The gear is washed or hung up to breathe. The beard, such as it is, still grows until the sunburn fades. The legs and shoulders this Wednesday morning were finally just a bit sore, not especially so. And the GPS tracks are downloaded and cut and projected in Google Earth as bites of the trip I can try to remember and describe. The following is probably more than most of you want to read, but I’m looking forward to reading it myself a year from now or later, so here we go.
We met in Lyman, WA, somewhat accidentally. Emily and I left Port Townsend Friday afternoon, having worked a bit in the morning. Bob left a little earlier to pick up Micah and to stop and register our climb (optional but recommended) with the rangers, who also furnished the necessary blue bags for use on the privy-less mountain. We texted along the way to coordinate some final details. “About done dining in Lyman,” transmitted Bob, and Emily and I were 8 miles out. That caused me to write the soon-to-be-a-hit song “8 miles from Lyman,” which was not an immediate hit with my passenger — but the driver rules on music choice.
We drove up just after they walked out of the restaurant to their car. Bob and Micah were but two in number, I soon noted because of my high-trained senses and deductive abilities. John, who was to be our fifth, had formally dropped out, they said. Douglas, our substitute fifth or possibly our sixth, would follow separately the next morning.
We formed up and followed each other to the trailhead. Schriebers Meadow hosts a moderately sized campground and a lot of parking. We found a wide space that is allocated to livestock trailers during the fall, parked our cars in the back of it and settled in for the night — Bob set up a tent, and we moved the gear into the front seat of the Forester and the sleeping bags and pads into the back.
We were all awake by 06:00 or 06:30 Saturday, repacked our bags, split up the group gear and started the GPSs. We left the trailhead at 08:15.
Here’s the first leg, trailhead at the bottom center and the seasonal bridge over the largest stream crossing on the approach in the top center:
And here is the second leg, which looks suspiciously like the first:
Why, you ask? Because it was at the bridge that I realized that, in the relative darkness of a cloudy morning, I had left my glacier glasses in the back of the Subaru. I dropped my pack and jogged most of the way down to the car a little after 09:00, grabbed the glasses and ran a little but mostly walked back to the bridge. I figured I was 30-40 minutes behind the other three, and I started up the trail hoping to catch them.
After crossing the bridge, the trail got steeper and got into switchbacks. I slowed down a bit, afraid of tiring myself because of the jog, my normal inability to pace myself reasonably and my wanting to catch the group. I still made good time and caught up with the group at about 10:20. They were at the start of what is called Railroad Camp, a series of tent platforms for backpackers located near where the trail climbs onto the Railroad Grade moraine. We rested there a while, with my late arrival slowing things a bit.
From there, we headed up the trail a few minutes, dipping down to a small creek then up to the Railroad Grade. We would follow that, still a fascinating place despite the clouds keeping us from seeing our route on Baker, the rest of the way to where we made camp.
We were walking along the top of a huge moraine formed by a retreating Easton Glacier that was obviously once much larger than its current size. Opposite the valley that now contains the creek that drains the glacier is another lateral moraine of similar size, and both look like they were formed yesterday of loose soil and rocks big and small. The Railroad Grade Trail is named for the regular grade of the top of the moraine, not because it ever played host to railroad tracks. It features an abrupt change in orientation about halfway up the trail, which was cause for theorizing about what caused the glacier to turn at that point and when it did so.
We were significantly delayed by marmot traffic.
We made it to the end of the trail to see several parties already camped at that level and for a couple hundred feet above. Some were on flat areas on the rocky ridge that bounds that side of the Easton. Others, especially the large Mountaineers party that headed up the trail just before our group that morning, were on the snowfield opposite the rock ridge from the glacier. We had discussed earlier wanting to be as high on the ridge as possible to ease our summit day, so despite tired legs, lungs and shoulders with our full packs, we moved higher, Micah running ahead to scout it so we did not waste effort moving too high.
We stopped for the day at 12:45. Emily and I were on the rocks, a spot just large enough for our tent and flat enough to be tolerable with two layers of sleeping pad. Bob and Micah were at the top of our rock projection, partially on the snow, theirs a better view of the summit as the clouds moved away. We unpacked and set up tents, guyed them out reasonably well against winds that were forecast not to be too strong, and unpacked everything else in our packs, looking forward to when we would be packing them only with light summit loads.
The sun became strong as the clouds left, and climbing slightly above my and Emily’s tent revealed the majority of the Easton Glacier route, the top of the volcano (if not the summit itself) and the prominent gap in the crater rim that would be our focus for the lower several thousand feet of summit day. Douglas, the lately added substitute fifth member of our group who is familiar with the route and hiked up by himself due to a later start, arrived and set up his tent. He was not feeling well and was immediately doubtful for the summit attempt. We applied sunscreen, dried socks and boots in the sun and enjoyed the warmth — but kept long sleeves and hoods and glasses (good thing I went back for them) to protect ourselves from the sun.
We took it easy, choosing to lay back and preserve energy rather than playing around on the glacier. I was glad for that, since I seem to recover slowly from a lot of exertion and do not do well if trying to push again a second day, and my forgetfulness had already added two-and-a-half miles plus a bit of rushing up the trail to what the rest of the group had done. Water was collected from what was running down the rocks (with the help of the plastic sheet from one of the blue bags — and unused one, of course) and filtered, and dinners were cooked around the middle of the afternoon.
Around 17:00, we settled into the tent, so warmed by the sun that we kept the front door, the vestibule and the back window fully open. Emily watched a movie on her one example of choosing early sleep over weight considerations: a fully charged Kindle Fire. I read a book on the Kindle that helps me sleep. We both dozed quite a bit, a pleasant surprise to me after not sleeping much if at all on Rainier a year before.
At 00:30 my ABC/GPS watch started beeping. It was the first time I used the alarm, and I remember it being a pleasant but awakening tone. We had an hour and a half until our planned departure. We laid there for about five more minutes, protected from potential oversleep if we dozed off by my cell phone alarm, which was programmed as a backup for a few minutes later. The second alarm was unnecessary, as it had gotten cold in the tent and we had a lot to do. Headlamps, puffys and approach boots went on, and we started puttering around the tent, heating water for breakfast and coffee, piling on top of our sleeping bags the things we had decided to leave behind and cinching down the side straps on our packs to slim them appropriately for their minimal loads.
Harnesses went on, hero loops around the neck, double-length runners around the shoulders clipped with a carabiner in the front as emergency chest harnesses in case of a crevasse fall, personal anchors girth-hitched to our harnesses and clipped around our backs and the remaining prussiks, runners and biners clipped to gear loops for use later. Breakfast was swallowed, nausea-inducing though it was (even oatmeal) due to the early hour and lack of sleep. Headlamps were removed from heads and clipped to helmets. Last, we swapped approach boots for climbing boots and, at the last minute, removed the crampons I had us fit to them the night before without thinking that gaiters needed to be fitted to the boots first. With gaiters on and back in our crampons, we took one more sweep around with the headlamps, then headed onto the snow left of the tent’s rock, walking up it to find Bob and Micah busying themselves around their tent.
“At least they’re still packing,” thought I silently, since were were a few minutes late due to the crampon fiasco. Relieved about that, I next thought about the snow, which was a bit too soft for my liking. “The fucking snow is too fucking soft,” or something similar to that said I aloud. It was crusty on top, but it had not frozen enough to support my weight reliably without my boots punching through that crust at the irregular intervals that were sure to be tiring and frustrating. Still, it was better than climbing when nothing had frozen at all, and it would make for a more secure feeling than scratching crampon teeth and ice ax across seemingly rock-hard ice.
At 02:07, we formed a pretty tight formation and dropped to the snowfield to climber’s left of the rocky ridge, then started to climb. Our plan was to get to the Portal, which is at the top end of that snowfield, where we would rope up and exit to the Easton Glacier.
Before leaving our tent, I had told Emily, who did not seem to be exceptionally interested in climbing at 02:00, that the rope-up point was the final bail-out point where we could easily and safely return to camp unroped and apart from the group. However, when we met up with Bob and Micah it was evident that they again numbered but two — Douglas had opted against going up. We would be a single rope of four, and it would be outside our planned, safe group size if two climbers bailed. The decision point was, barring sickness or injury, the camp. So up we went.
At first, Bob set a quick pace that was taxing my already tired legs and sleep-deprived mind. We did not get too far, though, before he stopped us for a layer change, and I mentioned that had been full-throttle for me. The pace the rest of the day was more sustainable, and we moved better together as a group than our rope of five had a year before on Rainier.
As long as we were stopped, Bob suggested we rope up. We were facing a short but steeper slope, and at the top of it we would be on the glacier — or nearly so. The short wardrobe-change break turned into a longer one as we roughly measured lengths of rope, tied our butterfly knots and attached our foot and harness prusiks. Bob in the lead and I at the rear also tied into the ends and took the remaining coils. Even in the light of half a moon and four headlamps, the so-neon-it-almost-hurts-your-eyes orange of my Sterling 9.2mm rope was quite sexy.
We climbed the short steep section together, getting a feel for the speed, the slack, the weight of the rope. Then we settled into a good pace on the glacier itself, though the fact that we were on the glacier was far less noticeable than it had been on Rainier last year. Other than a few crevasse crossings, one of which was on a lengthy but substantial snowbridge over a beautiful-scary crevasse, the Easton was pretty sedate and often seemed to be a giant, safe snowfield.
Bob stopped us just about a thousand feet above our camp for a regular rest stop. I still was unsure of the capacity of my tired legs and unwilling mind to get me to the top, or even to the crater a thousand feet below the summit, but looking at my watch and seeing the first 1000′ ticked away was encouraging. The lack of headlamps from other teams as we looked below was a bit empowering, too — we had been the first team out of camp by quite some time, and we had the route to ourselves at present. And we took enough time at this stop for me to burn some Drum (everyone knows you can’t climb a mountain on no tobacco at all), and to draw from the 16.9-ounce bag of salted-caramel Gu I was carrying in the pocket of my softshell.
But it was soon time to get going, and we moved further into the middle of the glacier. The boot track of previous climbers saved us a lot of work. On the steeper sections, the solid footprints kept our ankles from having to work too hard to follow the grade. The compressed surface of those prints had frozen much more solidly than the surrounding snow, so while we walked parallel to the boot track on gentle slopes when the snow would hold us, we diverted into the boot track when we started punching through outside it.
And the boot track kept us from having to navigate much, as it was fairly cleverly laid out to wind its way up toward the crater without losing elevation. It often appeared we would crest a rise in the glacier and drop down the other side, but the track would each time aim for a slightly higher rise, and in this way we continued up without sacrificing elevation by dropping into sunken areas.
We stopped for another break after our second thousand feet. I had run low on sugar about midway through that run, and toward the end I passed word up the rope that I needed a calorie break. Bob stopped shortly after that, and I had a homemade date-and-nut bar (an adaptation of the Steve House recipe) and a couple of heavy pulls on the Gu. That and some water got me back to normal quickly.
While I really just needed a minute to get some calories into me, this became our second main break. Headlights had been switched off. The light of the sun was spreading across the sky, but there was no refuge from a bit of a cold wind in the center of the glacier, and we started moving again with fingers that took twenty minutes or so to recover from the exposure.
The goal when we resumed was the gap in the crater rim that had been visible since camp (or since Port Townsend, really). We knew that to be a good rest stop, knew it to be the shift from the relatively gentle glacier to the steeper snow covering the Roman Wall and — most importantly — knew it was a mere one-thousand feet from the summit.
This was the longest section between break stops. The sight and thought of the crater kept us motivated, and even looking down at the snow in front of our feet we knew by the sulfuric smell we were getting close. Looking back the other way we saw the shadow of the mountain first in the haze to the west and then lower, sinking down the east faces of the nearby peaks. Still deep in the shadow ourselves, we watched the sun rise by this evidence rather than by seeing it.
We watched a team of four traverse toward us from the Squak Glacier. They were lower than where the normal route from the Squak joins with the Easton route just below the crater rim. We had earlier seen headlamps above us on the ridge to the west, making their way above the Roman Wall; while they had initially been fleeting and perhaps mistaken for stars, in the growing light we could see the silhouettes of several parties slowing climbing toward the summit from that route.
A few minutes after we were passed by the team that had joined our route after traversing from the Squak and perhaps fifteen minutes below the crater rim, we paused for a minute. It was a long push, and we needed a short break. Then we moved up to the rim, joining the group that had passed us, sitting for the first time in the loose gravel and feeling the warmth of the sun and the steam. This being, in retrospect, much more interesting than the summit itself, combined with our feelings of exhaustion, we spent a lot of time here watching, listening, photographing and videoing the actively venting crater.
And then we moved on to skirt the edge of the Roman Wall, the only steep and exposed and the most probably icy portion of the route.
We set out a few minutes after the group from the Squak. A few hundred feet from the crater’s edge, the route split into two: One track traversed to climber’s left then led straight up the steepest portion of the wall with frozen steps, and the other remained closer to the crater rim and had a few switchbacks to lessen the grade. The other group and we opted for the traverse and direct climb rather than the switchbacks.
In the lead, Bob kicked the existing steps a little deeper on the steeper portion, but this was still the only section of the route that forced me to be a little uncomfortable with the exposure, nothing near the paralyzing fear of last year on Rainier but a touch of the same. I had tried to prepare for that in my mind, but this section was so short that I really did not get a chance to test myself. After a bit of huffing and puffing, the slope eased. I sent the question up the rope as to whether we should wand the exit from the summit snowfield onto the wall for our descent, but we did not need to do that — it turns out to be easy to find in weather that completely clear.
We were on the summit snowfield somewhat suddenly. The summit was quite obviously a smallish nub, still covered in snow, far to climber’s right — obviously because it was covered in climbers from other routes. Actually, it appeared so damn far and so high that it was discouraging, though my “you’ve gotta be fucking kidding me” grossly exaggerated the remaining exertion that would be required. We began to head that way, then looked at all of the climbers walking past free of their rope shackles (though, again, my rope is damned sexy, so one never minds carrying it) and stopped our team to drop our rope and other gear we didn’t need since we were no longer on the glacier. Then we proceeded individually to the actual summit at 08:44 after six hours and thirty-seven minutes of climbing.
The view was exceptional in the morning sun, from which there would be no shade for hours. If there was much wind I do not remember it, and I spent the time on the summit in my thin hoodie base layer without needing the other layers in or strapped to my pack. After taking photos and enjoying the view from the summit nub (especially to the east but also south to Rainier), we gathered back where we had unroped and ate. I had the everything bagel with peanut butter and red onions that I had been saving for the occasion. Emily pulled out of brick of vegan “cheese” and snacked on a few chunks. We let a few of the groups that had followed us up the Easton route make their way past us so we did not have to pass them on the boot track, especially on steeper parts of the wall below us.
At 09:36, after fifty-two minutes on top, we started climbing down, reversing the order of the rope. Down the wall, where we met a group despite trying not to. Down to the crater, which we initially bypassed but then where we found a little shade to rest a moment and change to lighter layers because of the heat. Down, down, down the glacier, back across the couple of snow bridges. Using the boot track to avoid punching through, stepping next to the boot track with crampons just scratching the frozen surface, and occasionally heel plunging through the surface crust to get to the soft snow, increasing the amount of descent per step.
Back to the Portal overlooking the snowfield where we had started, at which point we unroped. I gathered the (sexy-as-all-fuck-orange) rope, strapped it to my pack and started an awkward descent, half boot glissade and half plunge step, half traverse and half descent, to where the tent and its prayer flags finally appeared at just before 13:00. I skipped right past the Bob-Micah-Douglas compound, from which Douglas had departed on his own that morning, and dropped my pack, crampons, gaiters and boots and our tent at 13:01. The descent had taken three hours and twenty-five minutes, 51.6% of the ascent’s time.
It’s nearly impossible to lessen the time spent eating, treating more water and packing up the camp. It seems it should be quick, but it isn’t. Again, I thought Emily and I were slow and holding up the group, but we were not really. Wind had increased and made us take a little more time, cautious not to lose the tent, gear or trash as we repacked everything. At 14:45 we left camp with full stomachs, heavy loads and a desire to get to the car, to pizza, to bratwurst, to shade, to the ferry, to sleep. Maybe we were about 35 miles from Lyman.