Whitehorse Mountain, Snow Gulch Glacier (So-Bahli-Ahli Glacier) overnight, January, 1982
(Note: exact weekend unknown, but it was in Jan. of '82)
The third time was going to be a charm. Mike Woodmansee had attempted winter ascents of the glacier on the N side of Whitehorse twice in '81. I'd been on the first try. I remember two-thirds of the way up the mountain, Don Slack and I stood back and watched Mike and Howard Armstrong wallow in powder up to their chests in front, to their calves in back. After 20 minutes' determined effort, they might have moved an inch. Or not.
I missed the second attempt, but the outcome was similar. Now, in the first weeks of '82, Mike wanted another shot. He figured our problem was a simple lack of time. On the scale of the American West, Whitehorse is puny: only 6,852 feet. But on the North side your car won't get you to 800 feet above the saltwater. If nine hours of daylight wasn't enough to climb and descend 6,000 feet in brush and deep snow, maybe we could do half the job. An extra day to get down wasn't going to help much if we loaded ourselves down with camping gear. We could skip the stove if we brought no-cook food and extra water, and why bring a tent when we can we can enjoy a nice, cozy snowcave?
From down at the Whitehorse Store you can imagine climbing the glacier, but you tend to overlook all the forest and brush in the foreground. The snow is supposed to cover the brush, but the trade-off is the notorious avalanches. Around here avalanches are wet and heavy. Western Washington winters are mellowed by the Pacific. When the mercury drops below freezing, local TV stations start running Special Reports about the Frigid Arctic Blast. This month though, it was real. We'd had two weeks of cold, dry, wind out of the NE and highs in the teens. The snowpack ought to be about as stable as it gets.
As usual, I was up too late packing the night before. This time it was complicated by something I ate. Puking is not a good omen. I met Mike, Mark DesVoigne, and Paul Sharratt in Mount Vernon when the stars were still out. In fact, we parked the car in the woods under the N face before the sun could reach us, and in January the sun doesn't hit that side of the mountain all day. We hiked the road while it lasted, then headed up into the woods and brush. That theory about all the brush being buried under the snow didn't quite work out, but we wrestled our way up to the glacier, then bore generally left, with the usual deviations to bypass crevasses and steps. Our crampons stayed on our packs. When we weren't postholing, we were wallowing.
It was a long day. By the time we reached the final pitch, our light was fading. That last section was a steep, soft snow ramp plastered against the N side of the summit by that aforementioned N wind. It was too soft to support our boots, but if we stabbed our arms straight into the slope and pressed down with the whole length of our arms, they held us. There were two problems, though. One was that the wind at our backs picked up every granule of snow available when we even thought about moving, and blew it straight up between our legs and into our parkas, noses and mountain glasses. The other was that Paul had no mittens. He was a poor highschool kid, using wool socks for mitts. Holey ones, at that. Persistent kid that he was, he reached the top with superficial frostbite all over both hands. I was last up, in time to see the last half of the sun disappear behind the Olympics. Down to the north was this amazing single file of tracks in the snow that snaked up for thousands of feet to our perch. I said I'd hate to be the poor suckers who made all those tracks.
My right eyelashes had frozen together. I sat with my mitten over that eye while we enjoyed the view. It thawed, and I had two eyes again, but while backing down the same slope, my left eye froze shut.
We hadn't found a bivy site yet. The snow around us was either too flat or too thin for an easy cave. Down to the west, about 300 feet below, was a notch in the ridge where wind cut a little canyon into the snow. We could burrow into its walls. We'd dug proper caves before, with the low entrance tunnel leading to a raised platforn to trap warm air. It's pretty straightforward in damp Western Washington snow. This wasn't. We chopped away at a hard, thick ice crust to find... another hard, thick ice crust. Layer after layer of hard ice forced us to chop with all our strength. Paul & I were too exhausted to help. We were shuffled off to sit on our packs while Mike & Mark excavated our palace. Actually, the ice forced them to chop so hard that our palatial design was shot all to hell. We ended up with one cramped, sloping, gaping hole for three of us, shallow enough that our legs were exposed to the sky.
We laid out our pads. Most of us had the newfangled bluefoam pads, but Paul had the original, tan Ensolite foam. It was flexible enough to fold into quarters to make a nice cushion inside his pack. He unpacked it and pulled it straight. It broke into four rectangles. Did I mention that the temperature was well below zero F., and we had built our home in a wind funnel? Paul had just the treat to keep us all warm: a brand-new plastic rain poncho to spread over the three of us. He pulled it out of its package and it broke into 8-inch squares, some of which blew away over Whitehorse's S face. I undressed, which consisted of taking off my boots and putting on Polarguard booties as fast as I could, and slid down into my 2 ¾-pound duckdown REI bag. Something wasn't right. In fact, it was pretty obvious my crampons were under the center of my back. I laid on them for 20 minutes trying to convince myself I could sleep like that. They poked a hole in my sleeping bag that I had to fix back home. I was kinda tired. I gave up and fixed my bed. Rather than let my boots fill with spindrift, I knocked some of the snow off them, crammed them into my sleeping bag stuff sack, then crammed the package down into my sleeping bag under my feet. I'd eaten almost nothing all day - my stomach was still queasy. But I nibbled a bit and kept a plastic container of peanut butter fudge inside my bag for a quick sugar & fat hit in the morning.
We actually slept some, but it was a long night. By morning it was even colder, at least -10F., and the wind was doing about 40 knots, but at least I had my appetite back. I dug down in my sleeping bag and came up with an empty container. I found the fudge, too, frozen so hard it hadn't even picked up any lint from my wool clothes. I mouthed it until I could gnaw off a little. I pulled my boots out of my sleeping bag and found they were still frozen solid. The crystals on them hadn't even rounded off. I had time for a few pictures while the Paul dressed & packed. He had blisters all over his hands from freezing them the evening before. Made it hard to lace his boots.
Mark had boot problems, too. His were a bit too large, and he'd climbed all Saturday with wedges of foam crammed into the tops to fill space. That would probably be a more popular technique if it worked. He had some frostbite on both feet.
We headed down, this time bearing left and off the west side of the glacier to traverse talus & brush slopes. We were stopped by an avalanche track where the slab had left only a thin layer, hard & tough as plywood. I tried cutting steps across it, but it took 6 hard blows with the pick and three with the adze to cut each toehold. This in snow only 2 inches thick, with an airspace under it. The others called me back and we put on crampons. Mike had to buckle Paul's. The crampons made a big difference; the snow stayed hard well down into the forest. I remember that because Paul tripped over a vine maple, and when he fell, he swung his leg and cramponed Mike in the shin. Took four stitches back in Mount Vernon.
We reached the car, the car worked, and we drove out into the sun at the highway. We'd been under blue skies all weekend, but hadn't stood in the sun since Friday, unless you count that orange sliver we watched set from the summit. It felt good. It felt really good to be off that mountain. My definition of adventure is something you undertake for fun that has a significant risk of serious consequences. Whitehorse in a coldsnap fit that definition. It was not so much something to do as to have done. I'm glad I don't have to go back.