Eldorado Peak (Elevation 8876 ft)
Thomas and I headed up to North Cascades National Park (NCNP) on Saturday, August 21. We were set to climb Eldorado Peak because of its famous knife-edge summit ridge and its awesome views from the top of its neighbors such as Forbidden Peak, Sahale Peak, Boston Peak, Klawatti Peak, and Johanesburg Peak (just to name a few). Rain was in the forecast that afternoon to evening so we had decided on one-day push, car to car, hoping to beat the rain. If anything, we were prepared to get a little wet.
We left the car at 8:30 am and made our way up the infamous approach of steep climbers trail, endless boulder field, and steep granite slabs. The sky remained cloudy so we only had one glimpse of Eldorado Peak. We were at the edge of the glacier by noon and took an hour break. We met a group of 12 NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) women out on a leadership class and chatted a bit before heading onto the glacier. Once on the glacier, the weather turned on us. It was steady drizzle and visibility down to 50 – 60 feet. So much for rain forecast late afternoon to evening.
We couldn’t quite figure out the exact direction to hit the East Ridge so we relied on a map and compass to point us in the general direction. We meandered around the glacier field and jumped across several crevasses but could not see the start of the East Ridge route. We spent almost an hour looking. We almost turned back when the weather broke for few seconds and we could make out the outline of the ridge and got our bearing straight. Excited, wet, tired, we reached the summit at 4:00pm. I would elaborate on the generally striking view from the summit route but on this day, nothing. Can’t make out anything more then 50 feet.
Few summit pics and we were on our way down when accident struck. I slipped on unstable snow (45 degree grade) and slid about 15 feet into band of rocks. My right ankle took the full brunt of the force and it twisted outwards. In excruciating pain, I stood up to check out the damage and I couldn’t put any pressure on my right foot. Oh no!! This can’t be happening! The weather is bad, night is fast approaching, and we’re 6800 vertical feet and 5 miles from our car! Not good at all.
I figured it might be high ankle sprain or possibly a bone fracture but no way to be sure. All I knew was I couldn’t put much pressure on it. Gathering my thoughts and getting over the initial shock, Thomas and I talked about our options. First, I decided to keep my right boot on at all cost. If I took it off, my ankle and feet would swell up that I wouldn’t be able to put my boot back on. Second, we had to at least get off the glacier and back to where the NOLS women were camped. They might have a satellite phone (cell phones are useless in NCNP). Relying on trekking poles for stability, we made our slow descent. I glanced at my watch and it was 4:20pm.
Half way down the glacier, I became really weak and cold. My head started to spin and I had to just sit down. I realized I haven’t had much to drink or eat, and probably my nerves were getting to me. I asked Thomas to help me get my water and food out of my pack and just gobbled whatever I can lay my hands on. Feeling better, I hobbled down in the steady, unrelenting rain.
We hobbled into the tents of the NOLS group at 6:50 pm and asked for assistance. Luckily, they had a satellite phone and their leader (Jen, unfortunately didn’t catch her last name) offered us its use right away. They were very kind and offered us shelter and food. Boy that hot chocolate and cheese quesadilla tasted really good!!!!
By this time, I was convinced I could hike out under my own power. I didn’t want to be rescued off the mountain and make the evening news (with bad weather and nightfall fast approaching, it wouldn’t have been possible until at least the next morning anyway). I didn’t want to spend the night on the mountain (to travel light and fast, we did not carry sleeping bags - only our bivy sack). Besides, I just wanted this ordeal to be over and the car was my sanctuary. At the least though, we figured we should contact the rangers to notify of our situation. After unsuccessful attempts to reach the rangers, Jen called the NOLS regional office. The understanding was that they would attempt to notify the rangers or Northwest Mountain Dispatch. Maybe they can send out a ranger or two to assist tonight???? I was hopeful but not really counting on it. NOLS women offered for us to stay the night but we declined (looking back….what was I thinking?? 12 women on the mountain offering to take care of me!!).
Figuring I had no one to rely on but myself (and my partner of course), we bid our farewell and started the torturous descent. It was almost 8pm. Shortly after leaving the NOLS group, darkness fell and we couldn’t make out much of anything at all. At least we carried our headlamps and plenty of extra batteries. If all goes right, I can make it back to the car by 1am, I thought to myself.
We carefully picked our way down, trying to stay on the faint trail across the slabs and heather. This became very frustrating because the trail we followed would often end abruptly and we’re left looking for the next trail. I had an altimeter and a good trail description. So with that and relying on recollection from this morning, we figured we’re on the right path. When in doubt, head down…. right? Sometimes, I resorted to sliding on my ass getting down the steep and wet slabs and big boulders. Whatever I can do to not put much pressure on my right leg!
It was midnight when first trouble came. Somehow, we couldn’t find the entrance into the forest and the climber’s trail. I kept checking my altimeter and thinking it has to be around this bend. But in complete darkness, everything looked the same. Frustrated and already going on 7 hours + since my fall, we just started bushwhacking into the woods, hoping to run into the climbers trail. About ½ hour later, much to our delight, we stumbled across the trail. Now we just had to follow the trail and we’re home free!!
At about 2am, we ran into our next challenge. Finding the faint trail that leads to the river crossing. My altimeter said 2200 feet so we had to be close. We can even hear the river near by. Did we pass it or is it still further down??? We looked around for what seemed like an hour and still had no idea where the river crossing was! In our tired and confused state, we started to bushwhack towards the river and got off the main trail. Maybe if we can get to the riverbank, we can just follow the river down stream and find our crossing. Big mistake. We got our selves even more lost. (it turned out my altimeter was off by about 300 feet).
It was 4 am and we had enough. Dejected, tired, cold, wet, hungry, pissed off, we made the decision to bivy for couple of hours and wait for daylight. We found a little covering under some fallen trees and hunkered down. Everything we had was soaked so we couldn’t change into anything; even Thomas’s bivy was soaked. We just had to hunker down and make the best of our situation.
Surprisingly, I slept for about an hour but woke up shivering like crazy. I dozed in and out for 45 more minutes but couldn’t take the cold any longer. Thomas and I were afraid of getting hypothermic so we decided to get moving. It was 6am and getting lighter by the minute.
We gathered our thoughts and discussed our plan. The river crossing is due south from our position, we knew that much. So taking out the compass, we headed due south looking for the river. ((why didn’t we think of this few hours before?? It’s funny how your mind works or doesn’t work when you’re at your physical and mental limits).
We found the river and headed upstream a little. Thomas noticed 2 people on the trail and ran after them. I could barely muster enough energy to move but somehow followed after him. It turned out that they were rangers coming in to check up on us. Apparently, NOLS got a hold of them last night and notified them of our situation. At 7:30 am and 23 hours after we left our car, we were finally back to our car and the end of our struggles.
I finally took my boot off to survey the damage and boy did it look bad. Very swelled up and my whole ankle area was purple. I was still optimistic that it was just a severe sprain and not a bone fracture. Next day however, the orthopedic doctor told me that I had broken my fibula near the ankle joint. And because it was near the joint, they recommended surgery to (insert plate and pins) to put the bone back in place. Bummer….worst case scenario came true.
Well, it has been exactly 3 weeks since my surgery. It all went well and I’m now in a hard cast. I’m supposed to get this cast off next week and maybe into a soft boot for 2 more weeks after that. Then, the rehab begins. I’m hopeful that I can start light hiking by November and start back climbing by January. At least that’s the plan because I’m already planning an ice-climbing trip up to Banff in January and Ecuador trip in February.
Looking back, this was a kind of experience that really tested my mental and physical toughness. I came out pretty good, I think. I had the attitude of “I was getting down by myself and nothing was going to stop me” and that’s what I did. Much thanks goes out to NOLS and especially Thomas. I only started climbing with him this year but he turned out to be an excellent partner. He was patient and understanding and was by my side the entire way. I’ll go climbing with him anytime anywhere.
OK, it’s not that big of an epic, not like Aron Ralston cutting his own arm off!! But still, I can say that I hiked out 6800 vertical with a broken ankle and under my own power and most important, accomplished the climb in less than 24 hours (not something to brag about though!). I still can’t figure out how we missed the climber’s trail though. We also didn’t get the weather we were hoping for so I guess I’ll have to go climb it again next year!!