Friday, September 11, 2009

West Ridge
of Columbia Peak (7172ft)
Solo, in-a-day

Yesterday was a long, rewarding day in the Cascades. After a summer of working in the mountains but not really being in them I got motivated and headed out the Mountain Loop highway. The night before I had thumbed through the Beckey guide and settled on Columbia Peak, a “monarch in the Monte Cristo region.” The mountain was indeed striking and foreboding from many perspectives though the summit was accessible by an amazing scrambling route.

I got an embarrassingly late start from Seattle for such a mighty endeavor. My arrival at the trailhead was far from ambitious but I made it up mountain biking the first 4.5 miles to the abandoned mining town of Monte Cristo. Though I had to carry my bike across a wide log bridge and through a couple wash outs I passed a handful of hikers on the approach. This got me excited for a long day and with each over-ladden day hiker I rolled by I got more fire-up about my ultra-light packing job and the bright blue sky overhead. It was gonna be a good day in the mountains.

At Monte Cristo (creepy and interesting at the same time) the road ends and the switchbacks begin. I left my bike and plowed up the steep trail, happy with my choice to go light and solo into this beautiful place. At Silver Lake the route gains a ridge and the views become immediately spectacular. The trail peters out, the trees shrink, the Twin Lakes glisten below, and then the mountain comes into full view. Columbia Peak is a massive chunk of granite with an outstanding mile long south ridge. I sat down in a field of exploding blueberries and was immediately intimated by the mountains huge, expansive faces and precipitous ridges. My route to the summit was not at all apparent.

It was already afternoon and the sun has hot and intense. The sky was entirely clear and there were no signs any afternoon thundercloud activity. The ridge leveled out and I found that with a light pack trail running was reasonably fun – I made up lots of time and realized the summit was still within reach. At 1:30, just three hours after leaving the car, I stood at the base of a small snow field and granite step that would mark the beginning of the technical, exposed sections of the West Ridge. It was lose but climbable and once I lost in the intricacies of the ridge time seemed to stop. There was continued exposure but the climbing felt solid, the weather was almost too nice, and the views only continued to improve.

About an hour later, I reach a high exposed ledge covered with new snow from an early storm over the weekend. Here the West Ridge met a gully dividing the North Face and there was a lot of exposure. The traverse was complicated by the layer of new snow and poor rock quality. I collected my self, kicked some steps across the white stuff and scrambled up the wet and spooky summit pyramid. I was blown away when I looked at my camera and found my summit time to be well under 5 hours. I took lots of pictures of the view, ate a bagel and cheese and chocolate, and nervously began to gingerly downclimb through the snowy ledges and loose sections. It wasn't as bad as I remembered going up and I was soon enough cowering in the shade of a huge boulder at the base of the heathered ridge.

Water had not been a problem on the ascent but sun exposure was. I had forgot my sun hat and was now feeling the combined effects of intense alpine sun and a long day. I drank liters and liters of water but was no able to shake a bad headache. My return hike along the ridge and down to town was uncomfortable but not unbearable. I passed a high school girl in flip-flops about 2 rough miles up from Monte Cristo, were'd she come from? I figured she was more hardcore than me.

I thanked the mountain gods I had a bike waiting from me at the base of the switchbacks. It felt so good to effortlessly cruise down from the mountain meadow without using a muscle as my feet and quads recovered.

There was just a sliver of sun lighting up the peaks of the highest mountains when I returned to the car. I was tired, really tired, and hungry. So hungry I stopped and got pizza from 7-11. It was gross; which means it was really gross because, again, I was really hungry. It was still a good day and the Gatorade made my headache go away. Now, thinking more clearly, I figured I had just found one of my favorite Cascades scrambling routes; West Ridge of Columbia Peak.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

It all started when Mark and I decided we should take Betty the big blue van to Sunrise (Mount Rainier NP) for our resupply mission to friends on the Wonderland Trail. We got a late start because the interweb clearly said it was nasty up there. We figured we'd save ourselves from the mid-day deluge by walking out to Sunrise camp in the afternoon; just in time for Krista, Eve, and Julie to be finishing off their long day. It was a good call. The views that we had were fantastic.

I wouldn't say we got snowed on so much as that we got slushed on. It was mighty cold in the Cascades this weekend and cheers goes out to those who may have also enjoyed amazing Labor Day weather. Note to self: if you're ever on the Wonderland Trail and it says it's gonna snow at 6500'; bail.

I went back to try and find the weather report I read on mid-way through the weekend. It was a special advisory. It said something to the effect that the upcoming “cold and wet storm” would be especially hazardous for those in the “mountain back country.” It was like Barrack Obama himself warning of impeding doom in the Cascades for Labor Day.

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We brought a lot of important things to Sunrise Camp, the girls seemed happy about it: 2 bags of salad, fresh bread, Odwalla (which was later used as a mixer), Rogue and Rainier Beer, artichoke hearts and sun-dried tomatoes, chocolate cake. Funny how the 4 day ration that Krista laboriously home-dehydrated took up as about much space as our 1 dinner? I was really sad that they weren't able to put their ration to work for them (those food bags don't pack themselves, ya' know). None-the-less they were still smiling.

Dear Black Diamond,
I don't much like the Firstlight tent you generously sold to me. I think I could have found a better tent in the children's toy section of ShopKo. I can't tell if the fabric is suppose to attract or repel water. Funny, cause my Mirage tent is the best tent I've ever owned. What gives?

We did a lot of pointing out the clear parts in the sky. There were indeed many, especially early in the evening when we got a nearly complete look at the stars and the temperature dropped to probably around freezing. The weather came in from so many different directions – the mountain still loomed above and made itself known.

Friday, September 04, 2009

I've been dreaming about this lake ever since we accidently found ourselves atop
Vesper Peak
(North Cascades, WA)

Photo: Mark Bir