It was Angus’s idea really! He lives in Seattle, has climbed all of Washington’s 10,000 ft peaks since developing a taste for this sort of thing, and suggested that I might come out and ‘climb some of the volcanos’ now that I’d been fit again for a couple of years. So I thought about that, asked if he could put me up (or possibly put up with me?) for an extended summer break, booked flights to give me a month away (NB not just for climbing!), left the boat ashore for the 2006 season, collected a goodly quantity of expensive new gear and arrived just in time to drive down to the Key Peninsula to celebrate 4 July with friends Nick and Amanda.
Prominent on the western skyline as seen above Elliott Bay from Seattle, this iconic twin peak on the Olympic Peninsula isn’t really all that far from the city but it’s quite a long drive round to get there. While it’s an interesting ascent in its own right (and we’d initially hoped to make a traverse of both peaks, which could have been very interesting!), Angus’s main reason for dragging me more-or-less off the plane and straight out here was to give us both the chance to try out our new gear (so he’d been spending too!) on something a little smaller than the major prizes we had in mind. And, despite receding summer snow, it proved to be a straightforward ascent consisting largely of easy snow climbing and rock scrambling once we’d cleared the walk-in, but more than a little spoilt in that respect by some tenuous route-finding (aka lack of guidebook clarity) and what turned out to be a hellishly overgrown, tortuous and slow upper section of ‘trail’ (necessarily negotiated in ascent and descent) after a pleasant beginning up to Lena Lake.
While we’d set off on 5 July with the intention of camping higher up and travelling light to the actual summit(s), our interpretation of the word ‘meadow’ (which we took to mean somewhere we could at least pitch a mountain tent) was clearly at variance with that of our guidebook author (to whom it appears to mean steep scree with a vestige of foliage!) and we finally had to forget pitching the tent and find ourselves a viable bivouac site before the night closed in. So we found this really choice site, well-sheltered in a cleft between rocks with running water and a grandstand morning view out to an archipelago of jagged peaks poking through a sea of low cloud (which stayed put for our summit view), but ultimately flawed by shared occupancy with a friendly goat with a predilection for kicking rocks onto human heads at dawn!
Arriving at the summit (another good bivvy site to share with a goat, as described by a couple we met descending from a 4 July sleepover!) later than intended the following day after our unplanned bivvy resulted in a carry-over with our full packs making the full ascent — and also being conscious of the nightmare trail to renegotiate on the way out — we quickly abandoned plans to make the traverse (about which we had little real information beyond a brief description and topo photo from the cascadeclimbers.com forum) to the second (lower) peak. But, despite also missing the anticipated view back to Seattle due to the cloud sea below us, we had ample compensation in our view of the connecting ridge (looking for all the world like some kind of monstrous Aonach Eagach), the fine summit on which we stood and the wildlife (including a goat — which might have been our friend from the bivvy, that of last night’s summiteers or neither — and another small creature of species yet to be confirmed) with which we shared it. So an ascent of The Brothers (we climbed South Brother) could/should be a great outing if it wasn’t for that trail, but it’s still a fine one in retrospect once you’ve escaped the jungle!
(For the interested, I’ve since discovered this further account of the traverse, complete with enjoyable 9 minute movie put together by one of the pair who made the ascent referenced above.)
Mount Hood is a big mountain. It’s also a very beautiful one, an absolute Oregon icon and (in common with The Brothers) something that Angus hadn’t previously climbed. We chose to tackle it by the Cooper Spur, which is a fine Grade II climb taking technically straightforward, but seriously exposed, steep snow slopes up the opposite side to the standard (South Side) route. Nick (who now lives in Corvallis and had previously climbed the standard route) joined us for this one along with Jeff’s three-man mountain tent. Our ascent started not far from the Cloud Cap Inn at about 5,800 ft and proceeded snow-free (it was 13 July) up a gentle ridge to our high camp at about 8,500 ft. Given the volcanic nature of the rock, progress up lower parts of the trail sometimes felt (speaking more from imagination than experience here!) like walking on grey sand, but it wasn’t particularly strenuous and reaching the level section of ridge before the Spur finally rears up in a single, steep 2,500 ft sweep was a much more straightforward proposition than fighting our way onto The Brothers the previous week.
Dragging ourselves out of bed in the early hours of 14 July for our ‘alpine start’, it was immediately apparent that it just wasn’t cold. (To quote Nick, or possibly to paraphrase him because I’m not going to repeat every last word here, ‘it should be absolutely ****-******* cold and it’s not!’) But we set off anyway in initially crisp underfoot conditions, and not far behind the one other party (of two) on this side of the mountain, in the full knowledge that a safe ascent and return in these temperatures would surely depend even more than usual on getting up and down as quickly as possible.
Quite soon it became apparent that Nick was struggling to keep up and not completely comfortable with the steepening ground, but the need for difficult group decisions was averted when he elected to return to camp instead of continuing to the steepest upper part of the route. So we watched him descend as we proceeded up, noting what appeared to be a long stop by a rock spur near the base of the slope and learning later that he’d actually been hit by a falling piece of rock or ice on his way down!
The slope we were climbing was convex [or did I mean concave?], passing through something of a rocky hourglass (probably the crux, such as there is one) high up, and steepening to something like 50°. It’s the sort of ground where roped climbing would be both tedious and hampered by a near-total lack of good anchors, so we soloed it all (standard practice on this route) in the acute awareness that falls from the exposed upper part onto the Eliot Glacier are almost invariably fatal. But all of a sudden we were there, stepping over the faintest remnants of a cornice onto the rocky summit ridge, meeting a number of parties arriving from the south side and stopping for little longer than required to take the obligatory photos and place a carefully transported maraschino cherry on the snow (this being some daft joke of Nick and Angus based on the tenuous logic that Mount Hood needed a cherry on top because it resembled a giant ice-cream sundae!).
Having met the other pair descending from the summit ridge as we approached it in already softening snow, we wasted little time in setting off after them. For the top part this was necessarily face-the-slope-and-step-backwards stuff, testing every step for security as our feet and even legs sank deep into the snow. But as the slope eased further down we were able to turn and face out and I more-or-less ran the bottom bit while Angus eventually removed his crampons and arrived a few minutes later after a late decision to glissade. It was still only about 10am, but it was a relief to get off the steep snow and out of the line of fire before things melted completely. Despite his personal disappointment at turning back, Nick (who had our camp largely packed up and ready to go) was there to welcome us as we came off the snow, and we all walked out in good spirits before driving to Nick and Amanda’s place at Corvallis and some eagerly-anticipated showers, mooseburgers and beer.
So did I say that Hood was big? Well, Rainier is huge (and every bit as iconic, which appears to suggest that either we climbed three icons or I’m talking guff!). It looks big even from Seattle, which is fifty miles away, but it’s a bulky, imposing kind of big with none of Hood’s slimmer elegance. Which basically means that, despite being both pleased with South Brother and delighted with Hood (and even though Angus had summited it twice before), this really was the big one as far as I was concerned, and the one upon which (rightly or wrongly) I’d probably judge the success of my whole summer!
Now, while there are a number of recognised routes up Hood and many up Rainier, our preference for an interesting middle grade option still likely to be in condition through July had ‘Kautz Glacier’ written all over it. Named for Lt August Kautz, who came close to making Rainier’s first ascent by it in 1857 (but probably unrecognisable from those days after years of melting ice), this Grade II/III climb is now an established classic incorporating one of the most striking features of the mountain where the glacier tumbles dramatically through a rock band at nearly 12,000 ft in the three tiers of the Kautz Ice Chute. So of course we kept other options in mind (not least the tempting Tahoma Glacier and its Sickle variation), but all our research into current conditions (including a regular watch on Mike Gauthier’s blog and a flight — piloted by Angus and accompanied by our good friend Ivonne — round the mountain on 19 July) pointed to the Kautz.
Having climbed almost exclusively in Scotland, Mount Hood had been my first glaciated peak. But, despite admiring some impressive icefalls and crevasses on its Eliot Glacier from a distance, I was yet to set foot on a glacier and depending largely on Angus’s experience (he’s done less technical climbing than me but climbed on a number of the things) to keep me right on appropriate procedures and equipment. However, our one clear disagreement of the summer came the night before we left for Rainier and was over the small matter of ropes. So Angus had two ropes which, to put it simply, comprised a short, thin one and a long, thick one, and he wanted to take the short one because of its lighter weight. But I put my foot down on the grounds that we needed a longer rope (NB we were both prepared to use a ‘double’ rope singly on the expected terrain) for the long, steep pitches of the Kautz Ice Chute, and the matter was only resolved when we stopped at REI on the way out (23 July) to buy a long (60 metre), thin rope!
With two standard approach routes to the Kautz, we chose the scenic option by Comet Falls (starting at about 3,600 ft and climbing nearly 11,000 ft to the summit) over the less attractive sounding traverse in from the higher trailhead at Paradise. And, with no need to make the trip within a pressurising weekend, we planned to take our time, acclimatise properly and camp twice on the way up. The early part of our ascent past Comet Falls and the subalpine meadows of Van Trump Park proved to be breathtakingly beautiful, but there was some rocky ground to negotiate before we made our first camp (on snow, but right by an indistinct rocky cleaver or ridge splitting a snowfield at about 7,800 ft) and I nearly wrecked everything by dislodging some scree which sliced into Angus’s toes (he was walking in sandals and carrying his boots). So the night passed fretfully — I was also briefly sick at this camp — with every prospect of having to abandon the mountain in perfect conditions and descend, but morning saw him patching things up sufficiently well to continue (how he suffered for the cause!) and we proceeded to establish our high camp on the Wapowety Cleaver (named for Kautz’s Indian guide) at about 10,200 ft. From here we had a clear view of the Ice Chute above, and were astonished to see climbers at work on it in the late afternoon sun...
Proceeding by head torch after another alpine start, we passed a large (10 person) RMI guided party about to leave their slightly higher camp, but accepted the offer of their abseil rope down the rock step leading to the gully that separates the cleaver from the Chute as they caught us again at this obvious bottleneck. So naturally we asked if they’d been on the Chute the previous afternoon, and discovered that their leaders (Peter and Chris?) had indeed been fixing ropes to make things easier for their clients. Now, as stated earlier, the Kautz Ice Chute rises (or falls, depending on your point of view) in three tiers of alternating steep ice and somewhat gentler slopes, and the route at this point traverses out onto the slope above the dramatic bottom step (the terminus of the icefall) before continuing up the middle and top steps. Dawn was breaking as we soloed up to the foot of the top step, but here the steep climbing begins and I led the first rope length up the steepest part (at least 50°, but possibly touching 70° in places) — cursing myself for dropping one of our precious ice-screws (later recovered some distance down the slope below) — before Angus led through as the angle started to ease and a further pitch (or possibly some moving together, since neither of us can remember as I write this nearly a year later) took us to the top of the obvious difficulties. It was amazing terrain, with a positive lunar landscape of fluted, knobbly, sculpted and impressively solid ice providing alternating steep climbing and clear rest spots, and plenty of route choice for the three parties (we’d been joined on the Chute by a five-strong Japanese group you can see in the photo) now at work on this supposedly ‘quiet’ part of the mountain. (Not that ‘quiet’ is the best choice of word here anyway, with noise from rock and ice fall from other routes in poorer condition being one of my abiding memories of the whole experience!)
From the top of the Ice Chute, we gradually worked up and right onto the upper Nisqually Glacier, and here at last we were climbing on serious glaciated terrain with some monstrous crevasses (one of which came close to prompting both us and the RMI guides to turn back before we followed the seemingly more carefree Japanese over a dubious bridge) and circuitous end-running combining to make for slow, slow progress. While Angus was clearly tiring (apparently finding the altitude even more draining than on his first ascent of Rainier), he knew just how much I wanted the summit, and the thrill of finally standing there (top of the world!) was tempered only by the knowledge that safety was still a long way off, with not only those extensive upper glaciers and the Ice Chute to reverse in softening snow to regain our high camp, but a good 6–7,000 ft of cleaver, lesser glaciers and trail to descend the following day.
While we saw no more of the Japanese after the summit and assume that they must have carried over, we had some hopes of making the Kautz Ice Chute in time to descend the RMI party’s ropes before they got there. But, not long after we’d started a roped downclimb towards their top anchors, they arrived above us and basically crossed our line (for which their leaders were later suitably apologetic), keeping us waiting for some time and leaving us with no option but to continue our separate descent on melting afternoon ice we barely recognised from the ascent. With some of that party clearly out of their depth and their guide Peter exhorting them to keep moving (‘do you want to die here?’), we climbed on down the steep part until the unusual combination of impatience and common sense (!) finally saw us abseiling the bottom bit off some reasonable lumps of ice (where I was tempted to leave a back-up screw we’d placed to protect Angus off the last one, but removed it after considering things and deciding the anchor was safe enough in its natural state). So, although we’d been somewhat dubiously held up by the larger party at the top of the Chute, we benefited from them passing us now with Peter offering us their rope as a handrail down the middle step if we were ‘quick’ (which he certainly agreed we were after taking him at his word and fairly whizzing down!) before he finished stripping the gear and Chris? dropping us a top rope (think I belayed his lead up) to climb through at the rock step where we’d shared the abseil many hours earlier. (On which note I should point out that, while it might theoretically have been more stylish to stay entirely dependent on our own skills and ropes, it had been a long, long, long day, the sharing of gear on a busy route was both logical and pragmatic and these guides were good guys with our mutual welfare at heart!)
And that’s just about it, with little to say about our third night on the mountain (our second above 10,000 ft) and subsequent descent except that we wanted to get down, took in much easy snow on the way and finally lost the trail for several hours of miserable, dehydrated, ‘think-it-must-be-this-way’ bushwhacking before emerging onto the road not far from where we should have finished up anyway. So we were thin and thirsty (my stomach was concave after returning from Rainier!) — and my lips were badly blistered after forgetting them when applying sunscreen to everything else — but the chilled water from the RMI party’s support truck (which we still met before they did) was good...
Top of the world indeed! :-)
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