His Holy Chossness, Mt. Saint Nicholas

Just as they stick up into the sky, certain peaks stick in the imagination. Perhaps they’re aesthetic, or rigorous, or feature in an epic tale told around the dinner table. Rearing heavenwards in the southeast corner of Glacier, Mt. Saint Nicholas certainly fits the bill on all three. Not only is the thumb distinguishable from everything nearby, it’s sort of a family tradition: my grandfather and several uncles have been to the summit. I’ve heard the story of how the first move requires the leader to stand on someone’s shoulders to start the moves at the family dinner table several times, and with such a legacy to follow, it had to happen sometime. 

http://skinningwithbearspray.com/2014/01/03/the-ghost-of-roommates-past/


http://skinningwithbearspray.com/2014/06/03/sloshing-up-mt-stimson/

Most mountaineers that play in Glacier have either climbed St. Nick or say they want to. Earlier this summer, some friends had suggested we make it happen over Labor Day weekend. Having not heard much from them in the week leading up, I got a phone call from Greg Fortin while painting a picket fence for Dave Boye. The weather looked good. We’d have our window. Did I want to go? I’d counted on the week to take care of some projects, including finishing the fence. Thankfully (for my predicament), Dave was turned around by poor timing on St. Nick earlier this year. So if it didn’t happen on time because of a climb, I figured he’d understand. 

And at six the next morning, it was on. St. Nick is on the right. 

Much like our soggy trip into Stimson this spring, St. Nick would require crossing both the Middle Fork and Coal Creek (twice) on the approach. Instead of the fiasco of wandering through the woods with a pack raft in tow, we were lucky to be able to ford. Greg takes to the chilly morning waters.

 

Amazing what a few months of melting and drainage can do. The place were Greg is standing was under ten feet of spring runoff when I last skinned by it. The trail disappeared into the chilly pond, only to remerge on the other side. Funny that it leaves a grassy meadow for later in the year. 



Undesignated permit in hand (or, more accurately, in pack), we planned to camp in the saddle north of the peak that first night. After an early start the next day, we’d climb, summit, and head back out. At least that was the plan. Before we could even start the technical climbing that gives St. Nick the mystique to back up its grandeur, an 11 mile, 5000ft approach was on the menu. 

As we walked in, I pondered the newness of the situation. Though I’ve been doing plenty of climbing this season, “climbing” in Glacier usually means a decent approach, 3K-6K feet of scree, bushwhacking, and a bit of scrambling to keep the “climber” honest. I’d guess that there’s ten named peaks in Glacier that actually require technical rock work or glacier travel to reach. St. Nick is one of the few where the standard route involves multipitch alpine trad climbing. My cragging seldom wanders into the multi pitch realm, and my trad leading experience was precisely zilch. Offering to carry half of the rack alongside one of the ropes was a partial token of thanks to all the leading that Greg would be doing. However, after looking at Mt. Sir Donald on Rogers Pass the previous weekend, I needed to see if alpine rock was really something I could do. And as we wandered down the valley through the wet morning grass, I knew that if it proved too much, we’d bail and come back when I was ready. 

Our approach took us about three miles past the Coal Creek backcountry campground. From there, we dropped off the trail, and went straight into the Fire Swamp. Though the fire didn’t seem particularly active, I kept a watchful eye out for R.O.U.Ses and barely pulled Greg from some Lightning Sand. 

Finally pushing up the other bank and out of the devil’s club was a joy. It turns out that we were off route–a better plan is to follow the ridge top just to the west of the main stream draining the NW bowl of St. Nick. Most of the game go there. Since it’s a ridge, the deadfall are stacked right on the ground instead of being lifted in the air–thanks to Greg for finding it on our way out. Instead, we forged ahead. And were well rewarded for our efforts. 

Not R.O.U.Ses, but H.O.U.Ses–Huckleberries Of Unusual Size. Some friends have been calling the bushes “hucklecherries” this season, and it fits. Most of the ones we found were of the gargantuan variety–which slowed our progress, but not in a frustrating way. 

Fire whipped through this area some years ago. Many of the trees in the bowl we ascended were completely torched, which changed the avalanche dynamics of those forested slopes. Slides had come through, leveling whole swaths of trees in the exact same direction, cutting right through groves that probably hadn’t seen such activity for quite a while. 

Then the forest ended, and we were into a large rock field decidedly lacking in delicious fruit bushes. Near the top, I filtered four liters and stuffed them into my much heavier pack–we guessed that the saddle campsite wouldn’t have water, and were kind of right. 

Impressively, the last thousand feet were a frustrating bit of scree work, alternated with slippery rocks and route finding up the chutes. I would have been lost on the way down had Greg not known the way, so I’d mark it well on the way up. I was expecting to be way high on a ridge with an epic view down into a valley–the lake and plateau that instead showed up were even more interesting. 

Looking south. Central high point is an unnamed peak north of Church Butte, and the craggy ridge is Salvage Mountain. 

Once we’d ate dinner, Greg went off to the snowfields below the pass to get some more water. He took a wander on this way back up to see the plateau behind the ridge in the above photo, and came back quite excited about some grassy patches of flat turf that seemed much more protected than the windy, rocky options in the saddle. 

Greg headed out to the better spot.

Of course, it was a pretty rough spot, with the blasé views you generally get around here. 

A quick trip up to the ridge for sunset left us contemplating the last thousand feet or so–it certainly looked impressive. 

I totally relish sleeping outside, but some places carry the beary bogeyman with them. Brilliant stars shown down. The Milky Way splashed across the sky, changing positions every time I woke up. An unusual amount of shooting stars skittered their way through the atmosphere. Right around three AM, I looked over to see greenish Northern Lights decorating the north horizon. And through it all, I remained subtly convinced that the rustling of my sleeping back in the breeze was the sound of a bear crunching through scree. Sort of a ridiculous thing to worry about, because even if it was, what was there to do? Nevertheless, it was there. And I totally slept through most of Greg yelling at me to get up for the sunrise. 

But not all of it. And Greg caught me looking really spiffy. 

The snow Greg put in our water bottles the night before had melted some. After a hurried breakfast and repack, we were off to the races. There’s quite a bit of gain from the saddle to the Great Notch, where the rope work starts, and we definitely had our share of route finding difficulties. Last time Greg was here, eight inches of snow fell while he was trying to get to the mountain, and he had to fix extensive portions of line to get his team out safely on the slippery rock. As we climbed up, he recognized a few pieces of sling and cordelette that he’d left in those heinous conditions. 

There’s a bit of info available on the Summitpost page for different routes, but not much in the way of actual explanation for the Northeast Ridge. Anytime an obstacle is reached on the ridge approaching the Notch, we detoured to the south side, staying pretty high on each detour. There’s a couple bits of stiff class 3 en route. But pretty soon, you pop out on the little summit to the north of the Great Notch, and it’s party time. Just before, take a look up the cliffs, and if the slings are still there, it’s easy to spot the first two belay stations–boulders with nice ledges and good spacing. The vaunted first move is, at worst, a 5.8 overhang with poor feet. A small stack of rocks helped us, but once you slug through a couple hard moves on big handholds, it’s way easier. 

I circled the belay stations in the composite photo below, and what I think is the third belay ledge. It’s probably not as far as it looks, but that third pitch was pretty long for us, and used most of a 70m rope. Anchor is another large boulder with slings.
All of this climbing is directly on the spine of the ridge–no need to wander onto the faces. There’s a bit of curve to the thing, and even when it’s starting to level out more, there’s a bit of work left to do. 

To start the fourth pitch, detour not too far off onto  the NW side of the ridge spine (several piton belays stations over here). We made the mistake of going towards the SE side, and that lead to thin, nasty 5.9 with rope drag and very few places to put in pro. This pitch was perhaps the steepest, most exposed climbing, hitting somewhere around 5.8 for most of where we were. I’d wager we took a harder line than necessary, and again, it was a boulder for an anchor. Fifth pitch was pretty quick, and we scrambled the last one to the summit (but did a single rappel back down it). 

Getting into the groove came easily. Greg was doing great lead work, and it was a pleasure to see the rope snaking out through my belay. I wore my Mountain Equipment Eclipse hoodie all day as a thicker side of base layer, and it was perfect–warm enough for the windy belay, but great when the sun was shining down too. Especially using the hood as a sun shade. 

Greg on pitch two:

It wasn’t until the third pitch before I really realized how high up we were–as the photos show, it’s blocky and not totally vertical. Contrary to what I’d expected, the exposure was there, but not incapacitating. I had a solid belay in Greg, and though I didn’t weight the rope once, I think that confidence allowed me to pull out the microscope. Focus on the moves. Be right there, right now. One hand and foot at a time, moving steadily upward. And that’s the beauty of something so mentally involving as climbing up rocks–I totally forgot about bank accounts, frustrations, and even my own name. It’s the sort of trance that I get while skiing down something, but on the uphill. 

Greg at the top of the third pitch. 

As I mentioned, we got off route to start the fourth pitch. Greg started up a small dihedral on the south side, got a ways above a hex, and then spent a bit trying to find a way to protect himself. Finding nothing, he decided to “retreat upward.” His voice floated down from around the corner: “If I fall here, I’ll definitely deck out.”

Twenty seconds later, I heard a snap, and Greg flew down into view, landing ninja-like in the rocks of a small outcropping. My catch had done nothing because of the low hex, and seeing the loose rope across my lap, my right hand abandoned the useless device, shot out, and pulled the rope taught. Fixing the belay with my left hand, Greg stood. 

“My ankles might be broken.” He shuffled towards me as he said this, and I wondered how one would walk in that sort of condition. Or how we’d rappel. Or all that approach, with the fire swamp and creek crossings to manage. How could we get out? It’s one thing to be committed to the rock, but another altogether to be so deep and so deeply screwed. But he stood there, checking his ankles. 

“I landed in a bush. Some moss or something. I think it saved my legs.” 

“You ok?” 

“Yeah. I can’t believe it. I had a whole handhold just snap clean off. It didn’t hit me. And right after I mentioned hitting the deck.” 

And aside from one sore ankle, he was fine. To boot, he took thirty seconds, then climbed right back up the thing that had just bucked him off. Run out, over a big, exposed face, he shut down his fear and channeled the adrenaline of the moment into a lead that I nearly fell on while following. Super impressive work, when only a minute prior I’d been wondering about cell service and rescue plans. And such are the moments upon which difficult mountain endeavors hinge–if Greg had wanted to bail, I’d have been with him. Bummed, but understanding the reasons. It takes so very little for things to go so very wrong in the remote places we frequent–so my conclusion is that Greg has massive, brass balls to deck on a lead fall from the mountain falling apart and keep pushing up. Not only do I owe all the leads to him, and the fact that we made it, but that courage to push through when shook. Truly an honor to climb with such a strong man of the hills. 

The next two pitches breezed by. I knew I was a ways up, but it didn’t matter–right there, right then. Nothing else. So far out of what I’d say is my element, but so at home in the familiar bubble of concentration that comes from ignoring the jeer squad of detracting worries. 

Stacking ropes atop our fifth pitch. 

Greg, on the last pitch (which we scrambled, then single rapped for the descent). 

With some last scrambling, we were on the summit. 


Looking north: Doody and the Cloudcroft, Eaglehead and Pinchot, Stimson, and Jackson in the back left. 

Looking east: Flinsch, Red, Rising Wolf, Rockwell, Appistoki, Henry, Ellsworth in back. Lone Walker, Caper, Battlement, Vigil in front. Our campsite was left of the large patch of snow in the foreground. 

Typically, the summit is a place of rest, and somewhat ease–the route is known, and unless a different route is to be descended, the obstacles that are really going to be issues are already there. However, as Greg’s drop had proved, it only takes a ledge with no moss on it to turn things on their head. I felt exposed, raw, way far gone from the comforts and capabilities of the world. It was exhilarating to know that I could climb up such stuff, following Greg’s lead. Freedom, for me, comes with the swelling sense of possibility when my boundaries are successfully pushed. What a way to get into multi pitch trad–and if I could make this follow, what of the future? What else could I do? How many other great climbs had just been opened, the possibility now a crack in what had been a blank wall of no? That excitement whirred alongside the fear of where we were, and as we started down, I thought that the rappels might be simple. 

Of course, they weren’t. All the blocks and lack of verticality that kept me happy on the climb made for really sketchy raps. Not only was it hard to find some of the rap stations, but the blocks meant that the rope threaded over multiple edges, see sawing back and forth with every weight and unweight as I moved over further edges. Greg would throw the rope down, get set, and head off to untangle the ends from the rocks. I’d be there, waiting. Nobody to talk to, nothing to do but swallow the fear and head down. I actually took ten deep breaths above the third pitch–but it didn’t do much to cut the most constant wave of fear I’ve felt in the mountains in quite a while. 

On skis, you can block out the terror by falling into the trance of downward movement. Climbing up, the rope is a precaution, not a taughtly stretched single thing holding you to the world by the weight of a boulder. Pulling the rope wracked the nerves–every little hitch or tug seemed to suggest that we’d be stuck. The knot tying the ropes together seemed to grow in size, always threatening to lock up on something and send us into solution mode.The down was scary, and towards the bottom, I just started going faster to get out of there. It seems dramatic given that people do much more difficult stuff in way more harrowing conditions, but was I headed down, thinking of the thin ropes over all the rock edges above me, I actually thought, “Man, this would be a really lame way to go out.”

 Greg looks up from the Great Notch as I prepare for the last double rappel.

It’s been a while since I’ve been that excited to be back on chossy, steep scrambling. The rappels were exciting, terrifying, and over. Grabbing our stuff, we started the race against the darkness to descend the 5000ft from the Notch to Coal Creek. 


I don’t think it right to call a mountain a canvas, because the marks we make on them aren’t important to see in the big picture. Arena seems better, because when we go to these places, it is the climber that comes home so changed–the possibility that I keep coming back to, the ability to fire ourselves in their crucible and come away that much more clean, simple, pure. 


Of course, we lost the race. Darkness crept over us as were nearing the creek. Stumbling through headlamp lit marsh grass, I watched Greg fall into a grassy hole between two logs. He then fell in again, and his headlamp beam completely disappeared. Once at the creek, we used map and GPS to arrive at the not-so-significant conclusion that we were perhaps a mile upstream of where we’d crossed before. Any excitement I had evaporated. 

Greg, however, was totally into it. Twisted ankle and all, he waded in.  

And quickly, everything changed. As the current pulled into an pool much deeper than our hip belts, we got on a log. 

“No way. I know this place. This is where we came across three years ago!”

In the dark, with nothing to guide us, we’d found the route that had eluded us in broad daylight before. No fire swamp. No doom by devil’s club. Just a gentle flow, to a log over the deep part, and we were on the hillside. It was another stroke of brilliant luck when we needed it most. An hour or so later, it was near 11:30pm. We were almost to the Coal Creek campground, and with another major river crossing and six miles, sleeping was the better part of valor. We grabbed a spot in the name of tiredness, and conked right out. 

Rope makes for a stiff pillow. 

The morning dawned overcast and dewy. My bag had water droplets all over it, and the biggest saving grace was the mix of cheese, powdered milk, and instant potatoes at the bottom of my food bag. Breakfast turned my morning around. It was time to head out. 

Greg crosses the Middle Fork. 

Huge thanks to Greg for inviting, leading, and doing it all with panache. And thanks to Dave for letting me skip out on the fence–I went back and finished it later in the week. 

Invading Cana-duh

In recent years, the area I live has occupied by a friendly invasion. On any given weekend of summer or winter, a contingent of RVs, fifth wheel trailers, and pickup trucks can be found heading down Friday night from the Canadian border. They drive the seventy miles or so to Whitefish, or Glacier Park, and proceed to enjoy their weekend free from the depredations of sales tax, the metric system, signs in two languages, and the higher Canadian prices for liquid commodities (beer and petroleum). Hey, Montana is all about freedom and liberty and such. Come Sunday, they all head back north, presumably until the next weekend.

Comparisons are frequently drawn by locals both accepting and irate between Whitefish and Tijuana–south of the border towns with cheap beer. But they keep our tourism-based economy going in the process. And like any group of people, there’s a ton of great folks just here for a good time to balance out the jerks that spoil their reputation.

Personally, I’m stoked they’re here. As a kid, the favorable exchange rates saw my family in Canada for lots of our trips. That’s since changed, so I don’t blame them. Our ski hill wouldn’t survive without their visits. They money they spend here is as good as anybody elses’. For tourists, they’re a jovial, usually polite, group of people.

As a skier and mountaineer, it should be nearly impossible to ignore Canada. Especially with so many of its citizens playing in my own backyard. However, I’ve been pretty good at it for quite a while, if by no other reason than just putting on the blinders and playing at home. That all changed last weekend.

Back in the 1970s, my dad headed north from Colorado towards the area in Montana where I was raised and live. His reason was simple: there was a big lake. Once here, he kept going into Canada with “no idea, no plan where I was going.” The mountain lust that had developed in Colorado found a bonanza in the Interior Ranges. I can only imagine him heading up the behemoth, glacially carved valleys, rubber-necking out the window of his red VW Beetle.

As we drove north (albeit in a much less nostalgic vehicle), I did plenty of staring. On either side of the river valleys, peaks reared up sharp and unknown, whole ranges of boundless potential wandering that I might have successfully ignored for who knows how much longer. There was a knowing gleam in my dad’s eye–when he suggested the trip for a summer outing, he was already plotting to turn me onto the scent that so filled his nostrils those years ago.

Our first day was spent heading up the Abbott Crest in Glacier National Park of Canada. Snaking north, west, and south through the avalanche sheds on Rogers Pass, the Transcanada Highway makes a quite an impression as you drive through the park. The control work they do in the winter also means warning signs in, you guessed it, two languages.

My dad’s first mistake was to let me make the decision on where to go. He’s been out and about a bit this summer, but like most people, enjoys some flat on his trails. Especially for a warm up. Instead, the Abbott trail takes to switchbacks with abandon, climbing aggressively right out the gate.

Most of the trails here were created by mountaineers trying to get to their goals as quickly as possible. This sort of thinking is absolutely refreshing to me, but that will probably change by the time I’m older. So while I’m not sorry for my trail choice (the most vertical gain of all the options), it wasn’t perhaps the best way to start the weekend.

The loaf of sandwiches is a recurring theme on our trips together. Sometime before we leave, my dad will take a whole loaf of bread, spread peanut butter and jam between each pair of slices, and we’ll eat on it during those snacky moments that inevitably happen. Here’s the loaf in action.

Rogers Pass has been on my radar as a touring destination, but I’ve since realized that it’s sort of essential that I make it up there.

The trail did eventually flatten out, and then started going up again. Having gone far enough, my dad sent me on to climb things and move fast. We’d meet up at the car later, but I wanted to get a higher viewpoint to see what was around.

So I made my way around the bowl, and scrambled straight up to attain the Crest. A nice couple from Quebec told me some history of the area, and confirmed the hut sighting I thought was right.

The Crest was a total blast, with little bits of scrambling and some exposure here and there. Falling away into glaciated basins on either side, the map was my only way of sorting out the peak names around me.

There’s a comfort and familiarity to the peaks in my backyard. Climbing there, each summit presents plenty of places I’ve been before, just from a different angle. The crumbly rock, the strange bushwhacking, the huckleberries, the place names–they hold the significance of home. And as I walked up onto Mt. Abbott and sat in awe of the place that surrounded me, it occurred to me that I’d been at home too long. The comfort had become a droning noise in the background. It didn’t feel as fresh. And of course, that’s the whole point of travel–to shake up the stale-ing perspective that comes from seeing the same place through the same eyes. Everything I didn’t know, all the strange peaks and their beckoning ridges, they opened the doors to new perspective and the joy of expanded possibilities.

The trip back down the ridge was the ease of downhill. Across the way, couloirs in the Mt. Rogers area were still skiable.

And also across the way, Mt. Sir Donald made quite an impression. The Northwest Arete (left side here) is on the Fifty Classic Climbs of North America, and it’s certainly the stunner in the area. Here’s coming back with the trad rack and some good partners.

One other reason I love Canada: terrific facial hair. AB Rogers puts on an impressive display:

On our second day out, we skipped the switchbacks and took the gondola to the ridge crest of Kicking Horse Mountain Resort. While I wouldn’t condone this sort of activity for everyone, it was really fun to spend some time in the upper alpine with my dad.

They’re in the process of extending the trails to the ridge south of the gondola, and it lead to a neat little meadow overlooking the valley. The headwaters of the Columbia were below us, and that was pretty neat to see.

The feeling of not knowing was wonderful. After a bit of time on an old map, we located the peaks I’d been staring at over the glacier the day before, completing just a small part of the huge smattering of terrain up here.

I came to the mountains via my family. To get to experience such cool places with them still is a huge blessing, and it’s a huge honor to wander around stomping grounds that my dad once and still passes through. I’m not big into lineage, but the baton has very clearly been handed off.

The baton of great selfies, that is.

Big thanks to my dad for a wonderful weekend, the maps, and most of all, the parenting that has lead me to find such freedom in the mountains. And to the Canadians–I’ll be back.

Vaught did you say?

In the madness of life, there come moments where it’s possible to suspend our bother with the goings on around us, such that our true position gleams as if amidst a dull wreckage. Clarity comes. And with that, a gratitude to simply be alive to survey the life being lived. 

Either that, or the huckleberries were really good after a week spent at summer OR. Whichever proves more accurate, I took a break from the Continental Divide climbs last week to wander up Mt. Stanton and Mt. Vaught. 

,

The approach was of the the fruit stand variety–teeming numbers of huckleberries bracketed the trail, interspersed by patches of thimbleberries. I’d credit the speed with which I hit treeline to the trail snacks. 

Like many peaks in Glacier, Stanton features a fairly worn game trail/climbers’ trail in some places. The entrance was obvious, and covered in deadfall, so I crashed around in the brush for a bit before finding it. I don’t know if it’s just me, or that climbing has become more popular in the past five years, or maybe that I’ve been doing some peaks that see more traffic–but they’re more worn in than I remember. 

Wildfires in some nearby vicinity (Idaho, Alberta, Washington, other parts of western Montana) giving a bit more gravitas to the SE summit views from Stanton. Flying ants had completely mobbed the summit prior to my sweaty arrival, and they managed to get all over me and my gear, some of them doing so even in the act of procreating. Pretty impressive little buggers. 

I’m still new to this mountaintop selfie sans timed shutter thing. So that discomfort comes out in the humor of upside down sunglasses. Believe it or not, they work just fine this way. 

The route leads over the summit of Stanton, and then down the ridge to connect with Vaught. From here forward, a few cairns were the only signs that somebody else had passed this way. 


Along the ridge, one particular spot falls off enough to deserve the seldom mention of a rope in the Edwards climbing guide. These sorts of thoughts are always complicated by the amount of time that has passed since Edwards compiled the route info, the natural erosion of these peaks, and made still looser by the varying levels of acceptable risk to any given climber or party. I’ll often shortcut the full discovery by talking to friends or family for their thoughts. In this case, Carl Kohnstamm told me that a chute on the east side afforded a spot to descend and traverse beneath the step. Still, it’s fun to visit these things that leap from a few words in a route description to grow large in the vacuum of the mind. My own estimation was that it looked no worse than 5.6, but the twenty feet of fall would make for a difficult down climb. Probably fine to climb up. And with the lore inspected, I traversed the rest of the ridge. 

A light breeze and another cloud of flying ants greeted me on the summit. 
Views to the west, with Trout Lake in the foreground. 

To the East:

A ptarmigan stays cool on the summit snowfield with Sperry Glacier behind:

And the most inspiring view is easily to the north, with McPartland and Heavens Peak rearing up along the ridge. Apparently, the W face of Heavens has been skied before, and I’ve a newfound respect for that feat. 

Atop the summit, the thunderheads built, but didn’t do anything more than threaten and look on. The ants flew everywhere. It was still. Peaceful. A quiet serenity pervaded the whole scene, the largeness of space and the towers punctuating it serving to dwarf me–to make me small yet again. Perhaps it is the lightness that comes with the shedding of cares. Perhaps it’s truly fresh each time, if one is open to receive it. But in that exposed place, so naked to the volatility of nature and everything that could possibly go wrong on the rocky descent and in the bear-food infested woods alone, the clarity that started this post enveloped me. Maybe it’s something hokey, or maybe the endorphins talking. But there was a burbling geyser of joy to just be there, flying ants and all. Joy to be able to feel that joy. To live out the life I have, I am given, I make. 



Showy asters on the straightforward descent. 

Crossing the ridge for the second time, I took note of the ledge that cuts across the west side of the summit block. It hadn’t been mentioned at all in the climbers guide, but seemed a reasonable thing to try. A faint game trail lead me across, saving the up and down of revisiting the flying ant orgy that was doubtless still in full swing up top. 

Somewhere right after I took this shot, I ran out of water. This time of year usually spells dry alpine conditions–most of the snow has gone down to be lakes and rivers and flush toilets. Thankfully, I found a source of water with some serious sugar in it too:

It went on like this. A stomach ache replaced the thirst, but I kept eating until I hit the stream, and eventually the lake. Where I took off my socks to find the full proof of the full, delicious day.

Over the Rainbow

Whatever they may say about the age of modern convenience and connectivity, it hasn’t yet managed to efficiently bridge the wildly diverse array of places that my friends call their summer homes. Several examples: Steven with a cell phone and iPad, but no texting/messaging options, leaving a bizarre gulf between phone calls and emailing back and forth. Dan, with no cell service up the North Fork, so I call him on the phone where he works. Often though, we’ll talk via Facebook message. Another gulf.

Don’t try to tell me there’s an app for these sorts of things. App existence doesn’t sway these people.

And still another, Tyler McCrae, who is also out of cell reception. So when I called last week to confirm the loose plans hashed out in a chance breakfast encounter the morning prior, the landline went straight to voicemail. An hour later, it was ringing, but nobody picked it up. But then, at 10:30pm, my phone starts making those bizarre noises that now signal that someone is calling. It’s Tyler, and he wants to know if I’m still in for the next morning. Tenish minutes of considering my 4am wakeup that morning, the climb we’d done that day, and whether I really wanted to switch my gear and load my mom’s kayak onto the car.

I’m not good at indecision. Several years ago, when I started making a more concerted effort to achieve the mountaineering goals I wanted, it became a mantra: why not now? What are you really waiting for? Despite the six hours of sleep I’d get, the gear to switch, and the tiredness I already felt, these are the moments split by only a hairsbreadth difference. Feeling that echo of motivation, I fell into its tug: it was on. I’d go.

Six short hours later, I hopped in the car. At Big Creek, I met Tyler and Quinn. We moved the kayak, stopped at Polebridge for more food, and made it the Bowman boat ramp by the early time of 9am.

Because it so dominates the south shore of Bowman Lake, Rainbow Peak has always been on my radar. The climb didn’t seem too difficult on paper, but the approach features five miles of dense, lakeshore bushwhacking or a swim or a boat. We chose boats, because we’re bright, young gentleman who were probably going to find other ways to make our day difficult–pick the low hanging fruit, right?

Sea kayaking reminds me of ski touring–there’s the glide, the closeness to the element you’re using, and the silence of swift movement. I was a sea kayak guide for the summer of 2011. The enjoyment comes right back, and it was fun to glide down the lake. Tyler and Quinn had to fight their borrowed, decidedly non-sleek canoe up the lake. It didn’t seem to phase them. The walk up starts at the creek that drains the whole face that we were to climb. Landing, with Numa Peak in the background:

Out of the boat, and right up the slope. Some relatively simple bushwhacking through loam and deadfall gave way to a steep elk trail that barreled up the hill near the stream. My quads discussed the poor planning involved in a big mission like this after a decent day before. I told them to stuff it.

They stuffed through the forest, then avie debris cast helter skelter against some groves that withstood the onslaught. They stuffed through nettles and brush in the middle of the chutes. Tyler found a trail along the margin, and they stuffed up that too. Below us, the view of the lake got better and better until we could look back to see the boat ramp and all we’d covered.

Then they were tired, so it was break time. Quinn wields his sword in compression shorts.

Did I mention that this was his second climb in Glacier? Super impressive. The dry creek bed started splashing at us, which was nice, because the sun cooked down and we’d be lacking water further up. Less than a hundred yards from our break, we stopped to filter water.

Tyler, moving again:

The stuffing slowed to huffing and puffing. Though moving upward at a solid clip, the chute went on and on. At some point, we were supposed to roll over the edge and into a cirque that would spell the halfway point. My mind chased possibilities between a shaky altimeter (and I was wrong about that that) on my Ambit2 and a route description gone haywire. When we finally cleared the gully, it was nice to look a long ways down into the cirque we’d been trying to find. We’d been off route, but at least we were higher than we thought.

Following some stiff Class 4 moves up a gully, then a traverse out onto the face, we steered clear of the scree that coats the slopes on the south side. Not too difficult, with easy options on the sides for the cruxes, it was fun climbing. Cruisey. We made good time, pushed forward by the cumulus clouds that were building up into thunderheads to the west.

Eventually, we reached the ridge. I think we were all tired, but the weather seemed to be holding.

Just below the summit. The crooked horizon line can interpreted as tiredness.

A hundred feet more, and we were up top. Sometimes the goal of reaching a summit seems so arbitrary–in abstraction, any other point would work as an agreed upon place to stop and turn around. But beyond the goals we set for ourselves or the silly notions about “conquering” mountains just because one has stood atop them, there’s a perfectly reasonable way to look at the top as a stopping point–the views are better.

Looking northwest at Kintla and Kinnerly.  

Across the ridge to Carter:

Southeast over the Rainbow Glacier to Vulture:

And panoramically from the summit.

To the north, things were beginning to rumble as a massive cloud stacked itself into the heavens. I’m not petrified of lightening, but it didn’t seem like a good plan to risk later storms, especially since we’d have to travel back across the lake. It was time to head down.

Because the loose footing would allow for some scree sliding, we wandered over to the south slopes that we’d avoided on our ascent. A small patch of snow provided some sliding entertainment. A gully lead down and then we followed the bottom of the cirque back over to catch the south fork of the chute we’d ascended.

Looking up into the cirque. Our route followed the darker slot in the center right of the steep stuff.

Pushing to make the summit and get down out of the lightening range had taken its toll. A long break ensued, so much so that it was a bit later by the time we got rolling down the hill.

Going down, if you’re following the up track, has the nice quality of the known to it. It’s easy to make the right moves if there’s a trail, or if I can remember things well enough to use that. Balance against the previous uncertainty of where to climb is achieved, such that it feels sweeter to have sorted the route finding. There’s the sense of plunging back down–even though it’s part of the climb, I’m usually ready to be done.

Instead of the giant lightening rod that I’d feared crossing, the lakeshore proved a great chance to jump in and cool off. We all went into the water. And man did it feel nice after the sweatiness of the climb through the heat of the day.

To top that, we had a tailwind. On a lake that seems to grow two foot waves and headwinds, it blew from our back and caressed us back down to the foot. Some sort of concession it seemed, like an acknowledgement that we’d done something cool. Though if it had been a headwind, I’d probably cast it as yet another epic challenge as part of an epic day, man. So who knows if it actually was a gift. We were happy.

As I paddled along, the sun cut down below the ridge, painting the scree we’d partied down into alpenglow. Calm water took us into the boat ramp, where we made an important discovery: melted chocolate bars make for great dipping on fresh cherries.

Thanks to Tyler and Quinn for a great day. Check out the stats of the trip on my Movescount.

Lone Walkering

No sign, manual, or printed advice in recent memory has said this, so let me be the first: go hiking alone.

In the tradition of the (less epic) spirit quest, the quietude of the era before electricity and steam, the simple moments where the wilderness pipes into only one pair of ears with nothing to distract, mutilate, or bend the experience–go by yourself.

Success is entirely between you and where you go. Anything that happens, you have to handle or accept. Perhaps the consequences of a mistake seem more spectacular in free soloing, but it only takes a small slip in the wrong spot on a much tamer slope for the same result. To have that concentration on the forefront of the mind while moving well and enjoying the experiences creates a tension. There’s a simplicity, a purity there. Everything has to work. And when I wind into that groove, there’s a sense of happiness that is completely different from climbing with an awesome team or group. I wouldn’t call it better; just worthwhilely different.

If my advice causes you to get hurt, I’m not to blame. Go prepared. I make different decisions when by myself. I wear a helmet when it’s probably not necessary. So be smart.

And since I’ve yet to head off by myself for a summer climb this year, a solo climb of Lone Walker Mountain in Two Medicine made perfect sense. Back in May, Dan Koestler and I traversed under it en route to Dawson Pass on skis, but we didn’t make the ascent as the south ridge of Hellen seemed plenty difficult for our afternoon. My Continental Divide project meant I needed to go back and climb it, so I rolled into the Two Med parking lot around 8:45 with a vague notion of what I’d be doing.

Casual tourists use the Glacier Park Boat Company to avoid walking, and probably learn a bit about the park en route. In a last minute bid to dodge the three and a half miles of forest walking up Middle Two Medicine Lake, I hopped the 9:00 boat for a bow seat. The instructive tour was drowned out by engine noise, and it’s just as well, because I wasn’t paying attention anyway.

From the boat, there’s a bit of walking through the forest and meadows to get up to Upper Two Medicine Lake. En route, Twin Falls proves that old adage about Montana: you need a panoramic mode to capture even the waterfalls.

Rolling up through some nice meadows, the trail ambled through beargrass (white) and spiraea (pink) that were going absolutely party mode. I’m not a huge flower guy, but the display was absurd.

It proved a nice prelude to the next segment. The more standard route up goes to the pass on the north side of the mountain, which means you have to go up the lake. Options include bushwhacking and then sidehilling for a stupid amount of time, or wading the lakeshore and cutting up a vicious scree slope.

I took the second option, which connected poorly with the super-sized winter that we just seemed to finish. Exhibit A: extra water made the lake level higher, which made wading a deeper experience than I thought I’d face. Exhibit B: extra avalanches lead to lots of floating logs, fully branched and needled, and resting in the water against the bank. The whole point of my sloshy detour was to avoid flora, so how frustrating to realize something I’d never even contemplated: underwater bushwhacking. Exhibit C: wading for a mile and a half between knee and butt deep is hard work. It’s slow.

But then you run into false hellebores popping up under a melting snowbank, and their idiot optimism wears off. Eventually, I made it to a big scree slope, which served as a fully functional treadmill of swearing. After that, a snow slope made for much better footing and less swearing.

What it lacked in swearing, it made up for in serious deja vu. En route from Mt. Rockwell, the center peak, we’d traversed the lower snowfield in May. I don’t think we’d have tried it had we seen the hanging snowfields visible in this picture, but once in, we were committed.

In this photo from May, you can see our ski traverse line entering the trees in the bottom of the frame. Above them, you can see the track of the wet slide that took out a hundred yards of it ten minutes after we put that section in. It came down as we were transitioning to head up the slope to safety, and the boot pack was the fastest I’ve ever done with a big pack through thigh deep sludge. We left feeling the weight of humility, and weren’t on anything slidey after 9:30 for the rest of the trip.

It was quite nice to make the climb to the pass with no hang fire. Mountains don’t feel evil to me, but the place was rank with my own fear from before. A cruisey ridge was just the ticket, and Lone Walker delivered.

A shot of the ridge in winter.

It was really nice going until I got to the summit ridge, and ended up traversing counter clockwise around most of the summit block looking for a good access point.

Eventually, I found one, and after a few moves, the summit was just an easy walk down the ridge.

Summiting isn’t my favorite part of the climb. Instead, it’s the moment, usually twenty to thirty feet away, that it becomes apparent that there aren’t any obstacles left–no more route finding, scree fields, bears, or other difficulties that stand between me and getting exactly half way to a successful day in the hills. The summit itself is nice too, but the knowledge that you’ve made it kicks in a little before you’re actually there–and that’d the feeling of success that I love so much about the mountains.

In my parking lot rush for the boat, I forgot to change into one of the nice, wicking Crux Tees that Mountain Equipment sent me at the beginning of this summer. So that meant I realized I was in cotton all day, and it actually was just fine.

I’ve also become a big fan of Hammer Nutrition’s Perpetuem Solids while out wandering around. They’ve got some protein in them to keep your muscles happy for moving around all day, they taste fine, and they’re chewy enough to take the mind off scree grinding for a while.

Upper Two Med, Middle Two Med, and Lower Two Med with Rising Wolf towering above them to the left.

On the descent, things went just fine. I opted to crampon down the snow because it was just big and steep and sun cupped enough to make glissading a little scary, even with an axe. Which meant that I was wearing crampons and Salomon Running shoes. And, in a very important coincidence, they’re the sameish color match.

I found a hitchhiker.

Wade, wade, wade. The trees on the left, immediate shore were the worst part of the trip. A steep drop off meant that I had to cling to veggie belays, my feet on slippery rocks, traversing along. Each grip of a belay sent the gnats resting in the trees out to swarm around my head. Caution demanded slow speed, with a soaked backpack as the consequence, so the gnats were totally a match for my speed.

And once at the foot of the lake, I booked it to make it back in time for the return boat. The joke, however, was once again on me. I arrived to find out that there wasn’t enough room and waited a while so they could offload and return for the rest of us. But return they did, and it was wonderful to skip the last miles, especially because I saw a bear ranger, gun on shoulder, headed off to the north shore trail I would have taken.

Thanks to the Boat Co for finding a spot for me, and thanks to Lone Walker for not sliding on us last time so I could come back.

Check out the trip stats on Movescount: http://www.movescount.com/moves/move36373906

Grizzled vikings and other mountain creatures

Among the influences on my life, books figure as heavily as the mountains. So it’s hardly surprising that I found myself wandering along the trail last week comparing the experience of reading a book to that of climbing a mountain. Books and writing can usually be said to focus around some kind of story, or plot, or movement between two points of thinking. There’s a transit. Surprises or turns along the way can make even a beaten track seem fresh, and entirely new genres or settings can seem like entering a vast, unexplored country that was only hinted at by what I’d heard. While the concept or form might be similar, every book is different in some aspect. All of these can be said of mountains as well.

Which means that, just like books that aren’t particularly interesting, there are a few climbs or excursions that don’t hold as much of my interest. Perhaps they are worthy for other folks. Perhaps I’m off in that I don’t enjoy them as much as others. Perhaps it’s mountain snobbery. One good story sends you searching after another–which can sometimes yield three books of reading for a botched, cankered ending (like The Hunger Games). Mountains can do the same thing, and if a larger climbing project is in motion, there’s going to be less savory parts that have nothing to do with character building. Thankfully, unlike books, a trip to the mountains isn’t following the track of a writer–it’s about making your own adventure, and adapting yourself to what you find there. So the outcome and your attitude about it can be very much up to you.

The Continental Divide, a line that separates the watersheds between the East and West of North America, runs along the spine of Glacier National Park. One of my ongoing projects is to climb all the mountains along that line. In pursuit of that goal, there’s some truly classic, interesting terrain. There’s also a few other places that fall, with a sighing thud, into the less entertaining category. And because I have to visit all the places that includes, the projects can take on the rote routine frequented by less scenic tasks like paperwork or mowing lawns. Though they may be hard, or scenic, they lack imagination. For the less spicy bits, it’s important to keep things like pack rafts and plastic Viking helmets in the trunk of your car.

Awaking in East Glacier from a full night of sleep after a full day, Mitch and I set up off from the Two Medicine trailhead at the perfectly early hour of 10:30am. Our objective was to climb Grizzly Peak. I hadn’t been there, and what it has in prominence, it somewhat lacks in technicality–the climb is 1200ft of gain from the nearest, trail-accessed pass. Chief Lodgepole Mountain, by far the easiest named mountain to climb in Glacier, is a blip on the trail en route. Two summits is the technical total, and both are on the Divide, but it felt like climbing a peak and a quarter. If that.

Thus, the Viking helmet. The oars. The life jacket. Instead of extreme route choices to liven up the day, we’d hike to Cobalt Lake, drop the heavy gear, stash some beers in the iceberg infested waters to cool, then summit one and a quarter times, and head back for a dip and some pack rafting.

Beargrass only blooms once per seven years. With such a pile of it in Glacier, there’s some years that seem like a full on explosion. White, tufted blooms were everywhere on the hike into Cobalt.

After hoisting the pack raft, and stashing the gear, we headed for the pass. Mitch’s feet objected to boots in the parking lot, so he did all the trail in sandals.

Atop Two Medicine Pass, you can see Grizzly as the mountain on the skyline. Chief Lodgepole is the humpy looking pile of choss to the lower left. One quarter mountain is probably generous. I feel bad for Chief Lodgepole that he or she had such a piddly hill as their namesake.

The view from “atop” Chief Lodgepole.

I forgot about our late start, and sometime around 2:30pm, Mitch reminded me that we hadn’t eaten lunch. Here’s a candid shot of enjoying a peanut butter and cookie butter sandwich while wearing plastic excitement on my head.

Then, we waltzed to the summit. Skier vision never goes away, and I tucked this one into the mental echo chamber for next spring’s descents:

I should have taken off my shirt. This was mentioned later. Next time, I plan to do a more accurate job of viking rock lifting:

No ropes. Barely anything that could be considered more than walking. Reduced visibility due to Washington’s wildfires. But it’s still gorgeous. Looking south into the Ole Creek drainage.

Here’s the ridge that Mitch and I traversed the day before: Summit Mtn to Calf Robe Mtn to Red Crow Mtn.

Mitch contributed to summit festivities by pulling out a whole, perfectly ripe avocado. He looks so good in green too.

Then we went down. If it were diagraming the story, we’d call that the falling action.

Neither of us took that literally, at least not until we got to the snowfield descent that cut out two miles of trail. Mitch did a great job arresting with a pole.

Then, as I inflated the pack raft, he put his minimal body fat percentage to the test in some truly frigid water. Exibit A: snowfields terminating in the lake. Exibit B: icebergs.

I jumped in, for the record. Then rapidly turned around and got into a more comfortable way to explore the lake: the Klymit Litewater Dinghy.

Sledding down the snow and into the lake on the raft was considered. Then dismissed. But since something had to be done, I thought I’d try to find a nice iceberg to lasso. My choice was something of a colossal error in judgement: it moved perhaps six inches with each tug. I tried pushing it. I eventually gave up on paddling, and sculled on the side opposite from where the tow cord attached to my vest. In this way, I managed to cross the lake with my sort-of-captive.

Even the five miles out felt fun after that. We charged along, borne on the success of our ridiculous antics and how well the day had gone. It was really pretty, too.

Thanks to Mitch for his companionship and the good times. Thanks to Ben Darce for the accommodations in East Glacier. My apologies to the church group whose service  was interrupted by a  farmer-tanned, beached-whale semi-plunge into Two Medicine Lake. In my defense, we were both sweaty again.

New! Check out our day on Movescount.

Freshies in Juneuary

Excluding whatever types of pagan rituals that might have once been observed, I have my own summer solstice tradition. By waiting until June 21st, the official beginning of their summer glory, I torment friends and family members by reminding them of one simple, basic fact: from that point forward, the days will be getting shorter. The summer has only really just started there. And it will get hotter. And neither of those things prevents me from adding a wintery pall to their summer solstice with that simple, hopeful notion about the shorter, darker days that will soon be back.

Of course, this is only projecting my own wintery preference onto people who like sun and dry trails and such. It’s only pleasure at their pain. I’ll still daydream of floating through powdered glades and skinning across alpine traverses, and in those daydreams, there’s always the small hope that maybe, just maybe, the freak storm will materialize, obliterate the summer hillsides under a coat of fresh snow, and we’ll be there to revel with our skis in some June pow. This never seem to happen though.

Until a storm drunkenly careened down from Canada, slammed into the hills, and sat there for  two days straight. Upwards of four inches of rain soaked the valleys, translating to feet in the alpine. Strange phone calls were made, because for that moment, we were that darkly shaded area of snowpocalypse on the storm maps. The place everyone wanted to be. A crew was rallied, and it was time to fulfill those strange dreams of  solstice face shots.

Access roads that had recently melted out seemed our best bet. On June 17th, Clay and I piled into Jason’s truck and we headed for Jewel Basin. The thermometer on the rearview crept down to 37. Then to 36. We parked in a light rain, and started skinning with dampening spirits. Sheltering on the porch of the closed ranger station above a parking lot still deep under old snow, the general thought was that we’d missed the fresh for a tour in the rain.

Getting off the porch was the hard part. As we gained elevation, the rain turned to snow glopping on our skins and soaking our gloves. Atop the ridge, it was full on winter, and the damp stoke started to show. With skis that no longer slid due to the sludge ingrained into the bottom, each step was an experiment in something more walking than sliding. The summit came and went, and we transitioned in an alcove above old snow coated in six inches of late June glory.

Ski cuts confirmed the obvious–the bond between the new and old snow was nearly nonexistent. After cutting a wide path, we skied the slide track and then wandered out into new snow on the lower angles of the apron. Heavy snow flew up past our faces, and the instead of sun cups, the unweighting joy of those missing winter days rose from our legs and spilled out into howls of excitement that probably would have echoed, had it not been for the snow.

Since the snow stuck to my bases so well on the trip down to Picnic Lakes, I decided to try touring up without my doomed skins. It worked perfectly. And just as I was thinking this, negotiating a steep spot around a tree, one ski slipped out and I nearly went head first into a consolidated tree well.

No goggles, no skins, not even close to winter, but on the aspects near the trees, it was just what we came for.

Which meant that another lap was in order, despite the soaking we’d all received from the wet start and constant snow. It was a good thing I put my goggles on, because some snow came up and hit me in the face.

Clay managed a creek gap on the way back to the truck, and as we got close, the fact that we were still skiing were we’d walked over dirt brought it home: the snow level had plummeted. We’d skied pow. And now we’d have to drive down through it on a steep dirt road with no plowing or chains in a light pickup truck.

Jason took the helm with Clay and I seated on the dropped tailgate for ballast. At least twice we felt the back end break free and begin to slide sideways until it dug into gravel through the snow.

“Well, if the truck goes off, I guess we’ll just bail.”

And thanks to Jason’s masterful driving, we didn’t have to. Once at snow line, we switched into the cab, and descended into the valley and the rain.

But of course, the snow was still piling up, and with positive June snowpack, we’d have to go pillage again. Such luck demanded another foray. Essex emerged from discussion as the target, and the next day, I found myself walking up the Marion Lake trail in my ski boots.

Elkweed and alder that had only recently sprung up from the melting winter snowpack were festooned with fresh snow. It felt like Christmas. And as we switched into skis nearer to the lake and headed up the slopes of Essex Eountain, the bond between our June gift and the winter’s remnants reminded us that it certainly wasn’t December. Note Clay’s slide in the foreground.

As we ascended, it got deeper, and deeper. Which just made us smile that much more.

And more.

And more.

And more.

And on our second lap, Clay negotiated the melt out to survive a small drop.

At the end of our second lap, it was noticeably warmer. Our fresh was beginning to remember that it was actually June, and prudence suggested a retreat from increasing slide danger.

So  descent on the access trail offered an opportunity: we’d be able to ski through some of the snow we’d walked up. As our bases played chicken with barely covered rocks and gravel, we made hashy turns through the alder and thin snow. Clay proved to be the most adept until a corner served up a clatter of a stop.


The walk down proved easy, and as we reached the truck, I considered the slide risk we’d seen increase. Larger piles of snow had fallen in the alpine, making much of the interesting  terrain even sketchier than what we’d skied. So I checked out thankfully, dedicating the next day to errands and chores.

Which were necessary, but boring. Climbing at the crag seemed to be a good way to finish too much time on the computer, so I called Taylor.

“Oh, you wanted to climb? I’m going skiing. Jewel with James and Kathy. You want to come?”

And so day three of Juneuary started at 5pm.

Leaving the car a little further than where we’d been snowed in just two days previous, it was a pretty different day. For one, it wasn’t raining.

And for another, the evening was positioning itself for a gorgeous sunset.

Taylor and I made it to the microwave shack. To the west, the sun headed down, kicking alpenglow onto the peaks of the Great Bear and Glacier to our east.

And we headed down. After some ski cuts, we dropped into a fun chute that had slide naturally earlier in the day.

This time, the trip out required skins. Transition at Aeneas Notch.

With some scuffling around in the trees, some turns, and the same creek gap, we got back to the car just as headlamps seemed like a good idea. Our trip down the road went much more smoothly with just dirt. It’d been three days of wet, then pow, then sludge. The storm had come. We’d been ready. And as the hot days resumed, bringing with them the daydreams of the snow on our faces, they didn’t seem quite as far away.

Thanks to Jason, Clay, Taylor, James, and Kathy for their companionship and photos. Thanks especially to Jason for motivating and not going off the road.

Learning times on Rainier

Looking out the upper floors of the Tingelstad dorm at Pacific Lutheran University, my alma mater, Mount Rainier fills the eastern horizon. The first time I went to visit a friend who lived there, it majestically posed through the windows of an end lounge. Nowhere else on campus does the picture appear so completely; the image of its conical mass through the haze of Tacoma was my first of a truly massive mountain in close proximity to where I lived. Like anyone with any sort of upward ambition, the desire to play on and climb up it was kindled with that first chance encounter.

So when my sister asked to climb Rainier as her graduation present, it made sense. She spent a year longer at PLU than I did, and thus had that much more time to stare at the giant looming out of sight behind shade trees and brick buildings. Starting with a group of some six people, only four of us eventually committed and arrived in a hurricane of gear and excitement at the end of May: my sister Beth, our mutual friend Laurel, my girlfriend Rose, and me.

As I spend a fair bit of time in the hills, and was the only one with expedition mountaineering experience, it fell to me to organize and pilot the planning of our trip. Everyone else would be renting things like crampons or cold weather sleeping bags, we’d need to eat things, what about permitting, and on and on. I made a gear list (notably lacking water bottles). A big thanks to Woody for helping out with my gear and some stuff for Rose.

But none of this seemed particularly daunting to me. I didn’t need to buy any gear. We didn’t have to ski anything, though I’d be taking my skis as far as Camp Muir because I refused to walk down that snowfield. Grant and I did way more work on our trip for Denali last year. I’m not sure why the particulars of this trip didn’t feel strange at the time, but I figured that with good weather and a simple route choice on the Disappointment Cleaver, we could make a solid shot at getting to the top.

The week before our Friday departure, I helped Beth to move into a new house in Seattle, then attended the Mountain Equipment Spring ’15 launch at their US headquarters in Peshastin. After a kind ride from Sam to and from, I was itchy to get going, but lacking on prep work and organizing gear. After a bunch of last minute stuff that took hours, Laurel and I arrived in Parkland. Everything somehow fit into Beth’s car–we even managed to get all four of us in there.

Rainier can present a serious altitude challenge for climbers who live nearby. Puget Sound seems to be within spitting distance of most houses, making the summit a gain of 14,000 ft from usual sleeping elevation. Making such a leap in a few days doesn’t work for everyone, so to help the crew acclimate, we spent the first night at Paradise. I figured we’d roll in, work on crevasse rescue and roped travel, and with another practice session the next day at camp, everyone would be up to speed for our time on the glaciers.

Leading the crew through the snowy woods by Paradise, the experience gap started to become obvious to me–if even by accident, I’d been skiing and climbing with a number of friends whose experience and abilities were better or comparable with my own. They’d self arrested falls, melted snow for all their water, and suffered under big packs. We’d trade ideas, talk about things, and know about trip planning from having been here. But the people I cared about on the rope behind me relied on my estimations of their skills, readiness, and ability to think they could make the climb. They had to. And while I know well the seriousness of being in the mountains, the transition from partner to leader or teacher was one that I hadn’t fully realized.

Morning came with a nearly full repack, and I headed out to get in line at the permitting office. The Rainier trips I did with Grant last spring were before the May 15th winter camping period ended, so I didn’t realize that permits were required after that date. Montana has very little permitting on climbing, so it wasn’t strange to think that we didn’t need one.  30% of permits are held for walk ups, and with all the reserved permits full we were hoping to snag one the afternoon before, but couldn’t get to the office before it closed. So I stood in line, only to get to the front and realize that three available “spots” referred to numbers of people instead of tent sites–we couldn’t camp at Muir. And I didn’t have all the contact info for our group, or a license plate number, or the rest of my group with me. It was a junk show, and it was my fault; I should have done more research. As the others shouldered their packs to learn about grinding uphill, I was learning more about what a leader for this kind of thing should have done.

We set off, moving at a steady pace. The headwall at Panorama Point proved our first test of climbing with full bags–we stopped shortly after to take a break. In the planning process, I had been worried that we’d get hit by a nice spring snow squall on the hill. That meant that we’d take heavier gear for worse cold, just in case. Such conservative thinking put an additional ten to fifteen pounds into everyones’ packs, and the strain was slowing us  quite a bit. Being used to big bags, it didn’t occur to me how much they might factor in. I’d failed to mention carrying weight when Laurel asked how to train for our climb. It proved a heavy thing to forget.

As it was Saturday, the crowds streamed by us. Later, I overheard a ranger mention that there were 300 people at Camp Muir during the day.

Since Camp Muir was a zoo, our permit was for the Muir snowfield. Anywhere we wanted to be between 7600 and 9600 was fair game. By the time we hit Moon Rocks, just above 9000ft, it was pretty clear that the packs, the altitude, and lack of water had throttled our summit bid. Worried that wind would kick up in the evening and level the horribly substandard REI “four season” tent we’d rented for Beth and Laurel, we dug in camp behind the rocks.

As I cut blocks for the tent walls, I thought more about our trip plan. Of the group, only Laurel and I had snow camped. I was the only one with extensive crevasse rescue practice, and my demonstration was so rusty that I found myself thinking it dangerous to try and teach it again without doing some research. It’s fine to rely on a leader to select a route, but if they take the crevasse rescue knowledge with them into a crack, that leaves the others stranded and panicked. As I later learned, people usually take multiple trips on Rainier before they attempt a summit, which should have made sense–I spent two weekends on Baker before a third weekend saw us on the summit.

Unwittingly, I was asking and supposing too much. There’s a lot to learn about just camping in the snow. About good rope work. About functioning well at altitude. I assumed that the rest of the group was where I was, because that’s usually the case. In stepping back, I realized that what we ended up doing was exactly what we should have planned–a practice trip. A taste of what it’s like to camp in the snow and haul big bags. A chance to enjoy the view from the pee rock and appreciate the alpine.

As the crew started to go to bed, I saw a pair of blue pants that I thought I  recognized. A buddy had mentioned that they might be on the mountain the same weekend, so I shouted, and it was confirmed. Jonas, Connor, and Xanti all pulled into camp and dug themselves a platform just below our tents.

They were headed to the summit the next day, while we planned to head the rest of the way to Camp Muir.

Morning came. The scones I packed for breakfast were delicious. Once we all realized that our backpack lids worked as fanny packs, we headed for Muir.

Once there, I climbed up onto the Cowlitz Cleaver to ski a bit. A view into the Nisqually Cirque.

At home, things have been various shades of unconsolidated all spring, leaving us with a weird mix of mush, pow, and isothermal soup. That made the corn cycle on Rainier an absolute blast, and I tore down the chute below (the guide building at Camp Muir is visible in the lower left), hooting and hollering all the way to 8000ft. A quick skin back to camp, and after a brew session to rehydrate, Beth and I went up to Muir for more.

Later in the evening, Beth and I took some time to work on snow climbing. She led a steep but inconsequential pitch of snow, putting in pickets and then top belaying me up. I then dug the first snow bollard I’ve ever made, and we rappelled inconsequently back to camp. There’s not much explanation for why I was so excited about a simple trench in the snow–it’s just cool to rap on nothing but snowpack, to have learned it from some simple research in Freedom of the Hills, and to have it work perfectly the first time.

Beth and I are lucky–between my dad’s exploits in the fourteeners in Colorado and the Canadian Rockies and my mom’s exploration in Glacier and Wyoming, we come by the mountains naturally. We had parents to teach us to layer, bring water, and set turn around times. To keep us motivated. To show us the power of the freedom in the mountains while balancing that with safety.

Many people don’t have such luck. They wander into mountaineering with less appreciation for the danger, lack of skills, or no group to teach and encourage them. For me, it’s an honor to take friends out and show them the aspects of the mountains that have given me so much. I think it’s the responsibility of anyone who feels comfortable in the mountains to help others get to where they’re at. By the standards of my peers, this would have been a dull trip. But for me, it shifted from a summit bid to showing a few people the things I really love about playing on big mountains in the snow. Which, ultimately, is more satisfying.

In the morning, we packed up and headed down. Plastic was in fashion for everyone, with the ladies sporting bag-skirts and me on my ski bases.

The chute at Pan Point proved interesting, with one wall as ice and other other as slush. Laurel popping out with a grin.

We piled everything back into the car, and headed for Parkland and some well deserved fast food. Thanks to all the ladies for a wonderful trip, and teaching me so much about how to organize these sorts of things.

My thoughts and best wishes are with survivors of those who died on Liberty Ridge the same week.

What’s in your sleeping bag? Warm up to the Down Codex

Athletes are notoriously unreliable when it comes to recommending gear–and I’m hardly an exception.  While I may use and abuse products more than any other group, I also prone to the same issue we all face: when somebody gives me something, or pays me, I’m less likely to give products or people the scrutiny they deserve. A bad pocket placement or issue with camber becomes something to deal with, an email sent, and perhaps a change in the line for the next year, but not a reason to switch brands when a purchase is at hand.

Also, the part of me that loves rational, scientific thinking about outdoor gear hates the ambiguity of a decision between this or that jacket, or which bindings, or what carries better in a given situation. Clear, interesting innovations or differences are what still get me excited about outdoor products. In order to avoid my personal biases, I try to focus on those when someone asks me how I like my gear.

Bearing all that in mind, I’m really quite jazzed on Mountain Equipment’s Down Codex project. In order to audit animal welfare and clean up their supply chain, ME started by asking a simple question: where does our down come from?

That answer, it turns out, is alarmingly complex. When they started asking back in 2009, nobody knew for sure, because nobody had yet asked. Raising ducks or geese purely for their down isn’t profitable, so all the down in sleeping bags or puffy jackets is a byproduct of slaughter for meat. Such birds are farmed all over Europe and Asia, from ten to ten thousand birds on individual farms. Processors or mid-level agents collect down, process it, then pass it on to wholesalers, who pass it on to manufacturers like Mountain Equipment.

A duck in China may go through three middle men who aggregate the feathers of hundreds of farms before making its way onto a processor. Maybe it’s a simpler scenario, where one farm in Ukraine goes through a processor, then wholesaler, and then into a sleeping bag. Either way, we’re talking about the lives of millions of animals over several continents–chasing down whether they have access to water or are plucked live is no small task. Beyond that, the quality of the down must still remain quite high, because nobody wants to be cold.

ME followed up their original inquiries by drawing up a set of rules to which their down suppliers needed to conform. Covering things like adequate space, no force feeding, and the elimination of solvents in the cleaning and sorting processes, the rules were then communicated to suppliers. Going further than anyone else in the industry, ME has created and implemented successful, third party audits by the IDFL  that check the compliance of every part of their supply chain. To date, one supplier has been phased out as a result of recurring infractions. Several other manufacturers have begun to do these sorts of things, which are steps in the right direction, though nobody else has gone nearly this far towards understanding and auditing their supply chain.

In the picture above is my Xero 300 (30 degree F) sleeping bag, along with the tag that I’ve cut out. The number (101012010018), when traced, shows the down to be sourced from Ukraine alongside the rest of the high quality 850 fill power fluff that fills something like thirteen nalgene bottles per ounce. It’s warm, comfy stuff. And I certainly sleep better knowing that birds weren’t live plucked or inhumanely slaughtered for my jacket.

Overall, specialty outdoor brands constitute less than 1% of global down usage. There’s literally thousands of tons of down going into pillows or comforters to be sold at Bed Bath and Beyond, and none of that is subject to scrutiny of this level. And while the stuff that ME produces constitutes a tiny fraction of the global demand, it’s admirable that they’ve taken the steps to understand and control their supply chain. It’s a definitive difference in how they’re doing business–one of the things that makes me proudest to work with them. Check out the site, see what it’s about, and perhaps think about where the down in your gear is coming from for your next purchase.