Snowfield in a Day, AKA RIP my Knee, Hat and Other Less Important But Equally Beloved Objects. Why one day? Because I’m impatient, and why not. What else did I lose? Read on to find out.
So the real reason is I had to be back in town Sunday to see a friend who was visiting. And Sunday’s weather was questionable. I have no idea why Sam suggested we do this in a day, but believe me, I was thrilled. If they had decided two days, I’d have been out, but one day? Hmm. JT as usual was “down for whatever,” and I was hesitant. Eventually Sam said “You and JT are two of the most fit people I know, if there’s a group that can do it, it’s us.” Well shit. You just brought my pride and fitness into the equation, and according to the Jakubowski clan commandments, that means I have to say yes. Anyone who knows me knows how much pride I take in being fit, even when I’m relatively out of shape (now). Almost to the point of fault. So I replied. “Fuck it, I’m in.”
- Distance: 15 miles
- Elevation gain: 7200ft, not including the ups and downs
- Weather: 50’s and sunny
- Commute from Seattle: 2:30
- Did I Trip: I wiped out quite grandly as a matter of fact. On skis. Did not trip in boots. I’m good at walking.
At the last minute we added Jim onto the group, a guy training for Denali who none of us had actually met but he seemed to know what he was getting into. Like many of our other trips, we all arrived individually at the trailhead. We thought we’d start at 10pm, then 11pm, then midnight, then Jim arrived at 12:15 and we decided he deserved a nap. Okay, 2am start. Sweet. 5/7/2016.
The trail to Pyramid Lake went smoothly. It had been cleared since the last time I was there, so no blow downs to negotiate while carrying skis, and no snow to impede our progress. The three guys took off at a decent pace. I wasn’t positive I could make this trip, and I was dreading the steep sections, so I went for the slow and steady approach. I also was about as overdressed as you could be, and shed my first three layers one at a time within the first hour. Why did I wear two pairs of pants?! Why did I need the expedition weight long underwear?! Because I am dumb and I enjoy suffering.
We took a break at the lake, where I lost item #1: my Julbo Explorers. I had them around my neck so I wouldn’t have to dig for them at sunrise, but removed them to fix something, placed them on the ground, and never picked them up. Being a fashionista (ha! jokes) I actually had a second pair of sunglasses with me, my sweet new Sunskis that I was planning to test out! They’re the opposite of my Julbos. The Julbo Explorer is not polarized, not cheap, indestructible, and not very fashionable. My new Sunskis are polarized, and cheap, probably pretty destructible (TBD), and quite fashionable. We’ll come back to that when the sun rises.
We found the boot path skirting the right side of the lake, and off we went. The boot path heads southeast up to the base of the broad ridge, and follows that ridge to the glacier. It was not marked, but easy enough to follow for the majority of the time, save a few 90 second pauses where every direction looks like a potential path but no direction quite looks like the path you should take and you stand there in the dark deliberating. We went up and up, with some solid 3rd class scramble sections in the forest. Funny how that can happen, I forget there can be scrambles in the trees. As the sun rose, we reached 4,000ft (just below the shoulder of the ridge) and we hit consistent snow. Boot path covered, we were on our own. Not even tracks to follow. It had been a while since anyone was up there, and that’s how we like it.
We traversed along the ridge side of most of the ridge, not wanting to waste elevation gain and loss over the ups and downs. That isn’t to say we had an easy time of it. There were some veggie belays (useful), some postholing (I dodged them), some moat struggles (I did not dodge these), some falling over backwards off rocks downhill because veggie belays are finnicky (Sam), some bitch-slapping by trees and branches and slide alder (to my face), some “who can choose the best route” “your route looks mediocre I’ll go this way instead” “haha, suckers!” “oh wait all of our routes are shit” debates. But eventually we made it to the traverse beneath Pyramid Peak to Colonial Basin. And that meant we were done with vegetation, at least for a while. Goodbye greenery, onwards to the kingdom of snow and ice!
JT and Jim took a long break and put their skis together while Sam and I started to boot across the traverse. The snow was shitty, the runout was bad, I saw no point in switching boots and stressing myself out trying to skin this when Sam was gonna walk. JT and Jim figured they’d catch up to us when they started skinning. Psych! The snow was that lousy collapsey backslidey type snow. We saw them start, and then split up. One sat down below the skin tracks after a small slip. For what seemed like forever. We kept walking. Eventually we realized they were taking their skis off. Ha! If they couldn’t do it, I wouldn’t have stood a chance, so I sat there basking in my correct choice. Sam and I popped out by the base of the glacial lake (frozen over, which is okay because I hear it is brown and not glacial blue), dropped our packs, and hit the snacks while we waited for the dejected skiers to catch up.
We gazed up at the peaks around us, beyond pumped to be there. Like kids on Christmas, except the feeling is even better than Christmas morning. I get Christmas blues, I get stressed and sad that morning. There’s none of that up in the mountains. Just the joy of knowing you’re somewhere most people will never even know exists, staring at the beauty around you, without any sort of tracks to follow or any signs of other people. An entire swath of mountains just for you. Ditching the crowds and being surrounded by nothing is an incredible feeling.
JT and Jim finally caught up and had quick snacks themselves. They put on their skis for real, and started skinning up the Colonial glacier to the notch between Colonial and Neve glaciers, just to climber’s right of Neve peak. Sam and I continued with boots, knowing he was faster without skins. And I just wasn’t sure if I could ski whatever was on the other side of the notch, so why switch to skis and ski boots if I need to switch back to mountaineering boots at the top? Not worth it.
JT and Jim left us in the dust. We took turns breaking trail. I’m useful, sometimes. I played this trip way too conservatively. But Sam and JT seriously might be two of the most fit people I know, and I didn’t want to run out of steam halfway up Snowfield trying to be cool and break trail and push the pace. We made it to the notch, and I was afraid everyone would have an “oh shit, look how far away it is” moment like at Black Peak. Nope! JT came running back to see how close we were, all excited about it, Sam’s face lit up as soon as he saw it, and I could have run in circles with joy. We stomped through some ice to get running water, filled our bottles with fresh mountain runoff, I had a 5-star pee looking out at Snowfield, and soon enough, we were on our way down the Neve glacier.
JT and Jim skiied down, Sam and I booted and then skinned over to meet them. We roped up (my first time roping up on skis). The glacier looked mellow and the route generally avoids crevasses, but better safe than sorry. Some steeper sections of the glacier were already exposed, and we could see a few cracks and some dips in snow that could be weakening snow bridges. I am usually not too concerned about which side of my body the rope is on (uphill or downhill) since I’ve heard arguments for both sides, but JT pointed out that on skis it might be way more awkward being swept off your feet by someone falling than with boots. Okay, can’t argue that. I awkwardly stepped over the rope in skis. Best thing about Snowfield? No switchbacks! Which is good, because stepping over a rope in skis is awkward.
Sam led the group since we knew he’d be slowest on his fantastic (not) skins that never gripped and always fell off, and that way he’d set the pace. I was happy to go second, JT came in third, and Jim anchored. Skinning went by quickly, drifting across the top of the world.
We reached the base of the summit pyramid, already marveling at how short the peaks around us suddenly looked. The route technically takes the west ridge, but we’re an impatient group. And it was snowy. So we chose the North Face Direct. Which isn’t a real name for a real route, it just means we said fuck it and ditched the skis and started climbing the 55ish degree snow on the northwest face instead of scrambling the ridge. JT led the way, Jim perfected his steps, and I walked up their staircase with Sam close behind. Close to the top Jim and I thanked JT for breaking trail, and JT said “No problem! Actually if you don’t mind, I’d kind of like to finish it myself…” Like he had to ask for permission. If you’re in the zone, go for it. You aren’t going to hear it from me. At this point I knew I’d be fine energywise, but hey, if he’s feeling it, sweet. Get it dude. I felt a little guilty for never breaking trail, but let’s be real I’m the slowest here, if I’m breaking trail we probably aren’t moving too efficiently.
JT brought us up to the final scramble, which was…. not great. We ditched the ice axes, made a few 3rd-possibly-4th-class moves, and JT and I stopped and looked at each other. It wasn’t looking great. Jim went to check out a snowy route sans axe. We debated. JT said he wouldn’t be bummed if we turned around here. I announced my obvious summit fever. JT pointed out we had a rope, one of us could belay the other up, set up anchors with a few slings, and then belay the rest up. I contemplated the idea and peeked around the other side of the ridge, where HOLY SHIT THERE’S A TRAIL! I turned to JT. It was Christmas morning again!!!
We took off. Jim found us soon enough as he had bailed on his steep snow sans axe route. The scramble was mostly 2nd class with a few 3rd class moves. I hopped up onto the summit, not ready to believe it was the true summit until I was standing on it. Too similar to Cashmere, or Black Peak, what if I get up there and there’s another hundred vertical feet, or we’re 50 feet to the left?! But it was, and it was a nice broad rocky summit, and I looked around and almost cried because this was the most awesome thing I had done in a long time and it was so damn pretty and no one else was there.
I snapped pictures of the others gaining the summit. I snapped a hundred photos of the surrounding peaks. Looking south it felt like winter, with snow covering the northern faces of all of the peaks and ridges. Looking north felt like spring, with more trees and a quickly receding snow level. It looked like snow had already melted compared to Black Peak the previous weekend. We all high fived, and had our snacks, and I donned both puffy jackets I had brought. We wrapped up the summit with a summit selfie, and soon enough were on our way back down.
I had been worried about one of the tougher scramble moves, but they were all totally fine. We painstakingly downclimbed the steps we had made after debating a few new routes, and it wasn’t as terrible as I thought. It went by quickly, and once we were past the rocks, it was a killer glissade that took us perfectly back to the skis.
Since we hadn’t seen much to worry about on the way up, we figured we were safe to follow our tracks and ski down. I (surprise!) was last. But you know what? I made it all the way back to where we had roped up without wiping out. I was going 2mph maybe, with a pizza, but I made some huge awkward newbie turns and loved every single second of it. It was like Black Peak again, where the skiing felt like flying and not like crashing. I was getting better at controlling speed and turning. Not good, but progress.
We met back up below the Colonial-Neve col. I skinned up this time, following Jim and JT’s tracks with some quality kick turns (can you tell I’m proud?). I handed my camera over to JT before skiing down the Colonial glacier so he could document that my skis do in fact occasionally attach to my feet, and I started my pizza slice descent.
This slope was a stretch. I didn’t think it would be, it looked easy enough, but I had to basically traverse with my huge pizza to keep my speed in check. I had one small wipeout, had to happen eventually right? I was still on one piece so I jumped up and got right back to it. Finally I was at the point where I thought I could just bomb down the rest of the slope.
Nope. I hit a large bump of snow that sent me flying. I managed to land, but couldn’t get back in control and wiped out instead. Skis flying, bindings off, tumbling with my glacier gear clanking all around me (guys, at least put your ice screws away before you ski). I sat up and took inventory. Arms? Check. Leg? Check. Other leg? Yup. Does everything bend? Yes. Do I have all my shit on my pack? Yes. Stabbed by an ice screw? No. Okay, stand up, retrieve skis. Joints? Elbows and knees? 3 of 4 were feeling good. 1 of the 4 was a little crabby with me. I popped the skis back on and did the slowest descent ever, stopping at every turn waiting for adrenaline to die down. And everything had been going so well! Come on man!
At the base of the Colonial Glacier, Sam and I decided to boot across to the ridge again. Jim and JT started out on skis as Sam and I trekked behind them. Eventually they yet again gave up, and joined our old bootpath. The knee was achy but not an impediment at all, so I figured I’d deal with it once we were down.
Back at the ridge I finally caved and downed a caffeinated gu. Everyone else had already destroyed a few 5 hour energies, gu, caffeinated shot blocks, and I had held out for so long. But I hate the descent. And within 15 minutes, that gu had me jogging to keep up with JT and Jim who were half running, half walking the descent. I felt awesome. It was gonna be a quick hike back to the car.
Here’s the sad part. We lost track of our old footprints. My phone was dead, so we had no gps of where we were relative to the route. We had maps and compass, so we weren’t in bad shape. But we dropped too much elevation far too soon rather than meeting the bootpath on the broad ridge, and ended up in a classic North Cascades bushwack. You can’t win out here. You might have a killer summit day, but you won’t be that lucky. We turned it into a game of Marco Polo. Can’t see Jim up ahead? Someone shouted “Marco!” and we’d wait. “Polo!” Okay, he’s that way! Scurry that way, catch a glimpse of him, shit I lost Sam, is JT still behind me? “Marco!” “Polo!” “Polo!” Okay, Jim’s to the right and Sam’s directly below. “Polo?” And JT is above me wondering if he was included in my plea for vocal directions.
We endured a few hours of Bushwacking Marco Polo before I started to get crabby about it. We schwacked, and battled slide alder and pine trees and at one point I put on my winter gloves so I could use the only vegetation around me, Devil’s Club, as a veggie belay crossing a gully. Brutal. I dropped my gloves, picked them up, and realized my hat was gone. No!!!! Not my hat! I almost cried again, this time in sadness rather than summit joy. That hat was my favorite thing that I owned. It isn’t even that great for climbing but it’s great for sleeping and I like the colors and I like the pompom and it makes my forehead look less like a five head and more like a three head. I looked up at everyone like a lost kid. “I dropped my hat!”
Well, you’re on the side of a mountain, and it’s getting dark, and you know you have zero chance of finding it. So you get over it, and you carry on. But in that moment, where I was already exhausted and frustrated with the bushwack and the fact we hadn’t found the bootpath and still had so far to go (you can see the damn highway, yet you’re still 3000ft above it) that hat was a person that I was leaving stranded on a mountain, alone, without purpose, without friends, exposed to the brutality of the North Cascades. I felt terrible. Yeah, my pride is up there somewhere with my abandoned hat.
As I was pulling the pieces of my recently shattered mental state together, we came across a downed tree. Sam was with me. JT was hidden behind us, Jim was ahead of us scouting out the way. I stared blankly at the tree. “This tree is my Mt. Everest,” I said lamely. There was no easy way around it. Have you ever bushwacked with skis sticking off your pack? It sucks. “Here!” Sam almost sounded excited about the fact he had found a way to step over the tree that didn’t involve skis getting caught on anything. Okay Eve, you had your low point, time to move the fuck on.
We turned on headlamps shortly after my Everest. Still no boothpath. We knew if we kept heading north/northwest we’d eventually run into either the lake or the bootpath, and that was the game plan in the dark. Finally we ran into a flag that Sam had mocked on the way up. “Who’s laughing now?!” the flag said. Shut up, flag, you win, thank you for being so glorious. Sam plucked it from the ground and triumphantly carried it. Soon we were at the lake. You know what wasn’t at the lake? My Julbos. So those were gone too. Lost on the mountain with my meniscus, my MCL, my hat, and the majority of my pride as I stood there in the dark.
The trail back to the cars never ended. JT’s knees were bugging him. My body hurt, but nothing seemed worse than anything else, and I had forgotten about my bum knee. Crossing the creek was like an oasis in a desert. It was so dry on that trail, Sam washed his face and I drank a bunch of water (I had been running low) and used what little willpower remained to not lie down and nap in the shallow stream. I mean, it would have felt amazing.
Mind over matter, guys. You kind of space out and just keep moving. That’s the point I was at for the last 30 or so minutes. It wasn’t the worst I’ve been, but it was damn close. As soon as you start to think again, you notice the aches and pains. The skin was sloughing off the bottoms of my feet, my bony ankle was swollen in my boots which had started around noon, it wasn’t gonna be pretty. JT stopped and offered to let me go ahead of him, and I stood there staring into the distance leaning on my poles telepathically saying NO! and I think he got the message. Yeah sure that was 30% because I didn’t want to leave him, but it was also 20% because I was tired, 20% because I get spooked easily in the dark alone, 15% because I knew if I was hiking alone in the dark I’d convince myself I was going in circles in Twilight Zone fashion, and 15% because as soon as I thought of the Twilight Zone circles I creeped myself out. Woods are scary.
We could hear cars, and see the lights from the dam, and yet we never seemed to reach the end of the trail. It’s two freaking miles from the lake. TWO MILES. And the end just never seemed to get closer. We finally saw the sign near the beginning of the trail, and five minutes later, were at the cars. Sam delivered me gatorade. I downed half of the bottle immediately. I grabbed my bivvy and sleeping bag and dumped my gear in the car. I was in the bivvy within minutes. I got a Mountain House meal to cook on Sam’s stove and instead fell asleep curled up to it and the gatorade in my sleeping bag. I woke up periodically to the wind blowing, and deliriously got scared various things would blow away. I woke up at 5am in a bag full of flip flops, socks, mountaineering boots (the wind wasn’t that strong), my mountain house meal, gatorade, my car keys, my cell phone, a plethora of snacks, and some rocks. I imagine I had plans for all of those before I was unconscious.
Around 5am I wiggled out of my sleeping bag and stood up. Shit. My left knee was so fucked. I couldn’t bend it, it was swollen, and I could barely walk. It was 5am on a Sunday. I started driving, and could barely use the clutch. So I’d hang out in 5th gear, hoping no one slowed down when the speed limit dropped to 30, rolling through most stop signs, and generally being a terrible driver. I frantically texted coworkers. How does our insurance work? Who’s your primary? Do we need a referral to an orthopedic surgeon or can I just go? Who’s your orthopedic surgeon?! I have awesome coworkers who all responded, despite it being 7:30am on a Sunday.
I got home and mourned the loss of one of my most important joints. There goes my summer. I hobbled to dinner with my friend, incapable of stepping off curbs or going down stairs. I mean, it was mostly fine after the skiing wipeout. I must have just pissed it off with that brutal bushwack right? We did lose like 5500ft of elevation in just over 2 miles. That’s already a knee banger when you aren’t bushwacking off route. But of course as soon as you mention skiing, everyone thinks you tore your ACL. The pain wasn’t right for ACL, so I figured I had torn my MCL or meniscus, but I was freaked out. Last time I went to a doctor I thought I had a cold and I had pneumonia and a partially collapsed lung, so I decided to avoid fucking it up further and actually went to see a doctor. the logical side of me flipped between either extreme. “It’s nothing, you’re just being paranoid, you’ve never been injured or had your lifestyle at stake so you’re freaking out” vs “IT’S BEEN A WHOLE DAMN WEEK AND YOU CAN’T STRAIGHTEN YOUR LEG YOUR LIFE IS DEFINITELY OVER LET’S STRESS EAT EVERYTHING IN THE OFFICE” (probably to my coworkers’ dismay).
We’ll skip the dramatic week of waiting for MRI results. The doc thought torn meniscus and MCL sprain. Best case was a few weeks of PT, worst case was surgery. And the answer was… just sprains! A bunch of obvious fluid and swelling, but everything was intact. Sprains are kind of bullshit, it’s like saying “well there’s swelling and this thing is unhappy but nothing technically needs repairing so.. good luck!” But it’s been getting progressively better almost every day, so I think I’ll be back soon. But for a few days there, I thought I was out for the season.
This trip was a perfect reminder that you can always be better. You can always be faster and stronger and there will always be people out there who can kick your ass without trying. Which is a feeling I love to have. I like being the newbie, the little kid, the weak link. Because it means I’m with ridiculously awesome people.
It was also a reminder that we’re not immortal. I didn’t realize just how many people I know who have had surgeries or long recoveries from mountain related injuries, be it a rock climbing accident, skiing, or just tripping on a strenuous hike or trail run. Nearly ever person I look up to in the Washington hiking and climbing community seems to have dealt with injuries and recoveries, Appreciate what you have, every day. We’re so lucky to be able to do things like this. And if you don’t have it, you aren’t alone.* This was just the beginning of the end for me. I have another 20 years to destroy my knees, and by then we’ll be damn good at knee surgery.
*And I’ll come hang out with you at Picture Lake. ADA accessible, killer view of Shuksan, hell yeah!