Category Archives: Mountaineering

Lake Angeles – Klahhane Ridge – Heather Park Loop

Lake Angeles MapOn Sunday of last week we were staying out in Port Angeles so I decided to do the Lake Angeles-Heather Park loop trail. I’d done this once before, maybe two years ago, and the weather was spectacular – especially for so late in September. This was partial consolation to the cancelling of our Constance trip, which still remains unclimbed…by me.

I decided to bring along my new Garmin 910xt along with the heart rate monitor. I wasn’t expecting to feel particularly energetic, given it was my fifth consecutive day of exercise, and that I’d done a swim-bike brick the day before. But I was curious as to how hiking compared to other forms of more intense but shorter duration exercise on the device.

The trail leaves from (and returns to) the Heart O’ The Hills trailhead. With my trusty Garmin watch functioning, I was able to get precise information on position, distance, heart rate, elevation, etc. The sign at the trailhead indicates that Lake Angeles is 2.7 miles, which is not correct. Both my topo map and my watch pin it rather at 3.3 miles. I had forgotten to set the barometric altimeter on the watch, so the elevation data I believe was all off by about 200 feet or so.

Lake AngelesThe trail ascends somewhat steeply to Lake Angeles, which was gorgeous with the sun just coming up. From there, you follow an unsigned trail even more steeply up to Klahhane Ridge. I felt strong and energetic up to the lake, but after that started to tire a bit. Interestingly, it looks as if my heart rate kept slowly increasing to the point where I took a break, and then this cycle repeated. My pack was 18 pounds (a bit heavy for a day hike, but I wanted the training and, especially since I was by myself, I wanted to ensure I could easily spend the night out there if necessary), and I was wondering if perhaps there’s no way I can move sustainably up a steep trail without having to rest. Maybe it’s a consequence of my SUV-like metabolism (lots of power, but not great on the fuel efficiency).

Klahhane RidgeFrom the top of the ridge, you get spectacular views of the Strait of Juan de Fuca (which incidentally was swam last week by several friends), Ediz Hook, Dungeness Spit, Orcas Island, Mount Baker, and even up into the Coastal Range of BC. On the other side, Olympus stood majestically among many hundreds of miles of wilderness. It’s rare you can see it so clearly – not a single cloud in the sky! One day I’ll climb it – along with Constance, it’s at the top of my list.

The entire trail was essentially deserted. I saw one other couple (interestingly, friends of the family) doing the same thing, and a couple of people where the trail intersects with the switchbacks coming up from the road.

Klahhane RidgeI was wearing my leather hiking boots instead of my mountaineering boots (Scarpa Trangos) and I think my feet were happy for it. I started developing hot spots on my heels (typical for me going uphill with a burden) and I applied my new remedy – a grease-like goo that’s supposed to prevent blisters. It seemed to work, though I still had a bit of residual pain.

The trail goes right under the shadow of Mount Angeles (when I climbed it earlier this summer, it was raining and wet, with 360 degree views…of clouds). There’s quite a bit of up and down as you cross a narrow pass north of the mountain and contour around the other side. There’s one additional steep-ish section leading to Heather Park and then it’s all downhill back to the trailhead.

IMG_20140928_134017The total milage according to the Garmin was 12.5. Although the elevation gain from the trailhead to the highest point is about 4,200 feet, with all the up and down my watch thinks the total vertical was 6,800 feet. That seems like a lot of up and down to me, but maybe it’s correct. I think the relative elevation data should be accurate, so if that’s the case it’s on par with one of the more arduous climbs (like Whitehorse) and thus a great conditioner.

Without my mountaineering boots, everything actually felt pretty good during the several last miles. But one thing the Garmin does allow you to do, and I’m not sure how I feel about this, is tick off the remaining milage bit…by…bit. It’s like watching the last few tenths of a mile click by on a treadmill. I think it’s marginally better than not knowing at all, since you feel a psychological satisfaction with every 1/10 mile…but I just couldn’t help glancing at the watch every two minutes or so.

ProfileDespite many years of mountaineering, I still don’t have some things totally dialed-in. I ran out of water about 2 miles short of the finish. Not a big deal, and I could always have refilled at a stream (using my iodine tablets) if I started to feel dehydrated, but for whatever reason I just can’t seem to predict my fluid consumption well. Throughout most of the trip, I managed to stay well hydrated and well fed, but I wished I had started with 3 liters instead of 2.5. Carrying water is painful when it essentially doubles the weight on your back (especially since your pack is heaviest right at the beginning of the trip…often steeply uphill), but unless you have access to streams and have a way of purifying it, it’s just a cost of the trip.

TrailHere’s the interesting part – the trip took me almost 7 hours, with plenty of stops for rest, eating, and photos, and burned over 3000 calories (according to the watch), yet none of it really felt like “working out”. My brick the day before, by comparison only burned 1,600 (again, assuming the Garmin is accurate here). The lesson is that long, aerobic, fun activities like hiking in some ways get you more bang for your psychological buck. It doesn’t feel like a chore, as running sometimes (OK, most of the time) does. And if you don’t worry about pace and maintain good nutrition and hydration, you can go many, many hours without it feeling like an ordeal that must be gotten through. So rather than hitting the gym on the weekend for an hour or two, you can hike for 7 and get more (aerobic) benefit, and have way more fun.

    Upper Royal Lake Basin Take 2 (The Snow Edition)

    Mt. DeceptionThis was my second trip to the Royal Basin area, this one much earlier season then the first. The ground up there was covered in snow and there were almost no people. The marmots were just waking up and frolicking – marmots have a way of galloping that really must be seen to be understood.

    We had plans to climb Mt. Deception but canned it after…well, getting lazy. Deception is the second tallest peak in the Olympics and an impressive sight. You can’t even really see it until you turn a corner in the Royal Creek valley. There looked to be a snow covered scramble route that would have been fine, but of course I can’t say for certain without actually having gone up.

    This trip was quite different than the first: no bugs, no Park Ranger telling us to move our tent, and no crowds. Of course we couldn’t swim in the lake given its snow-covered condition…

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      Mt. St. Helens Take 3

      Mt. St. Helens Crater

      Mt. St. Helens Crater – Photo by Mike Warren*





      Mountaineering just isn’t the type of sport you expect to have much mass appeal. Maybe it’s the whole masochistic thing – the discomfort, or the cold, wet, fatigue, blisters, heights, early morning starts, etc. Nevertheless, hoards of climbers turn up each Mothers’ Day to ascend Mt. St. Helens, making this the big public event of the mountaineering season.

      MtStHelensIt’s tradition to wear dresses on this particular day. I have now idea why, but that’s what many people do, sometimes complete with sun hats with flowers in them, all put on over high performance climbing gear.

      This was my third time to Mt. St. Helens and the second time we were successful in summiting (or “cratering” as the case may be). The mountain is not really technical, though having crampons and ice axes is a good idea. It’s a fun, straightforward trip – I’ve heard much better in the snow than during the height of summer.

      We usually make a base camp about 3 miles in, but one can easily do the entire climb in a day. There was remarkably little snow this year, which reinforced my decision to go on foot rather than on skis. In my experience, skis work on a narrower set of conditions than snowshoes. Although skis are great for the way down, I still think snowshoes are the most efficient way of getting from Point A to Point B if you’re not sure what the conditions will be.

      Mt. St. Helens SummitNevertheless, for the second year in a row, we carried our snowshoes to base camp, left them for the climb, and carried them out again to the trailhead. Taking snowshoes often seems to ensure you won’t encounter snow-shoeable snow.

      One of the perks of the mountain are the views from the top. It gives you the feeling of being on of one of the big volcanoes without as much hardship as the others. Standing there makes you feel like you can look down to the entire state of Washington. You literally look down to the clouds, which gives the sensation of being in an airplane, though with both feet on the ground. All this makes for a fun trip without feeling totally blasted afterwards.

      * Mike’s extensive gallery of often spectacular mountaineering photography is here.

        Little Tahoma

        LittleTLittle Tahoma is the third highest mountain in Washington. It’s Rainier’s little sidekick, which is exactly what it looks like when you view the mountain from Seattle. But there could be a hundred people climbing Rainier any given summer day and Little T will be almost deserted.

        Our approach was via the White River Trailhead. It’s a couple of miles on good trail to Summerland (the first bit is really quite flat, followed by a few switchbacks). Summerland is a delightful meadow area with a number of overly-friendly marmots.

        From there, you leave the trail and ascend two somewhat steep snowfields to a very picturesque mesa. It’s actually one of the coolest base camps I’ve ever seen – you camp on dirt and gravel almost in the shadow of Little T. One thing to note, though, is that after the first couple of miles, the rest of the trip is totally devoid of shade. As with many summer glacier climbs, staying cool and un-sunburned is a far greater concern than staying warm…

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        I recently bought a new Fly Creek ultralight 2-person tent from Big Agnes and have been using this in lieu of a bivy sack since the thing only weighs about 2 pounds. My thinking was that I’d sleep better in my own 2-person tent than either (i) a bivy sack, or (ii) sharing with another big, hairy dude. In general, it has worked out well, but on this particular spot the wind kicked up a bit and the tent walls started sounding like a spinnaker in a gale. I went to bed at probably around 7 PM but did not sleep one…single…wink for the next six hours! By the time 1 AM rolled around (our wake-up time), I was actually relieved since at least it was a break in the tedium of listening to the flapping and wondering if my tent would be torn to shreds (actually, the tent did just fine and there wasn’t even that much wind…it just sounds bad).

        mjw_6865 for fb

        We roped up and set off across the glacier towards Little T. The mountain looks waaaaay closer than it actually is, and it took a good bit of time to get to it. We ascended a steep, crumbly rock rib and dropped down onto the glacier on the other side. Little T (and Rainier in general) is notorious for really crumbly rock – it’s pretty much as if a massive dump truck emptied its load of bowling-ball sized rocks over the entire area. So rockfall was always a concern. We stayed very close together going over the thing, on the theory that any loosened rock wouldn’t have much time to gather momentum before hitting the next guy.

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        The sun came up behind our backs, which was a spectacular sight. We crossed the second glacier and turned right and up to start ascending a steeper part to the summit. That’s where it started getting sketchy. This year was really light on snowpack, so the conditions in the early morning were hard and scary. It’s the sort of thing where you really wished you had two ice tools instead of just the axe (that would have made it easy).

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        We protected our route with pickets and pushed on. One section got steep enough to employ the famed “piolet panne” technique – you stick the blade in at about chest height and place your palm right on top of the adze. That allows you to essentially push vertically up on your axe to get your feet higher. I was actually fine with that, but what worried me was being roped up in such a situation – if one of the other guys on my team started to go, I wasn’t overwhelmingly confident I could arrest the fall. The pickets provided a bit of comfort, but it was a bit of a hair-raiser. I guess that’s what guides feel all the time…

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        After ascending the steep bit, we exited the glacier to get onto the final bit of rock. After what we’d just been through, crappy crumbly rock felt like complete luxury! We scrambled up a few hundred feet to the summit, which gives you views of the massive side of Rainier as well as panoramas of all of Washington.

        mjw_7056

        Unfortunately, the crappy snow conditions absolutely killed our pace. We made the trek back to base camp (by then, the snow had softened up to my infinite relief) to pump water and stow our tents. It was a happy moment after so much struggle, but we still had miles to go with heavy packs before we got to the cars. That last bit of trail just kept going on and on and on – no matter what, the last 10% of any trip is just plain drudgery for me. It was dark but I just couldn’t bear to put on my headlamp (that would be admitting that yes, this was approaching an epic). We were back at the cars at 10 PM.

        It was a great trip with fabulous folks, but the conditions were pretty challenging. Some of our guys who had climbed Little T three or four times before thought this was the hardest they’d seen. The lesson is how critical snow conditions are for both safety and speed. You don’t always get nice squishy plunge-stepable snow!

        All photos are courtesy of Mike Warren, who has an extensive collection of mountaineering photography at www.mountaingroovephotography.com. Climbing mountains is hard. Mike does it while carrying several pounds of camera equipment!

         

          Dragontail Colchuck Double Header

          mapI actually don’t know why I signed up for this one. Climbing either Colchuck or Dragontail is a fun, but somewhat long day. Climbing both in the same day is masochistic. Anyway, I’ve written about Colchuck in an earlier post, so I won’t repeat now – it’s a cool, easy climb.

          Dragontail is a tad more technical. After climbing Colchuck, we returned to the col between the two peaks and started up Dragontail. You go up a rock/alpine dirt scramble onto a steep-ish snowfield. We ascended this and then exited to the left, which puts you on the ridge. Sticking your head out over the void is pretty cool – you look right down to the snow and rock wwaaaaay down below.

          We rigged a handline for some easy but exposed 4th class, and traversed the ridge. The summit is accessed by climbing up in the snow from the traverse at the correct location. From there, we descended via Aasgard Pass. Everything was just awesome until we saw some totally random and big rockfall shooting out from a gully on the east side of Dragontail. I hate Aasgard – it seems like it’s cursed with some bad voodoo. There have been a couple of recent accidents there (one involved glissading into a moat) and you feel like you’re in a bowling alley for random rockfall.

          I was very happy to be down and bushwhacking through the alder by Colchuck Lake. We made our way to the trail and did the last 1.5 miles at essentially a run. This was a strong group – probably the strongest group I’ve ever climbed with. Truly an amazing group of sled dogs – we did the entire trip in 14 hours.

          Photos courtesy of Nathan Johnsen.

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          Dragontail in the Center, Colchuck on the Right

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          Looking up at Dragontail in the Fog

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          Ascending from Colchuck Lake

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          Coming up to the Col

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          Colchuck Summit

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          Dragontail Ridge in the Fog

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          Dragontail Summit

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          Going down Aasgard Pass

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          Colchuck Late On The Way Down

            Sloan Peak

            Sloan has a little of everything – stream crossings, scrambling up all sorts of rock, glacier travel, bushwhacking, route-finding, and spectacular views from the summit. It’s sometimes described as the “Matterhorn of the Cascades” because of its distinctive profile. I first saw Sloan from a peak near Stevens Pass and thought it would be a cool climb. The normal route is the “Corkscrew” route, which Beckey estimates taking around 13 hours from the trailhead. I’m sure that’s possible with a fit and very efficient team, but I’ve learned to add about 20% to Beckey’s estimates for mere mortals. It took us 15.5 hours.

            Photo courtesy of Long Bach Nguyen. Long has a portfolio of fantastic photography, largely while piloting various aircraft around Seattle, at his gallery.

            The trail starts with three river crossings across pieces of the north fork of the Sauk River. When we did it, the crossings were on fallen logs and weren’t too sketchy, though I can easily imagine this being a more formidable obstacle if the water level is high. As we were doing it, I kept saying to myself, “Man, I hope we don’t have to do this in the dark…” I managed to completely submerge my right foot twice, requiring me to stop and wring out my sock each time. Ugghhh…

            Cougar Creek

            Photo courtesy of Alixandra Lamsa.

            The trail is pretty overgrown – lots of fallen logs, Devil’s Club, and creek-crossings – but when we did it there were relatively frequent flags showing the route. At first I thought the flags were annoying and detracted from the more pure wilderness route-finding experience you’d otherwise have, but I was very happy to have them on the way down. The trail ascends somewhat steeply to the first crossing of Cougar Creek, next to a spectacular cascading waterfall.

            Ascending about 3000′ from the road, you come out of the trees and onto a big snow and rock covered slope. We ascended up by easy scrambling to a snowfield, put on crampons, and ascended up and across to the glacier. This trip I was experimenting for the first time carrying a 3 liter water bladder in my pack instead of my usual 2.5 liter water bottles. The bladder is lighter, fits more naturally into the pack, allows you to drink more consistently, but of course makes it hard to judge how much water you have left.

            Photo courtesy of Alixandra Lamsa.

            By the time we got to the first snow field, I had already drank down my 2.5 liters and had to refill from another person in our party who had extra before we all stopped to pump. After once being very dehydrated on a climb, I now drink copious amounts of water – it both keeps your athletic performance where it should be and also just makes you happier! If someone gets cranky on a climb, my first reaction is to give them water…that often solves the problem. But staying fully hydrated on a strenuous climb is difficult, if not impossible, and you need to weigh the benefits with the drawbacks of carrying additional weight and the time it takes to pump. I often add a Nuun tablet to my water as well, to help keep the electrolytes balanced.

            Photo courtesy of Alixandra Lamsa.

            We ate lunch at the start of the glacier, roped up, and crossed. On the Corkscrew route, you go to the upper-SW corner of the glacier and exit onto a rocky ridge with a clear trail. When we did it, there were a few crevasses, but nothing too overwhelming. The glacier wasn’t too steep, but enough for me to protect with a picket when we would travel above one of the crevasses.

            We cached some gear at the corner of the glacier and proceeded on the trail. You literally “corkscrew” around the peak until you reach a loose rock filled gully. Going up that, you hit some Class 3 and 4 scrambling, but the rock quality is very good and grippy, with plenty of fine holds. We brought our 30 meter rope but never ended up using it.

            Photo courtesy of Alixandra Lamsa.

            The summit views are spectacular, almost surreal. It never ceases to amaze me that these scenes of pristine alpine beauty are only two hours outside of Seattle! We summited at 2 PM, 8 hours after starting. I thought we moved reasonably well, not taking a huge amount of time for breaks and lunch, but still it’s a long slog. 6200′ in a day is no joke and takes a solid level of fitness and endurance.

            The descent back onto the glacier was actually easier than going up. The biggest hazard was rockfall, so we went one-by-one down the chute. Once we were back on the glacier, we opted to descend much farther on easy snow to avoid having to scramble down the rocky slabs that we came up on. If you go NNE and aim for the left-hand side of an obvious and cliffy ridge, there’s a well worn trail. Of course, by then we were all out of water, which just makes everything harder. Once we were off of the glacier, we had another rock scramble down a crumbly slope, after which we finally pumped at a stream. It’s amazing how fresh water, a powerbar, and a Cliff Double Espresso gel can improve your entire outlook! From there, we rejoined the trail for the long slog back down. By the time we got back to the river, we had headlamps on, and re-crossing those log bridges in the dark was…interesting. Add to that a pretty serious level of fatigue and soreness and you really want to be careful. There’s no shame in the Butt-Scoot…

            Photo courtesy of Alixandra Lamsa.

            There were a few lessons learned for me on the trip:

            1. I’d suggest starting at 5 AM and moving as efficiently as possible to avoid having to travel with headlamps on the way down. Even better, there were some really nice campsites along the way. I think a two day climb of Sloan would be pretty comfortable!

            2. I need tons of water on a strenuous climb. Next time I’d pump earlier so I wouldn’t get as dehydrated on the way down. It’s certainly a time-suck to pump, but I think this is justified by being happier and stronger.

            3. I chafed the hell out of my thighs and ankles. The same thing happened the previous weekend on an overnight backpack – something about my skin being in long-term contact with wet, salty clothing doesn’t agree with me. By the time we got back, it was really painful and I was totally gimp-ified. It was a relief to put on normal shorts and sandals! I was surprised by this since I’ve wore the very same stuff on my 30-day NOLS trip without too much trouble. Maybe it was the sheer duration of this particular climb… So I ordered synthetic, tight-fitting, moisture-wicking shorts (amazing what there is in clothing technology these days), better socks, and BodyGlide, which I’ve seen people use on marathons. I’ll try it on my feet, ankles, and legs to see if it makes a difference.

            Sporting the Alchemist 40 pack.
            Photo courtesy of Alixandra Lamsa.

            4. I tried a new pack for this trip – the First Ascent Alchemist 40. I’d been using two packs – a 105L Lowe Alpine Contour IV and a hand-me-down 47L Kelty Redwing. The Lowe Alpine pack was my NOLS pack that I’ve had for 15+ years. It’s super-durable, huge, and reliable. But as the trend in mountaineering is towards lighter and faster, it’s actually hard to find these gigantic packs anymore. For a one day trip, even with rope, rack, water, etc., it’s massive overkill. Because it’s only partly filled, it doesn’t ride well at all. And of course it weighs a ton. The Kelty pack is also super-durable, but is still a bit large for a one-day trip and wasn’t really meant for carrying rope, pickets, ice axe, and the like – it’s more for backpacking around Europe. The Alchemist is a bit on the heavy side and had a bunch of features, which was actually a disadvantage in my eyes (features = failure-points). I was tempted by the Osprey Hornet 46, which weighs a mere .46 kg, but you aren’t really supposed to carry more than 30 lbs. in it. As soon as you add rope, rack, pro, harness, and the like, you easily pushing into that range, so that pack wouldn’t really work for climbing. I settled on the Alchemist because it expands from 40 to 55 liters, has a built-in bivy/sit pad, and is designed around climbing. I was pretty happy with it – my gear fit easily inside (I didn’t use my normal trash compactor bag to waterproof, since it seems like the pack is reasonably waterproof already) and it’s easy to quickly lash on a rope, stow/deploy your ice axe, and clip on pickets. I also didn’t have any back fatigue at all after the trip, which was a big problem with my other packs – I think the Alchemist distributes the weight pretty well.

            Photo courtesy of Alixandra Lamsa.

            The one big problem I had, though, was that the quick-release ice axe/tool straps (in theory letting you grab your axe/tool without someone else’s help) were waaaay…too…quick-to-release! I re-attached my axe at least ten times when it would snap off while crawling under a tree. That’s a big problem for any sort of alpine-style climbing when you’re bushwhacking through forest, as you could accidentally leave your axe back on the trail… I’m fixing it by putting the axe through the quick release loop itself, which isn’t how it was meant to be used, but that’s a hell of a lot better than worrying about losing the axe! The other problem I had was the low-padding belt strap. With shorts, this can really eat into your skin and I had an angry-looking red rash after the climb just from the waist strap. It’s best to wear something else between the belt and your skin.

            Sloan is a great peak for a real alpine experience, and offers a bit of everything. There are a number of rock variations you can do as well to get to the summit. For me, I’ll probably do it as a two day trip in the future, just because I like a more leisurely pace and would rather carry overnight gear to a base camp than push through all in one day. The views on a clear day are unbeatable.

            Gallery photos courtesy of Alixandra Lamsa.

            Sloan Peak

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              Upper Royal Lake Basin

              Upper Royal Lake Basin is one of the most picturesque areas of the Olympics. We did it as an overnight backpack, starting from the Dungeness Trail parking lot. The trip is about 2500′ elevation gain (if I’m remembering right) and 8 miles or so each way along a well-maintained trail.

              Probably the most challenging part of this trip is simply finding the trailhead. You exit 101 via Palo Alto road and travel on several Forest Service roads to get there. Unfortunately, the roads are very poorly marked and the instructions that the Forest Service hands out when you get your permit (also accessible online) are wrong and confusing. We just followed the most well-used of the roads, and followed what signs there were to the Dungeness Trails. A GPS with a background map of the area would solve the problem. It’s funny since I had all sorts of detailed maps of our route printed out – I never thought just finding the damn trailhead would be so hard!
              The route starts on the Dungeness Trail and then follows the Royal Creek up the valley. By the time we reached Royal Lake, we were absolutely swarmed by mosquitoes and horse flies. It was some of the worst I’ve ever seen – we jumped into the lake to get away from them for a bit, which was a huge relief.

              The Park Service makes you carry a bear can. Since we had four people in our party, I opted for the larger container, which is essentially like carrying a water cooler tank in your pack. Hope you have room… Anyway, the damn thing weighs a ton! In the olden days in the Sierras, we’d just string our food in a tree. This of course has its own drawbacks (we once saw a mother bear send her light-weight cub up the tree to retrieve the food), but it would enable you to dispense with the can that’s just painful to carry.

              From Royal Lake, we pumped water and ascended another mile or so to the Upper Basin. There is a little glacial lake there along with lots of moraine, meadows, and marmots. The bugs were relentless, so we set up our tent as soon as we arrived and I put on my head net, rain jacket and pants, and tried to make do. I don’t use repellent since I hate the idea of having that stuff on my skin and clothes, and I think the other people who did use it got bitten just as badly. As soon as bare skin is exposed for more than about five seconds, it becomes covered with bugs. They let up a tiny bit at night, when the all perched on top of the mesh of our tent, eyeing us hungrily with their little probosces just waiting for the chance…

              The Park gave us a crude map of the Upper Basin indicating where to camp. We thought were were doing exactly what we were supposed to (camping on bare ground, not in the “No Camping” areas on the map), but about 8 PM at night the backcountry ranger came and told us we needed to move! Wow – that’s never happened to me before. We were already in our tents and I was pretty pissed that he hadn’t told us way earlier. Besides, elsewhere there were signs indicating no camping and we were camped in an obvious spot that appeared to follow all the directions of the map. Oh well… Fortunately, he said after a bit of scouting that we wouldn’t need to move after all. That’s not much of a backcountry experience…we might as well be car camping! The Park has gone overboard with these sorts of rules – they should control environmental impact in the wilderness (which we are always scrupulous in minimizing) by the number of wilderness permits they issue, not by dictating precisely where a party should camp! 

              But apart from this, the area is magnificently beautiful, with Mt. Deception and the Needles just overhead. I’d love to go back sometime when the bugs aren’t as bad to use the Upper Basin as a base camp for climbing the nearby peaks. There are also some off-trail routes that sound pretty interesting – the Dungeness Trail area can get pretty crowded in summer time and getting just a bit off the beaten track is a great way to escape the crowds. Mostly, the climbs of Mt. Deception and some of the Needles (including the aptly-named Incisor) are definitely on my list for a future trip.

              Photos courtesy of Tyler Albert.

              Upper Royal Lake Basin

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                Ice I Field Trip on Mt. Baker

                Ice I is where the Seattle Mountaineers’ Intermediate Course first addresses ice climbing. I’ve top-roped water ice many years ago in the Adirondacks and New Hampshire, and did some alpine-style ice climbing in Wyoming during my NOLS trip, but this was the first time climbing ice here in Washington.

                I’m not devoted enough to ice climbing to buy modern, bent-shaft ice tools. Particularly for around here, there’s just not really any water ice where they’d be necessary. The ice we do have is usually on glaciers and is rarely vertical for more than a few feet. Thus I bought a used straight-shaft ice tool from a buddy and decided to use my normal ice axe as my second tool.

                The problem is that an ice axe really just doesn’t work for climbing anything approaching vertical – it is just too long, and the head is too light to get a good placement without a lot of work. My new tool, however, worked wonders – it went in really easily and felt solid each time. I actually liked it more than some of the bent-shaft tools I tried, but the price you pay is sometimes crushing your fingers against the ice. Also, the thing weighs a ton. But if I knew I was going to be encountering steep ice, I’d probably opt to bring two such tools, since you can still self-arrest with them as with a normal ice axe (though I’ve never tried this).

                It was sunny that day on Baker, so we were continuously having to check the screws. Because ice screws are metal and conduct heat, they have a tendency to melt out the underlying ice if the sun hits them, compromising their security. I borrowed some of the old style Russian titanium screws – although some climbers swear by them because they’re so light, I found them to be a bit of a pain since they don’t have the modern rotating knob that makes placing modern ice screws so fast and easy.

                We also practiced making V-threads. I had a bit of trouble with this, as I several times couldn’t get the holes I drilled in the ice to meet up. I think V-threads are a bit scary – I’d always want to back them up with screws on a rappel and have the lightest person (most likely not me!) pull the screws and go down solely on the V-thread.

                One of the best parts of being on alpine ice is the beautiful shapes and sculptures that the water, wind, and sun carve out. Often, these form rivers in the glacier that are like waterslides. Other times the water flows deeper into the glacier and makes big caverns (indeed, one of the guys dropped a carabiner down one by accident…they’ll probably find that a few centuries from now when the glacier recedes up the mountain).

                So I’m fine climbing on steeper ice, but I still have no real desire to do sport-style vertical ice climbing. It’s just not something that really interests me – besides, ice climbing packs are really heavy!

                The photos are courtesy of Michael Rosenthal, who I now know drops gear both on rock and ice routes…

                Mt. Baker Ice I Field Trip

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                  Colchuck Peak

                  Last year I took the Basic Climbing Course with the Seattle Mountaineers. As part of the course, we all were divided up into “Small Instructional Groups” (SIGs) under the leadership of two experienced climbers. I’d intended to join up with the Mountaineers even before we moved to Washington, so I was pretty excited to get to take the course only shortly after we arrived. Your experience in the course is largely determined by which SIG you’re assigned to, as the leaders and other SIG members are the ones you have most contact with. I was first assigned to a SIG group meeting out in Kirkland, a good hour-long trip from Bainbridge. After noting that this probably wasn’t the most logical matching, by sheer serendipity I landed in the SIG group of Cebe Wallace and Mike Warren – as far as I’m concerned the best SIG group the Mountaineers has ever seen!

                  Aside from having two immensely experienced, patient, and fun leaders, our group was made up entirely of strong, enthusiastic climbers. In many cases, the SIG members themselves had significant mountaineering experience, and so the group came together very quickly. It was actually quite a sad day when the course was over – fortunately, many of us continued on into the Intermediate Climbing Course, and the others I still often see on trips. But to relive a bit of all the fun we had last year, Mike and Cebe organized a reunion climb this spring up Colchuck Peak.

                  The approach to Colchuck is off of Icicle Creek Road, the main climbing route out of Leavenworth. We bivvied out at the trailhead (I was outside and got rained on quite a bit) and got up early for a 5 AM start. Doing Colchuck in a day is a long (5000′ plus) day, taking a good 12 hours to complete. We hiked first up to Colchuck Lake and then ascended a snow gully to the col between Dragontail and Colchuck peaks. From there, it’s a scramble up snow and rock to the top.

                  Like every mountaineering trip I’ve ever been on, it’s long, hard, and goes on farther than I think it will. I was a bit nervous about the avalanche risk, since it was a hot day in the relatively early season, but whatever was going to slide on the route we went up had already slid, and the opinions of our several exceedingly experienced folks was that there was really minimal risk.

                  It was a purely fun climb – good folks, great weather, and no unpleasant surprises. Ascending that long snow gully is a slog, but the views from the col are spectacular. Looking out from the summit you can see all the neighboring peaks, including the formidable Stuart, Dragontail, and down to Colchuck Lake far, far below.

                  Photos are courtesy of Mike Warren. Mike has an extensive gallery of very fine work at Mountain Groove Photography.

                  Colchuck Peak

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                    Mt. Constitution

                    Orcas Island is surely one of the most magically picturesque places in the world. Here are some photos from a one-day hike we did there.

                    Mt. Constitution Trip

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