I am airborne, like a plague.
A plane is taking me away from my work, my girlfriend and my friends, away from my fat black cat and from her white belly, away from the city of New York, my immigrant home.
Middle America leisurely rotates below me. The quiet corn fields glow in the sun. The smooth round cows wander in the fields, munch on the corn and drool on both ends. The locals stately push their carriages along the extra-wide Walmart aisles, their children wobbling behind. The warm humid air pulses over the parking lots. The little white churches lead to salvation. The flyover states enjoy their summer.
The Cascade mountains are drawing closer at 600 miles an hour, 10 miles a minute, almost 100 feet per one heart beat.
Tomorrow my friend Sprax and I will sort our gear, pack our backpacks, exhale the last gulp of car exhaust and start walking uphill.
It is just too disgusting to write about. I feel like I’m back in the East Coast. The miserable square of 90º F x 90% humidity is pleasantly offset by the complete lack of wind. Sprax and I grind our teeth, hike up 2000 feet and wait for an hour till a sun-baked cliff (the Snow Creek Wall) finally gets into the shade. The thermometer on my watch shows 105º F. I stuff it into shade of my backpack and it slowly cools down to 96º F. I crawl under some hardy twisted bush and draw on my knowledge of the Kama Sutra poses to hide from the sun. Sprax plays hide and seek game with another bush. Once the sun rolls around the cliff, we start climbing. I have never felt so unmotivated to climb. It feels like a heat-mediated climbing self-rape, if you know what I mean. I hope you do, since I don’t. I only remember the disgust.
It is a popular climb, a local classic. 7 pitches of 5.6-5.9 difficulty, a mixture of cracks, corners, face and slabs. I would’ve probably enjoyed it on some other day. Maybe.
A dirty-white shaggy mountain goat welcomes us to the top. I (illegally) throw it small pieces of a Nature Valley nuts and honey granola bar. The goat sniffs at the bar and refuses to eat it – apparently, it shares my opinion of granola bars.
We hike down a surprisingly tricky descent and get back to the trail.
The high point of the day is splashing in an ice cold river. The water helps me forget.
The promised 60% thunderstorms never materialize in the town of Leavenworth, but they do thunder over the mountains for quite a while. We spend the day thinking about our next route and pestering folks in a climbing store with numerous questions.
I’ve always wanted to climb the Mount Stuart North Ridge. It’s an all-American classic. Grade IV with a few sections up to 5.8, but mostly easy fifth class climbing up a supposedly narrow, sharp and jagged mountain ridge. Officially, it’s more than 25 pitches, but most of it is easy going. Climbers with small balls can simul-climb it, the ones with big balls can just solo it unroped.
The biggest issue on Mount Stuart is logistics. The southern descent is easy and safe, but the south approach and hike out take forever. All the trip reports describe doing the route in two days with bivying somewhere in the middle. Bivying means carrying sleeping bags, bivy sacks, extra food and water and all this other crap. When climbing.
For me, climbing is akin to sex. I do it for pleasure and excitement. There is nothing pleasant and exciting about carrying a heavy backpack. I’ve never made love to a woman with a backpack on and I am not going to. The same is true with climbing. I don’t mind carrying a backpack when hiking or approaching a climb, but I absolutely refuse to drag crap around on an actual climb. If you can’t clip it to your harness, you don’t really need it. Period. I pick mountains known for better and more stable weather, I wait for a good weather forecast, then I move fast and light. So, far it has worked out.
So, the southern approach is not an option.
The north side approach is much quicker, but the descent is dangerous and recommended only in the early season. By July, big crevasses open up across Sherpa glacier; they will be a bitch to cross. Adam, a guy in the climbing store tells us that it should be ok, but he hasn’t done Sherpa recently so he can’t know for sure. We fidget for a while and finally decide to commit.
Asleep at 8pm. An early start and a long day wait for us.
Out of the last 20 hours, we have been moving for more than 19. It’s 11:30 pm and pitch dark, we are hiking back, down the trail. The four LEDs from my flashlight produce weak unfocused light wobbling in front of me. My brain is dead. My waist hurts whichever way I move the climbing harness. My quads are leaden. My feet hurt. Water plops in my approach shoes with every step splashing around numerous blisters. I would collapse on the ground and fall asleep if not for a cloud of mosquitoes happily buzzing into my ears. Sprax is walking downhill just ahead of me. He suddenly stops and his back looks confused. I join him and we both stare at the river in front of us. The trail ends here. We know that it can’t be true. Our dumb brains dimly contemplate the situation. I look at Sprax. Sprax looks at me.
“Idiot Sprax somehow missed the trail,” I think.
“I am not an idiot. I couldn’t miss the trail,” Sprax thinks, “there was only one trail, there should be no other trails. We have to be on the right trail.”
We start hiking back uphill. Five minutes later we come to an intersection that we somehow missed. Whatever. I am too tired to feel relief. I just turn left and keep moving my legs. One at a time. Sprax follows me. Our gear quietly plonks on the harnesses as we walk. Tall dark trees loom around us, we could barely see the sky if we actually bothered to look up. As time goes by, I realize that we’ll never get out of the forest – we’ll just keep walking forever. As I resign myself to this thought, I see a sign board at the trailhead reflecting the light. We are done. We are at the car.
I take my harness off and it slowly falls to the ground carrying 20 pounds of gear, climbing shoes and clothing. I just stand there, swaying and holding on to the car. Done. It was a pleasant little hike.
21 hours ago, we parked the car at the trailhead, pulled our harnesses on, attached all our gear to the harnesses, and quickly ran through a checklist. It was 3:30 am, the night was quiet, cool and fresh at 3500 feet and the life felt good.
Each of us carried on his harness some climbing gear, an ultra light ice axe and crampons, a water bottles, a 3 liter sack with a down jacket, a few accessories and food.
It was a well maintained popular trail. We half ran half walked uphill for almost two hours. The sky was slowly turning from black to dark blue, then to light blue. The horizon tinged yellow and red announcing the coming of the sun. The timing was perfect. We reached Stuart lake at 5500 feet around 5 am and took a short break. As we ate bread with cheese and ham, we studied the mountain. Its black jagged silhouette cut sharp across the sky.
Beauty is at the eye of a beholder, people say. What is beauty in the eye of a beholding climber? Climbers often describe routes as beautiful or ugly. Typically, a beautiful route is sharp, well-defined, clean and sustained. An ugly route is a featureless maze of loose rocks and dirt with, at best, an occasional interesting move. Climbers, except occasional perverts, like long clear unmistakeable angular features like cracks, corners and aretes. It is a rational preference. Route finding is easier, protection is better, and climbing is safe and interesting at the same time. This is a functional interpretation of beauty.
Is there more to beauty than just function? Most climbers and mountaineers are drawn to clear sharp lines of the mountains. They just like well-defined features more than fat shapeless blobs. Why is it so? Does function influence aesthetics? Or are people simply drawn to clarity of angular geometric shapes and long straight lines and planes?
The North Ridge of Mount Stuart definitely satisfied typical aesthetic climbing requirements. One mile of uninterrupted long clear black line with jagged features and occasional vertical sections led from the scree and the glacier all the way to the top of the mountain. It looked like several thousand feet of happiness.
We continued hiking. The trail led us to a lush romantic looking meadow and petered out. Upon the closer examination, the meadow, like many other romantic and pretty looking things, turned into something different, i.e. a mosquito infested swamp. Like a swarm of groupies after a rock star, enthusiastic mosquitoes chased us across the swamp onto the moraine and up the rocks all the way to the glacier. Occasionally, I would friendly slap Sprax on his back, killing a dozen bugs at a time, like a renowned warrior of old, slaughtering hundreds of enemies with one stroke of his mighty sword.
Finally, a few hundred feet up the glacier, the mosquitoes dropped back, happy and bloated. We put our crampons on and kept moving up the frozen snow for a while. Sprax was moving surprisingly slowly; apparently the points of his ultralight crampons were just too short to provide adequate purchase. As we aimed towards the start of the route, the glacier got steeper and more exposed; we were hiking over crevasses. Like a good buddy, I kicked steps for Sprax in the snow. It was a mistake – I was to experience the full consequences of it only 15 hours later. Let me share my belated wisdom with you, my reader: never ever ever kick steps in the hard snow when you are wearing soft approach shoes.
We crossed the glacier towards a gully and climbed the gully. It led us to a notch on the North Ridge. The sun finally melted the heavy low clouds and swirling fog; they had been making us quite nervous for the last hour or two. Now, the weather was just perfect, the sky was huge and clear and blue, the light west wind moderated the sun’s warmth, tiny clouds hang far away at the horizon. In the clear mountain air we could see for many miles, ridge upon ridge of the Southern Cascades. My watch showed 10:30 am and 7000 feet of altitude.
It was time to rope up and change into climbing shoes. We opted for simul climbing. We would have around 100 feet of rope between us, we’d run the rope between rocks, placing occasional gear for protection.With this setup, if a climber falls, the rope catches him. He may break a leg or sustain some other minor injury, but, at least, he won’t have a chance to learn how to fly. It would be a long flight interrupted by an occasional bounce – several hundred yards of almost vertical slopes dropped down on both sides followed by steep screes and boulder fields.
I started climbing, weaving around boulders, getting on the top of the ridge, stepping down to bypass harder sections. Sprax waited a bit for the rope slack to run out and he followed me. A hour and a half of joy followed. As I climbed over numerous exposed sections, I felt the exhilarating feeling of walking in the air. At some point, I had to straddle a long narrow boulder on the top of the ridge, since I didn’t have enough guts to walk on top of it. I walked along 1-2′ wide ramps, made some tricky moves just below the ridge, down climbed a few times into small notches and jumped across some gaps.
Finally I got to the bottom of gendarme – a two hundred foot tower – in the middle of the route. The guidebook described it as a more difficult and sustained head wall two pitches long. The wall was too hard for simuling, so I waited for the Sprax. Once he arrived, I started leading the route. Forty minutes later we were on the top of gendarme and switched back to simul climbing. Another hour and a half of a merry ride on the ridge brought us to the top of the mountain. Sprax had difficulty wiping a happy smile of his face.
As enjoyable as the climb was, I felt cheated: it took only four and a half hours while the approach took seven and a half hours.
We had our first real break of the day, all ten minutes of it. The descent still awaited us. Most mountaineers are more nervous, and rightfully so, about the descent than they are about getting up. It is on descent that people get lost and confused, try to find a route in the dark, are forced to bivy in a middle of a snowfield or a scree slope for a night, and have many other exciting and wonderful adventures.
I don’t like adventures, so we started running down the cliff. We climbed down the east side of the mountain, traversed around the east ridge, dropped a few hundred yards down a small glacier and hiked to the top of Sherpa glacier. Here the fun was supposed to start. The glacier was quite steep, around 40-45 degrees and more than 1/2 a mile long. The snow softened up in the sun and we could see the steps left by another group a short time ago. We put on crampons, grabbed our ice axes and started an endless descent. To walk facing forward would be much quicker but we just didn’t have enough balls to do it in soft shoes. So, we faced the slope and started down climbing. It felt like a staircase of many thousand steps hiked in reverse. Brrr.
When the angle of glacier slope changes, crevasses often form. Some of them may be small, only a meter or two wide and few meters long, some of them can be gaping chasms dozens of meters across and hundreds of meters long. Snow covers a lot of them in winter and forms snow bridges. Over the summer, the snow melts and some crevasses become impassable.
As we descended 2/3 way down, the crevasses appeared. The trail bypassed few shorter crevasses, it ran along a snowbridge between two larger cracks and ended at the cliff on the side of a glacier. I glimpsed a bright red sling fifty yards below us, at the very edge of a cliff. That had to be a rappel sling. We down climbed the antithesis of a beautiful climbing route – it was a disgusting and dangerous slab covered with loose rocks and dirt – to the rappel sling wrapped around a refrigerator sized rock. We pulled the rope through a ring in the sling, and lowered ourselves on the rope, over and across a large crevasse. From the cliff, we could see how big the crevasses were and how thoroughly they cut across the glacier. There was no way to pass over or around them except for the path we took. However, in few more days, that snow bridge would probably melt and fall apart, leaving the glacier completely impossible to cross.
The snow was less steep in the lower section, and we ran and boot skied to the bottom. By 7pm we were back to the swampland kingdom. In anticipation, I pulled a head net over my helmet. Waves of mosquitoes rushed towards me and crashed over the head net.
We wondered around the swamp, going north, down the valley. By chance, we ran into a faint trail and followed it for an hour or two. We kept losing and finding the trail till it finally disappeared. I suggested cutting across the swamp over a few low ridges towards Stuart lake valley. The main trail should be there, I figured. The night descended as we kept wandering in the swamp, walking over hundreds of logs, fighting off bugs and getting more and more tired. Finally we broke into a large opening and we were able to see the mountains and the valley.
“Man, I don’t know what to do, I am totally lost. I thought that the north was that way and it’s actually south,” I said in desperation.
Sprax looked around and contemplated for a few minutes. “Let’s go across this clearing and uphill a bit,” he finally said.
Five minutes later we were on the main trail.
Monday. A Toenail and a Swiss Army Knife.
Late Monday morning, I woke up and dragged myself out of the tent. Surprisingly, I didn’t feel so bad. Muscles hurt, of course, and I was a bit slow but I expected much worse.
Then, I saw my left big toe nail. It was pasty white and liquid seemed to splash under it. I touched it. I hissed and jerked from pain. I contemplated. I studied the liquid rolling back and forth under the nail.
“Screw it,” I thought and I pulled my Swiss army knife out.
I opened a small blade and stabbed it under the toenail. A thin high pressure stream of almost colorless puss squirted at least ten inches away from my big toe. I tentatively pressed down on the toe. More liquid came out. The pain went down and the nausea subsided. I put the shoes on. It hurt, but it was bearable. It’s not for nothing that my dad was a surgeon, I thought.
My right toe was also feeling funny. I sat for a while trying to figure out how I destroyed my toes without even noticing it. Then I realized what happened – NEVER EVER KICK STEPS IN HARD SNOW WITH SOFT SHOES. The snow cools your feet down and works as an anesthetic. So, I lost my toenails without even noticing it. Oh, well, live and learn.
As we had a breakfast in Leavenworth, we checked the weather forecast in the Cascades – 50% chance of thunderstorms for the next few days. We checked the weather forecast for Squamish – perfect weather till Friday.
“Squamish, Squamish, la-la-la,” we sang in the car together as highway 2 rolled under our wheels, “we go to Squamish.”
We dropped by to see Sprax’s family in Seattle, slept over at his brother’s house, woke up at 3am and kept driving to Squamish.