There are dreams and there is reality. And then, there is the reality that your dreams don’t have to stay dreams.
When you are excited about life, dreaming isn’t restricted to the wee hours of the night or the idle moments in the day. With every photo, video and blog post of mountain adventures that floods my 21st century life, I feel the spark of adventure. I mentally photo-shop myself into the images and stories, wondering what it would be like to be there. So instead of dreaming the day away, I plan the next adventure.
For the four of us, 2 New Yorkers and two brothers from the U-P of Michigan, our most recent dream took place on the volcanoes of Washington; Mt. Rainer, Mt. Baker and Mt. Adams. Inspired by our love for the mountains, climbing up them and sliding down them on high-tech pieces of wood, we started planning our adventure.
Months passed, we were living our own lives while briefly exchanging emails, texts, videos, avalanche forecasts and weather reports. Before we knew it, the day rolled around when we had to pack to the car and drive. As Brennen and I began our drive, it was really hitting me that we were in it. I’d been day dreaming about this trip for so long and now we were counting down the miles to Mt. Rainier.
I had seen Rainier before, even hiked up to the Muir Camp (a camp for a climber’s route) but when I arrived in the parking lot with the ambition to summit and ski down, that mountain looked a hell of a lot better. I learned quickly that the scale of climbing volcanoes in the Northwest is quite big, like really big.
The parking lot at the Paradise trailhead was buzzing with people; day hikers, mountaineers, skiers, everyone here for different reasons but all here none the less. As we started skinning, I thought more about why I was here. I’ve been working the last four or five years to build a foundation of skills that would allow me to explore mountains in any way they were presented to me. I’ve backpacked, snowboarded, rock climbed and ice climbed my way across the country and it seemed to me that the next step was to start riding bigger lines and traveling on glaciers. So through jobs, personal trips and classes, I have worked my way up to this point, where climbing and skiing volcanoes was an absolutely terrifying but somewhat attainable goal to set for myself.
Taylor and I roped up under the lower Nisqually glacier and started our ascent. I don’t want to admit to being totally distracted by the world around me but I was. The colors, shapes and size of the mountain were blowing my mind and then I would remember that there are giant gouges in the glacier waiting to eat me and would have to check back into where I was walking. A light breeze took the edge off the sun as we climbed up the ridge to access our high camp, which we affectionately named “camp awesome”. Camp awesome was a small snow patch at 9,500′ looking out to Mt. Adams, St. Helens, the Tatoosh Range and of course the entrance to the Fuhrer Finger (our route to the summit). As we settled into our tents, I felt calm and ready for the adventure that would be our summit attempt. That calm feeling dissipated as my stomach started to churn (I had not full recovered from a recent stomach bug) and the wind began to whip the tent walls around in an apathetic fury.
At 1am, when my alarm rang, I was getting smacked in the face by the wall of our tent. My stomach felt awful, it was freezing and the 40mph gusts only amplified the intensity of the situation. I was convinced we would be hanging out in the tent for a few more hours or bailing completely. I was wrong, everyone around me started moving and packing. It took me a few minutes to convince myself to get out of the sleeping bag but I did.
We crossed the glacier in the dark, which wasn’t so bad since we had scouted a route the night prior. At the base of the Fuhrer Finger we un-roped and began boot-packing up the couloir. In the darkness and dim light of my headlamp I had no real idea where I was, what was around me, how steep the terrain was or how far we had to go. It was psychologically intense for me to deal with all this and not feel overly anxious. The wind cut through my gloves, my shell and my mental peace. I was getting pushed around on steep snow, trying to hold myself into the slope with each gust.
As the sun crept over the adjacent ridge, Taylor and I felt a slight sense of rejuvenation from our personal hells. The early morning light was not so helpful in warming our cold hands but definitely took some of the edge off of the climb. We carried on, still getting pushed around by the wind, still fighting the urge to puke, just one foot slowly in front of the other.
We navigated through a few snow bridges and climbed a steep headwall, bringing us to that last major slog before the summit. That last slog would entail another 1,500′ of vertical gain, navigating more crevasses and at least three more hours of walking in the cold wind. I didn’t have it in me. I had to sit and ask myself why I was here. Though it would be nice to see what the world looks like from up there, I didn’t come here to stand on top of Mt. Rainier. I came to ski the Fuhrer Finger, which would soon be turning in to tasty spring corn conditions.
Telling your partner that you want to turn around, in what seems like close proximity to a summit is no easy request. But, when you tie into a rope with someone you have to trust them. I knew Taylor would trust that I was making the best decision for myself but it still sucks.
We down climbed the steep headwall that we had just climbed and when we felt like we were in a good spot, we strapped in. The slope above the “Finger” was still pretty icy but as we worked our way into the couloir proper the snow turned to soft corn snow. We opened up, making steep turns. The couloir is huge, about 2,000′ of 40+ degree snow that opens up into a crevasse scoured glacier. As I worked my way through the Finger, I howled. When I started snowboarding in Vermont five years ago, this is not where I thought I would find myself.
We made it back to camp, packed up quickly, eager to get down and eat food, drink cold beer and you know…sleep! We descended another 5,000′, back down to the world of cars and gift shops. The rest of the night is a blur of exhaustion but sometime the next day I woke up, sore and damn proud of it.
Without wasting time or washing dishes, we headed north to Bellingham to meet up with Jack and Dan, who we’d be adventuring with for the rest of our time in the PNW. We spent the night in Bellingham and then spent the following day sorting gear, making a plan and buying food.
That night we drove through the fog up towards Mount Baker, to make an attempt on the North Ridge(ascent)/Coleman Deming (descent) over the next two days.
We had a pretty relaxed morning in the parking lot, putting off the moment when we would have to throw on our heavy packs. Around 9am, we hefted our packs and started walking. With overnight gear and boards on our backs we walked slowly through the lush temperate rainforest. We crossed creeks fed by waterfalls, waddled over huge down trees and marched slowly towards snow line. We were able to put on our skis and start skinning at about 5,000′ (elevation of snow line), eventually making camp on the lower Coleman Glacier. In the late afternoon sun, the silence and the magnitude of the place we were existing in came into reality. Just a bunch of kids, with some stuff, hunkering down in the middle of an incredibly vast, cold, ancient, living piece of earth. Above us, Mt. Baker invited us to come and see if we were ready for the challenge. We danced, we ate, we stared
into the distant setting sun, alone in our heads, alone on the mountain.
The morning was silent, no wind, just a few beeps from a watch telling us it was time to go for it. We roped up and started picking our way through crevasses, up and over subtle bumps and finally to the base of the hourglass couloir, which would lead us to the North Ridge. As we front pointed up the 50-degree slope, I stared up towards the start of the ice pitches. From here it looked incredibly intimidating; the length, the steepness and the exposure. I’ve led steep ice, but never in snowboard boots, never on a glacier and never with a board on my back. With every step that we got closer to the first pitch, my anxiety about having to lead us through this terrain was building. We carried on, up more steep snow until we finally arrived at the start of the ice.
The four of us kicked out a space to stand. Our position was somewhat terrifying as we were hanging out under and overhanging serac, getting blasted by wind and spindrift, with tons of exposure below us. I was not ready to take the sharp end and I admitted this to Jack, Brennen and Dan. Jack decided he would punch out in front to see how the route looked. From where we all stood, Jack traversed out left to a ramp that would allow him to peer around the corner and have a better idea of what the rest of ice pitches would look like. Dan belayed him as the wind whipped around us, Jack cautiously moving in a lateral direction. He tried to place a picket but the snow was not consolidated enough for a speedy placement. He moved further left and was able to place a screw. The three of us watched in silence. I knew we would be turning around. Jack looked back at us, ” a man has got to know his limits and this is mine.” We stood looking at one another in silence. After some discussion about possibly heading up right through another variation we had to accept the painful truth that we were not ready for this route. That is hard for anyone to realize, but in a matter of bailing and getting home safe and going for it with the chance of getting hurt (or worse), I will always choose getting home. We are young. We will come back better climbers and riders. This is not our time.
We started down climbing. In the sun, we ate lunch and stared at the route. Not today, doesn’t mean never. Once we were in a position to do so, we put on our boards and skis. An initial steep slope led us to the top of the Hourglass. The hourglass felt steep coming up and felt even steeper going down. The consequence of falling here would mean possibly tumbling into the depths of the glacier, so instead of trying to be fancy and make hop turns, I just held my toe edge and got down. I think this is a major learning for me in big mountain skiing. Sometimes you just have to get down.
Once we navigated the Hourglass, the fun skiing began and we were able to make some fun turns and enjoy the incredibly beautiful scenery. We got back to our camp, knowing we had made the right decision, still its hard to not feel crappy about bailing. With our stupidly heaving packs, we skiied back down to treeline. At first we hiked in silence and then we began to scheme a plan.
What if we came back for Baker… Could we be rested in a day to charge up the mountain again, this time in a single push via a less technical route? Are we insane? The short answer is yes. The more complex answer is that something within all of us was hungry and we needed to do something big to satisfy ourselves. So by the time we got back to the car we had decided that we would drive back to Bellingham (friday), sleep, eat a lot of food, dry our gear and then return to the trailhead that night (saturday) and then go for the summit and ski descent the next day (sunday).
4a, Sunday morning. Where as previous mornings I had been reluctant to get out of my sleeping bag, today I was fired up. There was an energy within all of us that got us moving quickly towards the trailhead. We blazed up the initial hiking part of the approach, ditched our sneakers in the trees and transitioned to skinning. The morning was grey as we started up the mountain. As we climbed, Baker began to breathe. With every exhale the clouds dissipated and the mountain revealed itself, on the inhale it hid behind a wall of grey. We continued on, climbing the lower Coleman glacier, watching climbers and skiers descend hard snow. The wind was keeping the snow hard and we knew that were in no rush to ski icy snow. We reached the saddle between the Demming glacier and the Roman Headwall around 11am.
At this point the wind was picking up and it felt like the temps were dropping, we knew that we would not be skiing corn off the summit but were still motivated to push on. After some snacks, water and layering we strapped our boards and skis to our back and slogged up the final headwall. We silently moved up the hard packed snow, switching off kicking steps until the final slopes. I waddled slowly on this final leg, taking in the world around me, a world of white over a sea of clouds. At the summit, all there was, was us. A bunch of kids who were motivated enough (some would say crazy enough) to wake up at 4a after multiple days of physical exertion, hike 7500′ in the cold and the wind to stand on top of a peak in a place that none of us call home. Our stay on the summit was short lived. The icy conditions on the Roman Headwall and the consequences of falling in that terrain made us decide to down climb instead of ski.
After descending a few hundred feet, we strapped into our boards and skied a few hundred feet of icy terrain. At around 8,000′ (elevation), the snow began to soften up and we were able to really enjoy our descent. The five of us pitched out the remaining 3,000′ of skiing, stopping to shoot some photos and video and of course enjoy the scenery.
Twelve hours after leaving the cars, we returned to the world underneath this big mountain.
Tired, hungry and proud. Skiing the Demming in a day was a huge accomplishment for all us. It was not the longest, hardest or most technical climb that we have each done but the fact that we did it after getting skunked on the N. Ridge felt like a big deal.
Most people would have taken a rest day or two after multiple big days without much rest. Instead we spent the night in Bellingham and then drove to Saint Helens the next day.
We arrived at midnight at the parking lot for the Saint Helens climb. Our “bivy” was between Jack’s truck and my car and only lasted four hours. When the alarms went off, my first thought was “why the hell are we getting up right now.” We moved slowly and didn’t leave the parking lot until 6:30a. We moved even slower on the approach, our legs were sore, our minds were tired and our stoke was slowly dwindling.
As the mountain came into sight, it was apparent that the Worm Flows route was not as “in” as we expected. At snow-line, we threw our packs down and stared up at the patchy snow and exposed rock. We were tired and uninspired. After some discussion and debate we collectively decided that if we wanted to ski Mount Adams the day after next, we would couldn’t ski Saint Helens and feel rested enough for a one-day climb of Adams. Another bail, but it felt like the right decision.
We took the rest of that day and next to rest, something we hadn’t done in weeks. We ate food, edited photos and chilled. Eventually we drove up to South Climb trailhead. The stoke was high as we got our first views of the SW Chutes, a 4,000′ line off the summit of Adams.
May 13th, 4am, another early morning- orchestra of watch alarms wakes me up. As the day breaks, we put packs on and start hiking. The going is slow and steep. The last forecast we saw called for warm temps and 10mph winds. Reality proved differently as we were facing winds consistently around 30mph and temps that felt below freezing.
Wind is an amazing force, it shapes landscapes, changes the temperature and can suffocate the excitement of the most enthusiastic individuals. The four of us sat below the “lunch counter”, a plateau feature on the South side of Mount Adams, wondering if the snow would soften up in the cold wind. Sitting there in all of our layers, huddled against a rock outcropping we watched climbers come down the still frozen headwall, feeling beaten down and unsure our the fate of our last adventure. After some whining about the conditions we decided to throw away our apprehensions and bad attitudes and just go for it.
The South headwall is a steep climb and eventually we had to take our skis off of our feet and boot back the final 700′ to the summit of Pikers Peak, a sub summit of Adams. We decided that descended the 400′ to the saddle and then climbing another 600′ to the proper summit was not our goal and transitioned our boards at the top of Pikers Peak.
At this point we had decided to not ski the SW chutes route because it had been getting blasted by a NW wind all day and was still icy. Instead, we decided to ski the route that we climbed, which turned out to be one of the best decisions we made the whole trip. The southern apron gifted us with nearly 5,000′ of perfect corn skiing. We yipped and hollered our way down, making the most of the terrain and conditions.
As we waddled back to the car, I wavered between the empty exhausted feeling and having a ton of emotion. When we started this whole thing, we had some expectations but really it was a big unknown. Sure, I learned some more “hard skills”, like efficient glacier travel, but in the end what I’ve gained is a lot less tangible. I’m walking away with the satisfaction of knowing that we accomplished an even bigger goal…to do for each other, what we do for our students; we pushed each other beyond our known limits, stepping out of our comforts zones and into the unknown where learning happens and lifetime bonds are formed. I cannot think of another group of people to have shared my adventure with.
To end I have a couple pieces of gratitude to share.
To Jack, Brennen and Dan, and the friends that joined us along the way: Thank you supporting me with your love, silly gestures, noises, adventurous attitudes and passion for what you. I’m lucky to know you all and call you my friends. Cheers to many more adventures.
To the Colorado Outward Bound School: Thank you for the financial and moral support for this expedition. Jack, Brennen and I are lucky to work for a school that invests in its staff development, inspires us and encourages us to pursue our own adventures.
To Weston Snowboards: Thank you for letting me take the Dream Machine on this adventure. The board was a dream indeed, and I am excited to ride it on more mountains!
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