July 26, 2011

Corn Harvest: Shuking on Shuksan

After giving ourselves a day of rest following the arduous rafting trip, Ava and I decided ski season wasn't over and pointed the car north towards Mt. Shuksan.  We hoped to find remnants of epic spring (summer?) corn snow, and that's exactly what we found.

We approached to about 4,600 feet on the Sulfide Glacier route on Saturday evening, which put us at the lower extent of the good skiing.  We had just enough time to cook dinner and make water before going to bed at 8pm.

We got a 0330 start on Sunday morning and made good time skinning up the route.  We stopped for a hearty breakfast of cheese sandwich at the site of our camp three weeks earlier.

0430 breakfast at the site of our camp on our previous attempt
 Shortly after breakfast, as we continued on our way, we were fortunate to watch a shuking awesome sunrise that seemed to last for an hour.  For once, it seemed that Earl, the God of Weather, would smile upon us.

Sulfide Glacier and the Summit Pyramid at Sunrise
 We roped up upon reaching the glacier, which hardly seemed necessary given the complete lack of visible crevasses along the west edge of the glacier.  The route, as anticipated, was very mellow allowing us to ski all the way from camp to the base of the summit pyramid.

Ava skinning up the Sulfide
The upper 400ish feet, known as the summit pyramid, is a steep block of rock and snow.  The easiest way up is via a 45 degree couloir on the south side.  By any other route on Shuksan, the summit pyramid is the last obstacle to reaching the summit.  Via the Sulfide Glacier route, it is the only one.  Staring at this couloir for a few hours while skiing toward it filled me with anticipation.

Two groups started before us, both of which camped higher on the mountain.  We passed the last of them as we reached the summit pyramid, so we were fortunate to be the first to the top that day and not have people kicking rocks and snow down on top of us as we ascended.  We were somewhat less fortunate on the way down.

Looking down, partway up the pyramid (Ava's down there somewhere below my boot and looks a little rockish)
 The final 50 feet required that we get on a rocky ridge as the snow had melted out.  This was exciting in ski boots with a complete lack of rock pro, but the several rappel anchors that we passed and a clever use of an ice axe jammed in a crack was sufficient.  We reached the 9,131 foot summit at 0830 and had it to ourselves for a few minutes.

Mt. Baker from the summit of Mt. Shuksan (the views were spectacular all the way up, but those from the top were hard to beat)
Hooray for summit shots! (not inspired by Craig W.)
We spent some time at the top and took our time down climbing the pyramid.  By the time we reached our skis at the base of it the snow had softened perfectly.  Turns out 1030 at 8,700 feet on Mt. Shuksan was equivalent to Corn O'Clock that day.

Oh, hey.  It's wild corn.
The first 1,500 vertical feet of skiing was perfect, smooth corn snow.  After that, the ride got a little bumpier as sun cups developed and the snow got softer and stickier.  Even so, the skiing was super fun!  I felt sorry for most everyone else on the mountain that day, as they did not have skis and would have to slog down several miles of perfectly good corn snow.

We made it back to the tent around 1300 and spent some time there eating and drinking before packing up and hiking the last few miles down to the car.

The Sulfide Glacier route has a reputation for a being a boring slog.  Without skis, I suppose this is mostly deserved.  However, the way we did it made for a fantastic ski mountaineering adventure involving a pleasant ski approach to the summit pyramid, glacier travel, 400 feet of fun and moderately technical terrain at the top, 4,000+ vertical feet of skiing, and beautiful weather all day long.  Shukcess!

Floatin' the Snake

Several months ago Jake drew a permit to raft the Snake River in Hell's Canyon.  Over the ensuing months he put together a great crew of 12 brave people willing to tackle the mild whitewater and endure the almost tropical weather while lazing around drinking beer.  The crew included many familiar faces from previous posts, including Molly and Phil, Kris and Mel, Jake and Al, and Ava and me among others.

Over the course of six days we floated about 80 miles from the Hell's Canyon Dam to Heller Bar.  With flows hovering around 20,000 cfs, the river was at its prime.

We had many key players with important roles.  Molly put together an amazing menu and grocery shopping list.  Al was instrumental in acquiring said food, knowing where things were packed in the boat, and generally making sure people didn't starve.  Phil manhandled the task of providing a music system as well as being our safety kayaker.  Jake performed countless necessary tasks including obtaining the permit and acquiring floating vessels and gear.  Most everyone else helped out by cooking and consuming all the edible and drinkable things we brought.  I lucked out by having my primary responsibility be to rig, row, and derig the gear boat every day.

We encountered the two biggest rapids of the trip on the first day.  After scouting the first one (Wild Sheep), our procession of vessels (kayak, 16' gear boat, kataraft, inflatable kayak (IK), and paddle boat) all went down in fine style.  Even the IK captained by Ava and Al managed to make it most of the way down before flipping.  During the scout, I picked out the biggest wave and managed to hit it straight on.  Not surprisingly, it was bigger than it looked from the bank and felt like we crashed the gear boat into a 12-foot wall of water - good fun, no carnage.

Boat ahead of us hitting the big wave in Wild Sheep Rapids
The second big rapid was more of a shitshow.  During the scout, we watched a couple of other rafts go down and it looked pretty straight forward.  Then we watched another raft go down without anyone in it.  After a triple take, I could no longer ignore the fact that it was my gear boat.  Apparently the half-assed job of tying it up was insufficient to defend against the wake created by the passing jet boats.  Phil and I ran down the trail back to our boats.  He hopped in his kayak and I on the kataraft as we raced after the gear boat which flipped upon entering Granite Rapid.  About a mile downstream we caught up with it.  Phil tied it to the kat and I struggled to drag the up-side-down beast to an eddy.  After it was all said and done, we only lost a bottle of rum and a table.

Camp life - really roughing it
Bumble Bee Ava
After that, everything went much smoother.  The remaining days were filled with floating, eating, drinking, swimming, and generally just having a grand and relaxing time, often in costume.  We saw lots of Oregon bighorn sheep, several osprey, a few deer and some turkeys.  Kris tried kayaking for the first time and discovered that learning to roll would be a good idea before he tries it again.

Thirsty Ram
This trip served only to increase my desire to own a gear boat and partake in trips like this on a regular basis. Boating is a great change of pace from the more physical nature of backpacking, climbing, and mountaineering.  I'll just have to be careful no to get fat and lazy if I start doing this more frequently.

Mel and Ava working hard to get the boat down river

July 10, 2011

Oops, I Failed Again

After failing to climb at Exfoliation Dome two weekends ago and failing to climb/ski Mt. Shuksan last weekend, I promptly failed to climb Mt. Rainier this weekend.  Oddly enough, each of these trips turned out to be quite enjoyable despite the fail trend.  I won't know what to do with myself if I actually manage to climb something one of these days.  I'll elaborate on my most recent failure since it is very fresh in my mind.

Dane and I have been planning to attempt a climb of Liberty Ridge on Mt. Rainier for a while, and we finally found a weekend where we were both free and the weather appeared like it was going to cooperate.  We left Seattle on Saturday morning with plans of approaching to Thumb Rock (10,800') about 1/3 of the way up the ridge that day and completing the climb on Sunday.  We both fully recognized the ambitious nature of this plan upon its inception.

Dane on St. Elmo's Pass
Beginning at the White River Campground at 7:45am Saturday, we made good time up to the Inter Glacier, over St. Elmo's Pass, across the Winthrop Glacier, and over to Curtis Ridge, where we arrived at 12:15pm.  From here our daily route plan entailed crossing the Carbon Glacier to the base of Liberty Ridge, and ascending Liberty Ridge for 1,800 feet to Thumb Rock.

The North Face of Mt. Rainier and the Carbon Glacier - Liberty Ridge cuts straight down the middle
From our vantage point on Curtis Ridge, a typical camping spot for a 3-day ascent, we could see that the lower part of the ridge was very melted out.  We ruled out trying to scramble up steep, rotten rock, which made the most reasonable option to ascend the snow slopes on the climber's right side of the ridge directly to Thumb Rock.  With heavy rockfall guarding the base of the ridge during the heat of the day, we decided to wait until early the following day and alter our plans to summit from lower down.

Close up of Liberty Ridge, all 5,000 vertical feet of it
Before going to bed that night, we heard the Liberty Cap glacier calve twice.  This is essentially an 500-foot wall of ice breaking off in pieces and cascading down several thousand feet to the Carbon Glacier.  The route we would need to take to reach the snow slope leading to Thumb Rock, as we both knew all too well, would cause us to travel precariously close to the run-out zone of said ice fall.  We decided to get up early and give it a go.

We started crossing the Carbon Glacier at 12:45am.  About two hours later, aided by footprints from another party, we reached the area near the base of the snow slope we were aiming for.  As we predicted, large crevasses barred access from the glacier to the ridge.  The only option was for us to traverse far to the right, around the crevasse and over obvious debris from the glacier calving activities observed the previous night.  We were already slightly exposed to this danger and moving right would just make it worse.  The odds of the glacier calving while we were under it were low, but the consequences were of the highest degree.  Not wanting to spend time deliberating while exposed to this threat, Dane, who was in the lead at that point, made an executive to decision to initiate a hasty retreat.

At 3:30am we were back at our previous campsite, having had a nice midnight jaunt across the Carbon Glacier and back.  I don't think I've ever been on a large glacier in the middle of the night before, and found this experience quite fun/eerie/surreal.  We considered traversing back to the Emmons Glacier and summiting via this easier and less committing route, but ultimately decided that this would make for a very long day with disproportionate rewards.  So we re-set-up camp and went back to bed.  Starting about 9am we retraced our route from the previous day back to the trailhead.

Despite reaching a high point a vertical mile below the summit, we still obtained fantastic views, got lots of exercise (ascended about 5,000 vertical feet with full packs and covered about 14 miles), and came back safely.  It sure beat watching TV all weekend.  I'm excited to try this again next season, earlier in the year when the lower ridge is snow covered and the objective hazards significantly reduced.