Who brings a bivy sack to a cold, snow camp in the rain? This guy. This weekend was the final component to the Intermediate Glacier Module with the Mountaineers. The course covers the curriculum necessary to be a rope lead for a glacier climb with the club. It is meant to give exposure to winter camping, route finding, setting protection in snow, and an assortment of other skills. This trip was led by Peter, who wanted to do it in an environment close to actual glacier travel. I usually wouldn’t even go in to the mountains if it’s raining or gross, but this being a field trip with a summit as a secondary goal we pressed on. The weather forecast was for a nice weekend, and thus I found myself in my bivy at 6200’ listening to rain showers and praying for sun.
Peter, Jason, and I camped at the trailhead Friday night. Setting up our tents in the rain was an auspicious start to the weekend. We crawled in and set alarms for an 8am start the next morning. I woke up to more rain, whined to myself a little bit, and got ready. The climb starts by crossing the cascade river. There used to be logs. There aren’t any more. We forded the river in sandals, put on boots, and started up. The trail wasn’t memorable. The boulder field was.
The Eldorado approach is notorious for two large boulder fields spanning a thousand vertical feet. There is a trail along much of it, but that trail is difficult to find on the ascent. So up we went, hopping wet boulders in the light mist and occasional rain. We stopped for lunch at 5000’, where the rain turned to light snow. A little route-finding difficulty and we found our way to the trail into the eldorado basin. Making easy time, we found easy entry into the basin and right into whiteout conditions. We could see the general shape of a ridge that we needed to cross, but finding the exact spot was difficult. We eventually navigated there, scrambled down some easy but snow-dusted rocks, and found ourselves in the roushe basin.
At 6200 feet and 7 hours in, we ran out of steam as a party. We found a good campsite and built camp. The weather started to clear a little bit, and we used the opportunity to eat dinner and have a conversation about the next day. Our plan was to wake up at 3am for a 4am start. If it was clear we’d make a summit attempt and do the instruction along the way. If the weather still sucked, we’d bail on the summit, do some instruction in the basin, and then go home.
I woke up about every hour, either to use the bathroom or when my tossing knocked ice crystals from the inside of the bivy onto my face. I watched the weather transition gradually to a clear night and a million stars. I secretly hoped that the weather would suck and that we would bail. Mountaineering always sucks a little bit, and sometimes the urge to leave is strong. The alarm went off and I woke up cold and forced myself to get out of the bivy and put my feet into my boots. A little movement and some extra layers and I was nice and toasty and ready to climb.
We roped up and set off aiming for the summit. Jay, the other student on the rope, and I, swapped leads. He started first until we got to the flat spot on the inspiration glacier. I took the lead from there on to the east ridge.
Alpine sun rises are the best! The sun rose to reveal amazing North Cascades views! Some high clouds added texture and provided even more surface for the morning pink and orange light to reflect off of. Johannesburg, Sahale, Glacier Peak, and hundreds of other peaks were visible. This was incredible. So, freaking incredible.
After a revelatory pause, we continued up the east ridge. The walking to this point had been pretty easy – the winds had created a supportable crust on the surface. Now, not so much. I was either breaking through crust or stepping in 4 – 6” of loose wind affected snow. We were the first party on the ridge since the storm so I set trail for the group. This is payback for all those steps of others that I’ve used (thank you to every step kicker ever!).
At 8200’, the east ridge steepens and enters exposed terrain. Deciding that we wanted to do the instructional portion in a non-exposed area, my team turned around. We descended a little and spent a while practicing placing pickets and quick belays. This practice was invaluable – I feel a lot more comfortable setting snow protection than I did before the trip.
We made it back to camp, ate a little, packed up, and left. The trip out took a while but wasn’t bad. The only unfortunate event was that I fell through a snow bridge crossing a creek. I was skeptical, so I was ready for this possibility and had good holds. I stayed dry.
I don’t move that quickly in the mountains, but I think all my training is paying off. I have a lot of energy on the weekends and don’t need to tap into my reserves as much to walk out. I was still tired, my legs were tired, but at no point did I feel wiped. This is becoming true more and more and is an awesome surprise to me. I’m still not nearly as fast of a mover as I’d like to be, but I’m proud to start with resilience.
A giant thank-you to the instructors who led the trip. I learned a lot, got to dial in some good skills, and had fun (at least part of the time J). I’m always a little bummed to not summit, but my primary objective this weekend was to learn. Besides, I have plans to go back in a few weeks anyways.