“Maybe I should have renewed that SPOT subscription.” “I mean we’ve only been talking about it for the past 5 weeks right?” “Yeah… it would be nice to have right now.” “I’ll take a space heater, a hot shower, and a down comforter with my beacon please. And a foot massage.” And there we were, in a nice ice ledge/snow cave we had dug halfway down the Sherpa glacier, staring at the snow lit up by the moon and wondering how fucked we’d be when I wouldn’t show up to work at 9am and no one would know why. How did we get to this point, you ask? Let’s find out. Climbed 5/6-5/8.
- Distance: ~20mi round trip
- Elevation: 7200ft gain (9,416ft highest point)
- Weather: 30’s and sunny? Random snow squalls
- Commute from Seattle: 2:30
- Did I Trip: Many, many postholes. And shattered dreams.
We got to the trailhead at 7pm. Well I did, JT showed up at 10 and insisted on doing the approach. Nope, it’s like a 6 hour approach without the road, with plenty of creek crossings and no trail and I figured it’d be easier in the morning. We had time. JT begged but I was committed, I needed sleep. Call me lame.
We got moving at 6am. JT had brought a hilarious electric fatbike, so we strapped our packs to the bike and he started to take them up. Don’t worry, the bike has a bell you can ring in case you need to pass anyone at your top speed of 3mph. We figured we’d leapfrog and take turns with the bike, which if it didn’t save us much time at least provided comic relief for the four miles of dry, easily driveable road. I left my trail runners on for the 2 miles of Colchuck trail we needed to follow, no traction or anything. When we branched off onto the Stuart Lake trail it started getting a little more postholey, and when we finally started the cross country trek, it got real postholey. We were hoping someone else would have broken trail but of course not. We came along an old skin track that we followed on and off, but all of the creek crossings were different. Many logs, not many good access points. The snowbanks made it awkward, since youd’ have to drop down two feet of snow and hope to land your ass on the log. Lots of shimmying. It was a lot more fun when you’re a kid, and not carrying 50lbs with skis attached to your park. I clotheslined my skis at one point because I was so worried that when I sat on the shimmy log they’d stick in the snow behind me and tip me forward and thus off the log, leading to my untimely and mildly embarrassing demise.
We dug out our bivvy spots back at camp. I walked up to some avvy debris piles to collect branches as ground insulation, because we had time and I wanted to be warm and have everything smell like Christmas. We left tracks all over that basin (this was problematic later). We melted water, watched a climber get plucked off the North Buttress Couloir on Colchuck, and went to sleep as the sun set.
Luckily, it was fucking freezing. Everything was rock solid. We placed no pro, until one spicy section I was halfway up when I realized I was hanging on by like 1cm of ice pick and 5mm of crampon frontpoints. I looked up at JT. Same deal. Oh, good, we’re on ice. With no protection. With a thousand feet of terrible runout. Well. Not much we can do now. I swallowed and wished for JT to move quickly and blanked out the consequences. 30 feet later it was soft enough to at least get an inch of boot in, and 30 feet after that I was back to walking up with some variations on french technique. There are two advantages to being horribly duck footed. Breaststroke, and climbing steep snow. I have found my calling.
We took a quick break on the flat section after some traversing (which I hate, and will always hate, because it is arguably more tedious and less comfortable than downclimbing). We placed a picket for protection just in case since the runout was a nice slide down to the icefall followed by a i-don’t-want-to-know-how-far drop. I destroyed some sour patch watermelon and some goldfish. It was a short walk to where the final steep snow slope began, and we decided to start placing running belays here just to be safe. I’m still not sure it was necessary, and we’ve rehashed it several times. It slows you down a lot, but if someone’s tired, you should probably place it. So we did. One time the rope got stuck, and we took turns whipping it to get it loose. Naturally this resulted in me singing Whip It Good for the rest of the way up. Isn’t that what you sing when you’re in the middle of nowhere slogging up snow?
We mixed pickets and some rock pro as anchors. We stayed to the right since the majority of the falling debris that passed us was on the left (I think this contradicts what summitpost says). We took a break on a sweet snowdrift next to the rock, and finally hit up the last stretch. The cornice was MASSIVE. We had been pumping ourselves up to burrow through it, but upon seeing it, we could either spend 4 hours trying to burrow or we could suck it up and test out the mixed chimney that was in the middle. Survey says? Let’s try the chimney.
JT made a bomber rock anchor below the chimney. Yeah, I wasn’t leading that. Maybe if our lives had depended on it. It didn’t look bad until you were in it. I could tell he was panicking too (sorry JT) as I belayed him up. And he wasn’t sure the pickets he placed halfway up would take a fall. But 15 minutes later, he was whooping on top of the ridge, and I was throwing my entire body weight upwards on the picket trying to get the damn thing out of the snow cursing his fucking indestructible placement because this thing was $25 and I’ll be damned if I leave $25 in this god forsaken chimney (this is foreshadowing).
I finally got the picket out and made the spicy mixed move to get out of the slightly overhung chimney. I looked up at JT who was laughing as I dragged my fat tired ass over the edge. We organized our gear and started walking up towards the summit, jealous of the skiiers heading down Cascade Couloir, which looked so mellow and easy and fun.
“What? Is it not the summit?” “It’s definitely not the summit.” “Are you sure??” “Well unless there’s a bigger, taller peak right next to us… yeah, I’m sure.” I hurried up beside him and we both just burst out laughing. The real summit of Stuart was another hundred feet higher, with more hard steep snow, which meant more frontpointing and more downclimbing that shit and random snow squalls kept happening and there was just no way either of us were going up there and we didn’t even have to say it outright, we just knew. We sat down and kept laughing at how humbling it was and had some snacks. And soon enough, started the downclimb, crossing out fingers that entry to the Sherpa couloir would be easy.
And it was! I lay on the edge of the couloir moaning about how much of a pain in the ass downclimbing was going to be, until I started laughing again. Look where we are! We’re on top of the world, and I’m still finding a reason to whine. We started down, I was pretty tired and I told JT to go first and kick great steps. Great steps meant like 1″ of purchase, if that. Ugh. Damn my weak winter calves.
And that joke about bivvying basically shut us down. I hear when pregnant women make it to restrooms, they don’t always make it to the toilet. Their brains are like HEY WE’RE HERE LET’S GO! That’s how the bivvy was. My brain heard the joke and was like HELL YEAH WE’RE DONE! and I could feel myself crashing as we anchored ourselves with pickets and shoveled the biggest ledge we could after chopping through the surface ice with our tools. I put on all my layers, sat on my pack, we undid our coils and used those as ground cover too. Shivver bivvying at its finest. “Do you think there’s something fucked up in our heads?” JT asked. “No, no way. We’re normal. We’re awesome. Why?” “Because.. .we’re stuck outside and we’re exhausted and we’re spending the night here and we’re still having fun?” I mean, you have a point. I was pondering a different, slightly related, equally hilarious (to me) question. “Do you think our parents would be proud that we’re making the safe call to stop and rest here, or do you think they’d just be pissed we got ourselves here to begin with?”
There’s not much sleeping when it’s like that. You’ll start to doze and then your body remembers you’re fucking freezing and starts to shiver and you wake yourself up again. So we watched the snow get lit up by the moon, I wondered how long it takes trenchfoot to set in and thanked the sweet baby jesus for telling me to wear ski boots instead of mountaineering boots (toasty liners), and occasionally I had some snacks. We had plenty of food and water at least.
We finally reached the bergschrund, which was nicely covered with avvy debris. One last rap to get over it, and we were walking off! Woo! JT looked down as he was crossing. “Oh, I can get my sunglasses!” I started laughing. He had dropped them sometime on Monday, and I figured they were toast. I belayed him into the crevasse to retrieve his brand new Julbos. Small miracles!
We walked back to the sunny soft snow where I had one of the best glissades of my life back to camp. We boiled water, had the best alpine cider ever, and started to pack. Soon we heard helicopter blades chopping through the wind. Damn, there must be another rescue! Busy weekend.
We started the trek out, which involved more postholing and somehow more log shimmying than the way in. Helicopters continued to fly around us, one flew next to us and we waved as they pointed while we crossed the swampy section right where you cut off from the Stuart Lake trail. Half an hour later, back on the Colchuck trail, we saw two more helicopters. “There’s something bigger than us going on out there,” JT said. I hoped he was right, but I was freaking the fuck out. Yeah we know we’re fine, but my office doesn’t. And if they called my family, then there’s at least 20 people who are panicking right now. But they pointed at us in the swamp, and they hovered right next to us on the snowfield. They must be looking for someone else and figured out we weren’t the ones they were looking for. But the thought was still in my head, and my body was on fire with anxiety and I was flying down the trail trying my best to not leave JT behind. He broke trail like all the way through the snow, and I had been lazy. But I had to get back to cell service before anyone called my family.
We got to the Colchuck trailhead, which had been recently cleared of downed trees, bathrooms cleaned, and even restocked with fresh toilet paper. Best bathroom experience of my life. Plus, this must mean the road is open!! Great, JT take the bike and the packs, I’ll start walking, get the car, and meet me halfway up the road. Helicopters continued to fly over. I waved to one as I walked down the road. That one definitely didn’t see me. No one waved.
In my state of mixed guilt and embarrassment and shame and humiliation I wasn’t sure what to do. How could the best route of my life and a simple overnight bivvy have caused all of this? We felt like we had everything under control 100% of the time. At no point was I concerned for our safety, or scared, or even stressed. I was more anxious about being late to work and missing EMT class than anything else. Sure the bivvy wasn’t ideal, but it was absolutely the right call. Tired, on a tedious 40+ degree slope with another 600ft to descend with only our crampon points, already late, and one misstep if we tried to push it would have resulted in a fatal fall. So we stopped, and got up a few hours later, surprisingly refreshed once we loosened up stiff frigid limbs.
We thanked Chelan Mountain Rescue profusely. These guys dropped everything they were doing to send out a helo to look for us, and to be fair, from the air it looked pretty bad. They saw the bivvy ledge, the bail gear, the bergschrund, and a ton of avvy debris from earlier in the week. The bail gear ended just above the bergschrund, and it probably looked like either 1) we were hit by an avalanche and were nicely buried or 2) we were trying to bail and we rapped off the end of the rope or something failed and we fell into the schrund. They thought it was a recovery.
If we had had a messaging beacon, we’d have been able to send out a text as soon as we set up the bivvy saying hey, we’re fine, just going to be late. If we had a true PLB maybe our friends would have felt a bit safer knowing we hadn’t hit SOS yet. Instead, no one knew what had happened. My coworkers knew my intended routes because I wouldn’t shut up about it all week, but none of my immediate climbing friends did, and that caused a bunch of confusion when they started wondering why no one had heard from me. Should we have flagged down the helicopter? Yeah, but I’m still not sure what the sign is for “hey, you’re looking for us, but we’re fine, gonna hike out!” In our heads, we were barely even overdue at that point (a few hours, we knew we’d be getting to the trailhead wicked late on Tuesday), and we definitely weren’t lost. Turns out they saw us and assumed we were hikers, not the people they were looking for. There were tracks all over the basin, they had no way of knowing which were ours (answer: all of them). And given the bail gear pattern, holy shit I’d probably have thought the same.
Get a beacon! One beacon could have saved all of this confusion, all of the effort on SAR/CMR’s part (god forbid someone else get injured looking for me, especially when nothing’s wrong with me to begin with), and all of the ensuing feelings that I, my friends and family, and coworkers all went through in the 12 hours I was missing. We had been discussing it for over a month and I was too cheap to buy my own. I always pictured beacons as purely “SOS” function, not the “hey everything’s fine but we’re going to be late” heads up to the real life friends and coworkers back in the city, and that’s what you’ll get with the satellite messenger beacons. You never think it’ll be you, until it’s you.
Huge, huge thanks to CMR and SAR for coming after us. As embarrassed as I was, it’s amazing knowing an entire community is ready to jump on it 90 minutes after someone calls us in as overdue. Thank you to everyone who called, everyone who pitched in with information, everyone who got up right away to put the search into effect. And huge thanks to JT for suffering through all of that with me, and thanks to Mt. Stuart for being a coy bitch, and thanks to everyone for not making me feel tooooo guilty upon my return.* And lastly, thanks to my family back in Boston who put up with my questionable hobby. I can’t apologize enough, nothing I say will change anything, just know we do our best to be safe. From here on out you’ll get the “we’re okay, just going to be late” messages at 3am. You guys are the best, don’t ever think I take you for granted.