Dates of Trip:
The origin story
Eddie and I have a habit of sandbagging each other. I’m sure it started early in our nearly decade-long friendship, but the last four years have been a notable progression. In 2015, Eddie moved to Tanzania on a whim, and before leaving, we had a brief conversation. This was basically how it went:
“So I’m going to be living near Kilimanjaro. It looks like it’s pretty much a walk up. You wanna come climb it with me?”
And that was it. Keep in mind, my hiking experience at that point amounted to wandering away from the car in street clothes for a couple of hours. Twice. So Eddie moved to Tanzania, we failed to coordinate timing, he climbed Kili without me, and then I sandbagged another friend into it and we summited in July of 2015. I got wrecked because I didn’t do any specific training and didn’t understand layering. Or food. Or hydration. A bit of hypothermia and summit puke later, and I thought “you know what, mountains are cool, but I gotta learn my shit.”
So I sought out some mountaineering classes and got a bit obsessed with alpine climbing. In the years that followed, Eddie got me into running and I got him into climbing. Some notable sandbags followed. I’ve never run for exercise? Let’s run a half marathon. We’ve never hiked together? Let’s do a one-day Presidential Traverse. We don’t hate ourselves enough? Let’s sign up for a full marathon. I bought my first pair of trail runners? Let’s run a trail half next weekend.
So naturally, when Eddie took a mountaineering course in 2018, we tried making alpine climbing plans. Our original plan: a winter ascent of Mt. Whitney, followed by a winter ascent of Mt. Shasta, then rounding out with a trip to Pico de Orizaba. That fell through when I went on a trip to New Zealand in December and couldn’t swing another trip immediately afterwards.
Then, as March rolled into April, Eddie and I had just finished our WFR, taught by Sarah Morris. Sarah is an all-around bad-ass alpinist/trail runner, who enjoys big days in the mountains, covering a lot of ground. Needless to say, we were inspired. Combine that with a brief but successful ice season coupled with the upcoming Iceland marathon and a newfound obsession with Training for the New Alpinism, and I’d say we were feeling a bit ambitious.
So on April 6th, after a late night gym bouldering session, Eddie and I went back to my place and discussed a potential trip for the summer. Though the details elude me, and it all happened very quickly, this is what I know: Eddie’s mountaineering class had turned back on the Kautz on Mt. Rainier the previous summer due to warm conditions creating too much objective hazard. I had turned back on the North Ridge of Mt. Baker the previous summer due to conditions and human factors. And finally, like any other budding alpinist heading to the Cascades, I really wanted to do the West Ridge of Forbidden Peak. So there were three objectives that naturally came to mind for a summer trip. If I recall, the difficulty was scheduling. Eddie has a Real Job™, which means vacation time is limited. Around July 4th, he could swing a week and a half. Taking 2-4 days for each of those climbs, as is often done, would make the timeline rather tight. Naturally, after some enthusiastic sandbagging, and verifying that all three of the routes had been done in a day by other parties, we concluded “well, we’re not innovating or anything, so let’s just try to do all the routes as single-push climbs.” The approaches would be much easier if we weren’t carrying a tent and overnight gear, and it all seemed rather feasible, albeit physically demanding. And so, the Least In-Tents expedition was born.
The Planning Stage
The plan from the start was to rent a minivan or some sort of vehicle we could sleep in. We would plan to land on July 3rd, spend a day or two getting supplies in town, then hit the North Ridge of Baker. We’d sleep in the van, rest for a few days, then head to Forbidden peak. Repeat, then head to the Kautz on Mt. Rainier. Over the next three weeks, we bought some flights, made a rough timeline, and applied for a Collier Adventure Grant from the MIT Outdoors Club (which MITOC generously granted us! Thank you!!).
To the untrained eye, this may seem like all the requisite planning. However, it was just the tip of the iceberg. We spent the next three months meticulously planning every detail of the climbs. While an entire book could be written about the planning process, a few things are worth highlighting.
Know your routes
My 2018 attempt on the North Ridge was foiled by two major route finding failures. The first was crevasse navigation. David Migl had been kind enough to give us his GPS track from a week earlier, but I had mistaken the weaving between crevasses as noise from crummy satellite reception, and the resulting “clean” track I used on my watch led us straight into the nastiest crevasse field I’ve ever seen. We lost an hour or two to that.
The next issue was gaining the ridge itself. We were uncertain of the best point to gain the ridge and traversed too far east into a sketchy ice fall. That’s where we turned back. The extra navigation and unexpected technical climbing put us behind and exposed us to some sunbaked overhead hazard.
This time around, to mitigate these issues, we stitched together multiple GPS tracks from other parties, read a lot of trip reports, studied maps, topos, photographs, and guide books. We looked at photos on blogs, Instagram, and everywhere else we could to get a sense of how conditions vary. We used satellite imagery and MATLAB to sort out where crevasses tend to form to find the best way to navigate around them. We studied the routes we intended to climb and descend, but also various bail options. To maximize our chances of success, we had to minimize unknowns.
Finally, using this route information, as well as GPS and pace data from other climbs we had done, Eddie and I were able to create detailed timetables for each climb, which kept us honest and gave us multiple check-in points to see if we were on schedule, or if we should abort the climb.
Know your gear
So, we wanted to do three multi-day routes in three days. All three routes combined would amount to over 32 miles, 24,000 feet of elevation gain and loss, and about 2,000 feet of undeniably technical climbing. A good portion of the remainder was over step snow which would require efficient movement techniques. The phrase “fast and light” comes to mind. The “fast” part was clearly important, but the “light” part enables the fast. We had to trim the fat. Every extra ounce would add up and deplete our energy. So we broke out the spreadsheets.
Eddie put together a document containing an inventory of gear and accompanying weights. We could check the items we’d want to bring, as well as any shared items, and get a calculated weight of our kit. This let us play around with different strategies for climbing rack, safety gear, and clothing. We could see which items contributed the most weight, which informed some new gear purchases. Once again, a whole book could be written about our gear selections, but there were a few points we could “cheat on”
Clothing – since our climbs were only a day long, the weather forecast was reliable. We knew we would be constantly moving, and the terrain was easy enough that we could move relatively quickly. This meant we could ditch a lot of layers. Base layers, softshell pants, a thin fleece, plus a big belay parka for standing around/getting stranded overnight, and a hardshell top for unexpected rain/wind protection. We both carried emergency bivy sacks (the Mylar kind), which combined with the parka could make for a decent insulation and waterproofing system, should we get stuck out.
Emergency gear – Since we weren’t bringing overnight gear, we thought carefully about our emergency kit. We decided to carry an MSR Windburner stove and fuel, which gave us some margin but also meant we were never carrying more than a liter of water each. We replaced the frames in our packs with sleeping pads. I carried a ¾ length foam pad, and Eddie carried an inflatable one. If we got stuck out, we’d be able to keep both of us off the ground. The foam pad was a spare, in case the inflatable one punctured. The inflatable one could also serve as a splint in case of a traumatic injury. We paired down the first aid kit to include only supplies relevant for trauma and a few minor things.
Climbing gear – Everything we brought we either knew we needed or served multiple purposes. For example, on Rainier, we each carried only one picket, since we needed two ice tools for the technical portion and would consequently have a spare during the glacier portions with crevasse hazards. We perhaps went a little too light for Baker and Rainier, carrying only six and eight ice screws for each climb, respectively.
In the end, with food, our total gear weight (everything except our naked bodies) was approximately 37 lbs/person for Baker, 32 lbs for Forbidden, and 40 lbs for Rainier.
Know your weather
Again, the beauty of single-push climbs is that the weather forecast tends to be reliable one day into the future. It’s also much easier to find a window when all you need is one day of good weather. Prior to the trip, and between climbs, we used multiple forecasting platforms to get a sense of what was happening on the ground. A favorite of mine, meteoblue.com, has extensive resources, including side-by-side comparisons of multiple weather models, and premium tools which allow you to look at things like cloud cover versus elevation along a certain cross section of land, convective clouds, hyper-local precipitation forecasts, and so on. A lot of time was spent trying to gauge when weather would be in our favor, so we could coordinate our rest days and climbing attempts. It was particularly helpful to look at cloud cover forecasts. While most sites would simply say overcast or cloudy, we were able to see that the elevations we would be climbing on Mt. Baker actually existed between two cloud layers, so while visibility for flying was subpar, visibility where we were was ideal and gave us an opportunity to go when parties relying on simple forecasts would stay put.
Ask for beta
In addition to our own reading, we talked to locals. We asked forest and park rangers over the phone for updates, and upon arriving in Seattle, went to local guiding companies to pick the brains of guides who had been on the routes recently. This came particularly in handy for Baker by letting us know that, while the Coleman-Deming descent was being treated as impassable by most parties, a technical descent option existed which would enable us to safely complete the route. Local knowledge is always king.
Leave your plans
Finally, the big one: let people know what you’re up to. Eddie and I have started making a slide deck with all relevant information in it which we shared with loved ones/emergency contacts. This lets them know where we expect to be and when. Additionally, we included information like health/travel/rescue insurance, contacts for local park rangers and search and rescue, what sort of kit we would be carrying (to help identify us from the air), and detailed instructions on what to do in case we required rescue. There’s a great podcast which informed a lot of this. In addition to leaving information, we also had a Garmin inReach providing GPS tracking and communications with our friends back home. This way, someone in cell phone service was aware of our location at all time. We were prepared to fend for ourselves if all else failed, but it was comforting to know someone else was looking out for us.
The Journey Begins
After a few months of planning and training, it was finally time to go. Eddie and I met up at his office, with a pile of gear in tow, and set off to the airport, requesting an Uber XL to fit all of our stuff. Rather ironically, tailoring our gear for each climb meant we had a lot of gear that was going to sit in the car while we were climbing one peak, but would be carried on one of the other climbs. With this in mind, and for financial reasons, we had decided to rent a Uhaul van in Seattle instead of a minivan. It was less expensive due to the ratio of driving to parking we intended to do, and would serve as a great home base for keeping gear organized, as well as sleeping at the trail heads. With all of our gear checked, we flew across the country, landed, piled into a not-so-XL Uber, and made it to our hotel.
The following day was Thursday, July 4th. We spent the day getting food, fuel, last minute supplies, and chatting with local guides. After doing a gear spread, test packing our packs for Baker, and doing some crevasse rescue practice in the hotel room, we got some quality sleep. Flying is never kind on the body, and we needed to be in top mental and physical shape for the climbs ahead. Allowing a full reset before jumping into difficult days seemed prudent.
The North Ridge of Mt. Baker
We left Seattle in our Uhaul somewhat late on Friday morning and drove up to the Heliotrope Ridge trailhead. The forest was misty and visibility was poor, but we knew the cloud cover was low and we’d climb above it rather quickly. Again, the beauty of single-day pushes is that the weather forecast tends to be quite reliable, and tools like meteoblue allow you to see hyper-local weather models that include cloud elevation. While I might not trust these to be accurate too far out, it seems that the cloud cover predictions are decent for the twenty-four hours we needed. So we packed our bags, went to bed, and awoke just before midnight to start our push. A quick cinnamon raisin bagel with peanut butter and honey at the car, and we were on our way. We left the car at 12:07 am
The preparation we had put in was really paying off. We blasted up the approach trail, with all of our lightweight kit. Our packs the previous year had probably tipped the scales at close to fifty pounds, nearly 50% more than we were currently carrying. We were also considerably more in shape than the previous year. We stripped to our base layers, did a cursory WFR review while we hiked, and soon, we were at the toe of the glacier above Hogsback Camp. What took three hours the year before took an hour and a half.
We lost some of our early gains to a leisurely snack, refilling our water from a stream, and roping up for glacier travel. While still making good time, we picked up the pace a little to make up for lost time. I knew, from the previous year, that we might lose a lot of time navigating crevasse fields in the dark. We were hopeful the carefully researched GPS track we had made would keep us out of the worst of it.
When it came time to navigate the more broken parts of the glacier, we found ourselves lucky. It was earlier in the season, and the snow bridges hadn’t melted out yet. We also had the faint light of dawn illuminating the glacier, when we had been shrouded in darkness the year before. With the exception of getting into slightly broken terrain once and back tracking, we had no issues and made fast time approaching the toe of the North Ridge. We arrived at the base of the ridge as the sun was peeking over the horizon, illuminating the clouds below and the mountain above with a gentle orange glow. There was hardly any wind to speak of, and conditions seemed ideal as we began the technical portion of the day.
Once again, where my partner Andrew and I had met resistance the previous year, Eddie and I found smooth sailing. The snow at the toe of the ridge had been melted out the year before and a bergschrund had opened up, forcing Andrew and I onto more technical ground than anticipated. This time around, Eddie and I simply walked up the snow and onto the ridge. The North Ridge is fairly steep at times, but having climbed together in the New Hampshire winter, we had certainty in each other’s movement skills. I shouted back to Eddie,
“I’m not going to place any gear, so we’re effectively soloing, but we’ll stay tied together to save time.”
We cruised up the steepening ridge, still making good time, and staying roped together. The snowpack was a bit too firm to easily self-arrest, so if one of us fell, we’d both go for a long slide. But on a big route like this, roping-up and un-roping can easily add an hour and presents its own hazards. I don’t think either of us was worried about the other, since it was relatively easy ground, despite the exposure.
This started to change at some point, with the eastern aspects of the ridge at higher elevation having hard freeze-thaw crust. As we were traversing over the 40-something degree snow slope, our ankles were fatiguing from the permanent rolling the terrain imposed on them. At this point, the snow was firm enough that I was kicking my crampons in multiple times per step. Not quite ice climbing, but certainly not the secure snow from the base of the ridge. I placed a few pickets and clipped the rope to them, on the off chance that one of us lost our balance, at least we wouldn’t slide off the ice cliffs below.
After a slightly tenuous and fatiguing traverse, we arrive at a small rock outcrop about 250 feet below the crux of the route: a near vertical ice cliff a few body lengths tall. I brought Eddie up to join me on the outcrop, where we pulled out the parkas and tried to fire up the stove to refill our water bottles. This proved to be a mistake. The exposed position left us vulnerable to the wind, which prevented us from lighting our stove, and eventually turned us into shivering goons. After some frozen Clif bars and a few more attempts to light the stove, we decided the best way to keep warm was to keep moving. So Eddie put me on belay, I grabbed all four pickets, and quickly climbed the snow slope above. Switching from walking to climbing helped me move faster, even though it wasn’t strictly necessary, and warmth came back to my body. I placed the four pickets over the 70 m rope length, but was still a bit short of the ice cliff. With the gear in and secure climbing, I called down for Eddie to start climbing, and we simul-climbed the last fifty feet to the ice cliff, where I put in an ice screw anchor and brought him up to join me.
Too keep the blood flowing, I quickly prepared to lead the short and steep ice section. I hadn’t led ice since February, so my footwork was a bit sloppy at first, but I got scared right quickly after a foot blew. Soon, I was over the steepest part. Unfortunately, we had only brought six ice screws, and I had soon placed all of them. There was easy ground ahead where I would hopefully be able to build a picket anchor. I was stopped short in my tracks though, and at the time I thought I had run out of rope. It seemed unlikely, but big alpine routes can mess with your sense of scale. So, I set a two picket anchor in what felt like a snow bridge over a crevasse, and put Eddie on belay. It wasn’t my ideal belay stance, but I didn’t see many alternatives. Eventually, Eddie came up on my side, and to minimize the chances of us both falling into the potential crevasse below us, I told him to keep climbing. Technically his first steep snow lead, I figured that gamble was a bit better than grouping together on questionable ground. I later found out that I had plenty of rope left, but the weight of it hanging down the snow slope below had locked off Eddie’s belay device temporarily. Let that be a lesson: lap coil your ropes if you can.
So Eddie went ahead, out a full rope length, placing some pickets on the way. Eventually, he stopped and buried one of his ice tools as an anchor, and I began to come up behind, self-belaying on a prussic and taking in coils to transition back into glacier travel mode. We met up, sorted the rack, and I took the lead again, heading for “the secret passage” through the last bit of seracs onto the summit ice cap. We were at about 10k feet of elevation, and the fatigue was starting to sink in. It had been about 9.5 hours since we left the car at this point, and a few hours since we had drank any water, but we were certain we were through the difficulties of the route. The sun had started to bake some of the snow, and as we navigated the broken terrain below the summit ice cap, it started to get a little slippery. I’m rather embarrassed to admit, but at some point, I lost my balance (I’ll claim it was an unexpected tug on the rope) in the soft snow and started to go for a slide, right down towards an unfathomably large drop. Fortunately, Eddie was on the other side of the ridge, and the rope came taught before I could self-arrest. Apparently there was enough friction over the snow lip that he didn’t even notice I had gone for a little ride. Catching my breath, I finished traversing under a big serac and watched Eddie navigate the same section, ready to drop into self-arrest should something go wrong. We cleared the last hazard of the ascent, and slogged up to the summit.
At this point, the only people we had seen all day were a party of two, probably two hours behind us on the ridge. Cresting onto the summit plateau, we were greeted by a rather large line of people coming up the Easton Glacier route. We arrived on the summit at 10:25 am, ten minutes earlier than we had intended (17 minutes faster than planned, since we started late). Feeling good about our pacing and planning, we spent an hour at the summit, finally getting the stove fired up, melting snow, rehydrating, eating snacks, and enjoying the views. While the valleys below were socked in with clouds, we could see distant peaks in every direction, poking through the white fluffy blanket. Feeling refreshed, we began the slog back to the car.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t the simplest descent. The normal route off the North Ridge is to descend the Coleman-Deming. The hardest part of this route is typically the Roman Wall, a steep southwest-facing snow slope, which descends some 1400 vertical feet over half a mile. It was certainly nontrivial, with steep firm snow underfoot and the sun baking us alive. But it wasn’t the crux for us. After descending the Roman Wall and some back-and-forth on the Pumice Rocks, we finally found our way onto the Coleman Glacier and began the slog. Dropping 500 feet in about fifteen minutes through ever softer snow, we came across a large crevasse. We had been told that this crevasse had cut off the Coleman-Deming route, which is why we hadn’t seen any other parties on the north face of Mt. Baker. The crevasse was perhaps twenty feet wide and stretched across the entirety of the glacier, roughly a quarter mile. The snow bridge typically used to cross it had collapsed earlier than usual, and left few options for getting across. Some parties had end-run the crevasse, traversing across the slope until reaching the end. However, both ends were exposed to massive overhead hazard, in the form of serac and rock fall, and it was ill-advised to venture into those areas, particularly later in the day. We had been told by some guides, fortunately, that it was possible to rappel onto the snow plug of the collapsed bridge and climb out of the crevasse. Unfortunately, right as we arrived, the cloud cover began to increase and our visibility rapidly dropped. With no obvious bridge, an overhung crevasse lip, and poor visibility, we set out to find a way across.
The overhung nature of the crevasse meant spending time near the lip was dangerous. To deal with this, we built a very secure snow anchor out of some buried pickets, which I backed-up with a secure seated stance. Using a munter hitch off my harness and clipped into the anchor, I belayed Eddie to the edge to have a look around. After much effort and no successful reconnoitering of a way across, we started to traverse along top of the crevasse. A few hundred feet from where we had started, we found the remnants of an old boot pack, some snow bollards and old deadman picket placements, and the remaining snow plug. After some careful maneuvering around the edge of the crevasse, we decided the snow was too soft for us to trust a snow bollard, and we elected to bury a picket and leave it behind has a rappel anchor. Eddie rappelled onto the snow plug first, some twenty feet below the crevasse lip, and onto solid ground, while I kept an eye on the anchor, which we had backed up with an additional picket. After deciding it was solid, I pulled the backup picket and came down behind Eddie.
Having lost two hours to the crevasse crossing, we switched back into glacier mode and slogged down through soft snow and terrible visibility, into the forest, and back down to the van. After eighteen hours, we had ticked off the first of our three climbs, with only a few minor hiccups. The elation of success allowed us to drive into the township of Glacier before fatigue hit us. We stopped at a general store, got permission to sleep in their parking lot, and then passed out around 8 pm.
The West Ridge of Forbidden Peak
The following day (Sunday), we awoke in our van bright and early, after sleeping for ten hours. Some leisurely gas station coffee and bathroom pit stops later, and we set off for Bellingham. That’s really when the duality of our trip sunk in. We had just spent a grueling, tightly scheduled and planned day in the mountains, and we followed it up with a free form, relaxing day with no objectives of any kind. After a slow breakfast in town, we hit the hardware store and spent the morning organizing our van to make it more livable, with systems for keeping our gear sorted, and going so far as to sweep the floor. We picked up some supplies and a set of UHF radios (to avoid another situation like mistakenly believing we’re out of rope), spent some time looking at forecasting and printing route beta, and buttoning up details for the West Ridge of Forbidden Peak.
Once again, the single push style was flexing its strengths. Rain was forecast for Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday. Tuesday, however, was a bluebird day. Serendipitously, Tuesday was the day we had planned to climb Forbidden when laying out a rough timeline months earlier. So we agreed and began the drive. The plan was to get to the trail head, spend Monday evening sleeping in the van, then set out around midnight again. It was about time things didn’t go according to plan, though.
It was around 5 pm and we were 20 miles up Cascade River Road, a dirt track coming out of the tiny mountain town of Marblemount. While letting another car pass, I pulled up close to the edge of the road. The side was overgrown, and perhaps half a second too late, Eddie said “watch out, it’s pretty steep over here.” And then the van was in a ditch. Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time I had done this on a mountain approach. The side of the road collapsed as I tried to drive out and the van worked its way further into the ditch, listing heavily to the side.
Since the last semblance of cell phone service was 20 miles away, or about an hour of driving, we thought it was worth engineering our way out of the situation. As we were starting to build a haul system with our climbing gear, a nice man named Joe stopped by. He had a set of tow straps in his pickup, so we hooked the front axle of the van and gave it a go. The situation rapidly deteriorated as we got pulled further into the ditch. While the van sat at an alarming angle, we decided there wasn’t much hope of us extracting it on our own. At this point, we sent an inReach to Daisy, Eddie’s sister. She was our designated emergency contact, and had been given our slide deck of information.
As we waited for her response, we pitched the small mountaineering tent we had brought in case one-day pushes weren’t going well, fired up our stove, and made some rehydrated Pad Thai. We were next to a river and had a filter, lots of food, fuel, and shelter, and so even if we were stuck for a few days, we knew it would be ok. Several people stopped and asked if we needed help, but there wasn’t much to be done, and many of them were surprised by how calmly we answered. Eventually though, we began to wonder why Daisy hadn’t responded.
The next few hours involved sporadic messages with various people, some taking half an hour to send because of our location in a deep river valley. Hope fluctuated, since ranger dispatch and Uhaul were being unhelpful. Eventually, we heard back from Daisy and it became clear that she was attempting to coordinate our extraction. We knew the situation would get resolved, but it was unclear how or when. Even if the tow truck arrived, we couldn’t see how the van could be freed. The road was narrow and there wasn’t much room to work. At that point, we were resigned to foregoing Forbidden Peak. The weather window was too narrow, and it was close to 9 pm. If we were out by morning, we’d be happy, but that would make the climb infeasible.
Right around then, Daisy sent us a message: “90 min tow ETA. Terry Hobbs is on his way.”
Unsure who Terry Hobbs was or what he could do, we decided to take a nap in the tent, since there wasn’t much else to do. After a quick doze, we were awakened by flood lights on a tow truck. Terry knew what he was doing, and in a few minute, the van was free of the ditch, and in perfectly drivable condition (turns out, leave the handbrake on so it pivots around the rear wheels, and have someone fight to keep the steering wheel turning out of the ditch. Tricks of the trade, I suppose). It was 10:30 pm, but we were suddenly filled with hope. Maybe Forbidden Peak wasn’t out of the question after all.
The West Ridge of Forbidden Peak (for realz)
With the van free, we drove (cautiously) up to the trailhead. We had slept for a fraction of the intended time, so we decided to pack our bags, prepare our breakfast, and then take a power nap before setting out at 2 am. This was critical, it seems, as I doubt we would have gotten out the door if we had fallen asleep before prepping for the climb. When we awoke an hour and a half later, we were understandably groggy. We quietly ate our breakfast bagels, and then started the brutal approach. Unlike Baker or Rainier, on which the technical routes are approached by maintained hiker trails, there’s not much hiking done around Boston Basin. The approach to Forbidden Peak is an overgrown climber’s trail that goes straight up the side of the mountain. Perhaps it was the lack of sleep, but our packs felt heavier than before as we sweat our way through thick forest.
We hadn’t been hiking for long when we elected to take a break. I’m not sure who said it first, but neither of us were feeling good about the climb. We were exhausted, and it seemed insane to be attempting it after having lost so much time to the van incident. Regardless, we had left the trailhead with our packs, and come all this way, so we decided to push on. Worst case, we would get above tree line, watch the sunrise, and then come back down.
Two hours into the approach, we popped above tree line. It wasn’t quite sunrise yet, but the silhouettes of nearby peaks were emerging and we felt there was some gas left in the tank. An hour later, we were at the base of the glacier-turned-snowfield on the southern face of Forbidden Peak. Staring up at the West Ridge, of “50 Classic Climbs of North America” fame, we were invigorated. The sunrise illuminated mountains in every direction and threw a gentle pink light on the terrain. Before we knew it, we were marching up the snowfield in our approach shoes and aluminum crampons.
Unlike Baker, there were quite a few other parties setting out for the West Ridge. It seemed that most had slept by the snowfield and were just getting moving. Either our fitness, desire to get back to sleep sooner, or competitive nature threw us out in front. A conversation with park rangers the day before and perusing the climbing log indicated the snow couloir was still in shape, which makes for a much faster approach than the alternative Cat Scratch Gullies. We began soloing up the steepening terrain, punching our ice axes in and quickly gaining elevation. About two-thirds up the gully, a small moat had formed, which was easily bypassed by moving onto the rock and performing three or four mixed moves before traversing back onto the snow. Finally, we got to the base of a rock gully, where we dropped our crampons, axes, and trekking poles, and pulled the rope out for traversing the ridge.
We had a 70 m triple rated rope, which we doubled up to clip as twins. We took in some kiwi coils to keep about 50 feet between us, Eddie put me on belay, and I set out up the rocks to gain the ridge. Fifty feet later, we began simul-climbing. Typically, the more experienced climber follows while simul-climbing, since a leader fall is much safer than a follower fall, in such a situation. However, since Eddie and I had climbed a lot together the previous season, in preparation for the trip, I knew we could both comfortably climb the terrain. Since I was more comfortable route finding and placing gear, we would move much more quickly. If it were necessary, I could stop after a particularly tricky technical section and build a sturdy belay in case Eddie slipped. With the addition of the radios, we could easily communicate in case additional security was needed.
The climbing on the West Ridge was superb. None of it was too technical, but all of it was interesting, with a few great hand- and fist-sized cracks, an outstanding cheval, some interesting slab climbing, and finally, a steep and exposed down climb off the west summit to gain the true summit. The route we took may have bypassed the typical crux, as no pin was clipped, and it didn’t feel any harder than 5.4 climbing, despite several reports grading the crux as 5.6. We brought a single rack of cams from #0.3 to #2, plus nuts, and we would basically climb until I had placed everything, then I would sling a rock horn, bring Eddie in on belay, and grab the gear he had cleaned. Before we knew it, we were on the summit, the first of the day. We ate lunch while looking out at Shuksan, Mt. Baker, and all the way down to Mt. Rainier, 120 miles to the south. We were both pleasantly surprised that we had made it to the top, despite such a rough start. Forbidden Peak is truly a gem of a climb, and we were elated.
As another party began their way off the west summit, we decided to depart and return to the car. I led out from the true summit, slung a rock, and placed a nut at the base of some rather overhung and sporty climbing to regain the west summit. I recall saying, “eh, this isn’t the best nut placement, but it’s the alpine. I wasn’t intending to fall anyway,” then proceeded to pull the interesting and possibly unnecessary moves.
On the west summit, I built a little belay and brought up Eddie. There was a rappel anchor at the top, so we figured it was best to rappel from the top. This turned out to be a mistake. We rappelled the entirety of the ridge and snow gully, which took far longer than it should have. The rappels were often more horizontal than vertical, and resulted in difficult rope management. With the 70m rope, we would occasionally overshoot an anchor and just barely not make it to the next one. This would involve weird rope trickery to resolve. In hindsight, we would have been safer and faster simul-climbing down the ridge. A classic example of when the “more secure” option turns out to be more risky in a specific situation. As mountain guides will often say: “Well, it depends.” Apart from the poor strategy, the only mishap was when I pulled a shoulder sling off and knocked one of our brand new radios tumbling down a thousand feet to the glacier below. A notable experience, as we were able to have an entire conversation while the radio bounced and disintegrated before cratering into the snow.
After a lot of faff (it took us 5 hours to descend what took us 3.5 hours to get up), we were back on the snowfield. We blasted down the snow, taking an occasional intentional and occasional accidental glissade. The afternoon sun had melted the snow, and by the time we got onto solid ground, my socks were soaked. Fortunately, I had brought a spare pair. We began rock hopping down the old moraine, eventually getting onto the steep climbers trail once more. The rain which had been forecasted was starting to move in as we descended. We spotted some marmots and a friendly-looking black bear from a distance, and then dropped below tree line right as it started to rain. The descent through the thick forest was arguably less pleasant than the approach. The rivers we had to cross were flowing more heavily due to the additional snowmelt, and the bushes we had to shove our ways through were wet due to the rain. Two-and-a-half hours after leaving the snowfield, we were back at the van, soaked to the bone from the wet brush. The climb neither of us expected to complete was done, after sixteen hours on the go. Perhaps we’d have gotten back an hour or two earlier if we had down-climbed instead of rappelling.
Worried that some of the road might get washed out by the rain, we drove down valley a bit, until we were below the river crossings. We pulled off around the spot we had been stuck less than a day earlier, and settled in for a night of some of the deepest sleep I’ve ever had. Apart from one occasion, during which Eddie and I both awoke in total darkness while rain pattered on the roof (we spoke to each other, noting that there was no difference between eyes open and closed), we slept soundly for the next twelve hours. It felt well earned.
The Kautz Glacier on Mt. Rainier
When we finally awoke on Wednesday, we drove down to Marblemount and had an enormous breakfast (I think we had scarfed a few Clif Bars before bed, but that’s it). We began driving, uncertain of where to go, and found ourselves in Anacortes before long. Once again, it was early and we needed something to do. Strangely, and almost antithetically to the whole “hard mountain athlete” vibe of the trip, we did some bougie olive oil and balsamic vinegar tasting before lunch, then consumed an entire large pizza, and settled into a surprisingly nice motel. The day was spent on laundry, food, and logistics.
We had planned to climb Rainier from Thursday into Friday, but the cumulative fatigue was catching up with us a bit, and we knew Rainier would be much harder than the previous climbs. The forecast was actually looking more stable for Friday into Saturday, so we decided to take an extra rest day (which we had built into our timeline as a spare weather day). The following day, we took our time getting down to Paradise, picking up extra food and a replacement radio, and plotting out our timetable for Rainier. We spent Thursday night in Cougar Rock Campground, near the starting point for our Rainier climb, so we could get in line at the ranger office for our permit early on Friday morning.
We awoke early, got our permit (with some hiccups cuz we didn’t think to check inside for a line), and packed our bags. A nearby party was weighing their kit in preparation for a climb of the Disappointment Cleaver, and we overheard a woman who can’t have been more than 120 pounds, explain that her pack weighed 60 pounds. Not including the boots and all the clothing she was wearing. Eddie and I looked at each other with the shared relief of knowing all our gear was merely 40 pounds each, and that we’d only have to carry it for a day. After packing we grabbed a big lunch at the Paradise Visitor’s Center and moved our van down to the overnight lot.
We slept for a few more hours, and then awoke around 6 pm. We ate a big dinner at the Visitor’s Center, then grabbed our stuff, and set out at 7:13 pm (17 minutes early!). The Kautz Glacier involves a mild approach trail, followed by a glacier crossing, and a steep snow slope. Most parties spend the first day or two covering this ground before arriving at Camp Hazard at 11,000 feet. Camp Hazard is located right by the start of the technical climbing, which first requires crossing under massive seracs. A friend of ours had a close call the previous year, with a serac nearly landing on their party. It’s imperative that this hazard be crossed in the middle of the night, while it’s cold. As such, we had to leave the night before in order to arrive at Camp Hazard by 1 am, when most parties leave their tents.
With that in mind, we began the long approach. Again, only carrying a liter of water each, we set off. We watched a beautiful sunset from the south side of Rainier, and then slogged through the night. Eventually, we had run out of water, but finally came across some sunbaked rocks that had enough retained heat to keep snow melting through the night. We topped off, chugged half a liter each, then topped off again. There wasn’t much glamour to the approach, but at least we were making good time.
Finally, around 1 am, we arrived at the rock step above Camp Hazard. Still roped up for glacier travel, it didn’t seem to make sense to switch into the rappel which many parties do to gain the Kautz Glacier. So instead, Eddie down-climbed the rock step, clipping a draw to a fixed line and taking a terrain belay from me. Once securely on the snow, Eddie gave me a boot-axe belay while I down-climbed, also clipping the fixed line with a draw. Once on the glacier, we regrouped and quickly traversed under the seracs, and onto the start of the ice chute.
The first half of the ice chute, a step about 400 feet tall, was formed as sun cupped glacial ice at about 40 degrees. The sun cups made for pretty good footing, so we simul-climbed this step without much concern. While the chute itself has minimal overhead hazard, it’s still not a place we wanted to spend a lot of time. Once on top of the first step, the slope levels before jumping into a steeper 50 degree ice slope, also approximately 400 feet tall. I built a picket anchor, which Eddie joined me at, and we switched from glacier travel to pitched climbing. The second step was not as baked by the sun, so the ice was more uniform and required proper ice climbing technique. While none of it was that physical, after about 50 meters, the sustained nature made my calves burn enough that I stopped to build an ice screw anchor. Eddie followed, and I set out to lead the next pitch. As the slope eased off, I felt ok running things out and moving upwards. After a full 70 meters, I had placed five ice screws, and found myself with one screw left, and not quite off the ice. So, when I had actually run out of rope, I went to build an anchor. The screw was marginal, so I attempted to drive a picket. But the ice was too hard, and I couldn’t get the picket in more than a few inches. Instead, I wound up using the picket to drive the picks of my two tools deep into the ice, and build a three point anchor between them and the screw. When Eddie came up to join me, the sun was just beginning to rise. Having cleared the technical difficulties of the route, we took the opportunity to break out the stove and reset. We had been on the go for nine hours and hadn’t taken much time to stop, eat, or drink. So we spent about an hour at the belay resetting, watching the sunrise illuminate Mt. Adams, Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Hood, and Mt. Jefferson, while the one other party we had seen on route left their tents and started up the ice chute.
With the difficulties behind us, it was time to tag the summit. We set out from the belay at 12,000 feet and began up the steep glacier to the summit. As we gained elevation, we got to the Wilson Cleaver, a rock band dividing the Kautz Glacier from the Nisqually Glaicer. It was here where the exposure, fatigue, and altitude hit hard. With sustained 35 mph winds, and nothing to block them as we headed to the highest point for hundreds of miles, the going got notably unpleasant. As we scrambled over loose volcanic rock covered in rime ice. Eventually, we stopped, desperate for extra layers. Carefully balancing on the steep and loose rock, we worked our hardshells out of our packs and put them on deliberately, making sure nothing was blown away into the abyss.
With hardshells on, we carried on upwards. The pace slowed considerably, and the desire to turn around started to grow in me. The upper slopes were particularly daunting, as there were few features to mark progress against. Finally, the summit came into view, with lines of people coming up from the Disappointment Cleaver route. We arrived at the summit thirteen hours after leaving the parking lot. The visibility wasn’t great, but more importantly, we were exhausted and wanted to go home. So we had someone snap a quick photo of the two of us, and then descended into the summit crater to get out of the wind. That was ineffective, but after failing to find a moat near the crater rim to hide in, we decided to do the next best thing: layer up and eat some snacks.
Digging deep, we started descending the Disappointment Cleaver route. After thirteen hours of solitude on the Kautz, it was a welcome relief to be on a high-traffic route. While we couldn’t shut off completely, it helped to have a defined boot pack to follow, and to have dangerous crevasses marked out for us. Unfortunately for everyone, though, our patience was growing thin. Waiting for parties to make the more technical crevasse crossings gave us a chance to feel the fatigue boiling over within us. We kindly asked a few parties if we could pass them, and while some were visibly unhappy to have someone cut in line, we comfortably downclimbed around technical bits and were on our way quickly. I don’t think either of us had much energy left for decorum.
The Disappointment Cleaver itself was a nightmare of loose volcanic rock, which we navigated in crampons, because we did not want to stop any more than we had to. Getting off route a few times, we eventually made our way down to Ingraham Flats. Little Tahoma was poking through the clouds, and we took a few minutes to sit and eat. I’ll let the photos speak for how exhausted we were. We carried on over the equally crummy Cathedral Rocks, and eventually made it to Camp Muir, where we finally took off our crampons and started down the Muir Snowfield, with the occasional boot glissade. At this point, visibility had reduced a few hundred feet at most, as we were in the clouds. Fortunately, there was a steady stream of mountaineers and day hikers heading to Camp Muir, so it was difficult to get off route. Eventually, we made it back to the trails below the snow field. Naturally, when we were close to the parking lot, we made a wrong turn on the well-marked trails and had to back track. Once again, we found ourselves being a little terser than necessary, quickly booting around groups of tourists falling over in the snow without saying a word, mostly afraid that if we stopped, we wouldn’t be able to start moving again.
Finally, after over nineteen and a half hours, we made it back to the parking lot. We made a b-line to the ranger office to let them know we had come off the mountain. We dropped our packs at the desk and stopped our watches.
It was only a few weeks later that I looked at the specific time we had stopped. Our detailed plan, with two minutes set aside for crossing under the seracs at 11,000 feet, put us back at the ranger station at 2:42 pm. I stopped my watch at 2:42:03 pm. Factoring in the slightly early start, we were only 1.5% slower than planned. Unaware of just how excellent our planning was at the time, we ate another meal at the Visitor’s Center and fell asleep in the van for a few hours before getting a motel back in civilization. We spent the next day repacking all of our gear for transit and developing ironic sunburns in a parking lot at sea level. Once at the airport, we grabbed some Chinese food. Still a bit famished, we ate our fortune cookies. Then, in a perfect moment, I looked down at my fortune. It read:
“Luck happens when hard work meets opportunity”