Mt. Stuart via Ice Cliffs Glacier (aka Go Get A [excessive expletives] PLB)

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The cornice at the top. At least 20′ tall

“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.
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Come on it’s hilarious. Especially when you ring the bell.

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.

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First glimpse!

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.

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Route on the left, JT ready to ski!

But we survived the river crossings and honestly that was probably the hardest part of the approach. We camped just above the trees at the base of the route. We skinned up to check it out, figuring if it looked too intimidating we’d do Sherpa instead. But Ice Cliffs looked dope, and well within our abilities, so we decided to go for it. We made some turns on the way back to camp, perfect mellow green run for baby skiiers like me. Look at those S’s baby. Someone’s learning.
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That’s a 5 star bivvy. Best night of sleep in months.

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.

We got up around 5 and started up to the couloir. There was avvy debris mixed with chunks of glacial ice from the icefall at the base of the route, frozen solid, like a talus field except snow and ice. Soon enough, the steep snow starter. We knew if we stayed left of the icefall there would be a nice snowy couloir that would lead us up to the mellow, flat section above the falls. From that section, it would be steep snow to the cornice, and…. well, we’d deal with that when we got there.
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Baby turns!

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Already in heaven

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.

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For once I was thankful for clouds

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?

And that meant the pace was slow enough I could take tons of pictures. The bummer is that my phone started this trip at 7% battery, I had left the camera in the car, and that meant I had to ration photos. Ugh, the horrors.
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Living the freaking dream

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I saw that #1 cam crack from 50 feet away I was so proud

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.

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JT at our last break

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).

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Final stretch!

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.

It took maybe an hour to get to the top. JT was ahead of me. More front pointing on hard snow, man I’m sick of hard snow and it’s going to be a pain in the ass to downclimb this. I look up at JT as we got close. “Fuck.”
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HAHAHA ahaha haha ah no.

“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.

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Looking out at Sherpa and Balanced Rock

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.

So we kicked, or tried to, if you can call that kicking steps. After a few hundred feet there was no more kicking, just frontpoints, and laser sharp focus. Half an hour later, there was just sharp focus. An hour after that, there was blurry focus, and while my body physically felt fine, I was mentally losing it. The bottom looked so close. Maybe two rappels, if we set up an anchor and just left it? Yeah, that looked about right. JT was talking to himself as he downclimbed. “One foot now, two points in, next foot now, two more points in, now the first foot, now the second foot, just keep going, second foot, first foot, making steps.” I was singing that song that the parrot in the Lion King sings in his bone cage, somthing about I’ve got a lovely bunch of coconuts do do do do do do there they are all standing in a row, big ones small ones some the size of your head! I finally made a joke about bivvying.
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I mean, you have to laugh a little at the situation

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?”

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Time to get moving and warm up!!

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.

As soon as sun rose we were moving. We had already decided to rappel off gear and just leave the gear behind. Two rappels right? No, I suck at distance judging and we all know it. 2 raps turned into six. I couldn’t get pickets in through the ice, but it was still too thin for a v thread. Snow bollards were an option but I thought they’d take too long to make since we’d have to cut through all the crust. A chunk of ice broke my helmet (not a split, just knocked a plastic piece loose, but that was enough to render it useless). Great, we’re bailing. Fuck the pickets with two flat ends, always get the ones with one sharp end. It was impossible to get the flat end ones in the snow even after I chopped a starter hole. Pound that picket in harder, Eve. What happened to your swimmer triceps and shoulders?! Bro do you even lift?!? (no. but i should.)
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Somehow the snow still hadn’t softened up, here I am happily rappelling down

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!

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Glacier glasses that (on their first day in the wild) were nearly abandoned in the crevasse

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.

Except then the helo came and hovered right over us. And then it flew right over the ice cliffs route, and down the sherpa route. “They just… do you think they’re looking for us?” “Well they just flew literally right up ice cliffs and right down sherpa, so…. yes?” It was 10:30. Would my office have seriously called SAR at 9:01 sharp? I’ve been late to work after climbs before, this isn’t exactly the first time I’ve had an unplanned bivvy. I mean, maybe?
We stood by our stuff and stared at the copter, who hovered next to us for another 5 minutes before flying off. They definitely saw us, right? They’ve got to be going back to tell everyone we’re okay. I mean we’re standing on snow wearing bright orange and blue packing up our skis, there’s no way they didn’t see us.
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The Shimmy

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.

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Shattered Dreams

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.

A few hours later, I hear an engine. And I see an FJ come around the corner. Woohoo, JT!! The road is open!! Except… behind him is a huge pickup truck. With a huge label on the side. In all caps. “SHERIFF.” Oh, shit. So they were looking for us. That helicopter was for us. All day, that helicopter was looking for us. JT had gotten back to our cars, each of which had a note saying “you’ve been reported as overdue, please call the sheriff.” So he drove to cell service, called the sheriff, who opened the gate to the road and let him come pick me up. You know what’s great about a having bright yellow xterra? They saw it from the sky immediately and said yep Eve’s car is here. Nothing subtle about that.
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This is really getting in the way of our self rescue

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.

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Good look at Stuart over the swamp on the left

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.

Luckily, neither of the above even came close to happening. We just left an awkward trail of bail gear. While they were changing plans from rescue to recovery, we were bitching about postholing and why did we carry skis and shit none of these logs are good for crossing the stream and can you believe that buttered popcorn jelly beans are still disgusting after 3 days of climbing? I’m like at least 2 days from starvation if those still taste like shit.
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Sherpa Glacier on left, our route on right behind the center crag

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.

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Colchuck Peak, the lone climber’s rescue foreshadowing our own epic

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.

I have no idea if my office called that a vacation day, a personal/sick day, or is turning the other cheek. I was brainstorming my apologies and excuses while we were bivvying. “Call it a vacation day, call it two vacation days, I’m so sorry I’m so embarrassed” blah blah blah. I got into work and no one cared, everyone wanted to hear the story, and everyone was just relieved I was okay. Everyone had rallied and called in personal favors to anyone they knew who climbed or could stir up a rescue. That’s an awesome office right there. And there I was, back to spreadsheets. Spreadsheets never made me bivvy in a snow cave, or rap off $300 of gear, or resort to eating butter popcorn jelly beans. Tough choice between those and turds.
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So proud of my bivvy branch collection. Good thing I got such good sleep on night #1

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.

So go get a PLB. Don’t talk to me until you have one.
*You now have permission to make jokes at my expense.

Mt. McCausland Ski

 

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Bish coming up from the saddle with Lichtenberg in the background

Guys I swear I’m still here. I have just been boring the past few weekends months, with SAR training (going well) and a WFR class (went well) and some lazy Sundays (did not go well, I was bored by 8:30am) and some ski lessons (okay, only two). But finally, a weekend where I was free, weather was good, avvy conditions were good, and shit, I hadn’t been backcountry skiing AT ALL yet. I had two days at Stevens Pass, where I falsely inflated my own ego because groomed runs are wicked easy. So I needed to be humbled. And humbled I was, thanks to an old favorite, Mt. McCausland! “Skiied” 1/14/2017.
  • Distance: 9ish miles?
  • Elevation Gain: 3,300ft (5,700ft highest point)
  • Weather: Single digits and sunny! Dreamy!
  • Commute from Seattle: 1:45, unless roads are frosty/snowy/covered in spun-out cars
  • Did I Trip: I wiped out on skis many times and one time hugged a tree to save myself
  • Rough map (from an old meetup post) for McCausland (north peak) and Lichtenberg (south)
We were planning more ambitious peaks (I had them listed here but decided I’m not going to tell you because I’m selfish and sneaky) but unfortunately, some of us overslept. Which was okay, because Bish only had boots (no skis or snowshoes) and we had decided to #BootforBish (come on that’s adorable) and our original plan would have been a true trailbreaking sufferfest.
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Finally off the road!

We were going to meet at 6. I woke up at 5, rolled over, said “meh” and hit snooze. I texted JT asking when and where he was meeting Bish, who I thought was in Seattle. Woke up again at 5:30. No response from JT. Hit snooze. Woke up at 5:40. Shit, I didn’t actually text JT, I just dreamed that I did. Okay, I actually texted JT. “ETA… 6:30.” Okay, well now I’m up, so I’ll… have…. tea…? “ETA…. 7.” Well if they take that long I could go to the cafe that opens at 7… “ETA…. slow.” Hell yes, cafe time. So I left my apartment, ice axe in hand, and went to the cafe, where I sipped my earl grey looking not unlike Seattle’s homeless population fabulous.

JT and Bish pulled up around 7:40, and we brainstormed alternatives. I pitched Lichtenberg and McCausland off of highway 2, knowing it was a much shorter drive than the original plans with less elevation gain and less navigation and a large chunk of the travel would be on a road. Bish and JT agreed, and we went to seek out a pair of snowshoes for Bish while JT and I piled ski gear into the car. Woo! We took off, found some snowshoes thanks to Haley (who lives in Florida as of yesterday and will not be using those snowshoes), and soon enough were at Stevens Pass.
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Snow tree curls

2 degrees is what the thermometer said. We piled on all of our layers, no skin visible, eyelashes and snot freezing, and started skinning. I lasted about 15 minutes before taking off the first layer. Another 15 minutes before I took off my second layer (three puffy jackets was excessive) and JT ditched his puffy layer. By an hour in, we were all down to one or two layers.Toasty warm, except for my camelback, which was frozen. The Day of Dehydration had begun.

 We followed the usual winter route, which follows a valley heading southwest from the second switchback in the road (the furthest switchback to the west). From there, we were on snowmobile tracks for a hot minute, and finally were on our own breaking trail. I laughed as we left the snowmobile tracks behind. “First day of the rest of the season!” Time to learn how to suffer again.
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Bish in the trees below Lichtenberg

But when I saw we broke trail, I mostly mean JT. I think I broke trail for like 200ft. Dammit. And it wasn’t exactly challenging terrain. But that’s okay, gotta start the season somewhere and I was feeling good. We followed a snow covered creek up to the saddle between Lichtenberg and McCausland overlooking Lake Valhalla, and set our turnaround time at 2pm. We don’t often do turnaround times, but we wanted a true day trip, so we figured we’d see what happened. I was sick of being in the trees, needed a snack, and was very thirsty. Grumpy Cat was back.

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Doesn’t look so far from here right?

Hitting the saddle, I voted to push it a bit further to the top of a knoll for some good views before taking a break. As usual, we got to the top of the knoll and kept going as views opened up below us and sunny blue skies egged us on. “The trees would be easier but the face.. I mean the face looks more fun.” I looked up at JT. I had already said it earlier that day when JT chose the toughest path up a gully for whatever reason. “Why would we ever take the path of least resistance? Let’s do the face!” And JT took off making zig zags up the face while I snapped pictures of Bish coming up from the saddle with my recently-thawed camera. Well, almost thawed. There were still some blurry frost patches.

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Oh how I missed the Z’s

I quickly followed JT where I got the first true kick turns of the season under my belt. The wind scoured snow was scalloped and everything was almost blue in the light. I remember looking up at JT and just laughing. “I love this shit.” It had been way too long.
Mt. McCausland was one of my first hikes in Washington. Which basically means it was one of my first hikes ever. I didn’t know what a “scramble” was, and I hadn’t heard of Glacier Peak. Mt. McCausland introduced me to both of those, though of course now the legitimacy of the “scramble” label is in question. I also was worse at photography, which you might not think is possible, but believe me it was. Go see my old post for proof. No, I didn’t ever learn how to edit the sky in photos. Someday.
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Don’t say anything WHC

There was a very neat somewhat corniced ridge as we topped out, and of course we wanted to see Glacier Peak, so we ditched the skis and went to boot across it. That’s the mountaineering I’m used to. The summit register I had found two years ago(!) was likely under 8+ft of snow, so we didn’t even try. It was windy and frigidly cold up there. JT wanted pics of Bish and I across the cornice, but his hands kept freezing when he tried to take pictures, and I was miserably cold and bitching openly about it until I realized I was wearing my entire fucking pack which contained all of my layers. Duh and/or hello?! So like a wise man, I shut up, stopped whining, layered up and booted back to my skis.

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Finally at home

I’ll have you know I did not put skins back on my skis from the summit all the way back to the car. Yeah you heard that. I strapped the skis on, jumped off the top, took a sweet turn, and immediately wiped out. Overconfidence at its finest. Confidence newly destroyed, my next turns were true backseat skiing. I couldn’t handle the wind scoured snow, but as soon as we were on more mellow powder I remembered how to use my legs. Unfortunately, in the backcountry, you don’t get a warm up, and on peaks like McCausland, you don’t get much vert before you’re back in trees. And me skiing through trees is like this dog, except I don’t have the excuse of having a box on my head. I just slowly go in confused circles and hit everything.

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JT taking pics with frozen hands

Bish had booked it down from the top, assuming we’d catch up (I think he forgot that I don’t know how to ski). I finally stopped to have a mother fucking snack because I hadn’t eaten anything since those damn cheezits for breakfast in the car and I was getting hangry. Yes, that’s hungry + angry, if you aren’t familiar with the term. *Side note, honey stinger waffles taste way better frozen. And then I couldn’t figure out where Bish and JT had gone. I figured I’d follow the tracks we had put on the way up (there were a bunch of new snowmobile tracks now) and just holler every once in a while. Soon enough JT responded. Woo! We roughly followed Bish’s fresh snowshoe tracks. I finally had to boot it for 15 minutes through a steep section I remembered from the way up. Sam, we need you back. Booting is way less fun when you’re postholing hip deep alone.
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Patiently waiting on top of the world

I finally got to a place where I could strap the skis back on. The worst part about leaving the skins off is the uphill parts. There was one where I thought I could pick up enough speed to make it up the slope at the bottom, but didn’t quite get enough so naturally I tried to dive for it. Which didn’t go as planned, considering I was wearing skis. One got stuck on a tree, the other was on the opposite side of the small mound, and I was floundering unable to get traction in any direction. Luckily no on was there. They gave the newbie some privacy.
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Easy section on the way down where I could pull my wits together

I caught up to JT putting his skins back on. I refused, and kept moving. He caught up to me immediately, because we hit a 10ft steep hill that was very difficult with no skins and my level of coordination (very low). The trees were too close to sidestep. While I grappled with the slope, JT skinned up it and took off. Sucker, I got to fly down the road without skins and finally caught  back up to him and Bish, who has established himself as the fastest snowshoer I know. We told him by the end of the day he’d want an AT setup but I don’t know. Also, “fly” is subjective. I was like juuuuuust fast enough to just and and not need to walk.

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Turns out you shouldn’t jump off boulders if it’s a flat landing

We were approaching the car and JT made a good point. “I think this is the first trip we’ve done where we’ve been back before dark.” I thought about it for a minute and… he was right. Our trips have all been sufferfests, and this was a mild 6-7 hour outing that wasn’t rushed or stressful or anything. And you know what? It was amazing!! After so long not being in the mountains (ski resort doesn’t count) it was refreshing to get out even if just for a day. And to think that our casual trip was something I wouldn’t have thought of doing myself two years ago when I didn’t know anything about snow/avvy conditions or winter navigation. Damn I’m lucky.

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Bish coming up McCausland once more with Lichtenberg in the back

Oh, and we topped it all off with a free dinner at Haley’s house because she had cooked ham and potatoes and pretzel buns and had too much left over. I announced that the day had almost gone too well. Smooth trip, successful summit, back by dark without stressing or hustling, and a free yummy dinner. Everyone freaked and told me not to jinx it, we still had to drive back to Seattle and Tacoma. Spoiler alert: we made it!

Black Peak: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

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Chelsea, JT, and Sam above Wing Lake

Here’s the “too long, didn’t read” summary. The good: the views, the snow, the skiing, the company, Chelsea absolutely crushing her first legit climb. The bad: the lack of sleep, turning around before the summit, Sam’s shitty splitboard skins, my moldy waterbottle. The ugly: the route that I led everyone up. I fucked up. My bad, guys.
  • Distance: ~11 miles round trip
  • Eleveation: ~4100ft (plus 500ft you lose and regain)
  • Weather: 50’s and sunny
  • Commute from Seattle: Three solid hours
  • Did I Trip: I was thinking about this on the way down from Lake Ann, because I hadn’t, but I jinxed it and wiped out on my skis minutes later.
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Skiing down!

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Black Peak over Wing Lake

When I was getting into mountaineering (I mean I still am), all the stories I heard were of success and accomplishment and the smooth trips where everything goes according to plan. Or they were horror stories, with storms and injuries or death, and you have the “it’ll never happen to me” feeling that us beginners have. No one mentioned the casual trials, the mental and physical and emotional discomfort, that often come with trips. Getting off route in a new area, or maybe you get to your destination but in the least efficient way. Choosing between being comfortable and sunburning or boiling in the sun with your base layer, or foggy sunglasses versus risking being snowblind, or do you sweat in your goretex shell or just get rained on? Or how being tired just becomes a constant and you figure out how to savor the ups and push through the downs.

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JT skinning just past Lewis Lake

I don’t actually know where “snow hiking” or “backcountry skiing” turns into “mountaineering,” but it sounded catchier in the title than the other two. I tend to consider mountaineering anything involving technical glacier travel or alpine style rock climbing, but steep snow, avvy terrain, and needing basic skills like self arrest, self belay, kicking steps, and fake front pointing (we weren’t wearing crampons) and peakbagging all in one trip can blur the line.

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Great visibility. Can I blame my navigation on that?

Sam had wanted to snowboard Black Peak for months, and the highway was finally open! We were originally going to overnight it, but Sam had to dog sit last minute, so we were limited to a day. But we figured a day would be plenty of time. We all drove up Friday night. Chelsea was first, getting there around 9pm. JT was second, I have no idea when he arrived. I got there at 11:59pm, just barely beating the crack of midnight. When I first got my Xterra, my mother said “don’t you dare ever sleep in it, it’s creepy and weird.” Spoiler alert: I slept in it. Sorry Mom. I’m guess I’m creepy and weird. I could set up my mountaineering tent on pavement on the side of the road in the rain and deal with a wet tent, or I could curl up in the back seat and avoid putting in any effort. Back seat it was. Sam showed up last, stopping to nap in Newhalem at 11:30pm, rallying at 2:30am, getting to the trailhead at 3:30am, and immediately passing out again. If only sleep were optional.

We got up at 5 to start moving. I was considering sleeping another half hour or so since it was foggy with low visibility and how are you supposed to get excited for a ski trip when there are no views? But with everyone else ready to head out, I conceded and grabbed my stuff. We could put on skis immediately thanks to the 4-5ft of snow at Rainy Pass, and I led the way to the start of the trail.

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Nothing better than scrambling in ski boots! Oh wait, everything is better.

When I did this peak in summer, there were two areas where the trail meets the parking lot. One will lead you clockwise around the Heather/Maple Pass Loop (4 miles to Heather Pass) and the other leads you counterclockwise (2 miles to Heather Pass). This is the foundation of my error. I led us to the second trail. We started up, and began to traverse towards Heather Pass around 6500ft. Why didn’t I realize most people in winter went to the lake and then cut directly up to Heather Pass? Because it wasn’t mentioned in anything I read and I assumed because we all knew the area that we’d get there easily, meaning I never actually sat down to look at a map and figure out where the path of least resistance may be. But we knew where we were and where we had to go, it just wasn’t efficient, especially with ~50ft of visibility. Oh, and after a few pictures of us socked in by clouds, my camera decided it didn’t want to work anymore. Ok, cool.

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Phone pic of Chelsea while the clouds finally dissipate

What reinforced my error was the “why would you even upload this” GPX track I had snagged from a Peakbagger trip report of a winter ascent. The guy is either a masochist or likes to fuck with innocent last minute trip planners. It led us straight to rocky crags above Lake Ann, where we broke trail, scrambled in ski boots, bushwacked through shrubs and trees and slide alder and thanked the sweet baby Jesus for veggie belays, fought postholes and tree wells, and had no idea how the hell whoever made this GPX track had been where the track said they had been. Sam scrambled up a section that he couldn’t downclimb safely, so he had to keep going up. Chelsea and I decided to drop elevation and stay on snow and traverse beneath the crags, seeing as the GPX track gained 800 unnecessary feet of elevation and had to lose all of it getting to Heather Pass (that should have been a red flag). JT took a separate route to try and find Sam up in the crags, and we agreed to meet at Heather Pass. If one team did not make it to Heather Pass, we would meet at the car at 4pm, and if not everyone made that appointment, we’d know to start worrying. Somewhere in the midst of all of the complications, the clouds blew through and the sun came out. I stopped to take a sip of my crystal lite, and instead nearly barfed. It tasted like death. Oh, you haven’t washed this water bottle in like 6 weeks. Could that be why?

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Sam’s pic of Lake Ann as he caught up to me and Chelsea

Chelsea and I had a fairly easy time of the snow below, minus some ass deep postholes. I carried my skis and we took turns breaking trail, trying not to lose too much elevation so we’d hopefully pop out right at Heather Pass. We heard JT yelling for Sam, but it stopped before we could figure out what he was saying. Maybe 30 minutes later I hear “EVE!” And I look around wildly, “where are you?!” and it turns out Sam is maybe 200 yards behind us! He had hit a spot where he couldn’t scramble any farther, and had to find a different route down to drop on to the snow, where he followed our prints. We started yelling for JT, who we saw above us on the rocks, still scrambling along with skis on his back. There was an obvious easy gully for him to scramble down to meet us, so we kept walking, assuming he’d catch up quickly.

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Black Peak from Heather Pass

Well apparently the gulley wasn’t as obvious from JT’s perspective. He did not catch up, and we reached Heather Pass and deliberated how long to wait before we should go look for him. Sam and I skinned back towards the rocks to see if we could shout and hear him, and after 15 minutes of looking I finally heard a response. “JT!” “Hey!” “JT?!?” “What’s up!” “YAY!” I couldn’t see him, but he was just below me somewhere and that meant he was off the rocks and close to Heather Pass. I went back to where Chelsea was resting and had a snack while we waited.

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Chelsea coming up from Lewis Lake, Heather Pass is the saddle on the left behind the tree

And waited, and waited. Finally JT came popping around the trees, and we told him to stay there and we’d come to him. Which I think he appreciated, because he immediately flopped on the ground and took off his skis. After a quick bite to eat, he was ready to go on. Chelsea decided she was ready to turn around, but we all said fuck that and started off towards Black Peak.

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JT skinning past a cool boulder

It turns out I’m not as terrible at skiing as I thought. For the first time, I was carrying a day pack, maybe 20lbs tops. Probably more like 15. And it was a blast! I was excited for every downhill rather than dreading it. I had no trouble balancing or turning, and my quads weren’t on fire every 50ft like they are going downhill with an overnight pack stuffed with a rope and screws and all that junk. Suddenly speed was fun and exciting and more like flying and less like “oh god I’m gonna crash with this heavy ass pack and not be able to sit up and I’ll have to take it off and untangle myself from pack and skis and PIZZA and why do I do this PIZZA EVE MAKE A BIGGER PIZZA OH no oh NO fuck.”

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Sam and Chelsea trudging along

Chelsea was on snowshoes, but she was still ahead of Sam, who has the crappiest skins known to man. They kept falling off, they didn’t grip anything, it looked brutal. We took a few short breaks for sunscreen, snacks, and letting everyone catch up. My camera miraculously started again near Lewis Lake, so the photo saga continues! The terrain was a perfectly mellow mix of up and down and rolling hills (it’s all a boulder field in summer, far more enjoyable covered in snow) from Heather Pass to Lewis Lake and on to Wing Lake. Between the pass and Lewis Lake there are some very steep avvy slopes to your left which had strewn old debris all over our path, which almost had Chelsea bailing for the second time. She made a very good point that when you’re new, you’re 100% trusting whatever the people you’re with say, and it’s scary not knowing anything. But we were out of avvy terrain by Lewis Lake. I do wish the two lakes had been a little more melted out, since their colors are part of what make the approach to Black Peak so cool. I have a few pictures from my last trip (not blogged) that I will add so you can see how it looks in summer.

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JT rests in the shade beneath a snow boulder

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Almost at the ridge

We continued above Wing Lake, and JT chose a shady patch beneath a snow boulder to wait for Sam and Chelsea. Chelsea looked like she was about to stop at the rocks below. “Chelsea! No!” I yelled. “What?” “KEEP COMING!” “No, I think I’m going to stop and wait here… my ankle hurts, it’s steep snow, I don’t know…” JT and I started yelling jokes and encouragement. “That’s what ibuprofen is for!” “Army candy!” “At least come up to us and see the views from here!” You can’t stay at Wing Lake. The views get better and better as you go up. Heather Pass is pleasant, but then you get to Lewis Lake and it’s better. And the you get to Wing Lake and it’s pretty. And then you start stomping up to the ridge, and it goes from pretty to awesome to breathtaking to fucking unreal and it’s like a panorama from some IMAX movie except you ARE the center. And we figured if we got Chelsea up to us, we’d be able to convince her to keep going at least to the ridge. We’re good at dragging people along.

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Chelsea on the last few steps

We agreed to all boot up to the ridge, though it could have been skinned. Sam and JT carried skis and snowboard, I left the skis below figuring I’d keep Chelsea company so she wasn’t booting down alone watching us all play in the distance. Plus, I could not have skiied the top 30ish feet. JT broke trail most of the way, including a very steep step over a cornice (we avoided the badly overhanging parts). Chelsea followed (“I can’t tell what he did with his feet!” so many of his steps had collapsed as he burrowed up), I scurried over it next, and Sam brought up the rear. We took a quick break. There had been two groups in front of us, one solo skier who stopped at the ridge, and three skiiers who blew by us on the way up, but also appeared to have stopped at the ridge.

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Sam on the ridge with Goode in the background

We scrambled up the ridge with Chelsea leading the charge until we were forced to drop into a gully to the left. Now I got stumped by this last summer as someone had told me to NOT to take the first gully, and it took me a few tries to realize that the first gully is, in fact the correct gully, just to the left of the ridge. But there were footprints leading over to the second gully. Who do we trust?? Is it the gully I think it is, or is it the one where the footprints go? The second gully had recently had a small slab avalanche, so that was unappealing, and meant the first gully might be about ready to go as well. JT and I went to go investigate and see which looked like a safer, easier option.

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April 2016

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July 2015

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Finally!

Turns out it didn’t matter. Sam shouted up to us that it was getting late. It was almost 4:30 and that was past our turnaround time. I had no idea it was that late. I hadn’t been checking, the sun was high in the sky, I was feeling great, spirits were high. We knew we’d be much faster on the way down since we knew skiing down to Lake Ann and following tracks back would be much better than retracing our “adventure route.” Sam offered to just chill and wait for us if we wanted to keep going. We had discussed coming down in the dark earlier that day, but for Sam to call turnaround he must be pretty done, and Chelsea had already pushed through several instances of “I’m going to turn around” and I wasn’t sure how many she had left, plus I wanted everyone to be sharp for those first few steps off the ridge. JT and I agreed that if one person turned around here, we’d all turn around, and so we started the trek down.

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Chelsea coming down the staircase

Back at the saddle, I started downclimbing with Chelsea. This was Chelsea’s first “real mountaineering” trip (depending on your definition of mountaineering) and some of that snow was steep. Steep, and very crusty. Steep enough that if here had been a crappy runout below us, I would have offered to belay her the first 30ft or so. But there was just snow, and so I turned to face the slope and kicked steps into the crust so she’d have a staircase to take one step at a time. I stopped at one point to get pics of Sam and JT coming down on their skis and snowboard while I still had cool views. Sam passed me with maybe 3ft between us, resulting in an awesome picture. Once the slope mellowed out and was a bit softer from the afternoon sun, I turned around and started plunge stepping.

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On the way down just above Wing Lake

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And here comes the snowshoer

We met JT back at the snow boulder were I switched back to skis and Chelsea strapped on her snowshoes. Sam was ahead of us, knowing as soon as he was back on his miserable skins we’d all catch up. I finally got to click into my skis and enjoy the next 30 minutes or so of mellow skiing, stopping to wait for Chelsea at the bottom of every slope and laughing at the misery I could only imagine Sam was enduring. At one point Sam stopped and seemingly stared into space. “I think he just hit that point,” JT said. I was there a few weeks ago on Winchester at 3am (though I think we all were). I chucked, thinking of our train of misery. Well, I was doing fine. I think JT was too. Sam was cursing the world for his skins, and Chelsea was patting down steps in the side of the slope with her poles so she could take snowshoe more easily. Finally Sam gave up and strapped the splitboard to his pack, and Chelsea’s face lit up as she slowly realized she could ditch the snowshoes and take turns breaking trail with Sam.

 

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How much fun are we having?! So much!

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Okay now show everyone how you really feel

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Back at the pass, Sam and JT skied/snowboarded directly to the lake, and I let Chelsea pick the route down. She went for the gradual downhill traverse, until she realized how long it was taking. Luckily we found a direct path to the lake “you’re going to walk across a frozen lake?!? People DO that?!!!” She sounded horrified. Maybe it’s because I grew up skating on ponds every winter of my life. I made sure to get plenty of pictures of her on her first frozen lake crossing.

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Chelsea bravely standing on Lake Ann

And of course, there was a nice, well traveled path from the lake back to the trailhead. I don’t think we lost that much time on our adventure route, but it sure as hell would have been easier. And our friend Sammy followed our terrible tracks, though he says he had a similar GPX track so I’m not 100% to blame (sorry Sammy). It was pretty funny looking up at our tracks on the slope while we stood below on the easy trail, laughing at how hilariously off we had been. I should have taken a picture.

We made it back to the cars by dark, and headed back to Seattle. We had all driven separately. JT stopped for food. Chelsea made it home in one push. I nearly nodded off 15 miles from home, but put on some live Avenged Sevenfold and made sure to sing at the top of my lungs. Sam slept in a Winco parking lot somewhere in Everett. Wait, remind me why I like this?

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(so I can sit somewhere like this)