We all have to turn around on some hikes and climbs, that’s just life. You underestimated time or overestimated your speed, or conditions were worse than expected, or weather took a turn for the worse or the sun heated those avvy slopes a little too much. Or maybe there was just too much horse poop and spiderwebs and you said fuck it and bailed. Wait, who did that?
It wasn’t me ok, it was me, shut up.
- Distance: ~6 miles round trip
- Elevation Gain: 3700ft
- Weather: 50’s and sunny
- Commute from Seattle: 1:30
- Did I Trip (/slip/posthole): The real question is “what’s the farthest you got without tripping” and the answer is “three steps.”
We met at Sultan Bakery at 7. I rushed everyone out knowing we were in for a 10+ hour day, and we got started from the trailhead at 9:15am, a much later start than in my dream world. Everything in my dream world starts at like 5am because I’m too impatient and don’t like waiting for life to happen. “Does anyone have a blue bag?” Kacie asked. I had a stash of them in my car, with some Immodium as the alternative. Pick your favorite!
The trail starts on the abandoned road behind the outhouse at the trailhead. Go down the road a few hundred feet, and you’ll see the trail heading straight up the slope to the right where a small creek crosses the road. It’s marked with a large cairn that looks just like a large pile of rocks. I honestly didn’t notice it until the way down, but the orange blazes were a good hint.
We started up the steep slope, and 10 feet up, Kacie says “Wait. I can’t find my water.” Uh, okay. “Is it because you forgot your water?” We laughed. “No, I filled it I swear!” She never did find her water, only an empty camelback, which she filled up in the small stream. The water will forever be a mystery. It wasn’t all over my trunk, at least. I think she forgot it.
The trail goes up, and up, and up. We hit snow almost immediately. There are a few fixed lines through some scrambly sections, but none felt necessary and they’re looking a little old so test them well before use. We did use one on the way down above what was a legitimate class 3 scramble move, covered in ice and moss and running water. Brutal combo.
The trail up to the ridge is very well blazed already with orange tape, which was helpful. But the gist is “head straight up, stay to the right of the gulley, drop into the gulley for the last few hundred vertical feet, and suddenly you’ll be on a ridge.” We had
some a shit-ton (is that metric?) of postholing, some root scrambling, some surprisingly legit rock scrambling, and plenty of crawling over and under downed trees. Simon took a chunk of ice to the head – the trees were shedding their snow and ice in the warm temperatures, and we all heard the thunk, followed by a string of expletives. I donned my hat for protection.
It was very slow going up to the ridge, but the terrain flattens out for maybe a half mile once you’re up there. The forest was gorgeous in the sun, and the ridge was very knifey for a forested ridge, which I thought was so neat. It was a winter wonderland, with the sun lighting up the moss on the trees and snow all over the ground. At this point I knew we didn’t have a shot at the summit especially if it got steep again (spoiler alert: it did), so I settled on a conservative 2pm turnaround. We’d see how close we could get, and reevaluate accordingly depending on conditions, speed, and how everyone was feeling.
Eventually you run into a cliff band along the ridge. My advice here is to drop juuuuust low enough to the right to avoid the cliffs. Don’t go lower than that. You’ll cross a gulley beneath the cliffs. Go straight across it with a slight upward trend. We went slightly down, and had to regain elevation, which sucked, especially in the powder. It’s amazing how long it takes to regain a measly 20ft of elevation in steep powdery conditions.
Like I mentioned, some masochistic part of me loves breaking trail in powder. It sounds like I wasn’t much help for anyone else, as Simon postholed through my kicked steps, and even some of his collapsed when Kacie and Cheryl came along. We fought for every step. To be fair, I don’t think I put my full body weight on many of those steps since if you use your poles as flotation devices it spreads out your body weight so you can skitter across some of the powder without falling through. That’s my favorite trick climbing steep powder now, ice axe be damned. With powder like that, it’s tough to fall far since you sink 2ft deep as soon as you land.
Well I’m in heaven minding my own business
struggling frolicking in powder and eyeing the blue sky ahead of me (you know when the blue sky gets lower, and lower, and you know you’re getting close to the ridge, and your excitement starts creeping up again since you have a tangible goal and fuck it you didn’t come this far for nothing) and I hear Simon shout behind me “Eve! 2pm!” Crap! I shouted back “I’m pretty sure I’m looking at the saddle! Let’s give it a few more minutes!” I picked up my pace (from .000001mph to .000002mph) and broke out along the ridge, looking up at Mt. Baring draped in dusty white snow and hoar frost, admiring the baby cornices along the ridge, and wary of the size and conditions of the avalanche gulley that was the next step.
I had anticipated the avvy gulley being in the shade (I had also expected to reach it much earlier in the day), and I had expected colder temperatures as freezing level was supposed to be below 4000ft. Instead, the slope was partially in sun, and was only going to receive more direct sunlight as the day progressed, and everything was melting around us in the warm air, as exhibited by the conflict between Simon’s thoroughly bruised skull and the light snow falling off the trees, which hurt. I also knew, given our slow pace down low, that realistically we’d need several more hours to get the whole team up to the summit. I figured I’d consult with everyone else, but I had a feeling we’d be calling it here. I am usually willing to push it if the team wants to, but I didn’t think anyone would.
I shouted back to the others, no response. I started to worry that Kacie and Cheryl were turning around, and I wanted everyone to see the views from the saddle. It made everything worth it, it was the icing on top of the cake that was our hilarious day. I gave them a few minutes and ran back down and shouted again. This time Simon responded, and they were all coming! Yay! I was too excited and antsy and had already taken a bunch of pictures, so I started trying to stomp the last 30 or so steps down extra good so they’d have an easy time getting to the top.
Breaking out onto the saddle, everyone was all smiles. We snapped pictures of everthing, Simon took 12 selfies with my camera, Kacie requested a photo of Cheryl taking a photo of Simon taking a photo of Kacie taking a selfie, and we broke out the plethora of pastries we had gotten at the bakery and jerky that Cheryl and Simon had brought. Delicious. And of course, we all agreed that we were not going any farther.
Turning around always sucks on some level. Naturally everyone wanted to summit, but we were all wary of the gulley, and I think everyone understood that we’d need hours to make it to the summit, and although we had appropriate gear to come down in the dark, no one wanted to. Would it be worth the effort to keep going, only to turn around halfway up the gulley, and risk the gulley sliding the entire time? No way, we’ll all be happier with a casual break here. What made my day is that no one cared. I’m sure there was some disappointment, but my biggest concern is that someone will be tired and crabby about how we had to fight through all the powder only to turn around, or that someone was miserable on the way up and didn’t voice it, or that I’m the only one having fun and everyone else is just following me because it was my idea and not actually enjoying it. But no, with these folks everyone was just thrilled to be there, proud of how far we had come, and cracking fart jokes and archer jokes and laughing at how miserable some of those lower slopes had been. And that’s how it always should be. So we sat in the sun, enjoyed the views, and played the “airplane or avalanche” game as we listened to peaks shed their snow all around us.
Clouds moved in as we sat, and after nearly an hour we decided it was time to head down. We followed our tracks most of the time with a few exceptions to save elevation (turned out we had been much much closer to the “standard” route than I thought on the way up). The way down went much faster until we were off the ridge. Getting from the ridge back to the road was possibly more difficult than going up. We could glissade the gulley for first few hundred feet, but eventually the snow was too thin. Then came the scrambles, covered in melting ice and snow, and the wet mossy tree roots, and the mud beneath an inch of snow. I slipped more times than I could count. Kacie took an axe to the face when she lost her footing downclimbing one of the scramble moves. I accidentally glissaded down a 15ft muddy stretch while everyone laughed, only to make the same mistake themselves. Ha!
Somehow, Kacie got her microspikes snagged on a tree on the way down. She sat there in defeat, silently staring off into the distance, unable to climb back up backwards, incapable of moving forward because, well, her microspikes were stuck on a small tree. We laughed, and took pictures, and then continued a casual conversation while Kacie sat there, still silent, still dejected. Until I finally couldn’t maintain conversation anymore because I was laughing too hard at Kacie sitting there, quietly waiting for help, while Simon and Cheryl talked so casually. Cheryl helped her get unstuck (“You’re loose!” Cheryl proclaimed, as Simon and I stood below hollering “HOW ARE WE NOT DOING PHRASING!?”), and we continued our hilarious downhill slog.
We made it back to the cars at 7:15 and went straight to Red Robin for bottomless fries and burgers. It was. So good. Except just a heads up – the containers of fries are literally bottomless. Keep that in mind, and don’t spill them everywhere.
So guys, the moral of the story is it’s okay to turn around. We’ve all been there, and the more you do it, the easier it gets. I recall talking to an IMG guide who said eventually it became a mock fight to see who gets to turn back with clients. They’ve all climbed the mountain dozens of times, and you get to the point where you just think “yeah I’ll go hang out at the tents and nap and snack, that sounds wonderful!!” instead of “Ugh if I don’t summit then I did all of this for nothing and it’s embarrassing” or whatever runs through your head the first few times you need to turn around. I’ve heard (and probably thought) every reason for not turning around, and eventually you realize that none of it matters. Getting back down safe, sound, and preferably happy is what matters.*