“Getting to the top is optional. Getting down is mandatory.”
– Ed Viesturs
As we drove up towards Timberline Lodge, things did not look promising. The fog was thick and visibility was terrible. But as my dad had optimistically predicted, we broke through out of the cloud just before we reached the lodge. We could see the lodge and we could see the mountain. Even from the parking lot it still didn’t look that big, like it was off in the distance. We pulled into overnight parking and started to get ready.
It was dark and cold and beautiful out, and we quickly discovered that none of our cameras were very good for nighttime. The sky was almost completely clear above the lower clouds wrapped around the mountain, with just a wisp of cirrus passing by from time to time high above. There were a tremendous amount of stars out, the Big Dipper was up above us just to the west and it was big. We got all of our gear on and walked to the base of the trail.
We started off like Sand People, walking in single file. There was one path of fresh footprints ahead of us, so at least one other person or party was attempting the climb that night. We followed in their footsteps, trudging along at a constant upward angle. The night quickly reminded us that clear skies don’t always mean perfect weather. There were frequent wind gusts of 15-25 mph, adding to their bite with with tiny pieces of ice that had a knack for finding any opening to your skin.
Those sitting pads are like the best thing for your butt ever.
We walked and walked and walked and occasionally took a break and I wanted to give up about 20 times in the first few hours. Far up ahead we could see headlamps bobbing up and down on the mountain; it was nice to know that those that went ahead of us were still there. As we continued walking up we went through one of the ski areas with a bunch of jumps. It felt like walking through some sort of weird archaeological graveyard of a civilization obsessed with triangles and half circles. It was pretty cool. There were also a lot of snowcats out to the west of us plowing around and preparing the ski area for the next day.
As we got higher up the snow was like macaroni and cheese, crunchy on the top and soft underneath. Unfortunately under the foot to foot and a half of powder underneath the frozen surface there was more ice, which is no fun to walk on. Luckily, those terrifying looking metal spikes on our boots in the picture above, called crampons, are fantastic at giving you the needed traction and keeping you on two feet.
What our faces looked like most of the breaks we took.
The first large portion of the climb isn’t very technical, it’s just a lot of walking up. My thighs and hamstrings were killing me, and any breaks we took weren’t as restful as they could have been with the unceasing wind gusts always picking the most opportune times to lather your face in tiny ice chips. And so we climbed on and on and the sky started to lighten and my muscles started to numb. And while it sounds boring in words when I make it sound boring, it was absolutely beautiful the entire time.
We’d come a long way and there was still a ways to go.
We climbed on and it got steeper and scarier. We started to smell sulfur from the steam vents and then started to see them and crevasses to our sides. Anytime we were walking higher than them I had to constantly keep myself from thinking about all of the fun ways that I could trip or slip and fall into them.
We started to run into people on their way back down, some who had gone to the summit, but more who had turned back. They told us that the snow conditions continued to worsen up ahead and that the way we had planned on going up, through the Old Chute, was too dangerous because of avalanche conditions. My dad was excited,
A steam vent in the day light. Now just imagine the smell of rotten eggs as you’ll have the whole picture.
because the other way to go up was through the Pearly Gates chute, a more technical climb, but the way he had preferred to go when he did the climb when he was younger.
It’s not a race, but I’m in second place!
We approached the more technical parts of the climb, so we stopped to rope up and change our walking sticks for the ice axe. I was on a rope behind my brother and my dad roped up with my two sisters. We got to the base of the Hogsback, a long spine of snow, with slopes down to crevasses and steam vents on both sides, that goes up to the Bergschrund, a small place you can rest before choosing between the Pearly Gates or Old Chute paths, one of the more memorable areas of the climb.
We started to climb up the Hogsback, single file again, and from the top came down three skiers, who I can only assume were insane, as this section of the mountain is way steeper than anything I would ever even consider skiing down. This relatively short section took us quite a while, as it was steep, there wasn’t much room for error on either side, and the snow was starting to be less cooperative at completely supporting our feet without making us slip and slide around.
But we finally made it to the Bergschrund, and there was a nice little area to rest in that was fairly sheltered. It wasn’t until I turned around and looked over the lip of where we were that it really hit me how high we were and how steep the way down would be. My dad was already saying that he didn’t think he was up to the summit, with my oldest sister agreeing. My legs were killing me, I wasn’t in the right place mentally as I started to let my fear of heights get the best of me, and I threw in the towel, too. Dave and Jules decided to continue on to the summit.
Where we made camp as Dave and Jules made the summit.
The wind and ice were still going up my nose…
Laura and I camped out while the wind continued to whip through every once in a while. I’d occasionally take a peak of the lip of our resting place, and be reminded why I was sitting there. My dad made some friends with a few other climbers who came up, a couple continuing to the summit, and some others deciding that this was high enough, too. My brother and sister made it to the top and back again, with some scary stories of solid ice walls that they had to climb over, which helped me mentally justify stopping.
Climbing back down the Hogsback.
We took our time going down the Hogsback and the steeper area after it. I spent a lot of time trying to look at my feet and just go one step at a time, but did manage to glance up and enjoy the beauty without my head exploding in terror a few times. Going down was different in a lot of ways, it was starting to get warmer, the wind died down, and walking downhill is a lot easier than going up (at least with the non-steep parts).
Where we were coming from.
So we all made it back down, and despite thinking that I had lathered myself in sunscreen, it turns out that the sun reflects really strongly on the snow. I got sunburned in all sorts of fun places like the inside of my nose and ear, and the few other spots on my body that I thought I had put on sunblock, but missed. As we were climbing down my dad made sure to say, “Don’t worry about leaving me behind, go at the pace you need to” a couple of times. He then promptly walked off without us and finished about 20 minutes before the rest of us.
Back at the base of the trail.
We did it! Well, some of us did, the rest of us… We made it pretty close!
All in all, I went about 6.5 miles total distance in about 12.5 hours. Those of us who didn’t summit made a total elevation gain of about 4,950 feet, from 5,890 feet above sea level to 10,844 feet. The elevation of the mountain is about 11,250 feet. Over the past month I’ve been going back in my head about how I could have just pushed through my fear and aches and pains and gone the last 400 feet. But I didn’t, I still did a really difficult thing, and I’m pretty proud of myself. Maybe I’ll just have to go do it again and get to the top next time, hopefully in better climbing conditions.
As we got ourselves situated and got in the van and started to head back to the chalet, my dad reminded us that we were going to do a 7 mile hike the next day.
To be continued…
And it will be continued, hopefully with a smaller gap between episodes this time. Tune in next time for Part 3, Hikes, Hikes, and More Hikes!