Monday, January 20, 2014

The "Most Difficult" via The "Most Interesting"

It was a three day weekend so I felt compelled to attempt a big mission in the mountains. Unfortunately the snow conditions were terrible and it was way too warm for ice. Sounds like late spring right? So instead of trying a real winter climb that probably wouldn't go, I decided to try a late season mountaineering route instead. A la Jeff Park Glacier on Mt. Jefferson, AKA the "most interesting route" on Oregon's "most difficult summit." Jeff Park Glacier is a big, crevassed glacier on Jefferson's north side that flows from the ridge between two impressive rock pinnacles. The route follows the glacier to this ridge and then traverses a knife edge of low fifth class rock to the north ridge and the base of the summit pinnacle.

The Jeff Park Glacier, shadowed from evening alpenglow, as I hike up to my campsite Saturday evening.
I packed up the car and left Bend at noon on Saturday. The forest service road to the Whitewater Trail Head is mostly clear, thanks to the pitiful snow fall this winter. I was able to drive to within a mile of the trail head parking lot before my tires started spinning too much and I was forced to park. I left the car at 2pm, the road had good snow cover for skiing but the trail itself was mostly snow-less, forcing me to pack the skis. After the initial switch back section the snow reappeared and I was able to ski again. Once above Jeff Park (the hanging valley beneath the glacier) the snow became too icy for skins and I was forced to pack the skis again. I eventually made camp somewhere between 7000 and 7500 ft. in an icy depression. I fired up the stove and soon had plenty of water and a watery, warm bowl of curried rice and lentils. I crawled into my sleeping bag and turned the headlamp off at 8pm.

Sleep mostly evaded  me and I finally gave up and got up just after 3am. I melted 3 liters of water for the day and "cooked" some instant oatmeal with tepid water. After loading my pack and securing the tent with some big rocks, I started hiking at 4:30. There was a mostly full moon and I enjoyed hiking up the glacier without artificial light. Most of the crevasses were pretty well covered; I only punched through on one of them and it was obvious and small. The glacier has two bergschrunds, large crevasses caused by the glacier breaking away from snow pack above it. The first one was intimidating and took some time to get around in the dark, but I eventually located a good snow bridge. The second appeared more ominous, as there was tons of spindrift blasting over it, but in the end it was quite easy. I reached the top of the glacier at 6:15, 1:45 to climb ~2500 ft with some route finding issues. Not bad time, if I do say so myself.

The knife edge ridge traverse is called low fifth class rock climbing. I had read that there was a lot of exposure on it, and maybe it was scarier in the moonlight, but wow, big exposure is right. It was definitely an amazing perch; very narrow with several hundred feet of sheer drop on either side to steep snow slopes. The ridge crest also had a fair bit of snow and rime on it, so I ended up riding it horsey style quite a bit. This definitely made it the most awkward "rock" climbing I've done to date. The crux was a little tower on the ridge that was coated in rime ice. I climbed up just right of the crest and then had to down climb steep snow and rock on the back side. After the tower one more short horse ride led to the mellow north ridge. From there it was mostly walking, with only a short rime/rock down climb off a little nob, to reach the summit pinnacle.

Looking back on the knife edge ridge, leading to the snowier north ridge, from the summit. I didn't take any pictures before reaching the north ridge since it was dark.
By now the sun was peeking over the horizon and illuminating the east face. Being perhaps a little cocky I had thought that I would probably just reverse the whole route to descend, but I had no desire to hump my way back along the knife edge. The other descent option, which I hadn't really researched, was the East Face route. Now looking down the illuminated face I could see lots of very steep snow broken by cliff bands and getting warmed by the sun. This didn't look like a good idea either and given the extra time it would take to climb the summit pinnacle it would just get worse. I looked down the west side of the mountain at what I have since learned was the North Milk Creek Gully. This was still in the shade and I could see what appeared to be snow slopes, unbroken by rock bands, traversing around to the ridge above the Russel Glacier, a smaller, less steep ice field that parallels the Jeff Park Glacier. With this as my tentative descent plan I focused on the summit.

Sunrise paints the east face of Jefferson, and the Whitewater Glacier beneath it, pink.
The sun, just peeking over the horizon.
The north end of the summit pinnacle is a fourth class scramble in summer, now it was coated in thick, icy rime. Long lances of the stuff, upwards of three feet, had turned into solid ice blobs, probably as a function of the warm weather, and were sticking out of the snow at a downwards angle. Trying to find solid pick placements and move through them with a pack on was a slow process. There was only so much I was willing to bash off above me since the chunks were so large. I started by climbing a short chute to a hanging snow/ice field. From here I tried three different chutes leading up to the summit. I down climbed from part way up all three, feeling that they were too insecure and dangerous. I thought that maybe conditions just weren't good and that I would be denied after coming to within 30 vertical feet of the summit. However, I investigated one last gully, hidden around a corner to the far right. It looked doable, with some protruding rock holds, so I started up. I was able to traverse further right to the ridge crest and one final body length of rime climbing got me to the tiny summit (barely big enough for one person to sleep on). I took some photos, ate, drank, and admonished myself to descend carefully ("no mistakes, take your time"). The down climbing went smoothly and I was daggering backwards down the North Milk Creek Gully by 8:20.

My boot prints on the summit with the north ridge on the left and Mt. Hood on the horizon.
A close up of Mt. Hood, with Adams just visible to the right.
Looking past the South Horn from the summit (North Horn). Visible L-R are Black Butte, Broken Top, the Sisters, Mt. Washington, and Three Fingered Jack.
The shadow of Mt. Jefferson shades the knife edge ridge and the horizon, taken from the summit.
The "mandatory" summit selfie with Mt. Hood visible to the right.
The snow traverse over to the top of the Russel Glacier ended up being pretty continuous traversing on 40-45 degree snow. I crossed multiple gullies but only saw one ice chunk falling down. The last gully I climbed up instead of over to avoid steeper snow. This brought me to the ridge crest above the Russel, and to my relief I could see easy, walkable snow slopes all the way down. I may have even shouted with glee, knowing with certainty that the difficult parts were over and it was all clear sailing back to camp.

Looking back up at the summit pinnacle (right), the Mohler Tooth (left), and the gullies I had traversed, from the top of the ridge above the Russel Glacier.
Sunshine! I could not have imagined better weather. The summit pinnacle is on the left.
Looking down the ridge line with the Russel Glacier on the right... easy walking at last!
I reached camp around 10am, just in time to see two other climbers descending from the Jeff Park Glacier, the first people I had seen since turning my car off the main road the day before. We stopped and chatted for a bit and I found out they were from Portland and had been camped just over the moiraine from me but we had never seen each other. They had also tried the Jeff Park Glacier route but turned around part way up the glacier due to crampon malfunctions. After they started hiking down I crawled into my sleeping bag and ate a snack. I briefly considered taking a nap but decided I'd rather get out of the cold shade of the mountain and down to that nice sunny weather I could see. I packed up and skied out without incident, returning to the car by 1:30. I stretched and ate a fresh apple on a sunny rock before driving home.

Looking back at the Jeff Park Glacier from camp.
Amazing, rolling cloud formations above the Russel Glacier as I break camp.
Looking back at the mountain as it socks in with clouds during my ski out to the car... perfect timing.
Although this route was technically a couple notches easier than my Devil's Kitchen Headwall solo it was, in my opinion, a much harder climb. The constant accumulation of small, technical obstacles with big exposure, combined with the route finding issues and the uncertainty of whether or not it would go, made it a huge mental challenge. It also required a lot of my accumulated skill and experience to successfully navigate all the different parts of the climb. While the knife edge was definitely the technical crux, and the scariest section, the summit pinnacle provided the biggest challenge with its route finding. The most enjoyable part of the climb however, was the traverse over to the top of the Russel Glacier. Pushing an unknown descent path down an unknown (to me) part of the mountain was stressful but also very rewarding and I really enjoyed the sense of exploration. Finally, I'd like to thank some people, because a good solo effort is (ironically) only possible with the support of your partners... Edward, for taking me on those early mind expanding climbs and showing me what you can achieve with a level head. Travis, for being psyched to go climb in the alpine and first suggesting that Jeff Park might be soloable in winter. Lastly, Caitlin, for accepting, supporting, and trusting me not to do anything stupid. Thank you!

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Devil's Kitchen Headwall Solo

Caitlin and I got back to Bend Friday night after visiting family for the holidays. The weather was looking good and I was craving something challenging after mainly sitting around eating food for almost two weeks. So the next day I repacked the car and drove to Mt. Hood. My intention was to solo the Devil's Kitchen Headwall. This is a relatively short and easy route on Hood's south side, very near the standard walk-up gullies used to reach the summit by peak baggers. Its easy access and short, straightforward technical difficulties made it an ideal target. The only question was whether or not there would be enough ice to climb it with the abysmally low snow fall we have had this winter.

I got to Timberline around 5PM (I had yet to replace a burned out headlamp and wanted to drive while it was still light), walked around the lodge, found a quiet dark parking space, ate a dinner of leftover potatoes and chilli, and settled into my sleeping bag in the back of the car. I set my alarm for 3AM but apparently I was a little too comfy and awoke at 5:30! I threw on my clothes, jumped out of the car, laced my boots and grabbed my pack. I was hiking by 5:45, and hiking fast due to my frustration. I even forgot to put on my headlamp and went half a mile in the dark before letting myself stop to get it out.

The wind was blowing fairly hard and carrying bits of ice shrapnel with it, but once I drew level with the Steel Cliffs it cut out. By this time the sun was peeking over the horizon and bathing the east facing slopes in a red glow. I could see the Headwall by now and it looked like ice would be sparse. I berated myself for sleeping in... perhaps with more time I could have dropped down to investigate Reid Glacier Headwall or another line. With limited options I hiked around the Devil's Kitchen, exposed geothermal vents reeking of sulfur, to the base of the Headwall and evaluated the various gullies.

Route overlay of south side routes on Mt. Hood from the Oregon High climbing guide by Jeff Thomas. 1b- Old Chute, unlabeled line- Pearly Gates, 1c- Devil's Kitchen Headwall left variation (my route right of the gendarme in red added by me), 1d- DKH right variation, 1e and 1f- shorter routes to the crater rim and the upper Wy'east route.
My ideal line up these cliffs is called the "left variation" on the Mountain Project page and is marked as route "1c" on the topo in Jeff Thomas' "Oregon High" guide book. This gully is the longest and most direct on the headwall. The lesser "right variation," or route "1d," seemed to have enough snow and ice in it for climbing but wasn't what I wanted. Unfortunately the left variation looked very sparse and at first glance I thought it would be impossible. I climbed to the bottom of the first step to investigate anyway and once I was close I could see some snice chunks on the right side and a thin smear of verglas on the left. I checked the right and found it was poorly bonded and I couldn't get a solid pick. The footing on the left looked easier despite the thin ice so I moved over to check. I climbed and down climbed the first couple moves twice, considered retreating, and then committed to the mandatory mixed moves. Maybe I have been reading too much Colin Haley and Steve House or maybe I was just too amped up to back down, but either way, once up it would have been very difficult to reverse and the ice for a v-thread was non-existent. In short I was now committed to continuing.

Looking up the first step. The left side looks totally bare but actually had enough verglas for a pick. The right side was worthless snice.

Looking back down the first step, now committed. I came up the lookers right. Sorry for the poor quality photos, I was not in a secure enough position to get out the camera while on route so I used the cell phone in my jacket pocket.
As I climbed up the ice stayed very thin with plenty of exposed rock. More than once I swung my pick into black ice, only to have it punch through and release a plume of volcanic dust into my nostrils. Luckily there always seemed to be a fairly solid rock block where I needed it, although not that solid... lets just say that you know it's chossy when you can use a sloper for a foothold in your crampons! Below the second step I glanced down and realized just how bad a fall would be. I watched a couple I had passed earlier, now black specks resting on the Hogsback. I briefly contemplated how quickly they could reach my body if I fell. Would I survive a fall like that? Would my body stop on the snow slopes below or would it tumble into a steaming vent? I quickly forced the thoughts away. Then I thought about Caitlin... she had suggested we go to a movie if I was back early enough. Could I make it in time? Would I make it at all? Those thoughts didn't help either and I forced them away too. I looked at the next section and thought about the moves. There was only one way to reach my future and that was to climb up and out. "Fuck the movie," I muttered. "Who wants to sit on a couch when you could be here?" And by "here" I meant living in the moment, in oneness with this ribbon of rock and ice.

Looking up the second or third step and sheltering beneath the ice blobs from the ice falling down the gully.
Looking back down the gully from beneath the gendarme, finally some good neve. You can see a party of two on the Hogsback snow ridge in the shade.
At some point the neve between steps became thicker and more comfortable, which was good because ice chunks were starting to come down the route in random bursts. I reached the point beneath the gendarme on the ridge where you can go right or left. Left looked easier, right looked more direct with one last step. I climbed up and right and rested beneath the step at good stance in the snow. Then pulled some final mixed moves with one tool dangling from its leash so I could grab exposed rocks. I climbed solid neve above the step to a notch, enjoying the easy movement where every placement felt good. Then I rounded the gendarme onto sunny east facing slopes and realized that it wasn't over. The snow here was sugary powder with breakable crust. I could feel rock underneath and it was steep with a big drop beneath. I contemplated down climbing and trying the left variation but realized it was probably safer to traverse 20 feet on this than spend more time trying to find an alternative. I very carefully moved down and around a rock bulge, my feet supported on snow that I didn't trust, my tools scraping on rock I also didn't trust. I climbed up to the ridge line as quickly as I could and, finally on safe ground, trudged up to the summit.

Looking up the last step.

Finally able to release both tools comfortably at a rest stance beneath the last step. Don't bring your fancy tools if you're going to scrape them up on this choss... oh wait I don't have fancy tools. Any reps out there want to just give me a pair? I'll like them so much after these old things that I'll rave about them to everyone, guaranteed!
There was one other person up there (I forget his name... think he said he was from near Oregon City?). Several parties were visible on their way up or down. I hung out for a while, ate some food and took pictures before down climbing the Pearly Gates chute which had a short little ice step in it, quite solid and easy by comparison (4th class ice?). I hiked down fast and made it back to the car before 11AM (under 5:15 car-to-car). I even made it back to Bend and showered in time for the 2PM movie with Caitlin.

L-R Mt. St. Helens, Rainier, Adams from the summit of Hood... it was a beautiful day to be outside.
Looking west along the summit ridge from the highest point.

In retrospect, I think that the experience may feel bigger in my mind than it was in reality. After all, it's just a dinky little AI3 route. The ice was thin, sure, but it's relatively low angle and was mainly an exercise in having really solid footwork. That said I can see how this would be an easier and more enjoyable route if the ice was in thick enough to take screws, and I don't really intend to get on it again unless that's the case. When the "uninitiated" ask me about soloing, usually with the assumption that it's suicide, I often tell them that I think driving to a climbing area is more dangerous than the soloing I do there. I honestly believe this, but after the drive home under sunny blue skies I feel like this may be the first solo where I could argue that climbing was the more dangerous activity. Regardless, I definitely don't regret it.

Mandatory selfie on the summit. Adams is just right of my head.
Looking down the North Face... maybe a future solo?