Return to the Mountains
Stretching out full length, diagonally, in what I’d come to view as my own personal “bouncy house”, I propped my congested upper body on down sleeping bags and random puffy jackets and tried to catch some oxygen between bouts of coughing.
Cragview Camp sits at about 6,500 ft. elevation on the terminal moraine of the Squak Glacier on Mt. Baker. With the winds howling at around 30 mph, the rain coming in sideways and the fog pinning the visibility to about 2.5 feet… it felt pretty good to be sprawled on an Exped Downmat and NOT navigating around giant crevasses on the glacier.
The day before, the team had awakened for summit day at 11:30 PM to a solid nuking grey-out. No go. Subsequent wake-ups didn’t appease the mountain gods and they shook their shaggy manes, releasing more rain and wind in response. Weathered in.
Our team had made the trek to base camp from a successful ascent of Mt. Adams the day before. Roads and trails and wilderness being what they are, we had done more driving than climbing in order to accomplish that goal. Mt. Adams requires a drive from Seattle to Portland, through Hood River, then up and up and up to the trailhead that starts at 5,300 ft. elevation and climbs to Sunrise Camp at 8,300 ft.
I’d been gifted with a full-throttle upper respiratory infection on the second day and simply hiking with a 55# pack was akin to running while wearing an SCBA (without supplemental oxygen).
Laying in the tent at Cragview, I was fully content to suck giant lung-fulls of humidified mountain air, sip my freshly brewed French Press coffee and listen to a podcast from Dirtbag Diaries (thank you, Fitz Cahall for making that possible). The two Exped Downmat sleeping pads completely filled the MSR tent from corner to corner.
As this was a guided trip through Mountain Madness, I had the luxury of loafing about while my climbing partner and the two guides headed back down to the trailhead to retrieve food and supplies to restock us for an extra day.
As evening approached, the winds died down, the skies cleared and the fog rolled back to reveal the North Cascades. In every direction, mountains and their mountains piled up like giant foothills below the camp. Bundles of cumulus clouds tumbled in the distance, bales of grey and white down unleashed by the storm. I bailed out of the tent and three of us did some quick scouting of the moraine to find the best route for getting on the glacier. The Squak Glacier is not frequently climbed, but the original planned route (the Easton Glacier) was fully impassible due to giant crevasses opened up by sun and wind and a record low-snow year that left the entire mountain snaked with cracks as wide as 50 ft. and as long as a half mile. It would have taken an extra day to re-route around some of them, and there’s no guarantee it would have led to a summit bid. The route just wouldn’t go. So, we Squak-ed.
The team huddled for a quick meeting: we would start wake-up at 11:30 PM and beginning our climb and ascent at 12:30 AM to take advantage of the weather window. I held my breath, trying not to let the rasping, wheezing cough give away my position.
11:30 PM. Dark. Quiet. Not even a whisper of wind. Warm. Maybe 45 degrees. For the first time on any summit day, I wore only a base layer on top and lightweight softshell pants for the climb. Thanks to the route scouted earlier, the team made quick work of the sketch-pile between our tents and the glacier’s edge.
As we climbed, the sulfur from the volcanic peak wafted from the deepest crevasses- an ever present reminder that this glaciated route sits on top of sleeping slag-pile of magma and lava, somewhere deep below.
Five hours later, the early morning light was kissing Colfax Peak on the flanks of the mountain. We paused for a quick break beneath the summit crater, eating snacks and watching the plumes of sulfur wafting from the fumaroles.
As we ascended the Roman headwall, I struggled to breathe and wrangle my tiny Canon Elph for a single shot of the final approach to the summit plateau. In the right hand corner of the shot, you can see the volcanic crater and the plume.
The summit itself was predictably windy and cold at 6:30 AM- enough to merit a fairly quick turnaround. I had anchored the three-person team on the approach and found myself leading the group on the descent. Picking my way through crevasse bridges and dodging the one a team member had already punched through on the way up, I could hear and feel the ice and snow creaking beneath my feet at times.
The return to basecamp took about three hours and we efficiently packed up camp and headed down the spine of the ridge to the trailhead. All told, summit day was a tidy 13 hour event from beginning to trailhead parking lot.
One of my team members happened to be a doctor who’d just returned from climbing in South America and had his med kit from that trip. He swiftly handed over a Z-pack while standing eight feet away from my infectious space. My climbing partner took the hit and drove a couple hours round trip to procure NyQuil. After pounding a dose straight from the bottle, I jammed Kleenex up my nose, wrapped a bandana around my eyes and nose, and put myself down like a round hound.
The original intent of the trip had been to summit three peaks in light/fast alpine style: a three day ascent on Mt. Adams (including 18 hours of driving to and from Seattle/Bellingham), a two day climb on Mt. Baker and a two day ascent of Mt. Shuksan. Because Shuksan is only about ten miles from Baker, and the weather was the same on both peaks, we opted to stay at basecamp on Baker and make a summit bid rather than bail, drive, hike a gnarly approach to Shuksan basecamp and summit the same night.
Our plan paid off. Shuksan will be there next year, and we opted to do some scenic rock climbing in Mt. Erie (Anacortes area), instead.
As I’m typing this, I’m still clearing my airway and trying to find a route between mucous and oxygen in my lungs. The Z-pack did its job, but the infection buried deep in my already compromised lungs. Bike commuting every day since returning home has made a good difference- and the contentment and pure happiness of being in the mountains again has left me with a perma-smile.
Here’s to the mountains and all those who love them…