Pacific Northwesting

“I. Hate. This.”

“I” comes out hesitantly. The word “hate” is breathy, sometimes tremulous, with a strong “t”. “This” is said deliberately, with a vengeance perhaps. These three words, spoken this way, have been uttered by me several times in my alpine career. Where do they come from? A place of fear? Of loathing? Of self-loathing? It’s hard to say, but I know for certain that when they do come out, I can’t wait to get off of whatever damn mountain I’m on.

Jessica and I had climbed the complete North Ridge of Mt. Stuart, a beautiful rock ridge in the Enchantment Range of Washington. It is a fantastic climb- in fact it is perhaps my favorite. Due to the mountain’s topography and the layout of it’s access roads, the approach and descent to the North Ridge can prove to be a big pain in the butt.  Jess and I chose to try a different descent to those I had done prior.

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Jessica on the initial pitches of the North Ridge.

 

We poked our heads out over a cliff band to get a view of the snow and ice-filled coulior. We had a casual conversation about it’s feasibility. “I think it’ll work out” was the conclusion. We had just enjoyed a rather pleasant climb. Things had gone fast and smooth, comfortable in fact. We were lighthearted. We were complacent.

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Last light on our bivy spot.

Four hours later I am uttering those three words, vowing to never seek out any route involving steep snow couliors as long as I live. I was desperately trying to find rock that was solid enough to build a rappel anchor in. Meanwhile, the hot sun was rapidly destabilizing the snow and ice above the massive funnel in which we were now trapped. And, to add to the tension, a rescue helicopter was incessantly deafening our senses while it tried to pick off an injured hiker near the summit.

I had misjudged the severity of the slope, the snow quality, the presence of rappel stations, the dangerous run out. Between down climbing and rappelling I figured both couldn’t be a total bust…turns out they were. We had made it half way down via rappel, but as the quality of the rock deteriorated it was looking like we might have to down climb the remaining 1000′ of the coulior.

Why was I so nervous? I had down climbed slopes this steep before. Perhaps with not such a poor runout, but it was still within my limits and I knew that. Why, then, couldn’t I do it now? Why was it so hard to buck up and get the job done? What causes comfort level to plummet at seemingly random- and often inconvenient times?

Climbing is an arena in which progress is a fairly easy thing to monitor. Fitness is measured in grades and speed, mental prowess is measured in comfort, and experience is measured in fluidity. This is great for the sake of tracking and training, but it also means when you’ve lost some of your ‘game’ it tends to punch you right in the gut. My apprehension to down climbing the remaining half of the coulior was no exception.

In the past few months I followed through on something I’ve been wanting to do for several years- spending a summer season in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest.

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After taking this picture we bailed in the midst of a somewhat expected hail storm, around two pitches from the top of Prusik Peak in Washington. Of course as soon as we touched the ground the hail stopped. Back up it is!

It lived up to my expectations. I met a lot of great folks, climbed some good rock and some bad, laughed a lot, made a lot of progress and had some setbacks too. I think though, that the constant ebb and flow of progress and setbacks is something that I love about climbing. It’s taunting, even devious. I’ve never been sucker punched by a human, but getting sucker punched by a mountain makes me a little scared,  a little confused, and then it makes me really get my shit together.

 

That night, after descending from Mt. Stuart, Jessica and I were cracking up about who knows what, as we typically do. We were munching on brownies and a gnarly Mountain House, wiping the sunscreen and sweat crusties off of our faces in between fits of tired laughter. We began scheming our next adventures. Most all of them involved snowy couliors, not only because I’ve conditioned my memory to be that poor, but also because there’s nothing quite like getting sucker punched by a mountain.

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Here are a few photos from the past few months. Click on them for some captions and a little more information on the time spent in each location. Jessica was my near-constant partner, though I had the opportunity to hang out and climb with a lot of really incredible folks-and I’m sorry I can’t do justice to each of them. I also managed to lose my phone during another lap on Mt. Stuart- sorry for the lack of photos, Todd.

Squamish: What a place. It was a constant weekend escape for Jessica and I when we were working in Bellingham in the spring, and I managed to pass through several times during June, July, and August.

The Bugaboos: While we spent most of our time in the Bugs getting rained on, it was nonetheless a great two weeks. There was a wonderful community of folks at the Applebee Campground that helped to pass the time during foul weather, and the rock that we did get to climb on was mostly fantastic. For anyone interested in visiting the Bugaboos, I would highly recommend going earlier in the season, for the sake of crowds and snow conditions. We were there the first half of July and that felt perfect to us, but to each their own.

The Gothics Range: A pile of choss, for sure, but you don’t know until you know… right? We took a bit of a chance venturing into this area of British Columbia, and while it wasn’t the alpine playground we were hoping for it was still a good time with a great group of gals.

 

Jessica and I tested out a lot of different sleeping arrangements during the past few months. The standard became sharing one 15 degree sleeping bag and my home made bivy sack. Is it light? Heck yes. Is it functional…not really. Here are some sexy parting shiver-bivy pictures:

Cheers!

Tess

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