Alpine Friendship Testing


Melissa, Matt
Smolyar, Karina
Romeo, Nicolas
Pagnoux, Florian
Lilin, Paul
Camenzind, Kathy

Dates of Trip: 

July 26, 2019 to August 6, 2019

“Everyone can climb on a glacier” said Avilash during a winter school lecture. “There’s a few things to learn, and then you’re good”. We debated that point over beers at the Muddy Charles. Florian had climbed in the Alps for a few years, checking off a few moderates. Paul was a 5.12 sport climber who was unsure if there was fun to be had in carrying heavy backpacks in the cold. Kathy did not rock or ice climb and was not interested in picking either up. Matt and Nico had just recently started leading in the gym. Good hikers, but mostly clueless about ropes, even more about glaciers and the challenges of alpine ranges. It was difficult to think that we could be scrambling on scenic glaciated ridges, high above the valley floor towards a snow-capped summit.

Karina had a different take. She had summited Mt Rainier the previous year, armed with dedication and an array of like-minded friends. After recounting tales of training and self-learning rope systems on short steep snow patches of the White Mountains, Karina told us that she wanted to follow up on her adventure by going “on a Volcano Rampage”. There are many basic questions to answer when preparing a mountaineering trip: where are we going? What should I know or be able to do? We said yes to Karina by promptly creating a spreadsheet to answer all of these questions.

A few spreadsheets and 4 months later, we had all learnt a lot about mountains. Paul was now an enthusiastic hiker. Florian had gone on another mountaineering trip in the Alps. Kathy was now leading 5.10s in Rumney. Matt and Nico now led trad, and nerded out on self-rescue on backyard rigs. AIARE I certifications and Glacier travel classes subsidized by MITOC had provided basic knowledge to the crew. We were now ready to climb with Karina!

We flew out to Seattle in late July. It was extremely warm on both coasts and wearing our mountaineering boots on the plane to save bulk and weight did not help. Looking out of the aircraft’s window, we could see the forest of peaks of “the American Alps” under the wings. Unlike the real Alps, these are much more remote. No roads crisscrossed the valleys, no sprawling towns laid siege to the base of the hills. 2/3rds of our Europeans discovered the American West.

Before heading out to the hills, the first half of the crew to cross the Mississippi had gone on a shopping and Seattle exploration spree, buying fuel, maps, food and permits so the other half of the crew could fly in that night and quietly go to bed with all supplies arranged. Under the ominous presence of Mt Rainier that seemed to loom over us, the supplies team faced the judgmental eye of grocery stores cashiers seeing young people buying thousands of calories worth of packed junk food.

The following day, after some packing effort, we drove over to our first objective: Mt Baker by the Easton glacier. After a beautiful approach, we set up camp a little lower than the glacier, surrounded by marmots and postcard-worthy views, until some very light rain kicked in. Paul and Kathy went up to the high camp at the base of the glacier and asked the guides what time they were thinking of going up the next day. It was a Saturday night, and it seemed like every guide on this side of the Rockies had decided to come over for an intro to mountaineering trip. But the guides were all very clear about one thing: “We’re starting at 2am, but we’ll still be up there much later than you”, with a face that made us think that guiding was nothing more than walking uphill for a living.

Armed with this knowledge, we started up at 3:30am, under the glacier dotted with lines of headlamps. Our first incident occurred very soon after. Matt had brought two mismatched MITOC rental crampons; we had spotted the issue before heading up, and swapped them for another spare rental pair. However, the backup pair broke after 10 steps on the glacier, with the bar simply falling off and the attachment system failing beyond repair. After 30 minutes of attempts at ski strap repair and frustration building, Matt opted to return to our camp, leaving us 5 to rearrange in 2 rope teams. We then kept on going up in great conditions, blessed with a beautiful sunrise and soon catching up on the guided groups. After following the conga line to the top, the Europeans pulled out the summit wine and we enjoyed a blisteringly warm summit break, graced with views over British Columbia and the rest of the Cascades, Rainier peeking out far south.

The descent was technically uneventful, except for our first taste of Alpine Friendship Testing: Matt had just missed out on our adventure, and the rest of us wrestled on the descent on how we could sort out the crampon situation and the awkwardness that this little benign accident could create. Turns out Matt is a good sport, and we went to buy a new pair of crampons from a local climbing shop.

That night, Kathy and Nico drove Karina back to her family in Seattle, while Paul, Matt and Florian drove over to Sauk to set up camp closer to the North Cascades National Park. Matt heroically woke up to snatch permits from Marblemount ranger station before they ran out: we got permission to stay 2 nights at Boston basin high camp off the Cascade pass road. We then enjoyed this rest day by swimming in an alpine lake (cleaning our clothes in the process), and then going on a long chase to find Matt’s runaway house keys. After many prayers to the lost & found gods, we had to call our search and recovery effort off and drove to a consolatory milkshake.

The following day, we went up the climber trail up to Boston basin (even though, really, it should be the Quien Sabe glacial basin, as the Boston glacier is on the other side of the ridge). A rather short but steep hike proved to be the mental and physical crux of the whole trip. After dropping our packs and setting up our base camp in the idyllic glacial basin, surrounded by more marmots, wildflowers and 360° views, we set up for a small, obscure ridge climb: the Aiguille de l’M (named after its French counterpart). 

A fun hike with much lighter packs navigating slabs and snowfields later, we roped up for what we expected to be a short ridge climbing adventure. While the ridge was mostly fun, we had our second taste of Alpine Friendship Testing. Mismatched expectations on subjects such as spacing of protection, pitching out 4th class terrain and such resulted in awkward stares, conversations and the now-classic line: “Mountaineering is not fun. If you want to have fun, go to Six Flags.” Paul dropped his Reverso (of many adventures a companion) and learned why you shouldn’t rappel with a munter hitch. We witnessed a glide crack avalanche wipe out what remained of snow on the approach to the famous West Ridge of Forbidden Peak, Florian nearly got hit by a bowling ball-sized rock, and Nico had to solo around to find the descent route after exiting from the rappel too early. Kathy seemed fine, took a nap on the summit slung rock anchor and happily ran down the slabs back to camp as the sun set.

After this poor performance, we decided to climb Sahale peak the next day by the Quien Sabe glacier, which features a 4th class rock finish to cap off a glacier hike steeper than our previous route on Baker. A fun hike away from the crowds, we navigated around the beautiful crevasses, and used some of the learnings from the eve’s misadventures to efficiently send the 4th/easy 5th -class part, and were rewarded by standing among the array of peaks, Baker standing to our northwest and Rainier, always looming, looking at us from the south. 

We started off our descent in this warm weather, benefitting from the softer snow and overall having a great time. So great, in fact, that after reaching the foot of the glacier, Florian, Nico and Paul contemplated climbing back up to Sharkfin tower. It was 1pm, and the approach looked in condition. The party of 3 went up, but then discovered that the “easy snow couloir up to the base of the climb” was more like the child of a river and a bowling alley. After an attempt at placing some protection behind crumpling flakes, the decision to turn around reached a consensus and they rappelled off, happily getting back to camp without killing anyone with loose rock.

We spent a second night at camp, of which the highlight was the “backpacking instant chocolate cheesecake”, but unfortunately for the wrong reasons. It turns out that chocolate-colored sausage-looking goo floating in a bag reminds all potential eaters of their bowel movements. After using the “best latrine in the world” which proudly faces the hanging glaciers of Johannesburg Mountain, everyone was ready to go to bed. The camp was getting quiet, until Matt sprayed himself with sardine oil while storing the bear canisters. Matt’s latest misadventure would lead him to insomnia, as he compulsively washed himself in the middle of the night to get the smell off and hide from hungry bears. Some skepticism about the story remains: Kathy maintains to this date that really, Matt just probably smelled himself after a few days without washing…

We got down off the mountain, and had to test our alpine friendship yet again: What to do now? We had been blessed with great weather (even too warm!), but now the forecast called for rain. After many debates on our goals, we decided to attempt Mt. Shuksan by the Sulphide Glacier. Usually done as an overnight to avoid the long approach, we decided that we would start hiking at 2am and assess conditions at the glacier. We executed our plan but turned around just before reaching the glacier due to poor conditions. As it turns out, hiking quickly in the rain without shell layers made us wet, and then cold, from the combined spray of our sweat and the rain… Back at the car at 7am (after a 7mi steep hike), we drove to Concrete, WA, hoping to find a concrete solution over breakfast. Matt and Kathy had a flight the following day at 6pm in Seattle. Florian joked that we should try to summit again tomorrow, starting at midnight, since the shortest single-day summit report we could find was 16 hours. Matt laughed out of this plan and decided to drive back to Seattle to meet Karina and some of his friends. Nico, Paul and Kathy laughed in agreement, deciding to go for it. 

Since most of our possessions were now wet, we had to dry everything, fast. Paul proceeded to dry his underwear under the diner table, and the rest of us decided to go for the more traditional laundromat option. We drove around picking up some supplies while our socks tumble-dried and went to sleep through the afternoon while fighting off an invasion of inchworms in our tents.

We drove up at 10pm to the trailhead, and caught a couple more hours of sleep, waking up at midnight and indulging in half-hearted oatmeal while staring at each other’s tired faces. We then went up the same trail as the day before, minus the rain. We had some issues routefinding the entrance to the glacier, kicking steps in hard snow before realizing that we could just wear our crampons. Once roped up, we shot up the glacier, bolstered by the alpenglow behind us, the views of Baker and Shuksan’s summit pyramid towering above us. 

Soon it was 7am, and Paul reminded Florian and Nico in French of our timing issues: we needed to be on the summit by 9 to be able to put Kathy on the plane. Kathy heard something along the lines of: “Oui oui merci je suis une pizza comme ci comme ça”, but as Florian silently picked up the pace, Nico suddenly went for larger steps, and Paul started towing Kathy towards the summit pyramid, she quickly understood their meaning, and we all motored up towards the rock finish of the route.

There are 2 options up Shuksan’s summit pyramid from the Sulphide glacier: either a 4th class gully, or a 5th class ridge. We opted for the ridge, with Nico and Florian opening the way, finding their joy climbing in mountaineering boots, while Paul and Kathy switched to rock shoes, still finding joy climbing the ridge. (Although Nico and Florian maintain that they would have found more joy in boots). We summitted at 9am, snapped a couple of happy pictures, standing in front of our favorite volcanoes, and then started downclimbing the gully. 

We “fast-hiked” down the glacier (since you can never run in crampons), before (unfortunately) letting Paul navigate, taking a detour to visit an elusive alpine toilet, and get off the glacier on the wrong side. Nico later pointed out that the trail was on the right, but he hadn’t fulfilled with enough enthusiasm the “eating” part of the triangle of happiness and was uncharacteristically not loud enough. After an hour and a half of bushwhacking through beautiful alpine plants, we made it back on trail and switched to approach shoes. Paul threw a caffeinated energy gummy to Nico and started running down the trail. Nico stared him down and started running. The gummy kicked in, and soon Nico was finding joy running ahead with his heavy pack, ropes dangling and a wide smile on his face. That smile must have been suspicious, because a ranger stopped him in his track. A brief exchange followed “Where did you camp? Where are you coming from? – we didn’t camp, we started at midnight, nice views up there, I’m sorry we have a plane to catch”, leaving the ranger standing, probably still confused by the overly excited French accent. After trying to stop the Paul and Kathy duo running past, he gave up and let Florian run by with an encouraging cheer.

We made it to the car at 2:30pm, sweaty but happy. We certainly did not expect to see a mouse when we opened the trunk of our car and were very annoyed at the sight of ruined provisions and toilet paper confetti littering our car. After some cleaning, packing, and unsuccessful mouse-hunting armed with an ice axe, we set towards Seattle, driving straight to Karina’s Aunt’s place. Karina greeted us by a curt “You guys smell very bad”, threw Paul, Nico and Florian in the shower and drove a smelly Kathy and a clean Matt to the airport. The Frenchmen fell asleep very quickly and woke up 14 hours later on a beautiful Sunday, while Kathy fell asleep on her plane and surprisingly didn’t get kicked off.

Those same 3 Frenchmen still had 3 days before their flight back to Boston. After a look at the weather forecast, Nico called Mt Rainier National Park, who replied that permits for the following day could be obtained. Paul, Florian and Nico thus promptly drove down to "Paradise", elevation 5400'.

After sleeping off a forest road and cooking the worst pancakes ever on the Paradise parking lot, the 3 survivors of the initial crew started hiking up through the zoo of families and tourists, reaching the Muir snowfield after being asked around 20 times “Are you actually going to the top?” and 20 more times “What are you training for with that heavy pack?”. Another point for ultralight hiking seems to be the ability to stealthily hike among crowded national parks!

We hiked up and across the never-ending snowfield, reaching Muir camp where many sad- and tired-faced guides congregated. We crossed to the Ingraham glacier, and set up camp there at 10,000’, on what seemed to be a snowy island wedged between proud seracs and little Tahoma peak, with a soundtrack of rockfall regularly keeping time. Paul and Florian set up their tent, while Nico started melting snow. A gourmet ramen dinner was improvised, and the crew went to bed.

After a poor night of sleep between the sounds of rockfall, icefall and shouting guides and clients, we rose at 3am and made our way through the Disappointment Cleaver. The effects of altitude started kicking in, and Paul seemed to be particularly affected, with inefficiency slowly growing. Florian cracked the proverbial whip a little, and we made our way through the upper glacier, trudging between the penitentes, and making good use of the guide-maintained ladders and wooden planks. Following the placed wands, there was no chance of getting lost, and we trudged up at a relatively good pace, summiting in good time. Disappointingly after seeing Rainier from virtually everywhere on the trip, the visibility did not extend further than a couple miles making for subpar views.

We quickly got down in increasing winds. We carefully stepped down back to the Cleaver, descended trying to limit rockfall on the guided party stopped below, and crossed under the last serac before reaching our camp. Right as we had finished breaking up our camp, a fridge-sized ice chunk fell onto the route from that last serac.  Is mountaineering really fun? Unclear.

We came down to the blistering heat of the Paradise visitor center, again facing the torrent of tourists, chatting with a dude who was planning an Fastest-Known-Time attempt for the following day (he ended up getting the FKT for the Rainier+Adams+Hood linkup, driving between each), and drove to Seattle for our evening flight. After quickly showering and crashing at a friend of Nico’s to rearrange and repack gear, we returned the rental car and soon flew back to Boston in the haze of exhaustion.

This trip to the North Cascades was a formative adventure for our growth as outdoor recreationalists. For some of us, it sparked the beginning of many alpine adventures yet to come. For all of us, it taught us a huge variety of skills -- from technical skills like glacier travel, simul-climbing, route-finding, and food-portioning, to softer skills like assessing risk, efficiency, and of course managing friendship in the alpine environment. These are all skills that we hope to transfer to our roles in MITOC as trip leaders, participants, and general members of the community.

We’d like to give a huge thank you to the Collier Grant, as the grant was what precipitated the planning for this trip. Many of us are current or recent students, so the funding that we received was important to make the trip financially viable. We hope to carry Sean’s love of the outdoors and spirit of adventure forward with us into the future.