After getting shut down on the initial CNR attempt, I was skeptical and hesitant yet intrigued to sign up for a second attempt. I knew the previous retreat was circumstantial and I really wanted to experience this climb. It was, afterall, claimed to be one of the top 50 classic climbs in America (Steve Roper and Allen Steck).
My friend, Luke, was spearheading the effort and was completely obsessed with another opportunity. Apparently this climb was high on his list to achieve for the year. I agreed to reconsider and set two weekends as options for late August. As luck would have it, a friend from Las Vegas, Jack, was spending time in Squamish and was coming into town with a few extra days to spend climbing locally. Coincidentally, a weather window opened that same weekend and Luke was eager to arrange another attempt. I was able to persuade Jack to join me though neither of us had done anything in the Alpine at this scale before. We had, however, climbed together quite a bit and done some adventurous outings. With Jack’s trad experience and our strong rapport, the summit odds (barring anything unusual) would be near certain.
Our plan was to take the full weekend to summit, including spending the night there to capture photos and time lapse footage. (Luke wanted more mountain-scape footage for his movie project that he’s working on.) Despite being faster on the hike this go and getting our systems down after the lower ridge, we didn’t bivy on the summit as planned and ended up sleeping at ~7300 ft just beneath the notch leading to the upper ridge. The next day, we summited with a bit of daylight left to make it most of the way down the Cascadian Couloir before dark. Overall, we were slower than we thought we would be and therefore did not have a lot of time for pics. Still, I think Luke captured some impressive shots, see his writeup on Cascade Climbers or check out his blog.
Also on the original plan was that Jack and I would swap leads. After the first few actual pitches on the lower ridge, it was clear that to optimize for time, Jack should take the helm and lead the team for the rest of the summit attempt. Luke would bring up the middle and I would clean and come behind. This system worked well, especially on the 2nd day. There were some surprises on the route that made me grateful Jack was in the lead. He is fearless and bold whereas I’m more cautious and hesitant, esp in unfamiliar territory. Jack did an impressive job route finding, protecting the team on the simul climbs that turned into pitched out climbs and bravely tackled terrain with his backpack that I would have been terrified to lead and attempt to place gear at the same time, esp on the lower 5.9+ pitch.
On the approach, Jack for the first time experienced crampons and an ice tool to navigate some glacier ice. There was a stretch that we had to cross where rock fall had been seen periodically flying down. This was super scary because by the time the rocks made it as far down as we were, they had gained momentum and speed. We crossed the ice gingerly while trying to rapidly escape the line of fire. Fortunately, only small stones periodically hailed down around us, which turned out to be nothing serious. We escaped unscathed and that was a huge relief.
Navigating to the base of the start of the lower ridge took some time and while we had made good time on the approach, we lost a lot in this search. As we were making our way to what we thought was the start of the climb, we heard this large rumbling, like jets coming to pass through. All of a sudden we see this huge ice mass cascading down the ice cliff gulley. It was impressively large and seemed to run on forever. While we continued our navigation and as we continued our climb up the lower ridge, we continued to witness the ice cliff fractures in various scales avalanching beside us. The power behind these avalanches was impressive that I tried to capture some on video.
After ascending the 5.9+ pitch the continuous run of avalanches became less audible to stopping for the night only to pick right back up by mid-morning the following day.
Back to the climbing. Everything about the preparation and actual climbing for this route went smooth. The only issue was water conservation since our last water station was on the Stuart Glacier and we’d be without it for the next day and a half. Luke, in particular, consumes a lot of water and was suffering half way down the Cascadian after having been out since prior to the summit. Fortunately (or not), I don’t consume as much and my 1.8L had enough to quench his thirst here and there and get us off the mountain where a stream could be found for a refill. Jack had also at some point finished his water source but would not drink unfiltered water from the stream until half way or more up Long’s Pass when out of desperation, he imbibed. Neither got sick from the water and both were able to hike out on their own– read: I was definitely calling for a rescue team to haul them out if they couldn’t. I had a flash back to the previous hike out where I had strained my leg and the pack had pinched off the circulation around my hip. That was a long stretch back to the car when I thought they would have to call for a rescue team or hike back up to haul me out. I was definitely better prepared on this trip and have no epic hiking tales of desperation to share.
While it was challenging to do the climb with full pack carrying gear and about 2L of water per person, I’m not sure we would change anything except try to go faster to get to the summit and get off before dehydration or heat exhaustion became an issue. Or, take more water and go slower. Now that we know the route and the descent it would be faster, I think, in any future attempt. Below are some notes from my perspective of the climb. For a better, more thorough take, see Luke’s blog.
- The 5.9+ pitch was said to be a finger crack. Maybe I misheard but I swear I could put my whole hand in it. Also, I had to lay back this pitch because my ability to hand jam appeared limited.
- The 5.8 just before the 5.9+ had an awkward section in it that I could not navigate easily with a pack on and to my disappointment had to climb the rope to get a better perch and keep forward momentum.
- All other pitches were great! Until I got to the Gendarme pitch. I got myself wedged in the lower to mid-section on the 2nd pitch (offwidth pitch), before the fixed piece and couldn’t figure out how to go up. I got tension on the rope that took some weight off of me and I was able to free the pitch (pack on). I was able to do everything else clean as a follower with my pack, half the rope and any gear from cleaning. I was proud of that because I was super tired after hauling myself up 30 pitches to the summit! J
- The Gendarme offwidth pitch was awkward with great exposure. We were lucky another group who had taken the original route that bypasses the Gendarme took some photos of us so you can see how exposed it is. Jack was lucky to have gear he used to aid and walk up the offwidth pitch. Everything else, he led clean.
- There was one super exposed (maybe campus) move that might go at 5.10 (based on second hand information from a friend who had been up there this season) and with our groups skillset, Jack thought it might be smarter to rappel down and go around the move, which added another pitch to our set. This was fine but it did contribute to more lost time on our bid for an early summit.
- The Cascadian at this time of year was no trouble to get down. Most of the glacier ice had melted off the bottom and sides making it easy to circumvent. Except for a part where we thought we went off route, the descent was quick and mostly straightforward.
- Meeting up with Long’s pass was not straightforward, however. This took a little bit of trial and error before we found the actual trail and there were no markers or signs until a little ways in that confirmed our path.
Overall, this was the most strenuous thing I’d undertaken but I’m glad I came back to appreciate the climb. Everything came together and our summit is one I am not likely to forget anytime soon. At the very least I now understand why this climb is listed in the top 50 classics. A definite must do.
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