Tuesday, May 26, 2015

May 26, 2015
After feeling so good last week on Mt. Shasta, I decided to re-join a group of friends climbing the north ridge of Mt. Baker this weekend. 

We had been planning this trip for months, and I was excited to try a technical climb and learn - through the aid of the American Alpine Institute - some ice climbing skills.   I'd even used the climb as an excuse to buy ice tools and screws!  So I was disappointed when cancer seemingly thwarted my plans.  But, early last week I decided that since I had been feeling strong, and hadn't experienced any set-backs in my recovery, I should at least try.  If I felt bad after the approach, I could just stay in camp while the boys went for the summit. I was so glad that I went!  Aside from my legs feeling wobbly under the weight of a 46ish pound pack on the rocky trail leading up the Hogsback, I felt great!  

The weather was warm and dry on Friday afternoon when we started out from the Heliotrope Trailhead, after a couple of hours we had hiked above the tree line to the start of the Coleman Glacier where we made camp.  

Camp on the Coleman Glacier
Photo:  Stephen Coney

After spending several hours on Saturday learning basic ice climbing techniques, I felt ready to give it a try.  We set off for the summit at 2am on Sunday morning, the weather was clear and crisp with just a light wind.  We were hoping for 4 or 5 snow or ice pitches before reaching the summit plateau and strolling casually to the top.  If all went well, we'd be back in our tents before the threat of afternoon thunderstorms.  That's not exactly how it played out.

We climbed for a few hours in the dark on the Coleman Glacier, navigating crevasses in increasingly steep snow.  By the time the sun rose, the angle of the terrain had increased to somewhere between 60 and 70 degrees, and it felt like a good time for some protection.

Above the clouds preparing for the first snow pitch
Photo: Stephen Coney

After a couple of snow pitches, we gained the ridge and the terrain changed.  I looked up at the wall of ice above me and honestly thought that it looked like fun ... type 1 fun.  The first few moves were straightforward, vertical movement.  Then I came to an arete.  Hmmm ... how exactly was I supposed to move myself and this 20 pound pack around the corner?  The ice on the other side of the arete was in the sun, so I guessed that it would be better than the flaky stuff that I was feebly clinging to.  So I gave my right tool a swing in the general direction of the opposing side, and with relief watched its adze reverberate when it struck solid ice.  Somehow I maneuvered myself onto the opposite side.  The ice was; in fact, better, but the angle of the slope was not, and I felt my heart rate increase as I struggled to keep my breathing under control.  I made it to the first belay stance after a few minutes, and kicked my feet wildly into the 70 degree slope in order to make a horizontal platform for them.  So much for type 1 fun.

This routine continued for several pitches that alternated between snow and ice.  And, they did get easier as I got slightly more comfortable with my body's movement.  By the fourth one, I could speak in complete sentences without stopping to catch my breath when I got to  the belay stance.  

Moving up the first ice pitch
Photo:  Dustin Byrne

All smiles after a few pitches!
Photo:  Stephen Coney

About this time, I looked at my watch and realized that six hours had flown by.  We should be close to the summit plateau by now, but by the looks of the terrain in front of me, we were nowhere close.  Although we were moving efficiently, we had to kick steps most of the way on the snow slopes, which slowed our pace.  We had a long way to go.  

When we arrived at what should have been the final ice pitch, it was obvious that a snow bridge had broken recently, and the preferred route was littered with snow and ice debris.  The debris was unstable, so we'd have to find another way around.  
Selecting our route around the debris
Photo:  Stephen Coney
After testing our options, we chose to climb around a corner, which lead to one last snow pitch. This proved to be more difficult than it sounded.  At the base of the corner was powdery snow which didn't easily consolidate into a stable platform for my feet, and the ice on the corner was blue and brittle.  Big, sharp chunks of it sheared off and fell below me just about every time that my tool hit it.

Rounding the corner to the last snow pitch
Photo:  Stephen Coney
We all made it safely around, ascended the last snow pitch, and finally were able to walk upright across the expansive summit plateau onto the summit.
Last pitch!
Photo:  Stephen Coney
Photo:  Dustin Byrne
We descended the non-technial Coleman-Deming route in blazing heat and made it back to camp at 3:30, feeling tired, but really good about an exciting day in the mountains.

Monday, May 18, 2015

May 18, 2015
Finally back on a big mountain!  I took advantage of a work trip to San Francisco to spend some time this weekend with friends on Mt. Shasta.  We chose Sargent's Ridge for our approach.  First, we gained about 1,000 feet in the forest, stepping over fallen trees on the soft dirt that was covered with snow just a few weeks ago.  This was the first time since my surgery that I've carried a big pack, and my leg muscles strained occasionally with the added 40 pounds.  I was a bit concerned that the weight and position of the shoulder straps would be painful, and there were a few times that my chest felt sore.  I took a private second during a break to check things out - all looked good, so I pressed on.  

After about two hours we were on Sargent's Ridge - time to focus!  The ridge was mostly snow-covered with occasional rocks that we navigated meticulously.  

Mt. Shasta's Sargent Ridge
Photo:  Darrin White
Between clouds I watched other climbers making their way up the popular Avalanche Gulch.  I was thankful for the solitude on the ridge.  We made our way up 10,500 feet and spent two hours making camp, including a very precise tent platform complete with a retaining rock wall.  

Our meticulous tent platform at 10,500 feet
Photo:  Darrin White
We laid in the tent all night and listened to sleet batter its walls, slowly my hopes of summitting diminished.  At 3 am we downloaded a fresh weather forecast, watched a dozen headlamps descend the Avalanche Gulch and decided reluctantly to go back to sleep.  The forecast called for more precipitation culminating in thunderstorms by the afternoon.  At 7am, we woke to light wind and brilliant blue skies.  Thunderstorms??!

We decided to make the most of a brilliant day in the mountains and took turns belaying one another and descending the sixty degree slopes of the Sargent's Ridge.  It was fun to have time to play in the mountains for a few hours.  

Playing on Sargent's Ridge
Photo:  Darrin White

Overall, I felt great after our climb on Mt. Shasta.  A little sore for sure, but mostly from the weight in my pack, not from surgery.  I feel completely thankful for recovering so quickly and being strong enough to be back in the mountains and climbing with confidence.   

Friday, May 8, 2015

May 8, 2015
What a beautiful evening to hike up the cable line trail and run down west tiger 3 (twice).  I admit that it feels funny to not be carrying a pack on these training outings, normally at this point in my training plan I would be lugging around 30 or 40 pounds everywhere I go.  I thoroughly understand the look of pain on the faces of people on the trail that are burdened by heavy packs, training for climbs on Denali or Rainier this summer.  I don't blame them for the dirty looks that they probably unconsciously throw my way as I pass them, encumbered only by a water bottle and cell phone.  I feel their pain, and know that soon I will join them.

Saturday, May 2, 2015