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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Mt Adams on a Whim

July 24, 2012 | Posted in Snowboarding | By

Upon returning from Yosemite, I was having a hard time focusing at work. I made it almost two days before my mind started to wander to what my next adventure should be. The weather was fantastic and it had been a few weeks since I had last snowboarded. It was Wednesday afternoon when it hit me, Mt Adams. I had been talking about climbing Adams for a while, and now seemed as good an idea as any. I shot off a few texts to friends, and before long I’d found someone interested in a last minute trip up the second highest mountain in Washington.

Finn, Tristan and I set off Friday afternoon, getting in to camp late at night. The campground was overflowing, mostly because the road in was still covered in snow and most people didn’t want to try dealing with getting through it. Finn wasn’t deterred by a little snow, so instead of trying to wedge our car into makeshift parking spots down the road, we found ourselves digging out his car so that we could get it into an open spot while narrowly avoiding sliding into a tree.  The good news was our campsite was right at the trailhead.

We woke up early and got started bright and early (well, 6:45 seems early to me). We hiked through off-and-on snow for nearly half an hour before the trail turned to solid snow and we could switch to skins. From there, it was a long, slow slog up to the summit. Adams, like the other volcanoes in Washington, is just an endless snowfield of nearly a constant pitch. It makes for a thrilling climb as the scenery stays amazingly constant the entire way to the top, or at least to the false summit.

We knew there was a chance of adverse weather and had already encountered brief showers near the beginning of our climb. Joking around, Tristan informed us, “you know what to do if you start to feel tingle-y right?” We looked at him curiously, “what do you mean?” Tristan continued, “Well, when your are about to get struck by lightning, you will build up with static electricity. Your supposed to kick off your skis, throw your poles, and make yourself as small as possible on the ground.”

I looked at him laughing, “Well that sucks for me, I can’t kick my skis off nearly as fast as you.” While the thought of lightning was a possibility, we clearly weren’t too concerned about it. Besides, as the forecast we briefly glanced at had said, after the first drizzle, the clouds were starting to part.

The false summit stays looming above nearly the entire hike. We made good time to Lunch Counter, where we stopped and each enjoyed a section of Finn’s giant Safeway sandwich. (Who carries a pound of sandwich up a mountain anyways?) It was a nice supplement to Tristan and my Euro-style lunch of bread, salami, and cheese.

Unsurprisingly, the false summit was still a long ways off. After lunch, we continued our slog to the summit. We were greeted with some welcome weather. Slowly but surely, we were making progress. The closer we got to the false summit, the harder the climb got. It had already been a long day, and as we were hitting the 10,000’ mark the elevation was starting to become noticeable.

Unfortunately, by the time I dragged myself to the top of the false summit, I caught a fleeting glance of the true summit off in the distance before the clouds rolled in and visibility was reduced to no more than 20’. We took advantage of the weather to take a break and discuss our plan. I was pretty well exhausted and the weather was not cooperating. We had reached the Southwest Chutes, and I was the only one in our group who had never summited. Thankfully, Finn pushed that it was worth it, and we had already come so far. The cloud pushed through and we had a nice break. There was the summit, looking much larger and further away than I was really hoping.

Despite the disheartening size of the final push to the summit, we set off. Not long after we began climbing an ominously dark cloud appeared around the corner. We started hearing the feint roll of thunder coming from the cloud. I couldn’t help but think back to what Tristan had told us earlier. At least now I knew what to try to do in case of impending lightning strike. We stopped to figure out the best course of action. We were about level with the cloud, and it looked like it was heading straight over the false summit.

We really didn’t want to spend any more time around the storm cloud than we had to. We decided the best course of action was to just keep pushing on, getting above the cloud as far away as quick as possible. It was much closer to lightning than I ever really desired. Thankfully, the cloud passed and we were able to enjoy the summit for a few minutes. I was surprised from the top how small Rainier looked in the distance. From any other viewpoint, Rainier looks like a monolith rising above all other peaks in the area. From Adams, Rainier seemed dwarfed in size and no larger than the peak we were currently standing on.

As we got ready for the descent, another ominous cloud rolled in. We decided to hurry. After a brief hike back to the false summit, we were at the top of the Southwest Cutes. 3000’ of continuous, steep corn skiing. I looked over at Finn and Tristan and let them know I would see them at the bottom. I was exhausted, but adrenaline helped fuel me into making turns from top to bottom. The snow was still smooth and the sun had warmed it up nicely. I can say without a doubt that those were the best turns I have ever made in July.

Once we all made it down the chutes, we navigated our way down the bottom of the snowfield, getting in a few more good turns as we went. Eventually we hit the trail back, and began the long traverse back to camp. Finally, we made it back at around 6pm. With a car full of beer, fried chicken, pasta, and various other snacks, we opted to enjoy the evening, spend the night and wake up early Sunday to drive home.

All-in-all, not a bad day. Over 7000’ climbed, over 3000’ snowboarded down, and some interesting weather. 

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Defining Life Moments

June 10, 2012 | Posted in Uncategorized | By

It isn’t often that I do something that I consider “defining life moment”. It is even less common that I can identify these fleeting moments while they are happening. Most of the time, I do not realize a moment was in some way life-shaping until well after the moment has passed. These realizations hit after my life has changed and I am reflecting on what spurred the change.

This moment was a rare exception.
While I was fully immersed in what I can easily describe as the most physically and mentally challenging experience of my life, I had a brief instant of clarity that enabled me to see just what I am capable of, shattering previous notions of my own limitations. It was in this instant that I acknowledged this experience, a pursuit of adventure, was the most challenging thing I had ever accomplished. In the same moment I realized that it was also a gateway, the tip of the iceberg if you will, for more challenging forays into the mountains. I have been knocking on the door to a world that was intriguing yet unfamiliar and it has finally flung wide open. Stepping inside is both awe-inspiring and terrifying.

Enough with the metaphors, when I explain this “defining life moment” the sensation I felt should become clear.
It happened over Memorial Day weekend, on Sunday morning as I had just stopped to wait for my partner, ice axe still in-hand, after having made a handful of turns off of the summit of Eldorado Peak. Sitting at just over 8,800ft Eldorado was by no means the highest place I had snowboarded, but it was the tallest mountain (and only true non-volcanic mountain) I have summited. It was also the first moderately technical climb I have ever attempted. Cutting a shelf into the knife-edge ridge so that I had a place to stand and put on my splitboard, then dropping onto the face of the mountain from the highest point possible, was an exhilarating experience to say the least.

I am getting ahead of myself. What made this trip so spectacular was not merely the summit, but the approach as well. True to form, I found my partner on TAY Thursday evening, just two days before the trip. I was able to borrow and ice axe and crampons from my buddy, and Kevin agreed to teach me how to use them on the approach. We left Seattle around 5 am on Saturday so that we could get an early start. Kevin planned this trip, a non-standard approach to Eldorado. Instead of taking the typical climbers trail that ascends almost directly up Eldorado’s east face from the valley floor, we started well to the west of Eldorado in the Hidden Lakes area. After a quick skin up the logging road, and a brief jaunt bootpacking through the woods, we were quickly past the dense growth and were skinning up a large open snowfield.

Skinning up the hill, I stumbled into a little luck. Someone had dropped a pair of crampons in the snow. The way the snow had melted out, the looked as if the had been there for quite some time. I did a quick search of the area to make sure there was nothing else (or no-one) left buried in the snow and, while still puzzled, threw the crampons on my pack pretty stoked about my find and of course the extra weight dangling from my pack.

We made it up to the saddle in the Hidden Lakes area in good time. From the saddle, I could see up the ridge to Hidden Lakes. What was surely a fun and rewarding tour. This was not our intention. We instead had our eyes fixated to the east, at Eldorado Peak that was standing prominently in the distance. As Kevin promised, our approach was indeed much longer but offered views that were unparalleled. The jagged and exposed west face of Eldorado looked nearly insurmountable (at least given my abilities) and the winding ridgelines we intended to traverse seemed to meander endlessly into the distance.

However, we pressed on making good time, stopping shortly for a lesson in self-arrest on a steep face with low consequences. I should point out that the sun was out in full force. It was an absolutely beautiful day, though the heat was not making the travel any easier. The ridgeline varied from mellow and flat to flip-flopping sharp ridges forcing us to switch between skinning and boot pack numerous times. There were ups and downs, averaging out to a steady climb in elevation. As the day wore on, the traversing was starting to take its toll.

The wet, heavy snow did not make the going any easier. But we pressed on. Finally, around 4 pm we had finished most of the traversing. We had just descended a bowl below the Triad, a distinguishable set of three points nestled together on the ridge, and climbed up a chute to the top of a spine that was separating us from the east snowfield on Eldorado. For those of you keeping track, yes that means we wrapped a fair ways around the mountain from west to east. Finding a patch of exposed rock, Kevin and I treated ourselves to a little nap before making our final approach to camp up on Eldorado glacier (the largest glacier in the cascades not attached to a volcano). It was at this point, laying on a rock under the sun that reality began to set in. We had been hiking for nearly 8 hours with a minimal net amount of elevation gain. I was tired. That meant the car was nearly 8 hours away and there was no way of going back. Not in the state that either Kevin or I was in. We were past the point of return and the only thing to do was press on to camp, make dinner, try to sleep and hope that we would have enough energy the next day.

After our nap, Kevin and I felt slightly refreshed. Our bodies actually had a chance to process some of the calories we had consumed and were energized by the sight of our destination. We had a fun couple of turns from our napping spot to a safe point on the snowfield to start our final ascent to camp. As vast snowfields often are, the distance to the top was regrettably further than either Kevin or I anticipated. After a seemingly endless climb, we finally reach the glacier around 7:30.

We met up with a couple of Kevin’s friends who had made the standard Eldorado approach. For what it is worth, it took them two days to get to the glacier from the standard route, granted they were not skinning so their progress was much slower. Our evening consisted of building camp, cooking food, and an arsenal of DSLR’s snapping shots (three cameras for the four of us) of our 360 panoramic views. Amidst the gusts of wind, snow, and hitting the ski that was propping up our makeshift 4-man circus tent, I think I managed a couple hours of sleep.

To my surprise, I woke up feeling refreshed and not nearly as sore as I was expecting. Kevin and I made the decision to follow the standard route off of Eldorado, virtually straight down to the valley floor. Knowing this, Kevin and I decided we had enough energy left to make the final push to the summit.

In all fairness, this final ascent was fueled mostly by adrenaline for me, which I found works way better than the cliff bars I was relying on the day before. Not to mentioned we left all of our overnight gear below us on the glacier. The actual summit was better than we were expecting. The recent snow made the ridge up to the peak soft enough to kick in a nice boot pack. As mentioned before, the euphoric feeling upon getting to the summit was un-paralleled. In the context of the previous days approach, reaching the summit was such an incredible sense of accomplishment.

After snapping a myriad of pictures (none of which turned out particularly well in my opinion) we began the descent. Riding off of the summit was a thrill. You feel like you are standing on top of the world and dropping in to your line is more satisfying than any rollercoaster I have ever been on.

We had a solid 4-5,000 feet of snow to ride down, broken up by an occasional pesky uphill. While very wet and reactive, Kevin and I both got in some fantastic corn skiing.

When the snow ended, our journey wasn’t quite over. We had to down-climb a boulder field that was absolutely miserably. In any context it was not an easy route to follow, having to navigate through knee to shoulder high boulders is never fun. When you throw an overnight pack with skis sticking off the ends, it is downright terrifying. Just when you though you had cleared a boulder, a ski would catch, throwing your weight forward, causing you to hold your breath and praying that you can find somewhere to plant your foot to stop you from careening out of control down the hill.

The boulder field eventually cleared and the trail seemed to mellow out with each step. It was only a couple of hours before we were crossing a river on logs and were back at Kevin’s friend’s car.

This trip pushed my physical limits and showed me what I am capable of accomplishing. While I still have a long ways to go before I would consider myself a true mountaineer and I still have a lot of skills to learn, at the heart of this adventure, I began to discover the sheer power of will to truly push yourself. 

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