PreparationThere is a beautiful PDF that is a compilation of trip reports from all the participants on this trip put together in a magazine type format with photos right here.
Preparation for this trip started in early February. Permits for the Enchantments are notoriously hard to get and the allocation system gets tougher and more exclusive every year. So I timed my application to arrive on the first day they were accepting them and enclosed a letter, shamelessly begging and pleading the all powerful staff at the Leavenworth ranger station to hear my prayers and award me the 6 permits I was asking for. Getting permits is one thing. Getting permits for the dates and areas you're requesting requires nothing short of divine intervention. I sold my soul, and I waited.
I had spent 4 days in the Enchantments the previous September but the weather had been truly horrible with only one 4 hour window of sunshine. Being too cold, wet and miserable to fight with my water filter, I had foolishly drank right out of one of the lakes the last day. I paid for it for the next month as I battled Giardia. The trip had been a bust but the intoxicating beauty of the area had not escaped me, even when veiled in clouds and blanketed by snow. I couldn't wait to go back.
I had 4 people already committed before I sent off for the permits and was pretty confident I could fill two more spots by putting the trip on the BCMC calendar so I asked for 6 permits. Much to my delight, I received permits for the exact dates and places I had asked for. This was to be the first of many strokes of luck.
The trip filled up almost immediately but 3 weeks before, Telus went on strike and we lost two people. I had no trouble finding people willing to take their spots but it wasn't until about a week before our departure date that everything was nailed down. The final team consisted of:
Marian - my friend and climbing/hiking partner for the past 4 years. Totally competent hiker/climber who shares my passion for all things alpine and doesn't mind unexpected adventure.
Quirine - great gal I had hiked with a couple of times in the past 2 years. I knew she was in good shape and had a great attitude.
Tai - relatively new friend of mine. we've spent a lot more time walking our dogs together than hiking but I knew Tai to be very easy to get along with and an experienced hiker.
Mike - I'd never met Mike but he was so excited when I told him there was still room on the trip I knew he was going to be great. He'd been trying to get permits for years so he'd obviously knew what he was getting himself into.... or so he thought ;)
Jason - I'd never met Jason either but we'd had some good online communication going and I knew he knew his stuff. Experienced climber with attitude extraordinaire.
We got together for a planning meeting a week before the trip. Unfortunately Tai was in the Rockies warming up and was unable to make it. The rest of the group got along incredibly well right from the get go. We sat yakking in a coffee shop on Main Street for 4 hours. What an awesome group dynamic. We did some route planning, talked gear, made shopping lists, and generally had a great time. Jason and I hung out over the roof of my car for another hour before we finally departed in the early morning hours.
Jason was coming on the condition that I climb Prusik Peak with him. Since we'd never climbed anything together, it seemed prudent to at least do one warm up climb before we left to make sure we worked well together. I also wanted to make sure that he was comfortable with my ability and skills. I had been sport climbing for many years but had very little trad climbing experience.
On Monday we descended upon Deidre, a classic 5.7 multipitch route in Squamish. It was obvious from about 5 minutes in that we made an awesome climbing team. I led the 5th pitch which was my first notable trad lead. I never expected to lead on Prusik but it seemed like a good idea to at least have a little experience... just in case. After a great climb, we stopped for a bite to eat and more trip planning.
Jason spearheaded the gear list while I busied myself with the collection of route beta and the emails flew furiously in the days leading up to the trip. I don't think anyone got much work done those last few days. Our brains were already on vacation. Then finally.... after months and months of waiting and planning.... it was time to go!
Our adventure began with a 2am meeting time. The team convened at Marian’s house in Steveston for a group packing session. We had so much community gear it just made sense to dump it all on the floor and pack together. We quickly realized that we had about 30 pounds of chocolate between us. This was going to be a great trip!
We piled into Tai’s truck and Marian’s CRV and were on the road by 3:20am, planning to stop at the Chevron at Steveston Hwy and 99 to fuel up on caffeine. Within about 4 minutes we had lost each other. Fortunately we had agreed to meet again once through the border so we hooked up again there. Thankfully, the border guard did not feel compelled to unpack our beautifully packed backpacks and we breezed through with no trouble.
We pulled into Leavenworth just after 7am. We had to stop at the Leavenworth Ranger Station to pick up our permits. They had also thrown in free parking passes which was ultra cool of them. You need an annual pass or parking permits in order to park at the trialhead. My annual pass had expired and there was nowhere open to purchase them at that hour of the morning so the rangers had kindly thrown in two free passes after a panicked phone call the day before. Then it was off to Sandy’s Waffle House to carb load and inflict our excited sillies on the rest of the early morning breakfast crowd.
We had a great waitress who accommodated our every request and put up with our exceptionally goofy behaviour. She even provided Jason with a Ziploc bag full of brown sugar which was well above and beyond the call of duty particularly after what he said to her after she asked if 8.5 inches was big enough (she was talking about the pancakes).
With full bellies & brown sugar, we had only to tank up on caffeine at Starbucks before the short drive to the trailhead.
Since we’d done such an exceptional packing job at Marians, there was relatively little messing about at the trailhead. My pack was heavier than it had ever been between the usual gear and food one needs for 5 days and the climbing gear Jason and I were sharing but it was manageable as long as I had someone to pull me into a standing position. I wish we’d had a scale but I would estimate I had close to 70lbs and Jason’s was probably well over 80lbs. After a few visits to a particularly smelly outhouse and the token group shot at the trailhead, we were on our way at the respectable hour of 9:32am.
The trail to Colchuck Lake is well graded & pleasant the whole way. We took several breaks along the way as we were in no hurry and wanted to conserve our energy for the dreaded Aasgard Pass which is a 2200ft climb in less than ¾ of a mile. A bachelor party came upon us during one of these breaks where we were busy with the first of many very silly photo shoots. The girls posed with the groom since his friends were obviously too cheap to take him to Vegas for the weekend or even to a strip bar.
Tai had not slept at all before our early morning departure and had only been back from another extended backpacking trip for 2 days so he was feeling the pain of no sleep and a heavy pack. He managed to stumble and pull a muscle which wasn’t helping matters. We were in no rush though as we had budgeted up to 12 hours to get to camp so we were all able to go at our own pace. Radios made communication easy as we made our way up to the lake.
Spectacular Colchuck Lake presented itself at 1:15 with its turquoise waters nestled at the base of Dragontail’s famed Serpentine Arête route, the Enchantment range’s precipitous cliffs, the steep, icy Colchuck glacier and the lush green forest that flanks its western shores. It took about an hour to make our way around to the south end of the lake. I had conveniently forgotten about the big boulder field we had to traverse before we could ditch the packs and enjoy a lunch break on the sandy beach at the base of our nemesis, Aasgard Pass which rose 2200 feet above us in ¾ of a mile.
Lunch was a light hearted, leisurely affair. Tai was not looking like a man who was ready to haul a heavy pack up Aasgard Pass so when he wasn’t looking, I pillaged his pack and divvied up the spoils between Jason and I. Tai was so exhausted he didn’t even notice. This was key to the success of the mission because had he noticed he would have insisted on carrying it all himself.
The weather was perfect and it required a great deal of willpower to remove my ass from the sandy beach and get cracking. Jason and I needed a bit of a head start on the hill ahead of us so we started off slightly ahead of the rest of the group at 3:15. For some reason, the first quarter of Aasgard was the worst. Maybe we just didn’t wait long enough after eating but we were both fighting off waves of nausea. My head was pounding and Jason was overheating like a furnace. We had made the first big clump of trees our goal and it was with precious little energy reserves left that we stumbled into our first rest stop. Mercifully there was a waterfall about 20 feet off the trail where we were able to cool off. Mike and Marian joined us shortly and we all flaked out on the rocks for a while. My waist belt was not helping with my nausea so I dug out my camp towel which I used for extra padding when I at last decided to get moving again. That helped a lot and I was able to get a better rhythm going for the rest of the climb.
With my tummy padded and my baseball hat pouring icy cold water down my head, we set off again. I decided it was time for my secret weapon so I fished out my mp3 player. What a difference a little heavy metal can make! I found I was able to just get into a zone and march. With AC/DC, Van Halen, Bon Jovi, Guns & Roses and a few other old friends I was able to rock my way up and over the top at a pace that quite surprised me.
It took me 3 1/2 hours to get up Aasgard. Once at the top, I did my best to convey my elation and awe at what was unfolding before me to the group still trudging up the pass in hopes of giving them a little energy boost. I then extricated myself from my pack and just soaked it all in.
What a difference from last year! The last time I had been up here it had started snowing halfway up Aasgard so the Upper Enchantments had been a winter wonderland. This time there wasn’t a flake of snow to be found. Even the glaciers were down to their bare icy bones. I had been able to see the Dragontail glacier from part way up Aasgard but had not even recognized it.
The Upper Enchantments basin is a barren, rocky place dotted with sparkling blue green lakes, surrounded by majestic, rugged, tantalizing peaks. It really does feel like a whole ‘nother world up there. The other thing it is famous for is wind, a fact I was soon reminded of as I sat quickly cooling off on my rocky perch. I was willing everyone else to join me as I was more excited about sharing it with them than I was about seeing it myself this time. Before long, Mike, Jason & Marian topped out and the ooing and aahing began. Q and Tai were about 45 minutes behind and we stayed in radio contact with them. After such a steep climb, we practically skipped along the trail in search of the perfect camp site.
Our perfect camp site revealed itself about 20 minutes later at 7:10pm in a big flat sandy spot overlooking one of the many lakes, nestled up against a large band of rock which afforded some protection from the wind. A waterfall provided the mood music as we quickly went about setting up camp. We weren’t 10 minutes into the task when the neighbors, Momma and Baby Goat came by for a visit and all camp chores ground to a halt. I had spent 4 days up here last year without seeing a single goat so you can’t imagine how excited I was. Jason went into full on National Geographic Photographer mode, capturing what was to be the first of many encounters with our wooly white friends. We were willing Tai and Q to hurry along so they could see them but the goats wandered off before they arrived. About 10 minutes later however, we got an excited call on the radio from them. Apparently Momma & Baby had decided to go great them too.
With all the campers safely & happily in camp, we were ready for dinner! Jason had been promising something spectacular and we were not disappointed when he pulled about 20lbs of food out of his pack. Tortillas, veggie ground beef, rice, organic bell peppers, cheese….. who’da thunk it? Burritos for our first night in camp! How decadent! Dinner was magnificent and much appreciated by all. The moon was rising now and put on quite a show for us, glowing bright orange/red. I tried to snap some pictures but my camera wasn’t having any of it. Jason was happily snapping away though so I left him to the task, went to pee on a rock (they ask you to pee on the rocks because the goats love the salt in urine and will tear up any ground you pee on) and brush my teeth. It was a beautiful night but I was too tired to spend any more time watching the sky so I just crawled into my cozy sleeping bag and went to sleep, dreaming of our adventure to come the next day…. Dragontail & Colchuck peaks!
We had set the alarm for 8:00 but we were all up before then. Once the sun hits the tent it’s hard to go back to sleep. It had been a very windy night and I was glad to have packed my earplugs. I was sleeping with my pack beside me and every so often it would roll over on to me as the wind put the tent to the test.
It was a beautiful day and I could see the Dragontail glacier from the door of my tent. I had attempted Dragontail solo last year but had been turned back by winter conditions so I was anxious to finish the job. I had to admit that the glacier looked impossibly steep but I knew it couldn’t be as bad as it looked as it was a well known scramble route.
The first order of business was to retrieve the food. Keeping food away from goats above the treeline is interesting. The key is to find a drop off that is too steep even for goats and to hang your food over it. Fortunately there was such a drop right above the ‘kitchen’ area of our camp site. The food bags certainly took a beating being dragged up and down this small cliff at least twice a day though.
Breakfast was tea and oatmeal. Jason was very generous with his dried fruit which was nice as it kicked the oatmeal up a notch. He also shared the bag of brown sugar he had scored at Sandy’s the day before.
We were back on the trail at the crack of 10:30. We had some business to attend to on the way and were very happy to find that the local potty was not in fact locked as had been earlier reported. There were two containers awaiting airlift that had been mistaken for the toilet but further inspection revealed a lovely little wooden toilet hidden in the scant brush. Aaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhh much better!
We hit the trail again and hung a left at Aasgard Pass. Scrambling over huge boulders and rocky cliff bands brought us up close and personal with the Dragontail glacier. At this point, Tai decided that he’d had enough and would make a better base camp manager than climber. He was exhausted from the day before. Since we had not covered any particularly treacherous terrain to this point we decided that he’d be ok heading back to camp on his own. We gave him a radio and agreed to touch base when he got back on to the trail, and then every hour on the hour.
The sun was warming up the glacier and small rocks were coming down it regular intervals. We quickly realized that this was not the best time of year to be doing this. The closer we got the less steep the glacier became. The only real concern was the rock fall. Up to now it had only been small rocks but there was a huge pile of giant rocks perched precariously at the top of the glacier. This was where the small rocks was coming from so it was a little disconcerting to know that we were going to have to travel directly below it. We studied the problem at length and in the end, picked a line that would allow us to travel quickly and give us the most warning if anything above came down. The first move was to take shelter under a large boulder where we would put our crampons on and get our ice axes off the packs. We moved one by one with the rest of the group watching for rock fall and soon the 5 of us had reached the boulder. We had just removed our packs when the rumbling started. Marian screamed “ROCK!” and everyone scrambled to ensure that they were protected. I couldn’t see the rest of the group as I was tucked safely around the other side of the rock under a lovely little overhanging section. As the first rock came crashing down I shoved my pack out of my way and burrowed as deep into my little cave as I could get. I was then able to turn around and watch as the next rock came down. The ground was shaking and the air was filled with the rumbling of the rocks rolling down the steep glacier and the ‘pop’ and ‘bang’ as they hit other rocks. The rock we were under became a launch pad and I watched with shocked disbelief as a rock the size of a love seat bounced off of the roof of my cave, and spun in the air about 6 feet above me like it was a football. Debris trailed out behind it like a shooting star as it rose in a gravity defying arch before resuming its course down the mountain. My heart was pounding as adrenaline coursed through my body and I remember thinking “when is it going to end?” as the third large rock headed towards us. I didn’t see this one but felt it hit the top of or hiding spot. Q was yelling “FUCK! FUCK! FUCK!” I couldn’t see him but apparently one of the rocks bounced about 5 feet behind Mike as he was ducking for cover. Finally the rumbling and banging subsided, easing off as the smaller rocks and debris cascaded down. Finally it was over. Someone was yelling to me and I shouted back ‘SAFE!’ I could hear everyone’s voices and breathed a sigh of relief that everyone was ok. Everyone instinctively stayed put, waiting for any ‘aftershocks’ to come down. Q's eagle eyes noticed a flash from far below and wondered aloud if someone was signaling us. I immediately remembered Tai and realized that if he had just seen what had happened he must be freaking out. I jumped on the radio as fast as I could to tell him ‘we’re ok!’ He had seen the whole thing, watching helplessly as the rock came down on us but couldn’t see well enough to know if we were safe.
Once the adrenaline started to wear off I quickly realized that all I wanted to do was to get everyone the hell out of here. We exited stage right, one at a time, using the same method we’d used to get under the boulder in the first place. Once safe, I broke out the pharmacy and attended to Q’s leg gash while Mike attended to his own battle wounds. They had both banged themselves up while diving for shelter.
Just then, two climbers appeared at the top of the glacier. They had obviously come up Colchuck and were planning to descend the Dragontail glacier. They say things happen for a reason and it was spooky to think what might have happened had we not been there to warn them of the danger. Jason was able to shout to them. “This route is suicide” and that seemed to do the trick. I had spoken with a ranger a few days earlier who had told me about another route which took you down around the back of Little Annapurna so Jason told them to go down that way.
The remarkable cohesion of this particular team shone through in the way we reacted to the situation. Everyone remained calm and worked together to ensure the safety of the group. The rock fall had been one of the most terrifying experiences of my life. Since I didn't know most of this group well, I worried about how they might react. In the end, I had nothing to worry about. I was so proud of everyone. This team seemed to thrive on challenge and adversity and only became closer and stronger as the trip went on.
We spent about 20 minutes sharing our respective perspectives of the experience before we began the scramble back to the trail. Back at camp, I deeply regretted not bringing my little voice recorder as nothing I can ever write in this trip report could ever come close to capturing the moment as perfectly as our real life accounts immediately after. Having Tai’s perspective was particularly interesting. Watching had shaken him up pretty badly and brought up some painful memories for him. He was so relieved that we were all safe. As terrifying as the experience had been, I think I speak for all of us when I say that we had never felt so alive.
In hindsight, of course there are things we could have done differently. There really wasn’t a safe way to get across that glacier given the weather/time of year. It wasn’t even dropping down below freezing at night so an alpine start would not have solved the rock fall problem. The only solution is to do it earlier in the season when there is still a fair amount of snow on the route. We also should have been quieter so we could have heard what was going on above us more clearly. We did a lot of things right too though which resulted in us all escaping injury and having a great story to tell. Climbing mountains is not without risk no matter how cautious and well prepared you are. We all have an acceptable level of risk. All you can do is mitigate those risks to the best of your ability.
After debriefing and lunch at camp, we decided to give McClellan a go. The beta we had made it look like a reasonable afternoon objective. Tai opted to stay back at camp. I think he was secretly planning to find Mike’s cel phone to call his RCMP buddies for a helicopter rescue.
We were overlooking Crystal Lake in no time but the route was not obvious. I eventually realized that we were supposed to have headed south sooner. The route was a steep decent from the base of Little Annapurna down to Crystal Lake about 800 feet below. Then we figured it was another 2-3 hours to the top. There just wasn’t enough daylight left to get us back up on the trail by dark. The beautiful little lakes of the Upper Enchantment basin were beckoning so we decided to go frolic in them for a while, and then bag Little Annapurna which would also give us the opportunity to scope out the alternate Dragontail route.
The route up Little Annapurna was a blast. If you stay a little to the right of the boot track, you can scramble up on low angle slab most of the way up. The effects of the previous 10 hour day with a brutally heavy pack started to catch up with me and for the first time all trip I didn’t feel very strong. Then I remembered that I hadn’t had anything to drink since lunch time. I re-hydrated and was feeling much better by the time we reached the summit. Although Little Annapurna is just a walkup mountain, it’s still well worth climbing. The views are fantastic and it’s really fun to climb up the east side and down the west. We climbed up ‘Baby Little Annapurna’ too which is just to the west of the true summit. Jason and I goofed around under a cool overhanging rock and looked waaaaaaay down to the nasty gully we would have to ascend en route to Dragontail the next day in order to bypass what had been affectionately named 'the bowling ally' on the Dragontail glacier.
We meandered along the ridge for a bit hoping to find an alternate route. We did find one we thought would go but would later realize that it wasn’t going to work. On the way down to Isolation Lake, Mike, Jason and I came upon a teeny bit of glacier with a tunnel running right through it. That was too much to resist so we all got filthy and wet slithering through it. It was great fun. When we finally made it down to the lake, we stopped for a photo shoot. After much more goofing around and funky ballet moves we started heading back to camp. We would have made it too had a ptarmigan not refused to move from our path. This of course prompted another photo shoot. We were on the move again for less than 5 minutes when another one of these crazy birds nearly got stepped on. It was so nice to have the time to take crazy pictures and terrorize the wildlife. It’s really like a playground up there. I could easily spend at least 2 weeks just roaming around.
It was my turn to make dinner so I broke out the Pasta Primavera and tuna. I just love those little foil packets of tuna you can get now. Dinner was yummy and many two bite brownies were had for dessert. After dishes and a bit of star gazing it was time for bed. I needed my rest because the next day, Jason and I were taking on Prusik Peak!
We awoke to a chilly morning with some clouds. Not enough to change our plans but enough to be a little worrisome. We had breakfast and packed up as quickly as we could but still got a later than optimal start. Jason and I were planning to climb Prusik and the rest of the team was heading for Enchantment. Enchantment peak is said to have the best view of the rest of the Enchantments basin. The Enchantment crew took off first but we were not far behind them. It was so exciting seeing Jason’s reaction as we hiked through the Enchantment basin. It sounds so cliché but it really is a magical place and every step just reveals more and more beauty. We were so enjoying the scenery that we completely missed the turnoff to Prusik. This is particularly embarrassing since I know exactly where it is. Marian put it well when she said "I would have expected a unicorn to pop out at any moment, but I would never have expected Julia and Jason to miss such a well marked turn off." I’m not sure how much further along we would have wandered had Tai not radioed and snapped us out of it. DUH! We were almost at the end of Spirite Lake. The turnoff for Prusik is at the end of Perfection Lake and is extremely well marked with a wooden sign and a trail that is practically paved with flat stones. It wasn’t a big deal and I was actually happy to have wandered a little further so Jason could see a little more of the Lower Enchantments area as we were not going to be passing through that way again.
It only took us 15 minutes or so to get back on the right track and soon we were huffing and puffing our way up Prusik Pass. At the top of the pass we dumped our packs and took in the view. I had not been up this way last time so I was happy to check out Shield Lake & Edwards Mesa. We also got our first peek at our route up Cannon Mountain which we were planning to climb on the way out on Wednesday.
After a little scrambling we came to the big balancing rock where we swapped our boots for our rock shoes. Jamming feet that have put the kind of miles and elevation on that ours had in the past couple of days into rock shoes was not a pleasant task.
Finding the route proved to be more challenging than we’d anticipated. The more we looked, the more we realized that our beta was woefully inadequate. The wind was picking up and I was re-thinking the wisdom of my wardrobe choices as I shivered in the shade of the dark and looming north face.
We gave up looking for an obvious route and decided to just climb. Jason took off, lamenting the size of his rack. We had to travel light so we couldn’t bring all the pro we would have liked to. Fortunately I have the utmost faith in Jason’s pro placement so I didn’t mind freezing my ass off while he took extra care to ensure that each nut & cam was going to hold in the event of a fall. With Jason leading, the climbing was easy for me. The rock was very sticky, albeit a bit sharp sometimes. To say Jason’s nut placement is solid would be an understatement and this was driven home on the second pitch when no amount of smashing and bashing on my nut tool with a rock would loosen one of the nuts. I hated to leave it behind because we already had such a skinny rack but it wasn’t coming out. When I topped out, Jason went back down to give it another try but it wasn’t leaving its crack. As he was climbing back up, I noticed something white tucked into a crack and pointed it out. To our extreme delight, it was 4 pages of route beta including diagrams. What were the chances of that?
We soon after pulled ourselves up onto a ledge on the ridge and into the much welcomed sunshine. It felt sooooooo good to warm myself in the sun and get out of the icy wind. In spite of our new found beta, the route still wasn’t popping out at us. Jason went on a recon mission that involved a few tricky moves. Convinced that this couldn’t possibly be the route, he returned to the ledge, dropped back down the north face, and tried a really scary, nasty traverse. I couldn’t see him but his colorful language painted a pretty clear picture. Just then, two climbers came into view that had obviously just finished rapping down. We called out to them and they graciously shared a lot of valuable information with us.
The original scary route was indeed the right route. We were on track and that route beta we had found was theirs. Jason was not at all pleased about down climbing what he had just done but he made it back in one piece. We hopped back up on the ledge and had another look. It was 4:30. There was no way we were going to have time to summit and get down safely before dark and the wind was turning us into climbersicles rather quickly. There really wasn’t much choice but we still agonized over the decision for several minutes. We wanted this SO badly but it obviously was not meant to be so it was with heavy hearts and frozen bodies that we rapped back down to the trail.
By the time we made it back to our boots the wind had reached gale force. I have seriously never experienced anything like it. We cowered under the balancing rock listening to the wind roar around us. Apparently the cold and altitude were getting to us. The tired sillies told hold with a vengeance as we imagined all the ways in which the resident goat population might help to warm us up. We laughed until we were both clutching our stomachs in pain and tears rolled down my face. After the disappointment of Prusik, it was nice that we could still have a good laugh. As soon as the wind dropped to the point that we could escape without being blown all the way across the Enchantment basin, we scurried back to the trail and started the long hike back to camp.
Dropping down 300 feet from Prusik Pass then back up another 600 to our camp went by much more quickly and painlessly than I expected. Perhaps it was just that it felt so good to have circulation in my feet and feeling back in my legs. Or maybe it was just the great company. Jason and I got along like old friends right from the get-go so hiking with him even after getting spanked on Prusik was still a pleasure. The spectacular scenery helped to ease the pain too.
Before long we were back at camp and chowing down on Black Bart Chili courtesy of Q and Marian. It was then that we realized that our fuel supply was not at all what we had expected it to be at this time. Jason and I had done the math over and over and we should have had enough fuel to boil 78 liters of water. Our two fuel bottles were feeling uncomfortably light however. So it was with much regret that we decided to forego the mystery dessert Q had planned for us that night. The wind was still howling and no amount of layering could keep out its chill. We really needed to have a group meeting about the next day’s plans but it was too cold to continue sitting in our little kitchen area. Q mixed up hot chocolate for everyone and we all huddled in the vestibule of my tent. Then Q did something that ensured that she would be the last person to be voted off…… she brought out a platypus full of Bailey’s!
That was the best damn hot chocolate I have ever tasted. But there was an even bigger treat yet to come. We started discussing the plan for the next day. The Dragontail route we had scoped out the day before no longer looked feasible now that we had had a good look at it from up on Prusik. We couldn’t get to Colchuck without getting up Dragontail first so that was out too. We could do McClellan, or just poke around exploring & ridge walking. Jason and I both really wanted to try Prusik again but I had told him I didn’t feel comfortable leaving the group again and that it wasn’t up to me. I wasn’t even comfortable suggesting it. Jason obviously didn't want to bring it up either. It wasn't until pressed by Q that he admitted our desire to have another go at it. No one even hesitated. The decision was unanimous and genuinely enthusiastic. Of COURSE we should try again! I could have kissed everyone. Once again, I was absolutely floored by this wonderful group of people.
We decided to move camp in the morning to put us closer to Cannon which was our objective for day 5. There were several spots we could camp along the way around Perfection, in the meadow at the bottom of Prusik Pass, or, there was a beautiful spot at Gnome Tarn, right at the base of Prusik. We decided to play it by ear and just see how it looked when we got there in the morning. We set the alarm and snuggled into our sleeping bags, warmed by Bailey’s and the anticipation of another exciting day ahead.
No clouds today! It looked like the weather gods were smiling on us as Jason and I prepared for our second attempt of Prusik Peak. We were all up before 7am. We had assigned tasks to each team member the night before to ensure a speedy departure. As it turned out, we all ended up doing different things than we’d planned but it didn’t matter because everything got done. Just another example of how seamlessly this team worked together. If something needed doing, it just got done. No tea this morning as we were fuel rationing. Camp was packed up, bellies were filled with oatmeal and we were on the trail by 8:30. It was a very chilly morning so I couldn’t bring myself to take off my down jacket before setting off. As expected, I was sweating by the time we dropped down out of the wind.
The day before I had found a toilet with a magnificent view of Prusik so we made that our first stop. It’s at Inspiration Lake which was about the half way mark between our old camp and Gnome Tarn which was to be our new camp. The wind was incredible. I was almost able to lean into it without falling over. Brrrrrrr! All this time Jason had been packing his kite around. Surely today would be the day he’d get to fly it! We had a good laugh at the intersection of Prusik Pass, remembering how Jason and I had breezed right past it the day before. Rather than climbing up Prusik Pass today, we would take a hidden trail Jason and I had found on the way down yesterday that would lead us right to Gnome Tarn.
About ¾ of the way up we came upon a male goat and two babies. It’s interesting. The males seem to take a very active role in child care in the goat world. Soon we were on the flat, open, sandy shores of Gnome Tarn. Given the current wind situation, we opted to set up camp up against the rocks which would afford us better wind protection. Tai and Mike however sacrificed a good night’s sleep to art and pitched their tent in the best location for a night shot of the illuminated tent with Prusik rising up behind it. The standing water in the tarn looked a little dicey so Q and Marian generously offered to bring water up from the river 300 feet below. In the end, they hauled up 10 liters each.
9 goats immediately began doing laps around our camp site. We joked that they were just the recon team and that an army of thousands probably lay in wait. Eventually the goats settled down on a patch of sand beside Tai and Mike’s tent. Jason and I decided to take this opportunity to infiltrate the herd in order to learn more about their diabolical plans and in doing so hopefully save the team from certain death. With stealth and cunning we strapped crampons to our heads and descended from our lofty bipedal positions to adopt a more goat like posture. Slowly we began to approach the herd. Our clever disguises afforded us much confidence as we knew we blended in seamlessly with the surrounding ecosystem. In order to establish our dominance, we engaged in a mock battle, butting horns and pawing at the ground. Our dominance in the bag, we approached nearer still, pausing to forage on the rough grass that dotted the landscape. After all the exertion and fiber rich food, I enjoyed a good roll in the gravel.
It was time to put my new goat powers to the test. Prusik wasn’t going to climb itself so after chowing down on a quick lunch, Jason and I packed up and began the short hike back to the base of Prusik’s dark, cold north face. It was much colder than the day before but this time we were prepared for it, wearing virtually every stitch of clothing we had. There were two other climbers just starting their first pitch when we arrived at the boot removal station below the balancing rock. They looked to be very off route already but we were hoping that they, in fact, knew something we didn’t and that we would be able to follow them up. It quickly became evident that they were even less prepared than we were so we scampered past them and started looking for where we had started climbing yesterday.
It was the strangest thing. I felt like someone had rearranged the face overnight. Nothing looked familiar except for one lonely yellow rap sling. We ended up traversing further along than we needed to but Jason thought he recognized a dihedral mentioned in the route beta so we set up a belay station and he headed up. Seemed like the further up he went, the worse it got. I was very aware of the time and didn’t want to have to turn back because we had run out of time so when the going got rough, and then rougher, I encouraged him to sling a flake and come back. We knew we could get up via yesterdays route so I didn’t see much sense in continuing up what was obviously not the right route.
After yet another scary downclimb for Jason, we traversed back along the trail and found our original route. The wind just got stronger as Jason headed up. I eventually managed to squeeze myself into a gap that afforded a little bit of shelter. Jason called down that he could bring me up to where he was but I told him to just keep going. I wanted to keep moving with the least amount of screwing around with gear possible. It was a very long pitch and I was frozen solid when Jason shouted that he was safe. I stomped my feet and swung my arms around to get the blood moving again before setting off on my own. I immediately recognized the rock from yesterday and moved as quickly as I could. Happily, all the pro came out relatively easily this time as the rock was very cold and unpleasant to hang on to for any stretch of time. Soon I was up on the ledge with Jason, warming my hands in the sunshine.
During our ascent to the ledge, the other team had decided to turn back. They'd climbed themselves into trouble and were freezing and had deemed it unsafe to continue in this weather. I was surprised to find Jason seriously giving this sentiment consideration. I pointed out the fact that it may very well be dangerous for them, as it had been for us the day before, but today we were prepared with the right clothing. Jason quickly snapped out of his temporary insanity. I think it may have been brought on by acute rack envy as the other team had about 5 times more pro than we did and I know he was worried about it.
From our perch we could see our camp site and Mike and Tai moving around. What a thrill to have an audience! We waved to them excitedly and chattered on the radio. Being so high up and so exposed suddenly didn’t feel so bad since we could see ‘home’ from where we were. It was definitely a comforting feeling and I again felt very blessed to have such a supportive team. I had left my camera which has 10x zoom on it with them so I hoped they would get some good shots of us climbing.
It was time to face the crux. Jason had done all the hard work up ‘till now and I knew how much he hated slab so I offered to lead it. I still had an overwhelming drive to keep moving. I had only lead two previous trad climbs. One easy 5.6 at Mount Erie several years ago and the 5th pitch of Deidre in Squamish on Monday. To say my experience was inadequate was an understatement. But there was one cam fixed on the route which if it hadn’t come out by now, wasn’t coming out and beyond that, there were very few places to place pro anyway. What scared me the most was the wind. I’d never experienced wind like this anywhere, let alone while climbing with little more than friction keeping me on the mountain. I decided not to put much thought into it however. We’d made it this far yesterday and I’d be damned if I was going back now. After a very stern lecture from Jason telling me that if I needed to come down he didn’t care what pro I had to leave behind, I was off.
The first little bit was not difficult. I clipped into the lost cam and I was soon able to girth hitch a lovely solid feeling horn. I enjoyed the feeling of security it offered as I knew it was the last time I was going to feel that way for a while. Once out from behind the protection of the west ridge, the wind was ferocious. I couldn’t even breathe. I traversed left to the base of the scary slab where I found an ancient fixed pin that could very well have been there from Fred Becky’s first ascent in 1957. I tried to get a nut in but the crack was just too shallow. Communicating with Jason required me to curl my upper body up against the slab to get the radio out of the wind. The wind was quickly sapping my body heat and I knew that if I hung around too long I’d lose my nerve so I told him I was just going to clip into the pin and get it over with. Unbeknownst to me, Jason suddenly found religion at this point.
Animation of me on the crux. You'll probably need to click it to see it properly.
I quickly scanned the smooth face of the slab looking for any ‘thank god’ holds I could look forward to but there were none. ‘Keep moving!’ I told myself and before I could think about it I made my first move. I moved slowly & cautiously, making sure I always had at least 2 solid points of contact. The wind continued to drive into my back as I inched my way up the 16ft slab. About half way up I paused for a moment at which time I indulged myself in contemplating the possibility of a downclimb. A quick check below put an end to any hope of retreat. It was up or bust. There were a couple of better holds near the top but I continued with the same snail like pace for fear of being blown right off the route. Finally I hauled myself up over the top, swinging my right leg over the south face while my left trailed down the north. I heard Tai on the radio say something like ‘that was the scariest shit I’ve ever seen in my life’ which made me grin. I must be having fun then! My straddling position felt relatively secure and I tried desperately to get a nut in. My hands were freezing and try as I might I just couldn’t get a decent placement. I decided that the hump I was currently straddling would serve as a kind of protection in the event I fell down the south side, which was where I was headed so I stopped fiddling with my crappy nut placement and moved on. The south face offered 100% protection from the wind and a nice wide crack into which I quickly placed a cam before finally allowing myself to relax somewhat. There was a nice long horizontal crack which served as a bit of a cat walk. Without the savage wind, the going was much much easier.
At the end of the traverse was ample room to maneuver and set up a belay station. It was then that I realized that I hadn’t really brought anything to set up a good anchor with. I mentioned this to Jason and told him I was going to try to MacGyver up an adequate anchor but to make himself comfortable as I knew it was going to take a while. Kicking myself for not bringing more slings, I started hunting around for a good place to put a cam. I found one and quickly clipped myself into it. After much fiddling, I had a nut in to my satisfaction and clipped into that too. I tried and tried to sling a rock but I just couldn’t reach. I managed to sling a bit of a horn overhead but in the end it was just to difficult to equalize with that one in the system and I decided to make do with what I had. Jason told me to use the rope by tying figure 8’s on a bite and to equalize the system as best I could. After much fiddling around, I came up with a pretty solid anchor. I removed the unused sling and looped it through everything just for extra backup. I later learned that the way I had it through the wire of the nut was a bad idea but it worked with the cam.
I yanked and jerked and yanked some more. When I was finally satisfied that I had a bomber belay station, I radioed Jason that he was on belay.
It seemed like mere seconds had passed before Jason’s head popped up over the top of the slab. The nut I had placed there came out easily in his hand which wasn’t terribly surprising but that was the only shockingly bad pro placement. Thankfully my anchor passed inspection and Jason decided to go on a bit of a recon mission to scope out the next pitch.
After about 10 minutes Jason had found a route that would go. I offered to lead it but was not at all disappointed when he said he would do it. I’d pretty much used up all my macho reserves on the last pitch and was positively giddy with the accomplishment and the fact that the rest of the route looked relatively straightforward and obvious. We were actually going to do it this time!
The next pitch was a very fun traverse with a fantastic photo op. Jason actually had me downclimb back to the photo op spot and I’m so glad he did. The photo is amazing. Moving quickly and easily with the security of Jason’s placed pro and a solid belay I was over the traverse in no time.
Much to my surprise, Jason was standing on a beautiful big ledge that even had a bit of grass and a few wildflowers. Even more surprising was the fact that the wind had stopped. And I mean stopped. It was almost as if the mountain was saying ‘ok fine… I’m obviously not getting rid of you two so go ahead and climb me.’
Snack time! After gobbling some snacks and enjoying a nice long pee we were both raring to go again. A beautiful corner crack beckoned. Jason loves crack climbing and this pitch was less exposed than most so I took this opportunity to snap to pics of him. His camera is so heavy and bulky it made me nervous to be taking pictures while belaying. This pitch seemed pretty benign however so I snapped merrily away. Jason did not seem pleased with his performance on this pitch but it looked good to me. When I followed, I never really had a good position from which to take out pro so I can only imagine how much more difficult it had been for Jason.
Thankfully, it was a short pitch and we were soon back in the sunshine again. The summit was truly in sight now. Jason continued to lead and seemed to be making things more difficult for himself than absolutely necessary. I suggested that he move a little to the right and from there he quickly and easily ascended the flake. He was out of sight now and I took in the magnificent views as I belayed. Lake Vivian sat nestled up against Prusik’s south face. Above that, Spirite Lake seemed to be sitting on an impossible angle, slowly tipping its contents into Vivian. Our cozy camp and cheering squad lay far below.
I thought I heard Q and Marian but it seemed impossible that we could hear them from so far away. They had taken off on their own adventure today which involved scrambling and skinny dipping in the lower Enchantments. Maybe they were back. It would be great if they could see us top out!
Jason dumped most of his gear so he could squeeze into the chimney for the final push to the summit. Before long he was whooping and hollering and I knew he had summited. My turn! In 4 or 5 moves I was on the ledge below the chimney. I tied a figure 8 on a bite and started clipping stuff on so Jason could haul it up. Finally it was time to haul myself up. I wedged myself into the chimney and used my elbows the way Jason suggested to wiggle my way up. In a couple of minutes it was all over and I was standing atop Prusik Peak. Sure enough, Marian and Q HAD been watching our ascent from where we had left our boots and we heard Q shout out ‘We love you guys!’ They had been taking pictures of everything and we leaned over the big summit block for one last shot.
The true summit was about 20 feet away so we quickly scampered over to place our hands on the very top. At just over 8000 feet, we felt as if we were on top of the world looking down on the breathtaking beauty that is the Enchantments. Jason was kind enough to help lighten my load for the rappel down by sharing my chocolate stash. After a nice rest and many photos, it was time to head down.
The first rap station was quite a sight to behold with loads of multi-colored slings and many rap rings. Doesn’t get much more bomber than that. I had spoken with a park ranger who had been up here about a week earlier and I knew that they had taken down about 20lbs of webbing from the route so I was pretty confident in what was left. The rap off went off without a hitch and we were soon back on the trail that traverses the north face. It felt like we were much further east than we had started off and I was not looking forward to hiking for any length of time in my rock shoes. It also seemed like we were awfully low and a steep ascent back up to our balancing rock was not high on my list of things I wanted to do that afternoon. To my great delight however, we weren’t nearly as far away as I expected and in less than 10 minutes we were huddled back under our rock, extracting aching toes and feet from rock shoes.
No hiking boots had ever felt so good. My new Dunham Waffle Stompers felt like slippers just then. Still high from our summit success we decided to try a new route back to camp. We had fun scrambling down large boulders, most of which stayed put and were back in camp shortly thereafter.
What a wonderful, warm reception we got! My heart felt like it would burst. Marian, who has been my climbing/hiking partner for 4 years now, was genuinely happy for us which was very big of her. She would have liked to have climbed Prusik but it just wasn’t possible for all 3 of us to do it this time so she was an incredibly good sport about it. I couldn’t believe how much I had lucked out with this team. So incredibly supportive… such great attitudes… they really embodied the word ‘team’ to me. Their presence was felt every step of the way as Jason and I climbed Prusik. I would definitely consider it a group effort. It would have been a sweet climb with just the two of us but having everyone cheering us on made it so much more special. No matter what I climb in the future, this experience will always hold a very special place in my heart.
Climbing with Jason had exceeded my greatest expectations. We seemed to work together with an adhesion you would only expect from climbers who had been climbing together for many years, not from two climbers who had only just met. His experience & skills were instrumental in getting us up and down safely. His personality, sense of humor and lack of ego made the experience totally and utterly enjoyable, even in my coldest, scariest moments. I had complete confidence in Jason’s judgment, ability and skills which made it much easier for me to ride the rails on the outer edge of my comfort zone.
Jason got to work on the stove in order to get some water boiling for dinner. I sorted out the rack and the rest of our gear and by the time everything was put away the dinner bell was ringing. I didn’t feel the least bit hungry but the moment I put a spoon full of that delicious veggie lasagna in my mouth I was suddenly ravenous. I positively shoveled food into my mouth. Someone passed parmesan cheese around and I happily doused what was left. Tai broke out the English muffins and I merrily piled lasagna onto one, devouring it bite by bite. When I was sure I couldn’t scrape another bite of food from the sides of my cup I went for the brownies. We ate 1.2kg of Two Bite Brownies on this trip. They’re heavy but worth every drop of sweat.
Lethargy was setting in fast. I was so grateful that Tai took on dish washing duty that night. I couldn’t move. I finally dragged myself upright and gathered up the food bags for hanging. After Tai and I hung the food, I crawled happily into my tent. I read for a little while then drifted off into the best sleep I’d had the whole trip.
Normally I’m ready to head home by the end of a trip but that was most definitely not the case this time. I really didn’t want to leave this perfect place. I expressed as much to the team and found that I wasn’t the only one having a hard time saying goodbye.
But it wasn't over yet. I had another exciting day planned for us. We were going to hike out via Cannon Mountain, then down the northwest ridge to hook up with an old logging road which would take us back to the parking lot. This area doesn’t receive a lot of traffic and apparently the views from Cannon are awesome so that took the sting out of knowing that this was our last day. While there wasn’t actually a trail, I had a lot of good route beta including a GPS track on a map so I was confident. I had even spoken with a park ranger and a local about the route, both assuring me that it was do-able.
We had enough fuel for breakfast and the oatmeal this day was a veritable feast as we poured everything we still had left into it. No one wanted to carry food out. Brown sugar, cinnamon, skim milk powder, cranberries, raisins, apricots, even Two Bite Brownie crumbs, it all went in. It was soooooooooo yummy! I’m absolutely taking cinnamon next time. It weighs nothing and made such a difference!
We decided to forgo tea in favor of burritos for lunch. Jason had some leftover rice which we cooked up with my left over black bean soup mix. He had another package of tortillas, some veggie ground beef, sausages and cheese so lunch was shaping up to be pretty darn good! In hindsight, I am SO grateful that we had that feast for lunch. Lord knows we needed the calories in the hours ahead.
Camp was all packed up and we were hiking by 10am. The goats immediately moved in but will have been very disappointed in what we left behind. We were a very contentious group packing out everything… and I mean EVERYTHING. Tai somehow managed to get the job of garbage/sewage pack mule. I guess that’s what you get for being a nice guy.
We hadn’t even reached Prusik Pass when I said “What’s that smell!?” Sure enough, Tai was up wind from me. Poor guy was hiking in a haze of stank! It was time to use my emergency orange garbage bag. After double bagging the trash bag, we quickly caught up with the rest of the group at Prusik Pass.
There was a nice family of 4 there and we took pictures of each other while chatting about our intended route. The father knew the area well which bolstered my confidence even more. He told us to say hi to Coney Lake for him and we were on our way. It was fun being off trail and we picked our way easily along the back side of Enchantment and over to Cannon’s eastern slopes. Mike and I hiked on up ahead a bit to ensure that we weren’t leading the rest of the group into trouble. We could radio back if the route didn’t go but go it did and soon we were at the Lorelei Lakelets. A weasel (I think that’s what it was) was hastily carrying its baby along the lake shore away from us. The lake was beautiful and we enjoyed a little rest & snack break while we waited for the rest of the group to catch up. I had another look at the map and saw the route very obviously leading up from the end of the lake. We headed off again with Jason and I bringing up the rear. We were enjoying drawing out the trip and savoring every moment. We let everyone race up the last steep slope we’d have to ascend on this trip while we took in the views, reliving moments of greatness and marveling at the scenery.
Our slow pace allowed me to notice a skull in the sand at our feet. Looking at the teeth on this thing, Jason suggested maybe a saber toothed marmot. A quick Google search just confirmed our suspicions… it’s a marmot all right.
We stopped for a little photo shoot but we couldn’t drag it out much longer. In a few more minutes we topped out on the magical ‘Druid Plateau’ just below the summit of Cannon. The Druid Plateau is several football fields in size, flat as a pancake save for the stepping stone type rocks covering much of its surface. We had fun running around, hopping from rock to rock and taking in the stellar views. Dragontail, Colchuck & Stuart were laid out before us like a postcard. A lone goat lazed on a large rock pile looking at us disapprovingly.
Jason had a great idea for a group photo. We all posed on different rocks. He’s going to Photoshop all the pictures together. Rather than try to describe it, I’m just going to put the photo in here. After at least an hour of horsing around, we shouldered our packs again for the short hike to Cannon.
We left our packs at a nice lunch spot and began the scramble up the summit of Cannon. I tried to avoid looking at our descent route. It looked much steeper than I’d bargained for so I just pushed it out of my mind and hoped that it would look different by the time we came down from the summit.
Scrambling up Cannon was fun and the views just got better and better. The true summit is the top of an enormous boulder. With my awesome new boots, I knew I could scramble up and down it. The bottom of my boots feel like suction cups on slabby rock like this and, as expected, I scrambled up without incident. I was only able to talk Jason into joining me however. I was thrilled to have gotten Tai up another mountain. Little did I know that getting him up Cannon was going to be infinitely easier than getting him down!
We climbed back down to our picnic spot and had our first good look at our route. Unfortunately it hadn’t gotten any better looking since the last time I’d looked at it. So I announced that it would probably look better after lunch and herded the group back up and away from the edge.
The last meal on a trip like this is usually pretty forgettable but lunch was a veritable feast! Jason really deserves a lot of credit for hauling a lot of really heavy, really yummy food all the way up there. We gobbled up every bite and got down to the serious business of discussing the route.
It was already after 3:00 so one thing was sure. I wasn’t willing to tackle the ridge. There was no way I wanted to be stuck up that high when the sun went down and the wind started up (as it did every night). Going back did not seem like a very practical option. So I figured as long as we could get down to the tree line by dark, we’d be fine. The gully looked steep but manageable so I tried to convey a confidence in my body language and voice that I didn’t really feel. I felt sure that everyone could do it, but that they wouldn’t be very happy about it. We hadn’t been moving for 5 minutes when we ran into the first spot of trouble. Q and Tai didn’t feel they could descend with their heavy packs on. No biggie…. I’d take their packs. I would much rather shuttle packs than turn around so I just told them to leave their packs. I figured this was the worst of it and if we could just get down this first bit it would get easier. Jason and I worked together to get everyone and everything down but it wasn’t getting any easier. Poor Jason seemed to be a loose rock magnet and rocks that had happily held my weight would pop loose under his greater weight.
Pretty soon Jason suggested that we take out the rope and while he helped people down with the rope, I began shuttling packs over a new route I had found that seemed more solid with nice big boulders. Jason had had enough of the mountain slipping out from under him so he set up a rap station which we used to shuttle packs and ourselves down while the rest of the group picked their way down the loose, steep gully.
Unfortunately things were just going from bad to worse but no one was complaining so I wanted to keep up our forward momentum. The next rappel was nasty, dropping quickly over an overhang. I was worried about being flipped over by the weight of the pack so I hooked a prussik on to the rope and the chest strap of Tai’s pack. His pack did not fit snugly into my back like my pack did and sure enough as soon as I hit the overhang I flipped over like a beetle. Every muscle in my body fought to right myself but it was futile. My left quad was on fire and there was nothing I could do to relieve the strain. I was afraid that Q and Tai might be watching and I knew that it looked bad so I shouted out “Help! I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!” like in that goofy commercial so they’d know I was ok. Righting myself was impossible so I just continued to lower myself in my incredibly uncomfortable position right down to the ground where Jason could help me up.
My next rappel went even worse. This time my left hand got caught between the rock and the rope when I dropped off the overhanging part. Hanging helplessly from my left hand I realized that I couldn’t climb up and I certainly couldn’t go down so I had no choice but to just yank my hand out. I continued down as fast as I could because if I was really injured I didn’t want to be hanging from a rope when I realized it. It looked ugly & it hurt but I didn’t think I was really injured. I got Q to take a look at it just in case and she gave me a green light. I wasn’t too worried about the cuts and scrapes. I was more worried that I may have damaged some tendons when I yanked it out. It seemed to be functioning well under the circumstances so I just wrapped it in a gauze bandage to keep the worst of the dirt out.
Jason decided to take the last two packs down on his own employing the same method one uses to get one’s pack out of a crevasse. He was all ready to go by the time I scrambled back up to the rap station but I pointed out that I did not have first aid supplies to cover a botched vasectomy, motioning to the sharp ice axe point just inches below his bits. He was determined that it would be ok and was being very stubborn about the whole thing but did wait long enough for me to tie my sports bra top around it.
I cleaned the rap station and scrambled back down in time to watch Q’s $400 Mountain Hardware tent bouncing merrily down the mountain side… and she was laughing! Delirium had clearly set in. Fortunately the tent did stop and she was able to retrieve it without further incident.
That was the end of the pack shuttles. The sun was setting fast though and we couldn’t even see the tree line. I desperately wanted to get everyone down to the tree line by dark. Jason had the brilliant idea of setting up a hand line so with Mike in the front, Jason in the middle and me taking up the rear, we were able to string out 60m of rope for the others to hang on to. We had hoped we’d be able to move more quickly this way but it was still slow going. I got frustrated with the pace so I found a secure spot for myself and told Tai to just rap off of me down to where everyone else was. This worked beautifully and secured my position as team belay station for the next several hours.
Jason would scope out a good tree/boulder/anything I could wedge myself in behind. I would get in position. Everyone would then rap off of me down the full length of the rope. Mike always went first, scoping out the route and finding the next possible belay station. Then Tai, Marian and Q would go. Tai has indoor climbing experience so this wasn’t totally new to him. Marian has loads of experience and flew down like a pro. Q, however, had never done anything like this before and was having trouble just trusting the rope. Going down a mountain backwards went against every natural instinct in her body (naturally!) but she never once complained, only asked for clarification and support and moved slowly but surely down the mountain.
I have to say a few words about Q here because she really did a remarkable job. Over the course of that long long night, her confidence grew exponentially. She was smart enough to tell us when she wasn’t ok but trusted us enough to do what we told her to do. Jason rigged up a chest harness for her with some extra webbing and put her on a prussik so in the event that she fell and let go of the rope, she would still be safe. I really admire her quiet determination and self control. Not once did she panic and she always kept her wonderful sense of humor.
The sun was setting fast. It really was a beautiful sunset. I told Jason that I wished it would just get it over with because then the pressure would be off and when it finally did set, it was almost a relief. No more racing against sunset. It was dark. No big deal. Just keep moving. Up until this point I had been scrambling down, unroped, after everyone had rappelled. But now it was dark and the prospect of descending the gully solo was not particularly appealing so on the next rap, after everyone but Jason and I had rapped off, we used the little shrub (to call it a tree would be an overstatement) to rap off of. Jason found a boulder we could use for the next 30meters. I went first and found our group perched on what could not even be described as a ledge. I started hunting around for anything we could rap off of but it wasn’t looking good.
It was really dark as the moon had not risen yet. Even when it did rise, it would be a long time before it came out from behind the mountain. The stars were beautiful and they put on a great show for us with shooting stars and even a display of the Northern Lights. Everyone remained positive commenting on how we would have missed all this if we’d gotten down sooner.
By the time Jason joined us I still hadn’t come up with anything. Jason got to work on a crack that while I continued to explore the cliff looking for something better. I had dropped the rope at the end of my rappel and traversed this cliff solo earlier but this time I looked down. Yikes! For the first time on our descent I was a bit freaked out so I told Jason I wanted a belay to get back. He was still working on setting up an anchor and it seemed like forever before I was finally able to get the heck out of there.
Everyone was getting cold but there wasn’t much room to maneuver so no one had bothered getting more clothes out of their packs. I knew I was going to be there the longest so I did take the time to find a place where I could lay my pack down and get some more clothes out. Jason went off in search of a better rap station. Nothing was popping out at him so I put him on belay so he could explore the cliffs on the opposite side of the gully. He soon gave a triumphant cry as his fingers found two lovely cracks just begging for pro.
Working as quickly as he could, Jason set up a fantastic rap station and we were soon back in business. Using the section of rope I had used to belay him, we were able to make a hand line across the gully. As had become the custom, Mike went first, traversing the gully and then rapping down off of Jason’s anchor. Mike's confidence and experience had been a very nice surprise and a real blessing. We were desperate for some flat ground where we could get warm clothes on, rest and have a snack so we waited with baited breath as he descended down the steep gully into the night. His headlamp marked his progress and before long he was on the radio describing a much more hospitable place. Tai went next, then Q. This was the steepest section we’d had to contend with so I suggested that Jason just tie her in and lower her. This worked brilliantly as Q felt much more confident with the constant security of a lower and she was able to move down more quickly than ever. Marian shot down the rope like a bolt of lightening and then it was my turn. First I had to get Jason’s pack over to him so I used the hand line to cross the gully and come back. Then, I tore down the station, tied myself in so Jason could belay me, and moved slowly over the rocks & gully with my own pack. Jason was freezing and I felt quite helpless as in our precarious position there was really nothing I could do to help him. All I could do was get down as fast as I could so he could follow.
Mike had indeed found a great spot. I immediately dumped my pack and went off to find the next belay station. Trees! There were actually two or three options. I take back everything bad I ever said about trees. (I’m an alpine junkie and have been known to make disparaging remarks about hiking through trees…. I repent.)
Jason seemed to be taking an awfully long time but I knew what he was doing. He had to tear down the rap station, leaving just one nut and rap off of that. Rapping off of one nut is not much fun but if anyone can find a solid nut placement its Jason so I was confident that the extra time he was taking would ensure his safe descent. I also knew he was freezing so he’d be moving more slowly than he’d like. Finally his headlamp was on the move so I found my last cliff bar and met him on the ‘landing pad.’ He insisted on bringing down the rope before attending to his own comfort which is pretty characteristic. I had quickly learned to pick my battles with Jason when he’s being stubborn so I let this one go. As soon as the rope was down I took it and the rack and moved them down closer to our next rap station.
Tai dozed on the ledge while the rest of us piled on every stitch of clothing we had. The night was mercifully mild, the mildest we’d had all trip in fact, so with all our clothes on, we were cozy and comfortable. A rest was mandatory so we hung out for about 30 minutes, fiddling with gear, eating the last of our food, and slurping down the last of our meager water supply. I had finished the last of my water just below the summit had was very surprised that I wasn’t particularly thirsty.
Now that everyone was fed and warm, we were ready to get moving again. Having reached the tree line seemed to have boosted morale. The worst was behind us and now it was just a matter of bushwhacking our way down to the trail. I had my GPS on but I wasn’t in a hurry to share the information I was getting from it. We were still just over 7000 feet. The trailhead was at 3500. It was almost midnight when we started down again. We had 2.4km to go but as we rapped down 30m at a time, we were covering the distance agonizingly slowly. After a couple of rappels we were able to walk down about 40 feet without the rope so we thought we were ‘out of the woods’ so to speak. Our optimism proved premature however when the terrain became quite steep again, requiring more rappels. Jason’s brand new rope was a mess. It had survived rock fall, tons of sand & dirt, and now tree sap. It was so dirty I couldn’t even find the middle markings on it now when I was setting up rap stations. Obviously a new rope would be added to the expense sheet at the end of the trip although Jason was still stubbornly refusing. We told him it wasn’t up for debate and he finally acquiesced.
The forest got thicker and the footing became more solid. I had long ago lost count of rappels. I would estimate between 15 and 20 by the time we finally put the rope away for good. Soon we were embraced in the loving arms of slide alder. I’ve never seen alder so thick in my life. I had to put my poles away as I needed both hands just to swim through the stuff. This was the first time the darkness really felt oppressive. The going was still steep and uneven so it was a little unnerving to be crashing blindly through slide alder, not knowing if I was about to push through and find a cliff on the other side. The ground was covered in a good foot of alder and deadfall so that ever step involved crashing through dry wood and ankle wrenching branches.
This was getting old very quickly so it was a serious relief when we finally came upon a long talus slope. The rocks stretched out as far as the eye could see which was much farther now that the moon had finally risen over the mountain and was providing a bit of light. Most of the rocks were pretty solid which was a nice change from the last stretch of rocks we’d endured. At one point there was a flat little patch of sand just slightly larger than my boot. I took a few moments to enjoy the feeling of flat, solid ground under my feet, alternating back and forth between left and right. I pointed it out to Mike so he could stand on it too. This was seriously the ONLY good footing we’d had since we left the top of Cannon and would be the last we’d see until we made it back down to the trail.
Our talus slope dwindled and dumped us back into the steep forest again but we soon came upon a small stream. WATER! We quickly filled a 4L water bag, fished out some Gatorade powder, and Mike got to work on the temperamental MIOX. “Low Salt” it kept saying, over and over. He passed it to Tai, announcing that Tai had the magic touch but even the magical Tai could not make it work. I knew what everyone was thinking so I reminded them of the Giardia I had come home with from my last trip up here after I drank untreated water. It was decided then and there that MSR would be held accountable for this. It was to audible groans that Tai poured out the 4L of water, before we continued down the stream bed.
Q was quite rightly suggesting that we needed a rest so at the very first place 6 people could sit down, we stopped for a nap. It was 5:30am and the sun was just starting to rise. It was extremely difficult to get comfortable since not one of the huge boulders we were sitting on was flat. Marian shared her sleeping pads with Q and Jason. I unrolled mine and found a spot where I could wedge my feet under a dead tree to keep me from slipping down the rock. I curled up, pulled my hat down over my eyes, and to my extreme surprise was dead to the world in about 2 seconds flat. I slept for a good solid 5 minutes before my body told me it was time to switch positions. I’ve never fallen asleep so quickly or slept so deeply in my life. I’m certain that those 5 minutes got me down the rest of the way without injury. The last 30 minutes before the power nap had been fraught with ankle turns at almost every step.
For the first time I noticed that my fingers and hands were not working very well. Rolling up my sleeping pad was agonizing. Getting it into its stuff sack was even worse. Untwisting my poles was torture. Jason was having a similar experience, but was not going to let us go without getting a group shot of our little nap nest among the boulders.
Amazingly, Jason had continued to document our entire descent which had contributed greatly to keeping us all from taking the experience or ourselves too seriously. If Jason was still taking pictures, everything must still be under control right? He’d put the camera away if we got into trouble.
Just then, Jason got into a bit of trouble of his own. He was standing above me directing everyone into their places for the photo when suddenly he disappeared from view with a crash. The log he had been standing on had been too dry and weak to take his weight and had snapped, depositing him unceremoniously into the branches below. Of course his only concern was for his camera and it was several tense moments before I could get an answer out of him as to HIS condition. Surprisingly, he was unharmed. Even more surprisingly, neither was the camera which had managed to lodge itself in the only place a camera could safely lodge itself.
It was light now and Mike laughed as he pointed out a grassy meadow about 100 feet from us. We’d been balancing our weary bodies on these hateful boulders when there’d been a meadow less than 10 minutes away. Ah well. Had we made it to the meadow, we probably would have been tempted to get more comfortable and it would have been harder to get moving again. As it was, my body had gone into some kind of semi paralytic state and it took a good 15 minutes before I was moving freely again.
I staggered like a drunk down to the meadow which was really not much of a meadow. While Jason reconned north, I went south. South looked better so we moved off in that direction. It was relatively easy going for a while and we soon came upon more talus. We alternated between talus and forest before we finally heard the much anticipated sound of Mountaineer Creek.
The trail ran parallel to the creek all the way from the trailhead to Colchuck Lake so we knew we were close. There was plenty of evidence of bear activity but being in a group of 6 meant that we were pretty safe as there has never been a documented bear attack on a group of more than 4. Even so, we made a point of making plenty of noise to let them know we were coming. The devils club proved slightly more difficult to avoid. We were almost within sight of the creek when Tai and his heavy pack tumbled off of a log we were scrambling over. One of the branches he’d been using for support had snapped under the weight, dropping him 4 feet to the ground but not before puncturing his shoulder and tearing a large chunk out of his thumb.
He was obviously in pain and if Tai’s letting you see that he’s in pain, he’s hurt. I was more concerned about his wrenched shoulder than for his wounds at this point but he still seemed to have good mobility. Still, I wanted to empty his pack to reduce the strain on his shoulder. He was having none of that though. I had told him several times through the night that I really needed him to be straight with me when I asked him how he was doing and reminded him of this point again. He assured me that he was ok to carry his pack so after very temporarily patching up his gaping thumb, I helped him up and hoisted his pack up to him. He grimaced but took the weight and carried on. We were so close to the trailhead now I told him to just keep going when we got to the creek so I could patch him up properly back at the cars where we had clean water to clean his wounds with. What a trooper.
Minutes later, we were at the trail. I dropped to my knees and kissed the ground. There are no words to express the feeling of being on flat, solid ground after 17 hours of the polar opposite. Tai, Q, Marian and Mike were off like a shot. I hobbled along as fast as my abused knees would take me and Jason seemed content to keep pace with me. In spite of the incredible adversity we’d endured, there was still a small part of me that didn’t want it to end.
After about 30 minutes, the end was in sight. We must have looked pretty funny coming crashing out of the forest, filthy, scratched, bruised & exhausted at 8:45 in the morning. There were several groups preparing for departure at their cars. We’d been hiking for 23 hours, 17 of which had been the descent from Cannon.
Thankfully, we had plenty of water waiting for us in the cars and it was consumed voraciously. Gear was sorted and loaded into the cars while I attended to the worst of Tai’s injuries. Marian’s car battery was dead but Tai had jumper cables so that was taken care of quickly. Soon 6 very dirty, smelly & slightly delirious hikers were back on the road, and headed for the Circle Y restaurant for a well deserved breakfast.
Wow… I’m kind of surprised to be at the end of this trip report which has been my constant companion for the past 5 days. It’s a little sad really. As long as I was writing this, I’ve been able to keep myself in the head space of the trip but I guess it’s really over now.
This was hands down the best trip of my life. The spectacular destination was only part of what made it so special. The way this team gelled and worked together was beyond my wildest expectations. I don’t think it’s even possible to put together a more complimentary mix of skills and personalities. The Northern Lights don’t have anything on the remarkable display of human spirit put on but this team. A special thank you to Jason who stepped up before we even left organizing gear and didn’t stop crossing t’s and dotting i’s until everyone was safely back at the cars. I am proud, and more than a little astonished at how well Jason and I worked together through this whole trip but particularly on the descent from Cannon Mountain.
The muscle stiffness has abated. The cuts and scrapes have scabbed over. The bruises have turned that particularly ugly color bruises turn right before they start to fade. Soon the physical evidence of our adventure will be gone but I will never be the same again. This was one those rare experiences that has really touched me deeply. As tough as it was, I don’t regret a single moment. Thank you to everyone who made it possible. I can’t wait to start planning our next trip together!
External Links & PhotosMy web site
There is a beautiful PDF that is a compilation of trip reports from all the participants on this trip put together in a magazine type format with photos right here.
Most of the photos from this trip were taken by Jason, not me. They are beautiful and you can find them here (I still need to get day 4-6 up so stay tuned!):
Photos from Day 1
Photos from Day 2
Photos from Day 3