Through the winter portal: Comeau Camp

It may not really matter when the snow finally hits the valley floor in my hometown, because when it does arrive, it feels like it came later than it should. The advantage of mountains around here, though, is that you can push the fast forward button on the ski season. Two pairs of boots, snow camping stuff in the pack, and every step up a muddy trail is a chance to hit the snow line and put skins in the snow.

Last week, Steven Gnam and I were both sick enough of office time that it was simple to make the call: we’d head up to Comeau Pass to find some snow and see how winter was progressing above us. With lenses, Steven’s pack was easily 30lbs heavier than mine. Before the trip was through, I watched him run downhill with it. Much respect.

Traveling upward, things steadily moved through fall into winter. Our boots touched snow in the switchbacks below the chalet, but we waited to switch out until things were filled in enough to actually skin up. I’ve been messing with the time lapse feature in the new iOS lately. The first attempts haven’t been good, but while we were stopped, the fog that we’d hiked through was creeping up the valley. I built a little tripod of snow on a rock, and starting recording. Just before we left, I watched the video and nearly dropped my phone. Instead of the static shot I’d imagined, the snow had melted at a constant rate, creating an unintentionally cinematic pan upwards. Here’s to accidents.

We switched to skis as the trail crossed the main gully below Mt. Edwards. Packs were joyously a little lighter. As I skinned away, all the dirt we’d walked over receding in the glide of each slide forward.

While not really filled in, there was enough snow to skin up on comfortably. We followed the trail up, across the stepping stones, and arrived at the base of the stairs a bit later than we’d estimated.

In the 1970’s, before this slot was blasted into the cliff, a metal ladder ran up and over the rocks. I can only imagine climbing that thing with a real pack while kicking rime off each step up the rungs. Instead, we had easy going with only one hard move over an ice flow on the stairs.

To respect the distance regulations and minimize our impact, we camped a bit down the hill on the east side of the little lake on the pass. We’d thought that camp would be quick and we could ski a little, but as happens, snow camping is slow camping. Getting and heating water required chopping a hole in the lake ice. Setting the tent meant anchoring to buried rocks. Since we brought a three season, the guy lines all had to be placed. Even then, the tent would do a minimal collapse every time wind hit it. Sometime after midnight, I came to the realization that no matter how many times the tent wall curled inward over my sleeping bag, the thing wouldn’t be going anywhere with the two of us in it. Just sleep.

And it proved to be fine. I awoke to this:

While I got my breakfast going, Steven took off to do a bit of recon.

A few thoughts about winter menus and water.

Typically, snow camping can be reduced to two main categories: melting/boiling water, and everything else. We took along a Jetboil Sumo for that, and it did admirably. Since we had the lake a little walk away, it made more sense to carry water than melt snow. Where I’d usually take a filter in the summer, I used a Steripen Traveler to nuke the lake water with UV rays. This saved the filter from freezing up, and only added another small piece of electronics to the pile in the bottom of my sleeping bag.

Snow camping usually leaves me dehydrated, for a couple important reasons. Really cold or really hot water can be hard to drink. Instant food can be pretty salty, which tastes good, but can actually leave you feeling more dehydrated after the mug of Ramen is gone. Because it’s cold out, it’s easy to go a while without drinking. The lack of minerals in melted snow or pure lake water seems to bother my stomach some. And also, your water bottle can freeze up.

To combat this, I took a regular nalgene liter with a FortyBelow neoprene cover. On the way in, this cut weight as I’d fill up at creeks that we crossed then use the Steripen. Once at camp, I’d fill it 2/3rds with lake water, purify that, then add another third of boiling to even out the temperature. To finish, I’d use an Endurolytes Fizz tablet to add in some beneficial solutes and make it taste nice, then drink to my heart’s content.

In and around camp, a GSI Fairshare is the absolute essential. Mug, bowl, small plate of a lid. Easily cleaned by swirling hot water inside with the top on. I have a neoprene FortyBelow bootie for it that adds insulation. Tea, breakfast, soup, whatever–the Fairshare is the absolute way to go.

With the rest of my menu winter camping menu, it’s nice to keep a balance of calories, taste, and heat. Even though we were out for only two days, fruits and veggies are always the things that I miss most, so I tried to take care of that.

Trail food, lunch, and snacks:

Hammer Bars (which don’t freeze up until it’s down around 10 degrees F)
Justin’s Maple Almond Butter
48% milk chocolate with otters on the wrapper
Triscuts
Cheddar cheese
Blended fruit tubes. These things are like baby food, but make for a compact way to get some fruit in your backcountry diet.

Dinner:

I took an instant, single serving, organic black bean soup mix from the grocery store and rebagged it in a ziploc. Once in my mug, I added the noodles from a packet of ramen, then filled it up with water. Ten minutes later, I had black bean noodle soup.
Dried seaweed sheets can be a great, light way to get iron and greens while out, and you can add them to soups or wraps if you want.

Breakfast:

In a ziploc baggie:
Potato buds, some garlic salt, instant milk, grated pepperjack cheese. Throw it in the Fairshare, add water, and bingo: super breakfast. If I could find a nicely tasting protein powder that works when heated, I might add it here.

Tea is great, and though I’m not much of a hot-drink-in-the-morning person, it’s nice when cold camping.

Anyway. Once Steven returned, and we got breakfast done, we headed out to ski. Pits showed something like three feet of new accumulations atop the permanent snow fields in the drifts, and while the layers weren’t the best, they weren’t very reactive in our tests.

Skinning back up to camp:

After some lunch, we headed over to the main snowfield of Gunsight.

Because of the layers we’d seen earlier, we followed up the ridge and dug two hasty pits en route. Even at higher elevation, there was some kind of rain/melt crust with intact groppel 15-20cms below the windswept crust in the more loaded areas. This made us pretty cautious, but it wasn’t super reactive, and we didn’t have any problem with it.


I’ve skied this snowfield at numerous times for five out of the last six years. When I worked at Sperry Chalet, it was my go to. The way it sweeps down off the summit of Gunsight has yet to get boring, and I’ve yet to ski it in the same condition twice.

On our way back to camp, Steven found a nice wave to surf.

And with that, it was time to pack up. In my rush to get everything back onto my pack and head out, I just threw my hiking boots under the lid straps without actually tying them in. We descended the stairs, skied about halfway to the chalet, and when I went to switch back into my boots, found only one of them still on my pack.

Instantly, I realized that it could have fallen off anywhere. If I couldn’t find it, I’d have a left foot in a ski boot for the rest of the seven miles to the road. “IDIOT!” It was so annoying to not have done something as simple as securing them to my pack, but that’s haste for you. I should have thought more about it, and it’s good to learn those lessons.

Steven caught up with me, realized what happened, and figured that he could run back up to look for it. I was in no condition to run, and certainly didn’t have the footwear, so I stayed with our gear while he headed back up. Twenty minutes later, he grinned back down to me, boot in hand. Huge thanks to him for that huge help–it saved my foot, the walk out, and probably the whole trip. I switched out my gear, ensured that everything was strapped on tight, and we headed down.

We weren’t the only folks heading down the trail:

But as we went, speeding along in time to a ski crampon that was dinging with every step that Steven took, we didn’t see anything. We walked down through slush, then mud, then dryish trail. The winter portal had closed, and it was definitely fall again. Somehow, we didn’t put on headlamps either, and by the time we hit the car, it was nine tenths dark.

Thanks to Steven for joining in the madness of a couple days up high, heavy packs, and especially for saving my foot with his running prowess. Here’s to the season.

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.