"When you're safe at home you wish you were having an adventure; when you're having an adventure you wish you were safe at home" -Thornton Wilder
"A sense of uncertainty that is potentially fatal is what makes climbing an adventure. Anything less is just working out" -Jim Bridwell
This was one of the most frightening climbing experiences I have ever had. My brother and I had to put our mountaineering skills to the test using what we could to get out with our lives. There are climbs were you anticipate danger and those that you think would be nothing more than a simple scramble up. I had under estimated the dangers, the time it would take, but most importantly the mountain. I hope never in my wildest dreams to ever climb anything like this again.
I had seen Mount Stickney for years from my roof top which my brother and I felt like this was a mountain that had to be climbed. The best weather day happen to fall on the darkest day of the year making any attempts be done in speedy time. After making careful observations using photographs and google earth I found a steep gully that went up Stickney's South West Face. This appeared to be an unclimbed route which I've always wanted to get a first ascent of a new route up a mountain. But I got more than what I bargained for.
We had a late start because I had to put money onto my bus card, making for a 9:30 a.m. start. The fact that we had breakfast at the last second I had forgotten to bring my ice axe which later ended up being a big deal. After riding a few buses we arrived at the city of Gold Bar at 11:09 a.m. which we immediately hopped on the bikes towards the Wallace Falls trailhead. As I was riding I noticed that I was getting a lot of friction due to my back tire being partly flat. My brother decided to let me use his bike and told me "don't break my bike" with a smile. I guess one could call me the Mr. Accident of gear because I'm well known for accidentally breaking gear whether it be a zipper or even an ice axe. Near the trailhead we started biking up a hill. As I was pedaling the chain on the bike suddenly snaps completely making the bike unusable. So much for mountain bikes being able to bike up a small hill. My brother was quite disappointed and used it as a scooter for the rest of the way.
We stashed our bikes in the bushes and started jogging on the trail. After getting a bit soar we had to slow down to a speed walk which was still tiring. Exactly an hour from when we got off the bus we arrived at the upper Wallace Falls which I consider that we made good time.
Running through the Woods
After a short hike up hill we were on the road that goes towards Wallace Lake. A ways before the lake we took a right turn which follows an abandoned forest road that has some fallen over trees on it. 2.5 miles later we were uncertain of where the route actually was considering that the woods were dense in this area.
Michael Climbing over Fallen Trees
After passing a old creek drainage I decided that it was time to start heading up. If it was the wrong one, it would be obvious after a few hundred feet. As we hike though the woods the route starts coming into view.
Entering the Gully
North Side of Mount Zekes
Light Clouds coming Over
Scrambling up the Start of the Gully
The gully started out as a light scramble over rocks and dirt, eventually ending up on snow. We decided that it was best if we put on our crampons for better traction on the snow field which went up the rest of the way of the gully. There was a bit of going back and forth involved with navigating the gully. But for the most part it was a decent gully on the lower section.
Michael Hiking up the Gully
As we started approaching the upper part of the gully the snow got deeper in places, but did not require snowshoes. When looking up it seemed as though we could top out within 20 minutes. Boy was that a under estimation of the route...
Looking up the Gully
Climbing into Scary Terrain
It was now late in the day which now we had to make speedy time if we were to complete this route. The gully suddenly became much steeper which we should have turned around right then. We figured that perhaps this was some sort of crux and that after that section we could get to the trees and scramble up to the top of the ridge. A little ways into the snow climb we encountered a section I call "The Hour Glass" which is a narrow section of rock and snow having just enough room for one to climb past. The snow climbing started requiring several kicks in the snow/ice in order to be able to some what climb this safely. My brother Michael when he climbed in the hour glass had to climb into a moat just to proceed further. There was a mix of excitement and fear while climbing though.
Looking up the Hour Glass
Climbing up the Hour Glass
After the Hour Glass things eased up a bit but every step still required much attention of kicking and good placements. I saw a rock section ahead which I was delighted that it seemed like the way out of the gully. Ironically it probably would have been better if we stayed in the steep gully later on. Looking down I knew that I broke the number one rule of mountaineering which is to never climb up something that you cannot down climb.
Climbing on the Upper Section of the Gully
Once we came close to the rocks we started to climb up onto the left side of the gully in hopes that things would start easing up. Things didn't, in fact it got steeper and scarier as we continued on. I soon started to realize that we were climbing ourselves into a trap. There was no going down because the sun was almost setting and the ice was starting to freeze over making our situation more serious. The kicks started requiring at times up to 20-30 kicks per step and with some of them more which was time consuming and exhausting. The terrain was looking so horrendous that I started wishing that I had never went on this adventure.
Climbing towards the Ledges
Near the top of where we were climbing there was a cliff which Michael decided he wanted to climb to the right of it. The end section of his plans looked terrible for me because I had no ice axe and the possibility of the ice being thin would be incredibly dangerous. The fact that I had small crampon spikes made the situation worse, although certainly better than nothing. I decided that for myself it would be best to try and traverse under the cliff using the ledges.
The climb onto the cliff ledges was more dangerous than I had anticipated, the rock was loose making it so every step had to be carefully planned out. I found a ledge that I could finally get a drink on and take a few pictures (I know, pictures during a time like this. When I get nervous and have a spot to sit down on and rest, taking pictures help calm me down). I set down my pack on the ledge that had just enough room for it to stay stable which I scrambled the last part. At the top of the ridge I was horrified to find that there was nothing but steep couloirs below me and cliffs above me. There was no where to go, I suddenly felt trapped on terrain that was beyond my control. I seriously considered climbing a loose class 4 section that I might not have been able to down climb, but went against it because this was not the place to find out if one could proceed.
Evening to the South
Mount Stickney's Summit Block
Sun Setting over Trees
Looking West During Evening
Mount Index during Evening
Mount Rainier during Evening
Looking Down Below
Topping out at the Wrong Place
(All further interest in Photography was lost due to heavy exposure)
It was getting dark which I yelled to my brother who faintly heard me though the winds. He told me that he had topped out and was safe which in that sense I was glad. I yelled out several times asking if there was any way on the top of the ridge. My brother told me that he cried when he heard this because he knew that there was nothing. He yelled back "No" which I was terrified. Many people would have broken down in tears in the position I was in. I would have myself except that it goes against the rules of survival which is keep your cool when in a perilous situation. I couldn't believe my situation at first, it seemed so unreal to have to go through what I did next.
I began going across what was the scariest traverse I have ever had to do. Many times when I went to go make a step the rock would go tumbling down the mountain. I first had to travel under a vertical rock with hardly any place to grip onto. I'm not entirely sure how I was able to pull it off which this was the place that I had to put all my mountaineering skills to the test. If there was a time to make sure you do everything right. This was it! I began getting into deep prayers for guidance of where to place my next move. In some places even when trying to hold my cool I became very shaky in my legs. The dehydration was starting to wear in making it so that I had cramps when ever I made a long step or had to kick in loose snow on ledge spots. When your in a desperate situation you come to find that you can do things you never quite thought you would have been able to do other wise.
There came a section were it appeared as though there was no good holds and no way to traverse any further. I felt my heart racing and was looking all around for anything to grab onto, anything that would hold. The only way to proceed was some cheap step move that barely held me which before doing it you start having thoughts like "if this doesn't hold, well I guess than it was my time anyways". It felt as though it was a miracle to be able to get past that section. It was becoming quite dark making it hard to see. There would be times were I would have to dig snow out of my way and others were I had to dig rocks out of my way. After one last sketchy rock section I managed to scramble over to a tree hanging over a cliff. I was now able to finally put some layers on over my t-shirt and put on my head lamp.
My brother was above me now which he did help kick many steps, but there was a section between him and I that he was too scared to climb. I finally announced "Michael... I'm scared. In fact, scared is a under statement to what I am feeling right now". Michael gave back this look of worry which he knew I had one last sketchy section to climb though. It took me a few minutes to find the courage for me to continue on with the climb. The snow became harder making it both more strenuous to kick in steps and less effective when I had the steps in. I was cramping up making me have to wait until I recovered. After what seemed like a long time I finally managed to make it to my brother which he handed me the ice axe to use for the rest of the section.
The Long Way Home
"Michael, let's not ever do anything like that again" I told Michael. He relied "Agreed". We still had one last some what dangerous section that required a Z shaped format to down climb which I thank my brother for kicking in the steps for. Once we got past this part, the rest of going down was all safe, but not easy. Looking at the time it was 6 p.m. It had take over an hour to travel a couple hundred feet. I knew by this point that there was no hopes for us making it to the bus in time.
It took us 12 hours of traveling through the dark to get back to Gold Bar. Sometimes we got a bit lost and at others had to go back up hill plowing through snow. With a day of intense climbing, plowing through snow was tiring by this point. We could not go straight down the mountain because of the many cliffs on the south face. Finding the road was our only reasonable option for going down.
We kept coming upon flat areas with no trees which at first seemed like a road but would suddenly come to an end. Our pace steadily became slower as exhaustion settled in. Sometimes we had to lay down and take a nap just to be able to continue. We would wake up cold and have to hurry on to warm ourselves up. Eventually Michael got tired of plowing through snow on the ridge and finally decided to head down hill. If we hit a road, great! And if not, well there is not a lot we could do. Eventually we came across a old logging road which took us all the way near Wallace Lake. The road split off onto another road that went to Wallace Falls. From here it was a 2.5 mile walk to the trailhead. We biked the rest of the way to Gold Bar, arriving at 6 a.m. where we waited for the next bus back home.
I am happy to be home typing this and hope never to get into this kind of situation again. Although I certainly don't recommend experiencing anything like this, it certainly makes one appreciate being safe at home and many other things that we all take for granted.
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