Dude, we gotta snuggle
camp near Anderson Glacier
Under a near perfect sky, Wes and I watch the first stars appear. They arrive slowly from east to west toward the fading remnants of sunset. We sit with our backs against a large boulder, cleaved smooth on one side by moving ice. The boulder is snuggly imbedded near the terminus of the Anderson Glacier, jutting up like a huge weathered tombstone. My tent is pitched twenty yards away, and we plan on climbing Mt. Anderson in the morning.
Massive walls of glacier scoured sandstone rise around us in a loose horseshoe shape, creating an alpine basin dominated by the snow streaked summits of Mt. Anderson and West Peak, rising 2,000 feet above our heads due north. Stretching south of us and dropping away is a wide canyon carved out by the glacier, long since retreated. At the far end, hemmed in by cliffs on its west flank is Anderson Lake, the sheen of sunset gleaming on its surface. Large chunks of ice can be seen floating in the water.
We sip tea and watch the rosy alpenglow fade from the peaks, the temperature dropping with each passing minute. The forecast has promised precipitation, and we know the pleasant weather will be short lived. It’s late September and the high country is well on its way toward winter. Its approach can be smelled and felt in the air; seen in the reddish tinge of the blue berry leaves. Our hope is to have a long enough pleasant weather window to climb the peak and return before the bad weather shows up. We certainly aren’t dead set on making the summit, however.
With our supper eaten and our tea drank, darkness descends and we make ready for bed. It’s time for one more call of nature before retiring for the night. I follow the glow of my headlamp away from camp along a thread of milky water bubbling out the end of the glacier. Far below us, this little stream becomes the Quinault River. I reach an overlook were the stream drops away in a cascade. Having an unobstructed view, I notice that the sky is still mostly clear, except off to the southwest. No stars are visible in that direction, only a deep blackness. Weather on its way, I think.
big boulder, Anderson Glacier
When setting out on this particular journey, I knew that my old Mountain Hardware tent was reaching the end of its lifespan. Rigorous use had taken its toll on the seams and its water proof status. I figured it would get me through to the end of the season and then it would be time to retire it. As we crawled into its cramped, low profile confines, I wasn’t worried about its integrity in the slightest. We weren’t expecting anything severe weather-wise.
After an in-determinable length of dozing, I awoke to Wes stirring out of his sleeping bag and unzipping the tent door. He headed out into the night, presumably to find a place to urinate. I lay there listening to the night. A steady breeze was blowing, causing the tent wall to flap softly back and forth. Aside from the rushing stream in the distance, there was nothing else to be heard. After a few minutes, Wes comes back, footsteps crunching on the gravelly moraine. As he is leaning down into the doorway of the tent, there is an audible snap.
“Oh shit,” he says. I don’t need him to explain what has happened, however. I know what has happened. I can tell by the new cock-eyed slant the front of the tent now has to it. The front arching tent pole has broken, simply from him leaning on it. This isn’t necessarily distressing to me, because I had broken it once before, and was henceforth traveling prepared with a tent pole repair kit. Wes is both surprised and relieved. I slid out of my sleeping bag and retrieved the repair kit from my gear.
By sliding a small aluminum tube over the broken section of tent pole and securing it into place with a generous amount of duct tape, the repair job is finished. I now have a tent pole with two repairs on it; a skewed, trail weary piece of hardware. But a piece of hardware that will suffice. The breeze is picking up as I’m feeding the pole back into its sleeve. Punctuating it now are larger gusts making the tent shudder. I scan the sky and see no stars.
There was no precipitation falling yet, but I didn’t figure it was far off. With a slight sinking feeling I realize that the weather is probably going to cancel out our climb. Probably the only trip we’d be making in the morning was the six mile, mostly downhill trek back to the chalet in Enchanted Valley. That would be fine too; all the comforts of a front porch to sit on, a woodstove, and cold running water. We get the tent set to rights and crawl back into our sleeping bags, chilly now from being out in the wind, which is really picking up. The Larger gusts are closer together hitting the tent wall in intervals. I’m wide awake, so I start to read a paperback book I brought along. I read maybe five pages or so before the wind starts to really howl.
The patter of precipitation begins under no tentative terms, but comes in a rush. It arrives first as rain, then changes to the hard crackling sound of wind driven sleet, then back to rain. Both of us are wide awake now listening and waiting for whatever nature is intending to throw at us. We are discussing the realization that this is probably some kind of freak, localized storm, when a drop of water hits me in the face.
I click on my headlamp and its glow reveals beads of water glistening along the inside of a seam in the rainfly above my head. Outside, the unrelenting force of the wind is leveling off at a good sixty five or seventy miles an hour and hitting my side of the tent squarely from the southwest. The wall and ceiling next to and above me is bowed inward like a sail only inches from my face. Little flecks and sprits of water are sprinkling my left cheek. I feel down along the side of my sleeping bag and realize it is damp. In the glow of my headlamp I can see that the wind is pushing the rain through the stretched out seams. Little puddles are springing up on the floor next to me. To my right, Wes is staying reasonably dry on the leeward side of the tent. I’m soaking up most of the water for him.
Despite the prospect of becoming a sponge, for a while I think that simply staying put in the tent and waiting it out is the most viable option. We discuss this, having to raise our voices over the screaming wind and wildly flapping tent walls. Meanwhile, my left side is getting wetter, the volume of water coming through the damaged seams growing. There is a sloshing sound underneath my sleeping pad now. I run my hand under it and discover a small lake. It is seeping over the top and under my sleeping bag. Icy fingers are soaking through and touching my back. Little runnels of water are flowing around me and heading for Wes’s side. He eyes them dubiously, shifting and sliding away from their course.
Above us the roof was becoming more inverted, bending down toward our faces. The handicapped tent pole is really being put to the test now. Little streams of water were being pushed in through the seams and running down the curved rainfly, heading for Wes now and sprinkling on him. It was becoming obvious that if we tried to weather the storm out in the tent, it would either be ripped apart or fill up with water. A newer tent would hold its own against the storm, but my old tired and handicapped one would surely be meeting its end. Had already, in fact.
We decided to pack everything up and make for the tree line down below us. To get there we would have to descend and cross a mile or so of glacier moraine. If the going was easy to the trees, we’d probably continue the trek back to the chalet by headlamp. It would be long, wet and miserable slog, but possible. If the going to the trees was long and arduous, we’d make a shelter with the small tarp I used for setting the tent on and hunker down until daylight. We began to layer our clothing back on. I put on my wool pants and sweater, and then slip into my ski jacket, drawing the hood down tight. We crawl out of the tent and into the storm to begin packing up.
The rain has changed to sleet again and facing the wind with my eyes open is almost impossible. This is a serious problem because the direction we need to travel is into the wind. I look at my pitiful old shelter, now more a sail than a tent. Without the weight of our bodies in it, it is already beginning to bounce up and down. The cords attaching it to the stakes are stretched to their limit. A few of the stakes are working their way out of the loose gravel of the moraine. It wouldn’t be long before the damn thing was airborne, sailing up and over Mt. Anderson. Before it can take flight, we hastily break down the tent. It flaps around in our hands like crazy, but we manage to get it under control and I stuff it into my pack. We cram the rest of our gear into our packs, huddled and braced against the weather. We are committed to going now because all our gear has been exposed and is wet.
Shouldering our packs, we simply stand there for a moment like statues letting the wind and sleet batter us. My hood is drawn over most of my face, but this doesn’t help much. The sleet, whipping through the air almost completely horizontal, is stinging my eyes and the part of my face that is exposed. I can see nothing beyond the fifteen foot cone of my headlamp, and the ground that is illuminated is blurry because I’m squinting against the onslaught. Wes takes a few tentative steps and I follow. The wind is buffeting and pushing us, seeming to try and stop our progress. Suddenly the idea of negotiating the large and slippery boulders covering the steep terrain at the base of the moraine doesn’t sound like the best idea. Looming out of the dark ahead is the big boulder that we sat against earlier in the evening. We both move to it instinctively, without a word.
It is large enough to block the wind, a huge relief. A slight overhang sticks out above us and a jet of wind driven sleet is flying over it and around the sides, making a whistling-whoosh sound. Hunkered down in this little spot, the weather is mostly missing us. We just sit there up against the rock for a few minutes, relishing being out of the wind. I take off my pack and pull out the tarp and my sleeping pad. Wes takes out his sleeping pad and taking both of them, we prop them up behind and beneath us as insulation against the boulder. Taking the tarp and wrapping it around us, we now have a makeshift shelter. We do this mostly without speaking, the grim realization of spending the night in the storm settling in. There will be no walking anywhere until the wind stops.
Despite my layered clothing, I’m fairly soaked and can feel my body heat seeping away. Wes, who has fewer layers, is in no better position. With numb fingers (forgot my gloves), I rummage around for my gas stove. I set it between us and get some water boiling to make hot chocolate. As the pot grows warm I cup my hands around it to thaw them out a bit. I wiggle some life back into my fingers and mix cups of hot chocolate. Drawing the tarp tighter around us and sitting cross-legged, we drink our drinks and listen to the wind scream. It sounds angry, like we cheated it.
The hot chocolate is warming and makes us feel better. I’m low on stove fuel, however, and will only be able to boil water a couple more times. I only brought a partial canister up, just enough for dinner and breakfast. Also, I’ve used all the water in my Nalgene bottles for the hot chocolate and will have to venture to the stream to get more. Musing it over, I decide that bridge will have to be crossed when I get to it. For the moment, half of me is almost warm and that’s enough.
I mention to Wes that we could look at this situation as a fun type of training. He gives me another one of those dubious looks, but says nothing, no doubt the ranger part of his brain scolding him for being in this situation. This is the first excursion we have gone on together, and it’s shaping up to be a memorable one. The glow brought on from the hot drink starts to ebb, and my legs are going numb from sitting cross-legged; or maybe because they are freezing. I loathe the idea of standing up, however, so for a long while I simply sit there breathing and growing colder. My upper half is shivering now and I notice Wes is shivering also. There is about three inches of space between us and I have an idea that space is going to be shrinking as we get colder.
When I work up the nerve to stand and stretch, I do it slowly and peek over the top of the boulder like a small defenseless animal. The wind blasts me in the face, eager to punish. I squat slightly on my slumbering legs, bobbing up and down and kneading the muscles. When I feel like I can move without falling over, I take a few steps out into the storm and back. There is rain in the sleet again and it feels like the wind might have picked up a notch or two. I pinwheel my arms and stamp my feet and jog in place. Wes stands and does the same, but remains taciturn. I’m not particularly expecting him to be jovial anyway; just staving off hypothermia would be fine. My blood is flowing again and it’s empowering, so I’m ready to dash over to the stream and fetch more water. The icy water turns my hands into blocks of wood, but soon I’ll have boiling hot drinks. The rain and sleet mix is switching back to solid sleet now and I’m almost sure the wind has picked up a tad.
We return to the relative safety of our rock, enveloping once more in the tarp and sleeping pads. I clear out a space in front of us and prop the tarp away with our ice axes to make room for the stove. I get the flame lit and the water on to boil, my freezing hands once again delighting in the warmth. This time it’s going to be hot soup and a little tea to go with it. I’m going for broke. The weather now looks like a mix of rain, sleet, and snow all together. Thankfully, we are spared most of it by the slight overhang in the rock and our tarp. There is no longer a space between us; shoulder to shoulder, small and fragile warmth is being generated. It is making my left side marginally warmer than the rest of my body. I focus on that precious little warmth and will it to spread. My hands are warm from the cooking pot again and a little of the heat from the hissing flame is building up inside the tarp. I pour out some water for tea and add soup packets to the pot. After drinking it all down, we feel almost normal again. I immediately start to boil more water, but the flame is slowing and getting lower. It sputters and flicks out, but not before the water is good and hot. It was time for more hot chocolate.
After drinking the hot liquids, we feel better about our situation. The wind is still wailing, but it appears to be dropping a little. We decide that at first light we are heading down whether the storm is over or not. It’s almost three a.m. by Wes’s watch, so we’ve got roughly three more hours of enduring the cold. The comfort we gained by the drinks and soup starts to wear off and we can feel the cold creeping back in. Wrapping the tarp tighter, we huddle a little closer to keep the heat from escaping. Around four o’clock, after shivering four an hour, we get up to stretch our legs and jog in place. It’s painfully cold in the wind, but my legs need some blood flowing in them. They feel like tree trunks, and my arms aren’t much better.
We soon return to our huddle for more shivering and waiting. Sitting and breathing and waiting and shivering. I ask Wes what time it is. “Four- eighteen”, he says. After what feels like an hour I ask him what time it is again. “Four-twenty nine”, he says. The cold is really getting to me now. At some point, the precipitation turns back to a solid, steady rain. We start to ramble back and forth in conversation to help pass the time. Wes talks about canoeing in the Florida Everglades and I try to transport myself there, imagining that big blazing sun overhead and feeling its warmth. I picture myself back in my cabin, the woodstove crammed full of fir and spruce blazing away, turning the side of the stove orange and the room into a sauna. These thoughts make me feel like laughing and crying at the same time. Yammering and babbling and fantasizing of warmer climates, the cold minutes drag by towards dawn. After a while, the conversation lags and we just sit in tired and resigned silence. I’m cold and uncomfortable and sleep deprived and hungry, but I’m also at peace a little. At least I’m in the mountains. I mention this to Wes. He doesn’t even bother giving me another sideways look.
Around five thirty the wind drops back considerably, with stronger gusts blowing intermittently. The rain slacks a little and I realize I can just barely make out the features of rocks nearby. In front of us, the ghostly outline of the glacier is appearing. The night has been perfectly black up to this point, and to see a real and tangible landscape around us again is reassuring. Soon I can make out distant shapes of rocks and ridge lines and then the rain tapers off to a thin mist. The silhouette of Mt. Anderson becomes visible and an opening in the clouds appears above it, showing a few faint stars. The clouds open further and a grayish light is visible over the ridge to our left. We acknowledge these developments slowly, like coming out of a dream. Daylight is coming, and it’s time to get moving at last.
We pack up and start moving down the canyon as the dawn light brightens in the east. My legs protest at first, and my steps are a bit shambling. After descending a long snowfield and reaching the level bottom near Anderson Lake, my legs begin to warm up and my gait becomes more focused. The wind has dropped to around twenty miles per hour or so, but still chilling as it ripples across the lake and into our wet clothes. We reach the terminal moraine at the end of the canyon and climb up it methodically from boulder to boulder as the orange-red sunrise bleeds into the sky. Its short lived, however, as more dense charcoal colored clouds are rolling in from the west. Soon the sky is all dark again and as we gain the way trail down to Anderson pass, it begins to rain.
The rain rose to thundering, drenching torrents and did not let up for the entire hike back down the valley to the chalet. Heads down, feet pounding, we knocked out the six miles back without stopping once. Upon entering the meadows around the chalet, we had water squelching from our boots and every square inch of clothing and gear was soaked. Two hikers from Missouri or Minnesota or some damn place spied us and scurried over, seeing Wes’s Park Service insignia. “Excuse me, uh ranger,” one of them began, “I was wondering about...” “I’ll answer your questions after I get into dry clothes,” Wes said without breaking stride, gesturing toward the chalet.
I built a roaring fire in the stove and every item was hung around it to dry. Over the next two days the rain poured without let up, flooding the river and bringing every waterfall in the valley to a roaring cataract. We sat in the chalet with the woodstove cranking, watching the scene from our warm and dry confines, feeling contented to save Mt. Anderson for next season.
source of the Quinault River
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