Wow, we are going to climb that?!First things first: Soccerboy wrote 99% of this. He did 30% of it legally blind. Props to the man with the crazy memory and great writing! If you like it, drop him a line and let him know how much you liked it!
All the photos well almost all- 411
Enjoy and I hope you have some free time... Thank God for Wi-Fi
Pre Trip"As in any alpine region, the weather is changeable, protection questionable, route-finding bewildering, rockfall frequent and descents tedious. In short, it's everything you could ever ask for." — from the Canadian Alpine Journal, 1993.
Liberty Ridge, Mt. Rainier, 4-4-06 to 4-10-06
I had been looking for a winter climb to test me when a buddy brought up Liberty Ridge on Rainier. I knew the name having heard about it in the news from time to time. My first thought was - people die out there! Liberty Ridge is notorious for falling rock, ice and sometimes avalanches that sweep everything and everyone in their way off the mountain. Despite the risks this climb has been labeled one of the 50 classic climbs in the US. Liberty Ridge has gained a fair amount of notoriety through the years by claiming the lives of many climbers over the years. According to Dave Hahn, an RMI guide on Rainier with 20+ years of experience, Liberty Ridge is “big, rocky, loose, icy and steep. Things fall down out there and things get killed.” It didn't take me long to book my airline tickets.
I did some more reading and figured out fewer people climb Liberty every year than Mt. Everest. I also found out in the last three years over a half dozen people had died up there. This increased my trepidations about the climb but it also increased its “grin factor.” According to “Gator”, the lead climbing ranger for Rainier, he can’t recall a successful climb of Liberty Ridge so early in the season in over 17 years. We chose April 4th for our date to start our climb as it coincided with my spring break. One heck of a way to spend my vacation when my coworkers were headed to the beaches. Early April is considered a "pre-season" climb. I think my definition of pre-season would be, “lots of knee and thigh deep snow, cold temps and no-one else on the mountain with you.” Apparently the "sane" climbers wait a couple of months to let the snow melt down and for some one to find and mark their way though the heavily crevassed Carbon Glacier.
I am going to be climbing with Isaac Will and Neal Mueller. Isaac is a good friend of mine who I met when he started coming in to climb at the local REI that I work at. He loves life and its challenges, always being up for the next big adventure. Over the last few years we have developed a strong trust in each other. Isaac introduced me to Neal last summer just after Neal had gotten back from his successful unguided summit of Everest. Neal is a big, strong and ambitious climber. His ambitions have led him to climb the highest summit on every continent in the last four years and become one of the younger “7 Summitters”. He has accomplished more in the last four years than most climbers will in a life time. I am more of a technical climber. I started climbing rock 14 years ago and over the years have added in just about every climbing discipline except aid climbing. In the last four+ years I have gotten into ice climbing which has become my new addiction. I have also taken to summitting 14ers, peaks over 14 thousand feet, and have hiked over a dozen in the last few years. I have been keen to bring my technical climbing skills to a big cold mountain. Liberty Ridge would give me the opportunity to combine many of my climbing skills, traditional rock climbing and ice climbing, with summitting a new 14er.
It is now mid March and the Ridge is consuming my mind, causing me to loose sleep. I have fallen behind in my workouts for the trip (causing even more lost sleep). During what was supposed to be a springboard to my training, I pick up a nasty leg injury while ice climbing in Ouray, Colorado. Ouray is a story in itself, but let’s just admit that, “yes, I was climbing after dark and yes, I did have my headlamp off while climbing WI...” I never did get the plate number on the truck (read, big chuck of ice) that hit me, but it did a number on my lower leg.
Back to March. I am trying to catch up on my training by carrying 60+ lbs of rope, climbing gear and water up and down the 12 floors of my condo building in downtown St. Paul, Minnesota. I’m getting results. I have never needed to lose weight, but now I see my waist slim down a bit and my weight go from 157 to 153. Actually, I should be eating more because I’ll lose a lot more before the Rainer climb is over but I am enjoying see my abs come in for the first time in years.
Gear sorting day arrives. We meet at Neal's house to sort and weigh, sort and weigh, sort… Ultimately I decide to leave my MP3 player and digital camera behind to save weight. Earplugs will be my “luxury item.” Being the smallest of the three climbers, I have spent a fair amount of money and time acquiring the lightest weight gear possible. Isaac and Neal approved my use of a 3600 cubic inch pack, but it has to be perfectly packed to accommodate everything needed for the trip. Lightweight is great, but tight packing will have a consequence – extra time packing when breaking camp. Gear day behind us, I decide my preparations are lagging and book a flight to Denver for the five days just prior to the Rainier climb. I hang with friends and head out to the mountains a few times to jumpstart my acclimatization and gain strength. Mission accomplished, I fly back to MN on April 3.
Day 1Isaac and Neal pick me up on the 4th in a little four-door compact driven by Isaac’s sister-in-law. We’re off to catch the plane and our excitement only increases. The car is crammed with gear. Bags are sitting in our laps. When we get to the airport it’s like watching clowns pile out of a circus car as we spill out of the car pushing bags ahead of us and pulling six more large duffels and backpacks behind us. We check in and laugh about how our “light and fast” collection of gear looks more like we are headed to Everest…
Isaac has a seat further back in the plane and boards first. He has decided not to check a lot of his climbing gear and is going to try and carry on his climbing pack. We watch him and his pack disappear down the jet way after he assures the check in clerk it will fit in the overhead compartment “I think”. I realize my level of paranoia about losing checked gear to the airline monsters is not as great as his. Neal and I begin boarding. It’s amusing to watch Isaac stuff his pack into the overhead bin - worth the price of admission. I should have gotten a picture of the moment. My seat is in the same row as Neal’s and Isaac manages to switch seats and comes to sit with us. He immediately produces color prints of high quality photos we got off the internet and the two of us ogle over the Liberty Ridge route for much of the plane ride to Washington.
Our increasing anticipation produces smiles upon arrival. We grab our carry-on gear and find our precious checked luggage in good condition. One bullet dodged, many more to come. I have my climbing pack on my back, the duffle over my neck and my 2000 cubic inch pack in my hands as we head down to find the rental car. We get more than a few looks as the three of us carry more “luggage” than your mother-in law moving in for the summer. I grab some pound cake from a vendor and we jam the poor little Mazda 3 rental full of gear and guys.
Next we’re off to the local REI for some fuel, but it doesn’t turn out to be the flagship store I am hoping for.
Back to the car and off to the mountain. After a few errors, u-turns, and a brief road rage incident, we are on our way to Mt. Rainier. By now I have figured out what item I forgot to pack - the topo map of the park, its roads and the mountain itself! Hopefully it’s the only thing we’ve forgotten. On the way, we notice that many of the people here love really big trucks, the ones with huge tires. Mostly pickup trucks with six tires and ground clearance high enough to drive over a two year old with out disturbing a single hair.
We finally enter the park and confirm Gator’s prediction that this is the time of the year when the roads are in “rough” shape. Poor might not adequately convey how bad these roads are. The pot holes are sometimes bigger than the car. Neal seems intent on getting us to the trailhead as quickly as possible, despite his complete lack of rally racing experience and the canyon-sized potholes that keep looming in front of the car. After one particularly sharp swerve toward the drainage ditch, and a very large tree, a bellow comes from Isaac in the back seat - “NEAL!” That pretty much puts the breaks on Neal’s pace, and we eventually find the Ranger station safely. It's closed and we do the after-hours registration. Our itinerary reads; Day One: Camp; Day Two: Thumb Rock; Day Three: Camp Shurman; Day Four, Five, and Six are reserved for delays due to weather. Isaac is thinking it we get down to Camp Shurman by Day 3 we could try another route up the mountain for a second summit… Yeah.
We hop back in the car and head for the trailhead. Pulling into the lot we spot just one car and our first glimpse of snow. Grabbing our gear from the car, we start getting ready for the trek ahead. I organized my backpack before we left home and only need to change clothes and strap a few things to the outside of the pack. I fill my fuel bottles, stuff them into the pack’s side pockets, and find myself ready before Neal and Isaac. I think this is the only time during the trip I was ever ready before Neal, who can pack almost as fast as he can go to sleep. As I wait for Isaac and Neal to get ready, I spot a hiker coming down the trail and engage him in some small talk. He reports more snow up ahead and “wishes he’d brought his snowshoes”.
We’re finally on our way, making lots of jokes as we work our way up a wide and well-maintained trail. The forest here is much different than it is in Minnesota with different sents and more pungent aromas. It makes for a beautiful hike. It's dark by the time we make it to the suspension bridge, which we cross one at a time. The bridge is quite long, with metal cables and wood planks. It swings, rattles and bounces as we cross as nightfall finally reaches us - a nervous way to begin the adventure, but nothing like what’s to come. Soon after crossing the bridge we find a flat space under some trees and put the tent up. I start throwing gear inside for the first of many nights in our nice comfy tent-made-for-two! We begin looking for clean snow to melt for water when Isaac discovers the second thing we have left behind – a backup MSR XGK EX stove we were going to use to speed up the process of melting snow for water. Neal and I both tell him to shrug it off, we still have one stove and plenty of fuel. I say it will probably save us fuel and not to worry about it, but despite our best attempts, Isaac remains visibly upset. It will probably cost us some time melting snow, but these new MSR stoves go like jet engines, melting snow quite fast, so the backup will probably be just extra weight.
We eat our second Wendy's Spicy Chicken sandwich for dinner and crawl into the tent. I take up my sleeping position in the centerline of the tent with my feet at Isaac's and Neal's heads. This will be the only night where I can actually move my feet side to side. Most nights after this, I will end up either having my ankles wedged together with Isaac's arm on my shin, or with my ankles crossed and wedged between their shoulders. Just before we fall asleep Isaac share the good news that he and his wife are expecting their first child. Congratulations Isaac! We now have one more “little” reason to return safely. I pop my “luxury items” into my ears and actually get a good night’s sleep.
We stock up on water knowing this will be our last chanc to get wather with out melting snow and slip on snowshoes for the ascent to the Liberty Ridge. I have never owned snowshoes and got mine from REI. I’m really dreading having to use them, but I do a few test runs out into the deeper snow, barely breaking the upper crust. I begin feeling the altitude, but I am relatively happy with the snowshoes. We get some pictures, throw our packs back on and head out to pass the ice bridge. Isaac and I decide to take an easy looking snow slope and Neal stays a bit lower in the gully. The higher route quickly becomes steeper and slippery, even with the snowshoes, so we traverse and front point until we join up with Neal again. We climb out of the gully and I lead us onto the glacier. I keep the gully to our left, try not to top out on small mounds, and stay focused on avoiding steep side hills.
This whole time I am a little nervous I might be slowing down my two younger climbing partners who are 25 and 28 VS me at 36 so I decide to keep a steady pace as I lead them up the lower parts of the glacier until Neal will take the lead and start looking for crevasses. Instead of focusing on keeping the pace up I should have been focusing on eating and hydrating more, but I was feeling fine. The day starts out cool and clear and was great for walking the glacier, A little later in the afternoon Isaac starts calling out the temperature from his watch which is connected to his pack- it is rising. Sooner or later he calls out 68F and I realize I’m feeling every degree of it. I have stripped down to my base layers (tights and Power Dry top with the chest zipper all the way down). No hat needed at the moment, although that will change. Even my poly glove liners are too warm, so I stuff them away.
The snow is getting wetter and starting to stick to the snowshoe crampons, making each step feel like I’m carrying ankle weights. We gain a rock group not too far from the ridge to the left of the Carbon Glacier and now I’m feeling a bit tired and a little sore. I advocate leaving the snowshoes behind and stashing them with the trekking poles, especially since I’m not excited about carrying an extra 4 or 5 lbs of aluminum, steel and plastic on my back while leading the ice pitches near the top of Rainer. Finally, Isaac takes one snowshoe off and starts stomping around to test the snow- it looks good. Neal then changes his mind and we agree to leave the snowshoes under some rocks and marked with a wand.
We decide to take a higher ridge to our left, and start picking our way along it towards the upper portion of the Carbon Glacier. The snow is deep- knee to waist deep close to the ridge, but the top of the ridge is wind blown and relatively free from snow. We stop at a cut in a ridge just before a steep rise and Isaac indicates our altitude to be about 6900 feet. The wind has picked up and is blowing a constant 15 mph with stronger gusts, all while the temperature continues to drop. We go from sweating in our t-shirts to donning our shells and hoods to keep us warm. It is getting late in the afternoon and I suggest camping here instead of trying to get to the base of Liberty Ridge. Pitching our tent on the glacier at the base of the ridge does not feel as good to me as pitching a tent right here and getting a full nights sleep. The other two agree and we start cutting a tent pad just below the ridgeline and use the snow we cut to make a 3 foot tall snow wall to protect the Trango 2 from the wind.
We are enjoying a nice snow-free weather window and it’s supposed to hold for two more days. We figure that’s enough time to get up and over the top of the ice cap. We decide to leave any extra weight on this ridge in a cache and carry only two days of food. Neal mentions something Jen Grimes said during a presentation we saw her give at the Nipigon Ice Fest a month earlier, something like “I would rather go with out food for a few days than go without water.” We decide to bring all the fuel for the stove about 5 days worth.
Isaac and Neal retire to the tent but I am feeling pretty comfortable in my down jacket, so I stay outside the tent and lay down in the snow so I can look down into the valley. The wind whipping over us is hitting a ridgeline down a bit lower and making small snow tornados. I lay back and watch day fade into night and listen to the wind. I hear Neal laugh and tell Isaac that I’m lying in the snow outside the tent. I think I’m just fine where I am (for now) because that tent is tight with the three of us in it. But Neal finally says with a smirk, “Erik, get inside this tent!” I crawl into the tent and we begin discussing the next portion of the climb. We soon realize we’ve left behind the high quality pictures of the route. I’ve been looking at them for weeks, so I’m confident I can navigate the route just fine. Besides, we have other pictures we took with Neal's digital camera during the initial part of the hike in. I pop in my magic earplugs and fade off to sleep sandwiched in between Neal’s and Isaac’s shoulders.
We agree, based on the premise that we’re under 7000, and climb the ridge only to find ourselves higher than we thought. At this point Neal breaks out the GPS and determines our elevation to be above 7400. The campsite, at about 7200, had been the correct drop in point, so we discuss rapping down the cliff face to save time. I look at the possible rap route from above and don’t feel good about it. Our 60-meter rope will only let us make 30-meter raps, and the cliff face looks far too long for that. I also think I see a vertical band of rock further down and I don’t like the possibility that someone could rap off the edge of that and get stuck hanging at the end of the rope. We agree to head back the way we came. I already have my pack on and start down in front of the other two. Before I know it, Neal powers by me on a lower line with Isaac not far behind. It takes less than 20 minutes to get back where we started and begin to gear up for the glacier.
Isaac grabs a gaiter out of the cache to compensate for a torn gaiter on his boot. As we drop onto the glacier, Isaac comments that we’ve been an hour-and-a-half off route. Time to get moving. Glaciers are Neal's forte, so he takes the lead as we pick our way through the center left side of the glacier. Along the way I spot some great opportunities to take some
As we move along, Neal suggests using more of our wands in case we needed to come back this way. We’ve already marked two caches with them and in retrospect, the rocks beside the caches would have been fine as markers. We should have saved the wands for the route itself and not the caches. At any rate, I mark the edges of crevasses as we go right up the left center of the gut of the glacier. During a short break, Neal gives Isaac a lesson on finding crevasses the proper way and Isaac takes the lead.
We talk about how to get through the remaining crevasses, examine a couple of longer routes (one high and one low), but eventually make a decision on a more direct middle route that will give us access to Liberty Ridge on its lower left side without giving up a lot of elevation.
After a short discussion on route options, Neal chooses to head straight to a rock off to our right, then up to a break in the rock band that looks like a likely entrance to the Ridge. I suggest that heading down and right might be easier (the route I had previously seen in photos on the plane), but Neal apparently feels confident and decides not to give up any altitude.
After awhile, the rope stops moving and I find myself just standing, getting a bit cold. I decide to move up to Isaac’s position and check in. The wind is picking up and we shout to each other, “Is he ok,” I ask Isaac. “I don't know,” he replies. "The rope isn't moving and Neal isn't replying." We both yell as loud as we can but get no response from Neal. “I better go check on him,” I say. “Let’s switch positions.” Isaac ties me a butterfly just above his belay tool and I clip in and start untying my knot on the end so I can give it to him. Suddenly the rope goes taut against my harness as Neal suddenly starts moving again. “Slack,” he yells. I am still rapidly untying my knot and yell back, “one sec!” He sternly shouts back, “I am hanging from the rock!” I push forward to give him a bit of slack and, as Isaac urges me to move, slip the knot off my harness and quickly move down the slope. It’s steeper than I think. In fact, it’s a bit steep for the plunge step I am using and I need to flip around and do a mini self-arrest. I start climbing across the bottom of the rock band with my boots in the snow and hands on the crumbly volcanic rock.
I don’t have good thoughts about putting pro in this stuff and as I’m following Neal's path, I think he has been doing fairly well for being on lead with Isaac as his only anchor. I settle down into the snow a bit more and rely on the crumbly rock a bit less. Now, don’t get me wrong, I like rock – in fact, I love rock. Not being able to rely on it makes me uncomfortable. I carefully test each rock before I use it as a hold. More than once now what I think is going to be a solid hold just pulls away and I end up tossing it down the steep slope below me to the Carbon Glacier hundreds of feet below. At any rate, I can see why the Ridge becomes what is described as a bowling alley during the warmer months when this route is “in season.”
Neal yells down from above that he has me on belay. Well, this is a first; I am on belay from both ends! If I wasn't totally relaxed with Isaac belaying me by himself, I am now. I finish my traverse and find that Neal has gone up a small rock chute with snow and ice on it. I use my axe and gloves to work my way up the chute, thinking Neal has done a pretty good job on point without any pro placements or a lot of technical rock climbing experience. I find him in a seated belay position with a nice big rock between his legs. There’s not a lot of room so I dig out a platform with my ice axe adze and take a seat. As Isaac moves into view I point out a bigger patch of rock for him to head to so we can switch rope positions. We are finally on Liberty Ridge!
It is now my turn to do some leading. While this part of the Ridge isn’t really all that technical, it feels good to lead. I grab some pickets and head off, feeling mildly miffed that we’re a bit off the route. Looking at the route pictures, I had pictured us entering the Ridge from lower, then moving further right and heading fairly straight up a snow field, then coming back to the Ridge proper a bit higher up. With this stuck in my head I feel like I should be climbing further to the right. Telling this to Isaac confuses him a bit and he disagrees, but shrugs it off as I keep climbing. I place my first picket about 125 feet up, then find a boulder and sling the rope over it using it as a running belay. I place my second picket, at which point two things are running through my head. One, I am indeed on route and probably need to apologize to Isaac for being grumpy, so I do. Second, I don't think we need to keep placing pickets because the random terrain features (rock outcropping or boulder) are more than sufficient. I keep climbing, struggling through moderately deep snow where anything under the knees is fine and relatively easy to move through, but anything above the knees is hard and taking its toll on me. In the deep stuff, it’s hard to get your feet under you as the snow keeps sliding away. I push up alongside the rocks, wanting to stay away from the open slopes. But the open slopes are easier to move through because they have considerably less snow on them. I use them when I can.
I am feeling the effects of the altitude and get a bit nervous thinking that I’m going to be leading ice at nearly 14,000 feet with a pack on my back. I have climbed some WI4 with a pack on and it kills me fast. I just hope it’s not that steep up there. Isaac clears the top and gains the small flat spot just above the Thumb. With the rope slack between my legs, I slow down to take more breaths per step, figuring that killing myself just before the bivy site is not necessary. I finally gain the site tired but happy. Neal gains the Thumb and immediately goes into “establish camp” mode. We dig the tent parts out of our packs and assemble the tent.
At this point, Isaac isn't looking so good. He finally doubles over and empties the contents of his stomach into the snow at 10,400 feet. I think, “This can't be good” as Neal tells Isaac to get in the tent and take it easy. We toss in pads and sleeping bags and Isaac tries to get some rest. After a while we climb in the tent with Isaac. Isaac and I have our heads on one end and Neal is at the vestibule end melting snow. Isaac asks about the tent opening by his head, saying he might get sick again, and then suddenly shouts, “open the door!” I grab the zipper tabs and pull as he desperately asks, “Where can I throw up?” I blurt out “Left side, left side!”
After Isaac cleans the cellars for a few minutes with his head outside the tent, I ask, “did you get the boots?” Happily he’s managed to miss all the boots. At this point we don’t think Isaac has AMS, but rather has been pushing too hard on too little food and too little water. He remains pretty sick, though, throwing up two more times and missing the boots both times. He doesn’t want to eat dinner because he might throw it up and waste our precious calories. We try to get him to keep some water down and re-hydrate himself, and finally decide to burn another day at Thumb rock and give him a rest. It means stretching two days of food to three, but that doesn’t seem like a big deal.
Day 4It’s now day two on the Ridge, and day four on the trip and we are still on Thumb rock. The day breaks clear and calm with beautiful blue skies. We melt water, hydrate, eat some small snacks and Isaac’s left over meal from last night before going to sleep. We discuss start times and decide to get up at 4AM. Isaac is feeling much better and Neal, as usual, is out cold in about 2.5 seconds flat, give or take a millisecond or two. Isaac and I have a hard time sleeping, however. At some point I figure climbing in the dark would be better than not sleeping, and I can tell Isaac is not sleeping either. "Dude, you asleep?" I asked. "No, too excited" he replied. We get up at 3:00 AM rather than continue to toss and turn. We wake Neal and he agrees to start breaking the site down. Neal is faster at this than we are, and finally Isaac and I get it done and are ready to climb out onto the slope.
Day 5When I first reached Thumb Rock I hadn’t felt very optimistic about completing the route, but today I feel stronger and more confident, even though the most difficult climbing remains. We discuss how best to lead out of camp. Looking left to the steeper, more direct route, I see deep snow between us and the slope, and then some broken snow on the slope itself, all of which make me wonder about how sheltered that slope is from an avalanche- or capable of avalanching on its own. We eventually decide to go out of Thumb Rock to the right, with Isaac feeling strong enough to lead. Again, Isaac finds more deep snow, sometimes thigh high or higher. It seems like it’s been snowing all morning. I am getting a bit worried. I expected wind on Rainier and now there isn’t any, suggesting that perhaps a system is stalling over the mountain and we are in for more snow that we want. Lots of new snow equals avalanches in my mind. When we stop to take a break, I ask Neal and Isaac about it, but they are unconcerned and think the worst might be some loose snow sloughs. I have seen a few of those already. Not really being accustomed to calculating the effect of these kinds of weather patterns in real time, I accept that they know what they’re talking about and agree to go on.
My toes are very cold at this point, actually way past cold even though I preheated my boots with hand warmers and then tossed them between the boot and gator above my toes. This combination has previously allowed me to comfortably spend hours climbing ice in -15F back in Minnesota. But now my toes feel like ice cubes. Actually, they don't feel like much of anything except lumps in my boots that somehow don’t belong to me. I am hopping around and swinging my legs trying to get some blood to flow in there and warm them up. Isaac starts to move off just as my right foot is warming up. By the time I am starting to feel some life in my left foot, the rope goes taut and I have to start moving again. I hope my toes are going to be ok.
So, we are moving again in the deeper snow. Even though I am following Isaac’s trail, I have to drive my knee into the snow above the foot I’m going to stand on. I half stand and half kneel, keeping weight spread out between foot, knee, ax and tool so I can kick my other foot in to gain altitude. If I try putting all my weight on just my axe, tool and boot, I slide back and really struggle. We make our way above the rock formation that sits above Thumb Rock and I start looking for two telltale rock bands (one thin and one thick) that we’ll have to pass through to order to gain the next long slope where I will take the lead on steep ice.
Neal makes his way past the two lower rock bands and though a low spot in the upper rock band that should give us access to the steep upper ice slopes. I follow the rope and Neal leads slowly upward, finally cresting the rock band that should give me access to the upper slopes. I don't see what I expect. The ridge band extends above me and slightly left, and further up I see a rock wall cutting across our path off to the left. It appears there is some pretty deep snow under it, but I think we should be able to cross under it and then gain the upper slope. There’s only one problem, however. Neal is not working his way under the rock wall. I look up and see why: lots of snow is suddenly pouring down the wall. I won't call it an avalanche, but it’s definitely a big snow slough. The fact that the upper slopes seem too steep to hold much snow is a good thing, but crossing under that rock band with all that snow pouring over it can’t be a good idea. Neal has probably figured this out and is doing some rock leading of his own.
In Neal's own words, he doesn't back down well and he isn't backing down now, despite Isaac and I both telling him to pull up if the ascent gets technical. We both wonder what’s going on as we yell to get his attention with no response. I know Neal can climb but he has no pro on him and I don’t think he has much if any experience placing it. The lack of communication is getting to me and I decide to go after him. Isaac and I chat about it and he agrees so I move off in search of Neal.
I’m now carefully watching the rock band above me as it starts dumping lots of snow and rock. Falling rock? That’s a first for this trip. One reason we decided to climb in the early season was to avoid the crumbling and falling rock as the ridge thaws out. Now big rocks and little rocks are coming from a chute cut higher up in the rock band above me. I assume that Neal is leading some rock above me rather than risking the snow slope to our left, and that the falling rocks are evidence he is on the move. Finally I can communicate with him, telling him I am going to come and get him. He agrees, but reminds me I’m not on belay. I look back at Isaac and ask him if he can set another piece of pro. He agrees and I later find out he sets two. I turn to deal with the snow and rocks that are now randomly shooting out of the chute right in front of me. I look back and ask Isaac to give me some extra slack so I can move past the chute with out having to wait for slack to be fed out. I wait for a load of snow to come down, then climb past the chute as fast as possible, managing to not get clobbered by a rock or covered in snow.
The next step is to find a place to put one of my four pieces of pro. I brought along two small tricams and two smallish nuts, thinking the extra weight would be tolerable in case I needed them. I need them now, given that Neal is somewhere above me in an unprotected position. I am determined to get one or two pieces in before climbing up into those rocks. Finding a place for a particular size of pro is a lot harder than finding a place to put pro if you’re simply sorting through dozens of different sized nuts, cams, tricams and hexes for a piece that fits. I find a crack that narrows a bit and is not in the crumbly rock. It takes some creative placement, but finally I place one of the nuts. I set it hard after putting the quick draw on it, but decide it’s only good for a downward pull, so I hammer it in with my ice tool. Once happy that it’s wedged in well enough that rope drag won’t pull it out, I move to the spot where Neal had climbed up into the rock band. Before I start climbing the rock, I hear Neal’s voice from above say something like, “I have you on belay, but it’s not really a belay, so don't fall.” Since this was the first real technical climbing I got to do, that just upped the grin factor because I was still pretty much leading. I start climbing up into the band, sometimes using my tool and axe, other times letting one or both hang while I used my gloved hands. “Whoooo haaaa,” I yell, with a big grin, “Now we’re doing some climbing!” Maybe it represents male bravado of some sort, or maybe the yelling is just the adrenalin speaking. I’m definitely starting to warm up. A shot of adrenalin feels great right about now.
I may be yelling just to let both of them know I’m ok, but I don't really know for sure. I’m just glad I’m not the type of person who makes beta waves instead of endorphins and adrenalin in situations like this. As I move, I look for another place to put a piece of pro. I want to set one more for safety. I am about to turn straight up to Neal and climb the final 10 feet to him when I spot a crack that will hopefully take a red tricam. I do some prying to see if the rocks are just frozen in place or actually attached to something solid. Not getting them to budge, I place my red tricam. I don't know if Isaac will be too happy to see what’s passing for pro as he follows me up, but I figure something is better than nothing. I use extra diligence during the climb up to Neal to not drop rocks on Isaac, but the volcanic rock here just sucks for solidity. It keeps spitting and shooting rocks down from time to time, and I hope Isaac's helmet isn’t getting dinged. As I move up to Neal and his “belay” stance, he points out his improvised belay. He has wedged the shaft of his axe between two rocks and is “belaying” off that. Kudos for using what he had with him to improvise a belay.
I reach him and start looking for a place to put my precious pink tricam. One of my rock climbing buddies and I joke about this all the time: if all we could take on a climb was one piece of pro, it would be the pink tricam. Well, I find a great place to set it and smile after it’s in place. After a short pause, Isaac is on belay and he works his way up to us. He finally makes his way up with only a couple of mild jesting complaints about the pro. “Beggars can't be choosers,” I tell him.
Our next challenge is to get out of this rock band and back onto the route proper. I am feeling a bit warmer and am ready to cut up this line back onto the upper slope. This is my forte and it’s time to earn my keep. I have gotten back a few pieces of my pro, have an ice picket and screw or two, and lead off to my right where there’s a crumbling rock-face/knife-edge sticking up about 20 feet. In front of me is a steep rock slope covered in ever-deepening loose snow. I choose the face to my right and try to find purchase for my crampons on the slope in front of me. The slope seems unreliable so I angle up the knife- edge to the top, placing a couple of pieces of pro along the way. One of them is my trusty pink. I gain the top of the knife-edge and see an easy way out to the snow/ice slope that will eventually bring us up to the bergschunde thousands of feet above us.
I start to look for a place to construct a belay on the knife edge and quickly realize I’m on a crumbling volcanic rock formation with no decent placements. I start digging through shallow snow here to expose and test a large rock that might provide a place to do a seated/terrain belay. I test one particularly large rock and away it goes. “Rock,” I bellow as I watch it bounce away with a sort of morbid fascination, realizing that it’s going to gather steam until it hits the Carbon Glacier about 4000 feet below us. I remember a helicopter rescue had been mounted a year or two ago after a falling rock on the Ridge hit a climber in the head. During the ensuing rescue, the helicopter crashed. I feel thankful right now, because I know there’s not a single other person on this Ridge other than us.
Eventually I find a nice, large, solidly placed rock on the backside of the knife that will allow me to brace against the Ridge in the event of a fall. I tie myself down to it, set my belay tool on my belay loop, and check to make sure I’m ready. I then lean over the edge and, in my best king-of-the-mountain voice, bellow down as loud as I can that the “BELAY – IS – ON!”. I am convinced that I have just put in a 150+ foot lead on two pieces of pro, and that they will have a hard time hearing me. Then I hear Isaac say, “O… K…” in a matter-of- fact, almost conversational tone. I look down and see a body with a pack on it leaning out about 65 feet below me. What the heck? My massive lead has just been a short jaunt and all my yelling is doing is giving my climbing partners something to laugh about later on. Oh well. I belay them up to me and they pass me heading out onto the slope proper. Isaac takes some pickets and ice screws with him to set some running belays as we head towards the top of this long 55- 60-degree slope. My feet are a bit cold but otherwise I feel fine. The ice on this part of the slope never materializes because it’s too early in the season. Instead, we find ourselves on a steep, long, seemingly-unending knee to waist deep snow slog. As we move up, I ask Neal how much higher to the crest and he estimates about 200 feet.
About 500 feet later it’s apparent that this slope is going to be a very long slog. The wind is firmly picking up and the temperature is dropping fast. We are climbing about 90 feet apart from each other. With the wind driving lose snow down on us we might as well each be breaking our own trail. By the time I get to Neal’s tracks, the snow had pretty much filled them in. It’s pretty deep and I am using the drive-the-knee-into-the-snow technique along with a tool and an axe. Isaac, at times, looks like he is trying to swim up the slope using his knees, hips, arms and elbows to distribute his weight in an almost vain attempt to gain altitude. It looks like Isaac wants to place more running belays, but I yell up to Neal that we are safe, we have to keep moving, and need to forget the running belays in order to get off this slope as quickly as possible. As it turned out, it took us much longer to get off the slope than we could ever have imagined.
The climb turns into a rhythmic slog. About 400 feet from the top Neal starts yelling about getting short-roped to avoid each of us having to individually break trail. We gather up at Isaac's stance, where he had his gloves off and is digging for his mittens. I see his hands turning white with his knuckles looking much darker, all within less than two minutes. I yell to Neal that Isaac is getting frostbite and needs us to give him a windbreak. We move above and beside him to provide the windbreak. Seeing what happens to Isaac’s hands causes us to switch from climbing mode to staying-warm mode. Neal says we need to pitch our tent and points off to our left at a large rock formation, saying we need to move to the bottom of it and pitch the tent there. We are on a 55-60 degree slope, and I suggest going a bit higher along the side of the rock formation rather than on the steep slope just below it. I guess my suggestion just gets lost in the wind because Isaac is now moving over towards the bottom of the rock at Neal's urging. But it really slopes off towards Willis Wall near the bottom and it’s becoming clear to everyone we can’t place a tent there.
Neal asks for suggestions and I point out some indents in the rock a bit higher up. We agree on that location and climb to an inset corner at about 13,000 feet that will hopefully give us some shelter. We begin cutting some ledges for the backpacks to sit on and then quickly pull out our down coats to keep from freezing. My gloves have now frozen into two rigid claws in the shape of a hand holding the top of an ax. I am becoming increasingly convinced that the gloves are not going to be useful for anything that requires dexterity, and now that we have stopped moving my hands are beginning to get cold. I dig into my pack for my backup gloves and hand warmers, tossing the warmers into the dry gloves. The warmers really feel nice right now. I move up a bit and find a crack to set a nut for something to clip into. I ask Isaac to find a place for another piece of pro down in the inset corner. After that Neal and Isaac begin cutting the ledge and Neal asks me to take part in the chores. I grab my ice ax, move to the rapidly growing ice/snow ledge and start hacking away at the ice in the back corner so it will keep growing. We keep working but the ledge is not getting big enough. Neal says its time to put the tent up and I comment that it’s not going to fit. Neal says something about being tired of cutting the ledge into the ice and wants to test whether it’s big enough to support the tent.
Neal heads down to my pack, pulls the tent poles out and hands them to me. We spread the tent body out and make sure one of us always has a hold on it as we divvy up the other tasks. The wind is fiercely cold. Later we figure the wind chills are between –15F and –25F, possibly colder. Neal says that we should not put anything down unless it is connected to something else, or it will either get buried or blown down the slope. I kneel down on one end of the tent body and we finally get the poles in place. I’m still holding the vestibule pole, however, and we won’t be able to use it because the pad is a bit short. I want my hands free to work with and briefly think of stuffing the pole in the back corner of the pad. But Neal's words are echoing in my head. After taking a moment to think, I stuff the folded pole down the front of my coat, then take an ice screw off my harness and anchor the back of the tent directly into the ice slope. I then place a snow picket on the same corner, driving it down through different layers of snow and ice. Neal is doing the same in the other corner while Isaac is leaning on the center of the tent with his face into the wind and back to the slope. With the tent up but not yet secured, we worry it might get blown down the slope so we have to have someone holding it down at all times. Holding the tent down requires minimal work and therefore minimal generation of heat. Isaac finally says he’s getting cold, so I switch positions with him as it gets darker hinting the sun is setting- not that we can tell, we can hardly see 50' in this storm.
As I’m holding the tent over what has now become a dark void ending thousands of feet below me, I can see that the tent ledge is too small. The outside corner is hanging about a foot off the pad over nothing. Neal takes a look and then both Isaac and Neal start digging with a furor further up the slope to enlarge the pad. Once the ledge is large enough for the tent, we need to make sure the tent won’t just head down the slope after we climb into it. Neal grabs the climbing rope that I had clipped to the three pieces of installed pro and starts threading it through the corner anchors and upper tie downs. Most of this time I am still leaning on the tent to keep the wind from blowing it down the slope. Even with the hand warmers generating heat in my gloves, I have to pull my fingers back into the body of the glove and wrap them around the chemical warmers from time to time. I have used these gloves comfortably in –15F for leading ice, so I know it’s really getting colder by the minute. I also concentrate on keeping my head down to keep the wind from pushing into my hood and funneling down my coat, making me even colder.
With the tent finally secured, Isaac disappears inside and starts unpacking.
We melt water under the jerry-rigged vestibule and listen for a break in the storm. With daylight gone and the storm still blowing, we try to sleep at an angle, heads up by the back of the ledge and feet down towards the bottom of the tent at an angle while on our sides. Neal falls asleep and I can’t be bothered with finding my “luxury items,” so I just try to ignore his light snoring. I manage to fall asleep for about an hour, if you want to call it sleep. Jammed into the end of the tent at a sideways angle, either my back or my knees are bent, meaning either my back hurts or my knees are screaming for me to straighten them out. A broken leg and two knee surgeries have long since doomed my knees to being less than happy with being bent for long periods of time. So I keep moving around, switching positions, sometimes just sitting up and listening to the wind to break for good. Occasionally it lets up and I think it’s over with. But it’s just the mountain’s way of tricking me. It starts up again just as strongly as before. At one point I am sitting up and Neal quickly sits up on my left. I turn my head to look at him and we are face-to-face, a mildly comedic moment. I think he asks me if he woke me up, or if something is wrong. I just reply, “Nope; I was already here.”
Day 6Sitting in our well anchored cocoon getting almost no sleep I hear silence descend on us. At some point the wind finally stops blowing and we decide, light or no light, it’s time to go. We brew some hot water and share the last meal any of us has, Isaac's sweet and sour pork with 740 total calories split between the three of us. We pass the pouch and spoon around taking a spoonful before giving it to the next person. At that point, having already stretched two days food into three, I know I could eat the whole thing by myself. But I still have my candy bar and two “power bars” - a few calories left for later in the day. We climb out of the tent and start to get ready to leave. As I do so, I take one look down that slope and immediately find a rope to clip into. The night before I wasn’t much concerned about the precipitous drop below us, but now it makes me a bit nervous to look down into that black space. I won’t unclip from that rope until much later in the day- over 20 hours later.
After not having had to pass, um, solid bodily waste for days, all the sudden I have to go. Like, right now. "You have to be kidding," I think. I chop out the spot where I had originally put my backpack, creating my very own little personal latrine at 13,000 feet on a 60-degree snow slope. Best view I’ve ever had from a bathroom. I’m glad no one decided to record the moment.
We break camp in our usually slow style and Isaac leads out in the dark with his headlamp on. The snow on this side is deep and the going is very slow. I bring up the rear. While waiting for the rope to go taut, I keep myself busy by hopping around and swinging my legs to get my feet warm. I also try to remove that first piece of pro I pounded in the night before, but it doesn’t budge. If you see it the next time you’re up this way, you’ll know right where we bivvied. Finally, after what seems like forever, the rope starts pulling out and I move out the right side of the ledge and start climbing. The first step is wierd- going from a flat ledge to a 60 degree sloe in one step. Imagine standing on a sidewalk, then stepping onto a 60 degree slope with thousands of feet of air below you- it is amazing how fast the mind switches to climbing mode. You think, why would I want to get off this nice ledge? Golly, that slope is steep and the snow is deep. Ok, fine, let’s go! It gets light fairly soon and we head up to the base of the ice cap.
From this point we could head right to the traditional route in the middle of the cirque, then up the “ramp” through the bergschrund we saw in those pictures days ago. Or, we could try climbing the ice cliffs on the left side of the zone. Isaac evidently likes what he sees to the left and sets a belay below the start of the technical ice climbing section. Neal and I move up to join him and I am feeling pumped up to climb some ice. Isaac has found what looks like a mellow AI/WI 2 that I could lead. At first I agree, but the more I look at what first appears to be an easy looking ramp, the more I’m concerned there might be surprises up there that we can’t see from here. I picture myself climbing to the top of the section only to find that I’m on top of a large block in the slow process of calving off, thus creating a big vertical gap between me and the rest of the cap. I tell the guys I don’t know what we might find there, that I’d rather lead left of the block to what looks like some AI/WI 2+. I pull out my second tool, tuck the ice ax away and start climbing.
Feeling good to be on lead, I work my way up and through lots of stacked ice flakes and ramps. The route looks like a geology lesson on ice, of which I find two types. One looks like good old waterfall ice, but feels more like cold, hard glass - very tough and brittle. If I swing too hard,
Rerouting, I find some of the Styrofoam ice in a trough and lead my way up to a likely looking belay spot. Standing there a bit spent, I have doubts that Neal and Isaac can follow me without experiencing problems. I look back down at them and tell them that it’s steeper than it looks and that I am having doubts. Isaac says not to worry, that they will climb with prussics on if need be. I tell Isaac he is going to have to take a turn on lead after he gets up here. He does not look to thrilled to hear that.
I find a really good place to put my longest ice screw (16 cm) and sink it in all the way. I throw my ice tools in the ice too, one to the left of the ice screw and up a bit. It sets and feels very solid. I stick the other tool up to the right of the ice screw and again it feels very solid. I clip into the screw, using my cordellet to equalize all three pieces. I take my pack off and clip it to the right side tool and run a draw from the pack to the power point just in case the tool slips out. I don’t want to lose my pack since there appears to be nothing between me and the Carbon Glacier over mile down that could stop it. I clip myself into the right tool and the power point and set the belay, yelling down to Isaac and Neal that the belay is on. Neal starts climbing with Isaac about 20 feet below him. They have about 100 or so feet to go and Neal is moving well. I offer some suggestions to Neal as he gets to the section I backed down, and he makes his way up to the anchor. I ask him to clip into one of my tools and then move on up above me to sink his own tools in and make a place to hang out. He doesn’t want to clip in and I’m not going to tell him what to do. I still have him on belay but would feel better if he would just clip into something up here. After saying no he reconsiders and clips. His calves are blown and he seems to be in pain. He is a glacier guy, big and strong, not built like me at all. It’s not like and am not strong, but I weigh about 75 lbs less than he does. I can tell he’s in pain and I encourage him to move above me, sink his tools in, and set a belay stance.
But he decides his calves have had enough and kneels forward to relieve the pain. His crampon points lose penetration in the ice and he plummets towards the bottom. The ice tool I had him clip into blows out under the violent shock load. It felt solid when placing it, but in retrospect it had gone into a dirty ice bubble. It tears out and shock-loads the remaining ice tool and ice screw that are the rest of my belay anchors. At the same moment, his fall manages to some how knock me off my feet. The remaining ice tool and the screw hold. I try to reassure him, “It’s ok. I got ya. We’re fine.” Isaac comments that he heard our conversation and that he is glad Neal changed his mind about clipping in. Neal climbs a couple of feet above me, sinks in his ice ax and tool, uncomfortably kicks a stance, and takes his back pack off to clip it in. I sink the loose ice tool in a different place as close to equalized as I can get it, and belay Isaac up.
My belay stance is pretty cramped now. I have kicked a decent spot to stand and Neal is working on another just above me. With my pack hanging next to me, Neal a few feet above me hanging/sitting/ standing/squirming and his pack hanging in between us, there really is not any room for Isaac. I tell him to move above and rig up an anchor system for him and Neal. I figure Isaac would have been more comfortable up above on his own anchors. I have him drop a loop of rope to Neal and include him in Isaac’s anchor position so I can break mine down and take the lead again. Having had time to recharge while belaying both of them, I am looking forward to the next lead again. Isaac confirms his own anchors are set and that he has Neal, so I put my pack on, clean my anchors, and re-sling my cordellette. I climb up to Isaac and pick up the extra screws. I now have three on me for the next portion of the climb.
I lead back out on the steepening ramp and work my way up, looking for a way to turn slightly right and make it to the top side of the glacier and to what I hope is an unbroken highway to the top of the ice cap. I place two pieces as I go and finally pull my way through some 80-85 degree alpine ice to get onto the top. I’m pretty sure the two short pitches of ice probably add up to about 200 feet of technical ice climbing at about WI/AI 3 or 3+. I chug my way up the slope till I spot some good ice chunks I can use for a footrest, and then throw in two really good ice tool placements and one good ice screw to set up the next belay. I sit and pull my pack off, clipping it to the power point and hanging it down slope of me. That’s when the great fuel bottle escape takes place.
I hear a “ting” as a streak of red pops out of the side stretch pocket on my pack. I don’t even try reaching for it as the red MSR fuel bottle accelerates downward. It bounds down the slope and makes several “ting and ding” sounds as its escape speed accelerates. From below – I swear even before he can see it – I hear Isaac call out in a slightly amused voice, “fuel bottle!” I am sure Neal and Isaac exchanged some amused or annoyed looks as the empty fuel bottle sailed past them toward its destination on the Carbon Glacier far below. I think, “Damn, now I owe REI a new fuel bottle!” (It was a demo bottle.) Talking about it afterward, Isaac said the bottle cleared them by at least 15 feet and he watched it fall hundreds of feet before loosing sight of it far below.
I call out that the belay is ready and hear that Neal is on his way up. I hope he can forgive me, but that belay is one of the tightest belays I have ever given. I know his calves were screaming on the first pitch and this last pitch is steeper at the top. I figure I’ll stop hauling when he complains. I think he may be sitting down to take a break, but I really can’t tell since I’m cinching up the rope every chance I get. Neal later told me at one point he was going to ask for a take, but realized there was no need as the rope was already tight. Isaac is now following and cleaning gear with no problem and I have him pass us up to start the long slog up the slop to the cap. I don’t really know why I asked him to do a running belay since it isn’t that steep in this section. Not compared to stuff we had already climbed with out a running belay. Maybe it was the fact we were on top now with a shear drop behind us.
We head towards the cap and gather up after a few hundred feet on easier ground. We really can’t see very far at this point so we climb till the GPS says bingo - on the cap. Liberty Ridge has been successfully climbed and according to Gator’s memory, for the first time in at least seventeen years this early in a climbing season. We are elated, tired and very hungry. We walk, chatting about this and that, but I am thinking we have accomplished only half the goal – we still need to get down. We are very relaxed as we cross the cap. Isaac moves ahead and Neal and I chat about something humorous. We are still roped up and spreading out a bit. I recall stories of people punching through while on top, but I am not worried about it at all. I am starting to feel very tired, like I’m beginning to bonk and I could use a break.
The break comes sooner than expected and it certainly is not the kind of break I am thinking about. Before I know it snow gives way and I’m in up to my arm pits with my pack wedged behind me, and my arms out in front. I take a look around and notice Neal and Isaac just walking along. I take a very deep breath and yell at the top of my lungs: “CREVASSE!!!!” Isaac and Neal explode into action. Isaac runs and slides plunging his axe in while Neal runs by him and does the same. In the meantime I look around and think “What the hell am I doing in this thing? Time to get out.” I start swimming forward, pulling myself with my hands and my ax, kicking steps with my feet, pushing back on my pack. I am out in a few seconds, full of the familiar feeling of adrenalin. I flip around so I can take a peak into the crevasse but can’t see the bottom and don’t want to get any closer to the lip so I can see all the way down. I stand up, adrenalin surging and give a loud “Whoooooo!” and get ready to start moving again. Isaac slows us down a bit. “Guys I got a problem.” He has slid onto a snow bridge and his leg and waist has punched through. I set a boot ax belay and we “encourage” him to roll over and swim his way out. As this is happening, I notice that Neal is standing between two more crevasses and that there are a series of six or so all running parallel. It takes us awhile to clear the crevasses, but finally we get out of them and are moving again.
At first I am all hyped up on adrenalin and still excited to have had survived my first and hopefully last crevasse fall. Then a bit later I find myself thinking about my daughter, family and loved ones and want to be off the mountain before something even more serious happens. The crevasse fall wasn’t all that scary when it happened but the possible consequences seep through the ebbing adrenalin. We have accomplished our main goal, climbing Liberty Ridge and reaching the ice cap. At this point we discuss whether to climb up to the true summit, a short way further and not very dangerous. At first I try telling the guys how I am feeling about what just happened, but I suddenly find myself choking up. I’m not interested in losing my emotions on the top of this mountain so I just clam up. Isaac asks if I’m going to finish my thought and I just say, “not at the moment.” I tell him that we both have reasons to get off the mountain. We need to stop making mistakes and get down safely. He firmly agrees.
At this point, I really have bonked. I only weighed 153 lbs before the trip, having lost about 4 or 5 while training for it, and now my body had stopped burning fat for the most part and I am moving much more slowly. To get my point across to Isaac I tell him there is no “tank left in my gas.” Of course he doesn’t immediately get it, so he says, “Did you mean gas in your tank?” I laugh and tell him, “No, I mean no tank in my gas; I am that tired.” I am trying to joke with him to let him know how tired I really am, but I guess he was still a bit shaken from looking down the throat of his own crevasse. Oh well we all can’t be as funny as Bill Cosby.
After some route finding errors, we figure out we have to continue up to go down, so we ascend about 200 to 300 feet along the main summit cone of Rainier to reach the beginning of the descent route. Neal is leading and his long strides and pace are taking their toll on me. We have just climbed this mountain on one of its hardest route under winter conditions and I’m having trouble keeping up going down hill! Isaac is in the middle of the rope and keeping up with Neal. Every time I start to make a plunge step, the rope goes tight and pulls me off balance. I have to fight to stay upright and my frustration is building. I know when we first roped up Neal said “try to not get frustrated when on the rope, you are going to get pulled around a bit, it is part of being roped together” but every step or two I get pulled. I keep reminding them that I’m really TIRED. I’m using sheer will power to keep moving. I’m getting yanked around at the end of the rope and becoming more and more frustrated. I keep telling my body to “MOVE!” but there is nothing left, no “tank in my gas”. Every time I get pulled I use more energy fighting to catch my balance and stay standing. Finally I snap, yelling for them to just let me untie and I will follow their steps down at my own pace. I’m spending too much energy fighting the rope and trying to stay upright. I guess I’m taking my frustration out on them. I understand that Neal operates better moving faster and that he’s also probably frustrated. I want to move faster, but I just can’t do it.
Neal is doing his job well, finding the crevasses before we fall in and picking his way down the tangle of glaciers that cross each other and throw obstacles in our way. At one point we set a 30-meter rappel from a v-thread and some of Isaac's cordalette so we can descend the edge of one glacier and drop onto another. The light is failing but the moon is bright enough that I don’t turn on my headlamp since it wasn’t doing any good anyway. As we work our way down almost a mile of ice and snow, we all have our eyes on the next goal - Camp Schurman. I keep thinking that a building or hut awaits us there, but Neal and Isaac are doubtful. At one point I think I’ve caught a flash of light from Camp Schurman, but am not sure. We are now a bit overdue, having planned on getting out of the park and on the plane by tonight. In my imagination the rangers are getting concerned by our now overdue status, but I realize that a few hours overdue does not make a ranger work his way up a crevassed glacier to check on a slow climbing team.
As we make our way down, Isaac says we should camp by the “big rocks”. I keep saying there are some buildings there but Neal and Isaac don’t quite believe me. Well it turns out the two “big rocks” are two buildings, a smaller one above a little bigger one. They are easy to reach and we hike up a small slope to check them out. Neal arrives first and is reading a sign that says “Do not enter unless in case of emergency.” We joke about our 20-hour day not really being an emergency, but I figure no one will really care if we use the hut after what we’ve just endured. Only one problem: the unlocked door won’t move at all. It’s slightly open and I look in the one-inch-wide crack to see snow inside, lots of snow. I chop at the snow with my ax trying to free the door. Neal had already put his shoulder to it and it didn't budge. We’ve talked about where else we might put a tent, but I’m not about to let a perfectly good hut go to waste. I ask Neal to “hold me up” as I put my butt down in front of the door. Neal is excited we want to sleep inside it tonight. I pull my legs up and start giving the door some good thumps at its base. The one-inch opening becomes two, and two becomes four before I give up, winded from the effort. I get up and Isaac gives it a shot, and manages to get a couple more inches of opening. I off pull my down coat and say “here, hold this, I’m going in.” I squirm my way through the crack and climb over a couple of feet of snow packed in behind the door. They hand in a shovel and I start to clear a space behind the door so can open the door and shovel the snow out.
We’re now in much better moods, having cleaned out the snow and even swept the floor. "How clean do we want it?" I ask, "I want to walk around in my socks" comes from on of them; we take turns sweeping until the floor is completley free of snow. We carry our bags in and claim our bunks. I dig out all my gear and dump out the snow and ice that has made its way into all the pockets of my backpack. We start up the stove and warm the leftover water in our water bladders. Neal finds a largish white bucket with the words “Snow Bucket” written on it and goes out to get snow to melt. He was out there for a while when Isaac comes in and says, “he lost the bucket and is out looking for it!” After a bit longer I say, “he’s out there looking for a white bucket in the snow in the dark, you might want to bring him a head lamp.” We chuckle about it and Isaac goes to check on him. Neal finally comes back with snow, saying that when he set the bucket down, it just slid away. Isaac shares his remaining one and a half “victory cookies” (chocolate chip and oatmeal that his wife made) with us and I divide his Hershey’s Chocolate bar into thirds. We munch away on our “meal” savoring every bite.
Temperatures are on the way up and the snow is getting wet, causing Isaac to worry out loud about wet slab avalanches. We are following the 7200-foot elevation line back to the cache and we end up on some very steep slopes. We see signs of recent avalanches in front of us and decide to ascend above the slopes and away from danger. Some tricky climbing over rocks and a steep snow climb puts us above it. Neal is now quite a bit ahead as he moves toward the stash. Isaac stops to coil the rope and do some gear adjustments and I hurry to catch up to Neal. I keep a steady pace; food lies ahead. I catch Neal and ask him to pause for a moment. I can tell he’s struggling a bit and figure I’ll break trail for a bit if I can get by him. After asking him to pull over a few times, he pulls up while I step above him and start breaking trail.
As I pass him he gives me a note of encouragement, which in turn gives me a little adrenalin burst. The deep snow was really killing me at this point, but I am light enough for much of the crust to hold me up. Nonetheless, every few steps finds the crust breaking as I sink in. A few longer stretches hold me up well. I find it mildly humorous to think that Neal is probably wondering why I was “breaking trail” when his greater weight caused him to have to do it all over again. We steadily make our way along the 7200-foot line until the camp finally comes into sight. I hit the cache and immediately suck down two gel packs. Neal invites me to share his power-type bars. This stuff really tastes good about now. Even the two Vanilla Gels (15th and 16th I’ve eaten during the climb) get literally sucked down as I savor their taste. Isaac and Neal are eating power bars of some sort and the food is making for a relaxed group of climbers.
We still have at least 6 miles to go and a plane to catch. We pack up and head off down the ridge looking for, and finding, our first cache from days ago. We dig out the snowshoes and strap them on. I grab my two trekking poles, stashing my ice ax between my backpack and my back. We start trudging down the final portion of the Carbon Glacier looking forward to the finding the car. You would think that going down would be easier than going up, but I’m not having any fun. The temps have soared. Every step leaves slush packed into the snowshoe’s crampons and piled on the toes of my boots. Anything more than a gentle slope becomes an adventure as the snowshoe threatens to slide down the slope like a runaway ski with no edges. I have to concentrate on pushing my toes down so the crampon teeth have a chance to bite. If I can mange to avoid getting my weight back on the tail of the I can avoid little impromptu skiing sessions a the odd tumble here and there. .
We all take more than one slip and fall on the way down. I quickly develop a technique I now call “teleshoeing” (because it feels like teleskiing), pushing my downhill snowshoe ahead of me while dragging my other toe behind me. This is working well and gives me a nice glide between steps that helps me keep up with Isaac and Neal. By this time we have un-roped as we are on what feels like a safer portion of the descent. We are following as best we can our previous ascent path but over the days it has become hard to follow all the time. I am walking about a foot or two left of Neal’s tracks so my snowshoe footing is easier. All of a sudden the snow is rushing past me as I fall into a crevasse. A snow bridge that we had crossed on the way up and probably never noticed has weakened because of the heat, and I am now the unlucky winner of a free crevasse tour. The fall stops, leaving me in a tangle of snowshoes, trekking poles, backpack, arms and legs. I have just managed to fall un-roped into my first full-blown crevasse, but relieved that I’m only about 8 feet down.
For the second time on the trip I take in a breath and bellow, “CREVASSE”, waving a pole as far above the lip as possible. I look around and realize I’m not at the bottom of the crevasse but rather at a narrowing on a small bridge. To my left and right it gets wider and deeper. Isaac approaches from above and asks where the lip is stable, but I am facing the wrong side of it to give him a good answer besides “I think so!”. I untangle myself and start kicking steps with the crampons while pushing my backpack up the backside of the crevasse. Isaac offers me a trekking pole but I wave it off; I’m making good progress and finally get to the top where he’s standing just down slope with his hand out. At this point I am a human snow bridge with my feet on one side and my backpack on the other. He offers to haul me out and I’m thinking, “so, you’re going to haul me and my pack off my butt out of this crevasse.” He assures me he can, gives me a haul and out I pop. Whew, time to get out of here. Having learned the hard way we are not safe yet we rope up once again and continue moving down slope.
The clouds have now caused visibility to drop to a hazy couple hundred feet as we follow Neal. We’re trying to find our old tracks in the snow, but have to resort to the GPS and some educated guesswork. Near the bottom we find we’re off track again and have a 150-foot climb up a steep snow slope to get back where we belong. “Food” having been consumed hours earlier, I’m exhausted again and the climb is killing me. My snowshoes either slide back or pile up pounds of slush on top of them. I get to the top and let Isaac and Neal go by. I follow them down, hating the snowshoes more and more with each step. The guys warn me not to take them off.
Eventually we have to cross a creek and Isaac says we have maybe 100 yards more in the snowshoes. It doesn’t matter. My hatred for the snowshoes causes me to pull them off, preferring to cross the rocks and boulders of the creek in my boots. I cross the creek just behind Isaac and see that Neal is way ahead by now. I keep up ok, occasionally post holing up to my knee in the deep snow/slush. After negotiating a small avalanche zone, I find the snow deepening again and have to throw the snowshoes back on in order to catch up. My buddies have a laugh when they see me back in the snowshoes. “Sorry guys. I just had to learn that lesson for myself, I guess.” I bet they will still laugh about it when they read this.
We finally gain the trail and shed the snowshoes, thinking we’re home free. We have about three to four miles of easy trail to get to the car. I cross the suspension bridge and start ahead of the guys, feeling weak and exhausted. My poles seem to be the only thing keeping me up. I have lost so much weight on the trip that the backpack no longer cinches down on my waist, instead sliding down to rest on my butt. It makes for painful trekking for both the lower and upper parts of my back and shoulders. Neal has passed me long ago, steaming off toward the car at a pace easily twice my own. Isaac offers to carry my pack. My systems are shutting down but this is MY pack, MY responsibility. He stays with me and tries to keep my mind occupied with conversation. Finally I put my trekking poles across my butt below the bottom of the pack and pull up. I get a lot of relief and my pace doubles. Then my shoulders start to ache from pulling up on the poles and I slow down once again. I tell Isaac to go on ahead and if he comes back I will take him up on his offer to carry my pack. He takes off and I stagger on. I manage to get about three tenths of a mile from the parking lot when Isaac comes back to get me. A deal is a deal, so I reluctantly give him the pack. A nice couple our for a short hike offer me some water and we chat about the climb. While I am happy for the break I am also antsy to be moving again. I’m just about done. I follow Isaac as fast as possible. Jogging in places that are down hill walking in the flats. I joke to Isaac that if I didn’t have those poles I would have face planted more than once. Finally I turn a corner and there is Neal loading the car jamming to the radio.
We load the car and head out. We have one last stop to make - Wendy’s and a Spicy Chicken sandwich! We arrive - three guys in tights, sun burned faces, peeling lips and big grins. The same girl takes our orders and finally recognizes us. The back of the cooking area is abuzz with seeing us again, they look, chuckle, and chatter amongst themselves. I fall asleep in Wendy’s with my arm propped on a divider half-wall, three times. I think I am starting to learn Neal’s ability to fall asleep at will no matter where he finds himself.
Neal gets us a couple of hours complimentary time in a room at the Marriot by the airport so we can get ready for the plane trip. Neal informs us that if you ask nicely and you are one of their preferred customers, they will be more than happy to accommodate you. We thought it would be funny but a bit rude to get on the plane with out showering. We clean up and shower off over six days of sweat, sun screen and grime. We have about two hours to clean up, into fresh clothes, return the car, check in and get on to the plane before it takes off. We had better hurry.
We make the gate as the plane is loading. As I walk down the jetway, it is almost a surreal feeling I have, surrounded by all the people and the plane. I have a strong sense of satisfaction. I feel different. Calm. It feels like life may not be as difficult from this moment on. As I look around the plane at other travelers, I find myself thinking that everyone should be able to feel this way at least once in a lifetime.
Of course I don’t just get to fly home and slide back into the “normal” part of my life. During the trip my glasses broke and my goggles irreversibly fogged and I picked up some nasty uv-caritosis- sun burned eyes a.k.a snow blindness. They started out really red but over the next 24 hours I become so sensitive to light I can't even look at a computer screen while wearing sunglasses and the screen dimmed. I actually have to call into work blind! Of course, as with any sunburn, my eyes gradually heal and become normal again.
After it was all over and looking back at it I can call it the hardest thing I have ever done and worth every minute of it. I can't explain the emotions I had. They ranged all over during the trip. Anticipation, moments of fear, anxiety, determination, concentration, sudden adrenalin rushes, joy and elation. Feeling like you are looking down on the world from above the clouds was something I want to experience again. Somehow I feel changed. I was tested and I passed. I pushed myself harder than I ever thought possible and I stretched myself. I made myself something more than before. Now everyday stuff doesn't seem as hard and some things I use to find important are just not. I feel like I have defined a new me, a new me that is a bit more than the old me. I can't help but wish everyone could find something in their lives that can give them the moments of joy, pain and clarity I had on this trip.
Thank youTo everyone who believed in us,
Or just smiled and nodded while we planned this adventure.