Friday - 24 May 2002
After leaving my home in NYC at 5:45 AM I landed in Reno around 11:30 A.M. local time. Bruce picked me up and we sorted out the gear at his place. We pared down the massive amount of food I’d brought but we did carry a light rope, a moderate rack of rock protection, as well as an ice screw, snow fluke, and four snow pickets for our intended Casaval Ridge route. Bruce and I arrived at the Bunny Flat trailhead (~6950 ft.) with a couple of hours daylight left, so we completed the permits and picked up some human waste pack-out bags before heading out. We decided to leave the Swiss Army randonee skis behind as the snow was not as continous here as we’d hoped, despite the fresh snow received a few days ago. Within an hour we arrived at the Sierra Club cabin AKA Horse Camp (7950 feet) where we pitched the tent and enjoyed the fresh spring water. Oddly, at dusk the sprightly cabin caretaker wandered off into the woods carrying just a metal pot, and returned only the next morning.
Saturday - 25 May 2002
We awoke slowly and packed up camp to leave mid morning – we didn’t have far to go today and intended to establish our high camp at about 10500 feet depending on how we felt. The crampons came on as the snow was somewhat firmer here, and we proceeded up the broad toe of the Casaval ridge. Bruce was moving well and at this point I was just barely feeling the effects of the altitude. Soon we were at 9000 ft. and we stopped for a break. By now I felt easily winded and the ~45 lb. pack didn’t help. As we sat down I fought back panic: the steep slopes we’d just come up and the outstanding view induced a slight vertigo and I couldn’t help but wonder if I belonged up there, especially since I was already struggling so badly. I seriously considered bringing up the possibility of turning back but Bruce reassured me that the elevation was playing tricks on my head. Eventually I got myself together and we set off again.
The snow had a breakable crust with postholing up to 6-12 inches and I was thankful that Bruce was forging the trail. My rest steps became longer and longer, and I paused for three breaths for every step forward. And although it was very warm and sunny (thanks to my insufficient use of sunblock I was developing what would become an oppressive sunburn), we could see dark clouds and precipitation moving towards us. I pictured an enormous hand rising from the mountain, serving up a silver platter holding my buttocks. Bruce moved forward and found an excellent tent site on the Casaval Ridge at 9850 feet. By the time I managed to reach him he’d already set up the tent and built a snow wall around it to protect from the notorious winds. We fired up the stove to melt snow for drinks and dinner. Other parties converged at our site and we soon had close to ten people hanging out around us waiting for companions and trying to find their routes. I thought that maybe they should get going as the weather was worsening, and they eventually did.
Bruce “The Titanium Chef” concocted an excellent meal of rice, vegetarian burger, and taco seasoning, which we finished just as hail and winds began. We heard a lightning strike somewhere higher on the mountain and shortly afterwards Bruce actually felt his hair stand on end from electricity. Fearing a more local strike on our exposed ridgetop position, we hunkered down but fortunately the lightning subsided, although gusty winds and hail continued. It was perhaps 3 P.M. but we settled into our sleeping bags to try and rest, as we had to rise at 2 A.M. for the summit attempt. We decided to discontinue the Casaval route proper as there was little chance of my completing that strenuous route in my condition, and instead planed to traverse the east side of the Casaval to Helen Lake and pick up the easier Avalanche Gulch route.
Sunday - 26 May 2002
Although I slept poorly, I felt relatively refreshed upon rising at 2 A.M. The sky was slightly cloudy under a full moon and an ominous lenticular cloud capped the summit. Still, we decided to go up and see what the mountain had to offer. It would be a relief to move with only a light daypack – Bruce was clearly in better shape than me and he carried the stove and shovel with his pack. We set out from camp around 3:00 after a light breakfast. Bruce thankfully took command of the routefinding and led the traverse along the east side of Casaval ridge, kicking steps across the high-angle snow slope. The snow conditions varied but aside from some sketchy loose or icy spots it seemed generally OK, with a good belay for the ice axe.
We reached the snow flat of Helen Lake (10,450 ft.) and the main route at around 4 or 4:30. The moon had set but the rising sun shed little light through the clouds. There were ten to twenty tents at the popular bivouac site and many people proceeding up the route, including several guided parties consisting of 6-8 people roped together. I was surprised to see such a precaution on this moderate slope and I wondered what they thought of the two figures approaching from the Casaval unroped. As we moved up the route I felt OK and although several people passed me I felt strong enough to continue my moderate pace and perhaps even reach the summit. However, as we ascended we heard reports of strong winds and whiteout conditions at the Red Banks only a little above us and many people were headed back down the mountain. Since we still had some possibly tricky routefinding in order to return to our camp on the Casaval (we were disinclined to reverse our traverse of the east side as the snow warmed and loosened), we turned around 11,750 feet.
We removed our crampons, and Bruce accomplished an impressive sitting glissade to quickly descend 200-300 ft. My nylon pants were too sticky for glissading in the snow there so I plunge-stepped down to him. At about 11,000 ft we picked our way across a “window” in the otherwise high rocks of the Casaval ridge and reached the west side of the ridge. There we found an established boot track in the snow, which led us down the ridge. We reached our tent and quickly packed up and headed out. Bruce practically danced down the snow while I was quite fatigued and struggled to balance under the heavy pack. We agreed to meet below and I lurched through the softening snow of the lower Casaval. Plunge-stepping was treacherous as there was a hard layer of snow under the slush, and I fell countless times to my knees or butt as I lost my balance. Several of these falls resulted in unintentional glissades. I also lacked the energy to find my sunscreen and my sunburn was quite uncomfortable under the bright sun, which the snow seemed to focus on me. I eventually reached Horse Camp and had some spring water and rested briefly in the shade of the cabin. I was physically wasted but at least the trip to the trailhead would be on flatter ground where I would be less likely to slip. I surprised myself with my speed across the flat slushy snow. When I reached Bruce at his truck we enjoyed some homebrew and relaxed for a bit before heading off to the Brown Bear Diner. Although, I have never been so exhausted, it was a great trip and I’m eager to get on the mountain again.