The boulderfield in front of me looked familiar. It was in fact the same boulderfield pictured on a trip report we had read on cascadeclimbers.com, where they explained that this was where they ended up when they followed a set of cairns up high above Mountaineer's Creek, instead of taking the trail down by the creek. When we finally made it back to the creek, we found that the creek trail wasn't anything to write home about either – boulders were traded for fallen logs.
My dad did some rock climbing in college, and over the last few years I've been trying to get him into some alpine stuff. He agreed to come to Washington for 2 weeks of climbing on glaciers in preparation for a trip to Peru the following summer. Hopefully this was to be one of those father-son bonding experiences that everyone talks about so fondly, as well as a chance for me to show off all those fancy mountaineering skills I learned in college when I was supposed to be studying. Our first objective was the Ice-Cliff glacier on Mt. Stuart.
Once back to the creek, another couple of hours of thrashing brought us to a pile of avalanche debris by the last stand of trees in the valley below the Sherpa Glacier. Noting that this seemed like the last opportunity for liquid water, we decided to camp here. We were soon joined by a small group of goats. There were two shaggy older mama-goats, two yearlings, and two cute wooly baby goats. The mama goats were shooing the yearlings away.
Eventually one of the big ones lowered her head and took a few short quick steps towards me as I was standing and eating a sandwich. I stepped back rather alarmed, and she stopped. A bit later she did it again. I jabbed a trekking pole in her direction and she gave up on me. As we were leaving, she started looking aggressively at my dad. He dealt with the situation more proactively, waving his pole over his head, making loud swooshing noises in the air. This earned us a bit of respect, although the goats still didn't leave.
We left our packs there and hiked up to the moraine to look at the glacier, hoping that the goats weren't going to have a picnic with our food while we were gone. Instead, they followed us up onto the moraine ridge. We heard an unsettling crash of falling ice off of the ice-cliff at the bottom of the glacier, and shivered as the wind blew the falling snow into our faces.
For largely weather-related reasons, morale was not especially high as we settled into our sleeping bags for the night, and this played perhaps too large a part in our decision making about when to get up (one thing I did not practice much in college was getting up early). We elected to set the alarm for 3:23, since 3:22:30 (the compromise between 3:15 and 3:30) wasn't an option. Due to general grogginess and incompetence, it was a bit after 4 when we actually left. On the plus side, the weather had improved significantly, and we enjoyed a beautiful sunrise.
The possibility of falling ice was on our minds, and we admired the streaked snow on the snowfield between the moraine and the ice-cliff. Fortunately, we were able to remain in fairly sheltered areas for most of the approach, only crossing the main debris path once. Also fortunately, the glacier remained quiet as we approached the base.
We simuled up the snow and ice to the left of the steep ice-cliff. The climbing was easy, and we were making good time, until I went too far left, in the hopes of avoiding some scary looking crevasses. After shifting a large ice-block, and finding more loose looking and steep ice above, I decided that maybe the crevasses weren't as scary as I had thought, and down-climbed to an easy traverse across solid snow-bridges. Oops.
The middle part of the glacier was great fun. Quite flat walking, punctuated by occasional short steep sections brought us to the bergschrund. Often a formidable obstacle, this was easily passed on a cone of avalanche debris in the middle. There was a rather large gully in the snow above the cone. Crossing, we were hit with a small cloud of very fine powdery spindrift, which passed harmlessly around our feet, as though we were wading in a gentle stream. I suspect that the majority of the cone was caused by small slides like this coming down the track in the snow, rather than a larger slide. Nevertheless, we climbed a bit to the left of the gully.
We climbed roped together, placing the occasional picket. A few hundred feet below the top of the couloir I heard a very loud crash above me. I looked up to see a block of ice, maybe 3' by 1' by 1', accompanied by a cloud of smaller debris coming out of a chimney above me. I originally thought it was going to pass to my right, but it bounced off a snow shelf, and came right at me. I had this strange thought, which my mind didn't put into words until later, that all those other times I've been scared were over trivialities, but this thing had a good chance of actually killing me.
I took a few steps left, and jumped left. I landed on my feet in soft snow, and managed not to fall. Given the quality of snow that the only picket between us was placed in, this was a very good thing. I had taken a hit on my right leg, just above the knee, but it didn't hurt much. I think it was either a smaller piece, or a corner of the main block, because it was on the side of the leg, rather than the front, and I think a direct hit with the main block would have done a lot more damage.
I paused stunned for a moment – nothing like this had ever happened to me, and I didn't know what to say. I cursed loudly. My dad yelled back to ask if I was OK. I actually was – it hurt, and it hurt more when I put weight on it, but there really didn't seem to be anything seriously wrong with it. I asked him if he could lead for a bit, which he did. He led up around a constriction, and into a sheltered spot on the left. I followed, limping when I had to push up with my right leg. Ready to be out of this couloir, I took the lead from there, and limped up to the top of the couloir, onto much broader slopes on the south side of the mountain.
Now the intelligent mountaineer at this point would forgo the summit, and hobble back to camp. On the other hand, I was pretty shaken up, and I wasn't sure that I was ever going to climb something like this again, so I figured it'd be a lot nicer if my last serious climb ended at a summit. My dad to his credit (in my opinion at least), although he expressed concern about my leg, did not consider it his fatherly duty to hustle me back to camp ASAP, so we started up the easy snow and talus to the top. I took my sweet time, and it was further than I had expected, but we eventually reached the top. It was warm, the views were nice, and the M&Ms were tasty.
The way down was fairly uneventful, and the leg did mostly OK – I strained it slipping on the snow on one section, and took some ibuprofen (possibly the one useful item in the first-aid kit), which did a great deal of good. We descended the Sherpa Glacier, walking down snow all the way to camp. The leg was quite swollen, but still seemed to be functioning properly.
The next day, my leg was still swollen, but presented no real problems walking out. We followed the stream most of the way out to the trail, then got a bit lost, and found an ice-axe left by another party. Not knowing what to do with it, we left it at the trailhead. The leg was moderately sore for a few days, and still has a bit of a hard bump (5 weeks later) but seems to be basically better.
This trip was unusual in a number of ways – it was my dad's first glacier climb, the beginning of a great trip with my dad, and something that forced me to solidify my thoughts on objective danger. I'm no longer thinking that this will be the last real “climb” I would ever do, as I was thinking at the top of the couloir. However, if a route has high objective danger, it had better really be something special if I'm going to consider climbing it in the future. It fortunately did not scare my dad away from mountaineering, so we'll be the confused looking ones in Peru in 2012.