If you had asked me in February, “Eve, if you can only climb one peak this summer, what would it be?” the answer would the the Torment-Forbidden traverse. Because I’m a cheating bastard and that’s two peaks. I’d settle for just Forbidden, but let’s be real, the traverse was the true goal. I stood on Eldorado almost exactly a year ago (I wrote this a few weeks ago okay don’t get technical with me) staring at Forbidden asking what is that, and how do I climb it.
Well a few weeks after Eldorado, I started trad climbing. My old REI coworkers were laughing at me because until a year ago, I swore I’d never be into rock climbing. A few months after Eldorado, I started leading trad. 9 months of putting pennies aside, I got a full rack. And June came and went, and then July, and August started, and I began to think Forbidden wasn’t going to happen. I had had a decent climbing season, not as much rock as I wanted but plenty of successful trips. My shredded hands and sunburned face could attest.
Enter Connor. I had gotten to know Connor going up Olympus, and between bringing surprise cupcakes for his birthday and pitching my favorite single wall mountaineering tent (okay, my only tent) in a fucking jungle I guess I qualified as a passable climbing partner. He’s been checking off every route on the 50 Classics list he can get to, and the West Ridge of Forbidden is one of them. And the full traverse… well, that’s even better. Before I get into the more-filler-less-beta description, go check out Steph Abegg’s blog. That’s what we ran off of. She has step by step instructions that make it very hard to get off course.
We got a lazy start on Saturday morning (this was back in mid-August), hitting the trailhead around 10am after McDonalds gave us the wrong sandwiches on our way out (I wanted TWO sausage egg and cheese sandwiches, not one, dammit) and an awkward parking job on my part trying to fit into the trailhead lot. Nothing like a big bright yellow SUV parked diagonally on a bank out of line next to everyone else. We started hiking and I was already dragging. I don’t know if it was the heat or the sun or the dehydration or what but my legs just weren’t responding to my brain’s pleas. I’d put the approach right up there as third after Snowfield (first) and Eldorado (second) with class 3 tree roots and narrow boot path and interesting (read: filled my boots with water) river crossings. Oh, and tons of bugs that would stick to you if you were sweaty. Bastards. I also had on my fresh new Smartwool socks (take II, they did not do so hot on Formidable), hoping the compression would help with my calf issues. No luck. Or, my calf issues would have been debilitating that morning without them, who knows. Either way, I can assure you that they look great when you roll up your pant legs because it’s hot out.
We broke above tree line (finally!) and my mood picked up a bit. Not enough to get the legs back up to speed, but at least we were drifting through meadows looking at Johannesburg and Mixup and Magic and Sahale and could see the entire traverse ahead of us, a ridge of rock poking out above quickly softening glaciers. And we found the Boston Basin toilet everyone talks about! Add it to the list of Classic Craps of Washington. I haven’t made much progress towards my future as the Patron Saint of Alpine Shits lately but this was a step. I snapped a picture and we continued on, across talus that eventually gave way to the slabby sort of rock that used to be covered by glacier.
We didn’t take many breaks, wanting to get to the rock climb ASAP. I was hoping I’d be faster on rock than I felt slogging across talus and snow. We reached the foot of the glacier and saw a group of four way ahead of us. Shit, we have to get ahead of them. Connor took off. Well, my legs are still in bed in Seattle, so you go ahead and do that and I’ll catch up. We didn’t deem it necessary to rope up, though there were a few small crevasses and snow bridges and a groan or two. Luckily when I reached the base of the gully that leads to the notch, the group of four was still getting their gear prepped. Connor hopped up to the notch, I waited until he was out of the gully (it was pretty loose) and started up myself. A few fourth class moves, a few pebbles knocked down on the guy below me (who unfortunately came up immediately behind me until he realized he’d just be peppered with small rocks) and we were in business.
We switched into rock shoes, flaked out the rope to 30m (60m rope), and started simulclimbing. Connor led. I assumed we’d alternate leading until I realized how much faster it’d be with him leading rather than my newbie ass, plus with simulclimbing there wasn’t a blatant need to swing leads like when you’re doing things pitch by pitch. Honestly, the only move that felt harder than a 3rd class scramble was the first move up from the notch, which follows a ~15ft crack. After that, it’s basically all scrambling. For once, my navigation was on point. Connor led, and I directed. So I’m useful for some things, like beta, and boiling water, and taking photos.
From the top of the crack that marks the start of the route, you basically follow a series of ledges to the left until you’re dropped into another nice, loose gully, this one whiter than the first one (I don’t know why that sticks in my memory). Head up and right to another dip in the ridge (rap slings were a good cue), and drop down onto the southeast face and follow more ledges to the saddle between the two summits. I honestly think we might have been following a different route than planned, because there was very little ridge involved, mostly face traversing. But it was quick and painless, so I didn’t complain. I snapped a few pictures of the team behind us, excited about the views, forgetting how they’d consistently get better and better as we went.
THE SUMMIT ON THE LEFT IS THE TRUE SUMMIT. No one just straight up said that!! They said “the south summit” or “the higher of the summits” and bullshit like that. It’s the one on the left, okay? And you can’t tell from below. Connor ran to the one on the right, I didn’t trust it, I pulled out the topo but they’re so freaking close on the one I had that I couldn’t tell which was “the southern summit.” I figured we’d divide and conquer and stand up and see who was taller, so I went left.
Nailed it. I get up to the top and boom, there’s an old school summit register in a brass pipe. I whipped it out and signed it and got ready to head down and meet Connor, thinking he was waiting until his head popped over the ridge. Sweet, summit break! And we had made good time since hitting the rock, too. The two summits are very comparable, I honestly would not have been able to tell which was the true one without the summit register. We had some water and snacks and soaked in the views, checking out Forbidden which looked so much taller and sharper and darker in the distance.
Wanting to reach the only decent bivvy spot, we moved on quickly. We dropped down to the first notch, where we knew we’d have to rappel down to the glacier, and probably deal with a moat. Great, Connor can go first. Quick tip: Use the rappel sling on the far side, not the one immediately on your left when you reach the notch. We swapped to mountaineering boots. I donned my crampons as Connor rapped down, and had just finished tightening the straps when I head “you should probably get your crampons!” from below. I hear some shuffling and some kicking and I peek over the ridge, just as I see an ice tool come over the edge of the moat followed by a bare hand grasping at the snow. Like when zombies dramatically dig out of their graves one hand at a time, Connor climbed out, sans crampons. “Off rappel!”
Great, so I’m going to be swung over the moat to the snow, like I read in Steph Abegg’s blog. Can’t say I’ve ever had to do that before. Should have read more closely. I clipped my axe to my harness and started down, scraping crampons on rock. Swinging over was awkward. You need to get a few feet below the edge of the snow or else when your partner pulls the rope you just go up and not across and you’ll hang above the gap, and need to move horizontally along the rope. I was also facing backwards, which wasn’t elegant, and had used a prussik rather than an autoblock (out of habit since that’s how I learned, yes this habit is now broken), which makes it much tougher to slide down the rope and nearly impossible to slide across. So you can imagine just about how awkward this was. Reference Figure A below if you need a visual. I finally dropped low enough to be dragged over to the snow and got a good hold with my ice axe, but couldn’t balance since I was fighting against the prussik, which was still holding me farther up the rope. Eventually I just had Connor grab me and hold me above the snow until I could undo the damn prussik. So yeah, awkward sequence, but you know what? Now I know how to do it, and it’ll be 5x faster the next time around, and I’m never using a prussik again. Another quick tip: you can avoid the moat scenario by scrambling class 4-5 ledges on the south face of the traverse, but hey, this was probably the most useful stretch of the trip for me in terms of learning new things, so I’ll give it a 7/10. Would have been a solid 8.5 with an autoblock.
We traversed to the next moat, and alternated between moat and snow and rock for a while. Getting across the first moat had taken up a lot of time, and switching between snow, dropping into moats, and climbing back up on rock was slow going. We eventually came around a corner and saw the steep snow traverse, which would have to be nearly front pointing. I regretted leaving the pinky rest on my ice tool, since it would make plunging the shaft a pain in the ass (are we still doing phrasing?) but the snow wasn’t too steep, so I hoped it wouldn’t be an issue. Connor asked if I wanted to rope up, but on something like that, if you fall you’ll just take your partner with you unless you’re taking the time to set pro. So nah. If just I die, I’ll haunt a crampon or something instead of a house so I’ll still get to go up peaks. Watch out guys.
The snow traverse was slower going than I expected. More tedious than anything. There was one brief icy section, but most was soft enough for nicely kicked steps and the ice tool stuck well, I ended up using the pick more than the shaft. Halfway across the traverse I thought to myself ugh, please let there be a bivvy spot at this notch. Huh, I must be tired if I’m hoping for a bivvy spot. I knew the ideal bivvy spot was at the next notch, but we had used up so much time rapping across the moat that I didn’t think we were going to make it. Turned out we could have made it by dark if we had tried, but apparently I was tired, and since I didn’t know how long it would take, I was ready for dinner and bedtime.
Well, we found a bivvy spot on the south side of the ridge. It wasn’t great, a little narrow and a little slanted, but it’d do. I started boiling water as Connor set up the perfect gear nest hanging from a cam. The whole rack, our helmets, no critters were getting into that shit. We flaked out the rope as a ground cover like on Formidable and I whipped out my new Nemo down quilt. It arrived at my office minutes before a meeting the day before the trip, and it was like Christmas. My face lit up, my boss started laughing, I dashed for my keys to tear open the box and unpack my new toy and told everyone all about it. My boss actually offered to get me the sleeping pad that pairs with the quilt after she saw how thrilled I was running around the office with the quilt, only to be stopped in my tracks by a meeting to sell fashion product to our friendly local online retailer (the opposite of me sleeping on a rope spread out on a rock with just a quilt). But the quilt is amazing. It’s a 30 degree quilt, so not for winter, but damn I’d have been in heaven if I had it on Formidable. And it weighs a mere 19oz, which is about the weight of the sleeping bag liner I had used on Formidable.
With my bare feet wrapped in my new favorite toy (new Smartwool socks still needed to dry and smelled worse than Connor’s dinner) I dined on Thai Curry while Connor suffered through some vegan mac n cheese. He claimed it wasn’t that bad but I took a single bite and I think I’d have rather gone hungry. Sorry vegans, it was $1 at the grocery outlet so I’m sure there’s better version of vegan mac n cheese out there. I felt like a princess with my $12 dehydrated meal. Luxuries. Should have brought myself some wine.
The quilt was awesome. Toasty warm. The strings that turn it into half a sleeping bag were a pain in the ass, but made it easier to tighten up gaps if I realized my arm was sticking out, or felt a cool breeze on my leg. And it’s super soft. With that and the new sleeping pad, I’m pretty set for lightweight camping next summer. Now I can potentially be comfy cozy and not shiver bivvy all of the overnight climbs where I don’t feel like carrying a full overnight setup.
The rock sections of the traverse weren’t technically challenging, just exposed. It’s mostly a fourth class scramble, and I knew the rock was supposed to improve as we got closer to Forbidden. I never though exposure bothered me, so this was a reality check. There were definitely spots (especially downclimbing) where I was slow and cautious, and I remember three sections where I was straight up uncomfortable. It’s been a loooong time since I pushed my comfort zone on anything, but I remember standing spread out like a starfish trying to traverse a section of rock and realizing shit, this feels awkward. And then I looked down. Terrible idea, most of the traverse has hundreds of feet of exposure beneath you, and tipping backwards would unquestionably be fatal (sorry mom). Then I looked at Connor. “I’m… uncomfortable.” He looked at me and laughed and just said “okay, so go back and find another way.” Oh. Huh. Don’t mind if I do. And it really was that simple, and totally snapped my downward spiraling thoughts of “oh, I’m uncomfortable, oh, look at those hundreds of feet of air below me, oh, what if my arms and legs get tired in this position, oh god are they getting tired right now?!” Soon we reached the notch that marks the start of the Forbidden climb, where we stashed our boots, extra gear, and laid our (still wet) socks out to dry.
Starting up Forbidden was exciting. I mean it’s a classic after all, and there were several other parties up there, and I loved where we were and we had been making such good time and we were passing everyone and then bam. We hit my second spot of discomfort, which was likely more performance anxiety than anything. Any of you who have come to a climbing gym with me (or even rock climbed with me) know I get in my head about things, especially when others are watching. I’m sure I’ll get over it eventually. But here comes this guided group of three who step aside and let us pass. And it was the notorious Airy Step at the beginning of Forbidden. Not technically hard, but a little exposed. I stepped across, and though I logically knew it was an easy move, it’s different taking a step with a 6″ drop compared to a 600′ drop beneath you. Connor tossed in a cam, I farted around trying to figure out how to get past my mental block without using the cam and laughing at myself for being pathetic because this whole situation was so stupid, and finally decided fuck it, I can’t sit here deliberating while all four of these people stare at me and I used the damn cam.*
After that it was mostly cruising. I think we made it notch to summit in 45 minutes, maybe an hour. Again, besides a 5.6ish crux, most of the climbing was 4th or 5th class scrambling There was a slight bouldering move where you drop down just before the summit, but it isn’t difficult, in fact it was probably one of my favorite moves of the entire climb in both directions. It just felt very fluid going in both directions, which is always the feeling I’m after. Before I knew it, we were on top, looking out at the Eldorado massif and Torment and Johannesburg and Formidable and Sahale and a world of peaks I haven’t even come close to touching yet.
Amazingly, we had the summit all to ourselves. We took a long break to savor the scenery, we had perfect weather and ridiculous views and it’s easy to take it all for granted and I had to remind myself where we were and what we had done. Even just two years ago I had no idea any of this existed, or was accessible to the average person. Especially the weekend after Formidable, two amazing climbs in such an incredible area. I wasn’t exhausted enough on Torment/Forbidden for it to really sink in (my legs had decided to join me on Sunday at least, after a rough Saturday), but those views are some of the best I’ve ever had. Did we sign a summit register? I don’t even remember.
Dropping onto snow was a relief, since from there on out I’d know exactly where my feet were going and it’d be quick easy moving. Except for when I fell on my ass. We crossed the glacier quickly and were back on slabs. Despite my slow ass downclimbing, we had once again caught up to the group in front of us, who had a huge head start since we took so long on the summit. I gave myself a quick reminder that I only felt like a shitty climber because I was comparing myself to a guy who crushes 5.13’s before breakfast. We continued down and the other group followed us, which was amusing because we had no idea where we were going since we had come from Torment, not the standard approach. I whipped out the topo and got us back on track – you head slightly southwest on the slabs below the glacier and the wrap southeast to get back to camp, you can’t make a beeline from glacier to high camp. We cruised across talus, then meadows, crossed the same river that previously filled our boots with water, drowned our boots again, and floated down the trail that I had been dragging up the previous day. Why did I think this was so bad? It wasn’t even that steep! And the bugs had disappeared.
The only real event on the way down was running into park rangers, who of course interrogated us to see if we had overnight permits. They asked where we were from, what cars did we have (I worried that I had gotten a ticket for my shitty conspicuous parking job in my obnoxiously awesomely colored car), did it have Washington plates? Did we have radios, did we have cell service up on the traverse (I didn’t even check! Who would check that?!). We had been snacksturbating about KFC and taco bell and hamburgers, your questions are getting in the way of my food fantasies, dammit!
The rangers finally carried on, and we hustled back to the car where my great parking job was no longer surrounded by cars and I confirmed that I did not receive a ticket for being a borderline douchebag (it wasn’t that bad really). We changed into flip flops and stuffed our stinky boots into the trunk and hopped in the car, ready to rush to KFC. Except… I am a slow driver on forest roads. Yeah, look at my car, 4wd, I know. It doesn’t matter, it has a hard time on washboard sections and skids out easily, so I go slow. Like old lady slow, even when KFC is on the line. Watch out Paul Walker, here comes granny.
We made it to KFC with 8 minutes to spare. I was ready to rush in the door (“should we call ahead?!”) but Connor insisted on drive through. Okay, I dragged you into McDonalds yesterday, fine, we’ll do drive through this time. We pull up to the window. “What is the most pieces of fried chicken you could put in a bucket?” She went over to count what they had left. “We could do…. 8.” “You’ll get sick if you eat 8 pieces.” “I’ll take 8! And a famous bowl, and a large soda.” She gave me more than 8 pieces. No, I could not finish the bucket. Yes, I felt sick around piece #7. And I couldn’t help but notice the contrast between tearing apart fried chicken and devouring a famous bowl and the mellow notes of Jack Johnson playing in the background.
I could have gone to sleep right there. Amazing weekend. Perfect weather, successful gear test for my new quilt, plenty of new tricks learned and a crash course in downclimbing, boots that I should have hung on slings from my bathroom window so the stench didn’t permeate my entire apartment, and great company, all wrapped up with a bucket of fried American joy and a pile of failure in a sadness bowl.*