Sunday, October 19, 2014

Perfect Hike for Late Summer: Spider Gap to Lyman Lakes

It was the middle of September, and I was looking for a hike I could do where I could feasibly meet a friend who would be hiking in from the north near Lake Chelan. I studied a map of Glacier Peak Wilderness, and saw a halfway point: Spider Gap. I had heard of the hike, and a friend confirmed it was a beautiful area.

I set out early Saturday morning, heading east over Steven's Pass. Just getting to the trailhead was epic, as it's 10 miles down a small paved road, 10 miles on a rough dirt road, then 2 last miles on really really rough dirt road. Just the parking lot felt like I was way back there.

I hiked the relatively flat 5.5 miles toward Spider Meadows. After miles in a forest river valley, the trail opens up into a huge meadow, with campsites, stock camps, river access, and mountains all around. If you are ever looking for a backpacking trip with some one who is new to backpacking, go here!
After crossing through the meadows, the trail starts to climb again. You can hang a right toward Phelps Basin, or left toward the gap. I continued left up steep switchbacks, with a view back down to Spider Meadows below.
Then you hit Spider Glacier. It's a steady but moderate hike up this last bit to the gap, at 9 or 10 miles in.
From the gap you can look north over to the other side, into the Lyman Lakes basin.
We were planning to camp near Upper Lyman Lake, so I headed down that way another mile or so. There was my friend to meet me!
Glacial melt Upper Lyman
We found a stunning campsite near a tarn, looking back up toward the Gap in one direction...
...and down to Lyman Lake in the other.
We drank an Icicle Creek beer by the lakeside and treated water before it was time to make dinner.
It was the perfect time of year to go, on the cusp of the seasons. Hot sun and mild evenings, but with the colors starting to turn. This was hands-down one of my favorite backpacking trips this year.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Climbing Mount Rainier

I distinctly remember the moment in college, at my friend Alice's house in Bellingham, when she mentioned a friend of hers climbing Mount Rainier. Wait, people my age do that? I thought. It struck me that someday, somehow, I too might be able to summit Washington's highest peak.

Fast forward nearly a decade, and thanks to the Basic Climbing Class I took this spring, I finally had the skills I needed to join a rope team and make a summit bid via the Emmons glacier route. This was Part 2 of my summer vacation in August, after a week-long backpacking trip on the Pacific Crest Trail.

There were five of us on the rope team: two other students from my climbing class this spring, one volunteer instructor, and another more experienced instructor, Peter, who would be our team leader. Peter suggested doing the climb with an extra day so that we had a night to sleep at a higher elevation and let our bodies acclimatize before summiting. This schedule increases chances of success, and of his seven times attempting Mount Rainier, he and his team had safely summited every time.

We left Seattle Friday morning to drive to White River Campground on the north side of the mountain, stopping at the ranger station to register our climb and talk to the ranger. A message board confirmed what we already knew: with the warm summer weather the bergschrund was ever-widening and that the route was moving more and more to the right as the crack opened up.
Map from
We hiked along the White River, through the woods, until the trail opened up to exposed scree at the bottom of Interglacier. We put on gaiters and crampons, and traded trekking poles for an ice ax, and made our way up Interglacier.
Looking up to Interglacier
We set up camp at about 8,300 feet on the glacier and made dinner, melted snow, and sipped tea while a beautiful sunset glowed over Western Washington.
Northwest sunset view from Interglacier camp
On Saturday we had a fairly lazy morning out of camp. We slept in a little, ate breakfast, and packed up. We continued up Interglacier, the boys with their skis, hoping to get a few runs in that day.
A break at Camp Curtis while the boys get a few turns in
Crossing from Interglacier onto the Emmons glacier takes you up over the rocky ridge of Camp Curtis. I will never forget the stunning sight of the Emmons glacier as I crested the hill and looked down. Between my limited glacier experience and how open the crevasses were that time of year, it was striking.
Numerous crevasses on lower part of Emmons
We made the short traverse on a little section of Emmons before arriving at Camp Schurman, the climbers base camp at 9,400 feet. I will never forget the surreal experience of arriving there- being roped up on a glacier, yet walking up to a cute hut in the warm sunshine with Reggae music blasting, pink flamingos, and shirtless rangers fixing something on the roof. It felt downright tropical and festive, like we had stumbled upon a secret party in the middle of nowhere.
Camp Schurman ranger station
View of Emmons glacier from the ranger station
We set up camp on the exposed dirt and set to work melting snow and organizing gear. Then we all sat together sipping tea and snacking, and looking up at the imposing glacier glinting in the bright sun. It was time for our team chat about the climbing plan.
Our view from Camp Schurman
Peter squinted into the sun. "The dangers are..." I thought he was going to say 'falling into a crevasse' or 'fatigue', but he finished his sentence with, "numerous." We laughed, but we knew it was an important talk to have. He talked about taking things slow and steady, and what we would do if a teammate couldn't summit. We were feeling hopeful though- it was clear, dry weather and we had talked to other climbers who descended that day who said the route looked good. We planned to wake up at 11pm and leave camp around midnight.

The Emmons glacier has the largest surface area of any glacier in the contiguous United States. It is the second most popular climbing route on Mount Rainier after the DC (Disappointment Cleaver) route. It's also longer, with a lower base camp, and far more crevassed.

It was a little before 7pm and all of Camp Schurman was quiet. I was just about to fall asleep when a party arrived, and set up camp right next to us. Literally about 10 feet away. They had to put up tents, melt water, make dinner, and prep for the climb... which means I laid there able to hear their every word for the next two hours. It was a big bummer as my already short night of sleep got cut down to less than two hours.

Nonetheless, our team was up and moving as planned. I'm very glad I had the experience of climbing Mount Baker earlier in the summer, because it was good preparation for what to expect. I knew what I would feel like waking up before midnight, and leaving in the dark. I knew what it was like to hike with a headlamp and how much to layer up.

It was a day before the August super moon, and the moonlight reflected brightly on the snow. As we began tromping upward, what stands out the most in my memory was the gaping, wild cracks of the crevasses, heart-wrenchingly beautiful and ominous in the moonlight. I have simply never seen anything like that and not sure I will again.
We kept a slow and steady pace as we ascended. Peter made us take regular breaks to sit, eat, and drink. We were about 1,500 feet below the summit when the sun peeked over the horizon.
That last section was a challenge for all of us. The air was noticeably thinner, and we were all breathing hard. I felt slightly nauseous and didn't feel like eating, but Peter urged me to eat something.
Ascending the last bit
Finally we arrived on the glorious summit at 14, 411 feet. We were the only ones there. We stood on the little summit bump, and looked all around Washington state to the surrounding mountains, foothills, waterways, and cities below.
Looking across the crater, and the tracks for the DC route
One of my rope-team mates brought a beer!
I loved hanging out on the summit. We had some time to ourselves before a wave of other parties arrived, both from the Emmons route and from across the crater from the DC route.

By the time we started heading down it was gloriously and worrisomely hot. We again took it slow and steady as we made our way down the steep and melty mountain. We were extra careful crossing snow bridges, especially the ones that had seemed dubious in the middle of the night.
The bergschrund. Photo by Peter H.
Rest break
Last steps before returning to Camp Schurman 
We made it back to Camp Schurman in good shape, if a bit tired. We ate, hydrated, and took short naps in the tent. That was the most glorious half hour I've slept in years. I woke up feeling energized, and ready for the last leg of the journey-- back to the car. We packed up and left camp by around 4pm.
The team leaving Camp Schurman
Last leg of the descent, hiking into the river valley
We made it back to the car just as it was getting dark. We stopped for fish n' chips and made the long drive back to Seattle. I had been up for over 24 hours straight, and in that time climbed the mountain and then descended about 10,000 vertical feet. It was quite the day. 

I felt full with the beauty of the mountain, and overwhelmed with being on sunny snow for so long. It was a full-time job just to stay adequately fed and hydrated. I'm so happy I had the chance to climb this wild mountain that looms over Seattle and punctuates the skyline on most days. We had a really fun and safe climb, with big thanks to Peter and my other three teammates.