…of turnaround trips, and halfway trips, and downgrading from Plan A to Plan B to Plan C and eventually surrendering to Plan E, which stands for “Eating on my Couch.” It’s been a quiet season so far for me, but I’ve managed to rack up a few turnarounds and a few bails and and a few successful Plan C’s. And one weekend’s Plan C might be another weekend’s Plan A. Or maybe I burned out and Plan E is my dream weekend. But now it’s 2018, and it’s a clean slate ready to be filled with more turnarounds, and hopefully some summits and some carving turns and some technical pitches and a generally unreasonable consumption of alpine cider.
Plan B’s are less committing climbs. Maybe avalanche conditions aren’t great, maybe the weather isn’t worth a two day trip, maybe you’re feeling sick and noncommittal, maybe you took too long to figure out plans and now you’re stuck alone. Or maybe it’s resort skiing, because I like to hemorrhage money during the winter pretending to be a yuppie.
Plan D is whatever I whine about but eventually go on, or me texting everyone I know looking for people getting outside, and Plan E (short for “eating on my couch”) involves no effort from anyone whatsoever unless I actually walk 2 blocks to Markettime to get food, in which case I supposed I’m asking some favors of the cashiers and my digestive tract.
Forrest led the first two pitches with Brooke, and then I led the same two with Amber and Robert. Slab is my nemesis, I just picture slipping and cheese-gratering my face all over it. Until Forrest actually told me how to climb it. It’s almost like squatting. Get your feet under your chest and you can pretty much just walk right up it. I was standing up, but I was standing up with like a 15 degree angle between me and the rock, which meant a high chance of my feet slipping. If you can get your body weight as close to perpendicular as possible, you’ll have way more traction. And suddenly I was more comfortable. And the first two pitches are an easy lead with solid pro and a few bolts, and soon enough I was at the bolted anchors.
Belaying two people at once is a pain in the ass and my rope nest went to shit immediately, but hey the ledge was sunny and it was warm and that was nice. Robert and Amber cruised up and joined me on the icy belay ledge, waiting for our fingers and feet to freeze. Standing on snow in rock shoes sucks, so we tried to dance around it with little to no success. Oh, and then the sun went away. We had enjoyed it for like 15 minutes and now it was gone, never to be seen again.
I drove straight to the Heliotrope Ridge trailhead, where I met Shawna hoping to do a one push ascent of Baker. I was set up in bed by 9pm and we figured we’d get moving around 3am. I was recovering from a cold, so not feeling fantastic but not feeling awful either, and I slept surprisingly well. Unfortunately, Christie woke up sick (I know you can’t get someone sick in 6hrs but I still feel bad), so our group of 5 was down to 4. We skinned up the road to the trailhead (road is blocked around 1.5 miles from the actual trailhead) and started up, alternating skis and boots. Naomi decided her heart wasn’t in it, so she turned back too. We pushed on to low camp at the top of the hogsback, and decided we were turning around too. I have a three strike rule I like to keep, and having two people turn back was basically two strikes. Plus, I realized that we were a group of two skiers and one snowshoer, and a) I wasn’t sure I was comfortable skiing the glacier with as little snow cover as there was and b) we were slower than expected, likely due to me insisting on skinning un-skinnable terrain and c) what were we going to do, have the snowshoer walk down unroped? So we pitched a tent, shiver-napped and laughed at how we had forgotten how winter trips worked, and then skied down. Except I had forgotten how to ski. Shit. And my skis need to be waxed, desperately. I couldn’t even get them to slide at first. Ah, tis the season. The season of turnarounds, being slower than expected, fighting to skin or posthole, and remembering that you have no idea how to ski.
You know the book “The Things They Carried?” Yeah, well this was like a non-metaphorical version called “The Things They Didn’t Carry.” I forgot technical crampons. Amber didn’t bring sunglasses or a stove or a spoon (sound familiar? I bring two spoons now). Brooke didn’t bring sunglasses or poles. “Everyone forgot something except Forrest! And even if he did he’ll never tell us.” A few hours later, Forrest announced he didn’t bring a goretex jacket, just bibs. Ha! But between the four of us, we had enough to share. We skinned through the forest and then along a beautiful ridge to our campsite, and spent the next hour (three hours in my case because I have no idea what I’m doing) digging out snow caves. I don’t have the art of snow caving perfected yet, like Forrest and Brooke do. And we welcomed the new year with a fantastic sunset, dehydrated mountain meals, and battery powered christmas lights in snow caves. By which I mean we pretended it was midnight at 8pm because I wanted to go to sleep.
In the morning, we roped up for the Nisqually to be safe, but it’s nicely covered. Forrest gave the first two ice falls a good shot, but route A was too soft and route B was too thin. So on to the next idea, and we headed up to the seracs to get in a few laps. Forrest led two routes and the rest of us top roped. Ice climbing was like slab climbing. I’ve done it a few times, but no one has ever watched me and actually told me how to do it. Within a single pitch Forrest had given me three crucial tips. 1) Triangle. You want your ice pics almost in a vertical line, and your feet in a wide stance so your points of contact make a triangle. You can also yell “TRIANGLE!” at someone on their whole climb, just like skiing behind them yelling “PIZZA!” 2) On plasticy alpine ice, it’s possible (even ideal) to have more than just the front two teeth of your crampons in contact with the ice. And 3) You want to stick one tool as high as you can reach, then move your feet 3+ times, then stick your next tool as high as you can get it, move feet a bunch, rinse and repeat. Like rock climbing. And once I had those 3 things on my mind, everything was suddenly easier. It’s amazing how much having someone watch you even for just a few minutes can help.
We wrapped it up after a few laps, ripped the skins from our skis, and carved our way back down the Nisqually with Brooke dusting us in her snowshoes. She took advantages of our transitions to get a head start, but damn I have never met anyone that fast on snowshoes. We knew we were getting back to civilization when we heard kids and saw people sledding, and we skied all the way back to the parking lot, where all four of us ate it almost immediately on the black ice.
And you know what? Hex Mountain was fantastic. Super sweet low angle snowshoe out by Roslyn, which is often far enough east to get sunshine even when the pass is getting pounded by rain or snow. Kacie had to be back by 5pm so we needed something short and close, and this fit the bill. We crashed two meetups with had several mutual connections (one guardian angel on my Stuart trip last spring, Ashwin who came up Baker with me years ago, and some friends of SAR folks), I skiied (well, skinned) the worst snow I have skiied in my life, and we got to check out the remains of an area covered in wildfires this summer.
It was pretty wild seeing the eerie, gothic needle trees leftover from the fire, or how the fire consumed one tree but the tree next to it was left unscathed. So stop whining, you still got out, got a workout, and got some awesome photos. And you can go back in a few years and admire the changes as the forest recovers.
We started up the trail and finally strapped on snowshoes just below 4,000ft. You could have left them on for longer. I had been told Jackson was scared of steep snow but I didn’t know how scared until we reached the first snow bridge, where it turned out he’s also scared of snow-covered bridges even if the drop to the creek is like two feet. Shawna wrangled him across that, and then two more bridges, but when it came time to cross the steeper final slope, Jackson’s face said “absolutely not.” I was stomping a path across when I noticed Rippley’s paws were bloody, and announced that the pups were calling the trip for us. Back to the car! But hey, it’s sunshine, and a workout, and the smell of crisp pine trees in the middle of January, so it’s hard to complain. And Jackson actually slept in the car on the way home, imagine that.
So Plan C can be good. And so can Plan B, even if Plan A is the best. After all, getting out in winter is an accomplishment in itself. And the best way to stay in shape is to carry skis and wallow a bit. It’s not a true backcountry trip if there isn’t some postholing, or some booting, or even a tree well or two.* Bring it on, 2018, we’re ready!