Monday, July 2, 2012

Volcano Extravaganza, Or: How we didn't actually summit anything

I wish I could tell an epic story about 3 summits in a matter of days.  Of amazing June weather, spectacular views and scaling crappy rock still slippery with snow.  I can't.  What I can write about is Volcano Extravaganza a mountain downpour, double IT band failure, a mysterious foot injury and zero summits.

Mt Jefferson

I know that, statistically, no one summits every mountain they try to climb.  I know that when you plan trips around time off and not around weather windows you decrease your chances even more.  I know I'm a rookie at this and my abilities are and will continue to be a limitation, but I still can't help but feel an overwhelming disappointment at things not working out.

Last Saturday, Peter drove down from Seattle and, after much dragging of feet, we made our way towards Jefferson.  We were planning on hiking in a ways that night, but by the time we made it to the trailhead dusk was weaving it's shadows through the trees and casting a pink glow on the clouds.  Instead, we had a lazy evening camping in the parking lot.  In the morning, we awoke to a heavy downpour and decided to stay in bed until it passed.  A leisurely start had us walking up the trail around 10:30am.

 Pete forgot his boots!  Trail runners and ski boots!

 Whitewater trailhead

We walked for two miles before encountering snow.  Even then, it was patchy for a while and the boot pack was clear and easy to follow.  We stopped for lunch on a high, rocky ridge below the mountain and scouted the rest of our approach.  We were able to scope out a good place to camp on the north ridge that night.

 Hiding from us

 Fun with maps

Green valleys to the west

We continued our walk and were fully in snow by the time we reached the PCT trail junction.  This trip we brought a GPS along with us, not wanting to endure the aimless wanderings we had before; it helped.  To reach the bench we had picked out for camp, we headed straight up the nearest ridge an within two hours we reached a nice flat nook to set up camp.  After a crevasse rescue refresher and dinner, the sun began to set.  We were perched right between layers of high and low clouds that made the sunset the most incredible I have ever seen.

 From the tent

The alarm beeped at 3am and we set about making coffee and breakfast.  By 4 we were hiking up the ridge as the mountain slowly came into view with the dawn.  Once we arrived at the lower reaches of the glacier we roped up and began the long slog upward.  It hadn't frozen much overnight and we cramponed on a breakable crust over calf deep new snow.  It wasn't quick. 

 The sun comes out!


The clouds were clearing and as we hiked farther up the glacier the weather looked more and more promising.  On a small rollover we saw the first crevasse, it looked small and unassuming.  To our left were signs of moats against the rocky north ridge.  I was breaking trail and I took a step.  There was the first crunch of crampons, then the whomp of snow compacting beneath my feet.  I didn't stop there; my leg dropped and I was up to my thigh in snow, an erie airy feeling surrounded my lower leg and foot.  A small hole opened up in front of me and all I saw was dark blue space.  I'll admit it, I freaked out a little.  Sitting there frozen in place I was too scared to try and take another step.  Peter pulled the rope tight and walked me through standing up, probing around for "solid" ground and stepping over the moat.  That was my first crevasse fall; it wasn't much, but I respected where we were a little more at that moment.  I stepped in one more hidden moat crack before basically crawling onto some rocks for a food and water break.  I was convinced every step from that point would send me hurtling into an icy cavern.  

   The Bergschrund

We climbed higher up the Jefferson Park Glacier, crossing jumbled debris from loose, wet slides.  Little depressions in the snow were the only hint of more crevasses waiting hungrily for me.  We had planned  out where to cross the bergschrund the day before, but couldn't actually see if it was doable until we were right there.  A wide snow bridge spanned the gap and as we walked past the crack to the bridge I stopped to peer into the blue sculpted hole.  It drew me in like a cave, I wanted to climb down into it and touch the sides.  I wanted to lean against the smooth curved wall and feel the cold seeping through my back.

From there the slope steepened significantly.  We encountered a slope that had been buffed down to ice by the wind, so Peter build a snow anchor and I led up and over to some rocks.

When we reached the ridge, any semblance of clear weather was gone.  The clouds had rolled in and the wind was fierce.  We could barely make out the ridge we were to follow in front of us.  Peter led us up the knife edge ridge a few meters farther, barely being able to see what lay ahead.

What lay ahead- Spicy exposure

At this point, the decision was clear: we would have to bail.  That doesn't mean it was any easier a decision to make.  We sat at this boulder for minutes, peering into the fog, trying to talk ourselves into turning around.  It was only after a particularly vicious gust of wind and numbness creeping into our limbs that we started walking back down the mountain.  By now we could barely see where we topped out the glacier.  Finding a softer patch of snow than what we ascended, Peter belayed me down the steep part and we were soon plunge stepping toward the snow bridge.  

It was somewhere early in this descent that the familiar sensation crept into my knees.  Had I accidentally stabbed myself with my ice tool?  It sure felt that way.  Shooting pain in the sides of both knees made every step awkward and difficult (regular readers may remember this issue with running.)  For the rest of the climb down only about 70% of my steps happened in the way I actually intended.

 Crossing the bergschrund

Thumbs up if you love crappy weather!

As we continued across the upper glacier, it began to hail (really it's graupel . . . but how many people know that?).  The icy beads ran down the slide paths without even thinking about sticking.  As we crossed streams of ice rolling down the mountain, a rock the size of the grapefruit streaked in front of me.  I could barely get the word "rock!" out of my mouth before it hit Peter right in the calf.  With the weather, visibility and now the threat of rockfall, a sense of urgency drove the rest of our descent.  Once we were out of the slide zone, we calmed down a little.  Lower on the mountain the hail turned to snow and sleet.  Peter stopped to peer in a few "small" crevasses that we had passed without a second glance on the way up.  They weren't as unassuming as we had thought.  One of them went a good 20+ feet before the walls squeezed together and was packed in with snow.  Another one, even lower on the glacier plummeted even deeper before it turned out of view; still two feet wide where it bent.  

By the time we returned to our camp it was an all out downpour.  We ducked inside, trying to avoid getting everything else as wet as we were.  We hadn't brought enough food for another night, otherwise we could hunker down and wait it out.  Peter was starting to feel hypothermic, so we spent a few minutes brewing up hot drinks and organizing our things.  We were able to break down camp quickly and be on our way in the pouring rain.  

I'm sure I was a sight; slipping and sliding, stiff-legged down the first couple slopes (the phenomenon I call "Barbie leg").  My ski poles were the only thing keeping me upright.  We quickly made it to bare trail and for a few flat miles were able to make good time.  Lower down, the weather was almost pleasant.  The rain was gone, and rays of sun were even breaking their way through the clouds.  It was around this time when I stopped being distracted enough to notice the pain in the back of my heel.  It wasn't the usual blister hot-spot, which I am so accustomed to getting, well . . . always.  It was tender and bruised, which was unusual and disconcerting.  

Limping and exhausted, we made it back to the trailhead in the daylight.  Peeling off soaked clothing and boots, I found my heel to be swollen and protruding in a strange way.  We threw everything in the car and made a beeline to the closest restaurant we knew of: Takoda's, in Rainbow, OR.  We knew we couldn't camp that night and realistically climb the next day.  Wet things aside, I knew I couldn't physically climb the next day.  Across the street was a small motel.  We got a room, cranked up the heat and scattered our soaking wet gear about to dry.  

The next day was spent soaking in the Terwilliger Hot Springs (aka Cougar Hot Springs), after a delicious breakfast in town.  We spent hours just sitting and stretching (and abusing my IT band) and drinking as much gatorade as we could stomach.  A much needed day off.  

Messy car.  Turns out there is a mouse living in here.

In the springs we decided to try for Washington the next day.  The forecast was favorable and that mountain seemed to have the most interesting climbing.  We found a nice campground at Big Lake, near the PCT; set up camp and enjoyed some evening sun.  

 Big Lake

 You know I can't resist a picture of some good gnarly wood.
 The back side of Hoodoo and Hayrick Buttes!

In the morning we broke down camp and drove the few minutes to the trailhead.  I put my boots on and was dismayed to find that my heel still hurt, badly.  I figured I would try to walk and see how it went.  The PCT travels through a fresh burn from last year; only grass has begun to grow again.  We moved through an airy ghost forest with just smatterings of green here and there.

After a mile or so, I had to stop denying the pain in my foot.  There was just no way I could do the whole climb.  We sat in the trail for a few minutes, reluctant to actually turn around on such a perfect day (okay fine, I was moping).  

 Three Fingered Jack mocks us.

On our way back to the car I took out my frustration on some burned logs.

Katie smash!

We drove a little ways to a picnic area for a refreshing brew (read: sorrow drowning) and a snack.  Then we drove the road back to Eugene, in the sun with the windows cracked.  

 Mt Washington, looking smug

One mountain that wont let me down

I don't want to say the trip was a disappointment, though I was extremely bummed out about my foot.  We climbed, had an adventure, got to sit in a hot spring for hours and had some lovely evenings camping.  

On the bright side, at least I didn't get any blisters!


  1. Found your blog from LetsBeWild. I visited Oregon in August and it was my first experience in the northwest. I fell in love with the McKenzie Pass area. Thanks for helping me relive some of that :)

    1. Tim,
      So glad you enjoyed it! Both the blog and the Oregon trip. It is a wonderful place, come back soon!