Leaving North Conway, New Hampshire, we drove for three hours or so, my friend Brett Fitzgerald taking the wheel. Meeting up with two more friends, Brett’s brother, Corey, and co-worker Alek Pouliopoulos (we’re all mountain guides for Brett and Corey’s company, Northeast Mountaineering), we made our way to good old BOS and at 7:30 that evening we left the ground together on a Jet Blue flight bound for Portland, Oregon. Roughly six hours later we landed safely, and somewhere along the way we concocted this crazy plan to eat a late night breakfast and go on an adventure when we landed — instead of getting some rest. And by, “go on an adventure,” I mean climb Mt. Hood. It was late, we were up, so why not? We’d kick off our ten-day work/play Pacific Northwest-conquering mission with bang so off to Hood we went. After abusing ourselves at an IHOP.
Mt. Hood – 11,249′
After an hour or so of driving our crappy rental, a Ford Flex, we found ourselves winding our way through a tall, dark evergreen forest to the base complex of the ski area at Mt Hood. We parked and night-registered at the closed facility. In the glow of the walkway lights we tore into our expedition bags and packed our packs: crampons, ice axes, avalanche shovels, probes, beacons, ropes, pickets, harnesses, helmets, plus the usual stuff any prudent mountaineer might carry. None of us had done Hood before, so while we didn’t go into the climb completely blind thanks to en-route Googling, we did err on the side of caution. In hindsight, we might have tried to further reduce our 40-45 lb. day packs, but not by much. In hindsight we could have certainly done without the IHOP.
The night climb started cool. The summit cone seemed to be “right there” in the glow of a waxing moon so we made our way up the slopes of the ski area feeling good, spirits high. Time passed and we eventually made it to the terminus of the uppermost lift. A new day, however, was dawning. And what seemed to be “right there,” still seemed that way — yet we barely felt closer to our goal. Experience tells us, though, keep putting one foot after another, so that’s what we did. We finally started up a rocky spine towards some unstable terrain offering rock- and ice-fall. On went crampons and helmets, and we took out our ice axes putting our trekking poles away. There was no need to rope up yet so we didn’t.
We made our way to a snowy crest at the base of the crater headwall called Hog’s Back. From there one goes up directly over the bergshrund — a chasm between sliding glacier ice and fixed ice on the headwall — and through the Pearly Gates to the summit or via the Old Chute to the ridge and across to the summit. The bergshrund was looking nasty and the couloir or gully was littered with fallen rocks and ice so we opted for the latter. Now it was time to rope up since falls on the softening snow would be pretty dangerous; there were things for us to slide into and onto and the angles were getting much steeper.
We made our way up a roughly 45-degree slope toward the top of the ridge. Not yet acclimated to the altitude we needed to take some compression breaths along the way (a deep breath in followed by a fast, shallow exhale so as to create an oxygen reserve). We were feeling the efforts of our labor but onward we climbed. We expected we’d see a domed over ridge when we reached the profile. That wasn’t the case. The ridge was sharp, making Mt Kahtadin’s Knife Edge seem like a highway. I led at this point, slinging fixed boulders for a running belay along the way, and made my way to the summit in a series of segments, the team following. The climb up was tiring, but the ridge and summit were well worth it. One down, two to go.
Mt. Rainier – 14,410′
After carefully descending Mt Hood we drove north to Washington to a large cabin near the gates to Mount Rainier National Park, stopping to resupply our food and fuel. We met up with three others: previous clients Josh Klockars and Kay Singh — whom I had the pleasure of guiding up Mt Washington in New Hampshire this past winter — and a new team member, Nick Steffens. Together we ate, prepped our gear for the morning and slept hard. We needed the rest. We also showered. For the next three days we were going to be climbing so it was time to stock up on clean.
The morning was sunny, as it would be every day of our trip to the notoriously hot and dry Pacific Northwest. We were loving it and were eager to climb, but first we needed to fuel up on a bacon- and blackberry-laden breakfast so we stopped down the road a piece. After we ate we drove through the gates and along a gorgeous road to Paradise, the 5480′ base just below treeline on Mt Rainier. We registered, parked, and quickly started the ascent to Moon Rocks just below Camp Muir. We first traveled through beautiful trees and rock, then soon we got onto the seemingly endless snowfield.
The sun was hot and we lathered ourselves with a lot of SPF-30 and UV-protective lip balm. Since we were on a snowfield, this meant protecting the undersides of body parts, like our chins, as well. We trudged along slowly under the strain of 55-60 lb. packs up the 20-30-degree slope, the snow softening and the sun beating down on us. One foot in front of the other. Eventually we made it. Moon Rocks were flat and open so we set up our low camp, Camp One, by erecting our tents. We enjoyed some food, organized and took care of our gear, chased off a curious marmot, and crashed in our sleeping bags as soon as the sun went behind a rocky ridge line.
The sounds of rock fall entertained us all night. The mountain is literally falling apart and we must have heard thirty events while on that part of the mountain. We were safe for the moment, though, and slept fairly well. The cool breezes felt great after such a long, hard day. We felt rested when we woke up. We had a short day ahead of us so we were in a positive mood. We were headed to a flat section on the Ingraham Glacier aptly named Ingraham Flats. We’d be there in two hours or so by way of Camp Muir and the Cowlitz Glacier. But first, breakfast.
We ate, packed our gear, and headed up the snowfield to Camp Muir. Once there we got into harnesses and helmeted and roped up preparing ourselves for travel in more dangerous terrain featuring rock and ice fall, and well as crevasse and shifting serac hazards. There were also outhouses there, so we invested in the opportunity to avoid using “blue bags” to carry out our crap, literally. Once relieved and ready, we began our glacier traverse and rocky band ascent on the other side. The seven of us traveled in two rope teams.
We scurried quickly through the worst sections, if that’s even really possible roped as burdened as we were, and soon we made it across and up a scree-laden ramp up and over a low point in an imposing arête called Cathedral Rocks. There we traveled up along the rocky spine onto the Ingraham Glacier. We climbed a bit more, skirting a huge ice fall, making our way to the Flats to set up our high camp. The views from Camp Two of the glacier and ice falls, Cathedral Rocks, Disappointment Cleaver, mountainous region, and a neighboring peak called Little Tahoma were stunning. We melted snow for water, a task we’d do twice a day for the entire climb, ate, prepped our “day packs” for our summit assault, and went to bed as early as possible.
It was hard to sleep and I ended up not catching a wink all night. Excitement, elevation, and sun; these things all conspired against me. I didn’t miss much, though. The plan was to wake up at 11:30 that night, make more water, eat, and go. As it was, a massive serac tumbled into a pit at 11:20 awakening anyone who was sleeping. This included all the other camps and we all hurried through our routines so as to be ahead of the others in our alpine starts. We fared well and most of the camps ended up below us as we crossed that glacier, including treading carefully over a five-foot wide ladder-bridged open crevasse, and made our way onto the steep and loose Disappointment Cleaver — another rocky arête — and up towards the summit crater.
The rangers at Paradise told us to skirt the cone to the left towards the top of the Kautz Glacier so as to a avoid a huge crevasse and avalanche crown line. This added mileage but we pressed on. One foot in front of the other. A few hours later, with a red line in the sky to the east and more compression breaths, we approached the rim of the massive crater. We were tired but elated. We crested the rim and effectively made the summit of this volcanic goliath. We rested briefly then proceeded to cross the crater, still roped, to the other side and the rim’s high point: Columbia Crest. The moon to the west, the sun to the east. A half-hour later we made it. We stood upon the summit of Mt Rainier. A special moment to be sure. We hugged each other, fist-bumped, took photos, then we donned our packs and left.
Our careful return to Camp Two on Ingraham Flats went quickly and within a few hours we were there. We folded our camp after a short break and snow melting session and made our way, still roped, back to Camp Muir. From there the two roped teams were freed and as individuals we made our way back to Paradise. Glissading, running, slipping and sliding, the last four miles went quickly. We were tired, dirty, and ready to say good-bye to the big R. We were ready for a meal, a shower, a rest day (buying more fuel and food), and driving to our next and final mountain of the trip.
Mt. Shuksan – 9,131′
After staying at a hotel we made out way further north to Seattle to drop off Kay who wouldn’t be joining us, then further north still to a campground in the Northern Cascades, home to Mts Baker and Shuksan, as well as myriad others. There we prepped our gear and spent the night on Baker Lake. The following morning, early, we were awoken by noisy motor boats filled with fisherman pursuing huge lake trout. We broke camp, headed to town, ate breakfast, then retraced our travels to Shannon Road and the Shuksan trailhead. Before long we were on the trail, making our way through huge conifers in a virgin forest. Beautiful, albeit hot and tiring. We rested in shady glades and savored every slight breeze. The comfort of the trees was to be short-lived and we knew it. Before long we were atop Shannon Ridge, traveling on snow and rock, baking in the sun.
The open alpine sight lines ahead of us assured us of long distances, steep climbs, and much effort to go. One foot in front of the other, the mantra continued. We sweated but were still dazzled by the amazing views. A special place to be sure. Eventually we tackled a dirty cut in the snow and crested another ridge. From here on out we traveled on snow with islands of rock as we roasted in the relentless sun and bluebird skies. Slowly we made our way towards our 6500′ camp alongside the Sulfide Glacier. We pressed on a little further dropping down and opting to camp at a more exposed col at about 6200′ where we hoped for more breezes. The mountain was to be exceptionally warm and calm that night according to all the forecasts: the weather was to be very stable. Both a blessing and a curse.
As we did on Rainier, we prepped for an alpine start — which is easier and safer on firmer snow — and went to bed early. We didn’t plan to start as early as we did on Rainier, though, since we needed daylight to tackle the rocky and technical summit cone. It got really comfortable up there that night and we slept well, tent flaps open to the stars. In the wee hours we awoke, ready to climb after some food and snow melting. We closed our tents, roped up into two teams of three, then started the final push to the top. This last 3000′ of gain would bring us to about 23,500′ of elevation gain over the course of our adventure, and we were feeling it. Yet, spirits were high and we climbed energetically in the darkness. Before long we reached the top of the glacier, traversed northeast to the base of the rocky summit cone, just as Mt Baker was being painted in an alpenglow pink behind us.
We rested again then began our climb. The six pitches up the Gully route we followed were described as a class 3-4 scramble. It was true, but there were many sections that we all agreed were more like fifth class terrain. Specifically, up to a 5.4 rock climb. We treated the dangerous, exposed terrain of loose rock accordingly as the six of us ascended in two teams, partly simulclimbing. Alek, being our strongest rock climber, led, then belayed both parties as we moved up together. Each belay was tight, crowded with climbers. After a considerable period we made it to the top of the final pitch, high-fived each other, then almost immediately turned around and began a tedious rappel down to the glacier. Once there we rested again before making our way back to camp.
It seemed to take forever, but eventually we made it back. Originally we considered spending another day on the mountain, instead of pushing hard to force our return, but once we got back to camp, despite being more than prepared with tons of food, we decided to get off the mountain. It was hot and it was a tough push, but hours later we found ourselves at the trailhead. We were relieved; hot and tired but happy. We had no firm plans at this point and considered camping and swimming at Baker Lake, but we eventually made it to a hotel. The air conditioning felt great.
The next day we enjoyed Pike Place, feasted on king crab, and saw some sights in Seattle (great city). From there, after parting ways with Josh and saying a final good-bye to he and Kay, with whom we re-connected, we proceeded south to Portland in thick traffic, Nick still in tow. Already we missed the mountains. That night we did our best to “Keep Portland Weird” as we went out for food and several drinks before crashing at yet another hotel. The people-watching was indescribable in that city so I won’t even try. We were elated. Spent. Ready for home. And the following morning that’s what we did. We parted with Nick who was bound for Georgia, and as friends, teammates, and mountain compatriots the four of us boarded another Jet Blue flight back to Boston.