where we’d stopped to regroup for a second time. This was where things really went downhill. We heard it coming. A slide roared down the right fork, a band of rocks shielding us from the stream of wet snow. We watched as it ran down the gut of the couloir below us. Was that the other group? Were they trying to ski the right fork? If so, we should wait for them to reach us, rather than risk them sending more snow on top of us.
Just a minute or two later we heard a loud crack and the rumbling of snow coming from the west wall. A large stream of snow comes cascading off the cliffs descending like a waterfall into the couloir maybe 200 feet below us.
It dawned on us that this was all natural activity – the mountains were warming up, shedding rock and snow in the process. We were in the worst place imaginable. The only thing to do was to get out. Riding through our own sluff, dropped in one at a time, skiing the lower half of the couloir in one shot.
Thankfully no more snow came down while we were in the couloir, though as my partners were descending, I watched as another slide ran down Dragons Tail – an adjacent line to the one we were skiing.
Once we were all out, we stopped to reflect on what we’d done. Sure, it was fun and was definitely exciting, but we all agreed that we had made a bad decision. We were lucky that none of the slides had come down on top of us, otherwise it would have been a much different situation.
So, I felt like it was time to take a step back and reflect. We are all arguably safe skiers. We have a good foundation of knowledge in avalanche terrain and were communicating effectively. But it had also been a full year of building risk and trust. We were so confident in our decision making that we were ignoring objective hazards, putting ourselves into an unnecessarily risky situation that could’ve been easily avoided. I am taking things down a step and reminding myself that I don’t know as much as I think I do.
We have to respect the mountains and learn to be humble. After all, that classic line will still be there tomorrow, next week, next season, and for years to come.
This season has been riddled with missteps, unmet expectations, even self-doubt. Needless to say, it has been a bit rocky (yes, there’s a pun in there) going for a while. I hate to distill such an important part of my life down to some simple statistics, but in an effort to paint a larger picture, I am going to anyways.
Since moving to Colorado I’ve made it up to the resorts a whopping 7 days. Even more disheartening, in an area so bountiful with easy access backcountry, I’ve only made it out touring 4 days. Four! That’s it! In contrast, on my adventurous move out here I managed to spend 2 days at resorts and another 4 touring. And that was in a 10-day window, where I also managed to rack up a healthy number of miles on my car.
As an even bigger contrast, let’s look at last year…I broke my back in December and still managed to throw together a full season, with a couple of notable days including the black hole couloir, riding St Helens with my dad, and attempting to summit Mt Rainier
. I don’t actually have numbers for last year because I wasn’t keeping track, but I can guarantee you there were a lot more days both at the resort and in the backcountry than I’ve managed this year.
It’s easy to blame a lot of different factors…I moved to a new city; I don’t have a steady income; I don’t have a pass anywhere. Excuses, all of them, just empty excuses that, if I am honest with myself, hold no merit.
So what happened?
Earlier this season I wrote my always up-to-date guide for finding good snow in the mountains. It was easy to write back in December after a spell of dry weather and conditions that could still be considered “early season”. It was a damn good idea and it is a guide that I encourage everyone to try to follow.
I wrote it, then promptly forget everything that it was about. Which is impressive because it is only a 1-step guide.
In case you are too lazy to click the link, I’ll give you a synopsis here: shift your expectations away from the snow entirely. Chasing snow is a lot harder than finding people you enjoy riding with and there is something to be said for simply enjoying the mountains, whatever the conditions.
I was recently reminded of this on a trip to Berthoud Pass. In the days leading up, the temperatures barely dropped below freezing. In the morning, looking at weather overnight and the day’s forecast, we’d had a mild freeze overnight and the forecast called for clouds all day. It was enough to make me think long and hard about whether or not I actually wanted to get out of bed.
Pro Tip: don’t look at the forecast until you are already out of bed, removing the temptation to bail.
The less than ideal forecast was resounded in my head when I pulled into the parking lot at the top of the pass. There was only one other car there, on a Saturday morning. To put it in perspective, the previous Wednesday the parking lot was practically full by 9 am.
Needless to say, Derek and I took our times getting ready and eventually set off for No Name Peak. Something that I still haven’t gotten used to in Colorado are the barren approaches. We spend as much time scrambling over rock as we did skinning on snow.
There were a couple of old tracks on No Name, but for the most part there was still plenty of smooth spring corn ready for riding. Derek and I scoped out our lines, opting to drop in just below the normal entrance right off of the summit, avoiding the obvious tracks.
Having set out expectations low, we were both pleasantly surprised with how well the snow was riding. So much so, we opted for a quick skin back up the ridge for another lap. It was just as much fun as the first.
I really need to spend some more time looking at a map and learning the different zones at Berthoud. I can point to exactly where we were on a map, I just couldn’t tell you the name of it. Anyways, we hiked up out of the basin off of No Name, gaining the ridge that we’d approached it from, and dropped down a chute that ran out, what I believe is the Current Creek drainage.
We were back to the car before 2 pm, catching a ride up to the pass from some new friends, who’d also decided to take a lap on No Name.
All in all, it was a fantastic day. To think I almost bailed because of a forecast is silly.
So, this is my reminder to myself – follow your own guide and enjoy the mountains for more than just the snow. It’s always a good time and that should always be enough motivation to make the effort to get out the door!
For a trip that was planned in the comment section on a photo, you would think we’d take a few pictures. Bad light, no room in the pack, laziness (yes, it is still possible to be lazy while touring in the mountains), whatever the reason, some days taking pictures is the last thing on your mind and it is a refreshing change of pace.
While at Berthoud Pass, the sun was out and I was stopping every five minutes with my camera, trying to find interesting shots. The day was incredible; blue skies and fresh snow, but the trip felt more like a photo shoot and less like a day of riding, which just seems a little backwards.
We did not have blue skies yesterday. In fact, we bailed on our original plan of exploring Porcupine Gulch in favor of a more familiar area, Butler Gulch, that we knew we could still navigate with poor light. So, the camera stayed in the car and it snowed on us all day. What started off as light flurries, turned into a respectable snowfall throughout the day.
The snow was decent in the morning. A little bit of wind transport meant there were plenty of stashes of good snow to be found. Butler Gulch was a new zone to me; mostly mellow rolling terrain that just barely pokes up above treeline. It’s an area that you can feel comfortable when the conditions aren’t great, enjoy romping around in the mountains, and make a few turns along the way.
In my typical eager and blindly ambitious form, I spotted a knoll with a good approach and a steep, open landing that was just begging for me to jump off of it. I figured I could stomp out a little kicker in a few minutes and have some fun. As if hiking for turns wasn’t enough effort already, stomping out a makeshift kicker will definitely get the heart rate up. Well, it turns out I suck at building jumps (at least when I do it on a whim) and we all had a good laugh at the build up for what was ultimately a complete failure.
That’s just the vibe that I get from Butler. It’s a playground where you want to have fun and try silly things.
Right as we were transitioning for our second lap, the storm picked up and the snow really began to accumulate. The day was just getting better. We decided to take a break after our second lap and eat some lunch in the woods while the snow fell. Normally breaks aren’t very noteworthy, just a regular part of the day where you sit down and enjoy your $2 Safeway sandwich or cliff bar, at least that’s how my breaks usually go. But yesterday was different. Between the four of us we’d brought, leftover pizza, a fancy sandwich (aka not pb&j or safeway), some homemade jerky, venison I think, a few bite-sized Snickers, a cliff bar, and most notably, a Mountain House Beef Stroganoff meal.
Who brings a hot meal splitboarding? That means not just the meal, but the stove/pot to cook it in! For a day trip, the idea of hauling all this gear and taking the time to prepare it just sort of blew my mind. I will say, those few hot bites did taste pretty good. It was a little bit of a luxury for what is normally a not very exciting part of the day.
The long meal break served another purpose. While we hung out in the shelter of the trees, the snow was falling hard. In fact, we timed our break pretty well because just as we started moving again, the snow began to let up. By the time we got to our intended zone, the weather was back to more or less a flurry and a few inches had accumulated. We rode the shoulder of a ridge, eventually dropping into drainage, making for some low angle surfy powder turns, the best of the day.
All told, it was a great day to be outside and we all had a fun time. Butler’s an area that I’m sure I’ll be back to, I’ll probably replace the camera with a few beers, attempt to make another kicker (and likely fail), and who knows, maybe even pack in a hot meal.
Last week I made it up to Berthoud Pass for the first time. I’d hear this area as one of the mecca’s for backcountry skiing in the front range. Not necessarily the best, or the steepest. But a sort of fun playground with some safe mellow tours that makes for a popular destination for a quick lap or two.
I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect, and most pictures I’ve seen from the area are your usual skier pow shot, or some other tight framed shot that, while it looks nice, doesn’t give much perspective to the area as a whole. In fact, something a lot like this.
So, I was a little surprised when I got out to Berthoud Pass at just how large the area was, and how diverse the accessible terrain was. While we stuck to some mellow lines for the day, the sun was out and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Mixed with the 4 or so inches of fresh snow, it was what I would consider a perfect day to be out in the mountains.
And we weren’t the only ones out there. It was a Wednesday, and by the time we made it back to the parking lot, the lot was full and cars were driving around trying to find a spot where they might be able to squeeze in if they got creative. There were a few other groups of people headed to the same zone as us (it’s name escapes me at the moment), but there was enough terrain that we were all able to find out own lines, and I was able to get a few good shots of some of the other skiers. Thanks anonymous tele skier! I don’t know who you are, but you made some nice turns down this chute!
It had been a few weeks since I’d taken the split out and it was starting to show. After two short laps I was completely worked. It was kind of pathetic, but it was about all I had in me. Thankfully one of the other guys had to get back early for a work, so I didn’t have to make any excuses.
In all, it was an incredible day and felt amazing just to be outside. If anything it reaffirmed my love of the mountains and reminded me that I need to get out there more often.
Here in the PNW we are having what I would refer to as a below average snow year. Snoqualmie Pass doesn’t have enough snow to open and the other resorts are still a little spicy down in the lower elevations. Back in November everyone was starting to get the itch to ride. Some early low elevation snow helped drastically increase the stoke and people were getting out to make turns. Even the resorts were getting in on the early season goods, with some impressively early starts; though it is understandable if you don’t consider spinning a single chair and throwing a few rails in a patch of lingering snow an actual “opening day”.
The excitement of the early snow gave way to anticipation that is yet to be fulfilled. An occasionally front moves through, bringing just enough snow to maintain the marginal snowpack that exists. Normally the fronts come mixed with sleet and freezing rain to dissuade any potential thrill seekers from getting too excited.
All that being said, I’ve had some awesome day’s so far this season, each one seemingly better than the last and it is in no way thanks to mother nature. So, it’s my goal to provide you with the insights that you need to have fun out there.
Step One: Take whatever your expectations are for the day and lower them.
If the weather report claimed 4-5 inches in the last 24, I don’t want to hear anything about an epic pow day. The 20-30 mph winds inevitably scoured the 4-5 inches, which were sitting on top of a bulletproof crust anyways. So instead, think to yourself, “if I hunt for some protected leeward slopes, I might find some pockets of still fresh snow if I am lucky.”
Or, “sure, it hasn’t snowed in the last week, but it hasn’t rained either. So there’s a chance that I may still find something.” This is a good start, but again…lowering your expectation can never hurt. Try something more along the lines of: “Well, the sun might break through, so at least I get to stretch my legs and hopefully we will get a pretty view.”
The important thing to remember is that your starting expectations, no matter how well intentioned, are still laced with optimism. I applaud the optimistic outlook and yes, we are going to have a fantastic season, no worries that it is already late December; the season is still early and there is still time! But, if you want to guarantee yourself to have a fun day, I promise this will help.
In fact, that’s about the only advice I have right now. Sorry for not having anything more insightful. I will say that in the last three days of touring, I’ve lowered my expectations to the point where just the other day I was thinking, “as long as I find something that isn’t ice, I will be happy.” Sure enough, the snow we found on a north-facing bowl was superb. I mean, in reality it wasn’t anything to write home about, but in comparison to the ice I’d set myself up to expect, this snow was the most incredible conditions I’d seen all season. Maybe we really did get lucky. Maybe the snow really was better than I am giving it credit for.
Maybe, that’s not the point at all. Last fall I tried to take an early season lap on the Muir snowfield. No matter how low you set your expectations for the day, Mother Nature was hell bent on making you lower them even further. To give an idea, it felt like I’d bundled up in my snow gear and jumped in a pool. Upon climbing out of the pool, I was in the middle of a monsoon with sheets of rain somehow managing to make me even wetter. And if that isn’t bad enough, the wind picked up with unrelenting gusts blowing the rain more sideways that up-and-down. Amidst it all, we were all laughing and in good spirits.
So maybe, the point is actually to shift your expectations away from the snow entirely.
When you go out with the expectation of having fun with friends and strangers, to get a little exercise and to have an adventure, then there is no way you are going to have a bad time. No matter what snow you do find, if you find it while smiling, I think it is safe to assume that you’ll meet your expectations and come home feeling pretty good about what you found.
For a while there it seemed like the season never ended. Then I disappeared to California and last year’s below-average snowpack (and a generally different climate than the PNW) made summer touring basically impossible. I picked up a mountain bike and started climbing more frequently. Between the two, I didn’t seem to mind the lack of snowboarding. In fact, while the snow has been falling since the beginning of October, just this last weekend did I finally manage to get out.
The first day out, you are going to be a little rusty. Whereas last year I could pack in my sleep, I found myself scouring my closet for gear, laying it all out all over the place. Packing, then repacking, then repacking again. How did I used to pack this thing? Skins, right! The process went on for longer than it should. But eventually I had everything and was ready to go.
I forgot how to layer. Sorry, I didn’t forget how to layer, but I was rusty at paying attention to when to wear what. I started off with my heavy jacket on, regretting the decision immediately, but too stubborn to stop and take it off. Eventually I did, but being able to predict what to wear while hiking is just one more thing that I seemed to have forgotten.
But I wasn’t the only one that was rusty. We all were. The rust shows itself in different places for everyone, but the one that stood out was communication.
We headed up to Heliotrope Ridge, along with what seemed like the entire backcountry ski community. Seriously, it was a zoo out there. Not to be deterred by the crowds or the flat light, we managed to find our own stashes of fresh snow. Not to mention, the whole experience was a whole heck of a lot better to the crazy wind gusts we found last year, preventing us from ever reaching the ridge. The marginal snow on the hike in was a little disconcerting. Once we got above treeline, the snow got immensely better. By the time we were nearing the ridge, we were pleasantly surprised by the quality of the snow we were finding. It was deeper and lighter than I was expecting.
I’ll admit, the snow was starting to get a little sun and wind affected. It was still awesome to ride, but there was definitely a crust starting to form. As this next weather system moves in, I’m a little concerned that we are going to bury a weak layer pretty deep in the snowpack. Hopefully it consolidates well, but it’ll definitely be something to keep an eye on in the coming weeks.
So, after kicking off the season with some sweet pow turns on the upper ridge, we made a decision to continue down the fall line instead of hooking right, following the general route that we’d skinned up. The lure of more fresh tracks and fewer crowds was appealing. Totally worth it. We found easily another 1500′ of fresh snow and we were the only ones out there. Soon, we kind of understood why. We hit the treeline and realized we were about three gullies away from the trail we wanted to get to. We had two options, stay low and cut through the trees and through at least one exposed stream crossing, with potential for more. Or, we could hike up around the cliff band we were now sitting under and pick our way back to the trail from above the cliffs.
Our group was split on what to do and we weren’t communicating our rationales for either option well. In a tense moment, we ended up splitting up. Ultimately both routes probably would have been fine. We weren’t in any immediate danger, but splitting up was the wrong thing to do. Eventually, we reconvened and all committed to going up over the cliff band together. Sure, it was a bit more hiking than we’d anticipated, but we did it together. The upshot, we managed to squeeze out a few more quality turns.
Making decisions is a big part of traveling in the backcountry. That’s part of the fun of it. You have options and freedom to choose where you want to go. We were a little rusty, but we all came back, reminded of the importance that good communication can have.
Hopefully this weekend it wont take me three tries to get my pack loaded the way I like it.
When I moved to Seattle, well to be frank Mt Rainier was nothing more than a mountain. Surely impressive, but mountains were yet to captivate my imagination. It was merely an impressive and iconic backdrop to the city I lived in. Over the years, climbing Mt Rainier became a fantasy. It was a place for mountain climbers that I romanticized with a childlike fascination. To stand on top of that mountain, so close to Seattle, seemed so impossibly far away. Three years ago, had you invited me to climb Rainier, my imagination would have inevitably wandered to the fantasy of standing on the top, but reality would have set in and my response would have been something along the lines of, “Are you crazy?”
It is funny how perception can change over time. It started with snowboarding. I stopped sleeping in the car and starting staring out the windows. “Look at the line on that mountain! I bet that would be fun!” Dreams. At the time, I was confined to chairlifts. But as my eyes widened, I began to appreciate the mountains. When I started backpacking, I stopped simply looking at the mountains with wide eyes and started exploring their vast riches. Alpine lakes, waterfalls, and beaten trails marked the true beginning of my shift in perception.
My fascination with mountains grew the more time I began to spend in them. I came back from Montana completely absorbed in the snow-capped rugged peaks of the Cascades. Armed with new tools, knowledge, and a driving passion, I began looking at the mountains renewed. The lines I have stared at dozens, possibly hundreds of times, are no longer unobtainable fantasies, but plausible excursions. No longer do I simply look at a line and think “Man, wouldn’t that be awesome.” Instead, I think to myself, “That would be awesome, how accessible is it? Could I get there in a day? Who could I get to go with me?”
When I first started snowboarding in the backcountry, Rainier was still a fantasy. While my world was beginning to open up, it took nearly a year (and some incredible adventures) before I realized that Rainier was no longer a dream, but a goal. Once I made that shift, staring at Rainier from the city became insufferable. That mountain was sitting there, taunting me in all of its iconic majesty.
I started hearing of other people climbing it. I was even invited once or twice and had tentatively agreed to go with someone. But for one reason or another, I never made it. I kept saying that I would go for it during the next nice weather window.
Weeks began to slip by, and that wouldn’t be so concerning if I weren’t leaving for the summer. I began to realize that I was quickly running out of time if I were going to try to climb Rainier.
When my buddy Stu texted me, to see if I was interested, I was in the middle of hiking Mt Si with my dad. This was Monday. He wanted to go on Wednesday. I had work and was already exhausted. By all means, I had plenty of excuses for why I shouldn’t climb Rainier.
I thought about it for the rest of the afternoon. I was laying in my back yard, napping after the weekend excursions with my dad and I realized that I needed to go with Stu. I needed to work and I needed to rest as well. But I had an overwhelming desire to fulfill that goal – to climb Mt Rainier and snowboard off of the summit. I knew that if I didn’t try, I would sit at work staring about the mountain, daydreaming about being up there with my friends. Work and rest would have to wait.
We were ill prepared for the trip. None of us had much (if any) glacier travel experience and we had hastily thrown together an amalgamation of gear that we deemed sufficient to summit. Stu had summited once a few years ago with a guide, but apart from some vague recollections, he didn’t have much memories of the trip. At least not that would be beneficial for us while climbing. We were predicted to have sunny and warm weather for the next few days and coupled with our excitement, our concerns dissipated.
We laid out all of our gear in the paradise parking lot, taking up most of a parking space. We weren’t exactly traveling light. The crew was Stu, Eric, Laura, and myself; apart from me, it was a crew of Mt Baker instructors, all killing time between the end of the season and the start of their respective summer plans. Though only Stu, Eric, and I planned on summiting, we were carrying three days of gear and supplies for the four of us. The heavy pack and the warm weather made for an interesting day getting to Camp Muir.
Though we’d gotten an early start, it was dusk by the time we started setting up camp and we all decided that we should take a day to chill before attempting to summit.
The following morning, we took our time getting out of our tents, waiting for the morning sun to warm everything up before we decided to crawl out of our tents. After a drawn out breakfast of oatmeal with trailmix (a bit too heavy on the peanut MnM’s) we opted to take a lap down to the top of the Chute that drops in to the Nisqually.
The corn snow was fantastic and only a little slushy near the bottom.
On the hike up we ran into a couple of Eric’s friends from Seattle. The 6 of us chilled in the snow for a while, eating lunch and throwing snowballs at a ski pole. Ah, the joys of being easily entertained!
Our down day went by fast and made for an enjoyable way to spend a day relaxing in the sun and preparing to make the push for the summit.
After talking with the rangers and other climbers coming off of the mountain, we were growing increasingly weary of the conditions on the two routes we could take. The Ingraham direct route was well marked and, before the sun hit it, the snow bridges were holding well. However, as soon as the sun hit, the bridges were getting soft and icefall from the seracs was a huge problem. Basically, not somewhere you want to be after about 7:30 am. The other route, up Disappointment Cleaver, had it’s own issues. The unusually warm weather created an isothermal snowpack not conducive to climbing or riding. Not to mention, there was a sharp cliff at the bottom of the route, so it was unstable snow with high exposure. Oh, then there was the rock fall hazard during the day.
We stayed optimistic. Ultimately opting for an early, 2 am start, with the hopes of climbing Ingraham Direct and riding down the DC before it warmed up too much.
At 2 am, you are moving slow. I thought we were making good time, but with firm snow and an earlier-than-anticipated transition to crampons, by the time we made it to the toe of the Ingraham and roped up, the sun was starting to peak over the horizon.
We met up with another group of skiers on their way down, who were in a similar situation to us. They had started around midnight, giving us some good beta on the routes. Ultimately they bailed for reasons that would soon become apparent.
We got to the entrance to the Ingraham Direct route. It peeled off from the skin track and headed ominously straight up into the seracs. While we had heard the route was in good shape, I think we all agreed that our inexperience with glacier travel made skipping that option a no brainer. We continued on to the DC. At the base of the route, the snow was crummy. While we could have continued on, we were all now thinking about the ride down. It just didn’t seem worth subjecting ourselves to so much risk. This would be as far as we would make it.
While we were all a little bit defeated, we were not upset. As much as I wanted to reach the summit of Mt rainier, once a mere fantasy, we tried and we came close. I hadn’t fulfilled my goal of reaching the summit, but I put a large dent in achieving that goal. There will be other attempts and the knowledge I gained just from trying, will help me in the future.
When we turned back, it was still early. We made our way to a safe zone and stopped to rest. We’d been awake since 1 am and all that was left to do at this point was enjoy the sunrise and wait for the snow to soften a bit.
Eventually, we got impatient and made our way back to Camp Muir on firm snow. The ride back wasn’t exactly pleasant. Hard snow and disappointment are not exactly ideal conditions. After breaking camp, we threw our still-heavy packs on our backs and enjoyed some fabulous corn turns back to the car.
At the parking lot, we stripped our packs (an most of our clothes, did I mention it was hot?) and enjoyed the few cold beers that remained from our hidden stashes. (We presume one was found, I hope someone enjoyed those cold beers!) Driving off of the mountain I had mixed feelings. Sure I was disappointed that we didn’t reach the summit. But we gave it our best shot and it was factors outside of our control that ultimately led to us not making it. Could we have pushed it and made it to the top? Probably, but there was something satisfying about being able to make the tough decision to turn around. That was rewarding in itself.
Also, I now have some rad calf-burns. Pro-tip, if you roll up your pants, if only for a few minutes, apply sunscreen liberally. Snow-burns are quite pronounced and happen quicker than you think. Then again, who doesn’t enjoy funky tan lines?