It was 3:05am. “Guys. We’re fifteen minutes in and so far I’ve used a slug as a belay and I dropped my oatmeal in the river.” That was Kacie, grumbling already after we had schwacked across the maze of logs that drops you off at the beginning of the Eldorado approach. I didn’t drop my oatmeal or utilize the local slug population, but I was already wondering if lugging these stupid skis would be worth it. I had pictured the trip being “light and fast” and instead here I was with probably 50lbs on my back if you include the rope, skis, and ski boots. The only “light and fast” aspect was that eventually the skis might be on my feet,and I brought a bivvy instead of a tent, which saved me 2lbs. Except then I filled those 2lbs with crackers and a variety of cheeses and chocolates that I never got around to eating. So “light and fast” ended up being “slow and heavy and uncoordinated and slightly off kilter,” but I mean whatever, we’d make it work. Climbed 6/4-6/5, 2016.
- Distance: I do not know
- Elevation: 6668 to the top of Eldorado (8868ft), then lose 1600ft and regain 1200 more going up Dorado Needle (8440ft)
- Weather: 40’s in the night, 80’s and sunny in the day. Brutal.
- Commute from Seattle: 2:30
- Did I Trip: Shit, I don’t remember! Probably yes.
Like I said, we got started around 2:30am. That meant a 3 hour nap between arriving at the trailhead and moving, which you’d think I’d be used to by now. I don’t think you get good at it, you just get better at resigning yourself to discomfort and a lack of sleep. I whined and hoped for a 3am wake up, but these guys are relentless. 2:30 it is. John didn’t even sleep. Freakin’ animal.
The first river crossing is exactly what you’d expect to get from walking across slippery wet logs in the dark lit by KC’s spare headlamp because your batteries were assholes and decided to explode sometime in the night. We made it to the trailhead sign on the other side of the river, featuring directions to the trailhead from the highway (especially helpful when you’re already on the hike), a few more bushes, an overrun river sweeping away the hints of trail, and KC’s aptitude for early morning snarkiness. I’m convinced we never go the right way during the first quarter mile. I also never go the right way on the way back either, so maybe it’s just always more bushy than I expect. Regardless, after that quarter mile, the bushwack is over and you’re on a pretty well-traveled trail.
Well-traveled doesn’t mean pleasant. And pleasant depends what you’re into. It’s still a climber’s trail, featuring Logs of Sorrow (downed trees to crawl under) among other smaller obstacles such as roots, rocks, branches to snag your skis, trees to scoot (or fall) over. Then you reach the boulder field, and you think oh hell yes we’re out of the trees! Except the boulder field goes on forever. It’s honestly not so bad on the way up, it’s on the way down with the screeeeee of skis dragging along stone that really gets you. You think yes, I got off that rock perfectly, and then you pivot and thunk SKRIIIITCH there are the skis, not clear of the rock like you thought. But on the way up, it’s a nice break from forest. Johannesburg rose tall in the background, the sun came up, our speed picked up.
We hit snow around 4500ft. John and I took the Scenic Route (a la Orizaba) once beyond the boulders and threw in some huge switchbacks up the basin trying to kill time letting the others catch up and finally said fuck it and went over to the notch. Rob was about 10 minutes behind us so we relaxed until he caught up and then dropped down the notch where we once again started the waiting game. Do we rope up with Rob (on foot) and leave Tony (skis) to rope up with Kacie and Steve? Do we leave Rob behind to be on a four person rope? Are we saintly enough to wait for everyone? Just as we were about to make a probably-not-saintly decision, Rob went over to check out the notch, and thank god, the rest of the group was coming. We got Tony on his skis and John led the way while I anchored our rope team and we left the foot team behind to figure out their own team.
We made decent time to the ice cliffs, which weren’t even recognizable compared to last summer. We skinned over them and quickly across the glacier, where Tony started to slow down as my energy practically exploded because I love everything and everyone and everything is great as soon as I’m on a glacier on a sunny day. Tony’s feet were bugging him and he wanted to switch socks, so we dropped him a few hundred feet from high camp. We got to camp, took off the ski boots, lounged around in the sun, and awaited everyone’s arrival. I grabbed John’s shovel ready to fulfill my destiny as the Patron Saint of Alpine Shits and dig out the composting toilet, only to discover… it was already melted out! Woohoo! No blue bags necessary, baby! That’s a luxurious glacier. The Four Seasons of glaciers.
John fell asleep for the first time in what, 30 hours? I tanned and napped. We chatted with a few other climbing groups. We debated whether the rest of the group would want to summit today or would be tired and would want to wait for Sunday. The other three arrived. Tony said something to Kacie, who responded “You don’t know beef,” to which Tony, looking perplexed, said “what’s beef?” I jumped in with “Do you know what beef is?” and Kacie’s face lit up – “Beef is when you need two gats to go to sleep!” The Biggie quotes continued and we extended our break, Tony looking confused while Kacie and I cracked up and the climbing team next to us tried not to laugh out loud. We eventually settled on an afternoon summit of Eldorado. Awesome.
The route from high camp is straightforward, especially so because there were like 40000000 people up there. Okay, not actually, I exaggerated by a factor of 100,000. It was more like 40. But 40 is more than that area should ever see in a 24 hours span, holy shit. Don’t tell any of them about the toilet. We’ve established I’m not a saint.
The route was clear up until the bergschrund which is opening up already. It was easy to pass on the left and the rocks were a simple route to avoid all potential obstacles, which were still mostly buried in snow. I was, of course, carrying my skis. I knew the top pitch would be too steep, and I knew I wasn’t good enough at skiing to dodge crevasses or bergschrunds. But Tony laughed and said “well you’ve brought them up every peak already, it’s kind of a thing now…” which was exactly the right thing to say. Okay fine, I’ll bring em, and just carry them down until it’s mellow enough to ski, as usual. Like I said, training weight.
John led once again, which was great. Because breaking trail in slush sucks, and with him carrying a split board and Tony carrying skis ahead of me, almost none of my steps collapsed. We reached the knife ridge and started up it, and let me just say I am so glad we went in the afternoon and didn’t have to deal with the 40 other people on the ridge. It would have been a pain. We took turns heading up to the cornice which was the highest point thanks to snow. I didn’t actually stand on it – regardless of how stable it was, my chances of balancing on a cornice, tied into a rope, with skis on my back, were not convincing enough for me to risk it. So I settled for standing a foot or two below it and tapping it. You do you, folks, that was my choice.
We turned around and let Rob’s team go past us. I took the rope, and Tony and John set up their skis and split board (but not until they had urinated off the knife edge). I started to boot down to mellow terrain, and hear whooping and turn around to see John sawing off the stretch of cornice below them and knocking it down the slope. A dream come true. I whipped out the camera. Game time baby!
They quickly caught up to me and Tony agreed to take the rope so I’d have a chance of skiing (I can’t ski well with too much weight in my pack. I mean, I can’t ski well with a day pack, I basically can’t ski period with more than that). I snapped a few pictures of the two of them and carried on my merry way to below the bergschrund where I switched to ski boots and clicked into my skis. Let the pizza party begin.
So I hadn’t skied since Snowfield, which was an awesome, awesome day. I thought I’d be anxious getting back on them, but it was just the same old back seat skiing as usual, with scattered crevasses. Not many, luckily, so I was able to do a slow easy traversing pizza while (I can only imagine) the four or five bad ass skiiers on their way up chuckled and said “oh honey” as I laughed at myself, so happy to be skiing in front of Moraine Lake… if you can call what I was doing “skiing.”
Back at camp, I lay out the bivvy and cooked dinner. We were blatantly separate from the OSAT and Mountaineers and NOLS groups, who all had nicely pitched tents and organized kitchens and we had body bags that we tossed on the ground wherever we felt like sitting with bottles of whiskey. Tony decided they were ODAT, “One Drink at a Time.” Rob tested out a flat rock below me. “It’s not fit to my contours,” he muttered. I went to sleep giggling.
I was asleep before sunset, which is easy to do when sunset is at 9pm. I woke up for a few minutes to snap photos, and then periodically woke up throughout the night to see if we could see the northern lights, which we could not. Those forecasts are lies.
At 4am, John and I woke up to hit Dorado Needle. We took our time getting moving, making tea and coffee, joking with the others who for some reason woke up as well. Even Kacie! We roped up on our skis and set off into sunrise towards the campsite I wish we had used on the col between McAllister and Inspiration glaciers.
There were a few short downhills that we skied, roped up. I couldn’t help but laugh. “Two not-so-great skiers, roped up, skiing downhill. What could go wrong?” John said on the first one. Luckily, nothing. I wish someone had been there to video it.
At the col, after John wiped out 3 times and I could barely stop with my pizza while roped-up-skiing we decided it was too icy to drop to the glacier below. John put his board on his pack, and I planted my skis right where we stood. We joked about glissading down but continued to walk, which was a great choice because the slope dropped off into a crevasse/schrund ish feature that would have left us with very sore asses at best.
There was a team of two who had broken trail all the way up to the base of the rock climb, which was awesome for us. It meant quick, easy going. I led the charge this time with John anchoring, except the snow was softening and me with like a 15 lb pack didn’t pack down great steps for John carrying his split board, and as temperatures rose, our pace slowed as more and more steps collapsed. We reached the base of the summit block, and decided instead of following the first team’s route, we’d head up the snowy face.
With a few small crevasses around us, John set up a belay just below the first feature and I led a pitch up to a patch of rocks. Except our twin 50 (aka 25m doubled over) wasn’t long enough to get there, so shit, I set up a deadman in the middle of the slope and belayed John up. John continued past, made it to the rocks, and hesitated. “How much rope do I have?” “Uhh.. 8 feet.” He had like 20 feet, I just suck at judging length (take note, boys). “Okay, how much do I have now?” “….. still 8 feet, but actually 8 feet this time! How does it look up there?” I couldn’t see him. “Not…. great…” was the response. Finding a solid anchor and belay spot was tricky. “What about now? Rope?” “5 feet!” followed by “That’s me! You are all out of rope!” and John set up what I could only imagine was a dicey anchor in a precarious position.
I reached John quickly and laughed at the belay spot. “Climb like you aren’t roped at all, and get a sling around anything as soon as possible” was John’s advice. If we had had another 10 meters of rope, he’d have had a killer spot. I climbed on a nice combination of snow, jagged easy-to-grab rock, and ice, found a great thread, and started an upward traverse to the ridge where there was one random horn sticking up that I happily threw a sling around. Once on the ridge, set up a deadman and brought John up from his less than ideal belay spot.
The ridge was a piece of cake compared to the climb up the face. Very clear anchors, easy rock, and the views were absolutely incredible. John led the first pitch of rock up to the well l known finger traverse which was more exposed than it looks in photos. Don’t look down. The idea of au cheval-ing it freaked me out, so I led with the finger traverse on the way over, while John (climbing in snowboard boots!) went for the au-cheval move. He snuck past me and led the final pitch to the summit, and belayed me over to join. We snapped a few photos and turned around after just a few minutes, knowing the rest of the team was waiting for us.
I’m an idiot, and after our first rappel down I realized my ice axe was still on the ridge. Mother fucker. There was another team going up after us, and I asked if they’d grab it. They said yes, but were so chill about everything I honestly couldn’t tell if they were serious. We waited down below while they simulclimbed, and they remembered my axe! Yay! So I only felt like a dumbass for 30 minutes instead of 8 hours.
John boarded down as I once again booted it. We met at the bottom of the slope for the climb back up to the col, which went by quickly. We strapped on our skins at the col, and started the traverse back. I was hoping to legitimately ski it, but there wasn’t enough downhill on the route I took, and I eventually gave up and put the skis back in walk mode. Bummer, man. We debated whether the rest of our group was still there. Would they wait? It was like 2pm. I laughed. I’d have left, but I’ve seen them concerned about other climbers before, so who knows maybe they waited. And if they did head down, we’d probably catch up to them.
The answer? They left. Tony left us a note saying he went down with the other “bassturds,” claiming it was less offensive spelling, but I prefer to think he just spelled it wrong. We took a quick break, packed up, and started down from camp.
I pizza-ed the lower glacier as well, but had to take the skis off for an awkward stretch that gave you maybe 2ft between rocks on the right and a crevasse on the left that I had no doubt I’d miss (and even if I hit it, my huge fucking pizza wouldn’t fit). I’m also not great on uneven snow, and the slope was torn up by the mobs that had headed down before us. Either way, we got back to the notch which I’m sure I ascended in similar style to a beached whale.
From the notch, it felt like quick progress back down. The boulder field was a bitch, but that was to be expected. Maneuvering skis down that is a core and back workout. You need to turn around to downclimb things you could just hop off of, my boot was once again shredding my ankle, the heat was brutal, and I was almost out of water. But I get a little better at that boulder field every damn time I go through it. Fuck you, boulder field. Some day you’ll be covered in snow and I’ll just ski down you and laugh and flip you off (and probably immediately wipe out).
Back in the forest, I hit my usual “this will never end” wall. But the forest is the last stretch and I was relieved to be in the shade, so I just zoned out and awaited what I call “Sam’s Tree.” Sam’s Tree is definitely not the halfway point, in the forest but I have mentally convinced myself that it is and I do not want to hear otherwise. It’s a downed tree that I tried to jump onto the first time we did Eldorado last summer, but I started falling backwards and Sam literally caught me and pushed me the rest of the way over so I didn’t fall flat on my back off a 3ft tree.
Shortly after Sam’s Tree, I suddenly hear a variation of Tony’s rooster call combined with my “whoop WHOOP” response. That’s gotta be the other half of our group!! Wooo! We hustled down to them and I was laughing and went right up to Kacie, who said she knew I’d recognize the call! It’s official, Tony’s rooster sound and my whoop WHOOP have become a standard call and response.
Rob had hurt his knee, so Kacie was carrying much of his shit. Steve lifted my pack and looked impressed. Flattered but I didn’t want to think about it because lifting it up sucks ass. I finally shouldered it and we started the last haul to the cars.
We didn’t totally fuck up the last quarter mile. Part of the trail was beneath a river, but we managed to schwack over to the logs. Except the logs were nearly underwater too! Ahh! I was carrying 50 fucking lbs with skis and already have terrible balance before you factor in any of that. I used my poles and looked like a foal learning how to walk except suspended on a log across a raging river. But at least we were surrounded by delicious salmonberries. I saw the Most Perfect Salmonberry a few feet off one of the logs but couldn’t get to it. I told Kacie to have a look when she got to it. That’s why it was so perfect, because no one could reach it.
But of course, as soon as we get across the last log, Kacie comes running up and opens her hand. “Look what I got for you! I kept it protected over the logs!!! Didn’t crush it!” It was truly the Most Perfect Salmonberry. I laughed and devoured it and we went into the bushes to get more handfuls and eventually made our way over to the cars, where Tony and Shawna (who had been leading an OSAT group) had a hammock set up between our bright yellow cars. That’s awesome.
We sorted out our gear, sorta. Someone ended up with John’s rope, I have Kacie’s headlamp, I probably have some of John’s carabiners, Surafel’s picket is in my trunk even though he ended up doing Sahale instead of Eldorado. But hopefully I’ll see them all again for another killer weekend. I left pretty quickly – my bra straps had cut bloody 2.5” long wounds into both of my shoulders, my face was leathery with sunburn, I had had a consistent nosebleed for the entire fucking day, carrying rope coils had chafed my neck until I figured out how to use my buff as a block, my lower back was bruised from my pack, my ankles were bleeding from my boots, and I had to meet my friend that night and try to not smell like shit and sweat and flake dried blood all over the place. My coworkers saw my feet in flip flops the next morning and were horrified, to my amusement, because my feet were actually pretty good ignoring the ankle wounds. Cause hey, it’s the price you pay for those views, right? Worth it every time.