Attempting a Dream

May 21, 2013 | Posted in Mountaineering, Splitboarding | By

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?

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When all else fails, go North!

April 23, 2013 | Posted in Uncategorized | By

Border Patrol Agent: Hi, identification please.
[Hand BPA passports]

BPA: So, what brings you to Canada?

Greg: We are going skiing! (Both of us with huge grins on our faces.)

BPA: Okay, how long are you staying?

Greg: Until Sunday, so two nights.

BPA: Are you bringing any mace, bear spray, firearms, or any other illicit materials with you?

Greg: No.

BPA: Where are you coming from?

Greg: Philadelphia.

Me: Seattle.

[BPA now looks slightly puzzled]

BPA:  How long have you known each other?

Greg: …um a couple of days.

BPA: And how did you meet?

Greg: …An Internet forum for backcountry skiing.

[BPA with a now very confused look on her face]

BPA: Okay…Um, who does the car belong to?

Greg: It is a rental car

BPA: Of course it is. Where will you be staying?

Greg: At a family friends house in Pemberton.

BPA: And how do you know them?

Greg: My family has taken ski lessons from them for the past 10 years.

Me: I don’t know them.

BPA: Alright. Are they Canadian citizens?

Greg: Um, no I don’t think so. They are German and I don’t think they have naturalized.

[BPA now completely confused and slightly flustered]

BPA: Okay then.  Are you bringing any mace, bear spray, firearms, or any other illicit materials with you?

Greg: No.

[A long pause]

BPA: I guess just pull in over there and head inside.

We went inside where we got pretty much the same line of questions. I think they even took the time to look up the TAY forum to make sure we weren’t lying. Well, I guess we did lie. We had only met mere minutes before, not “a couple of days”.  But that wasn’t even the icing on the cake. Once we were clear of the border, Greg looks over at me and says, “I am really glad we didn’t get searched… I just picked up this weed in Seattle.  This shit is way better than anything I can find back home!”

Paraphrasing most of the conversation, I think you get a sense of how bizarre this trip began. We hit the border at 8:30 pm on Friday, after leaving my car in Sumas –less than four hours since I left work and ultimately made the decision to head to Canada.  Greg was on vacation and hunting for good snow. I was itching to get out, and I hadn’t had much luck finding anyone else who wanted to brave the less-than-ideal weather forecasted for the Cascades.

We were heading to Pemberton to stay with Uli and Brigitte – A retired German couple who had moved to Canada to live their dream. Now in their 15th year as ski instructors, countless tales of biking and canoe trips, a seemingly endless supply of homemade wine, a garden full of fresh vegetables, and a spectacular view of Mount Currie; it is safe to say that they are very much living their dream to the fullest.  I have to admit that I felt a little awkward arriving at their house late Friday night. I had never met them and I was packed for a night of camping at the car. It was after all a very last minute plan. While I couldn’t shake a lingering feeling like I was imposing, Uli and Brigitte were incredibly friendly and their hospitality was warm and welcoming. They treated us to a very traditional German breakfast of homemade bread, delicious cheese, homemade jam, yogurt and granola—the perfect start to a day of touring.

Speaking of touring, on Saturday, Greg and I headed to Joffre Lakes, an area he had visited previously with a guide. There was intermittent snow and low clouds all day. Visibility was okay and we were only marginally prepared. When we hit the third and final lake on the approach, I was breathless. Though the clouds and flat light made for marginal pictures, you will have to take my word that the scene was breathtaking, Blue glacial ice loomed over us, clinging to the rock wall, marking the way to Mt Matier.

We opted to head right of the hanging glacier and made our way up Slalok Mountain. Experience, snowpack, and time dictated our approach.  We ultimately booted most of the way up a couloir on the NW face of Slalok but ended up bailing before the top. The snow was variable and I was starting to get concerned about wind slabs in the upper snowpack. Visibility was dropping, and our late start in the morning meant even though we had not gone too far; it was already getting on in the afternoon. Greg was largely relying on my decisions, so I decided to call it.  

In hindsight, we could have easily kept going, but being so far away from home, there were enough factors at play that I was happy with what we had accomplished. The snow was good. Pockets of fresh pow, mixed with an occasional crust. Once we exited the couloir, the lower apron made for some super fun high speed turns back to the lake.

A quick skin across the upper lake, and we stopped one last time to enjoy the view. The rest of the ride out was typical spring slush. The ride out twisted through the trees and rode like a mellow bobsled track. It was fun going the whole way! Back at the car, we enjoyed a beer in the sun before heading back to our German hosts for delicious burgers made from fresh organic beef. Not a bad day!

The trip was capped off on Sunday by an unexpected but welcome surprise. Uli and Brigitte had two comp tickets left for Whistler. They practically insisted we take them, claiming they had no need for them anymore.

We awoke to fresh snow and another delicious German breakfast. Armed with our touring gear and no real plans, we packed the car and headed to Whistler.  A free lift ticket takes away from the pressure of making the most of your day. If I am going to pay $100 bucks, dammit I am going to get the most of my day on the mountain.  Sunday, if they snow sucked; we could leave whenever we wanted.

The snow was…interesting. It was still snowing and the fresh snow sat atop a bulletproof crust. Just enough snow had fallen to hide any obstacles, but not enough to really hold an edge.  We were able to find pockets of good snow in the alpine but we were both about tired of it by 2 or so. Then, we saw a bunch of people hiking out Blackcomb glacier and we decided to check it out. We did after all bring our touring gear with us to the resort. We might as well put it to use.

We headed through the gate and found ourselves in Garibaldi Provincial Park. A quick skin out to The Spearhead and we were greeted by endless bowls of untracked powder. Greg and I were stoked. The only downside was the time. It was already 3 and even though we wanted to stay out there until the sun went down, we knew that we still had a 5-6 hour drive ahead of us. So, we opted for a quick run down the NE face of The Spearhead and headed back toward Blackcomb. Our last run, a bowl that dropped in to Blackcomb Glacier, was absolutely incredible. Not to mention, we could follow the trail all the way down to the base of the mountain. My legs were a bit tired by the end, but it was an awesome way to end the day and weekend!

We hopped in the car, and headed back to the border.  The sun was out and we had the pleasure of a sunny drive down the sea-to-sky highway, a feat that has escaped me the last few times I made the trek to Whistler.
No trouble at the border and my car was thankfully still where I had left it. All in all, not a bad weekend!

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Hadley Peak – Better late than never

December 4, 2012 | Posted in Uncategorized | By

I may be a few months late, but this is a trip worth sharing. Why? Because the group I went with was fantastic, we had several terrifying moments that I hope to never be subjected to again, and we were riding entirely last year’s snow, which is a stark contrast from the sweet pow I shredded just this weekend.

With the ceaseless rain falling here in Seattle (it’s okay because, snow in the mountains) it’s hard to remember the sunnier days, but I promise they were in fact real. Try to remember back to early October, the 6thto be precise. The sun still shining and fresh snow was not yet even on the radar. This was OcTAYberfest and our goal was simple, make turns in October to add that extra tick mark in one of the trickiest months of the year. We had no misconceptions, the snow was going to be sparse at best and sun-cupped beyond belief. Riding it was going to be…interesting.

I was the new guy in the group. It was some veteran TAY guys, all of whom were looking to add another month to their rather impressive streaks (60 months if memory serves me correctly). I was not only the new guy, but I was the young guy too. Combined, we represented four generations, brought together by the similar desire to get out and explore the mountains. Being able to relate to and enjoy the company of people coming from such diverse backgrounds is a small part of what makes these trips so enjoyable.

We managed to get an early start (the 4:30 am departure was delightful) and made good time to the trailhead. Without any snow in sight and very limited knowledge of where we were actually going or how far until we actually would find snow, the group consensus was that we had a long trek ahead of ourselves. With our goal fixated on making some late summer turns and unclear on how much work we would have to put in to make that happen, the group consensus was to shed weight in any way possible so that we could move quickly. This meant things like the axe and crampons, which we had all so diligently remembered to pack, were left at the car.

So off we went, into the woods, making excellent time with our considerably lighter-than-expected packs. It only took us about two hours to clear the forest and get on to Cougar Divide. With Mt Baker looming over us, and what was left of the snowpack in view, we were able to begin to plot our line.

There was a lower patch of snow that would be easy enough to make a few turns on.  But we had make much better time than we had anticipated and the lure of Hadley peak and making turns on the glacier was just too tempting to pass up. We plotted a tentative line that would take us up a steep narrow chute then a mellow skin across the glacier and up to the ridge. We all agreed that the chute was the crux and we were all starting to kick ourselves for leaving the crampons behind.

Feeling fairly confident, albeit hesitant, we took off eager to see how far we could get. Acknowledging that we were ill prepared for the adventure we were setting off on, we agreed to not push too hard. The sun-cups were solid ice. About the only good news was the sun-cups were large enough that they served as pretty solid footing, even in the steep chute. About halfway up the chute, taking refuge from the ice by scrambling up rock, I kicked loose a boulder. It was about the size of a small microwave (yes, I just looked around to find the closest object of approximately the right size), and headed straight towards Chris. He was able to dive out of the way at the last second, the flying microwave missing him by mere inches.

At the top of the chute, we re-evaluated our situation, opting to push on, up the glacier, traversing between two crevasses. While the slope was not terrible steep, the icy sun cups made the traverse absolutely terrifying. I struggled to remember why the extra couple pounds seemed like such a big deal (especially when I still carried my camera).

We eventually made it up to the top of the ridge, stopping somewhere around 7,000’ with Mt Baker right in our face.  

 

The ride down was exactly how we anticipated it would be. Which is to say, not great. The sun never really softened anything up, but turns are turns and this was early October in the sun. I am not going to complain. It was much more than I had hoped for. 

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The Road Trip: Making Plans

October 11, 2012 | Posted in Uncategorized | By

I hate plans. I am terrible at making them. I am terrible at following them. So, I try my best to avoid planning whenever possible. Knowing that I was expecting the trip to last roughly 10 days, I decided it couldn’t hurt to at least attempt to formulate a plan.  So, I sat down and worked out an elaborate plan. It involved rallying out to Yellowstone, then cruising up to Flathead Lake, working for a couple of days, then exploring Glacier for a few days before returning home.

Almost as if the world was conspiring against me, my plans all fell apart at the last minute. My friend in Yellowstone was going to be out of town and Ethan likewise, was not going to be at his house on Flathead Lake as expected.

It was two days before I had intended on setting out and my trip was unraveling. Determined to make something happen, I got a little desperate. I pulled up Google maps and started looking around, to see where I could get to – no real destination in mind. I found myself poking around in Canada. Torn between fascination with what Canada had to offer, and dissuaded by the desire to keep things simple. The mere fact that I would have to find (yes…I keep it in a safe place and generally know whereit is, collecting dust) and carry my passport adds a layer of complexity.

There were three aspects that were appealing and ultimately helped me make a decision. First, I was able to plot a route that led me through towns with a plethora of cafes. One requirement for the trip was that I needed to get work done. Most of the work I could do offline, but I knew that I would eventually run in to issues that required Internet access. In fact, driving through Canada was about the only route I could find that allowed me to reach new destinations each day and have time to work for a few hours. Second, wow… Canada is rich in national parks. I had been to precisely none of the parks and they all looked and sounded spectacular. Third, Glacier. Most of you assume I am talking about the Glacier National Park/Waterton National Park that crosses from Montana into Canada. Did you know that Canada has another Glacier National Park? Did you also know that it sits right on top of Rogers Pass, aka a mecca for backcountry skiing?

I think it was the third fact that was most appealing… mainly because my trip now had a theme. I had been to neither Glacier National Parks, but was determined to experience both and make a completely subjective and biased opinion of which is better.

And with that, I threw my tent, backpack, a few clothes, and an assortment of food in my car and took off.

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