Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Final training for Mt. Foraker -- on Mt. Shasta April 15-17, 2011

Watch for links to video below, and click pics for bigger versions!

What better way to finish up a 6-month training cycle for the biggest climb of one's life than on beautiful Mt. Shasta? That's exactly what I did this past weekend in preparation for my departure next week for three weeks expedition on 17,400-foot Mt. Foraker, 200 miles south of the Arctic Circle, deep in the Alaska Range.

I was excited to spend three days in the backcountry of my official "home mountain", camping, climbing, ski mountaineering and touring, refreshing my crevasse rescue system and ice/snow anchor building skills, and generally doing a dress rehearsal for living for in frigid winter weather.

This time of year falls into an amazing transition Shasta makes between ferocious, unpredictable winter and periodic spring powder dumps of spring, and it seems there's been no shortage of that this year, but

Forecast says rain for the weekend… hmm… bleh. Well, one does what one must… and off I went. I was excited to see the mountain again as I made the 5 hour drive from San Jose. The goal for this trip was to leave early so I'd arrive with plenty of light to get up to Bunny Flat, ski in, and find a good campsite before dark.

I arrived with plenty of light, grabbed a few items at The Fifth Season down in town, and headed up. The higher I went, the foggier it got, however, and as I pulled into the parking lot to prep my gear for the climb in, I was in near-zero visibility fog conditions—and it was drizzling. Yuck.

I changed into mountaineering gear, shouldered my pack (which I'd packed to about 60 lbs, as though this were the real deal on Foraker), slapped skins on my skis, clicked into my bindings, and headed off up the mountain. I climbed about 200-300 vertical feet before I realized just how foggy it was getting… and the dark was coming.

So I found a suitable spot up higher, stomped out a platform for the tent, but then changed my mind and decided to follow my track back down a bit so that my mountain guide could find me more easily tomorrow.

I skied back down a ways, but I struggled to find the track in the fog, and I really couldn't tell much about my heading. So in the gathering rainy gloom, I continued downward, and then decided I must have missed the cutoff to the right, which put me farther below my origin than anticipated.

All that aside, it was time to get camp set, or I'd be doing it in the dark. I found a spot that was protected from the only small avalanche danger I could see near me, stomped out another platform in the deep snow, and as silent darkness enveloped me, I set up camp, got comfy, and cooked dinner. Tasty. I love this.

All bundled up, I was tired from the drive, and soon felt the urge to crash.

It was a rough first night. Rain drummed on my tent on and off through the night, and the transition from comfy bed at home to winter sleeping pads in my tent wasn't a smooth one. I woke up every few hours, checked my watch, tossed a bit, and then finally fell into a deep sleep near 4am.

2 hours later, I woke to crystal clear skies and a beautiful alpenglow dawn breaking over the hills across the flat, and a glance uphill staggered me. The mountain was just coming out of a restless fog, and it was clearing. I grabbed the camera, threw on my down camp booties, and lurched out into the snow to start snapping pictures.

After that, I looked down the hill… and my realized my campsite was the perfect distance from the car, and in an exactly perfect spot, too. AWESOME.

A hearty breakfast of eggs, hash browns, peppers, onions, and sausage, complete with coffee, spiced hot cider, some cocoa rounded out my morning, and I then set about the daily task of melting snow to fill up my water bottles again.

I had originally planned to get out early for a quick skin and ski up the mountain, but I was enjoying the scenery so much, I decided to just wait it out until Dane from Shasta Mountain Guides arrived.

We'd spend the day drilling on crevasse rescue systems, rope skills, glacier travel, anchor building, and other things I'll need to be sharp on when I arrive in AK next week.

He arrived at 9pm sharp, and most of the morning was spent discussing anchors. I then built a good strong one, attached the climbing rope to me and a backpack to the other end, and tossed it over a 15-foot snow cliff to act as the "fallen climber in the crevasse" I'd be rescuing.

That was fun. We built the primary direct haul systems for 3:1 and 5:1 with a couple of variants thrown in for special situations, and then moved on to rope skills discussion and practice.

Then it was on to fixed line ascension and review of technique and options for climbing on running belays, and fixed lines, which we'll probably be using on Foraker to get people up trickier sections. I especially like that we got to spend some time on personal tricks that make life safer or better on any glacier.

Then Dane and I headed uphill to my campsite, where I cooked me some lunch and provided hot water for his afternoon beverages, and then we set out on a ski tour up to about 8k… Horse Camp.

It was an easy climb up the gully leading to the Gulch, Green Butte Ridge running upward on our right, but got a great workout in, and we did it in about an hour, arriving at a COMPLETELY buried lodge (up to it's rootop!) owned by the Sierra Club that's only used for emergencies. Super cool place… stone walls, a huge fireplace, and a classic European feel, and it sits near the base of the spectacular Avalanche Gulch. This is a route I've never done on Shasta so far. I did the North side twice last year, soloing it once, but the South side is much more accessible, and that's the main reason the majority of climbers go up this way.

Anyway, while we were transitioning for the ski back down, the rain picked up a bit… yuck. We waited it out a bit, got the gear dialed, and then took an easy ski back down our skin tracks on manky wet snow. Back at camp, I had a brilliant idea that I could never do on the North side of the mountain, because it's so remote: drop the gear and head into town with Dane for burgers! That was a good idea.

After a BBQ chipotle bacon burger (whoa!) at the Wayside, I thanked him for his time and expertise—it was super valuable to me—and then I headed back up to my little campsite.

I vowed that if it were raining when I woke the next morning (I'd checked the forecast in town… more rain predicted in the morning and afternoon), that I'd pack up camp first thing and head back home. Why? Climbing in the rain totally sucks, and when you don't even HAVE to, it's especially miserable.

Sleep came easy Saturday night. I'd had a good workout and a huge gut-bomb of a meal, complete with sweet potato fries, so I pretty much passed out and slept warm. Again, though, every few hours I'd toss a bit, check my watch, and go back to sleep, again finding my sleep rhythm near the morning hours.

I overslept Sunday morning, so I missed the early dawn light, but caught some fantastic pictures in completely clear weather! I was stunned and excited to have a window of opportunity to climb again, so after a hasty breakfast of gross oatmeal, good coffee, and more hot beverages, I threw on my climbing gear again, packed up my camp entirely, and back up the hill I went under near-full weight..

Instead of bearing left to the lodge at Horse Camp this time, I hung right a bit, skinning along a line of trees on the upper slop of the approach gully, grunted up the last few hundred vertical feet to a flat area at about treeline with a spectacular view of just about EVERYTHING, and shot a bunch of pics.

I was satisfied, and with my mission accomplished, I stood about halfway up Shasta's mighty flanks, and knew it was time to go home. The difference, however, is that today's uphill pack was fully loaded, so the ski down was quite a bit harder than the day before. My quads were burning by the halfway down mark.

But it was a quicker ski down, nevertheless… and all the way to the car this time, too. I sorted gear in the parking lot for a bit and waffled about whether I should cook a meal here before I headed back home, thought better of it, and loaded up for a bailout.

 On the way home, I noticed I'd taken 344 pictures. Whoa. HAHA

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