August 19, 2012

Prusik Peak - West Ridge (P in a D)

Fed up with the prospects of trying to obtain a permit to camp in the Enchantments area of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, we decided to climb the West Ridge of Prusik Peak in a day (or P in a D).  In this instance, "we" refers to Kris, Evan, Ava, and me.  Prusik is typically climbed in two days as the approach is about 10 miles and gains close to 5,000 ft in elevation.

After spending Friday night at the Stuart Lake trailhead, we left at 4am.  We made it to Colchuck Lake in two hours.  Two hours after that, we arrived at the top of Aasgard Pass.  Aasgard gets a bad rap because the trail gains 2,200 feet of elevation in 0.8 miles, but it really didn't seem that bad.  The trail is easy to follow and in good condition considering the terrain it ascends.

Beautiful views in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness

Seems I've been seeing a lot of these guys lately
Once over Aasgard Pass, you enter the upper Enchantment Basin, which is much less steep than the other side of the pass.  We descended about 700 feet on the other side of the pass before climbing back up to Prusik Pass and the start of the technical climbing.

Evan, Kris, and Ava about 9.5 miles into the approach.  Prusik Peak in the distance.
Six hours after we started (10am), we were roped up and climbing.  Kris and Evan climbed as a team, and Ava and I climbed as a team.  Since the terrain was relatively easy as far as 5th class climbing goes, we "simul" climbed.  And by "simul", I mean that we pitched out the climbing but basically climbed side-by-side (Kris and I lead close together and Evan and Ava followed close together).

Starting out on the final pitch
After 5 pitches of climbing, we all arrived at the summit in fantastic spirits.  The weather was beautiful and not as overwhelmingly hot as we thought it was going to be.  I won't do a pitch-by-pitch, but suffice it to say that the climbing involved a bit of crack climbing, some face climbing, a little slab climbing, a chimney, and a super positive and fun lieback on a flake - all in only 5 pitches on fantastic rock in a picturesque, alpine setting.  We also didn't see anyone else on route, which we all found surprising given the popularity of the route.

High-spirited summit shot
After 4 single-rope rappels down the north side, we traversed back to where we started climbing on the west ridge and started retracing our steps.

Prusik Peak from the southwest (the West Ridge route follows the left skyline, often just off the crest on the opposite side)
We stopped for a short time at one of the many lakes in order to refill our water vessels and splash around.   Other than this, it was pretty much all business getting back to the car.  Fifteen hours and 20 miles after we started, we arrived back at the Stuart Lake Trailhead and the car.  We proceeded to drive into Leavenworth for a much-earned pizza feed before Mario Andretti . . . no, Bowser. . . wait, I mean Kris, drove us home to Seattle by 11:30 pm.

Although a long day, it was so enjoyable and beautiful it seemed to fly by.  There's really not much that can compare with an outing like this with great weather and even better company.

August 12, 2012

Joj-cel the Scrambler with Shoes On

If you don't get the title reference, please watch both of these:

Marcel the Shell with Shoes On (One)
Marcel the Shell with Shoes On (Two)

Now that we're all on the same page, I should inform you that the title is barely relevant.  During a recent NOLS rock camp in Leavenworth, I blew out my beloved pair of approach shoes (hiking shoes with sticky climbing shoe rubber, to the lay person).  I took Friday off since I have to work this weekend, so I planned a last-minute scramble, then realized I didn't have any approach shoes.  So I did what anyone else would do and left work at lunch time on Thursday to buy a new pair at REI.  I ended up buying the only pair they had in my size, which turned out to be a La Sportiva Boulder X.

The Plan: Climb a whole bunch of peaks in the Tatoosh Range, immediately south of and very close to Mt. Rainier.

Motivation: Perfect weather forecast, fun scrambling on "high quality choss" (if that's a thing), and spectacular views.


I started up the Pinnacle Peak trail at about 0730 and was quickly at the saddle between Plummer Peak and Pinnacle Peak.  I hung my pack in a tree and jogged up to the summit of Plummer and back.  Plummer was the least technical, so I felt good leaving my pack which contained, a rope, harness, and minimal amount of gear in case I needed to build an anchor.

Marcel the marmot with no shoes on
Back at the saddle, I didn't have far to go before the first of many "business ends" of the traverse began.  I went up the south face of Pinnacle on some loose-ish but never very steep rock.  From the top, I decided to explore the possibility of descending the east ridge.  I'd heard the east ridge was sporting to ascend, so I reasoned it would be at least as sporting to descend.  I was prepared to back off and descend the way I came up, but it never got very tricky, albeit exposed in places.

The views were okay
The distance from the base of Pinnacle's east ridge to The Castle's south face was negligible, so I was quickly scrambling back up more high quality choss.  My recollection of The Castle is that there were some steeper low 5th class moves, but the exposure was much less than on Pinnacle, making for some very enjoyable scrambling.

Pinnacle Peak (from The Castle)
I descended Castle using a slight variation from my ascent route.  My overall impression is that there are a multitude of possible lines on the south side of The Castle, all of which are equally difficult on similar and decent rock.

The Castle was separated from Unicorn Peak by a 2.5 mile-long ridge with two significant and unnamed peaks between them.  The first was an easy scramble up to point 6,254 feet, followed by a gradual descent and traverse across a beautiful, flat ridge covered in wild flowers.  Then I was going up again.

Throughout the day, the views failed to deteriorate

From a distance, the northwest aspect of Steepchoss Peak (this is what I'm calling the peak immediately west of Unicorn Peak, separated only by a single, prominent saddle) appeared rather intimidating.  I told myself that it only looked that way because I was looking straight at it, and that in reality is probably wasn't as steep as it looked from my vantage point.  So, with rope and harness at the ready for a possible bail, I started up old Steepchoss.  The first half of the ascent went great, and I was totally right about it not being as steep as it looked.  A little over half way up, there was a bit of a headwall of near vertical rock for about 30 feet.  I spent a bit of time wandering around looking for a reasonable way up.  I eventually found an easy but exposed weakness in the rock which led to easier ground and eventually the summit.

Handsome goat at the base of the Unicorn horn
The east side of Steepchoss was less steep but more chossy, so I decided to keep the name.  I carefully descended to the saddle from where Ava and I had skied down less than two months earlier.  From here, I knew the route to Unicorn, although it was a bit different in places with substantially less snow.

Optical illusion: the namesake horn on Unicorn Peak is not actually the same size as Mt. Rainier
When I got in view of the horn on Unicorn Peak, I heard what I thought was the first person I'd encountered all day.  I was wrong.  It was a goat.  Like a good, respectable goat, he kept his distance and posed for some photos.

Joji: Hey goat, why don't you be a little more photogenic.
Goat: Sure!  I'll just go skyline myself and turn broadside.
After the goat skittered across a snow patch and out of view, I continued to the horn and ascended the 4th class east ridge.  It felt a little 5th-classy, but that could have been due to the exposure to the north.  While the climbing is less interesting than the 5.6 south side of the horn, the view and position are superior.  Since this was the last summit of the day, it felt like summit of the trip (it also happens to be this highest point in the Tatoosh), so I took some obligatory summit photos.

On top of Unicorn Peak with the views still not sucking (photo courtesy of Tripod)
The adventure was not over.  I didn't feel good about downclimbing the way I came up, so I pulled out the rope for the first and only time of the trip and rappelled the south face.  From the base of the horn, scrambling down to the saddle (center of the photo below) was easy.  At the saddle I encountered my first snow of the trip.  It was sufficiently soft at the top to heel plunge, but as the angle steepened the north face phenomenon took over and the snow firmed up.  It firmed up to the point that I wish I had two things: crampons and boots that were compatible with them.  I was, however, minimally prepared for such conditions with an axe.

. . . and that's why they call it "Unicorn", like an air-breathing narwhal with hooves.  Steepchoss Peak is on the right.
The descent was slow for a couple hundred feet as I kicked steps and braced with the axe, eventually choosing hideous scree over more painstaking step kicking.  I made up some of the lost time with some top notch boot skiing a little while later.

I made it down to snow lake and jumped in just as soon as I could take my shoes off, temporarily making a lie of this post title.  The yelling idiots I encountered at Snow Lake successfully reminded me that I was in a National Park.  I owe them one for breaking me free from my delusions of wilderness adventure, possible preventing catastrophe as trip over a paved road and get hit by a car a mile down the trail.  Once I made it to the road it was an easy 2 mile walk back to my car.

I completed the trip in 7 hours and had a great time moving through the mountains, alone but for the occasional critter.  I love my new shoes and thought they performed very well.  They seem to have all the advantages of my late pair of approach shoes with improvements in the areas of edging on rock and step kicking in snow.  This also happened to be Ava's and my negative first wedding anniversary, so it was nice to be alone for the day with my thoughts (seeing as she was off teaching a backpacking trip for the Y, this seemed like the next best option).