© 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
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
aboutthe 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 Ive 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 AAIs 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 AAIs 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 hikewhen we gained
the switchbacks on the lower, forested reaches of the Kennedy
Ridgethat 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 volcanos 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
And next morning thats exactly what we did. Shortly
after 11 a.m. we left JTs 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 Ive 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 Glacierafter 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 Beckeys 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 JTs 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 didnt 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 pilots face. I took a quick glance but hardly
had time to linger as I finished clawing my way up the ice.
I didnt 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 volcanos 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 AAIs
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