The weather was making me very grumpy. It was just as well. I had an essay due on Tuesday and a test on Wednesday. I should really stay home anyway. I was on msn with Mike & Chris seriously considering pulling the plug on Plan C when the phone rang. “Julia, please come to Vantage with us!” I heard Jim implore. After a slight hesitation, I answered “You’re bad… what’s the weather doing there?” Any temptation I was feeling disappeared pretty quickly when I received the local forecast however. “No freakin way I’m driving all the hell the way out there for that forecast” I replied.
My Plan C still looked like the best option and Jim’s infectious enthusiasm caused me to keep it on life support a little longer. Jim and Tracy said they were in so in a flurry of activity over the next several hours, a trip was planned. When the dust settled, Jim, Tracy, Jeff, Mike, & 2 Chris' (C1 & C2) were headed down to Leavenworth for some cragging and if we really got lucky with the weather, one of the peaks on my current top 10 list.... Colchuck.
An early morning start had us pulling into Leavenworth around 11am. It had been an interesting drive. Brutal car wreck in Bellingham... 3 dead deer on the side of the road and the Wenatchee river raging like I've never seen it, threatening to overflow its banks. It had rained almost all the way there but did seem to be clearing. We checked into the hotel and by the time we’d stocked up at Safeway summer had arrived. C1 (who reminds me every time he ropes up that he is NOT a rock climber) opted to nap while the rest of us headed out to Peshastin Pinnacles, a sandstone outcropping about 5 miles east of Leavenworth which we decided would be drying out the most quickly.
After a perfect afternoon of climbing under blue skies and some good food it was time to get serious. 7 people packing full on glacier/alpine climbing gear in a small hotel room is an interesting experience but we managed. Unfortunately Jim had accidentally brought a Barbie backpack which provided some interesting entertainment as he struggled to fit everything in it. By 10:30 we were all packed up and in beds or sleeping bags on the floor. I’m not sure what time it was when the air conditioner conked out but between that and some unexpected noises it was a rough night for most of us.
At 2:40 we were up and trying to convince our bodies that this really was a good time for breakfast. C1, Mike and I had this brilliant idea to drink 4L of chocolate milk between the 3 of us and chase it with a yogurt smoothie. This would later prove to be responsible for the hole in the ozone layer that now exists over the trail to Colchuck Lake and for the dead vegetation along side the lake. C2 had to be home today so he opted for a shorter solo hike and took off ahead of us. After the usual bleary eyed messing about at the trailhead, we were stumbling into the forest at 4:40am.
The trail was longer than I remembered it (aren’t they always?) but it’s pretty civilized, at least in terms of altitude gain. It was mainly snow covered with a well worn boot track. The germ warfare ensued almost immediately. I didn’t think much of it at first. Having been exposed to similar smells for hours on Mount Hood a few weeks ago, and given the early hour and lack of sleep, it took a few minutes before I realized that a forest trail should not, in fact, smell like a volcano. I was right behind Mike but was losing ground as I became overpowered by the toxic fumes. Even Chris and Jeff behind me were suffering. If anyone had lit a match the whole forest would have gone up. My stomach was churning too but I’m still girlie enough to not let fly when someone is 2 feet behind me. Chris was realizing quickly that he was not going to be able to pull off his usual ‘poo camel’ routine this trip.
The fart parade continued onward and upwards for 2170 feet and 4 miles to Colchuck Lake. As the sun rose, we were treated to some views of our objective, Colchuck Peak and its mighty neighbour, Dragontail. It looked a long way away and a long way up!
At the lake, we stopped for lunch and our first good look at our route. I didn’t mind admitting that from there, it looked a bit scary but these things rarely look as bad once you get there. We hoped that the clouds moving in would just blow right past us. The forecast had been for ‘partly cloudy’ skis with 20% POP so we were pretty confident. Besides, we had Jim… our own personal sunshine totem. Unfortunately, he had dropped the sacred sun picket on the trail but we remained hopeful. Suddenly the foulest smell enveloped us. It took a moment for the source to register but the Lamaaz breathing sounds coming from behind the big boulder above us left little doubt. We quickly relocated as we marveled at the fact that the stench had actually moved down slope. We continued to eat as we listened to the play by play from behind the rock. By some miracle, no one choked to death, either from the fumes or from laughing that hard while eating. After a long time, Chris emerged looking somewhat dejected, announcing that after all that, he didn’t even feel any pride in his work.
We decided to leave our snowshoes and poles behind a rock (well away from where Chris had been!) and with full bellies, we continued along the lakeshore towards the base of the Colchuck glacier. We slipped and slided and post holed our way along and in about 45 minutes, emerged at the boulder field. After chatting with some climbers who had just come down, we decided to abandon our plans for the North Buttress as that weather was moving in quick and starting to look nasty. So after ditching one rope and most of the rock pro we hit the Colchuck glacier.
It was a long, steep slog. Once we reached the moraine we were right below the couloir we would have ascended for the North Buttress route. It looked super fun and it was hard to continue past it but I knew that our best chance of getting on top was the glacier route. Sometimes there were fantastic steps, solid and evenly spaced. Other times it was like a drunken giraffe had been breaking trail.
The views behind us were nice but up ahead were looking a bit daunting. The slope was so steep that we really couldn’t see anything until we were on top of the col so I tried to keep my hopes up.
It was nice to see Glacier Peak (Plan A) peeking out in the distance and I kept hoping that we’d be able to see Stuart from the col but it wasn’t to be. The snow was soft and the runout pretty benign so we did not use our crampons or rope up. There are no serious crevasses on this glacier either so just putting one foot in front of the other was really all we had to worry about on this section. The fun class 3-4 rock scrambling would begin at the col at 8040 feet. When we finally reached the col the weather started to get serious. Mike suggested that it might just blow over so we hunkered down by a big rock to wait it out. Hope was fading fast though as a few minutes later he had another peek over the other side and announced “Holy shit! You should see this big black band of clouds that’s coming!”
I refused to look. I was still in denial but the exclamations of those observing the incoming weather was not helping in my self deception. I was afraid that a mutiny was inevitable and my fears were soon realized. No one else seemed to see the value in climbing up wet slippery rock in a snowstorm for some reason so it was with heavy heart that I told the group to give me a minute to get over it and scrambled up the highest wet slippery rock I could find on the col to face my tormentor, dragging Jeff with me.
I have to admit that it was a little unpleasant standing there with wet snow whipping me in the face but I made Mike take a picture anyway as I struck my best totally fake smile and hero pose.
As Jeff and I rejoined the group someone had realized that there were two guys who had gone up ahead of us. One of their packs was lying behind a rock. The last time we had seen them they had been wearing shorts and t-shirts and wearing very small packs. We decided that they probably didn’t have enough gear with them to spend a whole lot of time up there and speculated about what kind of trouble they might be in but realized that we couldn’t really do anything for them but call in their license plate and location when we got back down. The peak was almost completely shrouded in cloud now as we turned to leave.
As we plunge stepped down through the soft, deep snow there was something nagging in the back of my mind. About 400feet later I realized what it was and reluctantly stopped the group. I had an emergency bivy bag and chemical heat packs in my first aid kit. Others quickly realized that they too were carrying gear that might be useful if and when they made it back down to the col. I said I would go up with it if someone would come with me. We gathered up whatever we thought they could use and Jeff and I headed back up. After whistling into the wind for about 10 minutes and trying different radio channels we still had no contact so we headed back down again.
After some more unpleasant plunge stepping I’d had enough and plopped my ass down and let gravity do its worst. Jeff soon followed suit. My black mood couldn’t keep up with me and we screamed down that slope like two bats out of hell. I whooped and giggled my way down the 2500 feet to the lake, picking up the rest of the group at the moraine along the way.
It was a veeeeeeeeery long slog back to the cars. The guys we’d left for dead caught up with us when we stopped to pick up our snowshoes. Turns out they had plenty of Gore-tex in that little pack and were no worse for wear. We were all pretty tired and soaking wet. Keeping your footing on slippery snow broken up by short sections of wet log crossings & mud is not enjoyable when your legs pack it in but we all managed to make it back to the cars in one piece, 14 hours after we had left them.
Some of us will be back next month to finish the job. The others have also vowed to return. Even a wet soggy day in the Enchantments is still a pretty darn good day so we were a fairly contented lot that descended on the nearest pub an hour later.
We slept like the dead for about ten hours. The morning dawned wet & put an end to any plans we’d had of hitting the crags again so we were forced to go gear whoring instead. When life gives you lemons, go to REI. Thanks to everyone for making the best of a dodgy weather forecast with me.
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