I'm generally not one to have somewhere to be at 6:00 A.M. on a Sunday. But this past Sunday, I agreed to meet Chad Hartley at his house so we could drive the roughly one hour to Kingsbury Grade and embark on a most-of-the-day hike to bag Genoa Peak. Chad had decided the day before that he wanted to do that and I agreed over a few texts that I would also like to do that. I hadn't yet realized that he meant to leave so early. Whatever. I got up, and I made it to his place by 6:00 and we went our merry way south to the Carson Valley, then up the hill to cross over into the Lake Tahoe Basin and begin our hike.
Genoa Peak is not considered a serious or difficult hike. It's a day hike that many people have done before us and many will do after. You can approach it from two general directions. The first is from Genoa itself. That takes you up the east face of the mountain on a switchbacky nine mile or so trail that for the entire morning would have you exposed to the sun while climbing about 4,300 feet to reach the top. The other is via the Tahoe Rim Trail. Whether you come from the north or the south of the trail, this way starts you out much higher, provides shade through the morning and tree cover later. You'll gain right at 2,000 feet total between the way there and back. We chose the second option, from the south.
The majority of the trip is along the Tahoe Rim Trail (TRT), which is wonderful. There is no major brutal climbing, the trail is very well maintained, and you will see others. Unfortunately, you'll have to watch for mountain bikes as part of that seeing others thing. You meander over the trail's ups and downs for about 5.5 miles until you reach a forest road. Take note that in the first two miles, there are a couple of downhill sections. I remembered there being more of those than there were because I was especially taking note (I really hate uphill on the way back from a climb). Just past the road at the 5.5 mile point, there is a trail junction. The route from Genoa itself intersects here.
The book on this hike said that the out and back was a total of 13 miles. So at that junction, we followed the detailed instructions to reach the final approach. It's a bit longer than the book said based on the beta they provide. We totaled just over 14 miles, but did have a very brief detour in the form of a wrong turn. However, in looking at the map afterward, if you take a right at the Genoa trail junction, back toward Genoa, you might be able to cut off some of that distance. See, there's a road that goes to just below the peak. That other trail intersects that road. You can cut off some of the route by going more direct with that trail. But by choosing to leave the TRT, you walk on a more exposed-to-the-elements path that's also a road. Who wants to hike on roads? Don't take that route unless you really need to.
The last 0.7 miles has a quarter of the total gain for the entire hike. It's also on a road, which sucks, but is necessary. You follow the road, which ends at a few generator huts about 150 feet below the top to the northwest. From there, a use trail with a tiny bit of scrambling gets you to the top. The views of Tahoe aren't much different than they are once you get above the trees, which is about a quarter mile back, but you do get to look to the east and the Carson Valley and Pinenut Range.
We sat at the top for about 20 minutes and had some lunch, watched a glider getting pulled along by the single seat Piper, only to have that same glider sneak up on us in silence after getting released from the tow plane. The climb down that final 150 feet was a little more dubious than the climb up. It was slow, but once we reached the road, the sailing was smooth. We saw a couple of groups in OHVs. Apparently, this is a popular destination for people in side-by-sides and on dirt bikes. That's not as cool as other hikers, and only dusty for a few seconds.
The rest of the haul was pleasant. We saw quite a few more people on the way back than we did on the way out, including mountain bikers. Those few uphill segments that I had noted at the beginning weren't fun, but manageable. We knocked the whole 14.3 miles out in about 6.5 hours, then made our way to Shoe Tree Brewing in Carson City to reward ourselves with a couple of beers. As a peak that Chad and I have discussed a few times over the years, it was cool to get this one done. Plus, it was a great way to keep me from having to run eight miles to keep up on my training plan.
Wheeler Peak is the second-highest point in Nevada. Some will argue that it counts as the highest peak because Boundary Peak's prominence isn't enough to qualify it as an actual mountain. I don't really care. The trip to Boundary Peak the week prior to this was set up largely because we already had this trip on the calendar. Chad was looking to get a few climbs in and hit some real altitude before a trip to Mount Whitney, so we threw this one up when we had a free weekend. As it turned out, we had the previous weekend free as well and got Boundary in then.
When we chose this date, we had no idea it was the same weekend as Pioneer Day in the average state of Utah. Great Basin National Park, which, according to their website, rarely has full campgrounds, would have full campgrounds all weekend, we learned upon arrival and scouring every site for a tag indicating it was occupied. For a group of three--myself, Chad, and our friend Quinn--there are no ways to make reservations to camp at one of the three sites along the Wheeler Peak Loop road. We set off not knowing about the holiday and not figuring there would be any trouble.
The drive across Nevada on Highway 50 is an interesting and aesthetically pleasing one for anybody who appreciates the desert landscape. After leaving Fallon on the eastward route, you begin to cross mountain range after mountain range with large valleys in between. Austin, Eureka, and Ely are the towns that stand between you and the park. In case you didn't know, Nevada is the most mountainous state in the union. Most of those ranges run predominantly north/south, so when driving east/west, you have to ascend and descend a new range every thirty miles or so. This is specifically not called Horst and Graben. It makes for an interesting drive, but it also makes your car work a bit to maintain the normal 70 mph speed limit on most of The Lincoln Highway.
We stopped for lunch at the Pony Express Deli in Eureka. Quinn had been out this direction a couple of weeks prior (something that helped us make a few decisions about food) and told us that the Pony Express Deli's burger was "a legitimate contender for best burger within 100 miles of the middle of nowhere." He wasn't wrong. The food was good and the stop was quick, so we could be on our way.
All told, the drive from Reno to Baker, the town situated at the park's entrance, was about six hours. We immediately went looking for a campsite, only to spend about two hours on that to no avail. After talking to the park employees at the visitor center, we were about to drive back to Sacramento Pass, toward Ely about 20 miles away for a campsite, when we saw a sign at The Whispering Elms that said "tent camping." I turned us around and we grabbed us a tent site "anywhere along the fence" and had us a place to stay right near the park, saving us from a drive in the morning.
From the campsite, we walked ourselves to Kerouac's, a small cafe with whiskey cocktails and pretty darn good pizza. It's an odd establishment in a town this size, but we quickly learned that many of the park employees hang out here. The night we were there, trivia was going to happen with a $100 bar tab going to the winning team. A couple of drinks and a solid pizza later, we were heading back to the Whispering Elms where my legs would proceed to be dinner for several species of bugs.
We woke early to get ourselves packed up and fed. We wanted to hit the trail by about 8:30. Most accounts gave the range for a round trip at 5.5 hours, give or take, so that would put us at the top near noon. We wound up grabbing the last available parking spot in the proper lot (there is an overflow lot/large turnout across the road from where the main lot is) and quickly hit the trail.
The first mile is a relatively flat path through a lot of aspens. One spot affords you a great meadow with a stunning view of Wheeler Peak. Everyone who has hiked this route probably has a photo from that exact spot. You meet with another trail that comes directly from the main campground, and about a quarter mile later get to a split with a sign. The summit is one way, and Stella Lake is the other. For about another mile, it's uphill, but very manageable. That'll take you to the treeline. Once you reach that point, it's a series of switchbacks for a while until you reach a leveled off spot before the final bit if ascent.
That final bit is about a mile and a half of pretty steep hiking to reach the summit. You climb right along the ridge, so on a windy day, this could be quite unpleasant. But, you do get great views of the valleys on each side of the mountain. The real treat, though, doesn't come until you get right to the top. Since you're approaching from the north, the southern view of the park and the Snake Range is obscured the entire way. If views are why you climb to the tops of mountains, take my advice and do not turn around early on Wheeler Peak.
We hit the top at around 11:00. It's an easy peak to hang around on top of. It's big up there, with about 100 yards running from east to west and about 15 yards the other direction. You can walk out to the edge and stare at the shittily-named Jeff Davis Peak, or you can enjoy the views beyond it and around it. We met a few folks up there. There was the woman who flew to Las Vegas from Arkansas, hiked Mount Charleston, then drove up to do Wheeler before heading home the next day. And there was the couple from Carson City who had done about 20 of the highest peaks around Tahoe. Traffic is much greater than it was at Boundary Peak the week before. At Boundary, we saw one other guy. Here, probably as many people as would see Boundary all year were heading up just on this day.
The main marker at the top was missing. There were two reference markers that we found, each pointing directly to the missing spot in the that was drilled into a rock at the high point on the peak. It's a bummer that it's missing. I hope someone didn't steal it, but I have a hard time believing that's not the case. People can suck. The register is a series of notebooks in a metal mailbox just below where the marker should be. We each signed, ate a bit, and headed down.
On the initial part of the downhill, the steepest part, we started to get a little rain. That rain quickly turned to some painful and really annoying hail that continued for about a half hour. The forecast showing thundershowers after 11:00 a.m. had come to fruition. On the steepest part of the mountain, it made moving quickly a lot harder to do. By the time we began to level off, it stopped and the sun eventually came back out. Such is life in Nevada.
The trip back to the car, after the hail ceased, was a breeze. The final two plus miles are really easy and gradual, making speed easily attainable. The total round trip was just a few seconds under five hours.
We grabbed a campsite to cook up a good lunch on the way down. It was necessary before continuing on to Ely for the night. We grabbed a room and rested for a few hours before hitting the Hotel Nevada to watch the USMNT play Costa Rica in the Gold Cup semifinal. What that means is that we didn't get around to dinner until 9:30. Guess what time everything except Denny's closes in Ely on a Saturday night. We ate at Denny's.
The only thing we needed to do on the way home was stop at Middlegate Station to have a burger. (Also, idea: The Burgers of the Loneliest Highway.) We left Ely at around 8:00, which put us in the perfect position to hit Middlegate for lunch. We did hit it perfectly. And the burger was pretty good. None of us went with the Monster Burger, but what we did have was pretty solid and I'd say it lived up to the hype.
From Middlegate, it was an easy drive the rest of the way. We made it back into Reno in the mid afternoon on Sunday and the trip was in the books. Two weekends in a row with some real altitude should be a great help to Chad on his attempt at the highest mountain in the contiguous 48. It was also nice getting out to do a few before the summer winds down and we're all suddenly too busy again.
Way back in 2015, back when I figured I should be doing as many badass things as humanly possible to get myself ready to do more badass things, I got together with a small group of people to climb Boundary Peak. It was challenging, and maybe almost broke me. Which is fine. It's what I was looking for.
Since then, I have decided that I should be much more strategic in my planning and only do things that fit a particular goal in climbing--mainly what I mean is that I should suffer only in particular ways and I should also not spend a ton of time doing easy crap that most climbers can knock off in an afternoon. That philosophy has led me to sit around a lot on weekends and basically not get a damn thing done this year in terms of bagging peaks or really actually working myself.
Count me incredibly lucky that my good buddy Chad decided he was going to put in for some passes to Mount Whitney this Summer. I'll be damned if I wasn't going to be a part of that, so I put in myself. Long story short, I didn't get mine, but Chad did and I was a part of his group. Long story short, but longer, and I had to bag out on that weekend, but I am always game to train. When Chad came up with the idea to drive out to Wheeler Peak next weekend, I was all about it. We had talked about doing that hike for a while, and all I needed was the commitment of someone I could trust. That was NEXT weekend. When it came out that I would be at home alone this weekend, Chad suggested we take a quick trip to Boundary Peak to make a run at it and get an additional training weekend in for him. Hell, why not?
The plan was this: drive down after work on Friday, make our way up to the top/saddle of the Queen Mine Road/Trail Canyon Road and camp. From there, we would have a nice day hike situation to the top and back, then we could drive out and make it home at a decent hour on Saturday night. The trick here was that the road is hardly maintained, so we'd be hosed if this above average winter had washed it out at all and we couldn't make it up to the saddle where the two roads converged. It was a genuine worry for me, as I had been there before and our team had to stop the truck about a mile before that point due to snow and add that much onto the hike. That wasn't a pleasant part of the trip, so I was worried that we would be facing a shitty day. I knew that the longer the hike, the less likely we were to make it work, especially after driving down after work on a Friday and facing a nighttime camp setup.
We were lucky and/or stupid.
The car made it up to the saddle. In the dark. Over the rocky and washed out road. It was a remarkable and brave accomplishment. By both the driver and the vehicle. I do not discount this piece of the trip in any way. It was basically key to the whole thing. In fact, on the way up, as we encountered the shitty stuff, there was talk of having to give up and just go drink beer in Bishop, which I don't think many people would object to. It was pretty awesome that we didn't have to do that.
Camp setup was fine at the saddle. The only hitch in the evening was that we both heard something sniffing about five feet away from the tent as we tried to get to sleep. I swore it was just the fly brushing in the wind. Then I looked at the fly in the morning and realized it was six inches from us and not five feet. Whatever. We lived.
We got started at about 7:00 and you're immediately met with seriousness. About one mile and 1,000 feet right off the bat (as a Dodgers fan, I can talk about things leaving the bat and going approximately 1,000 feet--I see you, Cody Bellinger). Once you reach the top of that initial climb, it's a smooth mile and a half of (I swear) slight downhill to the First Saddle. That initial smooth walk is where you need to gather any thoughts you have and get yourself ready for a challenging day. You get your first view of the mountain itself. It honestly feels good after a solidly tough open to the hike. You'll know what I'm talking about as you stare at the steep incline in your future and wonder if it's as bad as it looks. Yeah, it is. It may not be much to some experienced climbers, for sure. But it's not a joke. And you can definitely see that the entire way from the start of the flat to the finish.
The First Saddle is a place I have sort of visualized as my camping spot for future theoretical winter expeditions up this mountain. It's the bottom of The Climb, and it is super cool for a snow situation. It's flat, kinda beautiful, and easy to get to, even if you have to trek up the road for a lot longer than we had to do on this day. Chad swears it'd be miserable due to the wind that you'd encounter, and he's not wrong. But I see it as a "you have to be prepared, man" situation. I think I would be. Maybe. But let's be real. It's probably not happening anytime soon.
After that saddle, it's an uphill kinda day. You immediately start climbing and you don't stop until you reach the top. There are two serious sections. The first is probably longer and greater in elevation. But it's lower on the mountain, so the elevation isn't necessarily as bad. We handled this part with relative ease, upon further reflection. We actually wondered aloud how we did it as well as we did on the way down because it seemed way steeper and more difficult from that angle than the upper part of the mountain. I'll say this. Upon reflection, I don't care. We handled it on the way up and I think that helps in the long run. If we had realized its difficulty on the ascent, we might have had a harder time getting to the top, and I don't think we needed any more of that, so I'll take what we experienced.
At the top of the initial climb, you reach a small saddle between it and the second section. To be clear, this is not the Second Saddle. But you do get a fantastic view of the northeast side of Boundary Peak. It's quite a bit different look than you get otherwise. From there you skirt the north side to get to the second saddle about a half mile away. Stop and eat there. It gives you the opportunity to look at the route to the top, even if it's incorrect, and admire the highest point in the Great State of Nevada. There's nothing wrong with that even if it's all you ever do from that spot.
Once you leave that second saddle, you have choices. One choice is to head right and follow a path you saw from the saddle that looks like it'll take you along the ridge to the top. If you have it in you, don't do that. Stay left at every opportunity. It may look like a tougher trail, but you'll appreciate it. We didn't learn this until the downhill, and that's fine, but it could have been a better day for us. If you read this before going, just try out what I'm telling you. I think you'll appreciate it. The climb from that saddle is about 1,000 foot to the top, give or take, and any help you can get at 12,000 feet is probably welcome.
It'll take about 800 of the 1,000 feet before you get a glimpse of Montgomery Peak. Many people decide that they're going to do both in the same shot, which for just about everyone who needs to do Montgomery is necessary. Montgomery, upon my two viewings, is considerably harder. It isn't far at all. Just .6 miles from peak to peak. But standing on Boundary and looking across, it looks pretty tough. It's jagged and the route between is rocky. If you had any trouble on the Boundary ascent, it'll look more difficult. If you didn't, it might look hard, but it might also be just another challenge. That's fine. Both times I've been to the top of Boundary, Montgomery wasn't much of an option.
One of the reasons Montgomery hasn't been an option for me was that last 1,000 feet. It's tough. Not for any real reason other than the footing and stability isn't ideal. Like I said earlier, we took the right (lower) side. I did that the previous time as well, and it sucked. It's loose, slippery, and you're always lower than you want to be. Being lower, in my mind, always sucks. So I've learned my lesson. Take the high side on Boundary, and probably all the other mountains as well. As a result of my decisions, those last 1,000 feet have worn me out to the point where I'm not interested in trying to tag another peak, even if I can stare at it from a short distance. If you care about doing that, don't make my same mistakes.
The trip down, as I alluded to earlier, was hard. It's steep. We found better routes, which is an easier thing to do from the uphill viewing angle, but it's still a steep trip. We were able to use the downhill to our advantage, and even in the pain that comes with steep downhill hiking, make better time than we did on the uphill. We also were able to book across the "flat" that I swear was slightly uphill for a mile and a half. I will admit--even if it was uphill, which it was, it felt great after 2,000 feet of gnarly downhill that decided my knees were just a cog in the machine and expendable, which I take issue with. By the time we got to the car, we felt as everyone feels. Awesome. It's a hell of a feeling to be done with a significant hike. Especially if that hike is to a high altitude.
We cruised out on the same road we came in on with relative ease. Whether it was the daylight or the experience on that road or both, it didn't matter. It was better than either of us figured it would be. From the road, we went west toward Benton and 120 to 395 and a better looking ride home. That also meant we could hit the Whoa Nellie Deli in Lee Vining, which we did. A burger and a beer after this is a decent thing.
I'm home now, and trying to figure out if I should even unpack before Friday's trip east to Great Basin National Park and Wheeler Peak. I suppose so, but some things are easier not messed with.
Boundary Peak is Nevada’s highest point. Boundary gets its name from the fact that is lies right on the border between Nevada and California. It’s in the White Mountain Range and is the lowest of the major peaks in that range. But it’s the only one that is on the Nevada side of the border, and it’s higher than Wheeler Peak, which is located in the eastern part of the state, so it gets to claim the title. It has always bummed me out that Nevada's highest mountain rests in a place where you stand on top of it and be looking up at another mountain less than a mile away.
I got in on this trip with relatively short notice. I found the Sierra Mountaineering Club online and they posted a trip that I had originally looked at and figured I couldn’t make it. After talking a bit at home and looking at my schedule, I realized I could and that I’d give it a shot.
The date of the trip was December 19. The point was to do a winter ascent, which the trip’s leader had never completed. Of the rest of us, only one other guy had ever even been to the mountain—the failed attempt last winter. We would meet up at 6 AM and drive up the road as far as we could before the snow stopped us, then hike from there.
One thing I neglected to notice on my calendar was the dinner with several friends that we had planned a couple of months earlier. That dinner was on December 18. While most of the team was going to be driving down (or up, depending on where you lived) on Friday night, I had a decision to make. I decided to also drive down that night, after dinner, and arrive in the range of about 2 AM. I got a few hours sleep in the back of my small SUV, but felt pretty ready to go at call time.
After some brief introductions, we all jumped into one of the guy’s trucks and started up the hill. We used the road to the Queen Mine. About a mile past the mine is a saddle that acts as parking and the summit trailhead. We made it just past the mine, so we loaded up and started hiking. The 4.5 mile hike to the summit was now going to be about 5.5 miles. Still not bad at all, but a little slower due to snow. And my damn boots.
From the trailhead you begin a quick little ascent. After about a mile, it levels off as you gain the first ridge on the trail. That ridge is about a mile and a half long and even descends slightly. It’s a fast section. At the end, you reach the first real saddle on the trail. It’s at about 10,800 feet and it was cold. It was the point where the realization that the weather forecast of -7 F on the summit hit me that it was probably accurate. Taking gloves off to take a photo hurt. And it hurt for a little while after.
At this point, you’re sitting at about 3.5 miles into a 5.5 mile hike. But that’s when the climbing really begins. It’s not a particularly steep hill—we did the remaining 2500 feet in about 2.2 miles—but there is a lot of loose rock and with snow on the ground, it was a stability nightmare. Couple that with my boots, which are double plastics and way more suited for strictly snow than this combination due to their stiffness and incredible warmth, and I can say that I had a rough day.
Those last two miles took about two hours of moving time and a lot more time in general. I was the slowest by a decent margin. I contemplated turning around pretty much constantly while I went those last couple miles. The biggest factor in stopping me from doing that was that I’d probably have to walk all the way down to my own car, which I figured in my head would be harder than making the summit, then walking down and getting a ride the last few miles. Seriously. I thought about this a lot.
On top of the difficulty I was having, which by the way was not only with my boots—I was tired, possibly from lacking a lot of sleep the night before and maybe from the altitude—the weather was getting exciting. We got snowed on and it was windy. At the second saddle, it was howling. Most of us put crampons on at this point. We had another mile or so and 1300 feet at this point. I was getting slower and it sucked.
I probably fell a good half hour or more behind the best of the climbers from here to the summit. I kept thinking about how I wanted to go back, but I could see the summit. Once the lead group reached it, I knew I was close. As I moved along nearer the top, it just kept getting later. The group at the summit, when I was about 50 feet below, called out for me to ditch my pack and just get up there. We had to start moving back down quickly.
I left my pack and moved as quickly as I could. It still wasn't fast. Snow was falling like crazy and it was really cold. Visibility was virtually nil. We couldn't even really see Montgomery Peak just about a half mile away to the southwest. We took a photo at the top and began to head down.
The trip down, while slightly faster, wasn't much easier. The instability of the footholds made for a challenge. Footwork is critical when wearing crampons, and footwork is much harder when you're exhausted. The combination of boots, loose rock, and tiredness caused me a fair bit of slipping on the way down. I tore the knee in my pants and scraped myself up pretty good. And I was still pretty slow.
We got back to the first saddle as it got dark enough to don headlamps. So we walked the rest of the way in the cold, virtually silent, with just enough vision to see what was directly in front of us. That two miles over the ridge was an eternity. I didn't remember it being so long, which is normally not the case. I have a much harder time, as I suspect most people do, with the way up the mountain than with the way down. I usually remark that I can't believe what seemed so brutally difficult was really not all that long. But this time, it was the opposite on this part of the hike. That section was very long and very difficult mentally for me.
As we reached the trailhead, I actually felt refreshed. I wasn't feeling perfect, but I was feeling better, suggesting that the altitude had a greater effect on me than I had realized. In retrospect, I did all the things you are supposed to be aware of to avoid. I drank far less than I should have. I ate far less than I should have. I attribute it to the severe cold. I was unwilling to do much other than sit and stay warm when we stopped, so I didn't get into my pack for water or food. That was really dumb. I can only hope that I learned from it and don't make that mistake again.
We reached our cars at around 7:30 at night. It was almost a twelve hour day, which I think was longer than any of us had anticipated. The weather really did make it tougher, but it was quite a good experience in less than ideal conditions. I made a few mistakes that I should be able to use to make myself better. I climbed with a group of very capable, really cool people. My first experience doing anything with the Sierra Mountaineering Club was a very good one. After saying goodbyes, I got into the car and made the long trek back to Reno.
For more background on this, read about my plan. I wrote that in February to explain my upcoming (at the time) trip to Mount Rainier. I completed that trip in July and began writing this in September. It took me a while to process everything, decide that I really did have something to say about it, and just sort of want to sit down and write about it.
In short, I did a six day skills seminar on Mount Rainier to learn mountaineering stuff. It’s a prerequisite course for being able to climb Denali in Alaska with the guide service that I used. It’s also some pretty cool knowledge to have if you do hiking and anything in the backcountry. There were eight of us climbers to go along with three guides. The story is long, but should provide some good information for anyone who is thinking about doing this. I also hope that it’s a fun read.
I got up early to leave Longview, Washington, where I had stayed the night at Christy's aunt's house, to make the 90 minute drive to Ashford. I was supposed to check in at 8:00, so naturally I was ready to go and out the door by about 5:30 It was a bit overcast that day, so there were no views of the mountain on the drive. As I entered the Ashford Valley, I realized that there was no cell service. That wouldn't change, even in the town itself.
I rolled into Ashford at a little after 7:00 and checked in at the office. Then, I waited for the rest of the team and the guides to arrive to begin the day's activities. Guides Eric and Chase came out and introduced themselves. We’d be acquiring Katrina the next day when we left for the mountain.
The day mostly consisted of some skills training and equipment checks. We went over all of our gear first. I brought just about everything I owned with the intention of leaving behind the stuff that wasn't necessary on the advice of the guides. I was even surprised a couple of times with what they suggested. I had brought some convertible pants in order to use the shorts on the approach with the intention of switching to some heavier (not by much) pants for the rest of the week on the snow. They told me to leave the heavier ones behind an go with the lighter pants the whole way. Additionally, my layering was blown up because of the relative heat. I would spend the entire week wearing just one light hiking shirt instead of a base layer and light fleece that I had intended. I left the base layers behind entirely and only put the light fleece on for summit day when we would be climbing in the cold and dark.
After checking gear, we worked on knot tying a bit. The guides would handle the heavy duty stuff like the main rope, but we had to know how to tie a few things to work on crevasse rescue and fixed line travel later on. It's also a good idea to have some knowledge in the knots you'll need for later. This was, after all, a skills seminar that was meant to prepare us for bigger climbs and give us the base of knowledge that's needed to tackle bigger mountains. We cut some cord down and created some Prusik loops that we'd later use to make hitches and pulley systems. We would those hitches to practice getting ourselves out of crevasses—but we didn’t have any of those in our current location—so we worked with the climbing wall on site. A bit of practice there and some talk about the route, how things would work for the rest of the week and a bit of getting to know each other wrapped our day.
The World Cup Final was also on that day. We didn’t get finished quickly enough to actually see much of a competitive match. The USWNT was up 4-0 by the time I got to a television, but I’ll take that. From here, it was dinner some final packing and getting myself to sleep in the bunkroom at Whittaker’s Bunkhouse.
Cell service never materialized while in town. The Bunkhouse had wifi, but it was a little bit spotty. Not being able to reliably communicate with my family back home, and knowing that there would be zero chance of communicating for the rest of the week, got me off to a rough start.
The day began early. I had to get myself up, compulsively pack and repack, then repack again. Then I unpacked and took some more food out (inexplicably leaving behind one of my Snickers bars) and packed again. Then the van arrived and I was basically forced to stop unpacking and repacking. After my approximately seven packing jobs, My 105 Liter pack was still way too full. I wasn’t alone in being that way, but I still felt like a rank amateur. I was. I also came to the horrifying realization that I had worn Vans to drive up to Ashford, and the only other shoes I brought were some camp slippers and my massive, heavy plastic double boots. It was going to be a long day.
The ride from Ashford to Paradise is about 45 minutes normally. There was some road construction on our trip and it took about an hour. I was hoping it took six days. At this point I was incredibly nervous. Remember that spotty wifi? Yeah, iMessage wasn’t working for me as a result and my phone kept trying to send texts instead. With no service, I would immediately get back an error message and nothing would go through. Ultimately, I had to send an email to Christy letting her know that I was leaving and she’d hear form me at the end of the week. It was Monday morning and I would return to spotty wifi on Friday afternoon. That didn’t help with my nerves. I just wanted to talk to my favorite person one time before heading off to do something that I was scared of doing and unaware of what to expect while doing it.
We arrived in Paradise and unloaded the trailer. The guides divided up the group gear. There was a piece of a tent for each of us and either a canister of stove fuel or a shovel for each of us. One person would have to carry the camp cooking pot instead of gas or a shovel. The pot was the last thing to get taken every single time.
One slightly unexpected thing I learned when we arrived at Paradise was that it was go time. It was get your boots on, pack your shit and we’re moving out. No hanging around the visitor’s center. No chatting up other hikers and climbers. We had a job to do and the job was starting now. My super full pack still needed to get the tent fly in, and the next five minutes probably taught me more about packing a backpack than any other five minutes has taught me about anything in my life. Katrina came by and just started stuffing everything in my pack down. It was an impressive sight. All my decently folded layers and well placed miscellaneous items were a problem. Just put the big stuff in and stuff the hell out of the soft stuff. That tent fly went in like it wasn’t even there. I had used my pack’s hood to hold some things as well. Katrina told me that would be coming off tomorrow and I would not be using that on the outside of my pack again. We just needed a few minutes to pack up properly. I took that as a challenge because I was filled with some really useful knowledge now.
The hike began in earnest and we headed toward the Golden Gate Trail. That would be our route to the Paradise Glacier, where we’d spend a few days doing some things that make you miserable and some things that you’d love to keep doing. I was especially happy in the choice of convertible pants, because the shorts option was absolutely necessary. It was hot. This would be a recurring theme for the rest of the week.
The hike would last us a few hours. On it we got lessons in how we should keep ourselves fresh and alive throughout the climb. For instance, when we stopped for a break, rule number one is sit, drink, and eat before anything else. Fuel yourself before you start taking pictures. That was me on the first break. I was the example. I didn’t break that one again. The hike wasn’t overly hard other than the heat and the fact that I was wearing eight pounds on my feet and tripped over my laces a couple of times. Had I thought of it, I would have (and I totally recommend) brought my trail runners to wear on this approach. It would have been worth carrying the weight on my back for that day because my feet were miserable. This repeated itself, only with a week more wear on the hike down. Bring the lighter shoes if you have bulky boots.
No one could say how long the hike would be that day. That’s because the Paradise Glacier was probably a good half mile receded from the furthest point the guides had seen it before. The heat was taking its toll on the mountain. This would be evident later in the week as well when it came to the summit route.
Eventually we arrived at our spot for the first camp. Now, it was shoveling time. We had to carve out a flat spot for the three tents to be set up. The guides would handle themselves. With three shovels and eight people, it went like this: shovel hard for a minute or two while the rest of the team walked around on the snow to compress it. Switch off and continue for approximately an hour. Yeah, it took us that long. We were doing hockey shifts, only working way harder than any hockey player could imagine. Shoveling is hard. In the end, we were probably six inches short of making the platform the right size, but nobody cared.
Then, we got to put the tents up and learn to guy them out without the benefit of those awesome little plastic guy line things that come with literally every tent in the world. Nope. We used some new knots and hitches to make this work. It’s not that bad, but I can’t remember how to do it right anymore, which bums me out, because it’d feel pretty badass to do that on a camping trip with friends. Finally, with tents up and camp ready, it was time to rest a bit. We weren’t done for the day, so resting was pretty nice. Three people in a three-person tent is not the most roomy situation. I got the smaller vestibule of the two for just myself, which was nice.
This is where the advice I had read started to make sense. That advice: sleep with your stuff. I slept with my hat, socks, and at one point a jacket because they got wet. Socks are always wet—not from snow leaking thorough, but because your feet will sweat. So you bring a couple of pairs of socks and always sleep with one of them in the bag. Not on your feet. Next to your chest. I didn’t know how this would work, but it worked brilliantly. They dried. That’s cool. So do that if you’re in this situation.
After our rest time, we got a few lessons. We learned self arrest with our ice axes, how to walk different ways in the snow—the German Technique, the French Technique, and, of course, the American Technique. They all make walking a chore, but walking up a mountain is a chore no matter what position your feet are in.
Dinner consisted of each of us breaking out our dehydrated meals and standing around a pot of melting snow waiting for the water to boil. At this point in the evening I felt particularly lonely. I wanted to have someone to tell about my day, which despite the long hike in heavy, hot boots, was pretty cool. I learned a lot and got to know some cool people a little better. My routine consists of this every day. I get to come home and talk to someone about all the good and bad. I couldn’t do that today. I actually had trouble eating my dinner (lasagna with meat sauce). And not eating your dinner means you have to pack the remaining and carry that shit off the mountain. Along with your literal shit (in handy blue bags). So not eating is a big deal.
As it got closer to the time to turn in, I needed something to distract me. Rene saved me on this night by needing someone to play cards with him. We played a game that was somewhat like Uno but he said it was the national game of the Czech Republic (Rene was originally from Prague).It was a good time and something that allowed us to talk for about an hour before turning in. I was tired and we’d have to be up pretty early.
The goal of today was to get on the ropes and climb to a second camp, where we’d spend two nights. We didn’t have to get up at an ungodly hour, so that wasn’t bad. We broke down, got repacked (the pot went last again) and hit the road. After spending the night on snow, we had to trek over more rock and snow to find our spot to get roped up and not leave snow again for a few days. That was probably about a mile away.
The hike over included a few spotty patches of glacier and tons of running water below. That made for some sketchy spots where guides had to go out ahead to check for crevasses, as we really weren’t quite aware of them yet. There were a few places where we had to route around some bad spots, but with the watchful eye of a few experts, there wasn’t much danger.
Once we reached the base of the more permanent glacier, we took a break and got some lessons on how to travel with the rope. There would be a guide and either three additional people or two, since there were just eight of us climbers. We got lessons on how to put on and wear crampons as well. Finally, we were gearing up to the full extent: harnesses, gaiters, crampons, helmets (maybe not entirely necessary yet, but as a rule always while rope traveling), gloves, ice axes, glacier glasses, and anything else I may have forgotten. This is why you climb, right? To do it with style.
Geared to the hilt and ready to go, we got roped up. I was on Eric’s rope and was told to get on the back loop. It would be Eric, Amir, Victor, and me on this rope, with Katrina’s rope directly behind us. One bonus to being the back of the rope is that you’re just a couple feet from the guide on the next. It gave me the opportunity to chat with Katrina when I was capable of it and to get some tips, lessons, whatever. And if she hated that, I would never have known. It was maybe one of the most helpful things about the entire seminar. I was able to basically get one on one time with a guide during the most boring drudgery we’d go through.
Pace is huge on these climbs. I think a lot of people would be the type to say, “I like to go hard and rest frequently.” Sure. But the Great Chase Nelson imparted words that will probably stick with me forever: “Slow is smooth and smooth is fast.” Take it easy. Train yourself to withstand the short term boredom for the long term success. I once was told by someone before I did my first half Ironman distance race that I should avoid getting my heart rate above my lactate threshold. If I did that, I could avoid the faster fatigue that I’d face if my heart rate got above that number. It’s a principle that applies on the mountain. Why push it and force yourself into more frequent and, ultimately, longer breaks when you can go at a smoother pace? Because your heart rate will absolutely elevate. And it’ll feel like you’re running harder than you’ve run in a while. And it will last longer than you would ever subject yourself to at that type of pace. Because everything takes longer on a climb, so slow it down and take it easier.
So we’re on our way up to the second camp. You probably forgot that’s what we were doing here. It’s steep. Like, steep steep. I had “trained” on some decently steep terrain—the Mount Rose Southeast Ridge and the Jones Creek Whites Creek Trail have some—but this is a different world. A thousand feet in a mile, while switching back is kinda legit. But, it was our first real run at this stuff as a group. We had a relatively easy day. We reached the second camp site and settled in. And by settled in, I mean had to build another tent platform in the snow, get camp set up, not do that fast enough, then rest, then get our asses up just as we were finally falling into a really welcome nap so that we could move on to the day’s real training. You know—as you do.
The training on this day would consist of anchor building. It’s the base for what we’d do the next day. There were a couple of ways we learned. We drove pickets in as one way, dug out a narrow cut in the snow for another. We learned to check them using the ERNEST method—Equalization, Redundancy, Non-Extending, Solid, Timely. A lot of the anchor training was talking through the reasons for doing what you do with them, like setting up redundant anchors, how far to drive pickets in, why you want to avoid extending the rope length, and things like that. Then we drove a few in, practiced tying off knows to secure a person to them, and dug out some holes.
At this point, one thing the guides told us about anchors is hitting home with me: that it’s a perishable skill. They have to practice it annually because it’s something that you have to keep up on to remember steps and all of the proper things to do. I can fully understand. I nailed a lot of it that day but can barely remember any of it now. Luckily, I recorded myself talking through each day on my phone and was able to listen to that day’s recording to refresh my memory because I couldn’t even remember that ERNEST existed. The only real thing I have to remember is my dented handle of my ice axe, which I used to hammer in pickets. I think that’s kinda badass.
After anchors, it was dinner time. We ate, then huddled around Katrina, who gave a talk about avalanches. She talked through the science with them and gave us a tip on how to best deal with them. That tip is one I’ll give you for free. Avoid them. We then buried a beacon and practiced finding it with our own beacons.
Wednesday was crevasse rescue day. That’s what we did. It was an all day adventure in dropping a team member into the hole and getting him or her out. We divided into two teams of four each and had two people rescue while one oversaw and talked them through it. The fourth was, obviously, the rescued member.
While the guides emphasized that this is a critical thing to know while traveling on a glacier, the also noted that they never had to actually do any of it in the real world. That's because there are several things that factor in when someone falls into a crevasse. The first is that they might be able to simply walk out. Yes, not all crevasses are bottomless pits that signify impending doom upon your descent. Sometimes you can simply get lowered a few feet and walk out the side. That would be the easiest solution. Other times, especially if the team is very alert and conducting themselves well, you won't fall far. The rope system will stop the fall before your head is lower than the ground level. In that case the team might just choose to hoist you out using brute strength. But if the fall is far or you're hurt in it, then you might need the team to construct a pulley system and lever you out. That's the most dire of rescue situations and what we practiced.
The guides began by building the anchors for us and ran us through the routine. In short, you stop the fall, hold the weight using the middle person on the rope, build the anchor (we had that done already), transfer the load to the anchor, then build the pulley system to get them out. I went first as the leader and we nailed it. I probably had the best order of doing this for learning the process, so that by the time I was the one tying and taking orders, I had seen everyone else doing it and could handle it quickly.
Hanging in the crevasse, while slightly uncomfortable, is pretty cool. They’re beautiful inside and pretty amazing natural works of art. I was in at the same time as Cameron and he got a shot or two of me along with some video. He was in all of my shots since the crevasse grew on his side of it. On my side it was pretty boring—one of those situations you can walk out of if you had to do that.
After crevasse rescue and a rest, we worked for a bit on how to use a running belay. A running belay is basically using a fixed line on the side of a hill to attach yourself using a short rope to prevent from falling off of a particularly steep section too far. You’re still attached to your rope team, but this is a secondary step in areas where falling might be difficult to stop by the other team members. It’s not a difficult task by any means, but one that practice helps with.
Dinner followed along with a discussion on just about anything we wanted to know. Some questions were regarding altitude drugs that people may take, fitness, equipment choices, how to find people to climb with, etc.
We awoke to break camp and hit the trail for Camp Muir. We had about a 2,000 foot gain ahead of us and wanted to get there around noon. We had to navigate a few crevasses to make our way to the Cowlitz Glacier. From there, we’d be able to see Camp Muir and some teams making their way back across Ingraham Flats on their returns from the summit.
In order to get around a couple of the crevasses, we had to do that one thing that I probably hate more than anything else (and I doubt I’m alone here) while on a climb—go up and around only to descend to a safer place. Descending when the ultimate goal is above you is mentally draining. It’s mentally draining because you know that the physical part is going to be harder and you’ve used some of that uphill energy only to give that elevation back. Simply put, I hate this.
We rested in between a couple of beauties when it comes to crevasses. Grabbed a snack and some water, then made the trip up. I will say this about climbing a mountain. The distances between the places you stop isn’t huge, but the effort it takes to get between them is. When we stopped, we could see Camp Muir and people all over the place up there. But we still had almost two hours of climbing to reach it. This may not come as a surprise to some people, but it was my first time on a mountain like that, and the way you can see everything in front of you from far away messes with your head.
It was at this point that I had the most difficult time physically. The exertion combined with a warm day and a really steep climb made me sweat. The sweating and venting of such through my shirt fogged up my glasses, which you have to wear, and made me unable to see the steps in front of me. Keep in mind that the trail is forged with specific steps for everyone to follow in to make the climb easier. I was missing and slipping and blind and tired. I finally asked Eric if we could take a minute to rest and so that I could gather myself. Thankfully, he agreed to it and I was able to tell him what I was going through. He helped by slowing it down a bit, which alleviated all of the above problems. I was able to continue on at a decent pace.
We stopped once more on the way, then arrived at Camp Muir around noon, like we had wanted to do. RMI keeps a hut there with bunks that we would use for the night. We had the option to use a tent, but no way. I wasn’t going to sleep in a tent on purpose when there was a perfectly good structure that, in theory, would keep warmer and help me get better rest for the push to the summit the next day. We had to wait a couple hours for that day’s summit teams to get back and clear their gear out before we could move in. So we just sat around, took pictures, brief naps, whatever. There was even a place to dump the glorious blue bags we’d been packing the whole week. And bathrooms. Hideous bathrooms, but better than not bathrooms.
After grabbing our hut space and briefly settling in, we went back out to practice some fixed line climbing and descending. We grabbed a steep section near camp and the guides built a small section of fixed line, showed us how to use ascenders or to use the ropes we already had as them, and turned us loose. The climbing part is a bit slower. Steepness is obviously a factor in this, but the clipping and unclipping takes its time when you’re new to it. The descending is fast. It seems almost counter-intuitive to descend on a fixed line because you lean downhill. Loop the rope around your arm, grab it, and lean into the descent. You go fast doing that, but it’s incredibly controlled. This would also be how we crossed the couple of ladders with fixed lines that spanned crevasses on the summit day. It’s hard to make your body do it the first time, but once you overcome that, it makes perfect sense.
After that brief practice, we met with the other summit team that would be going up with us in the hut. We were briefed at about 3:00 and we chatted for about an hour. Dinner would be at 5:00, then it was time to get some sleep. We would wake around 10:30 and leave camp at midnight. The climb would take about six hours, we’d get some time on the summit depending on how fast we were and the conditions, then have to get back down before it got too warm. Warmth makes rocks and ice break up and fall. There would be a couple of spots on the route that would be susceptible to icefall and rockfall, and we did not want to be around them when it happened. So, we leave in the cold of night.
My nerves at this point were better than they had been early in the week, but not great. I was able to eat. David and Hayley had this awesome salami thing that they were looking to unload, so I took a bunch of that. It was the missing piece to my food for the week. I laid down around 6:00 but probably didn’t sleep until 8:30 or so. I dreamt, but I can’t remember what it was about. Had I not, I would have been unsure whether I had even slept much, so I actually felt pretty good waking up. I was ready to go.
Getting dressed and ready to summit a legitimate mountain via glacier travel and rope teams in the pitch black only afforded by an area without electricity other than that provided by AAA batteries used to power headlamps that focus their beams intensely on the immediate area in front of themselves while also enduring somewhat freezing cold weather and mostly immobile footwear is not as easy as it sounds. Seriously, though, there is not much light to speak of. Your hands don’t cooperate with your mind either because they have gloves in the way or they’re too cold to properly respond to the commands being given to them. There are about a dozen and a half other people in a somewhat small space wanting to do what they need to do, which specifically means you’re in each other’s way. The amount of time to do all the things necessary is probably about 120% of the time allotted (mostly because you’re slower than you think and these things take a lot longer than you think). Also, you’re nervous.
Here is what I had to do to be ready:
Ready. Now, a quick pep talk and some instructions. The six snacks and two liters of water was very specific. We would stop six times—four on the way up, two on the way down—and would ration our food and water accordingly. Just about 10 ounces of water at each stop should be plenty. We had already been told how to divide up the snacks by calories—about 200 per snack—and that number should be more than enough as well. My Snickers bar was my go to for when I didn’t feel like really eating anything. Who can say no to one of those? But my real reward would be a pretzel bagel with a packet of olive oil and some salt to sprinkle on it. That was the summit snack.
Clip into the rope and let’s move. We made it across Ingraham Flats and left snow to climb up a small set of switchbacks to gain our first real elevation. It’s important to note that we did not stop to remove crampons for the rocks. Footwork becomes critical and so does paying attention. When climbing with a leader and a headlamp offering you a very narrow view, I don’t think you realize the extent of what you’re doing. It’s just one foot in front of the other and go, go, go. We reached the top and began ascending up glacier once again. At just over 11,000 feet we hit our first break of the day.
We stopped and sat in what seemed like nothing but inclined ice all around. Orders are as such at breaks: pack off, parka on, water and food consumed. In the black there are no pictures to be had, so focus on staying warm, hydrated and fed. And sit the fuck down. Save energy.
That inclined ice turned out to be the edge of a massive, gorgeous crevasse. We saw bits of it as we left the break, but on the way down in the daylight it was utterly remarkable. I highly recommend a visit.
Up next was more climbing and what was described beforehand as the toughest part of the climb. We made our way above that crevasse and to the base of Disappointment Cleaver. Before I go any further, I have to say this: fuck Disappointment Cleaver. It was absolutely the toughest part of the climb. We stopped at the base and the guides shortened up the distance between us on the ropes. That’s because the Cleaver is basically a scramble for a solid half mile or more up. Rock would be falling so be alert. It was still dark. Heck, I have no idea, but it was probably 2:00 at this point. It’s really weird when you have been up for four hours or so and there’s still no sign of the sun. Anyway, the dark made it so, again, you can’t really tell what the extent of what you’re doing is, but it was a slow process. There were times we were at the edge of some snow, so there was a bit of trudging, but crampons over rocks with many places that you had to use your hands is a tough bit of work.
When we were finally informed that it was break time and we had successfully conquered the Cleaver, I silently celebrated. It genuinely sucked. We were through the toughest part of the climb and had nothing but glacier in front of us to make it. That I could handle.
Still in the dark, we took our beak and made our way up. The next section featured several ladders. We had crossed a couple prior to the Cleaver, but crossed seven in total on the way up. I can't emphasize enough how much being in the dark changed the experience. Crossing ladders over what could be small or massive crevasses was rendered indistinguishable while relying completely on your headlamp to simply see the person twenty feet in front of you. It just seemed like a pretend danger, I guess. A couple of the ladders had fixed ropes, which made their crossing easier, but none of them were particularly hard or particularly frightening.
The sun began to rise as we approached what we called High Break. That would be at around 13,000 feet and not too long before reaching the summit. The going wasn't particularly fast. The route is generally a single file system where many teams are all on the same exact path. If one team has to stop, say, because one member has to take a shit (seriously), you all wait. In certain places, each rope team had to make their way across the bottom of an icefall while the others waited because you don't want a bunch of people caught up in it if everything goes to hell. Also, in a couple of areas, there were some steps up that required some careful maneuvering, and it just slowed everything down.
At this point, I was feeling very good about my fitness. I was able to carry on a conversation at 13,000 feet while also lugging a few pounds on my back and keeping a certain pace. That's a good feeling. I mentioned this before, but being at the back of the rope gave me access to a guide that others didn't have. Since the person in front of me was twenty feet away and you have to keep the rope tight, we never were able to really chat. But the leader of the team behind me could walk just a couple feet away, which gave us the opportunity to have a real conversation throughout the climb. That was Katrina for me, and she was awesome. We talked conditioning and general stuff about climbing, which kept my mind off of the mindless slog that is walking uphill on snow for five miles. I honestly don't know how the others did it. I was the lucky one by having her near me, and it helped me tremendously.
As we took our spots at the High Break, the sun was gracing us with its presence. It was cold as we settled down for those few moments, but nothing unbearable. In fact, Eric remarked that the weather was perhaps some of the best he had ever seen on a summit day. This is a guy that was about to mark his 99th time on the top of Rainier, so I imagine he has a small bit of expertise in this area. Despite what a skeptic might think, I believed him. It was positively beautiful. The sky was clear, there was virtually no wind, and the temperature was pretty reasonable for being this high up. I had been to the top of Mount Whitney at around the same time of year and it was cold. Not standing on a glacier cold, but cold.
Despite the great weather, I was noticing that we were just kind of generally becoming more tired. That's understandable, I suppose. We were at a legitimately unnatural altitude. We had been working for about five or six hours to get here. We were cold. And we had all been staring at either a headlamp-filled cone of white or a dawn-filled sea of white the whole time. It's mind numbing. But we were damn close. My Snickers bar came out, was promptly eaten (although having braces and carrying a Snickers in below-freezing temperatures in a pack for several hours is not recommended), and I finished my first liter of water. Tired or not, it was time to get this done.
Oh, this was also when I noticed my GPS watch had shut down. I had received the alert about an hour before that the battery was low but had no way to fix that. My battery on this thing lasts for about 20 hours of use, which is a really great amount. It should have been enough to track the entire climb. But I had forgotten to turn it off at both camps when we arrived earlier in the week, which wasted at least three hours of its life. So, an hour before summit, I lost it. What a dumbshit.
The final push was on. Nothing truly remarkable happened in this last hour, other than me cursing myself quite a bit about the watch battery. What can you do? Oh, you know, pay attention and turn it off when you are supposed to. But whatever. We made a loop around toward the western side of the mountain and when we finally crested into the crater, it was almost anticlimactic. There we were, standing atop Mount Rainier. The steam vents along the outer edge were kind of surreal. We were literally standing inside the crater of an active volcano. I was tired. It could have blown at that moment and I would have maybe found some peace. I would have been pissed that I had lacked cell service to talk to Christy all week, but what could I have done, right? I also would have been pissed that I didn't get to sit down and eat my pretzel bagel with olive oil and salt yet.
We were able to unclip at this point and have a seat. I got the parka on and laid back. As we got to the top, a cloud cap rolled in and started snowing on us. One side effect of snowing at the top of a mountain is that the visibility goes from something to nothing in a hurry. We couldn't see anything from the top. Well, we could see snowfall and clouds, I guess. A group got together to go to the registry and get the best view in zero visibility possible, but I elected to stay behind. I could eat my bagel and rest up, because I hate the downhill about as much as I hate the uphill.
I got the bagel out. I got the olive oil out. I got the salt out. This was about to be glorious. But it wasn't. The bagel was hard to tear apart, the olive oil didn't want to open (due to gloves first, followed by cold hands—remember this part), and the salt spilled everywhere but the bagel. So, I ate the bagel mostly plain. Yup. My week's anticipation of a truly awesome snack at the summit was ruined by general mountain climbing circumstances. The bagel was fine, but not the greatest thing I had ever eaten, which it was supposed to be. Oh well. I ate it and tried to stay warm while maybe, just maybe, getting a little tiny nap in while waiting for everyone to return.
Except, I couldn't get my warm gloves on. Yeah, my hands were wet and the gloves all of a sudden felt small. I had experienced a problem with my hands on Whitney where they got stupidly, comically large. #fathand. They weren't even close to that here, but it didn't matter, really. I couldn't get my hands in the warmest gloves I had. Luckily, I had borrowed a pair from my son that he had for snowboarding. They were basically my emergency pair in case everything else got soaked. They slid right on and felt amazing. In fact, I wore them all the way down to Camp Muir and I'd have to say they saved my hands that day. Lesson: bring those other gloves that you don't think you need. Other lesson: save yourself the disappointment and just plan to eat the bagel plain (I blame the Cleaver).
When my team returned, we got ready to head down. We'd be breaking at the top of the Cleaver and at the same spot as break number one for the day. Then, it was to Camp Muir to pack up and head out to Paradise and back to town. In all seriousness, that's a really, really long day. It looked like it on paper and it was it in reality. You wake up at 10:30 PM to summit at around 6:00 AM and return to camp at 11:00 AM only to have to leave camp at 1:00 PM and get to the van at 4:00 PM. Eighteen hours or so isn't a joke. Also, try the whole damn thing in plastic boots then tell me it's easy. Screw that, man. My feet hated me. But I'm getting ahead of myself. There was still a ton of work to do.
They say the majority of mistakes in mountain climbing happen on the way down. That's because there can be a more relaxed attitude or you may have used the vast majority of energy on the way up. But specific to Rainier is the actual environmental danger. I mentioned before that we left in the dead of night because of rock and icefall. So, the plan is to get to the top, then head the hell back down before this stuff starts breaking up and causing problems. Getting down the mountain is a fast endeavor, so long as safety stays a priority.
Our first stop on the way down was at the top of the Cleaver. What was a nondescript spot on a glacier in the dark earlier that morning was a spot below massive walls of ice. It was pretty awesome to see in the daylight. On the way there, we also were able to see some great crevasse crossings in the daylight. A couple of them might have made me really nervous had I seen them the first time I went over them.
Descending the Cleaver might have been the worst part of the climb. As the back end of the rope, I was tasked with leading the way while Eric stayed in back to anchor us. We shortened the distances again and I led with David right behind me helping to route find. There were small flags marking the preferred trail, but sometimes they were contradicting. I got us into some crappy spots a couple of times and struggled with my footwork a lot. Maybe the only thing harder than going up over loose rocks with crampons is going down over loose rocks with crampons. It was rough. And I was pretty bad at it. We had to stop at one point because of traffic and at that point Eric took back over. I wasn’t unhappy about that.
After the Cleaver, we spread out again and made our way to the first break spot of the day to rest again. We were just about a mile from Camp Muir and took a short break to get ourselves back more quickly. Down the small switchbacks again was a bit easier, but my boots were beginning to make me hate all boots. While they were amazing on the way up—warm, comfortable, helpful—they were brutally uncomfortable on the way down. I wasn’t getting my feet smashed or anything, but the rigid soles and plastic shells were not conducive to movement and flexibility. I would have liked movement and flexibility on the way down. Crossing Ingraham Flats was a decent reprieve and I welcomed the small bit of rest we’d get at Camp Muir.
After packing up and resting for about an hour, we made our way down the Muir Snowfield. It’s about two miles of just snow until you reach the edge and the trails of the park. A rest there and another couple of miles on solid ground didn’t do much for my feet. Actually, it did a lot for them. They screamed at me. I don’t want to spend a lot of time whining about how I felt here, so I’ll just say it hurt pretty badly. I couldn’t wait to get back to my car and regular shoes.
The long day concluded with a little celebration at Base Camp. We had some pizza and beers. Cameron’s parents had met us in Paradise and provided a cooler full of Rainier Beer. That was awesome. Those were some cool people. I should also note that the pizza was fantastic. We didn’t have to pour in boiling water and wait twenty minutes to eat it, either. After spending the night in the bunkroom, I hit the road to Eugene, OR and home from there.
If you didn’t gather this from above, the experience was certainly incredible. While I’m extremely proud that I did this, I’m under no illusions about how significant it is. Many, many people have done the same thing and done it better. Heck, there were probably at least 50 people at the top on the same day as me. But to set out to accomplish something that requires as many skills (that you don’t already have) and as much fitness as this means something. I am thrilled to have done it and can’t look back at the time I was there without wanting to talk about it and tell others what I think of climbing.
As for the ultimate goal, it’s still there. Immediately following the climb, I was a little unsure. It hurt, I was in pain, I was tired, and I remembered how much I missed home. But I can’t look at mountains the same way. I want to be around them and I think a lot about how much I enjoy climbing them. I look at Mount Rose here in Reno just about every day and think about the time I want to spend there. I will get to Alaska one day in the near future and make my run at Denali. It’s in the plans, and now that I know it’s possible, I will make it happen.
I have described this, in short, as being miserable for just about every moment of the climb, but an absolute blast as for total experience. On one hand, it’s staring at snow and ice for a few hours at a time and just putting one foot in front of the other step after step after step. There’s a lot of boredom, there’s a lot of pain, and there’s a lot of snow.
I met some great people along the way as well. I hope that when I go to Denali, I have the opportunity to climb with one or more of the guides I had here. They were patient, smart, insanely talented, and just pretty cool people. If these three were an indication, RMI is an outstanding company that I would recommend to anyone interested in learning to climb or just looking for a service to help them climb. I plan to use them again.
“This is the hardest three miles I've ever done with a pack on." That was my cousin, Cotie, as we made what we expected was the last bit of ascent up the trail toward Griswold Lake. We were climbing up rocks and through small fractures in the canyon that housed Butterfield Creek about 20 miles south of Elko and a mile west of the more popular and famous Lamoille Canyon in the Ruby Mountains. Cotie would later revise his statement to this: "That was the hardest three and a half miles I've ever done with a pack on."
Our goal on this day was to get to Griswold Lake and set up what would be our home for a couple of nights. We were here to climb Ruby Dome, the highest peak in the Rubies and Elko County. The group consisted of me, my cousin Henry, who had ridden with me from Reno on this morning to meet up with Cotie who had driven from Salt Lake City with his dog Charlie. Both of my cousins are experienced backpackers. Henry a fan of the Sierra and Cotie a frequent visitor to the Uinta just east of where he lives. This would be my first backpacking trip.
The idea of climbing Ruby Dome came to me earlier in the summer. Having spent my junior high and high school years in Elko, I am a bit partial to the Rubies. I happen to think they're the best looking mountains in Nevada—and there are a lot of mountains in Nevada. But the Rubies just look different to me. Prettier. It doesn't hurt that they're actually close to a decent town and accessible in a way that many other Nevada Mountains aren't. You can drive several miles into them through Lamoille Canyon, which is a detour anyone passing through Elko ought to take one time. They get, and retain, a lot of snow. That means they have lakes all over the place. Therefore, hiking them is a pretty popular thing to do.
So, I had decided to make a run at Ruby Dome mainly because I needed to get out and make myself take that kind of trip--a trip that was far enough away that I had to really pack well, had to stay overnight, and had to work a little to finish the job. I was intent on going whether I went by myself or with others. After reading up on the climb, it sounded like one that fit the bill. I could hike to the lake, stay overnight, climb to the top in the morning, maybe explore around the rest of the day, then stay overnight and head out. I was actually ready to do this by myself until Christy talked with Cotie and mentioned my plan. Basically, she was hoping he'd join because she didn't want me to die. I threw the idea out to Henry once Cotie was confirmed and he got on board as well.
To set the trip up, there are a few logistical things we had to take care of. The trailhead is located inside a private campground. It's owned and run by the Spring Creek Association and gated at the entrance. Not the entrance to the trailhead, mind you--the entrance to the campground. The trailhead is about a mile from the entrance and all uphill. To get the key, you have to pay $10 per person per day and a refundable $25 deposit. The office is open regular business hours Monday through Friday only, so getting the key on a weekend requires some extra arrangements. The original plan had been to arrive on Friday, but due to a Wolf Pack football game on Friday night, I had to leave Saturday. The Association office was fantastic in helping me figure this out. I paid the fee over the phone and was to call their security guy when we were close to the campground entrance. He would meet us there to hand the key to the gate over and take our deposit. It was very easy and the woman from the Association even wrote us a nice note wishing us well.
We got to the trailhead and began the hike at about 1:00. All of us, after reading everything we could find about the trip, figured it was a two or two-and-a-half hour hike to the lake. It wound up taking about three-and-a-half hours in total. After looking back, I'd have to say that the biggest chunk of the difference is probably that everyone whose reports we had read didn't do the hike with a 50 pound pack on. Also, the sign reads that the lake is three miles and the summit is four miles. My GPS numbers indicate that the lake is three-and-a-half, the summit is five-and-a-half. Don't trust the sign.
The trail begins in the open several yards above the creek. For about a mile, it's steep and hot in the sun. After that mile and almost 1,000 feet in elevation gain, the trail moves under some cover and next to the stream. Charlie was able to get water and we were able to cool off a bit. After another mile, it gets steep. That's because the trail gets less visible and rocks become the most prevalent feature. It was climbing time. Charlie had a hard time with the climbing and we had to help him over some rocks a few times. Balancing with the packs became more of a challenge, but not overly dangerous. There were a couple of places where we had to use our hands to get up and over obstacles. It was tight enough in a few spots that I actually lost satellite reception on my GPS watch. The key for that section of the trail is to look for the cairns. There are enough to keep you on track, but you do have to seek them out.
We met one person on the trail. He was on his way down and had hit the summit that day. He was a local veterinarian who had a lot of good information for us--he gave us a few tips on which route to take up the mountain and told us that Charlie shouldn't make the trip to the summit. It was nice and reassuring that this is a possible day trip. It had been a tough trip to this point, but knowing that we were on a trail that was basically a simple trek kept spirits up.
The last bit of climbing was marked by a few trees that seemingly stood on the edge of a plateau. As we made it to a few hundred feet below them, it became apparent through how far we had come and where they were that they might be the end of this. It still took a while to reach them, but they indeed were that mark. We got to the edge and saw the bowl of higher mountains surrounding us on three sides. This was a familiar sight to me from the many times I had looked at this place on a mapping application or on a topo. Finally. And the lake, the quality of which we hadn't been sure about until talking with our fellow hiker, was awesome. It was about 100 to 150 yards wide and close to round. It was pretty shallow but a deep spot lies on the right as you approach. There is a small dam to hold it together at the outlet to the stream that runs the length of the canyon we had climbed through.
We found about five campsites in various places around the lake. One as you approach about 50 yards from the shore. Another, which we chose, was bigger and closer to the shore. One right on the shore would have been a tight fit for the three of us. Another off to the right side looked pretty good. And the final one we found was off to the left, but a bit uphill along the trail toward the Dome's summit. It was well covered with trees and we didn't find it until returning from the summit hike. I loved the spot, but it would have been a bit of a chore to get down and collect water and wood. Just about every site had some wood gathered near a fire pit. We were able to find some more ourselves, but it's not too abundant up there. Many trees have been cut down or were cut through that we noticed. While we were able to find what we needed without much effort, I don't know that it will be that way for long.
We set up camp and got ourselves a fire to cook dinner, which consisted of some marinated steak and fresh vegetables from Cotie's garden. It was tremendous. We also proceeded to drink a lot of the weight I had been carrying in the form of beers. Already, I felt great about not having to carry that back down, but it was also well worth it to carry up.
The next morning Henry and I were to take off and make a run at Ruby Dome. Again, we had expectations that it would be pretty basic. We knew that there was to be some scrambling toward the end, but we would be carrying nothing more than a little food and jackets in day packs. I brought along my SLR camera to get some shots from the summit. The difference in carrying about five pounds as opposed to the 50+ I had carried the day before is remarkable. I felt more energized right off the bat, which was great because we immediately started climbing in a serious way. The two miles to the summit each had over 900 feet in elevation gain, and that includes the quarter to half mile that was relatively flat overlooking Griswold Lake.
Once we reached the plateau overlooking the lake, we had to find our way. You can see Ruby Dome set back behind some other mountains at this point—something you can’t see from the lake. There were some cairns leading us to a small climb and cut in the rocks. A very light stream was running here. It wasn’t enough to even worry about stepping in as it mostly ran under the rocks, but was audible. Another quarter mile put us up on another plateau. We had one ridge to get over before facing the Dome itself.
The topo map Henry brought came in very handy here. While we had that one ridge remaining, we didn’t realize it just by looking at the unfamiliar landscape. We were making route decisions as we rested and ate, but we were wrongly thinking we were a little farther along than we actually were. The guy we had met on the trail had suggested we go right to finish the mountain, so we were discussing how going right would work. It appeared that it would be pretty difficult. He had told us that left was much harder to climb, but it sure looked easier. As it turns out, he was probably right, but we were looking in the wrong place. We finally figured out that a place on the map called “The Ledges” was not right next to us, but was instead another quarter mile up. We left not completely sure of that, but willing to give it a try. So, from where we were, we stayed left and found that next flat spot to plot upcoming moves.
We got that next quarter mile by climbing over more rocks. At this point in the hike, there’s -almost- no trail and all rock. Whether you’re going across or up, it’s footing you have to pay attention to, or something could go really wrong. And it’s not a place you want something to go wrong. We were alone and far from help. We did, however, have cell service almost the entire way. It was spotty at the lake, but as we climbed up, we were within sight of more of Spring Creek, so service improved. That was somewhat reassuring, but it didn’t make traversing the rock any easier.
We had reached the base of Ruby Dome. It’s a mountain that was once probably rounded at the top, but the north facing side—our side—has calved and fallen over the millennia, so there’s a sheer cliff for about 500 feet or more. You get to the top by scrambling up the right side chute (longer, less steep, by the looks of it from our vantage point) or the left side ridge (steeper-looking, like as in dangerous). We chose the chute on the advice of our fellow hiker the day before. It’s all just rock. You’re taking steps to make sure you have steady footing, grabbing the next rock to step up, etc. for the last half mile. And you are really climbing. According to my running GPS watch, which I have found is not accurate (on the ‘it cheats you out of altitude’ end), we went up 785 feet in six tenths of a mile to the top. That’s steep and required some actual rock climbing for us. We were not prepared for that and had not found anything that went beyond “there’s some scrambling in the last half mile” in what we read leading up to this. So, yeah, it’s a lot harder than we thought it would be.
The top is spectacular. The Rubies are beautiful and you can see an awful lot of them from the summit. Looking south toward the rest of the range is probably the best view, but north toward Elko is pretty great as well. There are two rock structures up there marking the highest points. They are a few feet tall and one of them houses the summit log—a large veterinary pill bottle taped to a branch with a couple of pens attached. It was only a few weeks old. We had learned the day before that the old log book had disappeared recently so people had started using this one in its place. It had been contained in a bigger ammo canister, but someone either took that away or it had perhaps gone over the edge.
After about 15 minutes of picture taking, eating, calling people (we had four bars up there), we decided on a way down. Henry didn’t want to go back down that chute as it had been brutal coming up. We scoped out the ridge and decided to try it. There is one very sketchy part that gives you maybe five feet of side to side room with drops on both sides. You have to be careful here because falling off toward the left is death. It’s sheer and a few hundred feet down. To the right it’s a little sloped, but probably not enough to stop you from falling a long way and sustaining serious injury or dying. So, yeah, pay attention and use your hands.
We were attempting to reach a saddle between the main peak and the east peak. We got to a steeper part that would have forced us to boulder down. Henry decided to go right from there and see if he could find a way off the backside to the saddle. I followed until he told me to wait as he continued down. Probably 200 feet below, he came to a cliff edge and couldn’t go on. So, we started back up and found our way to that ridge. We thought we may have to go all the way back and out the chute, but I found a way to where we had wanted to get earlier. It turns out that we would have had to boulder down, but that would have perfectly put us on the path we wanted to take. After the detour, we were ten feet below where we had turned and it was easier from there.
The hike back was just a reverse of coming up. We got some more beautiful views of Griswold Lake and made it back in a total of about five hours. Dinner was some rice and packets of Indian food that boil in water. It was also fantastic. Cotie had tried his hand at fishing in Griswold Lake. He had heard rumors that there were fish there and only after failing to catch anything realized that might be near impossible unless it was stocked. It’s probably not stocked.
In the morning, we broke camp and made our way down the trail to the cars. My legs were weak from the heavy pack again and the soreness of two days of climbing. We hit the cars in about an hour and a half with no incidents. We saw some younger guys making their way up to the Dome and chatted with them a minute. They said that had done it before and knew what they were up against. At the cars, we went separate ways. Cotie headed back to Utah and Henry and I dropped the campground key off and hit The Star for a fantastic Basque lunch. From there, the drive home was easy.
The trip was fantastic. Ruby Dome is situated among some of the best looking mountains in Nevada, so taking it on was a special treat. It’s a trip I probably would do again, but I’d maybe like to do the entire Ruby Crest Trail. It’s stunning out there. I actually don’t think I could say that enough.
Here are the vitals:
On June 25, 2014, Jim Scripps and I hit the road from Reno to Lone Pine, California and west from there to the Mount Whitney Portal to embark on what would be a test of our physical abilities, mental fortitude and a test on our already fragile friendship. Not really. We just decided that we wanted to climb Mount Whitney in a day and figured this would be as good a day as any to give it a try. Not really there, either. Just read on to see how it all went down. I am sure I forgot some stuff that Jim can fill me in on in later edits, but this is my story.
Mount Whitney is the highest mountain peak in the contiguous United States. It's one of 67 mountains in the contiguous 48 states that are over 14,000 feet in elevation, yet it's only 14,505 feet high itself. So it's a close call for which of the mountains is the highest. With the trail beginning in the vicinity of 8,500 feet and running about 11 miles, it's a significant climb anyway.
One thing I noted early on is the difference between this climb and the Mount Rose climb I did about a month prior. With Rose, the first few hundred meters were uphill, but then it became a relatively flat couple of miles followed by a solid two and a half miles of climbing. With Whitney, it was all uphill from the very beginning. There were very small breaks in the climb, but it was a legitimate uphill slog for the vast majority of the ascent.
Whitney is not a mountain you can just show up to climb. You have to plan ahead--in both the physical preparation and logistics departments. Read up for all the basics. They issue two types of permits that directly relate to summiting Whitney. The first is a day use permit, meaning you enter and leave the Whitney Zone on the same day--no camping within the zone. The other is the overnight permit, which spans two or more days, depending on what you request and get. Our plan was to make the trip in a single day of hiking. It's a serious undertaking, but one that I felt we were in shape for and could handle. This is some great information on doing just that.
Here's the rub. Permits are issued through a lottery. You sign up, the winners are picked, then the winners must pay up or forfeit their permits. If not all permits are claimed, they become available. We had originally planned to go in August, but did not get selected in the lottery. So I scrolled back a week at a time to find available dates until we settled on June 26. That's early, and many places suggested we prepare to climb with snow. Due to the light winter, I thought we could get away with it.
With the plan to climb and descend in one day, we needed a place to camp. The best option, hands down, has to be the Whitney Portal Campground. It's situated about a mile below the portal itself and is perfect. We grabbed a site next to the creek, which happens to be the same creek you'll spend a few hours next to on your way up the mountain. There are some vehicle sites, but we got one with a tent space and a picnic table. Ours (space 8) required a tiny bit of climbing over rocks to reach it, but it was situated perfectly.
The first night was windy. It was a small sign of things to come and was a little scary. We got to bed around 10:00 and had heard stories of bears. Bears EVERYWHERE. In fact, we were all but guaranteed by the camp host that we'd see a bear. So the wind would flap the tent and wake us up scared that we were about to be murdered by a bear. We never saw one or signs of one. By the time we were to wake up, around 4:00, the wind had died, but the stream was roaring. While we expected to hear the throngs of people rallying to get up the hill, we heard nothing. The calming creek saw to that. As we would learn later, we were probably among the last to leave camp that morning to make our way up the mountain.
We drove the mile up the road to the Portal and loaded up. By the time we hit the trail, it was about 5:15. The sun was beginning to make itself known and we didn't need headlamps. The most striking thing I can say about the trail at this point is that it's uphill. Yeah, that sounds dumb. But it's relentlessly uphill. There aren't any flat reprieves or downhills. It's uphill from the start and it stays that way. For the first couple of miles, the best views are of the valley behind you. And they're good--especially with the sun creeping up over the hills in the east.
The sheer cliff walls on both sides of the canyon that we were essentially heading up were something that stuck with me throughout the first several miles. I knew we were climbing. I knew the kind of vertical progress we were making, as I kept checking my GPS watch. I even announced milestones at the beginning, which seems a bit silly now. I was saying things like, "We just hit 9,500 feet." That meant we had climbed about a thousand of the 6,000 we needed to climb to reach the summit. In retrospect, hardly a huge moment in the day, honestly. But those cliff walls never seemed to recede. As we moved higher, so did they. We wouldn't be rid of their torment until Mile 6 and the Trail Camp area.
We didn't see anyone on the trail until Mirror Lake. Mirror Lake is at around Mile 4 and 10,650 feet. We caught up to two women and chatted for a brief minute. They were also making the trip in a day and remarked on how light our packs looked. Mine didn't feel light at this point. I was doing pretty well and Jim was doing better. Mirror Lake is one area where the trail flattens for about a quarter mile or so. Then, you begin getting into the granite that the trail is cut into in this section until you reach Mile 6 and Trail Camp. Just up the first little climb out of Mirror Lake, we met three people who told us to look out for their friends and let them know that they were fine, just moving slower. It was at this point that we started to see people frequently.
As we got out of the meadow, we could see a lot more trail, and there were people on it pretty much all over. For the two miles to Trail Camp, we were passing people and they were passing us as everyone took breaks to eat or drink or just rest. It started to feel like a real task for me here. The climb was real. We were deep into it. It wasn't going to get easier. We did run across the friends and one of the guys wasn't doing well. They had come from sea level just the day before to climb and at 11,000 feet the one guy was pretty out if it. We passed them, then they went by us. When I passed them about a half mile before Trail Camp the guy who wasn't in bad shape asked if I knew how far Trail Camp was. I told him it was about 30 minutes. I figured, and learned later, that they would turn their struggling friend around from there.
It was surreal to see someone so affected by altitude for the first time. He was a bit like a zombie. I went to pass him and it took a few seconds for him to recognize. Then, he just looked at me for about ten seconds before moving slowly out of the way. He didn't appear to be a danger to himself, but was clearly going to need some real rest to be able to get up the switchbacks and summit. Luckily, he had friends who had their wits about them and could take care of him. The one guy he was with was clearly aware and knew what he was doing in this situation. As I said, I learned later that he had turned around and gone back. That's simply the best move in these circumstances.
Consultation Lake is the final landmark before reaching Trail Camp. A giant pool of water among the granite is an interesting sight. Coming into Trail Camp gave me a mixture of feelings. It was an accomplishment, to be sure. However, I was tired, cold and in a little pain. The cold was probably what caused most of the pain at this point. And standing directly in our path was the imposing 99 Switchbacks section--almost two miles and 1,500 vertical feet. And it looked straight up. I could see people that seemed like they were halfway up those switchbacks. In reality, they were a quarter or less, if I had to guess now. It is a brutal stretch and one that I have to assume makes or breaks many attempts. If you make it up, you're beyond the point where you can give up. But making it up is a legitimate challenge.
We sat down and ate lunch here and rested a bit before embarking on what would be the biggest challenge of the climb. With all the reading I had done on this trail, I wanted to try to keep track of our progress up the switchbacks. I counted about five before I got both bored and dumb. I just didn't have the energy to keep track. To top it off, along the first quarter of the switchbacks there are various streams running down that you have to avoid if you don't want to get your boots wet. I have waterproof boots, but I never trust that, so I was a little annoyed at having to step through some of these or jump over them. Every thought I had was to conserving energy because I had doubts at this point. I do a lot of physical training. I often wonder why I'm doing it and consider bailing out. This was the same. Thankfully, I don't bail out in my training, which is the only reason I was in the shape to make this.
I was probably two thirds of the way up when I began to realize there are some flowers growing out of the cracks in the granite. I checked my watch and marked that we were above 12,500 feet. That's pretty awesome that there is vegetation up this high in a very desolate place. It took a lot to muster the energy to take my camera out to get a photo of what I was sure was a unique and future award-winning shot. A Google search since then has informed me that I neither took the first nor best shot of those flowers with Mt. Whitney featured in the background. Oh well. But this shot did give me some resolve. I told myself, out loud mind you, that I was going to get to the top of the switchbacks and make this summit.
I stopped near the top of the switchbacks because I simply had to rest and eat something. I was also experiencing a condition informally called "#fathand." My left hand was swollen. Really swollen. I couldn't make a fist--not even close. My right was a little swollen as well, but not as badly as the left. As it turns out, this is a thing called peripheral edema, and is a regular occurrence in altitude situations (and old age and women). It was probably enhanced by how tightly I was carrying my backpack, which wouldn't allow blood to flow back up the arm as well as it should. I also thought at the time that I had been so cold and now I was at a break from the wind, so things were warming up, and that warming of my hand could be making me think it was more swollen, based on feel. I was being dumb about that. It was swollen. So I stopped to maybe give my body a few minutes to acclimate. When I hoisted the pack back up, I walked another 100 yards or so around a bend and saw Jim. He was at Trail Crest waiting for me. I had stopped just short of the top of the switchbacks and he probably stood in the wind for 15 minutes waiting for me catch up. I approached him and told him about my #fathand.
I saw some more interesting firsts on the switchbacks. I saw people huddled together to stay warm and out of the wind. They were possibly even trying to nap. You read stories of how weird it gets on a mountain climb. I didn't exactly expect to see those types of things on this climb--one that we, and many others were doing in a single day--but I did. You get this sense that these people might be in a little danger, but what can you do? It's not like it's easy to get anyone back down. There's no cell service to call for help. The best you can do is see if they need anything (they didn't), and let them make the decision that's best for them. That's unfortunately how I think it works up there. Everyone is an adult and has to take responsibility for themselves within reason.
As I look back, this was the point where everything became too much of an effort to document. I kept my phone in my front pocket--easily reachable--but was unwilling to take the time to get it out, unlock it and stop to take a picture. I just wanted to keep going at all costs. So, I powered on. From Trail Crest you descend a little until you reach the junction with the John Muir Trail. This is about two miles from the summit. Here, people leave backpacks for their final ascent. That is a good idea if you can carry a little food with you. I passed on that opportunity, and wish I hadn't. We talked on the way down about how much different the way up would have been without all that weight. It would have helped a lot.
Not far after the junction, I came around a corner to a small commotion. A woman was climbing back up the mountain to the trail on all fours and there was a backpack about ten feet down that looked like it had been ditched. It also looked like Jim's. It was. She had fallen down and Jim had gone after her. He was climbing back up with her pack behind her and in seemingly good spirits. She had done three backward somersaults down the hill and if she had done a fourth might never have come back. Seriously. She got lucky and didn't appear to be hurt other than a scratch on her face. Jim had felt like she was moving slowly enough down the hill that he could catch her, so he tried. I felt important just because I knew him, which is probably something I should always feel.
Just after that small detour, I saw a guy walking down that was wearing what looked like a kilt made out of a garbage bag. We passed and had a really brief conversation:
Me: "How's it going?"
Him: "Great. I spent the night in the hut, man."
Me: "Wow, that's kinda cool."
Him: "Yeah, it was a little rough, but cool."
Me: "Huh, well, good luck. Take care."
Him: "Yeah, we got up here at 9:30 last night and it was 20 degrees colder than now and the wind was 75 MPH, so we spent the night in the hut, man."
Me: "Yeah, that's crazy. See ya."
He seemed slightly out of it, for sure. I was in no place to fully comprehend what he was saying, and I just wanted to keep moving. I learned later that he and some other guys did, in fact, summit around 9:30 and it was cold. All along the trail we had heard that it was cold and the wind was around 65 MPH at the top. As we got closer, we kept asking. People told us that it had calmed, but was still not ideal. This guy was probably in 10 degree weather and 75 MPH winds at 9:30, so they realized they would freeze on the exposed trail down. They hunkered down in the hut--about nine guys, I heard--and spent the night. Several were in hypothermia by the morning and some early summiters helped get them back to normal so they could safely get down. Hence, the trash bag kilt.
Jim and I talked on the way down about whether the two incidents we experienced--the woman falling and the near hypothermic tragedy--are even known to the rangers. We didn't see a ranger until just outside of Mirror Lake on the way down. By that point, we weren't far from exiting the Whitney Zone. He was heading up the trail. Does someone report the problems? Did he run into the kilt guy? We saw the woman who fell just before we saw the ranger, so they definitely crossed paths soon after we did. It's a bit odd that this place that is actually regulated in the number of people allowed to be there on any given day would have so little oversight on the trail itself.
That last mile and a half, for me, took a long time. It was probably an hour and a half. I was stopping more frequently, despite the fact that I knew I would make it. I was just worn out--tired, cold, hungry and worst of all, I was hurting. I have a stupid hip flexor issue that pops up every once in a while during a run. It usually happens on longer distances and on the trails. I started to really feel it on the switchbacks at about eight miles. By the final mile, I was lifting my right leg with my arms over the higher steps. It was painful and probably exacerbated by the lack of oxygen. I did better on the flatter uphill, but those steps up were very difficult. This part of the trail is where you get the "windows." They're small (5-10 feet) openings between the needles that dot the landscape to the south of Whitney itself. Snow was still accumulated and they offer the only views to the east from the trail here. They drop off very steeply and this could be a very serious danger for someone suffering from altitude sickness. One step wrongly here and you're falling over a thousand feet straight down.
The last push up the mountain was numbing for me. I just decided to put my head down and slog it out without paying any attention to where I was relative to the finish. A while back I had noted that I could see the hut clearly atop the mountain. This was a great feeling. I was very close. I could see people moving around, too. I began to see people coming down who were encouraging: “You’re right there,” “It’s right over this ridge. You’ve got this!” That was good to hear. I probably looked like a train wreck. That last mile was the first place I started to get passed regularly by faster people. Others had passed me when I was stopped, but I ultimately reeled them in, giving me confidence that I was still doing well despite what my body felt like. Not anymore.
Then, I felt the trail flatten out a bit and looked up. I saw the hut right out in front of me. Somehow, I immediately got the camera out and took the photo you see here. This was the best feeling I had all day. Jim came down to meet me and asked if I was interested in the beer he had packed for each of us. I was not, so he gave it away to a guy who was on his final leg of the John Muir Trail—17 days in the wild for this dude. It made his day. He immediately did a short video about summiting and had Jim as a guest star because of the beer. That was pretty great. We signed the guest book (special thanks to News and Views for sponsoring us). I grabbed my wonderful dried mangoes and didn’t care about the massive amounts of calories they have in them as I hammered about ten right away.
We then walked up to the summit itself and I turned my phone on. A guy I had seen on the trail, who it turned out was 17 and climbed with his 15 year old sister, was on his phone telling his mom who was staying in Bishop that they had made it. My phone got a signal and started blowing up from two days without service. I went to text a summit photo to Christy and the phone died. I figured the battery was the problem. I had gotten a couple of shots, but not all I wanted (this was my camera). That sucked. The guy we gave a beer to, we call him Pastor Chris, offered to take a pano shot with us and email it later.
The hike back, while much easier, was just almost as long on the clock. One notable exception was the 250 vertical foot ascent from the trail junction to Trail Crest. That one hurt. My hip was great the whole way, leading me to the conclusion that climbing is its problem. I can work on that. We passed many of the people on our way down that we had seen on the way up, including the sea level foursome who had sent their friend back, the two women from Mirror Lake, and a guy with (I presume) his daughter. The guy was in Wranglers and had a super old external frame pack, which was the only one I’d seen all day. He was struggling, but was going to make it. The switchbacks, while easier on the downhill, were just as mind numbing as on the way up. We spent the five miles to Trail Camp with Pastor Chris and learned a lot about becoming a Methodist pastor. It’s pretty fascinating. He was great. He left us then because we were slowing him down. You learn to get really fast spending 17 days out there mostly by yourself. We saw him again at the Portal Store where his ride to town told us about the hypothermia guys and telling the woman who fell to turn back. She apparently wanted to summit still and a group of hikers advised her against continuing. Oh, and my phone powered back on at about 12,500 feet. Is there an altitude issue with the iPhone 5s?
We made it back just as the sun was receding behind the massive mountains to the west. We had ourselves a burger and a couple of beers, then went back to our own camp to relax and get some rest. The next day we packed up and left for home, stopping only to have breakfast in Bishop and grab some gas. I think we were both pretty sore. My calves didn’t feel too bad until the second day. Then they were sore for a week.
The trip as a whole was outstanding. Doing it a second time would be difficult. Knowing what you’re about to get yourself into would make deciding to do it again hard for me. I am much more inclined to move on to a new challenge. However, I think a spring trip up the Mountaineer’s Route would be fantastic. You would have to camp out for one or two nights, but the challenge and different route would be what makes that trip a blast. Also, having to learn a bunch about climbing in the snow would make the idea a great experience and good practice for my ultimate goal. Maybe in a couple years.
Here are some of the stats:
Mount Rose is the highest peak in the immediate vicinity of Reno. It stands over Reno somewhat unnoticed most of the time and is often confused with Slide Mountain. Slide Mountain contains the Mt. Rose Ski Resort with its very visible slopes standing out no matter the time of year. Hiking Mount Rose is something a bunch of people from around here have done. It's a nice day trip without a major amount of climbing and has some tremendous views throughout the trek.
I've wanted to get out and climb Mount Rose for a few years. Knowing the round trip was about 10 miles made it seem like something that was possible, even if you moved at a slow pace. It would also signify a decent accomplishment. In my case, it's the first real ascent I've made and the highest elevation I've reached outside of an airplane.
The plan was to leave our house around 9:00 on Saturday morning. That would put us at the base of the trail around 9:30 or so. I expected the hike to take about three hours up and two back--somewhere in that range. We actually got to the base at 9:00 and got rolling pretty much right away. The entire trip wound up taking about 6:30, which was obviously slower than anticipated. This was due to a lot more snow than I expected.
We each carried a day pack. Christy's contained her water sleeve filled with two liters, a bottle with another liter and her jacket. I also carried a two-liter sleeve along with a 1.5 liter bottle, a first aid kit and our food. We brought some Tahoe Trail Bars, dried mangoes, cashews, salami, those little wax wheels of cheese, Reese's Pieces, and some fruit roll-ups. The salami, mangoes and cashews were super clutch. I also brought along some wind/water resistant pants and a jacket. I was not worried about keeping it light--this was in some ways a little test for me. I didn't, however, weigh the pack so I have no idea what I had to lug. It was definitely not ten pounds, though.
The climb starts with an immediate uphill for a couple hundred feet of elevation gain. It lasts about .5 to .75 miles, then starts to level off and even decline. At about a mile and a half, you begin to descend, the whole time through the trees, into a meadow. that last mile or more to the 2.5 mile point was on a northeast facing part of the trail, which meant that the snap was present. In more than one spot, the trail was invisible or covered, but luckily it was either made up with a lot of footprints throughout he snow or easily found just a few yards away from where we had to go to get around it all.
In a few of the spots, the snow was not only deep and beginning to soften with the heat of the day increasing, but it was also on a steep slope of the hill, so it was a bit sketchy. We were holding onto trees or simply hoping feet didn't slip and slide us down the hill a few feet. Probably more than any danger, we were worried about sliding down then having to get back up to the trail. That would have sucked.
At about two miles we ran into a couple of hiking groups. We knew there was a waterfall on the trail and that it was about halfway along. At this point we could also hear it. We asked knew of the groups--this group was on its way back--whether they had made the entire trip up. They told us that they had only gone as far as seeing the waterfall because the trail basically disappeared in the snow. At this point we contemplated checking out the waterfall then turning back. That's when we talked with the other group. It was three guys and they were heading the same direction as us. We stood overlooking the meadow and I asked them if they know where the trail was supposed to be. One of them pointed across the meadow and said the trail ran right along the trees. I could make it out as it climbed upward and it was soaked in glorious sun. We decided to try to get to it and move on.
The waterfall is pretty awesome. Getting there wasn’t. It was pretty snowy that last quarter mile or so. Along the side of a relatively steep hill, we trudged. At one point, it appeared that everyone who had come before us just made their own trail because it was entirely covered. That meant about a ten foot drop on a steep angle that would have to be taken in big steps to reach each foot plant. It wasn’t easy. We got a little wet in this process, but eventually powered through as a big group and came upon the fall. That’s where we rested for a few minutes and ate up the high protein snacks. I could tell by my watch’s altimeter that we were going to pay for the level first half of the trek with a nice bit of climbing in the second.
Almost immediately after leaving the waterfall, you climb. It’s not a hugely difficult climb, but it’s a legitimate one. You wind along the edge of a hill until you’re making your way up a watershed, then cross over onto the low end of Mount Rose itself. The are some trees giving you cover from the sun, and the only time we saw snow was on one side of the watershed area here. After about a mile and a quarter, you reach a clearing with a Mt. Rose Wilderness Area sign. There are a couple of trails converging here, and the indicator reads that the summit is about a mile away. It’s more like a mile and a half at this point, but I guess you can’t blame them for keeping you motivated.
Immediately, the climb begins again. This time it was snowier, but not too bad at first. Most of it appears to be large drifts that just hadn’t melted off yet as opposed to unexposed snow that stayed deep. Not long after we hit the 10,000 foot mark in elevation. Shortly after that began an area with a few switchbacks. We saw a woman on her way down with a dog. We asked how it was and she told us that it was great—the dog loved the snow. Awesome.
After the few switchbacks you wrap around the north end of the mountain for the final push. At this elevation and facing north, there isn’t much hope for the trail being clear. It was snow for about the last 500 feet of climbing. We saw a few more guys on their way down around here. They said the summit was nice. The climb wasn’t as nice. The wind was blowing pretty good and we had to put jackets on.
A few hundred yards from the top, there are a couple of switchbacks again. Pushing through them at that point hurt a little, but once we reached the summit it was pretty clear why people did this. The views are pretty spectacular. The ability to look at both Lake Tahoe to the west and Reno to the northeast is pretty great. Reno looks impossibly far away considering how close Mount Rose looks from the city. It was far enough away, for instance, that I couldn’t tell if a single plane took off from the airport in our time up there. That surprised me since I expected to see them close to level with us on the horizon.
Lake Tahoe was its usual, amazing self
We hung around for about 20 minutes up top and saw a few other people. I took a picture of a pair of women who held up an American flag with the lake in the background. Another guy appeared to come up the Church’s Pond route and make his way along the ridge before heading back down.
The trip back down, while faster, was still hindered by the snow. We saw our three friends from the waterfall just as we began the descent and a few other people along the way. For some of them, the time was getting to be a little late to be able to make it up and enjoy the view before having to scurry back down. After the waterfall, where we took another short break, the snow and our tired legs had some fun with us. We both began to hurt a little and just felt like getting back. I imagine that’s what it’s like on any climb. Getting down is just tedious. A lot of people were hanging out at the waterfall when we reached, so there were quite a few others on the remaining trail back.
Here are some of the stats: