July 12, 2012

Fourth Time's a Charm

I had previously tried to climb Mt. Rainier on three occasions: twice via Liberty Ridge on the north side of the mountain and once via the Emmons Glacier on the east side.  For the last several weeks I've had an itch to try and ski off of the summit, with the primary goal of actually making it there.  With shitty weather up until the 4th of July, last weekend was the first weekend suitable for such an attempt.

I sent out an email and quickly rounded up Brian and Rodrigo as climbing partners.  Ava decided to join us the evening before we left, making us a group of four.  I had decided to attempt the Emmons Glacier route because I was most familiar with it and it's also the least technical route on the mountain, making it more suitable for a less harrowing ski descent.

Who doesn't love sunrises at 12,500 ft?

The route ascends 10,000 vertical feet in about 8.5 miles.  Our plan was to head up to Camp Schurman (picking off about half of the elevation gain) on Saturday and summit and return to the car on Sunday.  Two solid days in a row, but manageable provided the altitude didn't twist our sea-level softened lungs up too bad.

We arrived at the Sunrise Ranger Station about 10 minutes before they opened (second group in line), and were the last group to receive a permit to camp at Camp Schurman.  Apparently the rest of Seattle was waiting for the first nice weekend of the year as well.

We may have put the skis on a little too early

With full packs on plus skis on our backs, we headed for Schurman.  About four miles later, at Glacier Basin, we were able to put our skis on and skin the rest of the way.  We intentionally maintained a leisurely pace the entire day to maintain energy for the following day.  Even so, we arrived at camp by 3:00, leaving plenty of time to melt snow, eat, and hydrate before going to bed.  Ava had developed a headache on the way up which worsened after we got to camp.  Rest, food, water, and Diamox eventually reversed this, but we all agreed it would be best if she didn't go up further.

Camp Schurman

That evening I chatted with the rangers staffing Camp Schurman about this ski conditions, what to expect, and when would be the best time to descend.  They recommended descending quite late (3pm) to allow as much of the ice up high to soften as possible.  I was also informed of the one crux of the route, a dicey little snow bridge that was about to melt out in awkward terrain with crevasses all around.  This would turn out to be the one and only place a skier would need to rope up on the descent.  As Brian and Rodrigo would not be bringing skis with them, I would be skiing alone and have no one to rope up with when I arrived at the crux unless I waited for them.  This, combined with the recommended late descent, made me decide to stash my skis just below the suspect snow bridge at about 11,700 ft.  I felt more relieved at going to bed with a concrete plan than disappointed about giving up on my hopes of a summit ski descent.

Brian, Rodrigo, and I got up at 1am and were moving up the mountain about 40 minutes later.  By the time we started, there was a pretty steady stream of headlamps from camp (9,500 ft) up to about 12,000 ft.  With Brian in the lead, we moved steadily up the lower part of the mountain, passing several slower groups as we went.  When we stashed my skis below the snow bridge at about 11,700 ft, we encountered a bottleneck that had been developing for some time.  We killed about 45 minutes here, which was frustrating but provided a situation where all we could do was eat and drink.  This extra eating and drinking came in handy as the day progressed.

While one would definitely want to be roped up for it, the bridge turned out to not be as bad as advertised.  The rest of the way to the top was sustained in steepness and littered with other climbers, all of whom seemed to be moving painfully slowly.  In several more places we were forced to wait as groups stopped in inconvenient spots for long periods of time - more eating and drinking.

Nearly the whole day the wind had been quite gusty, with frequent 25 to 30 mph gusts.  As we neared the top, we got reports from descending parties that the wind on the summit was horrendous.  After reaching the top of several false summits, we gained what seemed to be another one, only this time the wind was no longer gusting, it had turned into a steady 35 mph headwind.  A short walk through this wind on the rocky ridge of the crater rim brought us to the true summit at 14,410 ft.  We took a few quick pictures before retreating back to the leeward side of the mountain.

Brian, Joji, and Rodrigo at 14,410 ft in Washington
(I'm not mad, my face is just numb from walking into the wind so I couldn't control it)

Descending as a rope team always seems to take longer than it needs to, and this day was no exception.  We eventually made it back to the crux snow bridge and attempted to find an alternate passage.  An alternate passage we found, but it was arguably just as sketchy while being more technical - oh well.  After the bridge, Brian and Rodrigo dropped me off at my skis and continued descending.  I radioed Ava back at camp to inform her that I was going to start skiing, and she proceeded to take some video with the camera.  Unfortunately, I'm not visible in most of these because, although in a direct line of sight, I was too far away.  I descended the 2,200 vertical feet in about 5 minutes and was happy to rest in camp for a bit before continuing our descent.

Rodrigo and Brian showed up in camp about 25 minutes later looking like hell.  Apparently the sticky snow I had skied on the last 1,000 ft had been a postholing nightmare for the two of them, sapping the last of their energy.  Thankfully, Ava was an amazing camp host and already had lots of snow melted for water and was in the process of cooking up some pasta.  We rested, ate, and hydrated in camp for about two hours before continuing our descent.

Skiing down the Inter Glacier

The ski down from camp started out treacherously sticky, but counter-intuitively got better as we went down.  The Inter Glacier turns out to be a super fun, sustained pitch to ski even with a full pack.  Once back at Glacier Basin, we put the skis back on the packs, Ava and I switched to running shoes, and we hiked the last few miles back to the car.


While nothing on the route was difficult, it did prove to be a beast of a hike with plenty of elevation gain.  I'm psyched to have made it to the top and  super happy with how well my body handled the altitude and the back-to-back long days.  Now it's time for some warm, sunny rock climbing.

July 02, 2012

Enchantment Traverse: Medium and Light Style

With mediocre weekend weather in store once again, Ava and I decided it would be a good weekend for a long hike.  We devised a plan to hike through the Enchantments in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness in a day, intent on going fast and light.  This is a more or less horseshoe shaped traverse, starting and finishing at two different trailheads about 8 miles apart.  The idea was to run/hike from the Snow Lake trailhead to the Colchuck Lake trailhead via the glorious Enchantment Traverse,and hitchhike back to the Snow Lake trailhead.  Reliable reports of the distance and elevation gain for the route were hard to come by.  My current best estimate is about 18-19 miles with 6,700 feet of elevation gain.

About 2 minutes into our run, we were forced to admit that hiking was a more appropriate mode of travel given the incline of the trail, our fitness level, and the long day ahead.  So, 2 minutes into the day we set a standard of overestimating our abilities and underestimating our adventure, which would last for the next 9 hours.

For the first several hours, we walked, ate, and drank in a repeating fashion as we ascended deeper and higher into the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.  As we neared what we thought was the halfway point, we were continuously assessing our decision to commit to the traverse or turn around and retrace our steps.  The main unknown in our decision centered around the fact that the highest point on the route, Asgard Pass at about 7,800 feet, would meet us at about mile 12.  Most of the trail was snow free, but we were unsure of how much snow the pass would hold and how steep of snow slopes we would have to travel on in our running shoes without ice axes.

With no shortage of people scattered about this popular wilderness destination, we stopped to ask people with a trustworthy appearance about the conditions on Asgard Pass.  Descriptions ranged from, "It's really steep and we heard you need spikes," to "It's not bad.  You should just go for it, but leave now because it's getting late and it will take you a while".

I failed to mention that we didn't leave the trailhead until 12:45, thinking we could optimistically complete the run/hike in 5 hours, maybe a couple more in a less optimistic, more realistic world.  I think it was about 6:45 when we were still 2 miles from the pass and asking backpackers what they knew.

One favorable report was all we needed.  Thankfully, that report came from a group of backpackers who had just come over Asgard Pass and left a nice trail of boot steps in the snow for us to follow.  Without their tracks in the snow, I'm sure we would have turned around as the navigation is less than straightforward up there and we were sans map and compass.

So, we kept walking, drinking, and eating, but now with a slightly higher degree of urgency.  We arrived at the top of the pass to be pleasantly surprised by finding the other side almost completely free of snow.  However, the reports of steepness were not exaggerated.  We descended about 2000 ft in the next mile, at which point we reached Colchuck Lake and the trail became much flatter and well-maintained.  We actually did run some of the last few miles to the trailhead, partly motivated by the waning light.

We arrived at the trailhead at 9:45, taking exactly 9 hours to complete the traverse.  Since it took us much longer than anticipated, our hitchhiking plan more or less turned to shit.  I'm sure many vehicles were travelling the gravel side road to and from the trailhead about 2 hours earlier, but that didn't do us much good.  So, we kept walking.

About 3 or 4 miles later, the first two vehicles travelling our direction approached.  The first drove by without slowing, but the second stopped and happily gave two smelly hitchhikers a much appreciated ride.

I think we traveled 22 miles in total, running for about 1.5 of those.  Despite our underestimation of our objective, we had a great day out and felt surprisingly good at the end.  Given the rugged nature of large sections of the trail, I don't feel too bad about our final time, even though it was much slower than expected.  While I can't call our speed fast, it also wasn't slow.  And since we didn't take very much with us, thereby travelling very light, I'm quite comfortable referring to our style as "medium and light".  I hope we inspire others to partake in this new offshoot style of backcountry travel.  It maintains many of the benefits of fast and light while proving to be much more pleasant and enjoyable.