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© Bob Moulder

Posted: 15 Aug 2000

Okay, I write too much, and this is just the first installment. I'll have some photos scanned soon to go along with this report.

Starting out negatively in a trip report is not my usual pattern, but it did not take long to figure out what I did not find satisfying about my recent trip to the Cascades. I managed, with the able assistance of American Alpine Institute (AAI) guides/instructors John “JT” Tack and Tim Jumonville, to top out on two true gems of the region, Glacier Peak (10,541 ft., with JT) and Mt. Shuksan (9,127 ft., with Tim). In fact, it was on the physically and psychologically draining return to our little base camp at Lake Ann after gaining the summit of Mt. Shuksan that I realized I am really not a client kind of guy.

On the surface, there was absolutely nothing to complain about—the weather was outrageously good, with clear skies, warm days and cool nights; both summits offered fantastic views all around, and there was little or no wind; the route conditions on both climbs were perfect, with consistently good snow, ice and rock under boot, and virtually no crevasse or avalanche danger; JT and Tim were great guys as well as great climbers, and they helped me refine my skills and filled in some serious gaps in topics I only thought I understood fully; and I managed to avoid sunburn. But still something was definitely amiss, and several things have come to mind in the few days that I’ve had to rest and cogitate about the whole experience.

My goal on each trip was to do something a little bit beyond my capability, which led me to select the Frostbite Ridge route for Glacier and the Fisher Chimney route for Shuksan, both rated as “intermediate” by AAI. On the Glacier climb I succeeded in meeting that objective, while on Shuksan I was unfortunately too successful, owing in large part to inadequate rest after the Glacier climb. And that, in fact, is the crux of my bummer.

But first, the facts and the good stuff.

I met JT at AAI’s headquarters in Bellingham, WA. After a quick gear dump, some rapid culling, filling the stoves’ fuel bottles, and signing several legal forms to immunize AAI in the event of my demise, JT and I were off to Glacier Peak in a huge van that could easily handle ten people and all their gear. The Glacier climb was a “scheduled” climb, meaning that anyone who met AAI’s requirements and paid the fee could come along, but there were no other takers for this climb which is routinely avoided because of its renowned 10-mile, 3000-ft. approach to base camp, and 3-mile, 3000-ft. slog to high camp.

After the long drive south and east along the Suiattle River, a stop at a supermarket to pick up some last-minute food items, and much time lost to a poorly marked National Forest Service sign for the White Chuck trail head, JT and I did not set foot on the trail until around 2:30 pm. I was surprised that JT would wear his plastic Scarpa mountain boots for the approach, and I considered doing the same but opted to wear the ankle-high light hikers I had brought along. Despite our brisk pace, it took nearly 5 ½ hours to reach the campsite near the head of Kennedy Creek. It was not until well into the hike—when we gained the switchbacks on the lower, forested reaches of the Kennedy Ridge—that the imposing, glacier-ground flanks of the great, old volcano could be admired. The actual summit could not be seen, even from base camp, as it was hidden behind the massive upper Kennedy Ridge.

One thing that could be observed is that the Kennedy Glacier was badly broken up, with the lower third of it looking quite treacherous. Every few minutes car-sized, blocky chunks of the seracs at the toe of the glacier would crack off, littering the moraine with ice shards and rocks scraped from the volcano’s sides by glacier movement. Above that, the middle third of the glacier was a chaos of yawning crevasses that would take hours of tedious route-finding to negotiate. So it was not a surprise when JT announced that we would likely divert from the Fred Becky-proscribed route and instead work our way up Glacier Ridge to the Ptarmigan Glacier.

And next morning that’s exactly what we did. Shortly after 11 a.m. we left JT’s big dome tent at the base camp, with our extra food and few other items carefully stashed in the dome, while carrying only my little Bibler Eldorado for shelter at high camp. (Turns out, the weather was so fine that bivy sacks would have sufficed for the whole trip if not for the mosquitoes and flies lower down.) Just before departing, JT impressed upon me the need to verify our position exactly using map and compass. This exercise exposed my level of knowledge as lying somewhere between utter mediocrity and complete schlock, which inspired JT to give me a thorough lesson on taking accurate bearings and transferring them to map. (Dang, now I’ve just got to have a compass with a sighting mirror!)

Finally clearing treeline at around 6,000 ft., we were treated to unobstructed views that highlighted just how fractured the Kennedy was. By contrast, we were delighted to discover the Ptarmigan Glacier in perfect shape with only the occasional small slot toward the middle and well-consolidated pack. The only vertigo-inspiring aspect of the climb up to 8,200 ft. was a narrow cornice-like ridge that formed the lip of a huge ice moat at the base of Kennedy Peak, in whose shadow we would place our high camp. A couple of times I caught JT, a real rock hound, wistfully eyeing the fractured walls of Kennedy, but without a rock rack he would have to quell that particular urge until a later trip. The high ridges of Glacier Peak had barely begun to take on the pink and gold glows of sunset as we crawled into our sleeping bags to recharge our energy for the 2 a.m. alarm and dreaded alpine start of summit day.

So full of anticipation, I was already awake when the alarm went off. I stuffed my feet into my Scarpas, clambered out onto the now-firm snow and fired up the stove for some coffee and oatmeal to start the day. I futzed with harness, prussiks, crampons and all the other little doodads, double-checked my pack contents and was ready. At 3:23 a.m. we left our camp on the Ptarmigan and were soon traversing the upper Vista Glacier—after a 200-ft. descent, naturally!— rounding a rock outcrop or two on the way to Frostbite Ridge. Interestingly, Frostbite had no frost on it, and it was our choice whether to hike the damnable scree on the ridge or stay in the snow. Easy pick; we stayed on snow. At the top of Frostbite lay a jagged 3rd-Class ridge that leads to a feature I had wanted to see in person ever since I first read Beckey’s description of the route: Rabbit Ears. The rock ears form a neat little slot (where you climb right between the ears!) at the top of the ridge, which is then descended by a bit more 3rd-Class scrambling. This is followed by a couple more ascents up easy, rounded cornices toward rocky outcrops of the heavily eroded crater rim of the volcano, and a couple of exasperating descents.

The approach to the summit is guarded by a huge pack of very old, stable, consolidated snow layers that had melted out on the side to form a 140-ft. water-ice headwall with a steepness of 55 degrees and a bulge or two that are closer to 60 degrees. (I thought the whole mass was at least 70 degrees, but the clinometer of JT’s compass proved otherwise.) There was a less-steep ramp around the left side of the headwall that sported some old kicked steps, but JT assured me that the ramp was for weenies. So it was there on the headwall that JT quickly kicked in his front points and slammed the pick of a single ice axe overhead, scurrying upward so fast that I could hardly play out the rope fast enough through my Münter hitch, and so securely that he didn’t feel the need to place a single ice screw. So much for my “belay”!

He set up a hip belay and it was my turn. At 10,000 ft., surmounting this wall was a real challenge for a sea-level gumby like me. I made it about halfway up before the serious burn started to set into my calf muscles, made all the worse by the fact that my right arm was effectively useless for anything other than swinging the axe. After a short, unrestful rest, I took off again and was midway through my third swing when an F-18 or F-15 fighter jet streaked by below and to our right, so closely that JT could almost see the grin on the pilot’s face. I took a quick glance but hardly had time to linger as I finished clawing my way up the ice. I didn’t mind admitting to JT that I was pretty much fried by that effort.

After that, there was a less-steep slog in soft snow followed by yet another frustrating dip before the final, easy grind to the summit snow pack and a narrow strip of rock that represents the uppermost remains of the volcano’s rim. We rested, ate, took photos and took in the views for more than an hour. There was almost no wind, and at times there was none, allowing a dead silence to settle over the summit. Humidity was relatively low, and it was no trouble at all to make out the peaks of Rainier and Adams, as well as hundreds of other lesser peaks know well by local climbers, and AAI’s primary “classroom,” Mt. Baker, in the distant north. Although there were some low clouds to the west, the higher peaks of the Olympic Range were well defined.

The elevation difference between high camp and the summit is approximately 2300 ft., but the considerable undulations that lie between make for a total of about 3600 ft. of climbing and, of course, an equal amount of descending. By the time we made it back down to high camp, around noon, I was pretty knackered, but after a little rest and some food I got my second wind. That would come in handy, for we still had ahead the rather arduous task of packing up high camp and descending another 3000 feet to basecamp.

What a pleasure it was to plunge our hot, overworked feet into the icy cold glacier run-off in Kennedy Creek! There was still plenty of daylight for us to cook dinner leisurely and relax in the warm sun, simple rewards that seemed all the more deserved after the long hours of labor. Stone-dead sleep came easily, interrupted only once (a personal record, I think) for a trip outside to take a whiz.

We were up, fed and packed a little before 8 a.m., and about 2 hours later JT was soaking in Kennedy Hot Springs as I, not being a big fan of sulphur, washed off with cold water from White Chuck Creek. Still, there was quite a bit of hiking left. And it was, as usual, quite a relief to arrive at last at the parking lot where that big ol’ AAI van was waiting.

And on to Mt. Shuksan, later…

-- Bob

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