So I've been out of the game for a while now and I had an itch that desperately needed scratching. For most of winter and spring I've been preoccupied with non-mountaineering activities on cloudless days and just staring at the cascades from my home on the hill. Before heading to Tennessee for a friend who needed help we got a snowstorm down in the lowlands. It was on the first official day of spring so, given our snow-less winter, I found it poetic to create a pair of ice-climbers. They lasted through the next few days of sunshine and reminded me of fun times in the snow high above.
Finally some snow to hold us over
Ever since our last attempt
which ended up as the foolhardy reputation-destroying disaster, Josh
and I knew we had messed up on a good deal. A lot of things weren't right that day (probably mentally as well). But the route felt right. It's rare for a person to find a completely new route these days in the Washington Cascades. Not that nobody has ever been there but that nobody has found it worth mentioning. And with the young exuberance that instills romantic notions we were sure we found one on Mt. Stickney. Josh even came up with a cool name for it: Sky Rocket Coulior! Mt. Stickney already has a standard route up Olney Creek road but with budget cuts on the large, the approach is reprehensible to any thrifty up and coming peak-bagger. Our new route is shorter, direct and more alpine. A lot of things about it still seem good; just requiring the right conditions.
With the last misadventure in mind, first thing was first: inventory. No more mind-blowing catastrophes! We were going to have everything we needed attached to our packs way ahead of time. Ice tools, ice axes, crampons, water, clothes, food -- all scrutiny was applied as soon as we saw a good window for weather. Then some adjustments were made and we were left with the tantalizing realization that we were about to forge a new route up a prominent westward facing mountain. I couldn't tell what I thought was cooler; that it was a first ascent for the route (documented), that the gully resembles a coulior snow climb of a constant slope that rockets 3,000' from the valley below, that it was in a perfect proximity to Index, Baring, Monte Cristo peaks, and most of the western cascades, or the fact that it starts from my very first hiking experience in memory by beginning from Wallace Falls State Park!
Illusions of grandeur aside, this was at least going to be a memorable climb taking place on my birthday eve in a beautiful setting and with my brother and friend who always makes the best out of every experience. The weather was perfect, conditions were... well, we would monitor the snow conditions. Temps were in the 70's, snow was packed deep and firm with 2-4" layer of soft stuff that would slough off in the afternoon. The biggest deal breaker was snow for purchase of steps. All we needed was the gully to be full of snow from bottom to top and from our vantage point at Gold Bar and it fulfilled that safety requirement.
I wanted to get started right away. I wanted to just run to the mountain but work doesn't stop for fun. So I had to wait until 5pm before we could leave. That meant we we're definitely doing this as an over-night which meant more gear and that we would be taking the last bus to Gold Bar. Since we were going to spend the night I figured to bring some food up there to enjoy. I had Josh buy a deep dish pizza, brought a dozen chocolate chip cookies, 2 lbs of donut holes and, just to be healthy, a pound of peeled carrots. Well we adjusted accordingly and ran to the north bound swift bus stop as soon as I was free. Josh had planned all the buses while I was busy but being a constant commuter I trust his judgement.
I know that riding a public bus with a huge backpack attracts attention and it's not always positive. Every once in a while you come across a colorful character on the bus and have to decide whether or not you can just talk to them or they're totally nuts. This time we got the middle ground with an Artist/musician named Eido. No really, he has no last name. Apparently he plays blues at the space needle. I will have to index that one for another time. After transferring in Everett Station to the 270, we were joined by 3 others with backpacks that rivaled our own; A thin, cheerful country woman who looks like she's seen her share of the bitter side with a muzzled doberman at her call and black pack that looked to weigh 40 lbs; a quiet, older man with a Steve-Martin-esque look and an army pack, and what looked to be a heavyset bearded tramp with unlimited dog biscuits from a giant bag. They all seemed to know each other in some way and were friendly enough to ask us about our climb. The tramp turned out to be a working man discussing his work with the other two. The conversations ended as they usually do with them telling us to be safe up there and us agreeing to turn around at the first sign of trouble.
Our last stop was still 1.65 miles from the trail head and we could see our goal slowly disappear behind the trees as we approached. Now on foot, I couldn't help but be a little jealous of those who could afford to start at Wallace Falls State Park but decided to turn it into reflection, looking at the homes in such a beautiful area and wondering what the property tax must be. The sun was setting and by the time we reached the first view under the power lines of the mountains ablaze we'd gone about 2 miles.
Alpenglow on Mount Index
Sunset from the Trail
We saw a few mosquitoes which reminded us that all that beautiful snow will be feeding billions of blood suckers in another month. We enjoyed our view until the sun sank below a cloud bank and continued up the falls into darkness. I don't normally bring an mp3 player but in this instance I think it was justified and gave the woods an erie feel. At the Upper Falls we stopped for supper and were greeted to enormous water flow illuminated by the ultraviolet twilight of dusk. The falls was gushing powerfully down through the chasm between the woods. Without much more delay we dined on pizza and carrots and found it delicious in the setting. After noting that the "falls can be deadly" warning sign should say that falls are fatal, we headed up to Wallace Lake road/ Grade Road, continued on the road about 1/3 mile then found our service road on the right. There were plenty of downed trees and our original idea of camping below our gully seemed like it would be impossible in the dark will all the obstacles. We continued on nonetheless getting scratched up by thorns and fallen firs. Every now and then Josh would ask if we could set up camp and I would say,"Well, I want to get to the part of the road that bends but we don't want to be doing this all night. Maybe the next flat spot." Of course we ended up getting to that part of the road but not before hitting some devil's club and swampy soil that weaved in and out of 5' thick down timber. Our camp was right about where the road started to see some snow in patches at about 2,000' of elevation and 2 miles up the road away from Grade road. Confident that we were in deep woods we stashed our food in a bag, hung it high, buried the dounuts in snow and went strait to sleep.
The dreams that visited me were of a harsh reality that I didn't want to accept. Quite often exemplifying my lesser qualities and chasing me with all the burdens and failures of the life that this very trip was an attempt to escape. Needless to say I was reluctant to go back to sleep each time I awoke. But the morrow would bring difficulties that necessitated rest so I had to hope that peace would come instead of reviled memories of bitterness and unworthiness. I had the notion we might try to get an alpine start but my restlessness was setting up to foil those plans. I just had to think of being surrounded by beauty and the long glissade that will surely reward whatever suffering comes.
With first light we awoke grabbed our breakfast and gnawed on donut holes until we were lucid enough to consider our bearings. Given that we were on the bend in the road facing east and the sun rises in the east, it was a little surprising to see Mount Stickney through the trees to our right, even though intuitively it lies to the north of the road we were standing on. We consolidated our gear and checked the time: 6:30am. Not an alpine start but pretty good compared to last time. No need to bring our tent with us since it's unlikely with the combination of downed trees, broken road and Government Sequester that anybody will ever come back here. So we hid our food 100 yards away from the tent, discussed a decent turn-around-time, agreed on 2pm and headed out into this gorgeous setting.
Morning Shines into a Forest Temple
Camping in the Woods
We knew we weren't far from the bottom of the gully but the problem with finding it (or any gully out here) is that the bottom is not well defined. It fans out as cumulative debris slowly mesh with the surrounding terrain. I could tell by our position that we were about a mile away as we could see the point I remembered climbing up to through the trees and the gully would be behind it. There is also a distinct change in the road. It will begin to head down hill slightly and slowly bear left. After clambering over untold messes of trees and two small creeks we arrived at the spot and headed uphill into the trees. We came across a second road that wasn't on the map that contours the mountain at an angle heading upwards and westward. I followed this for a few hundred feet until I saw the snow of the gully clearly through the trees. We went strait for that sweet spot and from here, at about 2,200' elevation, it was another 3,100' to the top of the mountain and 2,900' to the top of our gully, Sky Rocket Couloir. From our vantage we could see south-facing cliffs that walled in a perfect snow climb. Granted, there was a little mess from avalanches that brought down some trees but after going about 150 vertical feet up, it was free and clear of debris. A perfect highway to the summit!
Sun Light on Mossy Branches
Josh wasn't quite so sure if we were in the right gully and who could blame him? The mountain looked pretty damn rugged from this angle. Steep, wet cliffs dripping with snow and steep gully that went thousands of feet up the flank to beyond sight. Just to reassure him, we spent a little time getting to know the bottom of the gully and surrounding terrain. After our early morning warm up and quite a bit of sweat, he regained confidence and I broke trail up into the gully. Being a white Irish red-beard, I wanted to make the best time before the sun hit the snow in the gully and enjoy my time without sunscreen or a face mask. We made it about 3,500' and by 9:47am we were looking over at Zekes peak from a rocky perch.
Heading up the Couloir
Looking Down the Couloir
By 10:00am the sun finally hit the snow and I had to say good-bye to freedom and hello to ninja. The snow began to soften a little and I kept my eye out for pin wheeling and shallow sloughs. Every step became somewhat difficult but with the extreme gains in elevation, so did my spirits stay elevated. I would glance over my shoulder after a hundred feet or so and gawk at the newly visible Mount Persis-Index ridge or at Mount Rainier just beyond it. Neil Young kept me company when Josh was too winded to talk and I felt a certain power in coming back to face my fears but this time with the right stuff and at the right time. It was nice to have plenty of daylight, plenty of food and surrounded by glorious peaks. All that had to be done was the hard work of kicking steps and keeping rhythm.
Upper Sky Rocket Couloir
I hadn't gotten up very many mountains this year though. So today was a challenge. Sweat was pouring down under my mask and each breath had an uncomfortable amount of carbon-dioxide in it so at 4,500' I pulled the thing off and slapped on some sunscreen. At this point we were near the top of our gully and it was looking good. Deep snow all the way meant great purchase and a viable new route for others to follow in the same conditions. The angle increased as well to about 55 degrees. It wasn't quite as bad as last time, no let me rephrase that. It was NO WHERE NEAR AS BAD AS LAST TIME! Today it was enjoyable. Josh led the way up the from here and although I felt exhaustion setting in, I was happy to be up there with the stupendous views. In good conditions this is a completely different animal. At the top we saw some cornicing so Josh and I took our brake on the other side of the gully, half way down to a large basin on the north side of Stickney. The views of the Western Cascades here were, well, see for yourself:
Cornice that Josh navigated Around
Sloan and Glacier Peaks
Columbia Peak's West Face
Vesper, Sperry, and Mount Pugh
Three Fingers, Mount Baker, and Whitehorse
Summit Ridge Pathway
The Castle Tower and Enchantment
We could see how to get back up onto the ridge and with the basin here I felt like there was so much run-out I had nothing to worry about at all climbing up to it. We dropped our packs and traversed low at first to avoid the possibility of being under a cornice when it broke and then headed strait up to the ridge where there was no evidence of cornicing. Josh led up and it got pretty steep as we neared the ridge but it was all fun and games until we got the the ridge top. From here, we saw a jungle of cornices to get to the summit. I was hesitant. The first 50' looked fine: as long as you stayed away from the edge no problem. We went to that highpoint and Josh took some photos. From there though, it looked like we were finished. We set down our ice-tools and thought maybe if we carefully scrambled it would work out. The ground gave way to rotten rock and rotten cornices with steep flanks all around. We went a little ways gaining some elevation until we could see the last bit to the summit. A hardier person might have attempted but at this point we looked at the 20' thick cornice hanging off of the summit and promptly bowed down to the forces of nature. It was just too unsafe to continue further. From here we had absolutely commanding views and it felt satisfying to call it at almost exactly 2pm and only 40 vertical feet from the true summit. Not a bad deal.
Entrance onto the Ridge
Myself Climbing up to the Ridge
High Point above the Couloir
Maybe Next Time
We returned to our ice tools and packs and I had a jalapeno cheese bagel, carrots and cookies to share with Josh. We soaked in the views and sun while I tried in vain to dry out my feet. It was a balmy 50 degrees up there but it felt hotter.
This is why we Don't Climb!
Carefully Crawling back to Safety
Josh with Mount Stickney
Lake Spada, Bald Mountain, and Three Fingers
Mount Index across the Valley
Mount Persis across the Valley
Vertigo Ridge Walk
I kept delaying and probably wasted half an hour with idle chit chat, somewhat nervous about returning to the gully, especially the steepest bit which might have given me PTSD from the first time. Josh finally coaxed me into getting up there and getting going (we were pressed for time to make the last bus home) and I discovered that it wasn't nearly as bad as I thought (stupid fear always making things worse than they really are). So we plunge stepped until we had dropped about 150 feet. And from here I could see all the way down. Thousands of feet. the snow was soft by now and it would slough off in shallow rivers if you started to slide. I would have been nervous about that but the snow underneath was still solid and I felt pretty savvy with my arrest skills. Looking forward to making the best out of it, I started in first for the best glissade since Mt. Adams. The snow formed a raft or a river underneath of me and naturally fell on the best path so that I had to do very little to steer. It also never gained too much speed so I felt about as carefree as you can get out there. Every once in a while I'd fly over a small knoll and be required to yell "WOO HOO!" After about 5 minutes and 1,000 feet of elevation loss, I got off the river and stopped to let Josh catch up. It was heart-warming to be able to come back this way and hear him shouting for joy as the natural water-slide took us down the mountain in style. When he caught me, we went down the next 1,000' in much the same fashion and speed having dropped over 2,000' in less than 10 minutes. There can be no doubt that this was worth the trip to come out here. We had a BLAST! I was stoked and wishing for more. But we had to go through the debris now and focus back on care. It took maybe 15 minutes to descend through just a few hundred feet of trees which speaks volumes to the glissade and makes our rate of descent about 3,000' in half an hour. We contentedly walked to camp, grabbed some water from a creek and gleefully considered that the hardest part was over.
When we got back to camp we greedily finished off the donuts and whatever other food and water we had, broke down the tent and checked the time. I knew the last bus would be before 7pm so I just kept saying over and over, "please don't let it be 6, please don't let it be 6..." and Josh said it was 4:57pm. At first I thought that was okay. Then we realized that the sun is low and the clock hadn't been set forward. Yikes!! We had to book it if we wanted a slight chance of making it. When was the next bus? 7? I wasn't quite sure and by this point panic had over-swept all thoughts of enjoyment. It was time to put my guns to the test. Josh and I just set the place on fire running as fast as we could jumping over down trees and through brooks. 30 lb pack? Doesn't matter. Nothing mattered next to catching that last bus home. We were running to checkpoint charlie to beat the enemy: time. It doesn't matter that we have to run our fastest mile time several times in a row to do it or that we are already tired. Failure is just not an option. We covered the service road in no time at all and then got to Grade road where I dumped some of the water out of my shoes and got a drink as quickly as possible. Josh changed into shorts now that we were out of the brush.
Time was still ticking so we hauled ass to the Middle Falls where I rolled my ankle. Ouch. Well I guess I had to slow down. I had a tent and money so I knew I could theoretically stay in Gold Bar overnight but Josh could not. So I encouraged him to keep moving as fast as he could. He flew down ahead and was out of sight. I kept going at a moderate pace and the miles just went by one after the other until there was just one left until the trailhead. A group of people were coming the other way and one of them looked eerily like my brother Zack so I was thrown off when it wasn't and he went to give me a high five. I was so exhausted that I missed and he goes, "Hey, what's the deal?!" I quickly replied in one weak breath that I was trying to catch the bus. After a quarter mile more of abuse I was just too tired. My knees were killing me and my heart was ready to burst. Josh was who knows how far ahead now and he was probably going to make it. So I just gave in and walked until I got to the power lines where I could see the position of the sun. I thought, "you know, there might still be time." So right back to an exhausted jog, slowly passing people on the trail. And wouldn't you know it? I caught up to Josh at the trailhead! Well most people would probably call it a day here and say, "Wow that was hard!" and hop in there cars, catch a burger in town and drive home. But we were still 1.65 miles out from the nearest bus stop. Surely somebody in the parking lot would show some sympathy to a couple hikers trying to catch the last bus out of Gold Bar, which is most likely on their way out to US 2 right? Wrong! Apathy is the natural order to things. So I soaked my head in water and Josh and I made a last ditch effort to run, throwing our thumbs up to any passer by heading in our direction. Nobody stopped so I was becoming a little irritable and Josh and I were running out of energy and time. It got so bad that we couldn't even run for more than a couple hundred feet then we had to stop and try again a hundred feet later. The streets of Gold Bar were full of children's laughter and dogs barking and sprinklers watering yards. Everything was at peace except for us. Two tortured souls lugging through town as fast as we could, giving out under exhaustion, then after ample time returning to the fray. A very stark contrast to the way in.
By the time we got to 1st Street where the stop is, we saw a bus in the distance. Josh ran up ahead and audibly shouted, "NOOOOOOOO!!!" By the time I caught up to him another bus had passed and another was rounding the corner. A glimmer of hope! Maybe that bus will come around the other way in a few minutes and we can take the highway 2 stop to Everett! We walked to a gas station on the corner and then the bus is already running us down to the stop. But unfortunately it says, "out of service" and we are crushed. I collapsed on the ground and leaned on my pack. It was a good run at least. Probably the hardest work out I've had in years. We caught our breath for a few minutes and just tried to be grateful that the rest of the trip was a success. We weren't that far out there. We had a great glissade earlier and a crazy run. There will be a bus tomorrow. We talked a little bit and I asked him what time it was. 7:07pm. The last weekday bus to Everett on the schedule? 6:52pm. Even if we ran 5 minute miles, it wouldn't have been fast enough. I suddenly felt bad for wanting to hitch-hike to the bus stop. We wouldn't have made it anyway. I took a little solace from the fact that we went from camp, 2 miles into the service road from Grade road, all the way down the falls, past the trail head, and down to US 2 in under an hour. I feel like that in itself is neat little accomplishment.
A woman walking her dog was coming by our way and I just felt like I should at least tell someone we were safe so that SAR didn't come looking for a couple of idiots near Gold Bar. I asked her if we could use her phone since we missed the last bus out and she kindly allowed me to call my mother and leave a message stating where we were. Then I thanked her and she wished us luck while I sighed some relief. Since I knew I wasn't going to be catching a bus anytime soon, I used my $4 in cash (that would've been for the bus) and got us some Gatorade to rehydrate and something to eat from a gas station on the corner. The attendant behind the counter lent an ear to my pitiful story and offered that I rest on the bench in the store. But I couldn't drag Josh in there who was too exhausted to move. I considered the prospect of walking back to the Wallace Falls State Park trail to camp but we were out of food and I would have to buy some. I had a debit card on me and there was an ATM in the gas station on the corner so went back with the notion of pulling out some cash to prepare for the extra night's stay. Then Josh shouted for me to come back and that changed everything.
Buses, man, buses
Running back to the stop I looked over my left shoulder to see another bus coming. It said out of service like the last one but for some reason Josh was confident something would happen. I trusted his instinct and he gave the bus driver a look that Derek Zoolander couldn't copy; it evoked the ultimate sympathy and the driver decided to pull over. He was originally just going to tell us: you realize that there's no more buses right? To which we replied that we knew that we were screwed and he generously offered to take us to Monroe where we just might be able to make the connection to the last bus to Everett. I told him I was out of cash and my Orca card was empty but he let us both on regardless. Hark, an angel! I rarely (twice in my life) have gotten a free bus ride. The guy was friendly too. I talked with him the whole trip about the reduced service and he offered his story working for CT over the years and how things have become more difficult with lack of funding. He was an exemplary driver who understood the importance of ridership and gave some insight into the difficulty that arose for all transportation employees after 9/11. He let us know that some bus drivers are crazy and some unforgiving. I was glad to be with one who could understand a tough situation. When we arrived in Monroe the sun had set and twilight was settling again. At the stop a young woman was waiting. There was also a girl in a car who said she was waiting for the bus and wondering if it was the last bus to which the woman said yes. Josh asked the woman if he could use her cell phone to let our mom know to ignore the previous call and that we were headed home. She said it was okay, that she had unlimited minutes so we went ahead. Afterwards I lent my ear to her for a few minutes somewhat in gratitude. She was a long ways from home and after we talked about our nearly being stuck out in Gold Bar it struck a chord that unleashed a life story. Her's was a bit forlorn, very personal and uncertain in future.
I knew the bus would be coming soon so I went into the gas station near by to pull some cash off my debit card. For whatever reason, the card wouldn't read (although I assure you my card works fine now and that the machine claimed to take my type of card, Mastercard). Panicked, I went to the counter and she suggest I try again. Didn't work. Okay, maybe cash back? I grabbed a couple candy bars hoping for cash back and wanting to make the minimum purchase. Just in case I asked if it was enough and after ringing me up, apparently there is no minimum purchase. Oh well, that's cool. Now I have something to munch on. But is there cash back? NO. They don't do cash back at this store because the machines are new and then the woman tries to explain but I am a few seconds away from the bus and I rushed outside with my candy and hand it to Josh. Adrenaline once again coursing through my veins, I tried to be as quick as possible. I politely asked the girl in the car if she could spare a couple dollars for the bus and then point to it as it turns at the traffic signal only seconds from arriving at the stop. She obliges. Another angel! I thank her quickly and jump into the bus to pay my fare. The bus driver is the polar opposite of the previous. He goes, "I have stops to get to and I don't have all day" punches the accelerator before I can finish paying while the bus lunges forward 2 inches before he slams the brakes again and the girl asks him if this is the last bus. He just grunts and a passenger says that it is and then the driver slams the door shut and hits the accelerator like a Nascar driver.
I sat down in the front since my pack was heavy and I didn't want to deal with finding another seat with the bus rolling and Mr. Grump driving it. Josh and I chatted but mostly listened more from the young woman. I think she gave her name as Ellisia but I can't be sure with the din of the bus motor. She apparently came from Texas and had just gotten out of the hospital from a pulmonary embolism that collapsed one of her lungs and part of the other. There were some other details that probably don't belong here she indicated a hard life and a lot of unknowns. I could see she was in a desperate situation and it was hard to hear some of what she was saying. I was really going to start to open up and maybe have a good discussion when suddenly the bus jerks to a halt and the wheelchair ramp goes down. Then the Mr. Grump stands in the isle and throws his hands up from his sides like a drill sergeant commanding and orchestra and demands for us to get up. And to be specific, he points to each seat he wants free saying, "I'm going to need this seat, this seat, this seat, and this seat!" Of course I got out of there as fast as I could and then when the man in his wheelchair comes aboard he says softly, "you didn't have to make them all leave they're seats..." to which Mr. Grump gives a snort and facilitates the rest of the procedure until everything is secure. Then he slammed down all the seats and hopped in his chair and drove up the road again like a formula 1 racer. After the proper amount of time had passed, a passenger mocked Scrooges behavior by saying, "God bless us, everyone!" with which some laughter ensued.
We were glad to get to Everett Station and get on the Swift bus where the bus driver was a nice mellow and neutral attitude. The rest of the way back involved conversations with some kids who just got back from Vertical World and were looking to get into alpine climbing. Once at home we ordered a pizza and took it home to consume. I was so tired I couldn't even finish my half. I started falling asleep at the table. Then I drug my self to my room and passed out. The next day was my birthday, and a Saturday, so it involved a lot of sleeping, eating and not much else.
Josh working on his Math homework
My body is still aching, days later but I know I will be headed back up there soon. We are getting unprecedented warm weather for this month and the snow is deep above 3,500'. I am glad to have finally gotten this goal accomplished (as far as I'm concerned) and completed the route and shown that it does connect to the main climbing route. It will be a fond memory every time I glimpse that mountain. For now, though, I must help my brother with his homework and get back to facing the demons down here at home. I just have to add that I consider myself very fortunate to have Josh as my brother as he always makes an adventure worth the while for me and many countless others.